Lip locked: Flaming Lips innovate pop yet again

By Mark Guarino

In their own way, the Flaming Lips have redefined how to make innovative pop music while operating on a major label that’s just interested in hits. Although the band has existed in some form for the past two decades, the current incarnation of the Lips — Wayne Coyne, 41, Michael Ivins, 39 and Stephen Drozd, 33 — is its most successful. The band scored an MTV hit back in 1993, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the band broke through to a wider fanbase thanks to “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.), a collection of dreamy, orchestral pop that was accessible as it was challenging.   

This summer, the Lips followed it up with “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (Warner Bros.), an album blooming with lovely lush textures and a backdrop of robots and magicians. But what makes the Lips much more than just another band of highbrow Pink Floyd conceptualists is their sense of fun. Even though this is a band that once orchestrated a live symphony by manipulating a parking lot full of car stereos, the Lips seem to be taking chances because of their childlike sense of wonder. Like Neil Young, there is fragility in Wayne Coyne’s voice that the band channels imaginative pop music. That doesn’t mean, however, they aren’t too heady to wear bunny suits at their live shows and encourage their audience to heave confetti into the air on cue. Just being able to make the music they make seems reason enough to celebrate.   

As Coyne is the conceptualist, Drozd is the guy who writes most of the music and plays a majority of the instruments. Born in Houston, he moved from Austin to Norman, Okla., in 1991, following former bandmates who wanted to return to their homebase. By that point, Coyne had already been through a few incarnations of the Lips. Drozd happened to move three blocks away from his house and, living with his Austin friends, met Coyne when he’d drop by the house to borrow recording equipment. Fate intervened one day after Coyne randomly asked if he knew how to play Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me.” It so happened that Drozd did the previous night. The next week drummer Nathan Roberts quit the Lips and Coyne asked if Drozd was interested in joining.    

“(Expletive)-A right I will,” he answered. “Talk about getting lucky, you know?”   

The Lips are currently on the road with Unlimited Sunshine, the summer’s most satisfying multi-bill tour featuring De La Soul, Modest Mouse and tour organizers Cake. Drozd talked last week. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: What was the idea behind “Yoshima” and how did ideas start brewing?

A: It’s a good question, but for us we don’t have a set plan in mind. We don’t have an ideal of what the record is going to be. Wayne will have a song or I will have a song that I’m messing around with and we’ll get together and … we’ll start piecing together a song. The first thing we actually did do was that song, “It’s Summertime.” We thought it was going to be b-side for (the 1999 song) “Race For the Prize.” And that didn’t actually work out, so we had that song sitting there, not really realizing we were going to start working on the record just yet. The next thing we recorded was the “In the Morning of the Magicians” song and it was only then that we thought we were officially working on a new record.

Q: The record offers so much to listen to, there’s so much going on in every pocket.

A: Well good, that’s part of the idea as well. We track and track and track and just pile on tracks and pile on tracks and you sort of slice and dice and mix and match. We don’t really have a set plan in mind. We start going for it and after we put songs on tape we start to arrange it and organize it.

A: How do you and Wayne compliment each other?

Q: At this point, the way we’re doing it now, I pretty much play all the music stuff, I do the drums, the bass, the guitar, the keyboards and strings and all that kind of arranging. And we’ve worked so good together for years now, it’s just really comfortable. He can play me a song on an acoustic guitar and he has the lyrics and melody and it’s like, “yeah, I can see what you’re doing with that,” and then we have idea for a drumbeat and we’ll start with that and I’ll say, “I think we should have some strings here and maybe some horns in the verse.” And Michael (Ivins) is the tech computer guy, he does the Pro Tools stuff and then Dave (Fridmann) oversees the whole thing and keeps us all in check because if you get too involved, you lose your perspective. When I have song, and the chorus, melody and everything is ready to go but no lyrics, usually Wayne will write lyrics that’ll make me say, “(expletive), that’s right on the money.” Like the “One More Robot” song; I had written the music and the melody and the chords and he came back with the lyrics and it was like, that’s just perfect for the mood of the song. This kind of a weird slant, a robot feeling emotions. Like prog rock lyrics or something, a Genesis record from early ‘70s.

Q: Did that ease of working together take time or was it instant?

A: Since the first few months I was in the band, we were just instantly comfortable sitting together at the piano or with a couple of acoustic guitars, throwing ideas back and forth. I was reading that new Neil Young biography and he was talking about Danny Whitten (an original member of Crazy Horse who died of a drug overdose in 1972) and Neil Young’s point was, I think every musician gets one musician in their life that’s their brother musician, that’s the person they were meant to play with. Danny Whitten was Neil Young’s and I think of Wayne as the guy I was meant to play music with. That sounds kind of hippy but it’s kind of true

Q: There’s so much rhythm on this record and on “The Soft Bulletin,” but the drums are so amazingly loud.

A: Well really, the drums on (1993’s “Transmissions From the Satellite Heart”) were over the top as well. It sounds too simple but I was always big fan of (Led Zeppelin drummer) Jon Bonham. And one of my favorite drum sounds ever is Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums on U2’s “War.” The drums are too hot to tape, god they sound amazing. By the time we got to “The Soft Bulletin,” we almost got it to a science instead of (expletive) around with these complicated mic situations. Dave would usually just put up one mic ten feet up in the air and another mic about three feet from the bass drum and that’s just our whole drum sound right there. You play them loud and you play them hard and you put the mic up in the right place and it’s going to sound good.

Q: I wonder why simply doing that creates that huge sound.

