Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne on Playing Noise Pop, Making The Soft Bulletin, and Feeling Free to Do Anything

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 3:00 AM

The Flaming Lips open the Noise Pop festival tonight with a special performance of The Soft Bulletin.
  • The Flaming Lips open the Noise Pop festival tonight with a special performance of The Soft Bulletin.

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.

flaming_lips_soft_bulletin_small.jpg

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.

So to me it wasn't like a grand, brave leap, it was really out of just sheer interest in other things. It wasn't as though it occurred in one day. It was little things that happened. And I think the success of The Soft Bulletin makes it seem a lot more important. We certainly we thought at the time no one would give a shit and it would fail miserably and no one would ever think about it again, and that would be the end of us.

Really? Even after Steven cried hearing the first mix of [the gorgeous, powerful sad song] "Waitin' for a Superman," you really thought you were going to get dropped from Warner Bros. after making this record and that the band would end?

Well artistically, your mindset can be one way, but realistically, I don't know. We didn't really know why anybody would be interested in seeing us, or be interested in the way that we were making music. And it wasn't really that we were a big popular group, ever. It wasn't as though people would be interested in 'Oh, what are the Flaming Lips doing now?' It's like, 'Oh, I don't know, they sucked before, I'm sure they suck now.' I think that we just got really lucky that we just immersed ourselves in the only thing that enabled us to fight back. Or maybe it was that we felt like we'd already failed. And I say this to artists a lot, that if you already think that nobody cares about you and you already think the whole thing has failed, and you already think it's useless, you can just do whatever the fuck you want. Once we had that in our minds, we just went completely fucking crazy. That changed everything for us. Even now, I try to remember to try to make music like nobody gives a shit still.

How do you feel about The Soft Bulletin now? How do you rank it among the other records you've done?

I really don't listen to The Soft Bulletin on purpose very much, just as a whole record. But occasionally when I hear it, and I'm not prepared to hear it -- I'll be at somebody's house or something, and they'll play it -- at first I'll be like, 'Oh, what the fuck is that, that's cool.' And then I'll go, 'Oh, that's us! Goddamn, that's The Soft Bulletin. No wonder people like it!' And that happens a lot. Those are stupid things to say, but you just get surprised sometimes by these things.

I got a text yesterday from a woman that I'd run into in a record store. Someone in her family had just died, and they listened to 'Waitin' for a Superman,' and talked about how music is sometimes like you're only thing that you have. I know that. I know that there are things about The Soft Bulletin that were like that for us. Steven talks about tearing up on the couch -- I mean, we knew that we had done that thing. Not, 'We had done that thing, so look at us, we're great.' It's just that we love, love, love music. And when it does that thing, you get a sense of, finally, we belong in that era or that thing where groups can go inside themselves and do this expression. Previous to that, I think we had tried, or we thought we were doing it. But we'd never really sat down and endured the embarrassment of standing there with your friends, saying, 'I'm really going to sing about how much you guys impact me, how much my life is impacted by my band, and my friends, and you.' Most of it is kind of embarrassing when you're doing it, but it's a very powerful truth once you do it. And then you never go back. To me now, I'll sing about anything. I'll endure any humiliation. Humiliation is one of the great blessings of life, it's awesome.

But without it being successful, I don't think we could have ever got its reward. It was when we went out and started to play The Soft Bulletin [that] we kind of became that band. We weren't really that band when we made it, but once we made it, and we were able to sing those songs in front of people, we really became those people. I could sing about 'feeling yourself disintegrate.' And it wasn't just a song, it was like, 'This is me.' That's the greatest thing that's happened to us. So now when we go up and sing it, I look like this old pirate that's just come back from this long, crazy journey: 'Let me tell you, back in 1998...'

Have you gone through that with any records since then? Do you feel a sort of similar emotional attachment or investment in other Flaming Lips records?

We'd always played some of The Soft Bulletin. And we've played "Do You Realize??" I think virtually every night since we've done it. But we still play "Do You Realize??" even at the end of The Soft Bulletin shows. And you know, I think part of your mind says, 'Fuck, are we going play these songs forever?' And then when you get up there, it's such an emotional connection, I don't know. I never dread it, I'm really glad that it does the thing, it speaks for us even if we're not able to say those things ourselves.

