Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Flaming Lips!

By Jim DeRogatis

It’s a Saturday night in Chicago, a few weeks before St. Patrick’s Day at a bar called the Cubby Bear Lounge in the shadow of historic Wrigley Field, and the frat boys are out in force. The club is hosting a cheesy promotion co-sponsored by Guinness and Q101-FM, the local alternative-rock powerhouse, but the party-heartiers are getting more than they bargained for from the evening’s chosen entertainment, Oklahoma City’s fabulous Flaming Lips.

The cramped stage has been transformed into an elaborate theatrical set of the sort that Pink Floyd used to erect circa The Dark Side of the Moon. It comes complete with a giant gong, psychedelic lighting, and a big video screen that alternately flashes whimsical images from The Wizard of Oz and close-ups of an ocular surgery. The drums and a high school orchestra’s worth of symphonic instruments play on a carefully sequenced tape. Meanwhile, a balding and taciturn bassist sits hunkered over his instrument while another, more frenetic fellow shuttles between keyboards, guitar, pedal steel, and kazoo.

Through it all, singer Wayne Coyne stands center stage, emoting like a lysergically powered Mel Torme and illustrating his songs of killer spider bites and scientists racing for the prize with theatrical gestures from weird hand puppets. “I touched my head and noticed I’d been bleeding,” he croon in a plaintive Neil Young wail, and fake blood gushes all over his face.

“Who the fuck are these guys?” one of the beefy frats asks his buddy in between nervous gulps of Guinness.

“I have no idea,” his pal replies. “But I’ve never seen anything like ’em—and they’re freakin’ cool, whoever they are.”

The Bluto wannabes aren’t the first unsuspecting initiates who’ve had a similar response to the Flaming Lips. Long-time darlings of the indie-rock underground and discerning critics—their ninth album The Soft Bulletin ranked as the fourth best release of 1999 in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop critics poll—the musicians have honed a broad appeal at the same time they’ve courted hipsters by disdaining the irony and elitism evidenced by so many of their slacker peers. Regardless of how weird their music might seem at first, it backs a serious rock wallop and an infectious, Beatlesesque melodic appeal that has scored two modern-rock hits in recent years, “She Don’t Use Jelly” (a charming ditty about tangerines, toast, Vaseline, and Cher) and the new single “Waitin’ for a Superman.”

“The Flaming Lips’ music, if it’s done right, can reach some guy who walks in off the street liking Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin,” Coyne says. “He can hear Flaming Lips music and not understand that it’s being subversive or weird and just think it’s good rock ’n’ roll. Whereas it’s a stretch to be a normal guy and listen to some Sonic Youth or Pavement records.”

Such a regular-guy attitude is perhaps unsurprising given the Lips’ roots; the youngest of six children, Coyne grew up in a middle-class Catholic family surrounded by Baptists in the buckle of the Bible Belt. On the other hand, he has always stood out amid his surroundings. Drive through the neighborhood he calls home, not far from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame or the place where the Murrah Federal Building once stood, and you encounter block after block of single-story ranches where kids in diapers run around the yard, dad watches professional wrestling on TV, and rusted-out junkers sit on cinder blocks in the driveway. Then you stumble across a two-level brick rambler in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, with gargoyles on the roof and giant flower sculptures on the balcony. Even without knowing that friends and neighbors call the place “Stately Wayne Manor,” it’s obvious that this must be home to the founder of the Flaming Lips.

Skipping college to fry fish at a Long John Silver’s, Coyne was inspired to form a band in the early ’80s by hardcore punk shows at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman. Band mates came and went through the years that followed, with the one constant being bassist Michael Ivins. Steven Drozd came on board in 1992. A cross between Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, he hits the drums so hard he has to duct-tape his headphones to his ears so they won’t fly off in the recording studio. Of late he’s proven even more valuable as the band’s versatile multi-instrumentalist.

