The Flaming Lips Magnificent Ambitions
Published Jul 01, 2002For the first decade of their career, the Flaming Lips were spurred on more by desire than talent, taking to heart the underground's do-it-yourself spirit. If they had grown up in a more vigorous indie rock scene in Athens or Austin or Seattle they might not have survived, but the Oklahoma City band defied common rock wisdom by making progressively better records. In their last decade, they've become a model for the type of band major labels should be supporting: they've only had one hit but they sell in steady numbers; they've continued to experiment and evolve without losing their core audience; and they've been largely left to their own, brilliantly eccentric devices. And they've become, entering their third decade, one of the truly great artists on the musical landscape as their latest opus, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, proves.
Inspired by the surging American hardcore scene, Wayne Coyne (guitar), older brother Mark Coyne (singer) and Michael Ivins (bassist) form the Flaming Lips in Oklahoma City, OK. To get their start, they steal a P.A. system from a local church. "I just told some people that I was looking for some equipment," explains Wayne Coyne now. "I knew these guys stole it for people I just put the word out that they could steal some for me and I would pay good for it. They assured me that they always stole from places that had insurance." From the outset, drummers come and go.
Having settled with drummer Richard English, the band records and releases a self-titled EP at a small local studio that records Christian radio jingles. "We went in there as this weird band who wanted to experiment with their [equipment]." Mark Coyne leaves the band to get married and Wayne takes over as primary singer and songwriter. "We thought We can write songs, we're weird, and we have a lot of enthusiasm that's gotta be worth something.' And it was. We never made any money, but people could clearly be entertained by standing in front of us while we sang our songs. Our records were a shambolic mess, but even from the beginning, they exude some kind of uniqueness. I always make the analogy of watching a three-legged dog in a race - it's not gonna win, but it's fun to watch, and if they don't come in last, it's the greatest celebration of all time. We would hopefully disarm people who come up and say You guys really can't play and you can't sing.' We were trying to transcend what we look at as ability and reach beyond that with our ideas."
Here It Is gets a release on Restless Records. Though drawing from the enthusiasm of independent punk, the band owes more to sloppy psychedelic leanings. "The audience that we were finding was more like the audience [for] the Meat Puppets than [for] the Minutemen. Then we ran into bands like the Butthole Surfers who were a lot scarier than us, but people had something they could relate to. The Butthole Surfers were these evil mad drug-damaged scientist musicians from Texas; [we were] their amateur little brothers, the Flaming Lips in Oklahoma these other things would become popular that would illuminate some characteristic of us that you could like, as opposed to thinking it was stupid."
The release of Oh My Gawd doesn't see the band getting much better, but they begin to find a following. "We were so open to any influence, it could have gone any millions of bad ways. We'd get shows in San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, Athens at the time, all these places that were considered scenes, and where hipsters were gathering. We'd read these little blurbs about us they'd always say, the Flaming Lips play this demented, punky garage psychedelia and the line at the end was always And they're from Oklahoma. What the fuck? You gotta see this!' It was like we were from outer space. If we were from Austin or from Atlanta, we may have been looked at as hopeless amateurs, but because we were from Oklahoma had a curiosity. There was this element of the bizarre frontiersmen who decided to be in a psychedelic art band."
Their reputation continues to grow due to an ambitious live show, including dressing up as characters from The Exorcist ("it's really difficult to play guitar with blood all over your hands it gets all sticky") and playing with amateur pyrotechnics. "Somebody would be standing right over a flashpot and you'd have to say You need to move, because I'm going to blow up that part of the stage.' You become fearless somehow it seemed less dangerous than if I was doing it in your living room." Although Michael Ivins' hair catches fire at one show, no one is seriously injured. The band meets Jonathan Donahue, a show promoter who has his own band called Mercury Rev; Donahue and Coyne become friends, and Donahue joins them on the road as a soundman.
