At this year’s South By Southwest, the tented courtyard of the Fox and Hound was the site of a supposedly secret show by Flaming Lips—a show that was the buzz of Austin that day. The set opened with a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and people who had never met each other threw their arms around each other’s shoulders to sway and sing along. A few songs later, a roadie started to feed large balloons off the edge of the stage. After first, the crowd played with them like beach balls, but the balloons kept coming. And kept coming. Before long, the stage was completely obscured and the front rows were buried under balloons.
Flaming Lips have always had a sense of spectacle. The band has been around since 1983, and at one early show, it had a motorcycle revving onstage for the whole show. It added a savage roar to the performance, but it also almost asphyxiated the crowd with its exhaust.
The band had a post-grunge alternative rock hit in 1994 with “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but it really found its voice and audience with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. The band—Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd—radically expanded their musical palate and made dense, melodic and often lovely rock that was about more than just boys meeting girls. In 2002, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was a meditation on mortality, and the album’s hit, “Do You Realize??” asked bluntly, “Do you realize / that everyone you know will die?” Rather than being depressing, the song is touching as it advocates enjoying the people around you while you can.
This year, the band released At War With the Mystics, an album preoccupied with power and conflict. It is a bit of a departure from the previous two albums as it’s less immediately pop-friendly, instead presenting the band at its most psychedelic—a characteristic that has helped the Flaming Lips find common cause with jam band audiences. Even song titles such as “The Wizard Turns On The Giant Silver Flashlight and Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins” and “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” seem to wave a freak flag in the face of authority.
Ivins is talking from Burlington, Vermont after the band’s first performance there. Before that, the only time the Flaming Lips had only driven through the state once—during the northeastern blackout of 2003.
You were scheduled to play last year’s Voodoo Fest, right?
Yes and then everything got switched around. They were going to do it in Austin and I think by the time they settled on a spot to do it, it was not possible for us to get there. So unfortunately we had to bow out. We’re glad and happy that the festival is happening again in New Orleans and we’re glad to be a part of it.
Do you remember when the last time you played New Orleans was?
I know I was there for the Tape Op convention that was right before the hurricane hit. I can’t remember the last time we’ve been there (as a band).
It’s a strange, interesting place. My wife and I love New Orleans. We actually spent our honeymoon/first anniversary in New Orleans for a week. I’m going positive, using the present tense, and saying New Orleans is one of the unique great American cities. And I hope that cool heads prevail in the rebuilding and reconstruction of the city, and don’t turn it into some watered-down vision or Disneyland or something like that.
Obviously, I don’t have an actual stake in the actual tragedy that happened with the destruction and everything, but it just doesn’t make any sense why more federal money isn’t released so that someone could stand up with a vision and say, “Alright, we’re going to rebuild and let’s go green. Let’s wind farm. Let’s put up solar panels on everyone’s house.” While watching the news, it seems not much has actually happened in the year that’s gone by.
What you’ve seen is pretty accurate and pretty mysterious to us, too.
It doesn’t really make any sense.
I say I don’t have an actual stake, but it’s part of our country. It’s kind of baffling. If the wing of your house fell down, you would try to rebuild and take the opportunity to build it better. And this country is our house. I’m not sure why we are so gung-ho on rebuilding a whole nation because that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but we can’t do anything to rebuild a city.
My take is we’re seeing judgment of Christian conservatives in Congress on the sinners here who don’t know enough to close their bars and not drink in the streets.
I was raised pretty much to be tolerant of other people’s views, but I have less and less time for people who would not only run their lives but try to run everyone else’s life based on the idea of what happens to you after you die. I’m of the opinion now that religion on the whole is the worst idea and detrimental to the continued progress of the human race. I don’t know why people feel like they have to have some invisible spirit in the sky watching over them to say killing someone is a bad thing, or stealing something is a bad thing. Why can’t you be secure in your own being to think that these things are wrong, and let’s move on? We don’t have to talk about it everyday or every Sunday. I was just reading something (that showed that) the more people who believed literally in God in a particular society, the higher the homicide rate was. The more that people believed in God or these moral scriptures, the abortion rate was actually higher. In a way, to live in a God-fearing country actually doesn’t seem to get you anywhere.
One of the things about the Flaming Lips I admire is that the songs reflect a band that is thinking large, complex thoughts and doing so in a way that is distinctive.
I think an important thing for us is that we are much older now. I think that’s just what we are choosing to sing about. We could sing about cars or girls, but for some reason we are drawn to the ideas of death and what does it actually mean. More in the context of life. I know for me personally, I don’t think anything happens of any great import after one dies. I look at it in a way that five or six hundred years ago when you were eating a shit sandwich and living in a shit house, life must have been so terrible that your only option was to hope for some relief after you died. That made it so you could continue living in the worst conditions ever. Now we have telephones. We have a better understanding of a lot of things in general. Life’s not that terrible; in fact, for some people it’s pretty darned good, and why you have to fall back on these really antiquated ideas that really doesn’t make any sense.
