They have a 2D drummer, a gong and strange notions. Now they’ve made the most astonishing album of the year. They are The Flaming Lips, the masters of invention.

Text: John Mulvey
Photography: Steve Gullick

LipsNME.jpg (33527 bytes)

Leonard Bernstein's up there, conducting the apocalypse. Atom bombs and orchestras. Flowers and eyeballs. Pounding hearts and infinite stargates. The end of the world as we know it, and The Flaming Lips feel fine.

The projections reel on, phantasmagorical, accelerating: a disembodied maniac grin hurtles down a long and bumpy road; a barely human figure is repeatedly probed by sinister tubes; a glassy-eyed aerobics class go through their jumps and stretches in weirdly elegant slow motion. They float on the wall just above Wayne Coyne like a thought bubble, these films that accompany his new live show seeming to explode out of his head. As if there's too much in there to contain, too many visions and plans to push his band into the furthest, newest territory.

So many ideas. It's a hyperdelic imagination that has sustained his band for over 15 years, provided a constant through many changes in line-up and direction, devised concerts where car stereos or boomboxes are the instruments, released an album that has to be played on four CD players simultaneously and, most recently, sired 'The Soft Bulletin' - as magical and astonishing an hour of music as you'll hear this year. Today, however, Coyne is contemplating turning his outlandish creativity into a force of pure evil.

"It would be fun to just annihilate the entire audience," he ponders.

"We've dreamed of building a stage that just crushes them, as one of the big songs builds and builds..." He pushes his hands forward dramatically, the killer stage grinding remorselessly out into the auditorium, ploughing down wave after wave of fans. "We'll have to get a huge audience, y'know, like a stadiumful, 100,000 people squished in to the point where they can't escape. And then the stage just crushes them."

The Flaming Lips' publishing company is called Lovely Sorts Of Death. 'The Soft Bulletin' is loaded with images of war and wounds and is, according to Coyne, "about love and death and the gap in between". Not everything they say is strictly to be trusted. But what an idea ...

Like most great bands blessed with such a prodigious gift of invention, the history of The Flaming Lips is one booby-trapped with myths and elaborations, half-truths and downright lies. Many originate from ludicrously fake biographies authored by the band in their early years to test the gullibility of journalists, and have now ended up filed away in the worldwide web's infinite library of wind-ups. Here, you'll learn how Wayne formed the Lips aged ten, recruited 12 members by 1980, and diversified band operations into daycare, meat-packing and funeral services. You'll read how their name came from The Rolling Stones' logo, a porn movie, or a dream Wayne had where, "I was making out with Mary Magdalene in the back of this car. When I kissed her, her mouth was like a flamethrower, or molten lava or somethin'."

Great stories. But the impending success of 'The Soft Bulletin' - one of those rare records that scientifically mingles futuristic sound experiments with radiant pop dynamics and a profound emotional core - means it's time to cut out the obfuscations. The projector's been switched off, and the photographer's studio is quiet. It's time for Wayne, bassist Michael Ivins and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd to tell something approximating the truth.

"We have arrived everywhere that we've gone by ambulance," claims Wayne now, as he tries to unpick the band's long and muddled history. "We've never come in a limousine. It's always been, we've just made it. They thought we were DOA, they threw us in the back anyway, we got there and at the last minute we've been revived.

"It's really been a pathetically long time, and it's only been in the last six or seven years that any reasonable human being would've thought it an advantage to be with us. Any sensible person would've said, 'Listen to the music these guys make, look at them, this is not gonna work.' If we'd been driving around and had some accident where our equipment got stolen or something, we easily could've said, 'Gee, this really doesn't make any sense, why are we spending everything we have, all of our time, pursuing this silly goal?...

As far as anyone can tell, it all began in 1984. Wayne Coyne, reformed teenage drug dealer, was working as a fry cook at Long John Silver's, a fish and fast-food restaurant in his home town of Oklahoma City: "I could still do it now if I had to - I wouldn't mind, even." Inspired by the hardcore bands he saw passing through town, he put together a band with his brother Mark on guitar, Ivins on bass and eventually a drummer, Richard English.

"We really weren't any good - it wasn't like we could actually entertain people," admits Wayne. "But I think we mostly wanted to make records. We thought we'd be producers, so we started to do it. And it wasn't really 'til a lot later that we looked back and said, 'Jeez, how did we get people to give us money?'

"We wanted to experience things. We had ideas that the world was gonna be an insane, crazy place and we would die young. When you're 22, those things make you wanna be in a band. Taking LSD and all those things are interesting but ultimately overrated. But seeking out experiences is better than sitting on the couch and wishing for them. I mean, the first time we came to Europe we got invited to the Roskilde Festival and I'd never been on a plane before. No-one would let us play - even in Oklahoma City."

