If Oklahoma City doesn't go down in pop-rock history as the next (yawn) Seattle, Flaming Lips guitarist/vocalist Wayne Coyne won't mind. He likes his hometown the way it is--boring. "We've sort of gone out of our way to say, `Look, there's nothing going on here. Just do what you want to do. We're just a bunch of weirdos stuck out here in the middle of Oklahoma City, where nothing happens,'" he notes only moments after his return from a local Toys R Us, where he'd purchased a month's supply of bubble solution needed for the band's upcoming tour. "I think everybody here--and especially us--is content to just sort of leave it that way."
That may not be possible; the music made by Coyne and his fellow Lips (currently guitarist Ronald Jones, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steven Drozd) may well change the reputation of the sleepy Oklahoma capital. The band's supercharged psychedelic noodlings already have influenced more than their fair share of underground newcomers, including the Grifters, Pavement and Guided By Voices, and its recent Warner Brothers release, entitled Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, has been lauded in Spin and Rolling Stone. In addition, the combo is slated to headline the second stage at this summer's Lollapalooza Festival, sharing the limelight with such notable acts as Luscious Jackson, the Frogs and Verve.
The Lips' newfound success has been a long time coming; the group has created gripping indie rock for more than a decade. Coyne says that the first incarnation of the band, featuring Ivins, David English and Coyne's brother Mark, was influenced by the early punk groups that played Oklahoma City. "Michael and I would always do sound for all the hardcore bands that came through town back in '82 and '83," he enthuses. "We did sound for Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, Die Kreuzen--all kinds of bands. Those groups kind of put a light bulb into our head. We said, `Wow! These guys just drive around in a crappy old van that their dad let them borrow, and they don't have $10,000 guitars or anything like that. They just came from shitty small towns like we did, only they were in California or Arizona instead of Oklahoma.'"
Following in the footsteps of their bombastic mentors, the Lips released their first self-produced EP in 1985. After selling out the first two pressings of the disc ("I thought I had a stash of about ten at my mom's house, but I don't," Coyne laments), the band grabbed the attention of the independent imprint called Restless Records. According to Coyne, signing with Restless was like a punk-rock dream come true. "We couldn't turn it down," he says. "We were all like, `You mean you'll give us money and we can make the record we want to?' Back then, that seemed totally crazy."
Once this deal was consummated, the Lips released their first full-length album, 1986's primitive Here It Is; the hard-to-find, equally raucous Oh My Gawd followed soon thereafter. By contrast, 1989's Telepathic Surgery was considerably more melodic. Straight-up rockers such as "Drug Machine in Heaven" and "Redneck School of Technology" appeared alongside psychoactive pop numbers like "Chrome Plated Suicide" and "Shaved Gorilla"; meanwhile, the surreal "Hell's Angels' Cracker Factory" suggested that Coyne and company were spending an unhealthy amount of time listening to their dusty copies of Ummagumma. All in all, the fourteen songs on Surgery had more in common with Syd Barrett than Sid Vicious--a stylistic change that wasn't easy for the band to make. "I remember when we were trying to get an echo on voice the very first time we recorded," Coyne recalls. "I [ran my mike] through guitar echo, and we just turned it on when we were putting the vocals to the tape. It wasn't until [Surgery] that I actually found out that you could run it through some gear. I think about it now, and it's like, `Gee, Wayne. Maybe wake up and smell the coffee, eh?'"
As proved by 1990's near-flawless In a Priest-Driven Ambulance, the Lips obviously learned their studio lessons well. The album, which featured two new members (drummer Nathan Roberts and guitarist Jonathan Donahue) and a new producer (Dave Fridmann), found the group taking its swirling landscapes of sound and texture to a new level. Especially effective were the disc's opener, "Shine On Sweet Jesus--The Jesus Song," and the concluding "What a Wonderful World," a surprisingly intricate interpretation of the classic Louis Armstrong tune. Today Coyne attributes a large portion of the album's Technicolor sheen and complexity to its three-month recording schedule. "We wanted to get past the point where we had to go into the studio and stay up for eight days straight--which is exactly what we did with our first three albums," he notes.
Although Ambulance was the Lips' best effort to date, it wasn't enough to save Restless, which folded only weeks after the album's release. In a last-ditch effort to salvage what was left of the band, Coyne and Donahue started calling up labels and claiming to be influential rock stars such as Aerosmith's Joe Perry and members of Jane's Addiction. At one point, Coyne boasts that he even called Bob Dylan's home phone number, only to be cut off by the nasal one's maid.
"We would sit on the phone all day," Coyne elaborates. "We'd get a phone installed and then we'd use it as much as we could for about three and a half weeks before the bill would come in. We knew we wouldn't be able to pay it, so we'd just plan our calls around those three weeks. I mean, you have to figure this shit out when you don't have any money."
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Much to the Lips' surprise, an A&R rep from Warner Bros. actually phoned them a few weeks after Restless announced it was closing its doors. Coyne assumed the call was a gag: "I remember calling our lawyer and telling him, `If this guy at Warner Bros. thinks he's fucking with us, you tell him that we've got guns, and if he comes out here we'll shoot him.' I mean, we were so broke that we weren't up for people taking us out to dinner and telling us how great we were. It's like, who gives a shit? We just wanted to make records, you know?"
Fortunately, the bigwigs at Warner Bros. weren't joking: They signed the Lips only days after their contract with Restless expired. The group responded with the enchanting Hit to Death in the Future Head and last year's Transmissions, which emerged as its most accessible album yet. The Lips subsequently were invited to play at last year's Reading Festival, where they were declared one of the best bands on the planet by none other than Melody Maker--a rave Coyne doesn't take very seriously. As he puts it, "I have as much use for [that kind of hype] as I do for most of those English bands. I mean, one week they'll put Jesus Lizard on the cover, and then the next week it'll be fucking Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. It doesn't mean that they're good or credible or anything."
These terms do apply to the Flaming Lips. Unlike many of today's alternative musicians, who seem content to hide behind a blanket of dogmatic amateurism, the Lips continue to create consistently listenable music that is both fresh and inno-vative. Coyne sums up the Lips' sound best when he describes it as "a Saturday morning cartoon and Schindler's List rolled together. It's funny. It's scary. And it's the contrast of the two that makes us keep doing what we do."
Tool, with the Flaming Lips and Failure. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, Mammoth Events Center, 1510 Clarkson, $15, 290-