During the Tex Avery-style bacchanalia that is the modern Flaming Lips stage show, there's always one person who seems unmoved by the proceedings. One stoic individual who spends most of the show seated, apparently oblivious to the sights of Wayne Coyne encased in a balloon, to the twin armies of anthropomorphic animal-people dancing on either side of the stage, to the strobe lights. This man is indifferent as well to the flickering film clips projected in quick succession on the backdrop, and unheeding of the towering waves of pop majesty broadcasting from the speaker towers, waves that sound as if Brian Wilson and John Cale teamed up for the greatest album of either man's career.
This man is Michael Ivins, bassist and keyboardist for the Flaming Lips, and his feigned indifference is actually the byproduct of his being a very thoughtful man at work. A member since the beginning of the band, Ivins has seen every phase of the Lips' triumphant hyperbola. He's been on every stage, on every album (and, occasionally, on fire). If Wayne Coyne is the furiously pumping heart and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd is the busy hands, then Ivins is certainly the pensive mind behind the Flaming Lips, working as engineer and producer with Dave Fridmann during the band's most fertile period.
But what's he thinking about?
Galaxies in peril. Alien invasions. Cybertechnology. The awesome power of a fully functional Death Star.
Science fiction, my friend. The genre often maligned as the domain of nerds is in fact a large influence on Ivins, as well as on millions of other thoughtful dreamers. A self-professed fan of the big two, Star Wars and Star Trek, Ivins eagerly answered burning questions about sci-fi, technology and the mission of the Flaming Lips, as well as offering some further viewing suggestions for interested fans.
No conversation about Star Wars begins without first establishing an opinion on the new trilogy: Love it or hate it?
"I think we went and saw the first one, the first one in the whole thing, the new first one," is Ivins' cagey reply concerning The Phantom Menace. "And I didn't really like it. And then I sorta lost interest . . . I can't remember now if I've seen it. I sorta feel like I have seen it, because Dave Fridmann's sons love video games, and they have Lego Star Wars. I actually would go over there and watch them play, and then I'd play with Dave and stuff. It seems like I got the gist of the movie from that. I'm kinda interested to see the third one, 'cause I've heard it's got weird political overtones and stuff."
But Lucas claims he didn't put those political overtones in there, as any subscriber to Star Wars Insider can tell you. Does that diminish Ivins' interest in Revenge of the Sith?
"Right, sorta like the weird stereotypes that he put in the first movie: 'Did you not put those in either?'" Touché. "But for me, really, the first one [Star Wars] ranks up there as a great movie. I think it's a classic film, and I think the second one is really great. The third one, eh, they got the furry li'l Ewoks in it for the kids, I guess. I don't know if that's what happens after a while, it became a little not that I have anything against kid-friendly movies or anything but it seems like they became a little too kid-friendly. Where I think the first one, you could watch it and be an adult, you could be a teenager, you could be a little kid. It seemed like it was a movie that went across boundaries."
Agreed. Star Wars: A New Hope rules. But does the awesomeness of it outweigh that of Star Trek?
"Star Trek has more!" Ivins laughs. "[With Star Wars], even if you included the new movies, it's really just six movies. I practically grew up with Star Trek, 'cause my mom was a big science fiction fan. In '69 or '66? I'm getting the years confused where Trek did its last season, either it went into syndication right away, or we got to see the very last season of Trek actually running in prime time, I've just been watching the syndicated old Star Trek for years and years."
But Ivins' devotion to the franchise goes beyond the initial voyages of the starship Enterprise; Next Generation is a fave. That of course led to the other installments of the franchise, but Ivins has been hit or miss with these. "I actually haven't gotten as much into Deep Space Nine as much as our manager, Scott, has. He's loves DSN. I'm sure I'll eventually get into it. I really liked Voyager quite a bit, and I liked Enterprise a lot, too. I think it was unfairly dissed by the viewing audience."
Casually, with the savvy of a veteran crack dealer, Ivins baits his hook: "And of course, my new favorite show is Battlestar Galactica."
Everybody talks about the Sci-Fi Channel's hit show, but some of us have steadfastly avoided it based on memories of the original, atrocious early '80s show. Ivins quickly agrees concerning the first series, before angling further with "Oh, no, it's nothing like that, it's nothing like that at all. I think it's really pretty cool. When oh, no, you haven't seen it. So you wouldn't be interested in the spin off series they're doing...." he trails off expectantly.
So what's the spin-off about?
"Ha, yes!" Ivins fairly gloats with the knowledge of another junkie made. "It's kinda loosely based on the series, where there was a war, and then the Cylons go off and do whatever, and keep evolving. Then, 40 years after this war, the Cylons come back and basically annihilate the human race, or whatever they are, whatever kind of people they are. Because it's supposed to be set in a galaxy far, far aw OK, maybe not so far away," he course-corrects for trademark purposes. "They're gonna do this spin-off series that takes place on the planet in-between, after the war (but before the Cylons return). And they're gonna deal with technology and all this weird philosophical stuff."
Lest you think Ivins has abandoned Trek for Galactica, he's quick to re-affirm his loyalties with a heartfelt declaration of solidarity: "Not that I'm saying that that makes Star Trek bad, or takes away from it. Because what I really love about Star Trek is basically the optimism."
Reading between the lines, one could make a fairly serviceable argument that by plugging "Flaming Lips" in place of the various Star Trek titles, you'd have pretty accurate history of the band's relationship with their fans. Many years of loyalty, a fondness for certain eras over others, various characters coming and going and the onset of a wildly popular chapter later in life. And driving it all is a combination of fervid imagination and optimism. If the Flaming Lips have a motto on the order of "to boldly go where no man has gone before," Ivins sums it up as: "You get up in the morning, you eat some food, you go about your business and try and have a good time. That's how we live our lives. And we try to have a fantastical evening for you."