Chris McKay: Is Athens the first date of the American tour?
Steven Drozd: You know what’s weird is that the last show we played was Athens, Greece. Seriously. We got home last Tuesday and now we’re starting this next tour in Athens, Georgia. I thought that was really cool.
CM: Have you got any specific memories of Athens, Georgia from all the times you’ve played here?
SD: I remember when Walter’s Barbecue was still open. You remember that place? I think it’s shut down. The first time I came to Athens with the Lips was probably 1992 or something. We went to Walter’s and it was really good. The second time we came through, there was a big party at Peter Buck’s ex-wife’s house and that was great. I remember I was really drunk and it was like five o’clock in the morning and Mike Mills was there and I was like pissing my pants. Of course, I haven’t liked an R.E.M. record since 1986 or 1987, but they’re titans in the alternative rock world, you know? I was sitting there talking to him and I asked him why they decided to turn the reverb up on the bass track of “Seven Chinese Brothers” at the very end, which was a total fan question. He was like, “Hey man, you’re on your way to becoming a producer asking questions like that.” So actually I have a lot of fond memories of Athens.
CM: You’ve got to get one of those guys up on stage in a bunny costume…
SD: Wouldn’t that be great? Who would it be, though? With Michael Stipe that would seem way too fucking creepy. Bill Berry would just look like a dufus. Maybe Mike Mills, I don’t know. You know, the first time we came through we were opening for The Throwing Muses and I tried to get Michael Stipe to give me an autograph and he wouldn’t do it. I don’t know if I’d wanna see him (in a bunny costume). Plus, I suspect he probably has really bad body odor. Alright, I’ve got to quit razzing R.E.M. I will say this: their first three records fucking changed my life.
CM: The Flaming Lips live shows are always really elaborate and theatrical. What do you have in store this time?
SD: Well, if I tell you it won’t be a surprise. We’ll have 20 people in animal costumes, you’ve heard about that. We have these videos that are synched up with our music, which is pretty weird. Wayne’s got some nice stage prop kind of things that are pretty tripped out. Imagine Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd with The Wizard Of Oz with Wayne Newton in Las Vegas and The Butthole Surfers in 1987. Maybe I’m making it sound too great, but it’s fun.
CM: Are you influenced by the likes of Pink Floyd? You seem to be the modern day version of that really.
SD: All of us in the band are obviously big Pink Floyd fans. I think all of the stuff that we’ve been doing has just slowly been coming together over the last five years. When Ronald (our guitar player) quit, we made The Soft Bulletin and Zaireeka. When it came time to start touring, we didn’t know how we were going to do it. I didn’t want to be stuck playing drums. I wanted to play some guitar and piano. So we decided to leave the drums on tape which freed us up to make it more theatrical and that gave Wayne the idea to have videos play behind us. Over the last few years, it’s just been slowly, slowly getting to where it is now where we’ve got fucking animals onstage, we’ve got confetti cannons, we’ve got smoke machines and Wayne’s got a strobe light he wears as a fucking necklace. We’ll do something and it works pretty good so that encourages us to keep going on that idea.
CM: Do you enjoy all of that madness? Does it keep it interesting or just get on your nerves?
SD: I’ll be the first to say I’m really sick of it actually, but to go the opposite direction, just to get up and play might be fun for me and there might be a small, hardcore group of fans that would be interested, but I think the paying audience would be like, “Damn, they dumbed it down.” I’m not against what we’re doing. I think it’s great. There’s a lot of entertainment for your alterna-rock dollar, but I’m kind of sick of wearing the animal suits and the unbridled enthusiasm onstage, but I’m sure that within the next couple of years we’ll think of something that’ll go somewhere completely different or we’ll progress further into this thing and it’ll become new and fun again anyway.
CM: You recently toured as opening act for Beck’s tour and then served as his backup band for his sets. Did you ever think twice about going out as someone’s backup band?
SD: Well, we did but it was Beck so it seemed like a great idea. We didn’t think about it all ‘cause it was fucking Beck! He writes fucking great music, you know? Yeah, he just called out of the blue, “Hey, I’ve got a record coming out. What are you guys doing? You want to come be my band?” So we got together and rehearsed for a couple of weeks to figure out what songs we wanted to do. We heard his new record and we were like, “Fucking yeah!” We never realized the amount of hard work that would be involved. Actually, there was just this warring between the two factions of Beck and Wayne for a while there. There was this article about us in Esquire Magazine last month. If you see it, read it. Wayne never said anything about Beck being a dick, but one of the headlines of the article was like, “Beck Is A Dick.” This writer hung out with us and traveled on our bus for two days. He was there for two whole days, and the reporter was like, “Guys, I don’t know about Beck. He’s not as cool as I thought.” We were like, “Well, whatever angle you want to work for your story is cool with me,” ‘cause I hung out with the guy a lot. We got drunk and we had a good time. I ended up feeling pretty uncomfortable that he said some mean things about Beck, you know?
CM: And Beck took it personally?
