THE FLAMING LIPS: MUSIC WITH A PORPOISE
(A conversation with Steven Drozd)
The Flaming Lips tripped out of Oklahoma in the mid-80s. Heralded at the time as Syd Barretts illegitimate punk rock offspring, the band saturated college radio but remained under any radar that translated to sales success. Even the brief Beavis And Butthead inspired buzz of She Dont Use Jelly didnt break the band. Luckily, it didnt break them up either. Following some line-up changes, the now trio grew out of the acerbic, cynical, cooler than thou ethic and into the finest purveyors of cinematic music for the head and heart on the scene. With the release of 1999s The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips finally started to reap the benefits of selling records and reveled in glowing press. Last years Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots cements the bands status as the kings of pop experimentalism. 20 years into their career, The Flaming Lips are at the peak of their craft and success. To prove it, they recently won a Grammy for best instrumental performance for Yoshimis "Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)" and even Justin Timberlake declared himself a fan. Not only that, but Timberlake actually donned a dolphin costume and sat in on bass during the Lips appearance on Britains Top Of The Pops. I recently had a chance to speak with Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd about their late ascent to acceptance, strobe light necklaces and getting drunk in Athens.
Chris McKay: How have The Flaming Lips managed to survive and even flourish under the notoriously bottom line oriented auspices of a major record deal?
Steven Drozd: I dont know. We just barely survived the downfall of the boom era of the alternative rock movement. When the axe fell and people were getting fired, we wouldnt be talked about that week. We didnt have a record that had just come out, so they just forgot about us! We thought The Soft Bulletin would be our last record so we just decided to fucking do what we wanted to do. We wanted to do heavier music with strings and we just wanted to do some new stuff. We thought, Well, nows the time to do it, because were probably not going to stay on the label anyway, but people loved it and that encouraged us to say, Hey, we can do what we want and get by okay! After the success of that record, Warner Brothers have been totally behind us one hundred percent, which is really cool.
CM: And youre still evolving. Originally, the Lips seemed very confrontational and cynical, whereas now the material is very openhearted and sentimental.
SD: I know what you mean. Thats Wayne (Coyne, Flaming Lips frontman). He writes all of the lyrics and ten years ago he was more like, I dont want to play this game. Im cool. Im going to turn my back on the audience. Im going to try to kill you with volume because I dont want to talk to you. People change I guess. Just look at Michael Stipe. Hes the perfect example. He used to stand at the mic stand muttering and now Im surprised he doesnt do Divas Las Vegas!
CM: The Flaming Lips have the kind of music that inspires an almost literally cult-like following. Do the fans that read too much into what youre doing ever freak you out a little?
SD: Yeah, sometimes well see people at like six shows in a row and they hang on like its their whole life, you know? I worry a little bit. Its creepy sometimes. At first, youre like, Cool! Weve got some hard core fans. Then youll see them outside saying, We drove a thousand miles and the shows sold out. If you dont get us in, I dont know whats going to happen! There was a kid from the Chicago area who started to show up at a lot of shows. I guess his parents were really rich. At first it was cool, then he started showing up in England and Europe. Wherever we were playing, he would be there. It was really bizarre. It got to the point where hed help us do this and that. Then, he was in our dressing rooms all day eating our food and not doing anything except lying on the couch. We had to cut him loose, you know? Thats the tough part. I didnt do it personally, but Wayne was like, Look, Buddy. Youve got to give us more space. This isnt working out.
CM: So you had to break up with him?
SD: Basically. Its just weird. People after a while are just clueless to their own mistakes when they get so obsessed.
CM: On the other
side of that, (especially with the content of the last few records) is the healing effect
you can have on people.
CM: On the other side of that, (especially with the content of the last few records) is the healing effect you can have on people.
SD: I think thats fucking awesome. Not to sound hokey, but I know weve all been through times where music is the one fucking thing that gets you through the day. I know its saved my life many, many times. So Im glad we can give that back to the people (laughs). You cant just take it, youve got to give it back. Im starting to sound like Neil Diamond.
CM: And the shows are all about that elusive connection. What can we expect when you hit Athens this time?
SD: Imagine Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd with The Wizard Of Oz with Wayne Newton in Las Vegas and The Butthole Surfers in 1987. Maybe Im making it sound too great, but its fun. Over the last few years, its just been slowly, slowly getting to where it is now. Weve got fucking animals onstage, weve got confetti cannons, weve got smoke machines and Waynes got a strobe light he wears as a fucking necklace.
CM: Do you enjoy all of that madness? Does it keep it interesting or just get on your nerves?
SD: Ill be the first to say Im really sick of it, but while just getting up and playing might be fun for me, I think the paying audience would be like, Damn, they dumbed it down. Im not against what were doing; I think its great. Theres a lot of entertainment for your alterna-rock dollar, but Im kind of sick of wearing the animal suits.
CM: You need to rope in one of the R.E.M. guys to get up onstage in a bunny suit here in Athens!
SD: Wouldnt that be great? Who would it be, though? Michael Stipe would seem way too fucking creepy. The first time we came through Athens we were opening for The Throwing Muses and I tried to get Michael Stipe to give me an autograph and he wouldnt do it. I dont know if Id wanna see him (in a bunny costume). Bill Berry would just look like a dufus. Maybe Mike Mills, I dont know. The second time we came through, there was a big party. I remember I was really drunk and it was like five oclock in the morning and Mike Mills was there and I was like pissing my pants. Of course, I havent liked an R.E.M. record since 1986 or 1987, but theyre titans in the alternative rock world, you know? I was sitting there talking to him and I asked why they decided to turn the reverb up on the bass track of Seven Chinese Brothers at the very end, which was a total fan question. He was like, Hey man, youre on your way to becoming a producer asking questions like that. So actually I have a lot of fond memories of Athens.
CM: Is Athens the first date of the American tour?
SD: You know whats weird is that the last show we played was in Athens, Greece and now were starting this next tour in Athens, Georgia. I thought that was really cool.
(To read the unedited, juicier version of the interview, click here!)