Creative and commercial
Those Flaming Lips put out some strange stuff, but is it catching fire?
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, The Flaming Lips’ new album, was just released on July 16 and continues the band’s tradition of psychedelic-leaning, experimental rock. From robots to fairy tales gone awry, it’d be fair to say that there were more outside influences creeping into their strange mix. As the band’s mastermind, Steven Drozd, explains, “We’d like to think that we make children’s albums … I mean half of this stuff is like that anyways.”
Since its inception, The Flaming Lips have always delivered music for the off-center crowd. It’s been a rough ride at times, but current members Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Drozd have persevered doing things their way.
The year 2002, however, has been exceptionally good for The Flaming Lips. After their new album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, debuted on the U.K. charts at an astounding number 13, they hit jackpot yet again landing the number 50 slot on the U.S. Billboard. In addition to the numerous accolades achieved from the band’s last full-length, The Soft Bulletin, the new album has yielded even bigger prospects, including The Unlimited Sunshine package tour—which stops at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium on Friday, August 9—with Sacramento darlings Cake, De la Soul, Modest Mouse and Kinky. Although the band had released numerous albums to date, it wasn’t until now that international attention would come, other than from the media.
The Flaming Lips’ live experience, not to be missed, features the band’s trademark samples and off-kilter personas. From the instrumental interludes down to singer Wayne Coyne’s vocal warblings, the band delivers a heady mix of synthesized and percussive music. Unfortunately, the only thing plaguing their upcoming show is their short set time.
“We’re playing about 55 minutes a night,” says Drozd, who normally likes to play more luxurious, extended sets. “We’re doing three or four songs from the new album and stuff from The Soft Bulletin, which a lot of people seem to like, one from Zaireeka [the band’s experimental album released on four, separate discs that could only be experienced running four CD players simultaneously] and we’re doing a cover which is a surprise.”
Aided by Mercury Rev studio bassist/producer Dave Fridmann, to whom Drozd refers to as the “fourth member of the band,” the band’s sound and imagery owes as much to space pop as it does to Fridmann. As Drozd points out, Fridmann’s role could be as simple as, “Why don’t you cut this chorus in half? Why don’t you play this faster?” to complete arrangements. “He’s been helping us make records since 1992.”
Perhaps the most striking quality of The Flaming Lips is their inability to cater to conventional song structure. As evidenced on the album’s pseudo-instrumentals, which are aided by various screaming and chanting—“Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 2” and “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon”—radio singles weren’t even an afterthought.
The closest thing to conventional pop is the album’s opener, “Fight Test,” and “Do You Realize,” which did get sent to commercial radio without much response. Perhaps it’s this quality that keeps The Flaming Lips albums in college station rotation—currently top number 5 on CMJ’s nationwide charts.
After only the first night into the tour, Drozd is already talking about plans for the future. “We’ve been talking to Beck. He’s got a new record coming next month and wants us to be his backing band for a month. In the winter or late fall, we’re gonna do a tour and take a few bands with us.”
From experimental shows—the band did a whole national tour utilizing headphones and FM frequency—to unconventional tour billing, not everything has been smooth sailing for Drozd and company. Dubbed the “headphone dates,” the band played theater-size venues funneling their music through FM waves—each audience member was given a Walkman/radio device to experience the show in stereo. Regarding the dates, Drozd is quick to retort, “I’m not sure how much [the headphones] enhanced the show. If we start playing bigger places, I can’t imagine we’d go through it again. As far as tours, we did a Candlebox tour in 1994 as the support act. We were like the weirdest thing.”
As of press time, singer/lyricist Wayne Coyne resides in Oklahoma City, while Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd live in New York.
While most couldn’t work under these conditions and living arrangements, it’s these circumstances that somehow further enhance the band’s sound and growth. The Lips’ ability to create boundary-breaking, yet commercially viable, music hasn’t been hampered yet.