It's a far cry from the homebrewed light show, mirror balls, and mostly functioning smoke machine that the band employed onstage in the mid-'80s. But every band starts modestly enough, and when reached by phone at home in Oklahoma City, bassist Michael Ivins who co-founded the group in 1983 with Coyne brothers Wayne and Mark (the Lips' original singer, who quit in 1985) laughs as he recalls those old days and a particular Michael Jacksonesque moment during one of the band's earliest national tours.
"We had the strobes and these halogen security lights that we got at Builders Square, but we thought, 'Well, we should really do something... I know, let's do flash pots!' So I rigged some up, and the problem was that sometimes the powder would clump up, and I think a clump fell on my head when I triggered it." He chuckles, noting that at the time, he was sporting an especially large Afro. "I started smelling this smell, like, 'What is that burning? Man, that sure stinks! You know, it smells like hair...' And by that time, someone had poured their beer on me and doused my head, and that was the last time that we experimented with flash pots."
Yet, Ivins says, the group was eager to continue building on the idea of making its concerts more of an event; it was a lesson learned from witnessing the legendary costume-and-pyro antics of the Butthole Surfers, possibly the Lips' closest musical peers in those days. "We took their show to heart, that you could do that sort of thing and not... I'm kind of a Rush fan, so I don't mean to be dissing Rush, but you didn't worry that you weren't going soooo totally overboard. That you could still do a punk rock show even with all the lights and smoke and stuff."
The affable Ivins seems to be in a rather reflective mood these days, which may have to do with several things: The Lips are in between albums (their 11th LP, the politically minded At War With the Mystics, came out more than a year ago, though they're still ostensibly touring behind it); they're in the midst of putting together some career-spanning concert DVDs; and early next year, the band will mark its 25th anniversary. An immensely colorful, weird, fairly well-documented roller coaster of a quarter-century it's been too. Some of the more infamous low points include Wayne Coyne spending 11 years as a fry cook at Long John Silver's, until the early '90s. And Lips drummer-turned-multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd who joined the band in 1991 nearly losing his left hand due to his heroin abuse (he'd initially told Coyne and company that he'd been bitten by a brown recluse spider). Then there was 1997's baffling, momentum-killing Zaireeka, an album that consisted of four separate CDs designed to be played simultaneously.
Thankfully, the high notes are of legendary status, including their out-of-left-field 1994 breakthrough with the alt-rock radio hit "She Don't Use Jelly," which they performed on Beverly Hills, 90210. ("You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house," gushes Steve Sanders.)
And, of course, the massive comeback thanks to 1999's The Soft Bulletin a transcendent, symphonic-pop masterpiece that was wholly unexpected after 15 years of chaotic noise-rock, loopy quasi-psychedelia, and rampant experimentalism and 2002's platinum-selling Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, their tenth studio recording. As rock critic Jim DeRogatis put it in his 2006 bio Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips, "A band that produces an artistic triumph as well as its most commercially successful effort on its tenth album is nearly unprecedented in rock 'n' roll."
"We've had some other really lucky things happen to us too," Ivins notes. "We put out our first EP, and Wayne got a call while he was still working at Long John's from the Roskilde Festival over in Denmark, and they asked him if we wanted to play. I think that was the first time Wayne had ever been on an airplane. And basically, we did a run of that EP and just sent them all to magazines, and we actually got a good review in [legendary California music zine] Maximum Rocknroll. That's when we garnered a little more respect from some of the punk rock kids around town. But it was a weird scene we were kind of a part of things and kind of apart from things."
In a sense, the Lips are basically in the same position nearly 25 years later. Not quite in the musical mainstream but very respectable (and respected) unit-movers, not to mention three-time Grammy winners. Not quite household names, though last month Coyne made a hilarious appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno as a guest correspondent from the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. And, of course, for those in the know, the Lips are purveyors of the wildest, most magical concerts you may ever see in your lifetime, although Ivins says the band is reluctant to take too much credit for that.
"The true magic's in the people coming to the show," Ivins says.