The last time the Flaming Lips played a show in Orlando, it was as a last-minute substitute for the Poster Children, opening for Lush at the Beacham Theater. That was 15 years ago. The last time the Flaming Lips were supposed to play a show in Orlando, it was opening for Candlebox at the Edge. That show, according to resident rock historian Jim Faherty, may or may not have been rained out. That was 13 years ago.
Things, as they say, have changed. Not only have the Lips far surpassed the bands they once opened for in esteem and longevity, but the band's 2007 stylistic stance bears little resemblance to that of the ensemble that once trod the boards of those now-defunct Orlando venues.
"`This tour` is only 10 shows or something," says Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, "And it's really just to get back to Florida. There are so many of these places where we promised to get to — even way back in 2002, 2003. I don't know why, but we do so many shows — we get to Europe, we get to Australia — and we don't end up getting to some of these places where we know we should play.
"The show … it's at Disney World, isn't it?" laughs Coyne in regard to the site of the group's return to Central Florida. "That should be interesting."
Indeed it should. As easily as pop culture has sloughed off the third-rate grunge of Candlebox, so have the Flaming Lips discarded much of the noise-pop trappings that made "She Don't Use Jelly" a surprising alt-radio success back in 1994. Their path from the punk-inspired, distortion-drenched psychedelia of Hear It Is (1986) and their 1990 masterpiece In a Priest Driven Ambulance (1990) to the experimental confections of Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) was an easily tracked evolution, but the change in sound that took place after the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones in 1996 was nothing short of a revolution.
The Flaming Lips
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12, 2007
House of Blues
The sheets of overdriven guitar that were once the hallmark of the Lips' sound gave way to dense collages of multi-sourced sound, synthesizers (analog and otherwise), sequencers and other studio accoutrements. Though long enamored of the possibilities of studio-as-instrument, the group demonstrated with 1999's The Soft Bulletin just how easily and organically such an approach could be employed with pop music, and continued to do so with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) and last year's At War With the Mystics, the last of which, ironically enough, finds the Lips again flirting — if only occasionally — with a more rockist approach.
"Even when you go back to 1992, which to me and you still feels like recent history as opposed to the '80s, even that's ancient now," says Coyne of the group's sonic progress. "We still think of Steven (Drozd) as the new guy, and he's been around since 1991."
Temporal perspectives aside, there's no denying that recent Flaming Lips albums are quite different from their earlier material. Progress, of course, demands such things. But "ancient" fans who are concerned that the gentle, near-pastoral approach that earned the group a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance has irreversibly altered their approach to live shows — those folks who are wondering if this is the same ear-splitting band that was legendary for their combination of volume and fog machines — should worry no more.
"We were noticing when we were doing the live DVD that our shows can be punishing sometimes," says Coyne. (As I'm talking to him, he and the other Lips are in producer Dave Fridmann's studio north of Buffalo, mixing 5.1 audio tracks for three separate projects: a live DVD, an HDNet special and a for-theaters concert film. Oh, and they also are managing to get a couple of tracks done for the soundtrack to the next Farrelly brothers movie, not to mention that The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin just signed on to write the script for a Broadway take on Yoshimi. Says Coyne: "It doesn't start out `busy`, but then it's always like, ‘Hey, you're there. Why don't you do this?'")
"Even though we now tend towards trying to be kind of beautiful and ornate, there's still plenty of feedback and volume and sheer intensity. I think, done in the right way, the audience wants that. I think it's easy to underestimate how good a little pain in your pleasure can be."
While the band used to rely on smoke machines, bubble-makers and jerry-rigged Christmas lights to visually enhance the pain/pleasure equation, a modern-day Flaming Lips concert is a much more expansive experience. Projectors, banks of LED lights, animal costumes, fake blood, lots of balloons and an industrial-strength bubble machine have found their way into the arsenal. The impetus for the approach was the Lips' frequent festival appearances, but the group's DIY roots ensure that these extravagant sights are neither slick nor unnecessarily distracting.
"When you're in a big place like Coachella or something, you've gotta have the visuals because everything is so diminished," says Coyne. "It isn't about volume or intensity, it's about little pieces of entertainment that come at you one after the other. In a smaller place, volume alone can change your impression of how intense something is."
Volume. It's what's driven the Flaming Lips since the early '80s. Sure, their "well-funded science project" finds them continually experimenting with different combinations of sounds on their albums and with a variety of seizure-inducing displays onstage, but volume — and the ways in which it can be used to construct a completely enveloping sensory experience — is the soul of the Lips' power. That doesn't change … but a lot else does.
"I see how most of our fans, we've only had since about five years ago," says Coyne. "That's the sort of turnover you have, you've got about five years until somebody's done with you. You want that, because the new fans are always pushing you along to try new things. It isn't that we get bored with the old stuff, it's just that you want to feel like what you're doing right now is giving you a thrill. As an entertainer and a performer, you never really go out and give `the audience` a whole new show. If we're lucky, we can go out and give them what they want, and then they give us what we want, which is the opportunity to try new things."
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