After a difficult recording process, Telepathic Surgery is released the original concept was to make one side of the record a noise collage, but the proposed track "Hells Angels Cracker Factory" only shows up as a CD bonus track. Drummer Richard English leaves the band, replaced by Nathan Roberts. "Little by little, all the reasons why people get into bands begin to fall away you're not on the cover of any magazines, you're not making any money, and actually, nobody likes you. The reality is we like to make records, we like music' so at the end of the day, even if we're working at McDonalds, we can go home and say we're the Flaming Lips and we make this unique music.' We knew we could make weird music even if we were the only ones listening to it. Jonathan and all the people who ran into us from there that's what they liked about us. We still talked effects pedals, and how to find a studio that wouldn't cost us $1000 an hour we were still talking about how do we make the records we want to make,' as opposed to how can we get on the cover of Rolling Stone.'"
During a disastrous Canadian tour ("it was probably somewhere like where did they have the Olympics?"), Jonathan Donahue gets up on stage and plays guitar along with the band, making stuff up on the spot. He shortly adopts the name "Dingus" (Wayne is "Stinky") and becomes a full time member of the band.
Restless Records (at the time home to Poison) believes it is turning a corner, putting all its stock in the David Cassidy comeback album. The label fronts the Lips $10,000 for recording and another $15,000 to $20,000 for publishing. They manage to get two records out of it instead of just one. While the Lips record In A Priest Driven Ambulance with Mercury Rev's producing genius Dave Fridmann, Mercury Rev uses the same studio time to record their debut album, Yerself Is Steam. With Fridmann at the helm, Priest is a remarkable turning point for the Lips, honing their enthusiasm into more dedicated song structure that they could realise more of the weird sounds they imagined with Fridmann's help seems like a revelation, and time spent in the studio is a marked improvement for the band.
In A Priest Driven Ambulance is by far their best album to date; it is released just as Restless gives up the ghost, and the album is largely ignored as a result. In the time-honoured tradition of bored rock bands, the Lips like to make prank phone calls with stolen corporate calling cards (victims include Bob Dylan and Aerosmith's Joe Perry), including a series to various record companies. In 1990, it was Warner Records, looking for "the person who signed Jane's Addiction." Completely by coincidence, two weeks later, the woman who signed Jane's Addiction calls the band. The band boldly negotiates up from Warner's initial offer, and signs for a $175,000 advance.
The band records Hit To Death In the Future Head, but its release is held up by sampling clearance at the time becoming a hot-button issue, but the first experience for a band that had blithely sampled the Beatles and Pink Floyd on their first EP. Jonathan Donahue leaves the band to concentrate on Mercury Rev. Disillusioned that their major label deal has not yet bought him a house and swimming pool, drummer Nathan Roberts leaves for a more successful band he will never find.
Since their album is not yet released, the Lips feel no immediate urgency to find a new drummer or second guitarist. They meet Steven Drozd, a drummer who has moved to Oklahoma from Houston with the vague purpose to "meet the Flaming Lips and see what happens." He is joined by "a freak of a guitar player" named Ronald Jones, who brings his guitar to Lips gigs and plays their own songs back to them in the parking lot while they load gear. "That was the start of us becoming more sophisticated and musical. Jonathan was a great guitar player, and having Dave Fridmann there was already helping us become more musical, but the freak novice skill-less idiots who decided to play guitar were still winning the argument. When Steven and Ronald came in, me and Michael were more than ready to say If you guys are willing to hold up the sophisticated musical end of this, we can always have weird ideas, but you guys can give it a contrast between what's weird and what's normal.' And it did it was the best thing that ever happened."
Hit To Death In the Future Head is finally released, and the Lips hit the road.
Recording Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, the band reaches yet another peak the new line-up finally balances the epic psychedelic pop weirdness of Coyne's ideas with the musical chops and discipline to pull it off. The band releases the album by summer, and tours with the biggest acts of the time: Porno For Pyros, Stone Temple Pilots, Butthole Surfers, Tool and Candlebox.
