Hear it is: The Flaming Lips. Still getting their message across loud and clear.
Hear it is: The Flaming Lips. Still getting their message across loud and clear.
Jay Blakesberg

Race for the Prize

The Flaming Lips saga has been told and retold an endless number of times. In fact, this very publication recounted it to a reasonable degree last year ("Unconsciously Brilliant," October 28) in a review of the group's Restless Records retrospective 1984-1990. In that article, yours truly suggested that the Lips' "accidental career" -- garage/psych band from Norman, Oklahoma makes a handful of freewheeling indie records and goes on to join the major label ranks, notching at least one bona fide hit and ultimately winding up being one of the most respected working groups of the '90s -- contained a deeply felt resonance for those who came of age in the pre-Nirvana era.

And what a ride that career has been. In truth, the group's philosophical and musical choices, despite going doggedly against the mainstream grain, have been anything but random. From the zonked-out, cranium-crunching psychedelic blowouts on both the early records and the club tours during the '80s; to the '90s parking-lot symphonies, boom-box experiments and play-'em-simultaneously four CDs of 1997's Zaireeka; to last year's sensational, multimedia-drenched tour in support of The Soft Bulletin; the Flaming Lips may have seemed at times erratic, but thanks in part to a rock-solid work ethic and investigatory skills worthy of Manhattan Project scientists, their experimental vision has never wavered.

With the success that the amazing The Soft Bulletin continues to accrue comes danger, of course. A lot of bands that craft their so-called crowning achievements either fail miserably to live up to their own standards and plummet artistically, or simply plateau out and, over time, dilute their own legacies. If the Lips were to believe their own press kudos, then their stunning transmogrification of Beatlesesque hookery, Brian Wilson orchestral nuancing, Zappa-like textural juxtaposition and Lewis Carroll whimsy into a coherent, gulping-breathing-raving-drooling sonic whole might lull them into believing their race for the prize had been won.

Not the case. The Lips' current tour, which makes a stop at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe this week, is heavy on material from Soft Bulletin but does not feature any choice oldies. Instead it finds our heroes still engaged in their own peculiar brand of rock 'n' roll guerrilla warfare. Sometimes they'll take the stage as the P.A. booms, fiddle with their equipment -- then abruptly announce that they intend to leave and come back on, instructing the audience to applaud as if they hadn't seen them yet. Films of atomic-bomb explosions, '80s aerobic-exercise classes, Leonard Bernstein conducting an orchestra, even the Lips themselves (in prerecorded segments) are projected on a huge stage backdrop while drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins abandon their assigned instruments to play keyboards and trigger sample and backing tapes, while Coyne sings in his trademark falsetto and drenches himself in fake blood. A wide-angle camera attached to Coyne's mike stand pans the crowd, which is armed with bags of confetti and instructed by Coyne to toss it as the urge strikes. And lest the audience misses out on some of the subtler musical nuances of the show amid the extravaganza, concertgoers are additionally armed with headphones equipped with tiny receivers (along the lines of assisted listening devices for hearing-impaired movie patrons).

The Flaming Lips, clearly, intend to leave folks with something to talk about around the water cooler the next day.

Sharp-eyed night owls may have caught the Lips performing Bulletin's "Waitin' for a Superman" on the March 3 edition of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. While television's limitations precluded any genuine looniness on the band's part, the appearance was nevertheless a memorable one: against a videoscreen backdrop (which did, in fact, show clips of a bloody-faced Coyne) and accompanied by a taped orchestra, Drozd played keyboards, Ivins plucked his bass and Coyne warbled his fractured fairy tale. The sight of Coyne darting and dipping across the stage while making the wings of a snow-white mechanical dove flap gently was an indelible image that no doubt charmed even the show's host.

New Times pinned Wayne Coyne down last winter to get some sense of where he feels his band places in the current music landscape. Erudite and self-aware to a fault, he's not completely sure if the Lips even fit in; after all, he was the one who originally described his band's trajectory along the lines of an accidental career. But he's grateful that the Lips, out of all the thousands of bands, got the chance to try.

New Times: I've been reminiscing lately about your early records and all the Lips shows I saw in the '80s.

