Embrace the weirdness of The Flaming Lips
Between the confetti, the human hamster ball, the gummy skulls, the collaborations with all manner of fwends, it can be easy to lose sight of The Flaming Lips as a band that records music and releases it for public consumption.
Wayne Coyne’s ensemble has become a great brand as well as a great band over the years, one of those rare success stories of a group that does what it does and hangs around long enough for a sizable fan base to catch up to what they’re doing. Different Lips enthusiasts break down the phases of the band differently, but they’ve been at it for more than 30 years: The first 10 yielded the unlikely hit song; the next 20 brought the stage show iconography and sweetly sad songs about scientists and robots and dystopic futures. After two particularly dark recordings - “Embryonic” in 2009 and “The Terror” in 2013″ - the Lips lightened up just a little on “Oczy Mlody,” its 14th album, released earlier this year.
And this year marks the 20th since the release of “Zaireeka,” the first Lips album after the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones. At that point, Houston native Steven Drozd stepped out from behind the drum kit to become a formidable counterpart to Coyne in creating the weird, wonderful Lips sound that would carry the band into the 21st century. Coyne talked about the new album, sad songs, David Bowie and our inevitable decay ahead of the Lips’ Friday date at the Revention Music Center.
Q: Of the new songs, I keep coming back to “The Castle.” It’s very fairy talelike in that it’s sort of light on the surface and deeply melancholy if you stick with it.
A: That’s exactly right. You know, there’s an old ... I don’t know if Peter, Paul and Mary wrote it, but they sang that song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” I heard that when I was maybe four years old. I remember it made my mother cry. I’ve listened to that song a thousand times, and it has this incredible subliminal melancholy and sadness about it. Sometimes I think things we consider romantic or whimsical are really a way of telling a story that underneath you find this great sadness. This kind of sadness that on its own would be too much. I think it’s wonderful you can sing along to a song the first 19 times and on the 20th it’s not what you thought it was. I love that about music.
So yes, “The Castle” is set up like this magical fairy tale thing, but it has these heavier elements. When we play it in front of people, it always gets a really great reception. And I think it’s something about that sadness that people get. That’s when music has its most power. When it gets unleashed on the world it can be like a drug that we all partake in. When you feel sad, it can seem embarrassing or awkward. You kind of want the world to be sad with you. Music can do that. It energizes you. It’s a great way of communicating.
Q: Speaking of communicating, one of the new songs has a line, “Try to tell you, but I don’t know how.” And the last record had “Try to explain why you’ve changed.” There’s a little thread of miscommunication that runs through some of your work.
A: That’s interesting. We always try to be on the right side of the fine line between longing, which we can all relate to, and complaining, which none of us want to do, but do anyway. If you go that way, you end up a sad fool. Nobody wants to be up there singing a song and have somebody think, “Come on, fool, pull it together.” I can’t explain it, really. We try to make the music grand and graceful but also about unanswerable questions so we don’t feel like the lost fool. “How??” was just this captivating piece of melody that didn’t have any lyrics. But I heard it and immediately thought, “Oh, I know what this feels like.” And it gave me the opportunity to sing some absurd (expletive) and be a character within this really deep vibe. I think the first line is funny, but then it goes into this thing that’s emotional. Sometimes with a song you don’t know what you’re doing. Sometimes you know absolutely everything. I’ve compared it to being a character in a Coen brothers movie. You can watch one of their movies with the sound down and still know what the story is. But turn the sound up and you hear all these funny ridiculous things the characters say.
Q: I’ve heard more than a few David Bowie songs over the past few years. The better ones aren’t specifically about him. Which made me think of “Is David Bowie Dying?” which you guys wrote years before he died. But it’s really more a meditation on decay than about David Bowie. Like, do we start decaying at birth? The first rotten tooth?
A: Yeah, with that song, we’d do a charity thing in New York a couple of times a year. We knew he lived there, so we’d put out an invitation to his people to see if he wanted to come out for something that was slightly private that raised money for this or that. Five or six years ago we’d get a little reply back, “David is not doing that well, but wishes he could be there.” And I had this feeling that he’s just a man who gets sick. We love to romanticize him, that he’s this guy from outer space who came down to Earth with amazing music. But the truth is way better.
He’s just a man who made an insane and ever-changing body of music. And not just music, the identities and things we could be. You run into people all the time who say, “If not for Bowie, I’d never known it was OK to be a freak.” You’d look at Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane and be like, “Look at this dude! He’s going for it.” (Laughs.) That’s a big deal. So while it’s hard to imagine a world without him in it now, it’s harder to think about what the world would’ve been like if he hadn’t been there at all. But you’re right, our song and that title, it’s about these clumsy things like muscles going away, abilities going away. But as those things leave, the essence of a man grows bigger. When it’s your pain, and your teeth falling out it doesn’t feel that way. Then it’s just painful and smells bad. But we’re trying to bridge a gap there. That there’s something bigger in all this.
That said, when he died, it was just devastating to us. There’ve been a lot of others who have died in the past three, four years. But he was the one, we loved him but didn’t know how deep his touch was to us. We still sing “Space Oddity” every night. Some people know we’re going to do it. Some have no idea it’s a Bowie song. But even they find something to celebrate in it.
Q: I was listening to “Frogs With Demon Eyes,” and it made me think about how we’re at about the 20-year mark of the Lips as we know it, after Ronald Jones left and it became more about your interactivity with Drozd. That partnership has yielded some very popular music, but the past few recordings have been more experimental. But it’s not a youthful freakish experimental sound. As weird as “Frogs” is, all the pieces seem to be very meticulously arranged.
A: We always run into young people who have it set in their mind the way music should be, and they’ll say, “That’s too weird for me.” But if you stick with music long enough, and I have, you get past being young and relating to music differently. Your tastes change. When I first listened to “Bitches Brew” when it came out, my brother and the weird dudes he hung out with had pretty reasonable record collections. And I thought it was unlistenable. I could listen to some of the weird (expletive) that John and Yoko did. But “Bitches Brew,” I didn’t get. Ten years later, I still didn’t get it. But maybe another 10 years later, I totally understood it and for a while it’s all I wanted to listen to. The music didn’t change. I’d changed. And that’s the way of the world. If you’re searching and listening and curious, you’ll find all this (expletive) that you thought was weird, really isn’t all that weird. It all comes down to a certain emotional thing you’re trying to get across or sing about. That’s how it all works. But I’ll take that as a great compliment that we don’t seem that weird.