The Flaming Lips: Shooting from the lip

The Flaming Lips turn death and tragedy into strangely uplifting music. We're beyond weird, Wayne Coyne tells Pierre Perone
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's a surreal son-et-lumière experience, worthy of inclusion in Christmas on Mars, the forth- coming Flaming Lips film that has already been four years in the making. As I walk up a hill in Tennessee, the group are playing the opening chords to "War Pigs", the Black Sabbath song which has taken on added relevance since Ozzy Osbourne and his cohorts first recorded it 34 years ago. The vocalist Wayne Coyne needs a cribsheet to remember the lyrics but there's no mistaking the enthusiasm of his fellow Flaming Lips, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins (together with touring drummer Kliph Scurlock), as they launch into the heavy metal classic time and again.

It's a surreal son-et-lumière experience, worthy of inclusion in Christmas on Mars, the forth- coming Flaming Lips film that has already been four years in the making. As I walk up a hill in Tennessee, the group are playing the opening chords to "War Pigs", the Black Sabbath song which has taken on added relevance since Ozzy Osbourne and his cohorts first recorded it 34 years ago. The vocalist Wayne Coyne needs a cribsheet to remember the lyrics but there's no mistaking the enthusiasm of his fellow Flaming Lips, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins (together with touring drummer Kliph Scurlock), as they launch into the heavy metal classic time and again.

"We're playing this American institution called Austin City Limits next week, it's a great TV show and we're gonna do this together with Cat Power [the singer-songwriter Chan Marshall]," explains the singer when the band finish their soundcheck. "We realise the 2 November election could already have happened by the time the show airs and we don't want to come across as too one-dimensional on where we stand politically. Whether you are for George Bush or against him, we can all agree with the idea that Ozzy and Sabbath put across, that politicians should go to war instead of sending out the poor people. Not that I think any sort of singing is going to change anybody's mind at this point," stresses Coyne, who is wearing a light pink-and-white stripy suit and is enjoying some good old-fashioned Tennessee hospitality.

We're on the outskirts of Lynchburg, a small (361 inhabitants) town in Moore County. It's a 90-minute drive from Nash-ville and home to the Jack Daniel's whiskey distillery. To celebrate the 154th birthday of its founder, the Flaming Lips are the first band to play the brand spanking-new pavilion on top of Barbecue Hill to an invited audience of competition winners flown over from the UK, as well as a few puzzled locals who've never heard the Lips' heady collision of existential melancholy and upbeat psychedelia. The setting, overlooking several warehouses, is gorgeous and has thankfully been spared by Hurricane Ivan, which has just hit neighbouring Mississippi and Alabama. Mind you, knowing the Lips' propensity for outrageous stage shows, they probably would have found a way to incorporate the elements into the gig.

Wayne is decidedly upbeat about playing an event of this kind. "We honestly like doing weird stuff we haven't done before. A lot of people get stuck in this one way of doing it. We let Mitsubishi use 'Do You Realise?' for a car ad. You gotta try new things and I'm glad to have opportunities. It's gonna be a great night. We do our best to make it the best night of their lives and our lives. That's our duty every night. I go to so many shows where the band is so demanding of the audience," he sighs before getting animated again. "We're not in therapy, we're at a rock concert. It's not some sacred event, if I make it compelling enough, I'm sure people will pay attention. If the Flaming Lips stand for anything, it's the fact that you're alive and that there are infinite possibilities. If any band has ever stood for that, to the extreme, I'm sure we have, you know."

The frontman is an engaging interviewee and enthuses about the great shows he saw as a teenager in Oklahoma City. "I'm 43, I was born in 1961 and I was lucky to have older brothers who had lots of records and lived a sort of intense lifestyle. You can imagine how much fun we had at my house. I remember taking four days out of school and waiting in line for Led Zeppelin tickets, in January too, which in Oklahoma is really cold. I saw Alice Cooper, The Who, still with Keith Moon, when they had the big laser beams, it was a religious moment, for sure. It transcended rock'n'roll, it was pretty impressive for 14 year old. I also saw Kiss a couple of times, great moments, when you have blood and fire and naked women and loud rock'n'roll," reflects Coyne who cut his teeth playing Who covers, including the psychedelic single "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", in the early days of the Lips when his younger brother Mark was the lead singer, before he quit for "a normal life".

Indeed, Wayne drew on his teenage experiences when it came to presenting The Soft Bulletin, the Lips' 1999 breakthrough album in the UK (and their 11th release!). "It was the biggest shift from our past, our early records, this kind of shocking, disturbing music, this freak guitar... onslaught. We'd started out in 1983, we'd signed to Warner Brothers in 1990, we'd had an alternative hit in the US and been on MTV with 'She Don't Use Jelly' - from the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album - in 1995, but there was definitely a cut-off point after Zaireeka, this crazy record," reflects the Lips mainman, namechecking the four CDs that needed to be played simultaneously to make sense, and the live Boombox Experiments which followed in 1998.