Wayne Coyne: Yeah, you forget how magical some of that stuff was. And, I mean, none of us knew what we were doing. We were just in the right place at the right time. It's sort of the "magic" that you're the only one who understands why it's magical. Then, it seemed like there was some sort of potential for the era. Like we were gonna change the music scene or whatever. We were pursuing something, and no one in their right mind would think we were doing the right thing -- "You guys are crazy!'' -- but you end up pursuing it anyway. People do veer towards what they like in the end. Especially myself; I don't think I got any more breaks or had any more ambition than the next guy. It was just little by little -- "I wanna do this. I wanna do this . . ." And I end up doing more of what I want than what I hate.

NT: Yet these days, some bands seem to form specifically to get a deal and make money as opposed to making music for the sheer joy of it.

WC: Well, I think anyone who's in music for those types of things, if they don't work out they quickly move to getting attention some other way. I think music is just one area where people like, say, Courtney Love go, "I want attention. I'm not a model but I can certainly play the part of a rock star." Music has always been filled up with people who want to get attention, not necessarily people who play good music. So any way that you can get it is fine by me. I mean, I wouldn't want to do stuff that way, but the world's full of all different kinds. Some of the most poseur people in the world do make great music, too.

NT: I believe in one interview you suggested that you didn't want to leave music in the same condition you found it . . .

WC: I say it only because I feel like I've been given the opportunity. If you don't have something worth saying, don't stand up and say it! But it wasn't because I felt like that from the time I was 15. I sort of felt like just because of the path we've taken, sometimes I do get the attention and I do have the capabilities. Warner Bros. is on my side, there are folks like you who know what we're all about, and then there's this huge audience right in the middle that thinks, "Gosh, these guys have the potential to do something that we've never heard before!" And I take that as like, "Well, gee, not many people are given that chance, so maybe I should try to leave my mark in some way." As opposed to saying, "Who gives a shit about what people think?" Because I do see how fleeting opportunities can be. I'm lucky I'm still in a band! How many guys do we know from the old days who wish they were in my position now but who simply aren't?

There's no shortage of things out there to entertain people. You can go see a baseball game, go to a wrestling match, or stay at home and look at porn on the Internet. I guess it's because I've been a hard working guy myself. Records aren't cheap and concerts aren't cheap, and if you work hard for your money and you walk into something and some rock star says, "Aw, I don't feel like really playing tonight. Fuck y'all." I mean, that sounds great when you're writing about it, but that sucks when you're out for a night on the town and you've spent 20 bucks! If you went to a movie theater and the movie stopped halfway through, you'd get up and say, "I want my fucking money back!" But when a rock band comes to town to entertain you, anything goes: they can suck, they can be out of tune, and you accept it! Well, I don't accept it.

NT: Have you ever done a gig that afterward you felt like you should go out and offer people their money back?

WC: Oh, plenty. But at the time I didn't think it. I thought, you know, "expressing yourself" was more important than entertaining people. It wasn't until I saw it myself -- people saying, "We don't give a shit if you paid your money. We do this every night. Who the fuck are you people?" -- that I started to realize, "Hey, when we do that, it probably looks the same way." So I don't think of it like that anymore. I don't put out records like that and I don't play shows like that. These people, this could be their big night. Let's make it something they'll talk about for the next year.

NT: But you've always seemed to approach it that way. In concert you had smoke machines, strobe lights, bubbles, a disco ball. You did your records in colored vinyl, elaborate sleeves. You hit folks with the boom-box concerts, then a four-CD set. Are you driven to keep trying harder each time out?

WC: It isn't a drive, because we always just do what we like. I'm always surprised that it comes across as more than what the next guy wants to do. I don't go out and gauge, oh, those guys are running three miles, we'll run 10! It is a lot of work, but I've done this a long time and I can organize people and money and schedules and stuff so it looks impressive if you've just got off work and come to the show. It'll look like we know what we're doing! And we've always worked hard at it.

Even back in the early days, we'd show up early and set up the lights and things. It just makes it a special night for everybody. In a way it's like vaudeville -- the Flaming Lips tradition, another form of the Greatest Show on Earth: if you saw us play two years ago, you must come back, because we're doing a different show.

