“I don’t usually like alternative music, but those guys rocked!” —Steve Saunders (Ian Ziering), “Beverly Hills 90210” ca. 1994, giving props to the Flaming Lips’-synched version of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” their outta-nowhere hit from “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.”
Almost 10 years and one bona fide masterpiece down the rock ’n’ roll road, this is still as typical a response to the Flaming Lips as you’ll likely find. Substitute “I don’t usually like concept records, but …” or “I don’t usually like emotionally direct psychedelic rock operas, but …,” and you’ll start to see a picture forming of the unique charm the Flaming Lips have over otherwise jaded music ears and minds.
The Little Psych-Rock Band That Could from Oklahoma City has, over the course of nearly 20 years, become the One Important Band That Isn’t Afraid to Try Anything. “In not too much longer me and [Lips frontman] Wayne [Coyne] will have known each other for 20 years,” says bassist and original member Michael Ivins. “And I’m not sure what the expectations were but, ‘Hey we’re in a band and hey people give us money to make records and see us play.’” The Zen of the Flaming Lips’ musical trajectory has taken them from 1984’s willfully noisy and oblique guitar freakouts to riding out the early ’90s alternative boom, from “one-hit wonder” to the wildly ambitious Zaireeka, a four-disc set meant to be played simultaneously on four different stereos.
Most recently, the Lips have found their voice in bittersweet, direct and vaguely experimental poperas on albums such as the masterful The Soft Bulletin and this year’s gorgeous follow-up Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. In between, of course, there have been a handful of members lost and found, Coyne’s excursion into conducting a parking lot full of car horns, sample-clearing logjams and other calling cards of a band with a restless spirit. Oh, yeah, and they’ve done it for the past decade with the backing of the most major of major labels, Warner Bros. Who could have planned such a meandering sonic odyssey? Not the Flaming Lips.
“We’ve never really had the opportunity to plan this stuff ahead,” says Ivins, “especially growing up in Oklahoma. There wasn’t someone there that you could look at and say, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what you do.’ Instead we’d say, ‘Bands in general seem to put records out. Maybe we should put out a record.’ At this point we don’t really know how to do anything else. The consistent thing [over the past 18 years] has been just the willingness to really explore ideas,” Ivins continues. “Zaireeka, for example, seemed like such a weird idea that it seemed like we should figure out if we could do it. It really is no accident that we put out a compilation of earlier songs called The Accidental Career. In a way, that’s really how we look at it. One day you’re flipping burgers, and the next you’re wondering, ‘Gosh, what’s going on here?’”
What’s going on with the band now has a lot to do with the release of The Soft Bulletin in 2000, when The Flaming Lips broke into a select group of bands that managed to couple critical accolades with a vague notion of popularity. That record found the Lips a trio (with the help of studio ace-in-the-hole Dave Fridmann), exploring further ideas and expressions of emotional directness and depth that rock doesn’t usually even look in the eye. That The Soft Bulletin could have been read simultaneously as a bombastic concept album/rock opera and a meditative, moving parable on the frailty of the human condition is testament to just how much they can do. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots might be even more moving and effective. Even if it is less narrative (despite the critic-bait album title), it plunges into the heart of hope and darkness. Says Ivins: “I think maybe Yoshimi may be a continuation [of The Soft Bulletin] in the sense that, by the time we got to Soft Bulletin, we were able to home in on how to present songs that said, ‘We’re going to be sad here for about three minutes,’ and then, ‘Here we’re going to be cautiously optimistic for five minutes.’
“People ask if it’s a concept record, and it may be by default. Once the record gets out there it’s really not ours anymore, because people can listen to it and draw their own conclusions. Like putting Dark Side of the Moon on with the Wizard of Oz — is it real? It’s definitely fun and strange, but is that truly what Pink Floyd were thinking about when they were making the record? Probably not, but it’s fun."
The Flaming Lips will play at the Phoenix Plaza Amphitheater Tuesday, Aug. 20 with De La Soul, Modest Mouse. Call 248-333-2362 for details.E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org