The Soft Machine

The Flaming Lips continue to win their race for the prize.

The last time the Flaming Lips played Denver, the band looked out on the capacity crowd at the Ogden Theatre and saw what some -- okay, most -- musicians might regard as a peculiar sight. The audience members were more or less doing what they normally do at concerts: watching the stage with blank or blissful expressions on their faces, drinking beer from plastic cups, milling around, chatting, making trips to the bathroom. What was curious about this particular show was the fact that more than half of the people in the audience were sporting portable headsets and listening to the live music through their own personal PA systems, ostensibly bringing the Lips' music directly into the comfort of their own heads. The purpose of the headphones, Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told the crowd, was to allow listeners a clearer reception of the varied instruments, tonal separations and complicated compositions of the evening's musical offerings. It was a fine, if unusual, line of reasoning, considering the bulk of the music was to come from The Soft Bulletin, the Lips' then-recently released album, a meticulously produced and dense recording. To the band, the spectacle of the "Brain Degeneration" tour -- and audiences' varied responses to the experience -- was a victory of experimentation, and not a novelty.

"We sort of took a poll, and we feel like we got some results," Coyne says. "We decided it was divided into three categories. The first hated it -- they couldn't talk to their friends, hang out or any of that. The second said it just didn't matter to them one way or another. The third loved it, went ecstatic and said they'd never listen to another concert without them again. We didn't want anyone to feel like they were being left out or to feel disappointed if they tried it and didn't see what the big deal was. But for the more dedicated music listeners, it clears up a lot of things. There are just things in the mix that get lost in a club. A lot of people don't care about having that precise of an experience, but some want more than that kind of cloud of sound."

As strange as it may have seemed to those unfamiliar with the Lips oeuvre, Brain Degeneration was only a moderate example of the band's tendency to make a pageant of its live shows, something Coyne and his cohorts (drummer Steven Drozd, bass guitarist Michael Ivins and occasional second guitarists) have been doing since forming in Oklahoma City way back in 1983. In those days, they made do by hanging Christmas lights on amps and instruments or Coyne himself, or by blowing bubbles onto the crowd. A little later they got into makeshift pyrotechnics, lighting cymbals on fire -- à la the Butthole Surfers' favorite tricks of the era -- and nearly setting more than one nightclub alight in the effort. Such antics may initially have had something to do with the band's long-term relationship with Warner Bros. records, a label on which it has released five full-length albums after its early affiliation with Restless Records. The legend holds that a Warner A&R rep signed the band after watching a performance that narrowly avoided turning an Oklahoma City club into a pile of cinders.

Hear it is (from left): Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd are the Flaming Lips.
Hear it is (from left): Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd are the Flaming Lips.

In recent years, though, Lips performances have moved from simple cacophonies into events that mirror the bold and exploratory elements of their recordings. The shows have become conceptual, theatrical extensions of the band's increasing interest in audio science and the ways in which new technologies can be used in the pursuit of new music. If hip-hop can be credited with igniting a new jazz by piecing together fragments of existent materials, the Lips might be the architects of a new kind of classical sound. Consider the 1997 release of Zaireeka, a four-CD release that requires a listener to play each disc simultaneously on four stereos in order to achieve the full effect. Though experiencing it is a near impossibility for anyone besides those audiophiles who happen to have four CD players lying around or hardcore fans willing to round them up out of curiosity or loyalty, those who do take on the project are highly rewarded. The album is an alternately frightening and redemptive operetta -- a sweeping work involving strings and thundering bass drums and dogs barking in unison to a Wagnerian chorus; it includes songs with names like "The Train Runs Over the Camel but Is Derailed by the Gnat" and "The Big Ol' Bug Is the New Baby Now." The laborious process involved in Zaireeka's creation demonstrated that -- as suggested on its predecessor, Clouds Taste Metallic -- the Lips had progressed exponentially from their early approach to songwriting and recording, which involved colliding as many sounds as possible, then looking for form in the wreckage that lingered at the scene. Zaireeka may have been madness, as some charged, but it was a carefully composed madness.

"When we look back at what we were doing in the early days, we are stunned that these retards on these records were given freedom to do whatever they wanted," Coyne says. "We used to sort of rely on these accidents, because if we had to just get by on the amount of talent or ambition in the band, we would have been in trouble. In our case, it has always been that what we came up with by accident was better than what we started out with to begin with. But now it doesn't feel like what we're doing has as much to do with these arbitrary actions -- there are too many directions it can go. We can lay down 200 tracks, for example, and things can combine in a million different ways. It's too much. So now it's like, if we were a sculptor, we'd build the rock and then take things away."

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