We're not exclusively the only band that could do records like we've done. But I feel like not everybody could do it because it costs a lot of money to make; there's a big hassle to get it released, have distributors pick it up and have stores actually sell it. You don't realize how hard that is because these days there are so many records available. But we were able to do it. We simply pursued the ideas that we had at the time; it wasn't as though I thought, "Wouldn't it be perfect to put out a four-CD record, do this, do that." The "accidental career" is still happening. [laughing] It hasn't ended.

NT: If the Flaming Lips were a brand-new band, do you think you could get signed? Sometimes it seems like you slipped through the industry window just before it shut.

WC: Oh yeah! I say that exact thing to people -- "The door was shutting. Some people thought it was opening, but it was shutting. And shutting hard right behind us! And we got in, and I didn't realize what it was like until we got in there, how hard it is. We thought everybody was getting in with us. We barely got in, through our ignorance and bravery. We didn't know what was at stake. Then we got lucky, because "She Don't Use Jelly" sold a bunch of records, and we got on the Batman soundtrack. Just through truly arbitrary good luck, there are weeks that come up for bands that haven't sold any records. One of those weeks came up for us around the time of "She Don't Use Jelly." And we're always a week away from being dropped, then we'll sell a bunch of records and suddenly we're back on the A-list.

NT: How has Bulletin done so far, sales-wise? It's certainly getting the critical accolades.

WC: I think it's Sound Scanned 100,000 worldwide so far (Editor's Note: The Soft Bulletin is closing in on the 200,000 sales mark worldwide). And it's still fairly early. I think this record has some longevity to it, so it's not like it comes out and we have six weeks to make it with it or it stops. We can keep going out and playing this record. And we fully intend to give it the best shot we can. That's what you do: you put out a record and try to draw attention to it. The best way is to go out and perform the songs, and to go out and talk about the record. You just try little by little to gain an audience for your record. It's not unlike being a politician: you have to go out and get elected in some way. I just feel like if our record is important enough to me, then I'll go out and talk about it endlessly if I have to. We don't have a plan for another record right now; making Zaireeka and then Soft Bulletin sort of back-to-back, it was a long couple of years.

NT: While making The Soft Bulletin, was there ever a moment when you looked around the studio at the other guys and the light bulb went on: "Hey, I think we have something really special here!"

WC: No, it never occurred to us, and I don't think it ever can. I don't think we can ever be "in the audience" listening to one of our records -- we don't look at what we're doing and go, "Oh, this is unique." We simply try to do what we like, and that's the hardest part of making records, to actually know what you like and then do it. Ideas and all that are so nebulous in your mind, and to do something that's original and unique, that's an impossibility. If it ends up being unique and special, it really is a by-product of us pursuing our own trip, you know?

NT: There's a theory that the greatest records in history were those that took place when no one was looking over the artists' shoulders, almost like the classics were flukes.

WC: I've talked to Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine auteur], not about exactly that, but perhaps in vague conversations about how do you arrive at ideas that you actually think are good, and then pursue them. And you really can't; you simply have to pursue the ideas as they come to you, and hope that they are good, and hope that your vision is unique and all that. And if it's not, well . . . keep working!

I think at some point we do have a lot of experience in the studio and we do try for big ideas. It isn't all some accident; we weren't trying to record a simple guitar, bass and drum record and ended up with The Soft Bulletin. I mean, we went in and we were ready to do, um, something Ben Hur-ish! [laughs] We knew we were doing 200 tracks, so it wasn't as though we weren't trying. But at the same time, you can try all you want, and trying alone doesn't make the leap from it just being your ideas to actually materializing into something that's great.

So I think the thing we achieved by doing Zaireeka and it being such a big, hard, dense, unknowing process -- because we didn't know how to do any of that, we simply had to start to do it -- and what it did was it raised our level of tolerance for the just sheer boredom of it. It's insanely boring to go and do these big projects that have to work out. Most people I simply don't think would put up with it. That is the final hurdle: you have to put up with a lot of trying things that are boring. Because ideas come to you, and it's exciting in the creation of things. But then there is the doing of them. I suppose it's like if I was both the architect and the guy who had to build the Brooklyn Bridge. "Oh, I got this bridge, this great idea for a bridge that'll look fantastic, blah blah blah!" And then it takes eight years to build. And it is a great bridge, but at the same time I'm sure that by the time you get to the end of the fifth year you're going, "Fuck this bridge, I want to start on a new one." And you can't do that. You have to finish it. I say this all the time, that I'm sure the cavemen looked at the moon and said, "Wouldn't it be great to go to the moon!" And as an idea, I'm sure everybody thinks of these things. But doing them is the hard part. Seeing it all the way through is harder.