"It's good to go to whatever extreme you want. Being in a band is like being a pirate, you get to go on this great adventure, go places and meet people. It's dangerous and it's fun and it's scary. With The Soft Bulletin, the adventure became more like a philosophical experiment. I started to use the band as a way to find out about myself. The meaning of it really changed in the way we approached songs and ideas and even presenting ourselves to the world. I would just use myself as an experiment but I was a little uncomfortable just standing there singing, so for almost every song I would do something. I'd have a puppet, or I'd have a gong, or I'd blow up a balloon. I was singing 'The Spark That Bled', and my head is bleeding metaphorically in the song, so I thought: why not do it in real life?" he muses. "It's not about gore or trying to shock you. There has to be a trigger when you see an old man in a suit covered in fake blood singing about those uncertain epiphanies. By wondering about the meaning, do I ruin it or do I find out what the meaning is? You're caught in this quagmire of the unanalysed life... In the end, I just think it looks cool to stand there and do stuff. I want people to walk away with something."

In Lynchburg, the fans certainly do, and it's not just because a dozen or so are wearing huge animal suits and kicking balloons around, or because they all get to meet Wayne and co after the set closer, an elegiac and triumphant "Do You Realise?" from 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. "If I was 20 and singing 'Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die', it would seem like some empty slogan. But as you get older you can say these things and maybe they're more believable, even coming from an old guy covered in fake blood," says the ringmaster and philosopher, who lost his mother this summer and his father at the end of the Nineties.

"I'm sure that, in the end, I am an optimist. The Soft Bulletin was staring down the existential despair that everybody in their life comes to eventually but I didn't want people to be bummed, I wanted the audience to be smiling so we got the puppets, the balloons, the animal suits, the films. And Yoshimi was a reaction to that doom and gloom, to the heavy-handedness of The Soft Bulletin, this nobleness of facing your worst fears. We made Yoshimi more like a cartoon, we didn't set out to purposely make a concept record. You're really just at the mercy of whatever comes into your head. We just kind of fumble along in the dark until one of these magic things happens while we're recording or while we're making a demo or playing. When the magic happens, we call that a song and, after that happens 12 or 13 times, we give the record a name and we put it out. 'Race For The Prize' was one of those perfect accidents. Steven had this great riff, he played these great drums and we accidentally recorded them on one microphone, it's all distorted. It hints at this promise of 'if you go for it, who knows what can happen?' We tried to do it again and we couldn't."

Determined not to repeat themselves, The Flaming Lips took advantage of the cancellation of this summer's Lollapalooza tour to begin work on their 13th album, tentatively called At War with the Mystics, with long-standing producer Dave Fridmann. "It's got a space-age jazz sound, kind of druggy; and songs with a more organic feel. There's 'Space Bible' and another track called 'Mr. Ambulance Driver', about a girl dying after a car accident," reveals Coyne somewhat confusingly, since the Lips are also working on a soundtrack to Christmas on Mars, their yet-to-be-completed movie.

"The film is about a space station in Mars where something has gone wrong with the oxygen generator and the crew start to hallucinate and don't quite know what is real and not real. The isolation is also getting to them. Steven plays the main guy. This alien shows up - that's my character - and fixes the air supply. It all happens on Chistmas Eve, it's a cosmic Christmas kind of thing, the hero wants to believe in this idea of humans creating their own happiness," adds Wayne, who is aware of the parallels people will draw with It's a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"By the end of next summer, this behemoth of an idea should be presentable to the world. I think if you can't make it in five years, just move on. It's gonna be good, yeah."

The singer is aware of the traps other musicians have fallen into but remains adamant that the Flaming Lips "want to do a big range of things". He says, "There's a forbidden zone of music about concept albums and films and things that were done in the past - Dark Side of the Moon or horrible things like Aqualung by Jethro Tull - but I don't believe that at all. We never threw away the idea of concepts. As an artist, you're always looking for these themes that you can take from one group of songs to the next. You go along these big, sweeping, existential themes where you talk about what's the meaning of love and life. To tie some sort of ambiguous story to them is sometimes more fun for the audience. I think it's all good and if you want to do it, do it. Be freaky, sure, a lot of bands could take more chances. REM could take more chances. That's what our audience wants. They're smart and they're forgiving and they're willing us to take risks," asserts Coyne, who has now been making music for more than 20 years.

"We would never have thought we could or should be around for so long. We really do love music, art, the whole idea. It's just sheer luck that times have changed enough and Warner Brothers came along and helped us become more organised. They don't restrict us, we can do stuff with the Chemical Brothers, Faultline, and we can be part of popular culture, especially in the UK where people, the press, the radio are always craving new things."

The Lips won't be playing Britain until next year, but in the meantime fans have an extended surround sound 5.1 DVD-audio version of The Soft Bulletin to look forward to. "Most people who are computer-savvy have heard these tracks. We've collected them and remastered them, and we'll tell people the stories or the reasons why we didn't feel like we could use them on The Soft Bulletin. It's interesting to our fans who like to follow our ideas," says the front man.

"The Flaming Lips don't really go out of our way to be commercial or to get on the bottom rung of mainstream music. People think of us in this realm of progressive rock, the way maybe Radiohead is, and I try and remind people: the difference between us and Radiohead is I believe Radiohead could make a record that was more mainstream. They could get played on the radio and they could be on MTV but they purposely go the other way. The Flaming Lips are just doing whatever we can. It's not like we say: let's be weird! We kind of just end up being whaaa!, you know, whatever we are. If you like The Beatles or Stockhausen, we're like a little bit of both, but I'm always surprised when we get on MTV or we get played on the radio. It's wonderful. What a great life!"

An extended Surround Sound 5.1 DVD-Audio version of The Soft Bulletin will be released soon. The Flaming Lips play the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, curated by Modest Mouse, in Long Beach, California, 6 to 7 November

Comments