When a musician hits upon both artistic and monetary success, it's written that said performer is then at a crossroads in their career, a point at which they must decide whether to follow the muse or to follow the money. But with Oklahoma's Flaming Lips it's more like they're at a 10-point intersection, with traffic hurtling past them at reckless speeds, and the only option is to close their eyes and press the accelerator to the floor. The worst that could happen is they leave an ugly corpse.
The Flaming Lips were never supposed to be around in 2006. Yes, leader Wayne Coyne is a workaholic, Steven Drozd is a musician's musician able to master any instrument and Michael Ivins is a lovable foil to the madness, but really, folks? How much cash is there in these alternative freak shows? What's it like when you're over 40 and the industry calls you to take to the road and it's long nights of driving and longer nights of performing?
If you're Wayne Coyne, you work very hard and at the end of the day chalk it up to "dumb luck." As Coyne surfs the crowd in his plastic bubble, he may seem like a rock messiah, but anyone who speaks with him for 10 minutes sees just how humble and down-to-the-earth this "fearless freak" really is.
Next week, The Flaming Lips will release At War With the Mystics, their follow-up to 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, an album that was either their second or third "breakthrough" disc, depending on who you ask. They will (possibly) debut their 15-years-in-the-making feature film Christmas on Mars this year. And a biography written by veteran rock scribe Jim DeRogatis (Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips) will join Jay Blakesberg and J. Michelle Martin-Coyne's photo-journal Waking Up With a Placebo Headwound and Bradley Beesley's film The Fearless Freaks as part of the definitive history of the band so far.
"You get used to reading stuff about yourself in magazines. You just hope it's entertaining, even though you know it's not necessarily all true," says Coyne of all the press. "I do take it as absurdist entertainment. As I read it, I think I like these characters, even though one of them is me."
But Coyne isn't one to sit back and reflect. He's a man of tremendous nervous energy, who embraces each aspect of the process.
"Coldplay was in town two weeks ago, and me and Chris Martin were driving around talking about their next record, and he has a lot of anguish about people thinking that they play it safe," says Coyne. "We were talking about it and he said, 'Should we be experimental or should we do it organically when it feels right?' And I said, 'I don't know if you know when anything feels right. I think you just do it. If you want to make an experimental record, make it and if it fails, who cares?'
"That's what we learned along the way, that sometimes it's the failures that are the most graceful, marvelous things you ever do. And succeeding is great. But watching artists fail is what the audience relates to. Most of the things you do in your life are for failure: relationships, raising kids, trying to make money; everywhere you go, it's, 'I wanted to do this, but I ended up doing this.' I think artists sing about failing and having struggled and I think audiences really embrace it."
At War With the Mystics is unafraid to take risks. Stylistically, it's everywhere, from funk ("It Overtakes Me") and angry hard rock ("Free Radicals") to dreamy psychedelia ("Vein of Stars"). The vibe often shifts midsong, due to a free-form studio approach.
"We know there are elements of what we are doing that are accidents," says Coyne. "There is an immediacy to it … the time is as important as the music itself. If you say a certain thing at a certain time it can mean a completely different thing than if you wait another year to say the same thing. You can really shape the way a record is perceived by what you put right up front. By us putting these two strangely almost insulting, almost political, absurdist, rockist songs at the beginning ("The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "Free Radicals"), I think it feels like more of a rock record. There's still moments of this quietude and this introspection.
"Some of the things right at the beginning are the new phase of the Flaming Lips. We're taking on the identity of being like a radical, drug-damaged, let's-overthrow-the-government kind of band. Not that we think that our music is going to really change the war or change George Bush's mind, but this radical protest music sort of thing … I kinda like that. We're not really protesting. I don't think music and politics have too much to do with each other. But it's fun to sing." [email protected][email protected]