Idea man

Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne believes in the thrill of wonder, the miracle of everyday life and the extraordinary sound in his head.

By Jeff Stark
July 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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For six years beginning in 1984, when the Flaming Lips wanted to make a
point, they turned up their amps. They gave their songs monstrous guitar
hooks, surging bass swings and huge beats, all infused with a catholic
belief in the power of volume and noise. Around 1990, the band, marshaled
by singer and guitarist Wayne Coyne, learned how to record, which allowed
the psychedelic boho careerists to refine the noise and play around with
cartoony pop for four records. A three-year set of sonic experiments
followed, producing a parking lot symphony, a boombox orchestra and "Zaireeka," the most
adventurous record ever released by a major label -- a set of four CDs
engineered to play at the same time on four different machines.

"The Soft Bulletin," the Flaming Lips' 11th full-length record, is
something else. It trades insanity for practiced weirdness, the whoosh of
chemicals for the brightness of everyday life. "I want you to listen to it
while you're eating a sandwich," says Coyne about the album, talking over
the phone from the Lips compound in Oklahoma City. "In some ways it's so
crazy, more so than 'Zaireeka.' Ideas can be of all qualities. That's the
magic of music: It doesn't have to be about complicated things."

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His music is also, for the first time, subtle. But it's so dense, so
particular, that it's easy to blow over the surface and pass it off in one
or two listens. Stick with it. Turn it up and tune into the way the
harmonies bounce off one another, the complexity of the lyrics, the
fragility of Coyne's delivery. "The Soft Bulletin" is sophisticated pop, a
children's record for adults who still listen to music on headphones.

"The Soft Bulletin," if anything, is a record about wonder, the
miraculousness of the mundane and the ability of ordinary people to connect
with it. It's also about the moment of discovery, the second that an idea
cuts through reason and explodes into consciousness. "The Spark That Bled" is
about cinder-block realizations, the times that you feel like you've been hit on the head with
a colossal idea. For Coyne, the ideas blare like trumpets and fire off
chain reactions. This is how he puts it in the song: "I stood up and said
'Yeah!!'/I stood up and said, 'Hey!! Yeah!!'"

"['The Spark That Bled'] implies that it's a human condition to have
ideas," says Coyne. "It's about how ideas come through your head and how
that rejuvenates you."

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He says it another way in the "Zaireeka" liner notes: "Sometimes this force is so great that it seems to bypass all the
usual checkpoints of reasoning, striking with such impact as to make its
receiver appear insane, stupid or retarded, but nonetheless invigorated."

The genius of "The Soft Bulletin" is that, musically, it uses the marvels of a
high-tech recording studio to evoke Coyne's sense of wonder. Produced by the
Lips -- now just Coyne, drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins
after the loss of lead guitarist Ronald Jones -- Dave Fridmann and Scott
Booker, the music sweeps and swells, brightly popping out of the speakers.
Tinking piano and smooth "oohs" underline soft drum shuffles on "Waitin'
for a Superman." Synthesizers pick up a whistle, replicate it, and trail
off as it fades into the distance on "The Spiderbite Song."

There's a certain cinematic quality to "The Soft Bulletin," something that
places it alongside the Broadway dreams of Mercury Rev's last record,
"Deserter's Songs." The lyrics at times read like plot outlines. And the
stories are populated by ordinary heroes: They're not artists or geniuses,
they're everyday people caught in the throes of discovery. In "Race for the
Prize," two scientists work toward an some sort of cure "for the good of
all mankind." The key to the song is its refrain: "They're just humans/With
wives and children." The second song, "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," picks up
the storyline after the scientists have saved the world. "And though they
were sad/They rescued everyone/They lifted up the sun."

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It's as if the pop effluvia that surrounds us bores The Flaming Lips, but
instead of poking holes in it, they manufacture a parallel world for
themselves. If pop culture exists in their songs, it's vintage pop
characters like Superman. The group once appeared in the Peach Pit on an
episode of "Beverly Hills 90210" at about minute 14 of their post-"She
Don't Use Jelly" fame, but its almost impossible to imagine them ever
writing a song about it. They're far more fascinated by humans,
relationships and the natural world.

Bugs, for instance, are a regularly recurring theme on Lips records, from
"Moth in the Incubator" on "Transmissions From the Satellite Heart" to "The
Big Ol' Bug Is the New Baby Now" on "Zaireeka." "The Soft Bulletin"
features "The Spiderbite Song" and "Buggin'" side by side. The first is a
love letter from Coyne to the band. In the second, the bugs buzz around,
"fly in the air as you comb your hair." For Coyne, writing about bugs is,
yet again, an expression of wonder. "I do think normal life is
extraordinary," he says. "Without sounding like some sort of born again
weirdo, I do. Bugs are ... cool. I think animals and all of those creatures
are great things. Sometimes they're good analogies and good metaphors.
Sometimes they're just fun."

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The Lips might have another fluke novelty hit, but they're never going to
appeal to a huge audience. Coyne's voice is charming if you're a fan, but
it's prohibitively whiny for most radio. And the band's songwriting style
skews toward repeated passages, musical echoes and long codas instead of
direct verse-chorus-verse structures. Even their nods to orchestral pop of
the '60s doesn't stand a chance of softening up a mainstream audience: "Pet
Sounds" was the worst-selling Beach Boys record when it debuted in 1966,
and didn't even go gold.

But the Lips are worth watching, partly because they follow the kind of
quirky ideas and fascinating brainstorms that you have to sell. The latest
brainstorm is a tour revue, "not a festival with smart drinks and stuff,"
says Coyne. "I feel like the audience would rather not spend all day
watching bands. It's the summer. We hate going to these shows when all
these bands play for two-and-a-half hours. This will be two-and-a-half
hours and you'll get five or six bands. These are quality acts and it will
be their best songs, all the hits, with a five-minute break."

Coyne's quality acts include oddball Robyn Hitchcock, Japanese pop star Cornelius, electronic acts DJ
Kid Loco and ICU, Finnish techno band Panasonic and Sebadoh, the indie rock band that will
hugely benefit from a stopwatch. "It's my take on a variety show," says
Coyne.

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Of course a variety show won't be enough for the Lips. Coyne is still
indulging the whimsy that prompted his boombox experiments. The Lips will
tour with a small, portable low-watt radio station and at each venue,
they'll pass out receivers and headphones to the crowd. As the Lips play,
they'll broadcast a live performance of themselves to the radios.
(Cornelius did a similar experiment in Japan, but he used the radio to add
additional tracks to the stage sounds.)

"I did a lot of experimenting at home," says Coyne. "When I go to a concert
it's the worst sound that I hear. We won't do additional tracks. What
you'll hear is what you hear out of the speakers with a subtle EQ. It's
really is fun -- it makes people involved. And people like it because they
can go to the bathroom without missing a song.


Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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