The band plays the second stage of that year's Lollapalooza, joined by Guided By Voices, Palace Brothers, the Verve and Luscious Jackson. "It seemed like we were right in step with that." More than a year after its release, Transmissions single "She Don't Use Jelly" starts to become a grassroots hit, eventually charting on Top 40 radio. "Even people who hated us liked that song. Before you know it, you're selling 20,000 to 30,000 records a week and people don't know if you're going to sell 500,000 or ten million. It was very strange, stressful, chaotic and fun." Suddenly, the Flaming Lips are playing The Peach Pit. "To my knowledge, [a producer] from Beverly Hills 90210 called a couple of record companies and said send one of those weirdo alternative bands over' and Warner happened to send us. Luckily we were pulling out of our trying to be cool' phase if it had been even a month earlier, we might have said no, we're too cool for that, fuck you guys.' We could see the absurdness of it, how stupid and great not how great it would be for our careers, but that it would be something we could talk about the rest of our lives. [The cast] were all very nice and professional and we sat in our trailer and got drunk. We're like We're the Flaming Lips, we can do what we want!' and they're like No, we mean it, don't get drunk!' It feels more surreal now than it did when we were actually there doing it." On the show, supporting character Steve Sanders (portrayed by Ian Ziering), says: "You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!"
In between gigs, the band begins work on Clouds Taste Metallic.
Clouds Taste Metallic is released. "It was quite a mess, though I still think lots of music on Clouds was exactly what we wanted to do a lot of weirdness, but heavy rock stuff." The "Bad Days" single appears on the Batman Forever soundtrack. "We quickly saw how selling records opens more doors than any talent ever will. If you're lucky you have talent and sell records at the same time. It was the best thing that ever happened to us, to be able to look at this other side of the music business and not think that we were out to get us we always felt like we were too weird and too arty to really ever sell records, and we had this toughness about us, like we didn't care we never wanted to win a Grammy anyway, so fuck you' sorta thing. We realised that the record industry doesn't care who or what you are. If you sell records, they love you; if you don't, they ignore you. It wasn't about our music, it was about our success. And that's the way it should be." Clouds is a commercial disappointment, and the band returns once again to cult status.
A weird year in the Lips world. Guitarist Ronald Jones quits the band. "He was always a very strange person; he never liked the idea of playing in front of people, and having to record. There would be a lot of pressure to come up with ideas very quickly. He would come up with great stuff, but it was always through sheer personal agony a lot of times, what we would pick for records would not be what he would pick the stuff that's on Clouds, he'll still cringe today. Fuck, that was the worst idea I had that day.' He would still be sitting in that studio today, six years later, still figuring out the first part. Because I've done so many records and I'm not very talented, I'm always looking for some ridiculous accident to happen, whereas he was very meticulous about getting his exact ideas across. He became enamoured with the idea of different religions "new age-y" is being polite about it. He'd have a handful of crystals and put them in his water and say well, this will make you healthy' Ronald, it's marbles! There would be moments when he would get really paranoid - he would think people were following him, the IRS was after him, the police knew where he was. But little by little, the people who were closest to him would eventually be the ones he was most suspicious of. He's probably making the greatest music the world will never hear, and that's maybe the way it should be. He went to play with Richard Davies, but little by little, he became the same way with Richard." Drummer Steven Drozd is bitten by a spider called the brown recluse, and almost loses his hand. "It was a couple of days in the hospital, a lot of money, a lot of stress and really, it took a long time to heal." Bassist Michael Ivins is in a car accident when a wheel comes off another car and slams into his own, trapping him inside. Both incidents are touched upon in The Soft Bulletin track "The Spiderbite Song."
Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary comes to see the Flaming Lips two days before his death in 1996 which Coyne believes shows more about Leary's drug addled state than the Lips' popularity.
Taking time off from recording, Coyne begins to experiment with combining sound sources he records four pieces to be played simultaneously, and tries them out on car stereos in the parking lot of a favourite restaurant. Excited by the possibilities, he spends nine weeks recording enough different tapes combining Lips recordings with sampled sections - to play from 50 cars. "It was like an orchestral thing you have 10 cars playing what would be an orchestral part, three cars playing French horn parts using it like a typical orchestra. Immediately, it started turning into 300 John Coltranes playing at the same time. To make it easier, I just called it the Flaming Lips Parking Lot Experiment. We didn't look at it like it was an extension of the rock band that we were, but we were really becoming kind of obsessed with this thing, cause it was fun and it was weird and people liked it. I really saw it disintegrate the limits we were putting on ourselves as a rock band. It surprised me how much the audience didn't care if we were playing guitars they were just interested in what we were doing. I was so encouraged by that idea that they would just let us be whatever we wanted. It freed us up." Several "Parking Lot Experiments" evolved into a few tour stops as the "Boom Box Experiment" but it was the project's recording possibilities that really excited the band.
