The Flaming Lips
by Stuart Barr
“It takes us a long time to do our records, we usually just go into some bumfuck studio in the middle of nowhere and hole up for four or five months”
Wayne Coyne is describing the trials and tribulations of life in the Flaming Lips. I’ve been questioning him about the weird and twisted rumours that have been circulating about his bands vile and depraved recording methods (vile and depraved by the mixing desk manual, muso types that is).
“I would think it’s normal stuff that happens when people get together and basically go insane together. The process of making records is basically fucked up” he adds reasonably, voice crackling as it bounces off several satellites from Oklahoma to Convulsion Towers, Edinburgh. Ain’t technology wonderful.
“We don’t have anyone produce us, we basically do it all ourselves. There isn’t anyone there to guide it in any particular direction.” And thank god for that, The Flaming Lips latest album `Hit to Death in the Future Head’, is a marvellously warped collection of rough pop jewels. From the urgent throb of `Talking `Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone wants to live forever)‘, to the swirling five and a half minute epic `Halloween on the Barbary Coast’, to the Neil Young-ish ballad `You have to be joking (Autopsy of the Devil’s Brain)‘.`Future Head’ sprawls about all over the place, but is rarely less than compelling (actually thats not quite true, the CD features thirty minutes of sheer sonic hell, that’s like sonic water torture; but we’ll deal with that in due time). Anyway back to the vile and depraved recording methods.
“Stuff happens sure. I remember playing guitar in a womens bathroom. We were at this music school , so you had women’s and men’s bathrooms, and long hallways. We had a guitar set up in the bathroom, and we where pouring water on it. We were shorting out the whole system while we were recording it. We were splashing water onto this guitar, there was six inches of water on the floor because we were gushing on this guitar, trying to get some new innovative noise happening. Someone thought that there were girls being raped in the bathroom, we actually ended up being nearly arrested.”
I suggest to Wayne (subtly) that being arrested was the least that could have happened in roughly this form `Jesus Christ Wayne! You’re lucky to be alive!’ Over the phone I can practically hear him shrug in reply.
Well it didn’t seem that dangerous at the time, it’s only a 100 watt amplifier. The worse that could happen would be that you a buzz off of it. . .
“And that might be worth recording as well”, he adds with a flourish.
“It’s not so much disgusting as a way of making things more interesting for us, he says in a more sober vein. “Just to play guitar with a wah-wah and some distortion on it, its hard to create interest in that. We try to go to extremes to make it interesting to do. If it takes blowing up an amplifier to make it make some noise that will have the kids all over America going `How did you do that man?’ then we’ll do it.
“It goes further than writing songs and music, after a while that can only take you so far.”
The inner sleeve of the album lists the various instruments used in the records recording as (deep intake of breath): electric guitars, bass guitars, acoustic guitars, trumpet, saringies, violins, congos, guitar machines, electronic effects, tambourines, cellos, drums, pedal steel guitars, autoharps, flutes, sampling machines, piccolo trumpets, computers, drum machines, bells, feedback machines, distortion machines, violas, flugelhorns, timpani, chimes, electric organs, Leslie machines(?), voices, tablas, tape loops, pianos and finally power tool machines.
C’mon Wayne, give a break whydontcha
“It’s true, its all true. But I hope people don’t get the impression we played all those things. Bringing other so-called musicians in is our thing. I don’t think all bands should do that but sometimes we move away from just using guitar, bass, and drums; and why not.
“You never know what’s going to happen, thats what was so great about bringing in these sterile, hard, musicians. You sit them in there and say `what would you do with this? Some just sit there and say `I dunno, you tell me what to play and I’ll play it’. Others get really animated and come up with stuff that we’d never come up with. We’d record them for an hour or two and then take their `bits’ and turn them backwards, speed them up, or slow them down and use them however we wanted. I don’t know if its experimental it’s more using sounds.”
The lips hail from the not very rock and roll dull lands of Western America, Oklahoma. What’s more they don’t seem overly concerned with trekking to the states more trad musical mecca’s. Why Wayne?
“We live here so it isn’t strange to us. It’s strange to talk about it. It’s been just a really depressing place for a long time, the economy had folded before the rest of the country started noticing. People have been living here for the past ten years on just lousy day jobs, and thinking that’s reasonable. Its just so depressed here.
“But I think its helped in that, it’s not become some sort of scene like Athens or Seattle. Bands from here go for individuality, rather than for being part of a movement. You have to be brave to do that.
“There’s bands here who would sound the way they do regardless of anything else in the universe. That’s sort of where we’re coming from.
“Garth Brooks is from the fucking Ukon or somewhere, and he sells millions of records, so it doesn’t really matter where you’re from.
