Music News

Circus Maximus

Behold! The Flaming Lips — the most surprising, inspiring, balls-out weirdest band in the world! Rising improbably from the corn and dust of Oklahoma City, the Lips have mutated like radioactive jackalopes during their decades-spanning existence, veering from ambitiously unschooled art punk to oily psychedelic noise to college radio alt-rock to symphonic electro-pop to whatever smartass hyphenated descriptor you choose to apply today! (Choose it quick — they'll defy it tomorrow.)

Life truly is a beautiful, tragic circus when you blend art and entertainment the way the Flaming Lips do. Singer/auteur Wayne Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins have seen members — a few of them Coyne's siblings — come and go since the band's beginnings in the early '80s. "New guy" multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd — widely acknowledged as the group's musical genius — came aboard in 1991. Since then, Drozd's role has grown as he overcame drug addiction while the band's popularity exploded, reaching fever pitch with 1999's epic The Soft Bulletin. At War With the Mystics, album number 11, arrives this summer.

When these three descend upon Langerado this weekend, they'll be towing their usual Day-Glo stage show: a jaw-dropping, smile-inducing, WTF-ing spectacular that blends shades of Pokémon, Rocky Horror, New Edge tent revival, and even a little rock 'n' roll. Drozd spoke with New Times from his home in OKC. Step right up...

New Times: South Florida has changed a lot since the last time you guys were here in 1994. Like Langerado, for instance — it's a great festival, really diverse.

Steve Drozd: It's totally a sign of the times in the best possible way. It used to be that these things were more categorized. I think Bonnaroo has helped a lot too, where it's not just these — for lack of a better term — hippie jam bands playing on their own. A couple of years ago, we played shows with the String Cheese Incident, and that would've seemed completely unbelievable ten years ago, and now this is happening more and more. I'm glad to see that that's a trend that seems to be happening, that Sonic Youth and Phish might be at the same festival.

From what I've heard so far, At War With the Mystics is a pretty political album.

I think that's part of it. Musically, we like to not repeat ourselves over and over again, even though we always drag a little of our past with us, you know. Number two, we did just want to be a little more frivolous and just have some fun playing guitar rock too. But number three, it also seemed like — to answer your question — it seemed like it would've been timely to do that right now. Because we all sort of felt that way. I think Wayne likes to take on these lyrical concepts just as a new hat he can try on. You know, several records ago, all the songs were titled "Jesus Song," one through ten. Or whatever. So in some ways, I think he was kinda interested in trying to write some half-baked protest lyrics.

But we were devastated when Bush won the second term. It just seemed unreal, and it also seemed surreal that we were so angry and affected by it. Not to say that we don't care about that sort of thing, but usually you're in the studio and you're living in your own little world there and you're just trying to make a record. But we just got really wrapped up in it. And fortunately, Wayne is a caliber of lyric writer where he can take these internal things that he's interested in and make it interesting for anyone to read or to sing. I think it's worked out pretty well: We got the rock, we got some new sounds for us, and we got a little bit political all at the same time.

I don't hear too much overt sloganeering, though.

I think there are some obvious [songs]... There's one called "The W.A.N.D."; it goes "We got the power now, motherfuckers/That's where it belongs." It's kinda MC5 sloganeering in a way, but we're not taking ourselves too seriously.

In my mind, imagining it kinda makes me laugh. You know, like 1968, riots in the street, people were going fuckin' nuts trying to do everything they can to overthrow the man. By 1972, people were still dissatisfied, but they were too stoned to get up off the couch and do anything. So "The W.A.N.D" is kind of like that; it's like, if you don't want to get up out into the streets and be a street-fighting man or something, you can sit in your living room, put your headphones on, smoke a joint, and still seethe with rage about the climate of the times.

What about older fans who don't appreciate the band's newfound popularity or direction? Mystics, especially, could be seen as more mainstream than other albums.

I s'pose you could look at it that way, but I think some of the shit on this record is as weird or weirder than anything we've ever done before. I don't know what to say. I feel like we're always gonna lose some people along the way. [Drozd turns to a gurgling noise in the background. ] That's my son. Hi, little bug! He's five months old [laughs]. His name is Daniel, and he's amazing.

Awesome. The future of the Flaming Lips. As you go on, do you guys ever worry that you won't be able to top yourselves, that the well of creativity might dry up?

Hell yeah! We were surprised when The Soft Bulletin received the acclaim that it did. I remember a few times I would listen to the record and be very excited about it. Like, for me, just to be able to sit there and objectively say this is some interesting music, and it's very emotionally powerful and all that. We didn't think people would respond to it. We honestly thought Warner Bros. would put it out and because our previous album had done so poorly, we thought it would come out, maybe 25,000 people would buy it, and then we'd get dropped and that would be the end of the story. When it seemed to give us a whole new career, we were shocked, and after Yoshimi [Battles the Pink Robots, their last album], I remember thinking, "Boy, I hope we don't have to record any time soon, because I got nothing." Then you go around the world and you play and you meet bands and you have new experiences and you get home, and after a couple weeks, bam! You have these new ideas. Hopefully, that will happen again. Not to sound like some hokey optimist, but it could not be going better than it is right now.

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Jonathan Zwickel