Two days after the release of the Flaming Lips' brand-new album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, band member Steven Drozd is in that zone somewhere between exhilaration and exhaustion, having survived in the last 48 hours a flurry of radio interviews, phoners to plug the Lips' appearance on the "Unlimited Sunshine" tour, a concert at LA's Knitting Factory and an out-of-hand in-store appearance at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.
"They had to turn people away from the store," Drozd says, sounding amazed. "A couple hundred people didn't get in. It was complete insanity."
But better, he reasons, than if the opposite had happened: "Right, the Spin¨al Tap syndrome. You have a record signing and no one is there."
Nearly twenty years into the Oklahoma City band's existence and more than a decade since Drozd came on board alongside founding members Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins, people are there more than ever for the Flaming Lips -- relatively speaking, that is. Notwithstanding their fluke hit of nine years ago, "She Don't Use Jelly," the group poses no long-term threat to the chart-topping primacy of Nelly or Eminem -- not when that new album boasts a conceptual suite of songs about a young girl who battles a robot in a gladiator-style match and wins because the robot falls in love with her, throws the match and kills himself.
"That's Wayne and his overly fertile imagination," Drozd says with an admiring chuckle. "We had the music for "Yoshimi Pt. 2," that kooky instrumental with crazy drums and weird synths and stuff, and it had no title at that point. And Wayne said, 'Well, that seems really cartoonish and cinematic. You can almost see the music going along with a video or a cartoon or something.' And at the same time, we were friends with this woman Yoshimi [P-We], who is in a band called the Boredoms. She did some screaming on a couple of tracks and played some trumpet.
"'Yoshimi Pt. 1' was just a little four-track recording I gave to Wayne, and he liked it. I never know what he's going to write for lyrics. But he came back with that 'Oh Yoshimi' part. I was, like, 'I'm not sure about that: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- what's that all about?' But if you give it a couple of days, it sort of sinks in and you find yourself singing the tune."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new album, though, is the fervor with which Coyne and company take on big issues such as the nature of love, the precariousness of human life and the difficulty of living in the present moment.
"I guess some ways, lyrically and philosophically, I can see that as a continuation of The Soft Bulletin," Drozd says, citing the band's 1999 release. "Wayne told me that what he wanted to do was have these heavy philosophical subjects covered but in a more lighthearted manner -- that is, some of the music would be lighter and more fun, but the lyrics would still have this sort of heaviness to them. With The Soft Bulletin, you've got some depressing music and some depressing lyrics and some kind of overly contemplative stuff. On this one, especially on a musical level, we thought we were getting more playful with some of the more electronica kind of things -- drumbeats and sounds and loops instead of the heavy-handed orchestral stuff from the previous album."
Does the overall thoughtfulness of Yoshimi mean that the man who spent a fair amount of their last tour pouring fake blood on his head and using puppets to illustrate his points has -- dare we say it? -- matured at last? Yes and no.
"We were talking just the other day about how you'll have artists who start to mature and evolve," Drozd says. "The maturity thing sometimes seems to equal getting bored or toning the music down to where you don't have such crazy elements in there anymore. We want to have these more mature themes but keep the music as interesting as possible -- keep the weirdness or the edginess or whatever you want to call it, but then throw in the heavier lyrical content."
Indeed, the music on Yoshimi is as edgy and intriguing as you'd expect from the group, and it came about in part because, after the lush orchestrations of The Soft Bulletin, the Lips threw themselves headlong into the world of electronica.
"We've been fans of that kind of music for a long time," Drozd says. "But sometimes you'll really be into a certain kind of music but it doesn't necessarily reflect in your own stuff, you know?" So we started getting the idea 'Hey, let's take those elements of electronica and techno and the DJ culture and let's put that into our music. We went pretty far with it in the first three or four songs. But then we figured we could bring in some acoustic guitars and see how that mixes with all that sort of stuff. It's just mixing and matching sometimes. You don't have a game plan. If it sounds good, you go with it. If not, you try something else."
The months leading up to the recording of Yoshimi offered plenty of artistic diversions, it seems. In addition to writing and recording the new material, the band has been working on a movie called Christmas on Mars that they hope to have finished by December 2003. With its cast of Coyne, Drozd, Ivins and their families and friends, Drozd characterizes the Oklahoma City production as "It's a Wonderful Life meets Eraserhead."
"We're trying to make a real movie," he says emphatically. "Not just, you know, 'weird rock band makes a cult rock movie.'"
At this point, it's not clear whether the film will have a theatrical release or follow another of their unusual ambitions, which is to have it play exclusively in rock clubs. "You'd pay $10 to get in and they'd have a big screen there and a full PA, because music is part of the deal," he says. "In an hour-and-a-half, you can get drunk with your friends and smoke and watch this crazy movie."
Still another project the Lips have taken on is the soundtrack to a documentary film, Okie Noodling, by Oklahoma filmmaker Bradley Beesley. "He's a guy that's helped us with our videos for a long time," Drozd says. "He found that there's this weird subculture of fishermen in rural Oklahoma. What they do is, they go fishing for catfish but they don't use a pole. The catfish dwell on the bottom of the river in these nests and these holes, and these guys go out there in the water and stick their arm down in the hole, and the catfish bite onto their hand or their arm, and they pull them out. There are different names for it in different states, but in Oklahoma it's called noodling. From us, he wanted this sort of country & western instrumental music. He gave us some examples, like something from Cool Hand Luke and Deliverance. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we went to the back room of Wayne's house and did some four-tracks and stuff -- pretty lo-fi, pretty casual recordings. They're sort of down-home, on-the-porch kind of recordings with some harmonica and some banjo, acoustic upright bass, acoustic guitars and stuff."
The Lips go backwoods country? Call it O Brother, Where's Your Head At?
With so many projects on tap, you'd think the band would feel a little overwhelmed. In fact, it turns out to be quite the opposite. "I actually kinda liked it that way," Drozd says, "'cause you can kind of have attention-deficit disorder. You can work on something for a week and then move on to the next thing and then back. One thing sort of influences the other. Somehow it all ties together."
That may be, but as it turns out, it isn't artistic fickleness that's carried the band through all these years but an incredible degree of persistence and single-mindedness -- at least in the case of chief lyricist and ringleader Coyne, who has seen the band through such outré projects as their "parking lot experiments" -- during which tapes of the band were played on 40 car stereos at once, which Coyne then "conducted"; and the Lips' 1997 album Zaireeka," a four-CD set designed to be played simultaneously on four stereo systems or boomboxes.
"You know, discussion of projects like that probably happen all the time," Drozd says. "You're riding around in a van and you're talking. All of a sudden, someone says, 'Man, wouldn't that be weird if we made music that could be played on 40 car stereos at the same time?' You sit there and it sounds like a great idea, but then nothing ever happens -- you just talk about it. See that's the curse of Wayne: You say something like that to him, and then a week later he calls you up and says, 'Come on over to my house -- let's start working on that.' That's pretty much how it happens. Same thing with Zaireeka. We were talking one day, and it was, like, 'Well, that's a kooky idea,' and then we actually did it.
"We still get letters from, say, Tokyo, where they had a big party with four stereo systems set up and everyone took drugs and it was a crazy night and they had smoke machines and strobe lights, and they played Zaireeka. It's exciting that people would go to the trouble to do that. You hear that, and it makes it all worthwhile."