So by doing Zaireeka, we realized how much work was ahead of us when we started, for example, a [Soft Bulletin] song like "The Gash" -- gosh, 200 tracks, three weeks' worth of just laying down the tracks, and we didn't even know if it was gonna be any good until we got these tracks on there. But we said, "Mmm, we can do it." And we just started doing it. Instead of it being so overwhelming, you can start it and say, "We'll get there, we'll see what happens." You want to believe that you can accomplish what you set out to do. Art is like that: you have to believe in it so much that you can't let anything get in the way. In music, these are great, triumphant feelings. But in the end, we're just making records that I hope people will like.

NT: Do you feel vindicated when the critics salute your efforts, when you wind up on the year-end lists?

WC: Not "vindication," no. I know how hard it is to get your record reviewed. And there are a lot of records worth talking about. If people want to talk about our record, I am nothing but a grateful slave! [laughs] I would do this anyway! And if other people like them and I can make a living and be touted in some circles as having some vision or something, that's the best thing in the world and I will do my best to live up to that image of me. If people say, "Wayne is capable enough," well, I am, and I will prove it to them, I'll show them that their belief in me is not wrong. So no, it wouldn't be vindication.

NT: Do you foresee the band moving forward with the technology and Internet matters, adapting to that format and making music or shows available over the Web?

WC: It's hard to say. We're not necessarily in total control of what happens as far as people making money on our music. I don't think Warner Bros. wants to get to a point where they're giving away music for free. I don't think anybody feels you should give stuff away, whether you're selling bananas or your songs. Even though people like Chuck D think that the MP3 is gonna destroy record companies.

NT: I think his take on it is that if you give away a bag of fries, they'll come buy a burger from you.

WC: He's trippin'. The movie industry thought videotapes would destroy the business. But the opposite has become true: video stores work good, and there are more movie theaters than ever. I try to remind people who think it would be great to get music for free that the bands it will destroy, the easiest and the first, are those like Royal Trux, Smog, Tortoise, whose fan base is made up of people who know about MP3s. Ricky Martin, the Spice Girls: their fans don't know anything about MP3, and they're not gonna go and steal songs, they want to go and buy the record at the store and then go see the concert. People who are selling 10 million records at record stores are always gonna do it.

What I think MP3 will mostly do is that people will hear records, and if they don't like them, they won't buy them. If they do like them, they'll go out and buy them. That's why radio is so good in that way. People can hear a song a hundred times a day but it doesn't stop them from going out and buying it. Just the opposite is true; the more you hear it, the more you want to buy it. So I don't think hearing it replaces the urge to own it. And the urge to own it is different than just owning a "replica" that you got off the Internet.

Maybe 20 years from now this won't be true. But people still like to go to record stores and buy records. To me, I think MP3 will grow. At the same time, I think record stores will grow and all will exist together. Hopefully there will be more opportunities to get to the good music, because so much of it isn't good that you end up becoming discouraged. But the more you can hear, the more people get educated about stuff. One feeds the other.

NT: Speaking personally, I never want to lose that sense of discovery toward new music, like I had when I was a kid.

WC: What you said right there is the key. Someone will always make the effort because you enjoy doing it. But most people just come home from their job and want to listen to some music but don't want to make the effort. And they shouldn't! Let's let these people work and build the streets and the sewer systems and be musical idiots! As long as my toilet flushes I'm fine! I'm glad there's a big work force out there that will just grab the first entertainment that comes their way. If I'm lucky it will be something that I've done.

It doesn't mean that what I've done is better than Ricky Martin or the Spice Girls or whatever. That mainstream audience isn't a dumb audience. They're just not concerned. They just want to be entertained and don't care how they get it.

The Flaming Lips are scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 1, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Looper. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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