With a little luck, the Flaming Lips keep their fearless freak flag flying
"For a long time we didn't really consider ourselves as that great a live band. Honestly? We didn't really think anyone would think it was particularly great, we would just do it and it is what it is." So says Wayne Coyne, longtime head honcho of Oklahoma City fearless freaks, the Flaming Lips.
He's on the phone from a tour bus somewhere in the mountains of Northern California, and asked about his band's reputation as one of the most inspiring live acts on the planet--Q magazine once described it as being one of the 50 bands you should see before you die; a tad hyperbolic, but you get the picture--he's being characteristically self-deprecating. Coyne is, you see, nothing if not a gentleman, but he's also being ridiculously modest.
The Flaming Lips live extravaganza is truly a thing of awe-inspiring wonder. We're talking a retina-scorching, synapse-melting delirious pop-art carnival, where the whole audience-performer barrier is taken apart and gleefully reconstructed as a riot of confetti, balloons, glove puppets, go-go dancers, and over-sized pink rabbit suits--all overseen by Coyne in his role as equal parts circus ringmaster, messianic preacher, and Willy Wonka (minus the unsettling dark undercurrents).
No less an authority than the Butthole Surfers'--from whom the Lips have lifted a trick or two--Gibby Haynes has begrudgingly described Lips' shows as an "audio-visual psychedelic punk rock experience." Put simply, you'd have to be the most loathsome, granite-hearted reptilian cynic this side of Bill O'Reilly--or quite possibly clinically dead--not to be moved or uplifted by the Lips in action.
Which is all well and good, but Coyne insists that the evolution of their live shows has been down to a series of happy accidents and a certain degree of "dumb luck."
"Well y'see what happened," he explains, "is round about the time of [1999's] The Soft Bulletin, we realized that we didn't really want to go out and simply perform all these depressing songs about death and existential fear, which, essentially, was what that album was all about. So we decided to create this whole crazy birthday atmosphere to counter that. And I think, in a sense, that really freed us and allowed us to move away from what everyone thinks of as a standard rock show.
"We just started making stuff up and now it's evolved into this great, powerful celebration. But honestly, when we started this approach, it was to get away from the depressing song material. I mean, what 20-year-old wants to spend their Saturday night watching the Flaming Lips sing about death? So we tried to make it into a celebration, a celebration of life."
Life-affirming live shows aside, one of the most striking aspects of the Lips is that they've survived this long--26 years and counting now--and for 18 of those years on a major label, Warner Bros., where, as the label's resident pop cosmonauts, they've kept uneasy company with the thrusting mega-selling likes of Whitney Duncan and Big and Rich. Pretty impressive when you consider the band's track record of willful indulgence and experimentation, variously offering up free-form noise, metallic space rock, and prog-pop; who've hung out with both the late William Burroughs and the cast of Beverly Hills 90120; who released the infamous four-CD simultaneous-play Zaireeka (as gloriously impractical as it was inspired), and a penchant for, frankly, ludicrous song titles (to wit: "The Train Runs Over a Camel but Is Derailed by the Gnat"). Not exactly what you'd consider Top-40 material, let alone Grammy winners.
But somehow, they've not only survived but positively thrived, surfing a wave of goodwill and, it would seem, a bemused tolerance from their major-label paymasters. Have they ever thought to themselves that this lucky streak might all come crashing down?
Coyne laughs uproariously: "Oh God, yeah, I wonder about it all the fucking time, I really do. I think a lot of it is down to dumb luck. Right when we could have lost our audience or failed, they've stuck by us, but you either connect with an audience or you don't. You make the music you believe in and you get what you get. But for the most part you have to be pretty lucky and we have been."
This self-deprecation and candidness is touching, but Coyne means it. In 2005's acclaimed Fearless Freaks documentary he claimed, "We have truly had a lovely and accidental career. We were just misunderstood Okies with an enthusiasm for recording. " It's a sentiment he still stands by.
"For sure--we never ever thought we'd become performers and artists, we never thought we'd last this long," he says. "I don't want to denigrate the work of the people we have working night and day for us but, really, it has been a lot of luck and serendipity. It does take some skill and a level of talent, but the really great moments have been accidental and I think that's the case with most groups. They might not admit it but it's true. So, sure, I'll stick by that quote."
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