Opting not to replace Ronald Jones, the band begins work as a trio on two different records the song-based The Soft Bulletin and the incredibly ambitious Zaireeka, a four-CD set designed to be played simultaneously. The band convinces Warner to support them both on the promise that the band would market Zaireeka on their own, and they would provide a "proper" record at the same time all at a time when major labels were furiously merging, downsizing, and dropping many of their successful "alternative" bands. "It will forever stand as one of the hallmarks of a major label doing something it's hard for any label to say they've done anything that weird and that ambitious. They were so busy trying to regroup that they were just glad we were doing something they didn't have to worry about. We went into Zaireeka knowing that we were going to find a new path, a new way that we could make records. We were of the mindset that we were going to reinvent ourselves, but you can't just think of that at home and then just go and record it. I knew it would be a long process of trial and error, to see if we can go to a place that's utterly progressed on from where we are now. We knew it was going to be a long time making this record. Doing Zaireeka at the same time allowed us these couple of years where we could just stay up there working with Dave Fridmann doing new ideas. Even some of the things that were on The Soft Bulletin were supposed to be on Zaireeka, but it didn't work."
Zaireeka is released in a limited edition, including the warning "This recording contains frequencies not normally heard on commercial recordings and on rare occasion has caused the listener to become disoriented." Not the noise collage one might expect, it's a beautiful, melodic, freaky and sometimes disturbing masterpiece well worth the stereo-co-ordinating effort required.
While the band continues work on The Soft Bulletin, Warner releases 1984-1990: A Collection of Songs Representing An Enthusiasm For Recording By Amateurs a very aptly named collection of the best of the Lips' sporadic early career.
The Soft Bulletin turns out to be the Flaming Lips' masterwork. Again, the production mastery of Dave Fridmann plays a significant role, but the band's reinvention as an epic, deeply musical and emotionally connected unit is finally complete, more than 15 years after they started as sloppy drugged-out rockers. Despite this, reaction is initially cold. "When people heard it, they said we should maybe rethink this. It wasn't as though we had this nice collection that everyone loved called The Soft Bulletin and we were doing this weird thing called Zaireeka the whole thing seemed weird. A couple of months before it came out, we were being told it was too weird, they couldn't relate to it. About a year after it came out, it turned a corner people would be calling me and saying I can't believe this record you guys made,' and I'd say What record? That's been out for a year.' In hindsight, it seems very normal, very musical.
The Flaming Lips always wanted to make a movie and always wanted to make a Christmas record. "I hadn't give it that much serious thought, but I went out and looked at how many Christmas albums are released every year. The world doesn't need another Christmas album. I'd been thinking about doing this movie anyway, so it kind of released me to focus on that."
Serious work begins on the Flaming Lips movie Christmas On Mars. With Wayne Coyne directing (he's directed all the Flaming Lips videos) and with Steven Drozd in a starring role, they begin shooting around Oklahoma - in Wayne's backyard, in his house, at an abandoned cement factory with a loosely constructed script. "All the cool bands have movies too the Beatles and Pink Floyd and the Monkees now the Flaming Lips will have a movie too." The film is due for a DVD release at Christmas, 2003.
Recorded at the same time as filming Christmas On Mars, the Flaming Lips unveil another masterful record (due July 17), Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Again combining some elements of truth (Yoshimi was a Japanese fan and friend of the band who recently passed away) with Coyne's strange take on the world, it's lighter and more upbeat than The Soft Bulletin, while the band continues to evolve their recording processes and sound. "I wish there was some crazy story to tell you we take ten hits of acid and dial in the Hubble telescope. You have to do a lot of hard, boring, long work to get to these big compositions. I think the main difference seems to be us embracing the ideas of what the computer can do and not being afraid to play around with that, finding whole new joys of making weird sounds. To me, the encouragement and the confidence that people were so touched by The Soft Bulletin gave me more energy and enthusiasm to give them another freaky record."