As landmark albums go -- records that completely shifted the trajectory of a band's career -- The Soft Bulletin ranks among both the weirdest and the most rewarding. Which is why, to open the 20th year of the Noise Pop festival, the Flaming Lips will perform it in full tonight, Feb. 21, at Bimbo's 365 Club. (The intimate show is sold out to the rafters, so if you don't have already tickets, you'd better have a healthy bank account.)
Before The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips were an acid-freak rock band best known for "She Don't Use Jelly," an MTV and radio hit circa 1993. The group's quirky fuzz-pop didn't lead to another hit single, so around 1997, after guitarist Ronald Jones left the band, the remaining three members began to try something new. They did experiments in parking lots in their native Oklahoma City, where fans would gather and play different tapes on their car stereos, creating a kind of mass concert. They released Zaireeka, a four-part album intended to be played on four separate stereos at once. And in 1998, the Flaming Lips performed at S.F.'s then-fledgling Noise Pop festival, doing one of their Zaireeka-derived boombox experiments.
At this time, the Flaming Lips were also recording The Soft Bulletin, the fullest expression of their new approach to music. Singer Wayne Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd forced themselves to stop using loud guitars, replacing them with keyboards, string arrangements, tape loops, and other instruments unusual for a rock band. They also began to see their music as a medium for expressing their emotions at a time when the future of the band was in doubt, Ivins and Drozd both had near-death experiences (memorialized in "The Spiderbite Song"), and Coyne's father was dying of cancer.
The result was magnificent: A pop symphony of soaring melodies, crashing drums, and some of the most frank, touching songs the Flaming Lips have ever written. Although it didn't produce a radio staple, 1999's The Soft Bulletin was a critical and commercial success, ranking among the best albums of the year and even the decade. Ahead of tonight's show, we spoke with singer Wayne Coyne about his mindset while making The Soft Bulletin, how he feels when hearing it now, and whether the Flaming Lips will trot out their usual ecstatic, confetti-and-laser-filled live show tonight at Bimbo's.
Tell me about the first time you played Noise Pop, in 1998. You did a boombox experiment there, right?
Oh exactly, I forgot. Yeah. That's one of the big moments of our life.
You were in the middle of recording The Soft Bulletin when you played that show. How did you fit it into working on the album?
The Zaireeka record had come out. I didn't think anybody cared that we played, but we were looking for a good excuse to go out and do something utterly different. By 1998, we had already been playing for a long time, traveling around playing shows as a sort of shitty, punk-rock psychedelic freaky guitar band. In my life, I feel like if you want to do something different, you can't just hope that something different comes along. You have to put it into place. So we were doing these parking lot experiments here in Oklahoma City once every couple of weeks, and I started to think, well, how could we do this and take it around the country? I knew it would be interesting as a thing that the Flaming Lips do. I think a lot of people would have seen us up 'til then and thought, 'Yeah, I know what they do, they play loud guitars and have kind of a shitty light show.' I'm not putting us down, I'm just trying to think of the reasons why we felt like such a radical new version of ourselves seemed necessary.
Once we sort of announced that we were attempting to do these shows where we'd bring boomboxes and we'd bring people from the audience, then people started to tell us, 'Do that thing here, because we're having a weird little festival and we've already got a bunch of rock bands, we want something different.' Previously, I think we would have been one of the bands, and not one of the weird things. And I think we were relieved that we could be one of the other things. That was part of our delight -- 'Look, we get to carry around boomboxes! We don't even have to bring our guitars with us!' It was exhilarating.
And with the recording, sometimes it would be such a great relief not to be immersed in the thing. Because previous to The Soft Bulletin coming out, you just don't know what the fuck you're going to do or what people will think of it. And we knew that we were kind of in the middle of this new version of ourselves. Maybe thinking this is going to be the end of our days or something. You don't really know.
After guitarist Ronald Jones left the band, you nearly forbade the use of guitars. Tell me about that mindset -- why were you so determined to make a new version of the Flaming Lips?
Steven [Drozd] and I had talked about him not just being a drummer. Previous to this, he was the big rock drummer, and we had this great, unique guitar player in Ronald Jones. And don't get me wrong -- for a good while there, we really felt as though this was the greatest group to ever be and play this style of music. I think some people still look at that [1995's Clouds Taste Metallic] as our heyday.
I had already been playing that type of music since we'd begun. There were a lot of groups I felt like that were doing that type of music, and that it had already sort of crescendoed. We knew that we were already looking to do other types of music. Up until the beginning of Zaireeka, we never thought that we would be able to do truly emotionally-based music. Everything that we'd ever done -- and still a lot of the things we do now -- they're about dynamics. It's about sounds and what the sounds do, and then the song and sometimes the singer are really just something that's third or fourth on the list.
But we knew at that time that we were doing Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin that we were moving into this thing where it was all going to be about the emotion of the song. And when Ronald left, it really was just a way of us saying, 'Oh good, now there's no turning back.' And we were looking for that. I know Steven and myself were looking for this excuse to say, 'Okay, let's play keyboards and let's do something else.' We were already making recordings where it was like, 'Fuck, I'm just sick of hearing a bunch of loud distorted guitars.' That doesn't mean distorted guitars are bad. It was just we'd had enough of it and we wanted to explore other things.