Updated: Dec 2, 2020
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by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
The Flaming Lips have always been weird.
It's been one long, strange trip: Whether it was the blood coming out of the singer's face, the cocoon of balloons and confetti raining down at every show, their multi-era history dating back to 1983 (the year my parents were married), the fuzzy 80s footage showing extremely dangerous amateur pyrotechnics in tiny clubs, the drummer-less live shows of 1999/2000 or the psychosis-inducing production of their Fridmann albums...or it could be the hoarse, throat-cracking vocals from Wayne Coyne, the swirling outer-darkness of Ronald Jones's guitar effects, the juxtaposition of booming Bonham drums, "ripper Fripper" guitar, and lush symphonics from the spiderbitten hands of Steven Drozd (the drummer who defied all traditional logic and became the main songwriter in his new band), or bassist Michael Ivins who sits down and says nothing...yes, beginning with themselves, everything they've ever done was stunning in its originality, comedic in its delivery, tragic at its core, all while possessing a holy musical mountain within.
Even their looks have changed drastically over the years:
Wayne transforming from an acne-covered punk teen with an obsession for The Who into a semi-dreadlock'd renegade hillbilly in the mid to late 80s, then a stately early 90s songwriter willing to push the envelope, before finally becoming the swashbuckling Willy Wonka of rock and roll we still know, love and see today.
The relatively rock-steady Michael Ivins has gone from looking like a roadie for Flock of Seagulls to a proudly bald "junkie sunglasses"-wearing ent, his glacial smile breaking the crowd's will at every show: Ivins would've fit into Spacemen 3's backing band or the Velvet Underground's original lineup with ease.
Multi-instrumentalist (and the greatest living musician on planet earth) Steven Drozd went through the wringer and came back out better for it....so did his band. Now, Drozd is finding patches of gray weaving their way into his hair and yet still he appears younger in 2020 than he did in 2001. If the Lips' new album American Head is finite evidence of his staying power musically, then the man himself is human proof of survival at its finest. Through all the changes, the strange was never unnatural...in fact, the contradictions always fit (unlike the compromised efforts of their many imitators). It's truly mind boggling to witness their journey since 1983 (it would be something miraculous to meet the few people who've seen a Flaming Lips show in every era, with every line-up) but despite this long process and a discography full of a few hundred fantastic songs, 2019 was the 20th Anniversary of their most influential and revered record: The Soft Bulletin.
The Lips' 1999 space odyssey (that eschewed the fuzz-drenched alternative sound of the Ronald Jones era), set the controls for the heart of the sun and departed for parts unknown, jettisoned into the atmosphere far far away from the Cobain necrophiles of the late 90s alternative world (this "Pennyroyal Tea" cover was as far as The Lips would go in that direction), also leaving behind the burdening expectations their alternative breakthroughs weighed on them ("She Don't Use Jelly" and the Clouds Taste Metallic album).
Although....how does one make this sonic leap without a growing international audience (or your crusty major label executives) noticing???
How 'bout by announcing the departure of your extremely popular / influential guitarist, followed by the release of a 4 disc album, each disc meant to be played simultaneously?
After the exponentially special risks The Flaming Lips pursued on Zaireeka, now there were two schools of thought left in the Lips' fanbase:
Either you weren't bowled over anymore by their now limitless experimentations, lineup changes or sharp shifts in sound, hopping on and off the train at your leisure OR you were down with the Lips 100%, buying the ticket and taking the ride to witness their metamorphosis at every turn.
Despite the desires of those "Jelly" lovers (who never quite grasped what the Lips were about anyway), the transition wasn't painful for most fans:
In spite of their new experimentations, the lack of a tour or any prolonged promotion for nearly 3 1/2 years, The Lips continued to build a strong, devout following of diverse freaks. Perhaps the album which unified this group of die hard fans had to be Zaireeka, the most social record of our time:
Many of these die hards met each other at record store listening parties for Zaireeka or during the Lips' own Boombox Experiments....who knows how many Lips babies were conceived during mid-90s Zaireeka happenings.
