FLAMING LIPS: HOPE FLAMES ETERNAL

June 11, 2009 – 4:10 am

The Flaming Lips were always hot stuff. BigO’s astroboy Ben Harrison reckons he probably first read about them in the ’80s via an old photocopied issue of BigO (our pre-internet incarnation). And then, over a decade later, they hit a new level of success with the release of their brilliant 1999 album, The Soft Bulletin, making them an even hotter commodity… and even harder to reach on the phone. But Ben persevered, battled the robots, and eventually got Lip-synching with the bands’ main spaceman, Wayne Coyne, when he called the Witchita line, man. This article was first published in BigO #168 (December 1999). The Soft Bulletin was BigO’s Album of 1999.

Wayne Coyne, a traveller of outer and inner space, is getting closer to his home ground. He’s on the road - quite literally - with his band, The Flaming Lips, as they drive towards a gig in Witchita, Kansas, before heading for their hometown of Oklahoma City. [Ed: The lineup at that time included Michael Ivins (bass) and Steven Drozd (drums). Kliph Scurlock joined the group in 2002.]

And Coyne’s doing something the un-jaded 38-year-old has done on every Lips Inc release since 1985’s self-titled debut. He’s expressing wonder. “It’s crazy,” he guffaws. “Don’t you think it’s amazing that I’m here driving down the road and talking to you in $ingapore… and that it works?!”

When he then discovers that it’s early morning on my side of the planet, and I’ve yet to have my breakfast, it’s cool to hear him re-phrasing lines from one of his biggest hits to date, Bad Days: “Who wants to wake up early if you don’t have to? Sleep late when you can!”

Coyne seems so affable it’s as if he’s about to suggest we postpone the interview till I’ve “at least had some coffee and all that,” but this idea is lost in his next animated volley of super-elongated sentences which come as rich as his band’s music, and where my chuckles are reciprocated with a louder laugh from him. When he’s told of $ingapore bands like Rocket Scientist covering The Flaming Lips, he peaks with an exclamation of “Wow! Woah! Alright!!” before the rapid-fire speech suddenly stops dead.

I fear the line’s been cut.

Hello?

“I’m here,” Coyne says eventually, breaking his uncharacteristic silence. “I’m just amazed.”


Way back when (from left): Wayne Coyne, Richard English and Mike Ivins…
when they were with Pink Dust Records.

I would have first heard about The Flaming Lips when they were profiled in BigO in the ’80s. Would you have been able to envisage people in $ingapore listening to your band at the time?

Without thinking about it much, I guess I always think of how universal music is because I travel all around the world and I see how everybody likes music and, to some extent, I always hope we can be accepted in an universal way. But actually… no. The probability of people in $ingapore hearing thoughts that were in my head did seem like a long shot. I can’t even picture what $ingapore must be like. And it does seem surreal to think that there’s people down in $ingapore, not just listening to our music, but doing cover versions of our songs.

What got you into music when you were growing up?

I have three older brothers who were listening to music all the time and I was exposed to it all… so, it was probably through that. It’s a great way to get exposed to music. They seemed to have good taste. It never occurred to me that the music they were listening to was good or bad, but through their record collections I heard all kinds of great music that otherwise an eight-year-old would never hear on his own. And the culmination of the trends of the time, the music, drugs and all that - I think it’s hard not to be attracted to that.

So what sparked you off and made you want to play your own music?

I simply started doing it because I liked it. I really didn’t have any skill at all. I think I didn’t realise how much skill and talent people really have in music. I figured you must need to have some sort of skill and some sort of desire to do it, but I just started to make records and stuff simply because I just always liked music. It wasn’t really till much later on - probably as much as 10 years after we started to make records - that I realised just how hard it is and how much skill, talent, drive and all that, it really took.

You suggest this in your sleevenote for the compilation covering The Lips’ indie years. I find what you wrote ridiculously self-effacing. I know people, myself included, who were blown away by a lot of that stuff. Just as an example, Telepathic Surgery was - and still is - unlike anything around.

I hope I don’t paint it so we look like idiots, but I realise that at the time, what we thought we were doing and what we really were doing were worlds apart. But what we always did have, and still do have, is a bunch of energy and enthusiasm for exploring - if not new ideas - at least, our own ideas. I think the compilation’s title - A Collection Of Songs Representing An Enthusiasm For Recording By Amateurs… The Accidental Career - says that.

Amateurs don’t have the same pressures to conform that “professionals” might have. As a result they’re more open to having fun…

And you can probably tell this by talkin’ to me. Sometimes it feels like if you have enough desire to do something, you’ll end up doing it. I think because we were so talentless and so skill-less, in some ways it comes across as being very original because we don’t sound like anybody else as most other bands can play better than we could.

I still think you’re being modest. I guess there was a lot of hardcore going on when you first started out. Did you feel as if you had any peers at the time?

