The Flaming Lips are normal. Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd are just humans with wives and children and dogs and mortgages. Heck, they hail from Oklahoma, work hard, play hard, and dress one leg at a time—though many nights dressing involves a 20-pound, shag-poly-blend pink-elephant suit.
But don’t let grown men dressed in animal costumes who smear fake blood on their heads fool you into thinking they’re shamans, sages or—in any way—above the fray. Despite all the press, films, interviews and myths hailing their freakishness, they don’t have super powers. Nor are they at war with “the mundane”—they don’t believe in that word. They believe truth is always stranger than fiction, and that every experience is part of the adventure. The Flaming Lips don’t have all the answers, and never claim to; they just ask really good questions.
“If we sink I wonder who will be in my lifeboat?” Ivins wonders, sitting in a glittering, mirrored ballroom aboard the cruise ship Paradise, wearing his built-on sunglasses and a Day-Glo-orange life jacket. Although he’s part of the main attraction for everyone onboard, the Lips’ bass player goes unnoticed while video-taping 700 other people similarly accessorized. Like everyone else, he’s listening attentively to the thickly accented Bavarian woman squawking various emergency scenarios through her megaphone. Disembarking from Long Beach, Calif., on the way to Ensenada, Mexico, iceberg fear is low. But engine fires, terrorist attacks and accidental torpedo strikes from naval submarines have everyone furtively scanning the room to see who they might be partnered with in case of a real-life remake of The Poseidon Adventure. I tell Ivins I’ve got his back if anything goes down and then casually challenge him to a game of shuffleboard on the Lido deck. Kliph—a former band stalker and now their touring drummer—warns, “He’s a shuffle shark.”
Ivins scoffs. “Well, I haven’t played in awhile, so I’m rusty.” When pressed on how long it’s been, he contemplates before deadpanning, “Two weeks.”
His rim shot echoes as Paradise’s engines kick to life and the Hues Corporation tune “Rock the Boat” helps ease the ship out of her slip, setting the mood from every cheap speaker. As we navigate back to our cabins, side-stepping a boa-strewn female body builder, a pair of Thai-speaking flame-jugglers, three Captain Stubings escorting one very hairy Julie McCoy, a posse of stilt-wearing, hula-hooping contortionists, several drug-sniffing German Shepherds, and the entire crew of Life Aquatic’s Team Zissou (drunkenly asking everyone if they’ve “seen Steve”), it becomes evident. The Flaming Lips are the sanest people onboard.
This three-day “Groove Cruise of The Pacific” is called Xingolati, and its organizers promise “an onslaught of peak experiences through an evolving sensual journey crossing over and dissolving boundaries.” Along with several Burning Man and Bonnaroo alumni acts like Medeski Martin & Wood, G. Love and Special Sauce, Banyan, and DJ Logic, The Flaming Lips have been tapped as the house band for this floating den of iniquity.
With such lofty aspirations for mind-bending splendor, it’s almost too obvious to have The Flaming Lips provide the musical backdrop. Throughout the band’s 23-year history, it has encapsulated all that’s difficult to define. Though “freaks,” “biker pirates,” “berserkers,” “aliens,” “lunatics,” “fiends” and “garish madmen” seem the stickiest labels, these trite monikers belie the underbelly of a far greater beast. Not to say there’s an unexplored side of The Flaming Lips no one has discovered; there isn’t. In fact, it’s the very extent of their accessibility and transparency that makes the Lips so exceptionally ordinary and ordinarily exceptional.
Maybe it was the absurdity of playing blackjack in the casino until the wee hours with G. Love, a priest and some castaways from La Cage Aux Folles, or maybe just the Dramamine, but my dreams centered on performance anxiety. More specifically, the apprehension of playing one note on a triangle at some fantastical Lips show on a cloud overlooking all of mankind. No amount of willpower can move my disembodied hand to strike a note. And not just any note—the note on which all others rest. Shamed and embarrassed, I leave the stage and begin the long panicked fall to earth sans parachute. Scared awake, I carry the dream guilt to my shuffle showdown with Ivins. When he learns how I ruined the cloud gig, he buys me a couple Pilsners and tells me, “Don’t sweat it, we’ve all been there.”