After creating something so extreme, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins afforded themselves more creative freedom than any major label act has ever obtained...and they accomplished this with nothing more than great songs. At its core, Zaireeka isn't just a kitschy experiment from the age of CDs, the 1997 psych epic also happens to be one of the best Flaming Lips records ever, impressing an otherworldly imprint upon the world of modern music forever.
One example of the evolution: Zaireeka's songs took Clouds Taste Metallic's thick sheens of fuzz and removed Ronald Jones' shoegaze haze for the most part. Replacing Jones' wizardry with a breathtaking new direction of Beatles-esque guitar parts played by Steven Drozd, the Flaming Lips' obsession with guitar layerings would remain throughout the new album ("The Train Runs Over The Camel...", "Riding Into Work In The Year 2025", "How Will We Know").
But once recording began on the next record, the Flaming Lips' main songwriters had a pow wow concerning their new shift.
For what would end up being The Soft Bulletin, both Wayne & Steven instituted a "no big rock guitar" rule, limiting the sounds to clean, modulated guitars or acoustic sounds. Wayne and Steven were listening to film soundtracks and scores during the making of both Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, pushing the duo toward colossal sounds, synthesizers, tape loops.... maybe even symphonies?
Singer and lyricist Wayne Coyne was writing mature songs that still remained packed full o'silly, however the stakes were at their highest lyrically speaking.
"Waiting For Superman?", "The Spark That Bled", "The Gash" and "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" explored the stark brushes with mortality they were experiencing and coupled that aura alongside typical Lips fare: bugs....lots of them, the prospects of losing one's mind never far from any Lips fare ("will the fight for our sanity be the fight of our lives?"), the quest for understanding, the sorrow and hilarity of death and the hallucinogenic view of every day horrors in humanity's race for the prize... That album is one of intense intangible feelings...the unspoken shade in the empty basement room of the big house, the thoughts that eat each other in the carnival of our brains, the psychic misunderstanding of the lies in which truth is housed...the "crack in between the bed and the wall" as Jim James sang...
The Soft Bulletin was greeted by critics as the "90s Dark Side of the Moon" or "the electronica Pet Sounds" and was roundly being praised as a forward-thinking rollercoaster ride to indie rock heaven.
Although at later live shows and during meetings with fans, some diehards were late to the game.
Redundant cries of "where's Ronald?" gave way to the less awkward "where's the guitars?" as many Lips aficionados grew weary of this otherworldly keyboard-driven music. These fans had stuck with the band all throughout their wild, unhinged ride as the rock and roll Manson family of the 80s and witnessed their stillbirth as alternative upstarts in the early 90s (thanks to the unpredictable success of "She Don't Use Jelly"), yet no matter how many bizarre changes the Lips had already gone through, they were still a band (Jonathan Donahue anyone?). Guitars, drums, bass and vocals was still their sound, though starting with Transmissions Of The Satellite Heart's "Slow Nerve Action" and continuing on the groundbreaking Clouds Taste Metallic, the Flaming Lips were ready and willing to augment their love of fuzz and Bonham-bombast with anything that seemed right (horns on "Bad Days", piano on "Abandoned Hospital Ship", bells on "Christmas At The Zoo" etc). These "Generation Lollapalooza" fans only saw Zaireeka as a stopgap release made for the band members' own excess, so when The Soft Bulletin was released, it felt like 5 years had gone by since the band had "made an actual record". But those groups of fans couldn't have been more wrong: the band, as they knew it, didn't exist anymore behind the scenes.