Oh totally… Everybody. The Minutemen stayed at my house. We were fans of all styles of music. We could be fans of the Minutemen, Black Flag and the Meat Puppets at the same time as being fans of The Beatles, Echo And The Bunnymen. We never had any boundaries of what we liked.

Echo And The Bunnymen? I was wondering if your song, Bagful Of Thoughts (recorded in 1984), was intentionally Bunnymen-esque?

I think the band we thought we were sounding like was The Chameleons to tell you the truth.

Like thinking of The Flaming Lips being heard in $ingapore in the ’80s, it’s strange to picture how such a relatively obscure British band like the Chameleons could have reached you in the American mid-west.

The first record has five amazing songs on it, but if you don’t get the right record you’ll be sorely disappointed… But that’s what we would do: We’d hear these bands and go “Oh, we want to make a song like that.” And since we had no abilities whatsoever…

But you can’t really be embarrassed by those early records? You actually called your album, Oh My Gawd…, “unpleasant.”

I think it’s just mixed very badly. It has no low end. I have to turn the low end up as far as it will go on every stereo I played it on. That’s mostly what I mean by unpleasant - not unpleasant as a creation, but unpleasant aesthetically as the sound coming out of the speakers is in the wrong phase sometimes. I don’t really feel embarrassed by them. Actually, I feel I can hardly relate to them. I can hardly think of how we did the records - mostly because it (was) a long time ago, and mostly because they were done in such a freakish kind of environment.

We’d literally spend days and days - up all day, up all night… sleeping on the studio floor for an hour and then waking up for the next day. They’d be these blurs of us trying to cram all these ideas into these sessions that we called “albums” at the time. And when we got done, that’s what the album would be; we really had no luxury of remixing or rethinking it or anything. I am quite proud of them really. I don’t know if I’m proud of them for what we intended to do. I see them as unique, but sometimes what we intended to do and what we ended up doing was completely different.

Were you making the music mostly for yourselves or did you consider an audience when you were making it?

At the time we’d hoped to gain an audience, but I really think the only way that people can really pursue music without having a bunch of rewards is because you like it. What I mean by “rewards” is things like fame, money and acclaim. You have to do it because you like it if don’t get those things. And I truly do think I’d do this even if no one cared. I wouldn’t be given as much money and I wouldn’t talk to as many journalists, but I’m sure - well, I know - I would really do it anyway.

I’m in one of those lucky positions where I do what I must do; and I do what I love to do; and I do get money, and all that stuff, for it. So at the moment it’s a good spot to be in.

When were you able to quit your day jobs?

I think it was around 1992 or 1993.

Really? So that would mean you were still working when you made records like In A Priest Driven Ambulance?

Well, we were touring then so we didn’t necessarily have full-time jobs. We toured all the time but we only made just enough to make our records and to live very badly. We all lived in the same side of a duplex which would be like a living room and a bedroom that would sometimes have as many as five grown men living in evil conditions. We were in our 20s, I was 28 or something, and we would probably have preferred to have day jobs to be able to live a little better, but our schedules didn’t permit.

Then luckily, after we did In A Priest Driven Ambulance, we got signed to Warner Brothers in, what still seems to me to be, some sort of bizarre accident. They gave us an insane amount of money for the way we were living at the time. So it was around the beginning of 1990 that we began this other side of our lives with Warner Brothers.

I have worked jobs here and there since then - I think in the summer of ‘92 I spent mowing lawns - but I think it’s been about six years since I’ve had to do anything other than just be in the band because since about ‘93 we’ve sold lots of records and made a lot of money playing shows. So it’s been quite easy to just be in a band and pursue music.

Was having all of you living together in the same place fractious? Some people couldn’t deal with it.

I don’t think we had a choice. And we were really immersed in exploring new ideas. If we thought that was the way we’d live from then on, we probably would have not have done it. (But) somewhere in the deeper recesses of our rational minds we felt we could probably make some money doing it, eventually.

I think we thought of it as just a temporary phase of poverty, and we would soon be out of that. We never thought we’d be rich. We thought we’d be a little bit above poverty or something. Luckily we jumped out of something I’d consider a stifling-poverty-sort-of-life to something that’s actually pretty comfortable.

Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue was your guitarist around this time…

Yeah. Me, him and Michael (Ivins - Lips’ bassist)… and even (producer) Dave Fridmann, would all play guitars on our records per se… But Jonathan definitely would be considered the fourth member of the band for Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit To Death In The Future Head.

Were The Rev already going when he left Flaming Lips?

I believe his band was going as early as 1986 or ‘87. I remember staying with them in Buffalo where Jonathan and all of them went to school at. Jonathan was a kind-of promoter that’d bring rock bands to play at his college. So if you went up there to play it was kind of obligatory that you’d stay with him at his place. That’s how we got to know him, Sean (Rev guitarist, aka “Grasshopper”) - even Dave Baker (original Rev vocalist). They were all making music even together back then.

