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Mouth to mouth resuscitation
The Flaming Lips, whose new record is a 'concept album about death' are possibly the most life-affirming band you’ll hear this year. Frontman Wayne Coyne explains why
Kim Porcelli, 03 Sep 2002
The tall, lanky, greying southern gentleman in the white linen suit is bleeding quite alarmingly from the head. The more the man tilts his face upward (gleaming in the Vicar St. spotlights, grinning at us with what can only be described as unabashed joy), the more the redness radiates jaggedly outward from its central point on his upper-left forehead, streaming diagonally downward, scoring a scarlet slash across his upturned face, streaking across once-spotless expanses of white, giving him the appearance of a recent escapee from the final reel of Reservoir Dogs.
But don’t send for the ambulance just yet: our bleeder is Wayne Coyne, Oklahoman, twenty-year space-rock veteran, prolific lunatic-ideas man – and, along with the fake blood tonight, there have been heartfelt duets with nun hand-puppets, giant balloons that shower glitter over the audience when they pop, songs shouted through loudhailers and a stage that almost doesn’t have room for drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins, on account of its being dominated by three gigantic five-foot disco mirrorballs – because, y’know, why have one gigantic five-foot disco mirrorball when three will do. Did we mention that Steven and Michael are dressed in rabbit and frog costumes? Did we mention the home movies, the clapping experiments and the fact that there are more hysterically grinning faces in the audience per capita tonight than at any gig we’ve been to in years? True, true, and true. Welcome to The Flaming Lips, 2002 edition.
Devotees of the Flaming Lips experience (and generally, once you’ve been, you’re a devotee) will be aware that the Lips have had a somewhat over-the-top stage show for some time now – at least as far back as 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, source of landmark geek-become-heroes single ‘Race For The Prize’ and winner of every best-album award going that year. But their unfathomably life-affirming magic-and-home-movies spectacle is more poignant than ever given what’s been on their minds in 2002.
Their new album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, their tenth, was conceived following the sudden and unexplained death of a friend of theirs in Japan, and the NME described it, not incorrectly, as “a concept album about death” – but if anything, it’s a lush, effusive, wide-eyed, overwhelmingly ardent love letter to being alive, given bang-zap-kapow excitement via spectacular Japanophilic B-movie imagery and Dave Fridmann’s Manga/sci-fi studio production. It is, if you like, the cosmo-rock-album equivalent of an old-school Hollywood musical whose moral is: “There are some things in this world that you just can’t do anything about, so you may as well fall in love with life while you can.” Or, as the Lips’ own song title puts it: ‘All We Have Is Now’.
“In some ways, having this kinda reaction, to our mate’s death, was a relief to me,” Wayne Coyne is speaking of the Lips’ decision to deal with such enormous, literally life-and-death issues on the album, and of the overwhelming positivity of the result. “Because, y’know, I’d had a couple of things happen to me before, as I’d gotten older – people die, and it’s like: okay, how are you going to deal with it? – so it was a relief, in the sense that there was a chance that I might have become hardened to all this stuff. And I haven’t. Obviously, you have to find a way to deal with death, everybody does, but I didn’t want to be come a hardened, cynical old man. I wanted to be an optimistic person,” he continues, “who still sees that life is good, and great, and grand, and that we should live every second until we die, instead of… kinda waiting to die, a little bit.”
Shiny modern intergalactic hyper-beings Yoshimi’s characters may be – like Yoshimi herself of the title track, the larger-than-life heroine who’s “takin’ lots of vitamins” in order to keep her robot-battling strength up – but these songs are essentially distant but recognisable kin to Broadway musicals, to Glen Campbell ballads, to any kind of classic, American, sentiment-effusive songwriting you like: every mouthful pure 200-proof earnestness.
It’s no accident that Wayne’s favourite song of all time, which the Lips frequently cover live and which he has been known to introduce by saying “This is the most beautiful song a human being can sing,” is ‘Over The Rainbow’ from old-Hollywood’s classic dustbowl-folktale-turned-hyperfantasy The Wizard Of Oz. Satire-overdosed post-everything kids take note: the Lips do not play this tune – or any other, for that matter – with so much as a speck of irony.
“Not at all,” Wayne agrees. “I never believed in irony. I was always the ‘fool’, y’know. I do think, especially when people are young, that they’re cautious about being made a fool of. They assume that, even though you’re talking about one thing, you’re really talking about something else, right?” Wayne ponders this for a moment. “I can see where a lot of the things we do are… kind of absurd.” He grins winsomely at the understatement. “And I can see where people would wonder, ‘What do they mean by that?’ But we’re totally sincere,” he avers. “Whatever sincerity is in a song, y’know, we’re always about longing, about looking for the brightness, the better moment, the better day.
“That’s what I think is so great about music – and sports, and all these sorts of things, anyway. It’s like: ‘Don’t worry, you can go crazy here’.” He grins. “I think people are so concerned with being cool, that they miss out.”
Thus, the Lips’ noble tradition of anti-cool carries on – as does their affection for infeasibly Big Ideas and their work ethic unparalleled anywhere else in rock (past overgrown brainchildren, besides their nine other albums, include Zaireeka, a 4-CD set designed to be played simultaneously, and the ‘Boombox Experiments’, a work for, ahem, 40 ghettoblasters). In addition to Yoshimi, they’ve recently completed the compiling and remastering of two multi-disc collections of early and rare Lips music, Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid and The Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg, due out this autumn. They’ve also nearly finished working on The Southern Oklahoma Cosmic Trigger Contest, an acoustic-instrument “epic country and western” soundtrack to a documentary about “a clan of weirdo fishermen” called Okie Noodling, filmed by longtime Lip collaborator Bradley Beesley.
And then there’s Christmas On Mars, an almost parodically Flaming Lips-ish film project, starring Steven, directed by Wayne, and “written kinda as we go along” by both of them, about the fundamental need “earthlings” have to believe in things beyond what the human mind can conceive. (The music, in case you’re wondering, will be “sorta sci-fi, with gothic religious overtones,” in Steven’s grinned words. “Whatever that means.”)
So it’s no exaggeration to say Wayne et al have rather pricey imaginations. Very unusually for an “indie” band in 2002 (but perhaps not surprisingly, as in this day and age most record labels would dump such expensive ideas-men as liabilities), the Lips spend a full paragraph thanking their “Warner Brothers family” on the record sleeve.
“Well, yeah,” says Wayne, as if it’s the most damn-straight thing in the world. “They love us there, they really do. I mean, they wish as much as anybody that we do well,” he cackles. “But it’s great because they really do see us as being these important artists. That’s their argument. They give us a lot of money, and a lot of freedom, and they’ve never dictated what we do at all.
“And it’s not like there’s this dilemma of: we could make records that’ll sell 10 million copies, but we choose to be arty. We’re the Flaming Lips.” Wayne grins effusively. “Y’know. We are what we is, here. We’re just doing things the only way we know how to do ’em.”
And thank Yoshimi for that.