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Wonderful World, Beautiful People
They may have started out as avant garde indie noisemongers, but The Flaming Lips have matured into one of the greatest and most musical bands on Planet Earth. Plus, they do an utterly magnificent live show!
Ed Power, 02 Sep 2005
Wayne Coyne is violently happy. His voice crackles with enthusiasm. Tripped out on good vibrations, Coyne doesn’t speak, he gushes.
Someone wants to talk about music! About his band, The Flaming Lips! Hey, can you get a load of that?
He speaks of the Lips as though the group is the most wondrous and fantastic thing that has ever happened to him. After 20 years at the forefront of outsider-pop, the thrill, you sense, has yet to wear thin.
"Virtually everything this band has ever done has been a surprise – in the first instance, to us," he reveals, unprompted. "It’s like we’re on some sort of journey of discovery, y’know? The fun is in getting there. So long as there’s this unknown quality – what happens next? – I think it’s impossible for the excitement to go away."
Currently, the Lips are in dry-dock, plotting their next foray. Last time out, they delivered a day-glo masterpiece of such preposterous ambitions, other concept albums feel puny by comparison. Conjuring a sequel to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – in essence, the ghost of Sgt Pepper prowling a manga movie – would plunge many musicians into self doubt and panic.
Not alone was Yoshimi a career-defining record. It also represented a high watermark for neo-psychedelia, a loose movement pioneered by the Lips, alongside brethren such as Mercury Rev and Spiritualized. How do you better the best thing you’ve ever done? Should you even try?
Fear of failure seems a concept profoundly alien to Coyne, though. Having pushed the ‘Lips to strange, exotic heights on Yoshimi, he and songwriting partner Steven Drozd have embarked on what, for them, represents the only logical progression. They’ve aimed higher, further, deeper – with a project provisionally titled At War With The Mystics.
"I don’t know if we can re-invent ourselves on the new record," says Coyne, his voice a rich Midwest burr. "Y’know, I’m not sure we would want to do that. I don’t think a band necessarily has to change every time it comes back."
The goal, he confides, is an album that glories in love, sex, death, life – the kind of grandiose themes that cause most bands to think twice and go back to writing about old girlfriends. To Coyne, however, music has become a pursuit of the spiritual. He’s pitched up at middle age (he turns 45 in June) with a hunger for the epic.
"As I get older, I’m growing more and more interested in these big themes. I suppose those are the things that all musicians want to grapple with in one way or another. I’m interested in tackling them quite explicitly now. Y’know – love, sex, death, joy, sadness. It’s what life is made of, what, one way or another, unites us all."
Preposterous ambition is a recurring trope of The Flaming Lips. They first came to wide attention with 1997’s Zaireeka, an album conveyed in four separate CDs, which were intended to be played simultaneously on different stereos to achieve a proper balance of sound.
Then, there was the Lips’ dalliance with ‘boom box’ experimentation: in the late ‘90s the band delivered a number of conceptual concerts, where Coyne conducted an ‘orchestra’ of 40 volunteers, each required to play a cassette recorder at different speed and volume.
For the real weird stuff, though, you have to go back to the ‘80s, when The Flaming Lips kicked around their native Oklahoma City, desperate for an escape route.
Formed 22 years ago by Coyne and his brother Mark, the band were initially unable to afford guitars. Exhibiting the sort of outside-the-box thinking that would later yield a clutch of psychedelic masterpieces, they helped themselves to some from a nearby church.
Their first show was in a neighbourhood transvestite bar; it didn’t take long for the ‘Lips to become locally notorious for their extravagant and unhinged live turns, incorporating hand-puppets, Christmas lights, confetti and balloons.
Drug abuse stifled initial attempts at transcending the mid-west indie-rock ghetto. On one occasion, Drozd, the drummer, nearly had an arm amputated when he claimed he had been attacked by a poisonous spider. In reality, the ‘bite’ was a needle mark.
A revolving-door stance on membership didn’t help. Mark Coyne was an early departure, the group has gone through several drummers, Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue served a brief stint in the mid ‘80s.
Of the records the Lips released during this period, less than a handful may be considered essential. The majority proffered a bleary acid-rock mush; there were glimpses, merely, of the glorious post-pop (that’s post-rock for people in love with melody, in case you’re wondering) that would follow.
The late blooming of The Flaming Lips began in 1990, with the radical decision that the band should learn to play their instruments. Previously, their main weapon had been volume: they would perform at ear-splitting levels, reducing audience members to a state of paralysed psychosis. With hindsight, that was unlikely to secure a slot on Conan O’Brien.
Everything changed after the group discovered the delicious potential of subtlety. 1999’s The Soft Bulletin found Coyne and his rotating cast of lieutenants trafficking in wistful chamber-rock. At moments, it even sounded as though they’d completely jettisoned guitar-band orthodoxy in favour of overt experimentation: shortly before The Soft Bulletin broke, Coyne declared the recording studio his favourite instrument .
Today, The Flaming Lips are an unapologetically mellow proposition. The Yoshimi tour saw them taking the stage dressed as cuddly animals, delivering a set that felt less like a rock show than a huge slobbery hug, conveyed via playful licks and sunny power-chords.
This was a psychedelic wig-out you could bring your mum to, a rock pageant that owed as much to Tellytubbies as Pink Floyd. It was stupid and absurd and utterly beautiful. It was, in fact, just like life.
"We really want to share with the audience our sense of how powerful music can be. Of all the arts forms, it’s really the only one that you can be completely immersed," says Coyne. "When you’re at a gig, or in your bedroom, listening to a record, you..you become the music. In a very positive sense, it messes with your head. Our at least that’s how we think it should be. We want to make people see how beautiful the world is."