SD: Well, Beck emailed Wayne and was like “Why is this happening?” Wayne said, “I had nothing to do with it. People ask us questions and we’re usually pretty honest.” So Beck said, “Well, what kind of answer is that, Wayne?” I’m too much of a coward to confront someone and go, “Yeah, this is bullshit,” but we had some pretty tough times on that tour. I think we thought there’d be more jamming and more hanging out and playing music and it wasn’t like that. We actually became his backup band. We’d rehearse then he’d show up. We’d run through it a couple of times and he’d say, “Yeah, I guess we’ll do that one tonight.” We never actually hung out.
CM: So was it worth it? Did you take anything out of that tour that you could use?
SD: I took a lot of money from it! We got real paid. This sounds really fucking hokey, but I think it made us all better musicians. Just because we had to learn so many fucking songs! We had to learn 25 of his songs in a week and a half. Then we learned another 15 while we were on the road so that we’d have a big variety to choose from. It just helped us all. Plus, we were playing twice a night. We’d do the Lips show first. Then we’d walk offstage just to come back on and do Beck’s set. That’ll fucking get you in shape, man. We’re all playing better now. Plus, I got some good stories here and there. Beck’s a weird dude, for sure.
CM: OK, you opened up that one. What do you mean by that?
SD: I did, didn’t I? Let’s just say he has a very strange…diet. He has food issues (laughs). He has special dietary needs that are strange. We actually had a chef go on tour with us. That’s living there, buddy! He’s a weird guy, man. (laughs) We’d met him a few times before this all went down and we’d talk. When we were on tour, we weren’t on the same bus. We had different tour buses. It was just really weird to spend every day with him for two months.
CM: Now I see you’re padding his pockets a little with a cover of “The Golden Age” on your new E.P.
SD: (laughs) I didn’t think about it that way…padding his pockets (laughs).
CM: So what’s up with the E.P. since it’s not out yet?
SD: It’s not like all new music that people are dying to hear. It’s just odds and ends, you know…spics and specks. I’m not even really sure what’s on it.
CM: I can tell you if you want to know.
SD: There’s a Kylie Minogue cover on it, right?
CM: Yep, that’s on there. “Golden Age,” “Knives Out,” “Do You Realize (Remix),” “Strange Design Of Conscience,” “Thank You, Jack White” and “Fight Test.”
SD: Right…I didn’t realize that “Strange Design Of Conscience” and “Thank You, Jack White” were going to go on this thing. We recorded those like a fucking month ago literally. We did them like wham-bam really fast. It’s not a Dave Fridman production. We didn’t do it up in New York we did it down in Oklahoma. We recorded “Thank You, Jack White” and “Strange Design Of Conscience” in about seven hours total. You can tell with “Jack White.” That’s just acoustic guitar, Wayne’s singing and I’m playing a little electric guitar. The other one’s kind of weird and moody. It reminds me of Everything But The Girl meets Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young or something. It’s a pretty strange mood that it’s got. I didn’t even know it was actually coming out so you know better than me, then!
CM: How did The Flaming Lips manage to survive, be creative and keep moving forward all this time without the benefits of hit singles or significant coverage? How have you managed to flourish under the notoriously bottom line oriented umbrella of a major record label when so many others were tossed out?
SD: That’s a fucking really good question. I don’t know. It seems like we got lucky there for a while. When the axe fell and people were getting fired…for some reason, we wouldn’t be talked about that week. We didn’t have a record that had just come out. It was like ours had been out for six months and nothing happened with it, so they just forgot about us! We just barely survived the downfall of the boom era of the alternative rock movement. Part of it was when Ronald quit. It looked like we might get dropped so we just decided to fucking do what we wanted to do. It wasn’t like we weren’t doing what we wanted to do before. It was just like we got older and changed, you know? We wanted to do heavier music with strings and we just wanted to do some new stuff. We thought, “Well, now’s the time to do it, because we’re probably not going to stay on the label anyway.” We thought it would be our last record, The Soft Bulletin, but people loved it and that encouraged us to say, “Hey, we can do what we want and get by okay!” After the success of that record, Warner Brothers have been totally behind us one hundred percent which is really cool.
CM: …and unheard of.
SD: Major label or not, there aren’t a lot of bands that have been around for twenty years that are still making cool music.
CM: And how many of those few bands are still getting bigger with each release?
SD: That’s true. That’s a weird thing. I’ve been in the band since ’91. I’m still the new guy. I can’t really think of anybody that’s still together. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been together for 20 years and they’re as big as they were ten years ago.
CM: Yeah, but they’ve come, gone and made a come back. It hasn’t been a steady build like The Flaming Lips. Remember, that Red Hot record they did with Dave Navarro on guitar didn’t sell and the shows didn’t do too well either.
SD: That’s true. That record with Dave Navarro sucked.
CM: But you’re still evolving. Originally, the Lips seemed very confrontational and cynical, whereas now the material is very open hearted and sentimental.