A: Well, a lot of what you’re hearing is the room sound. Especially if you make it hot to tape anyway, which is what we do, we kind of throw it into the red, going into the tape distortion. You combine that with the ambiance of the room sound, it’s going to be that over the top wall-to-wall drum sound.

Q: And that’s what brings that album to life. You can’t help be sucked into it by the rhythm.

A: Of course, I like writing songs with my guitar and piano. But drums, that’s my first love. If you can make the drums rock the tune or whatever it’s supposed to do, I’m always way into trying to do that. Luckily the other guys in the band are concerned with it as much as I am with making the drums as wicked as they can be.

Q: So did you miss playing drums live on your last tour when you were projected via video playing drums but on stage were handling so many other instruments.

A: When we first started doing it, I didn’t because it was such a whole new thing for me to play guitar and piano. But on this tour, what we’re doing now is (for some songs), I’m playing the drums for real.

Q; Why didn’t you tour with a drum kit last time around?

A: At that point, we were struggling with how to do the live shows anyway and we didn’t want to get another guitar player just to get a guitar player or hire a bunch ofactual musicians. Most of “Soft Bulletin” has strings, horns, orchestration and weird ambient sounds. We wanted to be able to do that live and not bring in a bunch of musicians. That’s were we figured, I’d play guitar …. But now doing it as long as we have, it actually seemed like a fresh idea to bring the drums back live.

Q: Talk to me about the economics of being in the Flaming Lips. You aren’t mega-sellers on Warner Bros., yet the label still holds onto you while dropping most of your like-minded peers like Wilco. Are you making records so cheaply they aren’t taking a loss?

A: That’s good point. That’s part of it. We’ve been on Warner Bros. since 1991 and obviously we never sold tons of records, we’ve always squeaked by just barely. And I think when the “Soft Bulletin” came out, we thought if this record doesn’t do anything, we’re out of there, they’re not going to give us another chance. And why would they — because it’s a big record company and I can understand what they’re think, they’re trying to make money. So when the “Soft Bulletin” came out, it didn’t sell tons, but the critical acclaim across the board was just phenomenal. I think that really bought us a lot of time with Warner Bros. They saw that and thought, “well, people think this record is important.” And I think that made them think, “well, they don’t demand too much money to make a record and they usually make their money back. They may not make us millionaires, but we should stick with these guys.” Honestly, I love the idea of selling a million records an being on TV. But the way it exists now, it’s really nice. The people who like us really do like us. That means a lot to me.

Q: Is being in Oklahoma a part of keeping your overhead low?

A: It’s obviously a lot cheaper than most places. But I’m not sure how that happened, when people got together and felt they had to move to somewhere else. Maybe that was more valid fifty years ago if you’re a movie star and the right thing to do is go to Hollywood or New York. For us, especially with the way things are set up right now, it’s just as easy to have the base of operation in Oklahoma than L.A. and New York. The way things are connected these days with technology, it just doesn’t seem necessary to move to the entertainment capital to do your business.

Q: After tonight’s show in Chicago, you’ll be coming back in the fall playing backup for Beck. How did that tour come about?

A: He just out of the blue called. We met Beck a few times. We met him back in 1996 right when “Odelay” came out and it was kicking (expletive). That was a really exiting record. I thought the stuff he was doing was way ahead of his time. So he called about three months ago and said, “hey you know, I love that new record you just did, it’s one of my favorite things in the world, I love the Flaming Lips, I love whole concept of band, and I’m trying to put together a tour and I want to see if you would go on tour with me be my actual band that with plays with me.” And it was like well yeah, it’s (expletive) Beck, why would you say no? The idea now is that he’ll come to Oklahoma and we’re going to rehearse for two or three weeks. It’s going to be Beck songs, it’ll be Beck singing, Mike will be playing bass and sampler keyboards, I’ll be playing some drums and some guitar and pedal steel and Wayne will be playing guitar. And that’s it. We’ll be playing his songs and travel around the country with him for six weeks. We’re supposed to play our opening slot and get back on stage and be his band.

Q: You’re also starring in a low budget, full-length sci-fi movie Wayne wrote called “Christmas On Mars.” What’s the state of that?

A: I would say right now, it’s about a third finished we’re hoping it’ll come out in Christmas of 2003. We were originally shooting for 2002 but Warner Bros. wanted us to hold on until Christmas next year because they didn’t want to promote a new record and a movie all at the same time. 

Q: Is it going straight to DVD?

A: What’s going to happen is, we’re going to release it on DVD. But we’re also hoping do a tour where it plays rock clubs. Say you go to Double Door in Chicago and you pay eight bucks to get in and there’s a p.a. there and a huge screen and the movie plays and you can drink and smoke with your friends. Because music is a big part of the movie. We want to play it really loud like a rock and roll show.

Q: I recently read an interview with Robert Plant where he namedropped your band as one of his current favorites. And your manager’s website has pictures of you and Wayne posing with rock luminaries like Paul McCartney and David Gilmour. Does that shock you that a bunch of low-key guys making albums in their basement are now rubbing shoulders with British rock royalty?

A: This sound hokey, but if someone told me when I was 15 that Robert Plant liked a band I was in, I’d be like, no (expletive) way. Led Zeppelin is still the standard for me. I still think they were sold short as an influence on bands for the last 20 years. So for all those big names like Robert Plant or whoever to talk about us, it’s not a validation but it’s sort of an encouragement. New bands of this age like us but to have these old rock and roller people become fans, that’s a great thing.

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