- Wayne Coyne (center) and the Flaming Lips prepare for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"We had one of these nights where you sort of felt like we could all have died, and we all agreed that we would never do that again on purpose," explains Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne, speaking before a performance at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver.
Coyne sounds like the opening lines of a film noir. But he's actually talking about the aftermath of an outrageous live performance in the late '80s, when the Lips were still psychedelic noise rockers, unleashing total freak-outs like "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning" to puzzled punks.
"We were doing these very confrontational sort of shows," says Coyne, "where we were able to get really fucking loud amplifiers, set things on fire, and literally play through this self-made chaos."
On this particular night an A&R person from Warner Brothers was in the audience. So the Oklahoma band, signed to Restless Records at the time, decided to pull out all the stops for its future label. "We would go as ballistic as we could to impress this woman," says the garrulous, good-natured singer. "Literally half the stage is on fire, and the PA is on fire. We were named the Flaming Lips.
"We asked her a couple years after that, 'What was it that drew you to us?'" adds Coyne. "She says, 'It was Wayne's teeth. I always liked the way he smiled and how he had those crooked teeth.' It just goes to show that you can never know what it is that people are intrigued by. [It wasn't the fire.] It was the intangibleness of it, and that's what you want. You want it to be someone that sees magic in what other people see as being really normal."
Coyne nails his band's odd charm. There's a naive sense of wonder and hope in both its lyrics and live shows, which these days include more idiosyncratic set pieces than Pee-Wee's Playhouse, from confetti and animal costumes to full-blown mother ships and audience participation. But despite deploying high-tech video screens, the band still falls back on a DIY showmanship that's rooted in the bottle rockets and pyrotechnics of early gigs.
After a dozen years of making music to steadily escalating acclaim, the band's cult status changed in 1996. "She Don't Use Jelly," a single off Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, cracked the Top 40. This led to almost nonstop touring and, believe it or not, an appearance on Beverly Hills 90210 (that's The O.C. of the '90s, kids).
Warner Brothers totally milked that tune. The label put the quartet on Lollapalooza as well as stints opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Candlebox. Shortly after 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic, lead guitarist Ronald Jones went AWOL. According to the band, he was paranoid about drummer Steven Drozd's escalating heroin use (he's clean now).
Jones' departure was huge. As Coyne's counterpart since Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue left in '93, Jones was a big part of what had until then been a thunderous, four-piece Godzilla playfully stomping buildings with their pop-addled noise.
While they grappled with the question of adding another guitarist, Coyne started tinkering with other ideas. He devised his now-famous "parking lot experiments," which involved 40 cars and their stereo systems blasting 40 different prerecorded cassettes in concert. This led to a tour with the Lips as a trio, one which employed boomboxes instead of cars.
It was also around this time that the band created the equally unusual Zaireeka, a four-disc release designed to play on four different sound systems at once. "Zaireeka and I think -- sort of concurrently -- The Soft Bulletin let us look in different ways at ourselves as an actual band," explains Lips co-founder and bassist Michael Ivins. "We didn't have to just sit there and play guitars and drums. You know, put out normal records if we didn't want to. We always give Warner Brothers a lot of kudos to let us do that."
During this critical transition period -- a kind of testing phase -- Drozd traded drums for synths. Without skins and a lead guitar, the Lips moved away from rock and toward the synthetic, orchestral psychedelia that made them world-famous with 1999's Bulletin and its 2002 follow-up, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
Using drum loops and other canned sounds, the band is now free to produce more theatrical and crowd-friendly performances. "We have been experimenting and pushing the boundaries of that ever since then," says Coyne. "So for going on 10 years, we have been secretly incorporating the audience's energy, enthusiasm, and love as another component of our show."
While backing up Beck on the Sea Change tour in 2002, the Lips added drummer Kliph Scurlock for "a more visceral experience." This move, according to Ivins, created its own strange ripples. "We started feeling like, 'Let's cover [Black Sabbath's] "War Pigs." What would that be like?' And then even doing something like that pushed us into experimenting from Yoshimi, with basically electronic drumming or electronica style, into more of the Bach-oriented thing that [their latest, 2006's] At War With the Mystics has."
While the band continues to evolve, there exists no real game plan, no forethought -- just a sense of vibration.
"It's always fumbling in the dark, stumbling upon little molecular accidents that will add up eventually to this bigger cohesive thing," says Coyne. "Even though I don't know if we all understand exactly where we're going together, there is an aesthetic that we all share that lets the really horrible stuff not happen and let's you focus on the minutiae of what's good."