SD: I know what you mean. That’s Wayne. We all got older and things are changing. You just turn a corner, you know? Wayne writes all of the lyrics. I don’t even play the lyric writing game anymore. I quit after the first couple of songs. I’d play a song for him and he’d call me the next day and say, “Here’s what I got, Drozd.” He’d sing it and it’d be like, “Fuck! There you go, man.” There’s no way I would’ve thought of the things that he thinks of. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to see it through for a whole song. So yeah, ten years ago Wayne was more like, “I don’t want to play this game. I’m cool. I’m going to turn my back on the audience. I’m going to try to kill you with volume because I don’t want to talk to you.” People change I guess. Just look back at Michael Stipe. He’s the perfect example. He used to stand at the mic stand muttering and now I’m surprised he doesn’t do Divas Las Vegas!
CM: The Flaming Lips have the kind of music that inspires an almost literally cult-like following. Do the fans that read too much into what you’re doing ever freak you out a little?
SD: I understand, you know. I’ve been pretty fanatical about certain bands at times. I really have.
CM: Yeah, but when it’s you, you know it’s harmless. It’s got to be different coming back at you. It’s got to be jarring at least.
SD: Yeah, sometimes we’ll see people at like six shows in a row and they hang on like it’s their whole life, you know. I worry a little bit. It’s creepy sometimes. At first, you’re like, “Cool! We’ve got some hard core fans.” Then you’ll see them outside saying, “We drove a thousand miles and the show’s sold out. If you don’t get us in, I don’t know what’s going to happen!” Okay, well you get them in and you feel bad for them, but I’ve been there so many times. I’ll meet some cool fans and hang out and a year later they’re in your dressing room all the time. There was a kid from the Chicago area who started to show up at a lot of shows. I guess his parents were really rich. At first it was cool. Then he started showing up at all these shows in England and Europe. Wherever we were playing, he would be there. It was really bizarre. It got to the point where he’d help us a little. He’s help us do this and that. Then he was in our dressing rooms all day eating our food and not doing anything except laying on the couch. We had to cut him loose, you know?
CM: How do you do that? Do you try to do it gently or do you just send some security guy to get rid of him?
SD: That’s the tough part. I didn’t do it personally, but Wayne was like, “Look, Buddy. You’ve got to give us more space. This isn’t working out.”
CM: So you had to “break up” with him?
SD: Basically. That’s true. It’s just weird. People after a while are just clueless to their own mistakes when they get so obsessed.
CM: On the other side of that, especially with the content of the last few records is the healing effect you can have on people.
SD: I think that’s fucking awesome. Not to sound hokey…I keep saying that, but I know we’ve all been through times where music is the one fucking thing that gets you through the day. I know it’s saved my life many, many times. So I’m glad we can give that back to “the people” (laughs). You can’t just take it, you’ve got to give it back. I’m starting to sound like Neil Diamond there.
CM: To remain in the hokey realm…the world’s in a delicate situation right now. Do you feel that your music is a release to your audience? Do you feel like some of them get a human connection at a show that they might not feel otherwise?
SD: Fucking A, right. That’s true, but when we’re making this music we’re not really thinking that. I think we’re just trying to entertain ourselves and get an emotional response from ourselves. It’s very rare that I’m going to go in the studio and play a piano track and come back and go, “Oh God, that’s amazing,” but you’re trying to get that. You really are. You’re trying to entertain the rest of the world but you want to fucking feel it, you know? The fact is that people hear those songs years later and really respond to them like it’s for these times and what’s going on right now.
CM: Yes, but if you’re writing for yourselves instead of a major demographic, that tends to make it more universal by default.
SD: Which is tricky.
CM: Do the politics of the day affect you in your writing or even in your mood on the road and the direction that the live shows take?
SD: You know, I don’t know if it was just my own imagination or what, but it seemed like in France this last go round that people were pretty rude to us when they realized that we were American (laughs), but it might have just been my imagination. So that was pretty weird, and I’m a nervous flyer anyway, but I got really schized out flying from Rome to Athens. That just seemed like the kind of flight that some terrorist bullshit would happen on.
CM: I’m with you.
SD: Did you hear about the Dixie Chicks when they were in London?
CM: I did.
SD: I couldn’t imagine that was going to have any backlash on the Dixie Chicks. I really think they were just kissing the ass of the audience.
CM: So here’s the typical wrap up question…what’s up next for The Flaming Lips after this tour?
SD: Tour, tour, tour. We’re touring here, then we go to England to do a couple of festivals. Then we come back here to the States and the word on the streets is that we’re either going to tour with Radiohead in the U.S. or maybe do the tour opening for R.E.M. When we’re done touring, we’ll take a couple of months to rest and we’ll see what happens after that.
CM: Is Christmas On Mars happening?
SD: Probably not until Christmas of 2004.
CM: Cool. Maybe when you get to the 40 Watt, I’ll be crashed out on the couch in your dressing room.
SD: (laughs) Come up and say “Hello.” We’ll have a beer or something.