Candy Store Rock
By Jason Cohen
AUGUST 9, 1999: Last summer, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne went backstage before a Plant & Page show in Oklahoma City. Snapshots were taken. Coyne asked Plant to autograph his gatefold copy of Led Zeppelin IV, which he did while regaling his younger, hipper colleague with stories about the Hasil Adkins records he'd been listening to.
An amusing encounter to be sure, but Coyne didn't think much of the actual show. Too obvious. Too arena-rock. Too nostalgic. Colorful though he might be, Coyne is not really kitsch-prone, so he didn't even dig it on an ironic level. The truth is, it just wasn't Led Zeppelin. He missed John Paul Jones. More than that, he missed a certain deceased wild-man drummer.
"I just kept thinking, what if they'd had a big old video of John Bonham playing 'When the Levee Breaks' and they'd played over the top of it?" enthuses Coyne. "That would have been great."
Zip forward to February of this year. The Flaming Lips are about to release their brilliant ninth album, The Soft Bulletin.
"We started talking about putting the record out and our manager Scott said maybe we should go do shows," remembers Coyne. "He's talking about a lot of stuff and all I was hearing was: 'Shows.' We're really gonna do shows. How are we gonna do that?"
See, the Lips' second guitarist, Ronald Jones, quit in 1997 and had never been replaced. Drummer Steven Drozd [see sidebar] filled the void in the studio by playing just about every instrument you can think of, but live, he'd be no help from behind the kit. Besides, the songs from the album, some of which feature more than 200 recorded tracks, were going to be tough to reproduce no matter how the band went at it.
"At one point we were talking about hiring six or seven Stevenesque sort of players who could play keyboards and sing and play guitar and all this sort of stuff," explains Coyne. "But there's really no one that can do that. People like Steve are ... They're rare. He's good. And what he does is unique to him.
"So I just sort of thought, 'Well, we'll just play to a CD.'"
Thus the configuration that takes Stubb's outdoor stage this Saturday: Coyne sings and plays a teeny-tiny bit of guitar; Michael Ivins lays down the bass lines; and Drozd handles keyboards, guitar, and pedal steel. Drozd also plays drums -- on disc, booming through the sound system, while perfectly synched images of him pounding away flash intermittently on the video screen.
The Lips first unveiled the show in March, with one Dallas gig and a pair of South by Southwest sets. Audiences were stunned, and rightly so; it's a dazzling display that's both theatrical and emotionally affecting, with sonic implications borrowed from techno, but all the visceral, visual, and physical impact of old-fashioned rock & roll. Punk ain't what it used to be.
"Obviously, we were already moving away from, 'If it's not live musicians, it's fake,'" Coyne reasons. "With all the things that are happening with music and the evolution of technology, you'd almost have to make a point of not dicking around with this stuff.
"Bands are about sound," he continues. "We decided that our recordings are what we're about. This allows us to do the songs without them just being a representation of the songs. We're doing the songs."
Ten Years GoneThe good thing about Middle America is that it really is in the middle of America. Meaning, if you were Wayne Coyne in the early part of the Eighties, a few years out of high school with a shit job at Long John Silver's and not a whole lot else to do, it was nice to know that for a touring band to get from New York to California they had to pass through Oklahoma sometime. In this fashion, Coyne, his brother Mark, and Michael Ivins saw just about every important band from the post-punk American underground: Dicks, Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Black Flag, Minutemen. There were lessons to be learned.
"Bands would pull in in this shitty old van that had records in the back," recalls Coyne. "They'd be like, 'Oh yeah, we just make our own records and sell 'em at shows,' and we went, 'Wow!' It seemed simple, and it didn't seem like you had a lot to lose. If you made a record and no one liked it and toured around and didn't make any money, well, what else is new? It made us think, 'Well shit, we should just do that.'"
Coyne's father owned an office product and repair business, so a disused meat locker in his warehouse provided a perfect rehearsal space. Dad also participated in the local barter system -- you fix my refrigerator, I'll re-tile your floor -- but it got to the point where everyone was trading services and no one was making any money. With the system on the verge of collapse and some $700 in accrued credit sitting around, Mr. Coyne sent his kids off to cash it in at a local recording studio where they usually made radio commercials and religious jingles. The young Lips gave the place a taste of the devil's music, combining the barter credit with some savings to make their first EP.
Wayne's brother didn't stick around, but Coyne, Ivins, and the first of three drummers proceeded with the unglamorous business of touring and making albums. California indie label Restless eventually signed them; rumor was the Lips spent their entire advance on smoke machines. Actually, they bought them secondhand for $75 each, but regardless of the cost, this special effect -- the first of many -- was their early trademark.
"You could go to a club and it didn't matter if there were 100 people or 10," says Coyne. "Just play to smoke every night."
For the next six years, they lived the indie-rock dream.