“It’s like people who’ve been in concentration camps, you ask them ` how could you survive on just bugs and water?’ they’ll reply `I dunno, I just did it’.”
Nice Analogy Wayne.
“In the UK music actually influences people on an everyday level, whereas here life goes on pretty much in the same dismal boring them regardless of what records are made. “
Great, strike Oklahoma from my holiday list.
The CD of `Future Head’ features a 30 minute long, unlisted final track that merely amounts to two chords blacking out of left and right speakers over and over and over again. Do you enjoy freaking people out Wayne?
“(Laughs), We had this piece that was coming down to just a bunch of annoying noise. It was our way of getting back at bands who have then great songs, and because CD’s are 71 minutes long, they fill up the space just so you feel you’re getting your money’s worth.
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I would rather have ten good songs and silence, then ten good songs and a few more shitty ones. This is our way of saying, look here’s 71 minutes of sounds and ten songs that we think are worth hearing.
“If you don’t want to listen to half an hour of noise bouncing back and forth on your stereo fine, but we’re not going to title it, and make it seem that it’s important. We’re just filling up the CD.”
Flaming Lips music, and especially their lyrics seem to fall into the `Slacker’ mindset that has become fashionable with certain more intellectual writers in the US press recently (Hello Simon Reynolds!). For those who don’t know, the slacker lifestyle is summed up best in Richard Linkletters brilliant cult movie of the same name (see review elsewhere); which incidentally Wayne hasn’t seen. Basically Slackers are educated, middle class, twenty something’s; they’re intelligent and full of ideas, but can’t get it together to actually do anything collectively apart from listen to slack er approved bands and discuss the merits of Camp 70s kids TV (sound familiar? That nobody’s got it together to examine UK slackerism yet amazes me. “This week in MM – The scene that just can’t arsed!”)
Some of the Lips lyrics fit the lifestyle (if its together enough to even call it that), like a glove. From the daydream imagery of `Talking Bout the Smiling . . . .’ which features the lines: `Man can only live in his dreams,’, and `nobody ever gets it together’, To the obsession with weird trivia evidenced on `Frogs’.
I mention this to Wayne and he thinks its cool.
“A lot of records have come out in the last couple of years – Like Lush and early Loop where it doesn’t matter what the lyrics are. You can’t tell what they’re saying anyway, it just becomes a blur. I really, really liked that.
“I think some of my stuff veers along that path even if you can understand it.
“These days you can catch every amount of information floating around the world by sitting in front of the television for a few days. With music, it’s sometimes just the opposite, you’re trying to destroy that information thats in your brain. Half of it’s pointless anyway. You want to put on something that just going to destroy half your brain so you can start over again. I hope our shit does something like that.
Its hard to make definitive statements in a three and a half minute pop song anyway, isn’t it.
“Exactly, and that what’s good about the whole pop format. You have to be inventive within the format to pull it off. Rollins & Lydia Lunch do extraordinarily well. Its like watching a black and white film, there’s nothing to get in your way. You hear what they’re saying, you know what they are saying, you walk away remembering what they said.
“Pop songs deals in so many abstracts, hopefully you walk away in a different frame of mind that you did earlier”
Tell us about the song Frogs. Do the lyrics really go “Here you are; infected by the waterstrain wash your car fish and frogs come streaming down like rain”?
So what gives?
“Have you ever heard Charles Fort? I have his collected works here.”
If you don’t know who Charles Fort is, go buy a copy of `Fortean Times’. basically he devoted most of his life to collecting data on strange and unusual `natural’ occurrences. Back to Wayne.
“It’s not so much the mystical aspects of it, its merely the way he put things across. The possibility of thinking shit that you’ve never thought before. Thinking stuff that’s not going to logically sit in your head like other information as well.
I asked Wayne what his ideal artistic accomplishment would be. This is what he said.
“If I could, I’d spend five or six years making a movie, and that would be it! It would have visuals, it would have music and you could go and watch it for two hours and come out knowing the secrets of the universe and knowing you’re completely fucking insane.
“Or I would make a movie that would subliminally tell all the fucking idiots of the world to go kill themselves. As the movie would get released you would see the world getting better, smarter.
“I get so sick of stupid people, people rating the world, especially over here. It’s just so ridiculous so throwaway, and yet its the fucking idiots of the world that control what everybody else does.
The smart people of the world need to start doing something.
“People are getting stupider. I hope there’s a growing audience of people out there who want more than just going down the grocers store and renting a video. Unfortunately it seems to be going just the other way. My idea is to subliminally get those fucking idiots out there, to think that their lives are worthless and just kill themselves.
“You see how it wouldn’t work though?, little by little your audience would cease to exist, your audience would die and you wouldn’t sell many records.
“Somebody’s got to do it”.