August 30, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.