Early albums such as Oh My Gawd!!!... The Flaming Lips and Telepathic Surgery struck many as sloppy, Replacements-style garage rock on acid. (Coyne named his publishing company Lovely Sorts of Death—LSD—though he maintains that he’s never been a big fan of drugs, preferring the transcendent powers of imagination.) The band started to come into its own in 1990 with In A Priest Driven Ambulance, which took the familiar influences of the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd and distorted them as if in a funhouse mirror. That attracted the attention of Warner Bros., and the Flaming Lips joined the major leagues.

The band’s first taste of mainstream success came at the height of the alternative era, when Transmissions from the Satellite Heart yielded a surprising hit in “She Don’t Use Jelly.” The video that Warners initially rejected because it was directed by Coyne for a mere $12,000 wound up in MTV’s buzz bin, and the band found itself shaking hands with David Letterman, appearing on the soundtrack of Batman Forever, and guesting on Beverly Hills 90210.

Other groups would have moved to capitalize on this breakthrough, but Coyne was already pursuing a newer, weirder path. Walking through a parking lot before a concert, he was struck by the cacophony of different songs simultaneously blasting from many cars. That led to a series of “parking lot experiments” where he conducted orchestras comprised of 40 car stereos simultaneously blasting different tapes, each with a specific part of one grand composition. The Lips also released Zaireeka, a box set comprised of four CDs meant to be played simultaneously on four boom boxes.

The results of all of this avant-garde experimentation and sonic tomfoolery were finally applied to a pop-rock setting (and made accessible to the Animal House crowd) with The Soft Bulletin, the band’s most ambitious album to date. The Lips entered the studio thinking of their new songs as canvases for dramatic sound collages, in the manner of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds. On tunes like “The Spiderbite Song” and “The Spark That Bled,” swarms of insects buzz stately grand pianos, mysterious voices echo in the ether, and a string section saws away from the bottom of a pool filled with Jell-O. And all of it’s catchy as hell.

In the past, Coyne favored a surrealistic approach to lyrics, following in the footsteps of Syd Barrett and Robyn Hitchcock with Day-Glo puns and Dadaist images. (The most memorable verse from “She Don’t Use Jelly”: “I know a girl who thinks of ghosts/She’ll make you breakfast, she’ll make you toast/But she don’t use butter, and she don’t use cheese/She don’t use jelly or any of these/She uses Vaseline.”) But he’s always been an old-fashioned romantic at heart—he sports a button on his guitar strap boasting “I [heart] Michelle,” his housemate and partner, J. Michelle Martin—and an undercurrent of hippie optimism runs through the otherwise apocalyptic tales on The Soft Bulletin. The key line: “Looking into space, it surrounds you/Love is the place that you’re drawn to.”

“I felt that after Zaireeka, The Soft Bulletin really would be our last record,” Coyne says. “I thought, ‘Well, you’ve really painted yourself into a corner this time, you may as well go out with something to say.’” He poured his heart out and people responded, but he wasn’t content with creating a studio masterpiece or a cult favorite. The gonzo populist set about the challenge of bringing his strange new music to the masses. He wound up with the multi-media extravaganza playing the Cubby Bear Lounge and a procession of joints just like it across America. (The show was also the focus of an episode of last season’s Reverb series on HBO.)

Where do the Flaming Lips go from here? “I don’t know, but I don’t know how we got here, really,” Coyne says. “There was never really a clear vision of what was gonna happen, we just got to this point slowly over time. We forget that it’s even weird at all now, it just seems normal to us.” There’s talk of soundtracks, and maybe a self-financed movie. Quitting is the one thing that isn’t on the agenda, even after two decades of inspired noise-making.

“You know, there was an article I read about some English guy making a porn movie,” Coyne says, “and he was talking to one of the actresses and he said, ‘How do you do this every day? It seems like a it would be a tough job.’ And what she said was, ‘You really have to love it. If you don’t love it, it will rub you raw.’ In her sense it was literal, but with us it’s really the same way: If you don’t truly love it, this would get boring and monotonous and you’d really get sick of it quickly. I guess that’s the truest testament we could make: I just really love it and I’m trying to find my way.”

(Originally published in Penthouse, summer 2000)