It turns out the court is occupied by various dreadlocked red-nosed clowns in thongs, so we make our way to the relative quiet of the upper deck. When the Lips play “What Star Wars Character would you be?” Ivins ends up R2D2, and with his calm, capable, unsung-hero demeanor and knack for doing the stuff no else wants to, it’s easy to see why. Overlooking the touristy shores of Ensenada, we sit on the abandoned volleyball court discussing the cult-of-personality comparisons that hang like albatrosses on all rock bands of critical notoriety, and also how people learn to coexist with their perceived selves.
“Take a band like The Who,” Ivins says. “There’s plenty cult of personality. But I think, even when they were starting out, they were rock stars just because of the way they played it and lived it. It wasn’t some plastic-model kit where you just take a cute guy and a cute gal and give ’em some songs, and you’re all good-to-go. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I mean, I like Duran Duran as much as the next guy—but when it comes to us, we’ve always been conscious that our stage persona was an act. Especially since, in the beginning, we weren’t very good. But we’ve never been anything but ourselves, musically.”
The Lips were indeed awful when they started, but their primordial psychedelic-punk noise machine was distinctly their own. And it was loud. What captured early audiences certainly wasn’t the band’s chops while playing the Batman theme over and over; it was the youthful bravado and maniacal penchant for poor-man’s pyrotechnics, like revving a motorcycle onstage for a smoke machine and amplifying the exhaust pipe to give the low-end that extra kick. They became musicians because there simply wasn’t much else to do. Like Horace Walpole’s Three Princes of Serendip, the Lips’ well-documented history for right-place/right-time aptitude wasn’t merely desirable coincidence but was birthed from the tempered fires of their own uncharted design. With a hard-working, fun-loving ethos delivering them through various incarnations, debacles and triumphs, it’s easy to add them to the long, trite list titled, “Survivors of Rock ’n’ Roll Decadence.” From being “big in Japan” to the revolving cast of drummers, it all seems very Spinal Tap. But in actuality, it’s refreshingly nothing more than a couple buddies trying to make interesting music to just… well, keep things interesting.
The conversation turns to how no other band touring today could appear on any bill in rock ’n’ roll and have it make sense. And this is because the Lips’ audience demographic has no parameters. You have a pulse? Welcome aboard. You don’t have a pulse? Hell, come along anyway, and we’ll help you find it. Truth is, once you take a bite of their bright, shiny apple you better be prepared. The oddity is unlike that of other road-show stalwarts like Phish or the Grateful Dead, whose colorful flocks would go to great lengths, traveling untold miles for entire tours. The Flaming Lips don’t need to bring the circus along for the ride; they are the circus.
The Oklahoma state motto is Labor omnia vincit (Labor Conquers All Things), and it’s suitable for everyone involved with The Flaming Lips. Like earnest carnies keeping the three rings afloat, everyone in the band’s small, traveling family does his part to set up the show. During load-in, there’s no posse of guitar and drum techs barking orders at black-clad stagehands or some roadie hierarchy not to be questioned for fear of being pummeled by heavy-handed union grunts. Instead, the band, manager Scott Booker, road manager/sound engineer Chris Chandler and the one official stage man, Justin Duda, all carry equipment. Feeling awkward and left out, I grab an amp. Up close and personal, the Lips’ equipment oozes the essence of the their live show. Amps hand-painted in kaleidoscopic pastels, lightly faded and scarred. Instruments nicked, chipped, bandaged and retooled, but better for the wear. Animal costumes marinated in years of funk and dry ice. Travel cases ready to put up a good fight when it counts. Pink, yellow and orange fluorescent duct tape everywhere—wrapping mic stands; labeling carrying cases, the translucent pink drum kit, cords and effect pedals; patching inflatable Martian and sun suits, smoke machines and giant bubble guns—all carrying scraps of old set lists, balloons and gummed-up balls of glitter, fake blood and paper streamers. Everything is covered with a thin veneer of sweat and earth—the staples of any Lips show.
When all the amps and instruments start humming with power, and Wayne finishes sweeping the entire stage, I take a seat in the near-empty theater with the band’s photographer/cosmic-stabilizer, Wayne’s wife, J. Michelle Martin-Coyne. I tell her the load-in feels like watching clowns set up the tent pole before going into makeup; at first glance, it all looks a little rickety and unsafe, but the show’s dazzling camouflage makes the cracks seem to vanish.
