It takes a rare talent to make a hit out of a song that tells the listener “everyone you know / will die,” but “Do You Realize” changed the Flaming Lips’ profile in 2002. Really though, it and the album it came from, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, were the natural follow-ups to 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, which AllMusicGuide.com describes as “a plaintively emotional, lushly symphonic pop masterpiece eons removed from the mind-warping noise of their past efforts…. The Soft Bulletin might be the best record of the entire decade.” It certainly changed the shape of indie rock with long coattails that brought into existence a host of expansive, sound-oriented bands with an affinity for melody.
That lush, beautiful, melancholy phase of the Flaming Lips was a radical shift for a band that once almost asphyxiated an audience by adding a revving motorcycle engine to their early pre-college rock roar, and the sweet strings were a long way from front man Wayne Coyne’s “Parking Lot Experiment” during one SXSW. In a parking lot, he had 40 cars parked in a circle and the drivers, on cue, all started their assigned tapes of specially composed music at the same time with the windows of their cars rolled down. During that period, they recorded Zaireeka, a four-disc set with each disc designed to be played at the same time to hear the piece in its entirety.
The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are best thought of as experiments in beauty, and it’s no more surprising that the band’s unpredictable muse led them away from it with 2006’s At War with the Mystics and last year’s movie-and-soundtrack Christmas from Mars than it was that it took them to beauty in the first place. On the new Embryonic, strings and sweeters are replaced by hard, distorted sounds of indeterminate origins, and soaring songs are replaced by meditations that might or might not have choruses. It, like their live show and every phase of the Flaming Lips’ career, offers an intense experience—maybe or maybe not more, and certainly not less.
The Flaming Lips play the Voodoo Music Experience Sunday, November 1 at 5:45 p.m. on the PlayStation/Billboard.com Stage.
What do you remember about coming to New Orleans to play Voodoo in 2006?
When we were there, people were still asking, “Will New Orleans come back? What do you think?” And I said, “I don’t think a rock festival is any gauge of that,” but it didn’t stop that festival from happening, and here we are, so it seems like it’s working. We expected there to be more despair, but the worst thing I saw was watching a 14-yearold girl get her teeth knocked out during My Chemical Romance. But she was very happy because she was in the front row.
It was the first time we had been down there since the Katrina stuff, and you brace yourself to think, “How much of this is going to be ruined? How much of the thing that you remember about it will be non-existent anymore?” We were kind of surprised that a lot of it seemed—especially in the areas that we would have gone—there was some relief. But there were things that we saw that were disheartening, not just because of the hurricane. I’m always leery of having too many casinos downtown, and I saw that and went, “Oh boy.” We first came to New Orleans in the early ‘80s and we already felt as though it was at times sadly overrun with mindless drunks who just came down there to pee on the sidewalk. But all cities change, and all cities have things that are prosperous in one decade and are useless in the next; New Orleans like Oklahoma City, the city I live in, goes through the same things.
I’d imagine coming in to town for a show like that could be insulating as well.
It can be. You’re at a hotel where people who have money are having a good time, and everything they do is based in, “We’re having a good time here.” But I know people who were working in relief efforts, and it’s weird when you get a can of sterilized water. They gave me this can, and I went, “What is that?”
You’re only doing a handful of shows to accompany the release of Embryonic; why so few?
We play all the time. In a sense, the crucial time has become right now, this time before the record comes out. In the ‘80s when we put out a record, no one would have it for two months. That didn’t seem long back then; it seemed normal. Now, you can make something in the morning and people have it by lunch. There’s no waiting for things anymore, and people don’t want to wait. The way our Web site and the Internet works, the record coming out is the last thing that happens because you build up. You talk about it, you play shows. When the record comes out, it’s like Christmas. Christmas isn’t like a day, then we party for a week. Christmas is the thing; then we go back to normal.
But it’s a coincidence that we’re playing England in November. We’ll be playing all over America next year, and really, for the next couple of years.
Is it hard to work songs from the new album into the show?
People would think that because our show, overall, evokes this euphoria with confetti and people in costumes, and it’s big and it’s bright, and you’d think, “These songs are weird, and they’re dark.” But we’ve always had things in our set that go back even to 1990—we have songs sprinkled in there from all times of the group—and they’re not all happy, upbeat songs. I think that’s precisely why it works; in a way.
