The Soft Machine

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

Zaireeka's release was followed by a series of "Boombox Experiments" that took place in various Oklahoma City parking lots in 1997. The series involved Coyne and Drozd conducting orchestras of volunteers who were given tape players that Coyne had collected from various junk shops in town and altered so that the proper levels were set and glued in place and only the "Play" button and volume controls functioned properly. Donning yellow jumpsuits and bullhorns, Coyne and Drozd arranged the forty volunteers into a formation resembling that of an orchestra pit; from there, the guitar, drum, string and various other "sections" would take visual cues from the Lips, fading in and out, at times playing individually or joining in a crescendo that could have come from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. For Coyne, the experiments were a less labor-intensive way to explore the possibilities of simultaneous play, listener participation and orchestration.

"This stuff that we do in the studio, it's a lot of long-winded work that's really boring," he says. "With something like Zaireeka, you just have to plow right through it and try to stay awake. That record was really exhausting, and you have to realize there is no audience in there when you're doing these things. There are no parades, no applause -- so when something works, there's just this little sigh of relief, and then it fades. A lot of the time, when we get to the performance, it's like our art is already finished, and now here we are in front of you, with our shoes and coats on. The parking-lot projects were a way to carry the creation aspect into the performance."

In the end, some of that long-winded work wasn't quite right for Zaireeka, and the bulk of that material wound up on The Soft Bulletin. Another studio-intensive undertaking, Bulletin took the Lips more than two years to complete, and it's easy to understand why. The Soft Bulletin has the rare distinction of being commercial enough to almost garner radio play (the tune "Buggin'," where insects in one's hair and headlights serve as a metaphor for love, is a particular example) while being infinitely complicated, frightening and beautiful.

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.

"People are still coming up to me and saying that even after a year, they like the record more now than ever," Coyne says. "That's marvelous to hear. And sometimes I feel the same way about it. But other times I sit and listen to it, and even I'm a little confused by it. It's like, 'Well, how did we do that? Maybe we should remember how we do some of this stuff.'

"Whatever we do now comes from a certain amount of experience," he adds. "But, then again, we can't possiblybe experienced at what we're doing, because it's new. We've never done it before. We're experienced and inexperienced amateurs every time we sit down to do something. Which is good. It's good to go along with something, let it get out of control and be something other than what you wanted it to. Let it go someplace more interesting than what your own thought process would be. In the process of writing, you have to immerse yourself in the belief that what you are doing is going to be great. With the Soft Bulletin, we kind of lost our objectivity on it, we worked on it so much. But, I guess people thought it was alright."

The album uses everything from strings, piccolos, harps and multilayered vocal arrangements to an unmistakable Zeppelinesque rhythm aesthetic and nods to Pink Floyd's The Wall, particularly on "The Gash," a kind of post-apocalyptic alien revival tune. Yet while The Wall was a tangential narrative of a man's descent into insanity, The Soft Bulletin is more like a trip down the yellow brick road, except in this case, there is no feeble man behind the curtain. There's a wizard, and he's funny. The record was widely regarded as the best and most ambitious rock album of the year and the shimmering jewel in the Lips' complicated crown. The band is still touring in support of it, though the current leg of the tour has less of an emphasis on headphonery.

"We've decided that we'll always make them available for the people who really loved them," Coyne says. "Maybe a hundred of them for a crowd of 500. We don't want to make the whole show about headphones, but there are hundreds of sounds a person can hear if he's really inclined."

Most of the Lips' endeavors brand them as wacky, as purposely odd. But to hear Coyne explain his band's reasons for its eccentricities -- providing headphones, for example, so that some people can enjoy an enhanced auditory experience -- they really don't sound weird at all. In fact, most of what they're up to makes perfect sense. But it does provoke a reaction: the resistance to, and then the euphoria of, experiencing a creative surprise.

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