She nods and adds, “Being the main attraction is a never-ending effort, but luckily the line is blurred with what they define as work. Like at home on Halloween, we go through a tremendous effort to put on the creepiest, scariest show, and that’s saying something because we live in the ’hood. Speakers blasting eerie sound-effects from all corners, limbs, fake blood, chains, monster insects, masks, knives, strobe lights, you name it. We go to great lengths to scare the hell out of kids. But the entire experience is a blast from start to finish, and it is always memorable.”
While the cacophony of tuning and the prancing feedback of soundcheck ping-pong around the mirrored room, Coyne dutifully tests his high-powered streamer-launcher for power and distance, “like any good professional.” Funny, but true—even during warm-ups, the Lips’ frontman is never really off the job.
Afterward, I join G. Love, Special Sauce and the extended Lips family for their pre-show repast in the Captain’s private dining room. The meal is cordial and relaxed. Wine uncorked and bread broken, the conversation rambles from backing Beck on Conan (with Coyne sitting Indian-style under a blanket, playing a triangle with fellow guest Ted Danson) to Justin Timberlake wearing a dolphin suit while playing bass with the Lips on Top Of The Pops. These bizarre brushes with celebrity aren’t discussed with some nonchalant, life-of-a-rock-star shrug—they’re shared with genteel enthusiasm and deep chuckles aimed at spotlighting the absurdity of life.
At one point, there was a conscious decision to make Coyne more of a celebrity—with some subversive placements like car ads, kids shows, videogames, 90210—in Salvador Dali style. I say Dali, because unlike other mediocre talent striving for pop iconolatry, he had the artistic merit to back the perceived lunacy.
“I don’t know if we ever sat down and said this could work,” recalls Coyne. “I think there were elements as we started to do more stuff with The Soft Bulletin—you could see these iconic instances where you could say, ‘He’s this crazy old guy who pours blood on his head, and he’s wearing these white suits,’ even though I hardly ever wore white suits. But it would seem like this kind of drug-dealer mystic who arrived from outer space, and I love all that sort of mythology and imagery anyway. And I can easily understand that it’s not real, but it’s more fun to think of it as being attached to my superego when I’m up there singing these songs of love or death. But I also think it’s just this great persona for a rock ’n’ roll guy to have.
“We all want it to be an extraordinary moment when we’re there—not because we’re extraordinary, but because we can create something that’s extraordinary. We have the audience, we have The Flaming Lips, we have the power of music in general that pulls the whole thing together, and then the people have exaggerated elements of their personality that make the whole night sort of unpredictable and all the better. But rock ’n’ roll has to have that—if the guys onstage are really just like the audience, then I think the audience after awhile is like, ‘Why don’t I go up there and do it?’”
It seems a Skywalker tag would be apt then?
“It makes sense. You can’t have too much ambiguity or gray area up front; you do want to have this sort of extrovert, eccentric, opinionated person. Even if I’m looked at as a fool, it’s better than simply being ignored. And that’s part of the appeal of anybody that goes onstage. We really would rather stand there and go for it and look like idiots than play it safe and say, ‘Well at least we didn’t look like fools.’”
Stories continue spinning, pre-show, in the dressing room, and while G. Love sends his infectious, bluesy grooves and wafting warbles down the hallway, Drozd and I sit in a nearby sub-like stairwell, crack open a smuggled bottle of Kentucky bourbon and discuss family. If Ivins is R2D2, and Coyne, Skywalker, then the multi-instrumentalist Drozd is surely Han Solo. With him, the sticky nouns are genius, prodigy, credible witness, virtuoso, curmudgeon, heavyweight, composer and bullshit detector. Also, father and husband. Drozd is the first band member to produce Lips offspring, a baby boy, and like any proud papa, he doesn’t hesitate to show me pictures. In talking about the bonds of fatherhood and marriage, it’s clear he’s made hyperspace leaps and bounds from the first time I saw him in his Soft Bulletin drug-induced haze. For when it comes to the band, all topics of conversation are delivered with matter-of-fact directness. What could easily be mistaken for jaded apathy is actually respect for how the others let him experience his addiction without interference of ultimatums; they simply left the light on for him. Not strangely, the Lips’ major commercial success has followed Steven’s ascent out of the stupor.
With streaks of gray in his hair and some of the dark circles under his eyes gone, his smile seems more at-the-ready, even if stemming from his biting wit, for he still doesn’t suffer fools, as evident in the way he steps over an unconscious, toga-wearing, pacifier-clutching college girl surrounded by onboard medics, quipping, “Must be some good ecstasy, I wonder where she got it?”