How did you hook up with Dave Fridmann? As well as playing for Mercury Rev he must have been a particularly valuable friend to the Lips - producing nearly all your records for the last decade.

He was a mutual friend of Jonathan and Sean, who had done some recording with him. I think it was the summer of 1988 that we finally thought we should get a soundman to travel with us and he volunteered his services. And we’ve been joined at the hip ever since.

Is there much interaction between Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips now?

Not really any interaction, but not because we don’t like each other. I’ve seen Jonathan quite a bit this year because we played a bunch of shows with them and hung out quite a bit. I think that even when we were working together within the Flaming Lips framework, I knew he had his own ideas of what he wanted to do and I had mine.

One of the initial reactions to your Soft Bulletin seems to be to relate it to Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs. Isn’t that irritating for you?

Oh no, not at all. In some ways it’s good to have a comparison because sometimes I think we live in a nothing where there’s no other band that does anything remotely close to what we do. Sometimes that’s more frustrating than having a comparison. There are so many bands out there that I don’t think of as peers, but I love what they do.

I definitely respect and like what Jonathan does. He really pursues his own thing. I actually don’t think he listens to Flaming Lips music at all. I know for a fact that I listen to Mercury Rev stuff, but I would preface that by saying I listen to everything, so it wouldn’t surprise anyone to say I listen to Mercury Rev and I listen to other records at the same time.

To say that we influenced each other isn’t true but you can see where people would think that one record was made because of the other. I think we both actually think we’re doing something totally unique, but sometimes it ends up being something that’s quite similar.

And you share the same producer…

Yeah, working with Dave Fridmann ends up being we’re both pursuing things both through him. Discoveries I make get funnelled though Dave Fridmann… discoveries that Jonathan makes get funnelled though Dave Fridmann - so it doesn’t surprise me that there are some similarities.

Do you bother anticipating how people will regard your records? Do you guess what the reactions will be?

Not with “music people” like you yourself. Music people are interested in what we do because we do try very hard to be inventive. I worry about trying to sell records… fooling the public out there so we can keep getting enormous amounts of money.

I don’t know how comfortable you are with the idea of the “concept album,” but The Soft Bulletin could be seen as being one.

I would agree. It certainly isn’t by design. I say that because there were five or six other songs that we made but we didn’t put on there - not for any particular reason, it’s just that we weren’t happy with the mixes and we thought, “Well, we’ll finish those later on.” So we threw this batch together not thinking there was a particular concept.

But when I step back and listen to it now I hear these dramatic themes of love and death; and hopefulness; isolation; a borderline insanity idea… without it purposely being an identity we put into it. I hear it now and I think (the songs) definitely help each other out. I can see themes running through them definitely.

About the theme of love, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said that with his Pet Sounds album, he experimented with “sounds that made the listener feel loved.” Were you aware of that with your song, Spoonful Weighs A Ton? It could be taken as a tribute to the Beach Boys, especially with the last line, “the sound they made was love.”

Oh boy, when you say it that way it sounds better than I could do myself. The whole song sounds like an analogy about what he was going for.

You met him, right?

I did meet him. I did actually do a pretty long interview with him to tell you the truth.

Was it good for you? He has something of a reputation…

Well, I was warned that he does not do interviews very good. You can see the way me and you say something and we bounce ideas back and forth and it becomes a conversation… this doesn’t happen with Brian Wilson. I thought I asked him some good questions that I wanted to know some answers to. He couldn’t say anything.

I asked him why he never used distorted guitars because he’s such a big Beatles fan and all that. I thought, “Well hell, you know, when they started using feedback and stuff like that, why didn’t you start doing that?” And his answer was: “Oh, because it had already been done, why should I bother?” My unspoken reply to that - I didn’t say it, but I should have - was: “Well, harmony vocals have been done and people have played pianos and vibraphones for 30 years now, but you do that.”

I found it to be kind of frustrating even though I was very pleasant with him. I didn’t walk away knowing anything about him that I didn’t know before. I guess the one thing I walked away knowing was that he’s genuinely very apprehensive and shy about his own music.

He should dig the positive vibes of The Flaming Lips. The aura is so strong on The Soft Bulletin. It seems to have a sense of intent - transmitting a manifesto of a Flaming Lips psyche.

I agree. I think it’s the most clearly-realised idea that I think I’ve ever had - even if it’s by accident. I hear it now and we even superseded our expectations and intentions with some of it and the things we intended to do. I do agree that some of it is like a glowing light of optimism sometimes. I think it’s based in a kind of realism, but a realism that’s lit up with optimism.