"Going out in the van, making $40, sleeping on the side of the road," lists Coyne. "You have to perceive that as being fun, or you would just never do it. There's just no way music itself would ever seem like the savior of all that. You have to like doing the crap too. I always did.
"We should have stopped plenty of times," he adds, "but it never really diminished."
Indeed. Without exception, the Flaming Lips' peers and predecessors have either broken up or dissolved into stasis. Groups like Sonic Youth, R.E.M., and the Butthole Surfers are still around, but are their last three albums better than their first three? Their first six? Not a chance. The Lips, on the other hand, just keep getting better. When the band signed to Warner Bros. in 1991 (pre-Nirvana), Drozd and Jones, each of them junior-high age when the band began, came aboard. It was then that the band's head-trip frenzies became more playful and melodic, doses of blistering weirdness evolving from post-punk chaos into Sgt. Pepper-style craft. And while Coyne may see the band as a studio-derived creature these days, in the mid-Nineties the Lips were a touring machine: They played the second stage at Lollapalooza in '94; they opened for the Butthole Surfers, Tool, Stone Temple Pilots, and Porno for Pyros; they heard Candlebox's version of "Voodoo Chile" 62 times.
And of course they paused to have a novelty hit, thanks to Beavis and Butt-head's embrace of "She Don't Use Jelly." It's difficult to understand how "Jelly" moved more than 400,000 people to buy 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, while none of them came back around for '95's Clouds Taste Metallic, but that's exactly what happened. Most bands don't survive such experiences, trying at the very least to repeat it, but not the Lips. Rolling Stone recently included the band on a decade-in-review/where -are-they-now? type list of one-hit wonders, so naturally, the band up and released one of the best albums of the Nineties a few months later. How is it possible that this band not only stuck around, but also stayed on an upward creative curve?
"So many bands do things that we think is fresh and exciting, then four years later they are still doing the same thing, but it lacks all that freshness and excitement," acknowledges Coyne. "We've never been the hip cool band that everyone pays attention too, so it's not going to matter if we change. We just do what we like."
Do they ever. Anyone who's been paying attention knows why the Lips haven't made an album in four years, and why it was such a dramatic departure when it finally came out: Led Zeppelin.
"You're 12 years old, you're waiting in line for Led Zeppelin tickets, you're out there in the parking lot for three or four days, everybody's got different stereos," says Coyne. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be crazy if you could organize something where everybody's tapes played at the same time?'
"I'm always thinking someone ought to be doing something weird," he continues. "Then I think, 'Well, I should!' I just do it because it entertains me."
"It" was the Flamings Lips Parking Lot experiment, which reached its apotheosis in front of nearly 2,000 people at a garage on the corner of Eighth and Brazos in Austin during SXSW 97. There was also the Flaming Lips Boombox Experiment, which came to Stubb's a year ago. Part classical composition, part performance art prank, these interactive explorations of time, space, and sound involved multiple tape decks (car stereos or boomboxes) cranking out carefully crafted combinations of harmonies, sound effects, melodies, and rhythms. "We look at this as a headphones setup, and you guys are the head," Coyne explained at the Stubb's show.
The sonic surprises ranged from traditional bass/guitar/keyboard/drum tracks to samples of mosquitoes, a refrigerator clicking on, and Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally.
"It's meant to orchestrate things that you couldn't orchestrate in a performance," Coyne explains. "What I envisioned was ... Let's say this is an orchestra and the violin players suddenly turn into insects. Wouldn't that be great? Or the insects could turn into electric guitars, and then the next second they're refrigerators!"
The experiments were augmented by Zaireeka, which translated Coyne's idea with surprisingly coherent results into a 4-CD set wherein each disc was designed to be played simultaneously from four different sources. The current tour features some spillover from the process; if they choose to, fans can pick up headphones and a mini-radio at the show, so that part of the Lips' sound will go through the PA, and part of it, via FM transmitter, will go directly to the brain.
"I'm not trying to reinvent some new way of listening to music," reasons Coyne. "Music is one of the best things in the world. You don't need to reinvent it, you just need to do it good the first time. The thing that bores me about so-called experimental music is that, for the most part, it's not very entertaining. When is the last time you put on a Stockhausen record? I'm not saying that it's not inventive and it's not interesting, but when people say something's 'experimental,' or 'it's like nothing you've ever heard,' usually what they mean is, 'You've heard it, you just don't like it.' Or, 'It sounds like some shit you would never listen to.' I want to spark people into thinking, but I also want them to walk away going, 'Wow, that was really different -- but entertaining.'"
Which is exactly the reason for the Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue, which features several bands per stop. Coyne firmly believes that no one band is worth seeing for more than an hour.
"It needs to be a lot less of, we-stand-here-and-play-our-instruments-and-that's-enough," explains Coyne. "I mean, Jimi Hendrix was setting his guitar on fire in 1967, and he could play!"