Although his sardonic sarcasm masks his elation at being drug-free, just because he’s clean doesn’t mean he’s squeaky. To that end, I try to keep pace, holding the bottle as he changes into his pink-elephant suit. When asked his feelings about the costume, he’s to the point. “Love/hate. But rituals can help keep you sane in a mad world.”
He takes back the bourbon and gives me fair warning before walking onstage. “It isn’t smart to go head-on with a former drug addict, but come and grab it if you want it.” Even Drozd’s gruff demeanor welcomes as many peeks behind the velvet curtain as necessary to prove once-and-for-all, there is no great and powerful wizard, just a bunch of dry-ice and disco balls.
Although it seems unlikely, just in case anybody in the audience hasn’t yet experienced a Flaming Lips show, the band gives its own rendition of a public-service announcement by flashing a little message on the monster video screen before taking the stage. “Tonight the world will begin again … and it will be glorious and fantastical … your life will change … And you will say … ‘F— yeah.’”
The audience’s animal suits have been passed out and the smoke machines and strobes fired up. Showtime. The band opens with the blown-speaker drum distortion and synthetic orchestral twinkling of the majestic “Race for the Prize.” Coyne—looking like a disheveled businessman skipping home after a three-day peyote bender with his Bride-of-Frankenstein shag, tailored three-piece, wrinkled shirt and fly-away collar—bellows the chorus to the glee of all in attendance: “They’re just humans with wives and children!”
Just when I was certain I couldn’t imagine what goes through Coyne’s mind as he stands there belting notes, trying to increase the pulse of the gathered with his lyrical laser, the fish-eye camera on the microphone gives a straight shot up Coyne’s well-groomed nostrils and into his happy frontal lobe. He inhales deeply before stopping the room in its tracks for a few seconds, demurely offering… “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.”
Touchdown, we have recognition; pulsing unfettered madness erupts as the Lips slide into Queen’s complete manifestation of all things kitschy and enduring—“Bohemian Rhapsody.” With a nod to the Lips’ prog-rock roots and a wink to the other Wayne’s world, Drozd and Coyne cap the song’s legendary, pre-guitar-solo crescendo with a tightly squealed “…for me!” before launching full-throttle into fever-pitch headbanging. Bedlam ensues as millions of darting lights collide with confetti bombs and bursting balloons. Ecstatic vibration and rumbling delirium blur the night. People don’t know whether to get naked or duck for cover as the musical Blitzkrieg is interrupted only by a couple onstage marriage proposals. The onslaught of stimuli comes from all directions—the crab-faced nun puppet singing Yoshimi’s aria, ship waiters pushing vodka Red Bulls, bull-dodging rodeo clowns and Teletubby rainbow dances. Contraband clouds hang in the air threatening rain while corralled feedback and talk-box fervor swirl through anime starbursts. Kliph wields mallets like a four-fisted Thor trapped in a barefoot panda suit. Heavy-metal droning explodes the joy machine with “Slow Nerve Damage.” Stage-hand Duda climbs out of the inflatable Martian suit, having just dropped between two and three pounds of sweat, while Drozd ends each song with a chipmunk-on-helium “Thank you.” Coyne leads a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” sung simultaneously to “ErinLisaJoeBrianMacandChris,” before the revamped “She Don’t Use Jelly” with a Cheers-theme tease giving way to a “body blow/body blow” twofer of “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The touching dedication to “Dubya” brings the show to raise-your-lighter/honk-your-horn adieu. “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “War Pigs?” Now that’s a straight shot from A to B if I ever heard one. Coyne laughs, “Isn’t it? I’m telling ya. We’ve changed since we started playing that song. You better watch out.”
It isn’t until the music and fist-pumping stops that everyone notices the ship is rocking. Whether from the Lips’ virile display of bacchanal panache or the 800 people jumping around wanting more, 70,367 tons of steel is swaying like a drunken sailor. Although my initial bet was on the extended drum circle on the upper promenade, the Southern California Seismic Network later informs us it was a 4.9 earthquake 27 miles off the port bow. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, this time, the rim shot belongs to the Hues Corporation.
