From his Lips to your ears ... and eyes

August 30, 2002


The Flaming Lips have done some truly unique things over the last two decades, from orchestrating a "40-car symphony" in which the sounds came together via 40 different tapes played on 40 different car stereos, through releasing a four-CD set (1997's "Zaireeka") in which all four discs were intended to be played simultaneously.

For the past few months, the group has been spending $100,000 of Warner Bros.' money and recruiting unlikely names such as Steve Burns (formerly the host of "Blues Clues") to appear in a feature-length film, "Christmas on Mars," that they're shooting on a bizarre space-station set that bandleader Wayne Coyne has built in his backyard. (The group plans to release the movie on DVD in time for Christmas 2003.)

In between all that, the band--which currently is completed by bassist Michael Ivins and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd--has released a series of brilliant and innovative art-rock albums, moving from the gonzo Replacements-on-drugs indie-rock of the early Restless Records years (which are about to be anthologized on two new compilations), through the unlikely alternative-era hit of 1993's "She Don't Use Jelly," to the beautiful, "Pet Sounds"-inspired orchestrations of 2000's "The Soft Bulletin" and the Lips' fantastic 10th album, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots."

Unlimited Sunshine Tour, with Cake, the Flaming Lips, De La Soul, Modest Mouse, Kinky and the Hackensaw Boys





* 6 tonight
* Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence
* Tickets, $36
* (312) 559-1212





In April, I spent several hours talking with Coyne about the new disc, the movie, and the band's long history as we drove through the flat, industrial landscape and scattered strip malls of his native Oklahoma City. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Q. "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" moves from these sort of silly but fun songs about the title character fighting man-eating robots to a series of beautiful musings on the meaning of life. I hear it as a concept album about man's struggle to preserve his humanity in the face of an increasingly soulless technocratic society. Do you buy that?

A. There's a concept, but I don't know if it's a concept album. We have this dog that stays in the back--he doesn't come in the house--and we came home on Christmas night and the other two dogs had beaten that dog up. We took him to the vet, and he almost died, and these things crush you. Me and [my girlfriend] Michele [Martin] have always had this sort of philosophical argument about these animals--she says they love us, and I was the realistic guy, like, "It's not love," you know? And when that happened, it really did occur to me, like, "What is love?" And in some ways, I think that if you perceive that you're loved, you probably are just as well off as actually being loved. If you think your animals love you, you probably are happier than people who don't have any love. If you think God loves you ... whatever. And I thought that if someone thought that a robot could love you, or show some sort of affection that made you think it loves you, maybe that could be love, too.

Q. I have a theory that the Lips have followed each artistic breakthrough with an album that consolidates the accomplishments of its predecessor. "Hit to Death in the Future Head" followed your first masterpiece, "In A Priest Driven Ambulance"; "Clouds Taste Metallic" followed the killer "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart." I can't decide whether "Yoshimi" builds on what you learned with "The Soft Bulletin" or goes someplace new with the use of computers and Pro Tools and the topics in the lyrics.

A. It seems to me that it doesn't really sound like a breakthrough. When we noticed that we were doing a new record, we had just kind of gotten going on the last one. That was fun, all that big orchestration, but we got to play around with it long enough to satisfy some of our curiosity. Then you start moving on to other things, you know? We got to a point with some of it, like "Suddenly Everything Has Changed" or even "What Is the Light," where we could just do even more than what we thought. We were taking these really simple songs and inserting this Walt Disney soundtrack/"Fantasia" thing, and suddenly it just becomes something utterly new. But on "The Soft Bulletin," there's not that precision, the way the computers can line everything up. So when I went in and started to do some of this record, [producer] Dave [Fridmann] would just say, "Fellas, I've got some new toys. Wanna check them out?" And there's always gonna be a couple of things here and there where you're just like, "F---, what is that?"

Q. How do the songs actually come together now?

A. It starts with me and the acoustic guitar, or with Steven doing piano stuff or whatever. I'll say I have an idea--a melody, a song, a chord structure--and I'll play it for Steven, and he'll start working on it. It could just be a line or two, and he'll say, "Let's repeat this." Or Steven will have something that's a fairly complete melody or chords--it's Lionel Richie doing this real logical progression and melody and stuff--and he'll say, "What do you think of that?" And I'll sort of [mess] around with some production and lyrical ideas and we'll see where we get. We use this euphemistically, but we want Fridmann to do like a George Martin would do to Lennon and McCartney. We'll say, "Here's our song. What do you think?" He's our best objective pre-song listener. He'll tell us, "I'm f---ing bored out of my mind here" or "It's too long," and then he leaves it up to me to either believe what he's saying is real or just say, "Well, let me challenge that with sonic ideas or something."

Q. These days, Steven is playing almost everything on the albums. Michael is helping with the recording. What exactly is it that you bring to the Lips' music, besides the vocals and lyrics?

