The Soft Machine
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.
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."
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.
"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 possibly be 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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