Backstage, Wayne tries to wash his fake-blood-soaked shirt in the tiny bathroom sink. Even with the boat’s tipsy waltz causing mild seasickness and Ivins’ monitor shorting out every few songs, the band exceeded the crowd’s high expectations. Standing in the empty ballroom, surveying the battlefield’s carnage, it’s awe-inspiring how these guys incite chaos and welcome the ensuing calamity as if all by some grand design. Having worn the aqua leopard suit onstage years ago, I can attest to the veracity of the moth-to-the-flame effect. However, if tonight’s pandemonium is indicative of its ever-growing prevalence, you have to wonder if Coyne feels there’s a line where he still has a responsibility to the audience to uphold some sense of concert decorum.
“Oh, I don’t know. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen have been because there was a catastrophe in there—[the band] didn’t just play the songs right and the PA was perfect, and the lights all worked. Usually, the best ones are like The Rolling Stones at Altamont. You know shit happened, and because shit happened people revealed more about themselves because they couldn’t fake it. It wasn’t the routine, it wasn’t perfect, and I love that. So in the way we perform, we just invite whatever f—ing chaos can happen and say, ‘Bring it on!’ because it will be the greatest moment ever. Coachella  was a perfect example of that. I mean, if you were onstage with us, you would have seen what a catastrophe the entire thing was. The stage crew for a festival, through no fault of its own, is always a mess. Half the time, your monitors don’t work, and the electricity doesn’t work, and you just have to go on anyway.
“But the mass hypnosis effect of everybody saying ‘Ah, he’s in that space bubble; it was awesome.’ You know when 10 people say something is awesome, it’s hard for one person to say no. And when it’s a hundred people saying something, it’s hard for anyone to argue with it. So when you get 60,000 people saying, ‘That was a great moment,’ well, you just get in line and say, ‘You’re right. That was a great moment.’ And you don’t even remember the little awkward things that were happening.”
Like any person ending a shift, Coyne likes to let off a little steam, so he grabs his streamer shotgun and tears through the halls on a joyous rampage, shooting rainbow paper from the top deck of a six-story glass atrium turning the main bar at the bottom into a deranged diorama of Bourbon Street, where the only breasts visible belong to a 300-plus-pound man-child clad in a two-sizes-too-small diaper and “Happy New Year” sash. Failing to keep stride with Coyne, I find my way back to the bar with Drozd and continue my quixotic quest, only to find that rock ’n’ roll windmills never fall asleep in lounge chairs on lido decks wrapped in yoga mats.
Labor omnia vincit. There is no rest for the bleary when on the job. The point is jackhammered home when hundreds of crispy rogues and bloodshot misfits shuffle back into the dark, air-conditioned womb of a theater early the next day to see Coyne, still clad in the same suit and shirt, seemingly hemorrhaging from a massive shaving wound, gesticulating like a caffeinated club extra from Scarface. He’s introducing longtime friend and video director Bradley Beesley’s extensive, intimate and unflinching Flaming Lips documentary, The Fearless Freaks. The filmic celebration of the band is notches above the average rockumentary in that it captures the ironic nature of a bunch of Okies who go from a familial garage band to festival headliners without once showing an ounce of undue arrogance or egotistical pretense. They live and sing not about bling or belt notches, but for the labor and love of being in a band, communing with the muses and masses, no matter how sinister or celestial.
Having already seen the film, I focus on the audience’s reaction to the now-notorious scene of Drozd shooting junk and Coyne’s straight-ahead handling of his friend’s impending mortality. The chapter magnifies the Lips’ ability to call it like they see it—beautiful, ugly or both. The once-raucous crowd doesn’t gasp or seem squeamish. The reaction is unnerving—more so when the news of a woman’s fatal suicide overdose from the first night aboard vibrates through the grapevine. Right or wrong, no matter the catastrophe, the show goes on.
Alongside some of the other acts, the band sets up shop at the back of the dining room for a one-hour meet-and-greet. Two hours later, all the other acts are poolside while the Lips’ line is still literally out the door. Even though the swells from the earthquake and last night’s decadence keep the ship noticeably swaying, the band makes every self-described fan, freak, square, convert and plushie feel individually appreciated as if they were all sitting around the stoop talking about last night’s game. Every question is answered with serious consideration.
“Why play ‘War Pigs?’”
“Precise, simple, evil, yet understated rock guitar—just what I like in a political tune.”
“Would you consider dressing up onstage as the Jolly Green Giant or the Kosher Stork?”
“If we were given a lifetime supply of green beans and pickles, why not?”
“Do you prefer a cold day in front of a fire or hot day in front of an air conditioner?”
“I’m a guy who likes an air conditioner on a cold day.”