Coyne's motto has always been, "Because we could, and no-one stopped us." In spite of massive public disinterest and heroic naivety about the complexities of making music, The Flaming Lips began to release cranky, eccentric garage rock records. Wayne's brother quit to get a proper job pretty fast, but tours with the likes of The Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth allowed them to go home and "tell stories, like great sailors that had sailed the seas".

"Every time we would do a record ourselves and it would fail and people would hate it, we knew we were to blame, we couldn't blame it on the industry or someone forcing us to do something. We did have a lot of energy in those early days, and then we kind of lost some energy but we gained ideas. And now I think we have energy and ideas again." In 1989, touring to support their third album, 'Telepathic Surgery', they fell in with Jonathan Donahue, a young student who booked gigs at university in Buffalo. "We're a lot alike," reckons Coyne. "I'm not a self-destructive, drug-addicted megalomaniac - I have a little megalo, but not the maniac. But I think initially he liked us because we did things ourselves and we weren't a bunch of helpless rock stars.

"He wanted to quit school so he went out on the road with us as a sort of road manager. He'd pretend he was a soundman. We'd be playing these dismal shows where there'd be virtually no-one there - ten people in the audience - and Jonathan would just come up and play with us. And if there got to be more than 20 people out there he would hide behind an amp."

By the time The Flaming Lips went back into the studio, they were a four-piece again - Coyne, Ivins, Donahue and new drummer Nathan Roberts - and had another important new ally in producer Dave Fridmann (who's produced all their albums, bar one, since). It's here, on 'In A Priest Driven Ambulance', that their music really starts getting interesting, where the deep-fried bubblegum psychedelia that became their trademark was formulated. And, at the same time, Donahue, Fridmann and a bunch of their college mates were working on the songs that became Mercury Rev's 'Yerself Is Steam': "’ Frittering' and some of that stuff, we all did together. There are tapes where they'd do one of their songs, then we'd do one of ours. We always knew Jonathan was pursuing his own thing, so we never thought he was just gonna join up and we would live happily ever after. But it was a good thing, the infusion of his experiences and ideas."

It lasted for another album, too. As their old record label, Restless, almost folded, they were signed by Warner Brothers and handed a $200,000 advance to make 'Hit To Death In The Future Head', a brilliant and decadent development of the sound patented on 'A Priest Driven Ambulance'.

"When we got signed the floodgates were open," continues Wayne, as his bandmates comprehensively fail to get a word in. "If you didn't get signed then you probably weren't in a band. By the time we got the Warner Brothers backing behind us, we were aware that you have to sell records, you can't just make them and spend all your advances on drugs.

"We thought we had a lot of ideas, but we didn't really. We had the freedom of having more money to spend, but that changes everybody. It's a strange record, we were just lost. Nathan was renting a pile of porn tapes this high every day, he would wake up and watch them and we would go downstairs to the studio: 'Here we are, we're exploring all the brand new sounds we've had in our heads for years.' But everybody would just drift back upstairs."

Except for Jonathan...

"He did 'Car Wash Hair' and something else then. Him and Dave Fridmann, at least three or four nights, were doing acid and mixing. It was sort of disintegrating even then. Nathan thought you got on Wamer Borthers and then you could just buy a mansion and be on American Bandstand. And that didn't happen, so within six months he'd gone. And when Jonathan put out 'Yerself Is Steam' we thought it would always be followed by more obscurity and more failure. But as soon as things started to happen he quit. I think we got over it even within the evening of him announcing that he'd left - so much of him wasn't there anyway."

The Flaming Lips ended 1991, then, with a finished album waiting to be released and half a band. Enter Steven Drozd, a drummer who'd moved to Oklahoma City from Texas and, Wayne claims, "stalked" him, and an enigmatic local guitarist named Ronald Jones.

"That was a good move," says Wayne. "We knew him a little bit, he would always show up at shows and bring an acoustic guitar. That's how weird he was then. He would play our songs to us. It became exciting again, there were new endless possibilities again."

Like the previous line-up of The Flaming Lips, the quartet recorded two albums, 'Transmissions From The Satellite Heart' and 'Clouds Taste Metallic'. Again, Wayne's restless soul feels the second retreads the ground of the first: a freaked pop masterpiece invigorated by Jones' attempts to squeeze as many guitar effects onto every track and an increasingly refined angle on pop music. It even boasted one song, the blasted nursery rhyme of 'She Don't Use Jelly', that became an American Top 40 hit just as they'd started recording the follow-up.

