Flaming Lips: Weird and weirder, and back in Aspen
ASPEN – This past year, the Flaming Lips’ 20-year contract with their record label came to an end. While the band was renegotiating a new contract, there was a period when the Oklahoma rock band was a free agent, allowed to do just as they pleased artistically.”What if we took a year and a half to do some freaky shit?” Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips singer and leader said about what he called “the middle period” when the band was free of record label constraints.Whoa, let’s back up a minute. Is Coyne suggesting that the band’s previous shenanigans – recording music meant to be played on four separate CDs simultaneously; giving a song the title, “What Is the Light? (An Untested Hypothesis Suggesting That the Chemical [In Our Brains] by Which We Are Able to Experience the Sensation of Being in Love Is the Same Chemical That Caused the “Big Bang” That Was the Birth of the Accelerating Universe)”; and last December, breaking out the human-sized plastic bubble, a staple of Flaming Lips performances, and trying to walk over the audience at Aspen’s Belly Up, despite the venue’s space limitations – was run of the mill stuff? If so, then the idea of Coyne and his mates having free rein to get even weirder is an interesting, maybe even a scary one.Pretty much true to his word, Coyne did indeed steer the Flaming Lips in some odd directions over the last few months. The period of independence kicked off with the song “Two Blobs F—–g,” which, if you want to hear it properly, requires 12 computers playing 12 separate YouTube clips at the same time. Soon after they entered their skull phase. They released the “Gummy Song Skull” EP, a skull made of a substance much like gummy candy, containing a four-song flashdrive. They followed with “The Soft Bulletin: Live la Fantastique de Institution 2011,” a live-in-studio re-recording of the band’s 1999 album, “The Soft Bulletin”; the music was packaged in a marijuana-flavored brain inside a strawberry gummy skull. Along with candy-like skulls, the Flaming Lips became interested in long-form music. When someone suggested that some of the band’s animation works could provide hours and hours of fun, Coyne took that as a challenge to create hours and hours of music. The result was “Strobo Trip,” a piece that lasts six hours. That led to “7 Skies H3,” a piece of music that goes on for 24 hours, and was available for purchase as a hard-drive encased in a real human skull.It turns out that one of the few people in the world who sells genuine human skulls lives in Oklahoma City, not far from Coyne. In a way, then, Coyne felt obligated to use the skulls: If not him, who else would? “It’s a strange object that only someone like me, with my resources, would be able to use,” he explained.But Coyne also believes there is nothing especially unusual about him, or the musical projects he creates. This might be the strangest thing about him: He thinks that anyone, given the chance, would package music in skulls and record songs that take an entire day, or 12 computers, to hear.”It’s not just me. Everyone would do this stuff if they could,” the 50-year-old Coyne said from his kitchen in Oklahoma City, fresh off some recording sessions in New York City with Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band. “Some weirdoes have made music that goes on for a month, or a year.”••••The Flaming Lips began life, in 1983, as something like a normal guitar-rock band. But early on they showed experimental leanings – like the fact that they tended to sound like whichever band had come through Oklahoma at the time, whether it was the Grateful Dead or Black Flag. The Flaming Lips, which originally included Coyne’s brother Mark as lead vocalist, didn’t find much early success, which was, in a way, a freeing experience in much the way that not having a recording contract is. With no one really paying much attention, they could do as they liked.One of the things Coyne liked was visual stimulation to go with the musical sort. Balloons, confetti guns, costumes, video projections were added to the band’s performances. The band built up a following based on its live shows – in 2002, Britain’s Q magazine named them one of the 50 bands to see before you die – and the music, starting with 1999’s “The Soft Bulletin,” gradually became more accessible.Coyne said the affection for strangeness has been a gradual unfolding. He stresses that one of the key factors that has allowed the Flaming Lips to get so far out there is that they have been recording for 20 years, with 13 albums (and three Grammys) to their credit. Over that time, fairly strange ideas have begotten the truly bizarre. “7 Skies H3,” for instance, didn’t spring straight from a desire to do a 24-hour song. The origins were partly in the fact that Steven Drozd, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the band in 1991, had come up with a Coltrane-esque 25-minute composition.”We’re not sitting here dreaming, ‘Let’s do a 24-hour song, that’ll be strange,'” Coyne said. “But our perception is elastic. The normal state of mind isn’t the same as state of mind when you’re doing these projects. We think things when we’re making a six-hour song that we wouldn’t think when we’re not making a six-hour song. That’s the kind of thing that’s available to us if we go and go and go.”Sure enough, things are about to get weirder (or at least, no less weird) in Flaming Lipsland. The next product is a batch of songs to be sold in a psychedelic gummy frog. The frogs will have powder sprinkled on them that is meant to be licked off; the idea was inspired by the South American toads that, when licked, can cause hallucinations.Helping accelerate the course of making progressively odder products is the cast of people that have gravitated toward Coyne – like the friends at a party at Coyne’s house who tried to eat a plastic skull covered in bubble-gum perfume, thereby inspiring the gummy skulls; and Henry Rollins and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, who have been musical collaborators with the Flaming Lips.Also on the list is Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg, a fellow Oklahoma native. Last December, when the Flaming Lips made their Aspen debut at Belly Up, it was an extraordinarily small venue for an act that is accustomed to headlining festival and in need of ample space. (Coyne’s plastic bubble walk failed at Belly Up; the apparatus couldn’t clear the onstage light fixtures.) On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the band returns, and Coyne says the draw is Goldberg.”When I’m approached with something like that, I ask, What’s in it for us? And in this case, what’s in it for me is the chance to spend time with Michael,” Coyne said. “It’s intoxicating just to be around him. This is another way of getting to party with him.”••••For Coyne, the fundamental difference between working with a record label and without one has been the relationship to time. Coyne is bewildered by the slow pace at which labels move, the fact that music can be recorded nearly a year before it’s released.”The idea of making a record, then thinking, When is the best time to release it? – That’s boring,” he said. “Everything you do with them takes a year to happen, and I want to do things quickly. That’s our biggest dilemma with working with a corporation.” Coyne added that the Flaming Lips had recorded a song a few nights earlier, and was ready to put it on vinyl. “If there’s a mission to it, it’s that music is about us, right now. Not where we were. And it’s not just the music – it’s the concepts, the times. All these things come together when you’re not restricted by time and concerns like that.”Along with Coyne’s cutting-edge tendencies, though, there is something of the old-fashioned musician in his make-up. At the Flaming Lips show last year at Belly Up, with all the confetti guns a-blazing, what captured me the most, by far, was when the spectacle was dialed down, allowing the songs to get full attention.”It’s about making and expecting and having this impact, getting everyone completely involved,” Coyne said. We want there to be this sense of love and compassion – that’s as important as any of the other stuff. It’s almost like the show disappears, and there’s music happening.”email@example.com
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