A. I think I bring the identity of what we do. And without identity, I mean, that's what rock 'n' roll is, that's what all this junk is. It's like, "That music coming from these people at this time is wonderful." That's why Paul McCartney singing "Yesterday" in a f------ fireman T-shirt in New York isn't as powerful as it was in 1966 when he was 22 and the world had never heard that before. It's this sound with this person at this time, and that's always what it's going to be. It's not enough for the song to be great; it's all those three things together.

Q. The Flaming Lips have survived the indie-rock era. You've survived the alternative era, appearing on the "Batman Forever" soundtrack and "Beverly Hills 90210." Now you're somewhere completely different. There aren't many of your peers that have experienced that kind of growth and continual reinvention.

A. I think Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys ... there's a lot of bands that have been around as long as we have that keep thinking about what they do and how they can present it to the world. I think we're lucky. You know, the luck has come in more ways than one; the priest-driven ambulance has arrived a couple of times for us, with "Priest," with "She Don't Use Jelly," with "The Soft Bulletin." With "The Soft Bulletin," as much as people seemed to like it, it wasn't selling in America at all, and then little by little, we kept touring and it really succeeded. It's probably sold about 100,000 copies by now, but again, that's more by luck than by design. It's a combination of every desperate measure you could do with every ounce of luck you can get and hard work, all coming together at the same time.

Q. These days, you're as much a theater troupe as a rock band, performing mostly to recorded backing tracks. Some longtime fans miss the onslaught of the old guitar, bass and drums lineup. Do you ever get the urge to rock out again?

A. No, not really. Those urges are like having sex. If you don't do it for a long time, you think, "I wanna have sex every day for the next year." Then you have it and you go, "Oh, that was fun," and then you get on with what your life is really all about. We do that all the time. Steven will act like the Who on the drums, act like we did when we were doing "Hear It Is." I play a bunch of noisy rhythmic s--- on guitar and Michael plays John Entwistle bass that's not in any particular key. And it looks like we know what we're doing, but I just don't think it's that entertaining to people after a while.

Q. So you're shooting a movie in your backyard. Do you have a screenplay?

A. No. But I would say that in the end, I'm not that different from a lot of weirdo guys who make movies, in that I started out really as a painter, and I make a lot of things--records, my life--everything is sort of done like it's a painting. I do a little bit, and I have an idea of what I want to do, but I do some, stand back, and then I do a little bit more, and one thing leads to another, instead of sketching the whole thing out and then painting it little by little. I'm building it as an idea and a reality simultaneously.

Q. But if a painting doesn't work out, it's no big deal. It's a little bit different with a movie!

A. Yeah, but with everybody that I'm doing it with, doing it is its own reward. We know how to do it with our friends, and to do it this way, even if it turns out bad, we'll look back on this and say, "Damn, it was fun doing that." And that's the way I look at everything that we do now, like with the band or anything. We're not going to get into some miserable situation where we're saying, "We're suffering now, but at some moment in the future, we'll be good." Those moments don't always come.

Making the movie is not just about, "Let's go out and have a party." But there are so many people around here that like the idea of contributing to something I'm doing, and if I make the atmosphere fun, they get to do something that I need and they think they're helping me, and it can be a wonderful thing.

Q. Steve Burns drove halfway across the country to dress up like a space man and pretend he's on Mars when he's really in a giant empty gas tank in your backyard. How exactly do you convince people to do these crazy things?

A. I don't know. But I'm glad that they believe in me, and I think I earn their belief. I know we work hard. I think people get in there and they go, "You know, this isn't magic. This guy is the first one up, and he's the last one to leave, and if he's gonna do it, I can do it." And I think that's probably what they see in me the most. They know that this isn't some magic that I'm able to do that they couldn't. It's long and it's hard and someone's got to do it, so let's get in there and do it.

Q. What is the movie about?

A. It's about Christmas on Mars, and there's an alien who shows up and saves the day. To me, there's some abstract quality that you can do in moviemaking, meaning there's an image and there is sound, and that can be sound and music, and there's an idea about what they represent. And movies do that so perfectly, you know what I mean? It's such a powerful medium because you can elevate a moment beyond what really is actual emotion. It's super-emotion. You can cry about "My Dog Skip," even badly done, but you still cry and you still know it's a movie. You can say, "I know this is a movie, but I'm still crying," and that's powerful. The movie is about this mood and this elevation to some powerful abstract experience.

If I'm good, people will walk away thinking that they saw a movie about some desperate people who've colonized Mars, about an optimistic guy who decides to celebrate Christmas even though the space station was careening toward certain doom, and an alien comes in and secretly saves the day, and you'll think that's what it's about. But I know from what I'm trying to present is the idea of belief that if people around you don't believe in you, it influences what you do, and if people around you do believe in you it influences what you do.

Q. That sounds like the Wayne Coyne story to me.

A. It is. It is.