As the Flaming Lips go, I think we're probably in a mark-three or four phase by now, even past The Soft Bulletin. But it probably marks the biggest cut in dimension. Like, 'If you saw the Flaming Lips a year ago, dude, you've gotta see them now, because they've fucking lost their minds.' Anything is possible now since The Soft Bulletin opened that up for us. We walk around and do things all the time and think, well, we can really just do anything now, it doesn't matter. And The Soft Bulletin did that. And its success did that, too. If it wouldn't have been successful, I think we would eventually have shrunk down to our cowardly selves that we were previous to that and said, 'We should go back and play loud guitars, no one likes us.' But because it was successful, you go, 'We were right! We climbed the mountain and we saw the great light at the top!' Whatever that is.

When you introduce "The Spiderbite Song," do you tell the original story or what actually happened? Do you tend to think of the events in the song as being the real story? [Note: The first verse of the "The Spiderbite Song" tells about drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd getting what he initially thought was a near-fatal spider bite. After going to the hospital, taking a course of antibiotics -- and telling everyone he'd been bitten by a brown recluse -- Drozd discovered that the wound wasn't a spider bite at all. It was related to his injecting heroin.]

I think of what we were really thinking of at the time. Since I've known Steven, almost never a day goes by when you don't remember that he struggles with drugs and that's a part of the way that we all live. But I think during that time -- you have to remember this is a song that was originally intended to be in the parking lot experiment, it was just going to be this little thing that we only heard once. I never thought of it as a song that would encapsulate this little thing that happened to us. But I think that's part of the power of the song -- there is this optimism and this innocence and this love for each other that I think is the bigger story than our friend being horribly addicted to drugs.

So when I tell the story, no, I would say that he got a spider bite. And he did think that he got a spider bite. It wasn't like he made up this story. He went to the doctor thinking, 'Oh my God, what is this?' And probably half of his mind thought, 'It's probably not a spider bite, and so I'd better go.' But I don't remember. Sometimes I tell the story and it is simply about the spider bite and Michael's car accident and this accumulation of things that you're lucky enough that you can write a song about these things that are really happening. But I don't think I would ever put Steven on the spot like that.

Bimbo's 365 Club is an intimate place. Should we expect the standard Flaming Lips mischief tonight, or will you have to pare it down?

We've thought about that, and that was part of the reason why we thought we would do [this show] -- because, 'Well, let's not even try to get all the junk in there.' When it's a little place, things like people's faces and watching people play their instruments and all that is just a lot more a part of the show. When we play these giant places where people in the back can't really tell who's onstage, you have to do bigger things that get everybody involved. Especially sometimes with The Soft Bulletin, we always struggle with how bombastic we want it to be. Sometimes it really is about the emotion. I think we'll have some stuff there, but I don't think we'll have everything, there's just no way it can fit. And frankly, I don't think it's appropriate.

Was it tough to bring The Soft Bulletin to the stage? I know you originally thought about bringing out live musicians to do the string parts but then decided to do some prerecorded arrangements.

Well, I decided mostly after seeing Brian Wilson. I think it was 1997 when he did this comeback tour. I went to see it, and I wasn't that impressed, but I would say the thing I knew from that show is that I didn't care how many musicians are up there trying to play as intricately as they could and as much like the record as they could. I'm just really not that interested in seeing a bunch of great musicians play the Beach Boys. I'm interested in Brian Wilson. So for me, I thought, well, we could get other musicians, but it doesn't really matter. That's not why the audience is going to come to see us. They're going to come see the Flaming Lips. We were like, 'Well, why don't we just take more crazy psychedelic toys, and we'll make that the show?' As opposed to watching a 33-year-old guy play keyboards, you could watch some naked woman jump around on a screen. If you ask me, I would pick the naked woman onscreen.

Part of it was that I really did worry that we were singing songs that are -- ["Feeling Yourself Disintegrate"] is not about suicide, but it evokes that to younger people. And I was already 35 years old or whatever, and I knew I was singing from an older dude's perspective, but I didn't really want this young audience to have to endure just that. I really wanted them to embrace this idea of life and living and fucking going for it. So part of the reason to do the confetti and the balloons and all that was to say that: 'Even though we're singing about death, I don't want you to go home and kill yourself. I want you to go home and say, fuck, anything is possible, life is beautiful.' Life is horrible, but life is beautiful, too. And so it was more important that we say that than, 'Listen to how well our friend can play the string parts on this.'

----

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Ian S. Port @iPORT, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

  • Pin It

Tags: , , , ,

About The Author

Ian S. Port

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook

Slideshows

  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"