Sometimes the stars align and a perfect moment is created: Your team is behind and an old-timer hits one out of the park, thus saving the day; the mistake in the petri dish is discovered to be a powerful antibiotic, capable of saving millions; in an attempt to do some routine lab work, a wacky scientist stumbles upon–flubber. It is a collection of just such occurrences that led to the Flaming Lip’s critically lauded ninth album, The Soft Bulletin. In this case, the Lip’s almost two-year sessions for their 4-CD set, Zaireeka, resulted in a batch of brilliant residuals–songs “too normal” for the 4-CD concept album. Ironically, these “happy accidents” became the Lip’s most adored record to date, the album for which the band will most likely be remembered.
It’s been a sonic and aesthetic evolution for the Lips since their formation more than 15 years ago. One of the last ’80s bands to be signed to a major label, they’ve managed to survive corporate downsizing with their record deal and integrity intact. By staying in Oklahoma City, the band has remained curiously undiluted, distilling their sound down to its purest essence by ignoring the mainstream. They’ve also realized that coming from the Midwest gives them outsider cachet in a scene full of bands from “cool” places.
Frontman guitarist/vocalist Wayne Coyne grew up the youngest of six in a house full of music fans. “At the time, I thought everything was normal music–I didn’t think that there was ‘weird’ music and mainstream music,” says Coyne from his Oklahoma City home (described by one interviewer as a two-story Frank Lloyd Wright-style structure with gargoyles). Some mornings he’d catch a ride to school with his older brothers in their truck. “They’d be smoking pot and listening to music for 20 minutes,” he says. He has a vivid memory of hearing John and Yoko’s Somewhere in New York City, “which is an unlistenable hunk of shit,” he now says, wonderingly. “It wasn’t until I got older that I realized we were listening to the worst experimental racket and accepting it–like you can do that to music.”
With their ’91 Warner Brothers debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, the Lips were seen as everything from space-truckin’ acid-gobbling revivalists to oddball rock experimentalists. The band allowed their mystique to grow. If their fans wanted to believe it, so be it. It didn’t hurt that now-balding bassist Michael Ivins (a co-founder with Coyne) was sporting a Syd Barrett mop or that Coyne’s wheezed lyrics were as weird as their sound.
“We played into it,” Coyne now admits, adding, “If people didn’t think we were doing drugs they’d just think we were retarded.” He goes on to describe the early days of the band, back when they all shared an equipment-filled duplex. “We’d go to the blood bank and give blood to get the $12 or $13 to buy cigarettes–then succumb to the heat,” he says, “and I think people would look at us and say, ‘Oh. Just a bunch of junkies playing music.’ And we thought, ‘OK,’ otherwise we’d just look like a bunch of fools following some dream that isn’t going to happen.” In actuality, Coyne and the band were much too absorbed in sonic experimentation–especially in the studio–to dull their creative edge by ingesting tons of chemicals.
The Flaming Lips had a hit “at just the right time” with “She Don’t Use Jelly” (from ’93’s Transmissions from the Satellite Heart), says Coyne. “After we sold 350,000 copies of the “Jelly” stuff we knew that [the hit] would buy us another couple of years,” he says. Having produced a hit, the band felt free to experiment. “We did Clouds [Taste Metallic] and Zaireeka under the guise of, ‘We know we’re going to do these records because we don’t really have to worry about them.’”
Working with long-time producer David Fridmann at his upstate New York studio, the Lips had the luxury of time. What the band had envisioned as an eight-week project stretched out to two years. “It became a bigger behemoth along the way,” Coyne says. “If you had said that by the end of this you guys are going to be doing 200 tracks … ”
Enamored of the possibilities, sonic accidents and “what-ifs” that expand the parameters of performed music into the realm of accidental or created “sound,” Coyne concedes that the process is everything. (“If you ask me what I play, I say, ‘the studio,’ Coyne says.”) Lyrically, the band goes for a simple, almost goofy approach. Check out “Buggin”–its humming “insect” sounds and allusions to being bitten (the love bug?) combined with the visceral image of little bug exoskeletons splattering on a windshield. In the Lips’ hands, this song is breath-catchingly beautiful.
After a period of bizarre personal tragedies within the group (drummer/keyboardist Steve Drozd being bitten on the arm by a highly poisonous brown recluse spider, Ivins’ car crash, Coyne’s father’s battle with cancer), Coyne–whose lyrics always tended toward the abstract or surreal–realized his own life had plenty of material. “I had never felt comfortable talking about my own life,” he admits. “I always thought I had to make it more surreal or freaky, because I thought my life was normal.” But with all the crises in the band, Coyne turned his experiences into inspiration, tackling such universal themes as love, humanity, science and death. “We knew we had made this sort of leap, he says of the Soft Bulletin. “I think that’s what people are drawn to–they hear their own life in it,” he says. Indeed, The Soft Bulletin struck a universal chord with fans and critics, landing the band on virtually every critic’s Top 10 list.
Still touring for The Soft Bulletin, the Lips are bringing their bona fide ROCK SHOW–fake blood, screens, pre-recorded tracks (Drozd plays keyboards live), hand puppets and headphones–back to the Cradle. Unspontaneous? Maybe, but in an entertaining, performance-art sort of way. “I think our best stuff is where we’ve thought about it for a long time, we’ve worked out all the bugs and we think it’s going to work,” explains Coyne. “I always loved it when bands played their songs the way they are on the record. I don’t know when it ever became cool to jam on in any kind of way regardless of how the song was supposed to be. We’ve taken the approach that if you like the song on the record, here it is and we’d love to sing it for you,” Coyne says.
“After the show, maybe people will say, ‘Isn’t it great? Wayne poured blood on himself and there were rabbits there,’” Coyne says, adding, “It’s just flat out, bombastic entertainment: blood and animals.”