Every picture request is also answered with a smile. Coyne stands and sits about 150 times in less than three hours. For their patience and generosity, they’re inundated by offerings—scarves from the “scarf brigade,” song suggestions, heart-shaped bubble wands, rubber knot bells, poems written by fans no longer living, and a pair of clear-plastic-ball Christmas ornaments/earrings with mini-Waynes tumbling around inside (commemorating Wayne’s infamous entrance at Coachella 2004). Not surprisingly, the final audience is with a mute dressed head-to-toe in a “Sylvester the Puddy Tat” costume. Also not surprisingly, Wayne manages to have a somewhat in-depth conversation with the stranger about stalking and how great/terrifying it would be to have him/her in a low-budget horror film. Satisfied with his answer, the cat moves on, and the band gets to eat cold pizza. When I ask Drozd how Coyne keeps the troops motivated, he mentions that this wasn’t half bad—once Wayne kept at it for over eight hours at a meet-and-greet in Los Angeles.
Later, after a rare performance of Zaireeka—the Lips’ four-discs-played-simultaneously sound-source experiment—in the low-lit, high-energy casino-vibed Queen Mary Lounge, I ask Ivins how the band continues coaxing endorphins night after night, under all circumstances, and still seemingly enjoys it. Surrounded by a din of effusive whoops and hollers from emotionally and chemically charged well-wishers, he shouts, “Look, in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, they’re doing these faster-than-light space-jumps every 33 minutes because they’re constantly being chased. This is going on for close to five days, so everyone is flat out—the officers, the fighters, the pilots, the maintenance crew, everyone. And the deck chief keeps telling everyone, ‘We’ll sleep when we’re dead.’ I mean, what a great line, and that just goes for life in general. It’s like, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun while we’re here.’”
He raises his beer to toast. Steven jumps in adding, “But here’s to getting off the boat.” Indeed.
Three months and 3,000 miles from the warm waters of Mexico—in Fredonia, N.Y., 50 miles south of Buffalo, after a balmy 12-degree night—Wayne is putting on his tennis shoes for a run. The band is in the studio of Dave Fridmann (the “Fifth Flaming Lip”), finishing its astonishing new album, At War with the Mystics. With only a few months to go before the official release date, the Lips are in full bunker mode. When in Fredonia, they swing to the opposite side of their professional pendulum; the extroverts go inside. “Yeah we kind of live like monks up here,” says Coyne. “We get up and eat breakfast together. We work together. We go to sleep at the same time. It’s a lot like living in the army.”
Though this will be the first LP The Flaming Lips have released since 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and though they haven’t really toured much in the interim, the band has somehow grown exponentially more popular and, thus, is in far greater demand, as demonstrated by our time on the ship. Inexplicably, this four-year “break” from the industry’s grind has propelled the Lips into the collective music psyche of Joe Public. Even Coyne can’t deny the cresting wave.
“You’re absolutely right, but I think it’s just dumb luck,” he says. “Some of it goes back to playing Coachella. You go out there in the dumb space bubble, and it’s in magazines and people talk about it and a month later I’m on MTV in the space bubble. And, given a choice, I think journalists would rather write about The Flaming Lips doing anything rather than Hillary Duff’s new record. And if given an opportunity, given a peek at popularity, a lot of people will come to our rescue.”
The band’s company-retreat-meets-boot-camp mentality in the studio didn’t slow its momentum one bit—the album’s aptly titled opener, “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” immediately lays waste to any notion of the Lips going soft on their 12th full-length. With a marching Bo Diddley beat and Ivins rattling the low-end cage with m-80 bass bombs, Drozd sets his guitar phasers on stun, backing Coyne’s barbed power-hooks with talk-box euphoria. And it’s only the kiddie-crack teaser to the juicier fare lurking inside.
Of course, as with past offerings, the basic recipe—pour a heavy-metal drum mixture under some thick orchestral drama, sprinkle it with synthesized sweetness and layered acoustic existential ponderings, sung with simple bittersweet sincerity, and voila, a Flaming Lips record—still applies, but this time the three amigos have added some piss ’n’ vinegar to the batter. Ivins continues his sonic strafing track-after-track, packing endorphins and harmonic intensity into tight little rhythmic packages that detonate in your face when you least expect them too. While on Yoshimi, Drozd coerced Kraftwerk-via-Asian-cinema themes to masterful ear-popping heights; on Mystics, he whips up a symphonic smorgasbord of yesteryear influences. In dusting off musical artifacts and digging into their DNA, the band has formed better melodies while simultaneously creating a delightful, wickedly unstable environment in which highly charged sound electrons threaten to collapse the musical paradigm at any moment. Who knew pushing something off its age-old axis could be so much fun?