There never seemed to be much room for cynicism in The Flaming Lips…

Well, I think we tried! One example of that is when we were recording Wonderful World - which is a beautiful, beautiful, optimistic song… we were trying… and I don’t know why - we were trying to make it a cynical, sarcastic song. And whenever people hear it, even immediately after we did it, people would just glow they’d go, “Oh, it’s such a great song. It makes me happy…” And secretly we were going, “It’s not supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you pissed off… supposed to make you mad.”

So we knew even back then. Even when we’re trying to be sinister we don’t pull if off very well, no matter how hard we try. I think that when we work on something to the extent we do, we inject our personality into it and get this thing across that is more optimistic and happy. So I have more or less surrendered to that.

When I do songs I do see that in the end I always manage to twist it so that even if it is tragic, at least there is some hope in it. Sometimes it’s just plain silly and you don’t need to inject any of that; but even when they’re serious, they feel positive.

But it’s not infantile or stupidly optimistic. You don’t shy away from reality. The lyrics of The Spark That Bled (from The Soft Bulletin) actually came as a shock. There’s a very Lips-style scene building up as you describe this positive “chain reaction,” but suddenly reality bursts in when you sing: “Too bad… in reality there was no reaction.”

I think that’s kind of what happens when you get engulfed in your imagination and your imagination has built everything up around you in such a good way. It is a shock when you have to realise this is the way the world is and we’re floating in outer space, and life is short, and death is sad. I agree that when you’re thrown back into reality it is a shock - but a good shock in a way.

I think the best way you can be is to be happy in a realistic way. I run into a lot of people who want to live in an un-livable bliss where they just want be happy all the time. This isn’t good. You have to have a wide range of emotions and reactions. You don’t want to walk around saying everything is groovy… especially when everything isn’t groovy.

I think with our songs you can tell we experience all that. Sometimes we’re very happy; sometimes we’re even depressed. But hopefully it’s based on realistic things that are happening in our life - and it’s our real life that’s making us happy, or sad, or bored, or any of those things.

Maybe that’s what makes The Soft Bulletin feel mature. I’m encouraged that a sense of mortality you develop as you get older doesn’t have to mess with the morality you construct when you’re younger. Songs like The Gash don’t pretend it’s not a struggle, but somehow the album is still like a rallying call that says it’s worth fighting the good fight.

I think I’ve always had some of that morality, it’s just I’d never been able to clearly communicate it. On some of our earlier records I was trying to be poignant and serious about things like love, and even the relationship with the universe and how confusing that can be, and I simply wouldn’t say it very well. But I am curious about those sort of things.

Sometimes I’m glad when I can communicate that to people as it lets them know what I’m thinking as opposed to them thinking I’m some nut who takes drugs and doesn’t know what he’s sayin’. I try to be as clear as I can. I think I just got lucky on The Soft Bulletin. With the sounds that we used, and the words that I used, sometimes they go together and it makes such a grand, cinematic almost, statement.

How do you pull it off live? You’ve said that you’re a recording artist rather than a performer now.

Well, we take our recordings with us. We bring some of the string sections, some of the drum sections and some of the stranger, un-reproducible elements with us on a backing tape and we play on top of them.

I hate to say it, but I think some of the songs actually come across as even more powerful when you see us play. They don’t lose any of their impact, they seem to gain this thing you can communicate when an audience is right in front of you. Sometimes I think records take longer to give you the impact. I think the way we’re doing it really complements the record.

How do audiences react?

So far I am utterly amazed that they seem to love it. We have people who’ve seen us for 10 years and they come and… I’ve actually seen grown men in the audience crying.

Well, it’s beautiful music.

But you don’t expect that at rock concerts. Especially with people who’ve seen thousands of concerts.

Ah, you’re being modest again…

Well, I expect them to be cynical and not react to these things… But I’ve seen it happen. So I’m encouraged that music really can touch people if it’s presented in the right way. I’ve seen it happen.

Note: Blast From The Past Message From Wayne Coyne (1999): Wayne Coyne would like to say thanks to all the people who say they like The Flaming Lips: “I’m glad if it’s moving them in any way at all.”

2009 UPDATE: Ben and Wayne later met in Paris where Ben gave Wayne the good news that Soft Bulletin was BigO’s album of the year and Wayne gave Ben passes for the Lips’ sold-out show with Pavement, also featuring Radar Brothers and an up-and-coming British act called Muse. The Flaming Lips went on to even more acclaim and success, winning Grammy’s and finally releasing Wayne’s long-awaited - and literally home-made - movie, Christmas on Mars, in 2008. Ben Harrison continues to keep it real, off-the-cuff and straight-from-the-heart with the psychopop and bop band called Etc. Visit their myspace page here (free downloads galore).

  1. One Response to “FLAMING LIPS: HOPE FLAMES ETERNAL”

  2. Great interview, great band - thanks for posting

    By Patrick on Jun 17, 2009

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