When you’re young, you are usually presented with Santa Claus and Jesus Christ as these two actual, living things. They both live up there somewhere, they are always watching you, and if you’re good, you get a present. One gives it to you every year and one gives it to you after you die. But when you’re about five or six, you have to give one of those up. You’re basically told that for the past couple of years we’ve just been lying to you, Santa Claus doesn’t exist. People usually drop Santa Claus, but a lot of people continue on with the Jesus Christ paradigm, which doesn’t make any sense to me.
I think I was lucky because my parents never made me go to church. At some point when I was actually able to be cognitive and read with a pretty good grasp of things, I remember this book I was given, The World’s Great Religions, just to see that there are so many different ways of looking at things. It’s just an accident of geography and birth that shapes what your culture is full of.
You grew up in Oklahoma?
I actually grew up in Hawaii until I was 16 and then lived a good 25 years in Oklahoma. Hard to say which one did the more shaping so to speak.
What part of Oklahoma?
Oklahoma City, which is basically right in the middle of the state. Which I have to say, in the past five years, has gone through a little bit of a Renaissance really, with a lot of great restaurants and just generally cool things to do and see, which is quite stunning, actually.
When did you meet Wayne?
It must have been 1983. There is still some debate as to the actual meeting, but it was so long ago I’m just not really sure. I think my story has several things blurred together and turned into one story. I think it was a little less complicated than that and slightly more complicated in a different way.
I got the impression from The Fearless Freaks (the 2005 documentary about the band) that the Flaming Lips got their influences more from people around it than from other music.
Maybe that’s why it was relatively easy to make the jump into this new way of presenting music that didn’t seem all that new for us.
I think in some ways we used to make music that was more, what we call, record collection music. But most of the times we just missed the marked to badly that it came out just plain weird. I think some of it we were able to get away with instead of us sounding like some other band or anything like that.
By record collection music you mean…?
Well, like if you thought a Sugarcubes song was really great and you’d think, “Wow, why don’t we try to do a song like that?”
You can tell a band’s record collection by the music they make.
Exactly. Hopefully we’re to the point, in the past few years, that we are making Flaming Lips music. We always aspired to at some point to make music be able to make music that when somebody heard it, they’d go, “Ah, that’s the Flaming Lips doing that.” Even take a band like Led Zeppelin—their first couples of records are very heavily blues influenced, and some of it is just plain rip-off, which even at this point they basically admitted with the lawsuits and what not. But by the time they got to Houses of the Holy and records beyond, that’s Led Zeppelin. They do that music. That’s their deal. I think that is something hopefully for all bands to aspire for.
Is the new album more consciously psychedelic?
It’s like the idea of what psychedelic is, in the same we’ve always liked punk rock. We look at punk rock as a whole bunch of different sorts of bands that get lumped in together, not actually a style of music. I could say the Buzzcocks, the Jam and Siouxsie and the Banshees, who are all pretty different bands, could all be lumped under this punk rock ideal in which there are no rules. You do what you like, and move on, get on with it. In the same way, psychedelia—we don’t really take the drug part of that whole thing, but just the idea of using your imagination and coming up with weird images and having strange ideas and things like that, that you can put into your music.
And sounds. Thinking of the sound aspect really influenced us. We’re always on a quest, especially now, so that the sounds in the songs are part of what is going on. Sometimes we’ll actually stop general production on a song because the sound of that organ is not quite right, or something of that nature. Sometimes it turns out there doesn’t need to be an organ. It needed to be something else before we move on. We look at everything as in the service of the song. How fast it is, how the vocals are delivered, what effects on the vocals even can add up and push the song forward or really bog it down.
How hard was it to sing the “yeah yeah yeahs” in “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”?
I can’t remember if we actually re-sang them. Most of the “yeah yeah yeahs” were actually for a part of a whole different piece of music that Steven (Drozd) was working on. I think Wayne happened to walk by and heard it and immediately thought of a question going in front of these yeah yeah yeahs. It was just in the tonality of how they sounded—kind of a sarcastic, persnickety “yeah yeah yeah” answer—that really fueled the song. I think the idea of layering all that stuff stemmed from (having) just recorded our cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and taking that song apart really clarified things and then got us thinking in new ways of doing things. I think that carried over into songs, especially “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.”
Is there a political dimension to the new album?
Political in the sense that we are well aware of what’s happening. But “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” comes out and says before we start ranting and raving, that you have to always remember: What would you do? Even though you don’t ever know what you are going to do until a particular situation rises up for you to face, that you should go in knowing generally what you think you could do. The whole idea that it is easy to sit around to talk and complain and stuff like that, but it is much harder to do something about it. That is why there are people—or there are supposed to be people—who are actually working for us in a professional sense to actually do things like run the country and make sure we have nice roads, to make sure our airplanes are safe and to do things of that nature.
I think somewhere along the way, we got caught up in this whole thing that is going on. It becomes part of our daily conversation, especially when we were recording. You’d wake up, get your coffee and get ready to start the day and it’s, “Well, what’s Rumsfeld saying today?” and what general incompetence is going on? In that way of art reflecting real life a lot of time, and especially from our perspective, that’s what made it into the record. I don’t think [the album] is political per se, as though we’re on one side or the other because, frankly, there are idiots all over the place.
Published November 2006, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 19, No. 11.