Pop: Now for something completely different

Rock eccentrics The Flaming Lips have made a commerical album. An accident, says vocalist Wayne Coyne.
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CONTRARY TO popular belief, Wayne Coyne is not mad. Or on drugs. He doesn't rock back and forth in his chair, froth at the mouth or rant about flying asteroids and impending chaos. In fact, he is sound of mind: polite, articulate, witty and genuinely pragmatic.

"I have responsibilities that I like," he says. "I get up and I feed the dog, I have a girlfriend, a garden and a house. People think I'm a lunatic living in the bliss of my own imagination, but I'm just a normal guy who loves making records."

Coyne is the driving force behind the Oklahoma trio The Flaming Lips, a wilfully experimental rock band that sings songs such as "Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World" and "Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles", titles that do little to dispel rumours regarding the band's sanity. They have been known to perform in parking lots with car stereos as their instruments, while other audiences have been treated to film projections featuring disembodied figures sprouting surgical tubes and lobotomised fitness fanatics creepily going through the motions.

Their most notorious show on these shores occurred last year at London's Forum in The Boom Box Experiment where Coyne and co orchestrated a sea of customised cassette-recorders containing pre-recorded Flaming Lips tapes. The experiment culminated in a four-CD album, Zaireeka, the constituent parts of which are designed to be played simultaneously.

"I didn't expect the casual listener to get into it but I wanted there to be an interactive element, something you had to do to make it work," explains Coyne. "It also stretched our capacity to do much more simple music and deal with sound, layer by layer."

In contrast, The Flaming Lips' latest album, The Soft Bulletin, is a more grounded affair, one that is confined to just one CD and 14 extraordinary tracks. Since its release last month, critics have been falling over themselves to sing its praises, already hailing it as the album of the year.

"It was only as we were finishing the album that we realised that it was a more commercial record," Coyne says. "We thought we were still doing that more experimental stuff, but it is more based in melody and sound instead of radically abrasive stuff."

Although this 10th LP is probably their most accessible to date, the band's eccentric approach to music-making is still present and it discloses characteristically dramatic concerns. The momentous first single, "Race For The Prize", sees two scientists locked in battle in the quest for a cure. "Theirs is to win if it kills them, they're just humans with wives and children," crackles Coyne, as if the future of the world rests entirely on his shoulders. But even with its sombre theme, this is a euphoric pop song with Coyne's willowy voice - imagine Neil Young singing underwater - buoyed up by exuberant drums and luscious string arrangements. "Waitin' for a Superman" is a rueful treatise of frustrated will - "It's just too heavy for Superman to lift" - that fuses the Beach Boys' vocal harmonies with hints of Led Zeppelin.

Elsewhere on the album there are signs of their old dissidence. "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton"'s folksy melodies, and dreamy horn interludes are systematically shattered by huge, steam-rolling guitars.

There are times when, in explaining his art, Coyne becomes engagingly carried away. "It is a mystery to me how you can use these notes," he raptures. "Everybody's using them - it's not like ours are higher notes than other people's, or notes that we made up. But we decided that these notes, chords and words can be arranged in a certain way and become ours."

As the sole survivor of the original line-up, it is Coyne's febrile imagination that has sustained The Flaming Lips for more than 15 years, chipping away at conventional recording methods and fanatically pursuing new sounds. But it is only now that the band are getting the approbation they have so long deserved.

"I realised quite early on that we weren't really talented," explains Coyne, with an inordinate amount of modesty. "But we're kind of crafty. Rather than say `look at us, we're so good', we wanted to say `here's something that you haven't heard before'. We're just lucky that after all this time, people are finally embracing that."

By Coyne's own admission, the excitement surrounding The Soft Bulletin has a lot to do with the current musical climate. The runaway success of Mercury Rev's similarly leftfield brand of rock last year has conveniently paved the way for the album's quieter moments and the two bands similarities - wobbly vocals, large string and horn arrangements, and lyrical abstraction - are actually no coincidence. Guitarist Jonathan Donahue was with The Flaming Lips until 1991 when he then left to go and form Mercury Rev.

"Jonathan and I are like mountain men both doing our separate journeys, and occasionally meeting in the valleys and swapping stories. We're certainly not in competition," assures Coyne.

But while The Flaming Lips are quietly indebted to Mercury Rev for introducing them to what is becoming known as US avant-rock, there was an inevitability to Coyne's entry into the mainstream. With the majority of current bands taking refuge in the past, The Flaming Lips are forever pushing musical boundaries without ever losing their grip on reality. And after 15 years of sonic tinkering and maintaining a quietly fanatical cult-following, Coyne must have been doing something right.

"We always need to be doing something that hasn't been done before, even if it is a molecular step forward," he insists.

Nowadays, Coyne resigns himself to playing the crazed genius.

"Maybe I should just sit here talking to myself and drooling. I mean, people assume that I reside in a different place to the rest of the world." In his case, it would be one where he creates the soundtrack to the apocalypse.

`Race for the Prize' is released on Monday. `The Soft Bulletin' is out now. Both WEA records