Lyrically, The Flaming Lips have always been experts at luring listeners into conversation by asking relevant personal questions. Without getting overly analytical or poeticizing it by delving into every nuance of every word, they adamantly champion discourse between their words and the listener’s beliefs, making it clear that—agree or disagree—being passively force-fed kills the soul. Luckily, being proactive with Flaming Lips material isn’t very difficult—they sing about grand schemes and hungry power struggles between arrogance and humility, fanaticism and passivity, ego and id, and all the other conflicting elements of humanity. And you can dance to it.
“There are elements of Flaming Lips records that become sort of fantastical and childlike,” Coyne says, “and we have to think, ‘Is that believable? Or is that just sort of a cloud that comes o? this thing we do?’ And so there are times when I feel like we should say some things that aren’t necessarily, ‘Life is grand and beautiful, and we should just all live in the moment.’ We should say some things once in a while that make us believable. The element of Xingolati we didn’t like was the idea that, regardless of what happens, ‘It’s all good, brother,’ you know? Or, ‘There’s nothing that can harm us as long as we’re escaping reality anyway.’ I don’t want people to think that’s the way I believe. I’m not doing that, because we don’t have anything to escape to. Life—as horrible and as much suffering and as much failure that’s involved in it—if we don’t talk about it or we don’t mention being frustrated or feeling we’ve been ripped off, then the other side of it doesn’t seem believable either. It’s the truth, so why not speak it?”
Trading in generalities can be dangerous, but most popular music centers on a defined shared experience—a road trip, a memory, a kiss. But the Lips explore the philosophical pheromones of our species. They’re not mere Dionysian dilettantes or symbolic court jesters, but warriors of the genuine—turning over rocks with epistemological aplomb. However, to preach their findings wouldn’t only be pedantic; it’d be disingenuous—akin to finding the primer that unlocks all mysteries in that nanosecond between dream and awake, when you turn over to tell your husband or wife, “I just figured out the essence of it all.” And as the words escape your lips they deflate into nothingness.
“Well, it doesn’t have the mystery [then],” says Coyne, “and it doesn’t have the emotion that goes with it. And that’s what we all miss, and that’s what we want out of art. It’s a subjective experience. So I’m saying something, but you’re injecting your life into that, and that’s going to make it more powerful. I think, if anything, when art is at its worst, it seems like it’s just someone giving you their opinion and saying, ‘Hey, you don’t matter; it’s all about me.’ When art really works best is when it’s a suggestion to put your life into this painting or this novel or this music and maybe, suddenly, it’ll mean something to you. But to understand how it works or why it works? F— if I know.”
Listening to Coyne over the last few months it’s easy to see why the band titled its new album At War with the Mystics. But it’s much more difficult to save rock ’n’ roll from all the blue-jeaned, stoic-faced upstarts who claim they’re saving it; more difficult to swallow the gobbledy-gook spewing of artists who act as if they’ve transcended ordinary human knowledge. To this end, the demystification of shamans, seers and freakish rock stars is a noble pursuit.
“If we use that title, [At War with the Mystics, to refer to] someone who believes they’ve gained insight, or who is seeing something the ‘normal’ person doesn’t see, or somehow has glimpsed the supernatural, or comes along and tries to debunk what’s normal or what we see as our normal life, and [they] say, ‘This is nothing—you should see what I see,’ I say, ‘F— you.’ Life is beautiful for everybody; you don’t have to have gone up to the mountain and come back down and say, ‘Look, I know things you don’t know.’ Normal life for normal people is already a f—in’ great acid trip of unknown adventures, and anytime anybody tries to make it seem like it’s not, ‘f— ’em.’
“The thing I hate most is when I read interviews by rock stars or anybody who says, ‘I could never work a nine-to-five job—to me that’s just torture,’ because I wonder who’s reading that? Imagine you’re a guy working in a nine-to-five job, and all they’re telling you is that you’re just a chump for accepting this as a life. Come on, if you’re not a rock star or some f—ing movie star, then you’re not even worth paying attention to? I don’t believe that at all. I mean, I believe that everyone’s life is kinda normal, including mine.”