Gentlemen: The Fabulous Flaming Lips!
By Jim DeRogatis
Its a Saturday night in Chicago, a few weeks before St. Patricks
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 evenings chosen entertainment,
Oklahoma Citys 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 orchestras 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 Id 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 Ive never
seen anything like emand theyre freakin cool, whoever they are.
The Bluto wannabes arent the first unsuspecting initiates whove
had a similar response to the Flaming Lips. Long-time darlings of the indie-rock
underground and discerning criticstheir ninth album The Soft Bulletin ranked as the fourth best release
of 1999 in the Village Voices annual Pazz and Jop critics pollthe
musicians have honed a broad appeal at the same time theyve 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 Dont Use Jelly (a charming ditty about tangerines, toast,
Vaseline, and Cher) and the new single Waitin for a Superman.
The Flaming Lips music, if its 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 its being
subversive or weird and just think its good rock n roll. Whereas its
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, its obvious that this must be home to the founder of the Flaming
Skipping college to fry fish at a Long John Silvers, 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 Zeppelins John Bonham and Black Sabbaths Bill Ward, he hits the
drums so hard he has to duct-tape his headphones to his ears so they wont fly off in
the recording studio. Of late hes proven even more valuable as the bands
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 DeathLSDthough he maintains that hes
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 bands 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 Dont Use Jelly. The
video that Warners initially rejected because it was directed by Coyne for a mere $12,000
wound up in MTVs 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 bands 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 its 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 Dont Use Jelly: I know a girl
who thinks of ghosts/Shell make you breakfast, shell make you toast/But she
dont use butter, and she dont use cheese/She dont use jelly or any of
these/She uses Vaseline.) But hes always been an old-fashioned romantic at
hearthe sports a button on his guitar strap boasting I [heart] Michelle,
his housemate and partner, J. Michelle Martinand 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 youre drawn to.
I felt that after Zaireeka,
The Soft Bulletin really would be our last
record, Coyne says. I thought, Well, youve 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 wasnt 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 seasons Reverb series on HBO.)
Where do the Flaming Lips go from here? I dont know, but I dont
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 its even weird at all now, it just seems
normal to us. Theres talk of soundtracks, and maybe a self-financed movie.
Quitting is the one thing that isnt on the agenda, even after two decades of
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 dont love it, it
will rub you raw. In her sense it was literal, but with us its really the same
way: If you dont truly love it, this would get boring and monotonous and youd
really get sick of it quickly. I guess thats the truest testament we could make: I
just really love it and Im trying to find my way.
(Originally published in Penthouse,