Audience members of those Zaireeka parking lot / theater tests or first Soft Bulletin shows were stunned upon first seeing a band touring without instruments, then in 1999, drummer Steven Drozd performing a triple-threat on guitar, keyboards and vocals, while also triggering samples with his feet...although should they have really been shocked? In the studio since his arrival, Drozd had been playing a wide range of instruments on the Lips' albums, also playing piano during the intro of "Abandoned Hospital Ship" and for "Love Yer Brain".... but with Ronald's departure from the group, the band simply had to change. And change they did...from a band into what the Flaming Lips always really were: a magical entity where the traditional musical rules never applied.... Big guitars could go to the wayside if they needed to, samples could make up for the missing instruments onstage if necessary, bass lines swam around in abnormal melodic bliss (Michael and Steven obviously took notes from Brian Wilson's obtuse bass playing), electronics weren't merely blips and floaty bleeps: they became a natural pulse, effects pedals altered the usual guitar sounds into sonic howls, pushing the envelope into a realm beyond anything any group was committing to tape at the time.
The Flaming Lips spent 1999 to late 2007 as the curators of a visually stunning, awe inspiring and never-ending live experience meant to illustrate the technicolor fantasia of their past two albums, the very similar (though fucking perfect) Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
Led by Wayne as the hippie court jester, Steven Drozd as the Lips' Brian Wilson and Michael Ivins as the symbol of bohemian-punk attitude and an extremely underrated bassist (just listen to "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" or his fuzz bass lead on "The Gash") the era which followed The Soft Bulletin was where the Flaming Lips' legend was defined:
Wayne rolling around in his space bubble, stretching 4 minute songs such as "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.1" into 8+ minute sing-a-longs or prop-infested vehicles to further represent their lyrics. Numbers like "Race For The Prize" became a stunning opening fanfare while "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton" was embroidered with Teletubbies and a talking sun, "The Spiderbite Song" turned into another edition in a long line of Wayne "story-songs". "I'd like to see the Lips in twenty years be kinda like the Grateful Dead," Wayne once said to Chicago Sun Times critic Jim DeRogatis way back in 1993, "not their music, I would love to still be making great records, but where we're this group of people that comes around and plays shows and people come see 'em and it's this great big party that never ends..."
How prophetic his words would become when the Flaming Lips' traveling circus became cemented in the minds of every fan, young or old, and everyone had to have that experience again and again and again. Maybe the band also fell into this trap. Beginning with the roll-out of the hamster-ball at Coachella 2004, Wayne deployed the hamster-ball / space bubble every show as whichever intro tune was being blasted by the band. The first time I saw them at Saltair 2011, their show had the base elements of this mid-2000s stage show still intact and this provided one of the most unforgettable experiences I've ever had, not just in concerts...but in life. During this time, the Lips repeatedly played a setlist based on the same core songs ("Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", "Yoshimi", "Race for the Prize", "Do you Realize??", "She Don't Use Jelly" and "The W.A.N.D") but they never failed to bust out intensely rare surprises each tour, making their annual touring minstrel show mandatory viewing. These tours were bolstered by a combination of the poppy / mainstream Yoshimi tracks with the abrasion of their early material and the high octane wizardry of The Soft Bulletin, making The Flaming Lips huge in an era where it seemed only a band featuring Jack White or Dave Grohl were having any success. And this mainstream acceptance wasn't something the Flaming Lips were used to, yet here it came. Yoshimi took The Soft Bulletin and gave the songs hip hop beats, synthesizers and world class production from Dave Fridmann and Michael Ivins throughout (with nary a single bad track).
In fact, from "It's Summertime" to "In The Morning of the Magicians", every single track works perfectly. And with all of this pomp and circumstance surrounding the Flaming Lips in that era, the band were playing to crowds Wayne and Michael had waited 20 years to play in front of. They'd played every dive bar and shitty speed-freak biker club in the United States and Europe to get to this point... ...And this culmination made their history become legend.
The magical studio run from Zaireeka into The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots finally came to an end...a feeling which must've seemed like a decade-long purge of intensive work with Dave Fridmann up at Tarbox.