Some of these new songs, as weird as they are, are very dynamic, and that’s what you want from a song in concert. I remember seeing footage of Fleetwood Mac in their heyday, and as great as their songs are, they’re not dynamic, crazy rock songs. They’re just well-played, well-sung songs. The stuff on Embryonic, as weird as it sounds, is dynamic. When we put them in the middle of the set, they work great. They’re a great, other thing we get to do, and why we wanted to make this kind of music. We could go in this other, strange direction and still be us.
Has the success of the show and elements like the space ball, balloons and confetti cannons become confining at all?
No. Artists sometimes say—like Bob Dylan—”I’m not what you think I am!” The Flaming Lips wouldn’t do those things if we weren’t ready to embrace it if it worked. All those things, especially something as dumb as the space bubble, I had no idea it would work. I had no idea it would define an element of what we’re about so well. Is it hot in there? We do a Halloween parade in Oklahoma City, and I walk down one of the main streets there for about 40 minutes in the space bubble, and yeah, it’s hot, but it’s not overbearing. Mostly when I’m on top of the audience, I’m worried that I’m standing on your head. “I hope you don’t mind”—that’s mostly what I’m thinking, and I’m more in control than it looks. It’s a panic, but it’s a controlled panic.
I was thinking as I was asking about the show elements, who wouldn’t want to play with those toys? After the age of 5 or 6, who wouldn’t want to fire off confetti cannons?
Exactly. I’m not thinking these things and wondering if they’re great. We all know they’re great. A lot of these things are just dumb, obvious, cool things. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of the shows where we give the audience laser beams, but they shoot them at us. That’s exactly what a 10-year-old would say: “Wouldn’t it be great if you gave the audience lasers and they shot them at you? And you brought out a mirror and shot it back at them.” I go and do it.
One of the things I’ve admired is the amount of spectacle you generate in a fairly low-tech way. Is that an aesthetic decision?
I want the audience to know that the money they’re giving us is well-spent. I’ve been to shows where you see a crew of a hundred people doing the job of one person; with the Flaming Lips, we do so much of it ourselves, we do it efficiently. We have this giant video wall that we bought a couple of years ago, and in the beginning we used this very elaborate pulley system to raise it up. That took a lot of effort and it was dangerous, and it took a lot of time and money, but it was professional. One day at my house, I didn’t want to set up the costly thing, so I used a rope to pulley it up. I thought, “I just did that with a fuckin’ rope by myself. Why do have to build this thing that takes 10 guys and is dangerous and costs all this money?” It’s not that we’re smart or think of things other people don’t think of; we just fuck everything up 10 times before we get it right.
Do all those amps onstage do something?
If you’ve ever been in the front row or onstage with us, you know that’s no fake cabinet. Not only do they work; they have Flaming Lips-sized speaker cabinets so they don’t blow up during the show.
Is it really loud onstage?
It’s insanely loud, but we want it to be. [The show’s] a spectacle, but it is about presenting these songs. We’re just making an atmosphere by which we get to sing and perform these songs. To me, it’s all about intensity. When music’s played at a certain volume, it takes over. It blurts out some of your other sensory perceptions and you must pay attention because you have no choice. We want the volume to be, a little more would kill you, but any less wouldn’t be as much fun. For the dynamics of the music we want to play, sometimes we want it to be extremely loud, and sometimes we want it to be quiet. Sometimes we want to hear the crowd; sometimes we don’t want to hear the crowd. You can’t have that dynamic unless you have crazy equipment.
When did you decide to wear a suit onstage?
There’s a picture of Miles Davis that has to be early-’60s. He’s standing outside of a nightclub in New York, and it’s a black and white photo. He’s been hit in the head by a police officer with a nightstick, and he’s wearing a pale suit—I don’t know if it’s yellow or white—but you can see his blood all over this jacket. I’d been pouring blood on my head while I was wearing a pea coat—this was 1998, 1999—and when you play small places, everyone can tell you have blood on your head. My blood’s not real, unlike Miles Davis’. As audiences started to get bigger, they simply couldn’t tell that I was pouring blood on my head. I remembered this picture, so I got a tan suit one day and sure enough, when the blood got on the suit, it wasn’t just that you could see it. Here was a guy in suit and he’s bloody, which is different from being in the Hell’s Angels and being bloody. Here’s a guy who seems to be on the edge of sophistication, and he’s all bloody, so it had a bigger dynamic to it. Then I started to find suits that fit me well, and they fit the kinds of songs and the types of personality I could be while singing these songs. Then it got to where I’m not sure people would recognize me if I’m not in a suit. It’s like Santa Claus; if he doesn’t show up in that suit, he’s just a weird old guy with a beard.