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Sonic Lunacy Is Just the Start

Behind the Flaming Lips' art rock are serious questions about life and death.

June 23, 2002|NATALIE NICHOLS

If you or someone you know recently lost a loved one, and you're talking to Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne about his band's forthcoming album, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," you may find yourself sharing depressing facts with the Oklahoma-based artist. For despite the collection's science-fiction title, its musings on the mysterious joys of life and love were inspired by the unexpected death of a young Japanese fan two years ago.

But don't worry about the conversation turning bleak. Coyne will be genuinely interested in your tale. He may even gently quiz you on details. After all, you won't be the only one who felt compelled to share.

"The more I talk about the album to people who have been fans for a long time, everybody gets into these stories about family members' demises," says Coyne, 41. "I hope our music ... helps all that stuff along."

For nearly 20 years, the singer-guitarist and his cohorts--currently drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins--have incorporated cosmic observations, epic soundscapes, synapse-rattling noises, catchy melodies and grandly weird concepts into their vibrant and surprisingly human, if not terribly commercially successful art-rock.

Still signed to Warner Bros. Records, where they landed a decade ago following the major labels' post-Nirvana alt-rock feeding frenzy, the trio is among the few survivors of the industry's late-'90s merger purgings that set adrift many underperforming artists, both mighty and minor. (They're part of Cake's Unlimited Sunshine Tour, which comes to the Greek Theatre on Aug. 11.) Why did Flaming Lips make the cut? Well, according to Coyne, they've just been fortunate.

"We are always at death's door," he says. "And not because Warner Bros. doesn't love us. A lot of people there would love nothing more than for us to sell 100 million records. But the fact is, sometimes we sell a lot of records, and sometimes we don't."

More often, at least in terms of big-record-company numbers, they don't. But in 1994, the Lips scored a Top 40 hit with the college fave "She Don't Use Jelly." "Race for the Prize," from 1999's critically acclaimed "The Soft Bulletin," helped boost the group's popularity in Europe. Each time, the attendant sales increases were apparently enough to let the Lips slide by.

"If you're on the downward slope and [the label is] at the same time, it doesn't matter if you're Elvis Costello or whatever," Coyne says. "They just flatly go, 'That's the bottom line.' We would sell records right when the dip would go down to its worst, so it always seemed like the Lips escaped the chopping block one more time."

Timing is a big part of the Lips' survival, but the record company hasn't overlooked Coyne's way with a hook, notes David Katznelson, a former Warner Bros. vice president of A&R who brought the band to the label as an intern. "He writes great pop songs, and [listeners] are slowly gravitating to the Lips' talent," says Katznelson, now president of the indie label Birdman Recording Group, Inc.

Even now, despite the general perception that record companies value bankability over creativity, Katznelson says, "labels generally like to have some bands around, like Spiritualized on Arista, that are truly artistically applauded. The Lips always figure out something that is both artful and noteworthy, and they put the WB logo on almost everything they do. They're very proud of the association, and I think the label likes that."

The Flaming Lips' reputation for sonic lunacy probably figures just as largely as "She Don't Use Jelly" in the minds of casual observers, thanks to such stunts as a 1996 parking-lot experiment involving a few dozen cars playing specially orchestrated music through their tape decks, and 1997's "Zaireeka," a four-CD album designed to be played simultaneously on different machines.

In the works now is the self-starring science-fiction movie "Christmas on Mars," which they hope to release next year. There's also the soundtrack for a documentary called "Okie Noodling," about a group of oddball fishermen.

Working on various projects at once allows the band a better perspective on the individual undertakings, Coyne says. "The problem with intense artists is they become obsessed with their own ideas. You build [a song] up in your mind to be the most important thing in the world, when it's just a dumb ol' song. You can't get any perspective.

"So what I like to do is fall in love with the new thing. That lets me be objective. I can hear [the tunes] without feeling like, 'Oh, my babies! Don't touch them.' "

Perspective also comes as time passes, and "Yoshimi," due out July 16, plays like the more peaceful aftermath of "Bulletin," which found Coyne dealing with his father's death in 1997, among other trials.

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