With acts like Sebadoh, Robyn Hitchcock [see accompanying feature], Sonic Boom's E.A.R., and IQU -- the Stubb's lineup -- all contributing individual sets, attendees will almost have to be entertained. Then there's Coyne, who with his gong, hand puppets, video projector, and fake blood, promises to do his part.
"We're talking about adding fire and naked women and all those things," he jokes. "If you're going to watch us for an hour, we'll give you as much as we're able to give."
Celebration DayJuly 4, 1995. The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building crumbled to the ground just 76 days ago. Oklahoma City is still -- literally -- shell-shocked. But it's Independence Day. Certain traditions must be honored. Wayne Coyne is ready to blow stuff up.
That Coyne loves the Fourth of July should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Lips' live show -- a colorful cavalcade that, since the smoke machine years, has come to include bubbles, Christmas lights, strobes, illuminated wheels, and firecrackers. Coyne is heading for Norman, his red pickup weighed down with fireworks, sparklers, and other fuse-bearing materials. Michael Ivins stays behind because he's genuinely afraid of losing an eye. Coyne himself has got a pair of industrial-strength plastic goggles fastened to his forehead.
The goggles are not necessarily for dramatic effect. Norman, Oklahoma, on the Fourth of July is like a scene from Apocalypse Now. There are nearly 200 people huddled around a muddy riverbank, and they're all playing with matches. The sky is awash with red, green, and white-bright glitter, and every time you turn from one whooshing noise you run smack into another. Drunks shoot bottle rockets directly at each other and children leap over explosives just before they go off. Someone accidentally ignites an entire box of contraband, creating a free-fire zone that combusts for almost an hour.
This unregulated playground of illegal dynamite is a longstanding Coyne family tradition. Wayne is there with his mother, two brothers, and a sister, but mostly he's there to clown it up with his bounty of nieces and nephews. Wayne would be the cool uncle even if he weren't a borderline rock star. One kid is wearing a Flaming Lips T-shirt, and he, along with the rest of the group, is shouting "Wayne! Wayne!," grasping for whatever Roman candle, catherine wheel, or firework the musician is willing to give out. Coyne eggs them on as they dance around the spinning sparklers, always getting out of the way just in time -- barely. Coyne's girlfriend Michelle says he's been known to stir up troublemaking with the kids, then sit back as they get blamed. He's something of an overgrown child himself, but instead of candy, Playstations, or skateboards, Coyne has recording studios, video loops, and experimental performance pieces.
Since he's not a drug user, one can only assume that the Lips' psychedelia is a product of Coyne's imagination; he can picture himself on a boat by a river, or ponder the mysteries of the universe in his fingernail -- without artificial help.
Coyne is also highly analytical, though he's still more than capable of asking deeply nonsensical questions, or simulating a toddler's perennial "Why?" stage. Among the imponderables that Coyne has pondered: How do you get "Dick" from Richard and "Jack" from John? Is Johnny Depp talented? And of course, the most unanswerable query of them all: What's holding up the new My Bloody Valentine album?
In his lyrics, the songwriter has indulged a Jesus obsession, while also messing around with heroin and Charles Manson references in the early days. He's talked about more animals than Doctor Dolittle on Clouds Taste Metallic, featuring songs with "Zoo" and "Giraffe" in the title, plus another track with lyrics about bugs, roosters, and amoebas. Coyne claims that that particular thematic pattern was a coincidence. He can't really say that about The Soft Bulletin, a sad and provocative near-concept album about death, disease, and love, which was inspired by his father's battle with cancer.
Coyne doesn't think the new album is a giant departure but concedes that "it leaves out the more absurd songs. We've always done songs that are revealing, but they'd be mixed in. I think once you're really just talking about your life, instead of injecting things in there that resemble your life but you're not really saying anything, once you can do that, it's a lot easier to sit there and say, 'These are the things I want to talk about.'"
And at the end of the day, Wayne Coyne is a family man. The Flaming Lips are adventurous artists, but they're also just a bunch of regular guys from Oklahoma. Coyne lives a few blocks away from his mother, who has always been supportive of his, um, "career" choice. For instance, one night the cops came to gripe about Wayne's guitar playing (the volume, not the content) only to have the musician's mother tell them to buzz off.
"She said, 'At least you know he's not out there stealing cars or breaking into people's houses. Why don't you leave him alone?'" says Coyne. "I mean, you can't ask for better than that. It's a good family. I wasn't the weirdo, the black sheep that had to go off and do weird music. Watch David Letterman and we're on it. That's just the best thing ever. Everything we've done has made it seem like a success. Even if we just made one record, it's like, 'God, that's Wayne's record, isn't that cool?'
"Maybe that's what people don't like about the Flaming Lips," he continues. "It's not based in pain or angst or anger against society or something. Our lives are all right. We make music and have fun."
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