Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips make their Aspen debut
December 23, 2010
ASPEN – There’s a lot going on in the music of the Oklahoma quartet the Flaming Lips. The group’s style, most often described as psychedelic, is made up of computer noises, echoing vocals, guitars, wildly imaginative lyrics, orchestral ideas, hip-hop beats, crashing drums, waves of sound that unexpectedly erupt before resolving into extended passages of relative quiet.
It’s not enough for Wayne Coyne, the singer-guitarist who founded the band in 1983.
“Whenever I hear music, I ask, ‘What’s the visual that goes with that? Whenever I see something visual, I think, What’s the sound of that?'” Coyne said one day recently from his kitchen, in a house that’s in the same Oklahoma City neighborhood in which he grew up. “I’m only partially satisfied if I’m watching a movie – as soon it’s all covered, I think, ‘I want to have sex; I want to eat a meal.'”
To satisfy his bottomless craving for stimulation, Coyne has added plenty to his music. What started nearly three decades ago as reasonably standard guitar rock has become a spectacle of the arts; a Flaming Lips show can feature video projections, costumes and elements of coordinated audience participation. At this point, with the band typically headlining large-scale festivals, things like lasers and the confetti cannon are de rigueur. And then there’s the plastic bubble, which Coyne uses to walk into and on top of the audience.
Coyne has directed a sci-fi film, 2008’s “Christmas on Mars,” and appeared as the Alien Super-Being. When I spoke with him, he was working on a poster specifically for the Flaming Lips’ upcoming show at Belly Up, the band’s Aspen debut, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 27.
The show is elaborate enough that Coyne recently took an impromptu flight to Aspen to check out Belly Up. With the nightclub’s owner, Michael Goldberg, Coyne walked through the 450-person space – uncommonly small for a Flaming Lips show – to see what would fly. (From Coyne’s description, fly might be the technically accurate term.) Coyne pointed out some danger spots, and suggested that some parts of the show might have to be scaled down.
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“I told Michael we might smash some of those lights,” Coyne recalled telling Goldberg. “And Michael said, ‘F–k the lights; I want to see this show.'” Expressing his admiration for Goldberg – a fellow Oklahoman who has pursued a Flaming Lips date basically since he opened Belly Up six years ago – Coyne said, “You can’t resist that much encouragement and enthusiasm.”
Coyne is happy to have so much going on in Flaming Lips’ sound – it makes it that much easier to create a show out of it.
“The music that we play allows us to do almost anything visually that we want,” he said. “It lets all this visual stuff happen.”
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Coyne says that when he founded the Flaming Lips, with his brother Mark as the original lead vocalist, the idea was pretty much to be just another rock band – no high concepts, no visual extravaganza. In fact, the band was more or less a copy of whatever major group happened to have come through Oklahoma at the time, be it Black Flag or the Grateful Dead.
“We didn’t have any pretensions about being any good,” Coyne, a talkative, ebullient 51-year-old, said. “We’d see a group come through, and for a year we’d play just like them. We weren’t these crazy, ambitious artists. We were crazy, and we may have looked ambitious.”
The Flaming Lips didn’t have much early success. And by the late ’90s, Coyne had become bored with playing standard guitar rock. The combination of indifference on the part of listeners and critics, and Coyne’s ambivalence about the music the band played, became a key to later success.
“We didn’t have a big audience; no one cared what we did. We just had that idea we could do whatever we wanted,” he said. “We just thought we had nothing to lose by being a group that tried weird things. It was, What more can we do? And that freed us up – I could throw confetti and use puppets. I put myself in the audience and think: What would I want to see?”
On top of that was the death-and-mortality factor. In the late ’90s, there was a series of unfortunate events surrounding the band. Coyne’s father died. Bassist Michael Ivins (the only current member of the Flaming Lips apart from Coyne to have been one of the band’s founders) was trapped in his car after a wheel from another car came through his windshield. Drummer Steven Drozd almost had an arm amputated following what he said was a spider bite; the injury turned out to be an abscess related to heroin use.
The Flaming Lips responded with “The Soft Bulletin,” a 1999 album that addressed such perilous circumstances. The album featured such songs as “Suddenly Everything Has Changed (Death Anxiety Caused by Moments of Boredom),” “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” and “The Spiderbite Song.” It was a musical breakthrough; “The Soft Bulletin” drew comparisons to the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” for the dense production and the way it combined traditional rock with cutting-edge electronics.
Coyne didn’t see the album as death-obsessed. “I was singing a lot of songs about how death can illuminate life in a way,” he said. “It’s this terrible thing, bad and smelly, but it can show you so much about what life can be. It does show you how temporary life is. I believe that’s the most powerful thing it can do.”
Of course, such subtleties can be lost in the setting of a rock ‘n’ roll show (especially when Ivins performs in a skeleton suit, as he often does). So with so much of the lyrical content about dying, Coyne felt compelled to add elements to the live shows so the audience wouldn’t be sent home cloaked in bleakness.
“I don’t want to bum the people out. I don’t want the audience to go home and blow their brains out. I want them laughing and enjoying themselves,” he said. “So we have balloons. I’d do whatever I could to communicate to them that this was entertainment. We knew we were singing about things so personal and powerful that, if they internalized it, it wouldn’t be fun. A lot of times, people look at the guys onstage and say, ‘Yeah, I want to be like them.'”
The point about death and life was made most directly – and beautifully – in “Do You Realize??” a song from the 2002 album “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” In it, Coyne asks, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die/ And instead of saying all your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast.” Last year the song, after some political squabbling, became the official rock song of Oklahoma – an astonishing thing, given the subject matter of the lyrics, the conservative nature of the state, and the devoutly liberal bent of the song’s writer.
“We were in a very lucky period. We had a Democratic governor – but he was quiet about it,” Coyne said of the episode, which required Gov. Brad Henry’s overruling a decision by the House of Representatives. “People in government would come up and say they’ve been a fan a long time. They didn’t say, ‘We have to change everything about Oklahoma.’ But they said, ‘These guys are big, they’re our ambassadors, and they can show another side of our state.’
“It didn’t change the image of Oklahoma, but it was this new thinking about Oklahoma.”
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While music may not be everything to Coyne – sometimes you need fake blood, and dancers, and spaceships as well – it does count for a lot. At the end of a show, fans might rave about the spaceship, the plastic bubble and the balloons. But the deepest takeaway is the music.
“Music plays on you like an invisible fence,” he said. “It’s giving you so much, like musical nutrition. The visual things don’t go into your subconscious the way the music does. If you don’t like the music, the visual stuff doesn’t work.”
Bad music, too, can have powerful effects. “Bad music to me is like tear gas, If I don’t like the music, I just want to get out of there,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the road, pulling into truck stops, where you’re assaulted by the newest version of country-rock, and they’re shouting to you about Jesus: ‘Let me tell you how to think, dude!’ And I’m thinking, I’m just there to get a Red Bull and some chips.”
Coyne’s intention is to give listeners the opposite experience. He talks about the Flaming Lips feeding off the love, openness and positive energy of a devoted audience; what he hopes to give back is a singular experience. But he makes no promises about what he can deliver. For all the choreography and pyrotechnics of a Flaming Lips show, Coyne sees the band as a group of rockers simply trying to make the magic happen each night. And what counts more than the calculated theatrics is simply connecting to the audience.
“It’s that energy and psychic connection to things that are right in front of them,” Coyne said. “If you’re lucky, that’s what happens. We go in thinking, Let’s see if we can’t just play our songs and be the best we can. You hope it will work, and every time it does work, it’s a great relief.”