The electrical service has been fragile lately around Wayne Coyne's home in Oklahoma City. The power's out as he talks on the phone, the result of one of those Sooner State storms this one, he says, isn't that bad. The brainiac electricity in his head, though, seems to be working double-time to make up for it; Coyne's a talker with a freight train of thought that barrels through ideas and answers with little regard to interruptions (call waiting: an interviewer's nightmare) or, often, interaction. He just keeps rolling, thoughtful concepts and answers pouring from his mouth. "People say there's nothing new under the sun," he says. "That's bullshit; I've got 10 ideas right now that have never been done."
Coyne and his band, the Flaming Lips, headline the "1999 International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue," coming to St. Louis this week. Also on the phenomenal quadruple bill are Robyn Hitchcock, Sebadoh and Sonic Boom's E.A.R.
The Flaming Lips have a collective brain that seems to be constantly pushing the needle into the red. Not content to take much for granted, in the past five years the band has experimented with new ways to create and perform music. To wit: experiments in which they gathered dozens of cars in a parking garage and doled out some prerecorded tapes with fragments of compositions on each, then orchestrated a collective stereo performance; the boom-box experiments similar in theory to the car-stereo experiment, though more practical to cram into a club in which the band experimented with 40 portable stereos, creating a symphony of addled sound; 1997's Zaireeka, a four-CD set composed with the intent that all four discs be played simultaneously set up four stereos, synchronize the discs, count to three and hit "play."
"I was looking for this bigger, denser sound without sort of compromising things along the way," says Coyne, in his scratchy voice, of the seeds of the Zaireeka album. "And one day I was probably doing the third or fourth parking-lot thing here (in Oklahoma City, where all three Lips live) one of the people from Warner Bros. (the Lips' record label) was with me. And I just sort of blurted out, "I want to do four CDs that play simultaneously,' and as it came out of my mouth, I thought, "Well, in the real world this will probably get beaten down so much that it will end up being two.' But I said four, and everybody said, "Oooh, that's cool.' And I still waited for the repercussions of "You idiot, why would you want to do that?' And it never came."
The result of their experiments is nothing less than musical epiphany. The boom-box thing, as presented at the Duck Room last year, was revelatory, a stunner of orchestrated sound. Not noise. Not chaos. Rather, blissful order of the most precise nature. The band created true-to-life pop songs out of scraps, piecing them together with the help of 40 audience members, each of whom was issued a stereo and seated as though a member of a symphony. Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steven Drozd then conducted literally, they looked like misfit Vonks with shit-eating grins the boom-box orchestra. A blast.
Same with Zaireeka: In a performance of the experiment in a huge warehouse on Cherokee last year involving four stereos, one in each corner of the space, the sound was all-consuming. In the middle of the room, sound literally surrounds you; Zaireeka appeared in waves of beauty as Coyne's voice floated around the room and rhythms and lush arrangements barraged the listener. It was something brand-new under the sun.
Since forming in 1984 or so, the Flaming Lips have always messed with perceptions. Their early records were obviously influenced not only by psychedelic rock but by psychedelic drugs echo-chamber bursts that combined feedback with punk and garage rock. Gradually their sound grew louder and louder. Live, the Lips seemed to play for the chosen few in the audience who were tripping their brains out: fog out the wazoo; strobe blasts nonstop for two hours; fire; feedback. The Flaming Lips were a visual feast of giddy overindulgence.
Over time the group discovered that the tension of restraint is a tool as powerful as full-blown frenzy and that this tension need not be at odds with melodic beauty. It was this discovery, made around the time they released In a Priest Driven Ambulance, that set them on a path of reconciling extravagance and simplicity.
The band signed with Warner Bros. records, and on their second record for the label, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, bafflingly the Flaming Lips hit the mainstream with the single "She Don't Use Jelly."
Says Coyne of that time: "We always thought, when you're inside the music industry and you have no success in that commercial sense, you feel like, "Oh, there must be a group of five people who rule the world and say, "We like Madonna, so we'll make her popular," or "We like Soundgarden, so we'll make them popular."' And we always thought, well, we don't appeal to this elitist dictatorship, so fuck 'em, and we had resigned ourselves to being controlled by the Man, whoever he is. And then we started to sell records. And we thought, "Well, why is this happening?'" The reason was relatively simple: Beavis and Butt-head. The cartoon pair had a lot of power in 1995, and they used it to promote the Flaming Lips. Then came performances on Beverly Hills 90210 and Late Night with David Letterman.
With the success and the resulting benefits "We made a lot of money," says Coyne they spent a lot of money, got audited and harnessed the power of increased leverage within the label to experiment: parking-lot experiments, boom-box experiments, Zaireeka.
The Flaming Lips' sparkling new album (one CD), The Soft Bulletin, seems to have harnessed the energy of all the experiments, concentrating them into a kind of gooey pop. "When we had a song that didn't work in the four-CD format," Coyne explains, "even a couple years ago we had the foresight to go, "Yeah, but that still works in the normal realm, or the way most people are going to listen to CDs. And as we got finished with the stuff that ended up being on Zaireeka, we had acquired this sort of superhuman strength at arranging and playing. We could spend weeks on songs and still feel energized by it, as opposed to in the past where we would spend and it's normal to spend a week on a song is boring and tedious and you feel as though you've drained the life out of whatever energy and fun you were having with the music. But after working on something like Zaireeka, we could really go weeks and weeks and still feel this purpose and energy to keep giving the song some momentum."
The band seems to be growing more and more fond of sound for sound's sake, mixing the organic with the synthetic, cramming live drums alongside studio slop and drum machines. And on Soft Bulletin, they've added more computer-generated sounds; the band seems especially excited by the new technology invading music. Says Coyne: "I think it's about time that there be some movement or moment in music that you can say, gee, I was there, and it was specific and it was of that time and if you were alive before then it wasn't there, and now I do think that these are times where people are going to be using new sounds that have never been heard before. I think that's a delight, to hear something and think, "What the fuck was that?'
Predictably, at least for the Flaming Lips, the band will be harnessing technology for their upcoming St. Louis show: They'll be issuing headphones to every member of the audience. Says Coyne: "I like the way our stuff sounds best when I hear it in headphones. I can hear everything that's going on in there, and I can turn it up as loud as I want and it doesn't bother anyone else. So I thought, why don't I try and do this at our concerts? So what I've devised and we still have the speaker systems per se, and most clubs, if it's a big club, we'll have them in the front of the room and the back of the room and what we do is we run a stereo signal through an FM transmitter, and we give everyone a little FM receiver and a pair of headphones, and they tune into this frequency that we're using that night. We'll use a band on the FM dial that isn't used by a big rock station in town, and we just transmit our own little frequency right inside the room. It probably goes for a quarter of a mile, but anywhere in the room there you'll be able to hear it. The biggest advantage by doing this is you can listen to the concert and go use the bathroom and not miss a single note."
The 1999 International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue, featuring the Flaming Lips, Robyn Hitchcock, Sebadoh, Khan and Sonic Boom's E.A.R., arrives at Karma on Tuesday, July 13.