"I think 'Clouds...' was a mess," says Wayne now, unfairly. "The studio we were recording in sucked. 'She Don't Use Jelly' was starting to sell bunches - 50,000 this week! We went to Japan, we'd come back to the studio. We'd go to Australia, we'd go to these TV studios and every time we'd come back with a little less enthusiasm to be making new music. If you didn't have a hit in those times, what were you doing? Everybody was selling records. So 'Clouds Taste Metallic' was being made in between all that chaos of money piling up at the door and fame piling up at that door, and us sitting in the middle going, 'Oh we really just want to be an indie rock band. We apologise for being so popular."'

And somewhere during the touring in 1996, they realised they were losing another guitarist. "Yeah, I mean, Ronald always was strange," reiterates Wayne. "You really never knew if he was happy with what he was doing, even musically. So it always felt uncertain."

Time, then, for another change. Professing a waning enthusiasm for the band structure and "whacked-out guitar sounds", Coyne began planning ever more extravagant ways of performing the increasingly symphonic music in his head. "I think our audience come to see us or buy our records expecting to hear our new ideas, not our new performances," he claims, and to that end he prepared first the Parking Lot Experiments - where 40 cars would play parts of his new music simultaneously on their stereos; then the Boombox Experiments - where he and Drodz would conduct two orchestras of volunteers riding the faders on their specially customised and primed cassette players. Next, he solidified these ideas of music being played on multiple channels with 1997's 'Zaireeka', a masterpiece of indulgence that requires four synchronised CD players to reproduce the rich and disorientating orchestral psych-pop, the sort of music Brian Wilson makes in your dreams.

"A lot of people think it's gonna be a bunch of synthesisers all talking to each other or some insects we recorded in a field. But a lot of it has a lot of structure and melody and music stuff. We're not really interested in that Stockhausen approach that is interesting in concept but kind of boring to listen to. We want to do stuff that is exciting to listen to even if it's boring in concept. I hope we do a little bit of both."

On the sleevenotes of 'Zaireeka' there's a quote overheard from a radio news broadcast on Zaire, where "civilisation as we know it is breaking down at a phenomenal rate". It's this feeling that permeates 'The Soft Bulletin', a seeming preoccupation with how people interact with an accelerating scientific world of both good and evil. The music, too, fits the theory: Coyne’s lonesome, emotive voice, crushed by mammotyh beats, swept into ecstasy or melancholia by melodies built out of strings and samples and God knows what else. You can hear precedents - some of Beach Boys' woozy instrumentals like 'The Nearest Faraway Place', Gil Evans' jazz symphonies, the lush textures of Isaac Hayes' 'Hot Buttered Soul'. But much of it is pretty much how you'd hope music would sound like at the end of the millennium: optimistic but tentative, wistful, aware of the past but determined to forge a new path.

"I fear that by the time we get to the year 2000 the music scene will sound like 1979," laments Wayne. "Whose fault is it? It's our fault and your fault if we can't put in some idea that is unique to our time. Let's do something so we're not just revelling in how great our fucking record collection is. There is great urgency in there somewhere to not just be an accumulation of what we already know about music and culture."

"The future is a possibility as opposed to revelling in the past," adds Michael, sagely.

Fair enough, but on 'The Soft Bulletin' there's a song called 'Superman' about everything being so f***** even the world's greatest superhero can't fix it. In spite of the comic-book imagery, it's incredibly sad.

"I think it's sad," agrees Wayne, "but it doesn't destroy the good around it. To me, depressing songs are like feeding the pigeons: you throw the breadcrumbs and they come round and then you can. shoot them. What depressing songs do is they get all the sad feelings and then destroy them and leave you feeling the sadness has been a little bit washed away. Sad songs just rock."

This, then, is where The Flaming Lips have ended up: partly by accident, mainly through their increasingly remarkable talents for stretching the possibilities of what music should be like. It's a glib way of finishing a piece to claim that from here, anything's possible. With The Flaming Lips, though, it seems like the only thing left to say.

"Any time you go on about the big theme, the next thing in line is the big failure," says Wayne, finally. "You tried to get on the top - too bad you didn't make it. But we have no fear of the big themes now. We want people to have heightened expectations. So often you go to concerts and you expect it to suck. Sometimes I think my standards at concerts are like my standards for watching TV: you expect it to be mediocre, and if it isn't you're pleasantly surprised."

The stage starts rolling out again, deeper into the audience, into then over their amazed, terrified faces...

"I think with us, I'm hoping that people have a heightened expectation, but don't actually know what to expect. And I'm glad to oblige, because really I've got nothing but ideas. I've got endless ideas."

Reproduced from the NME, 22nd May 1999.

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