Behind the Scenes at the Flaming Lips Rehearsal With the Colorado Symphony

The Flaming Lips are rehearsing with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and they're having trouble getting in sync. It takes a few attempts to realize the problem: The violin section is missing three measures from its sheet music.

“Don’t worry! We will reprint it before tomorrow,” conductor André de Ridder assures the string section.

A number of CSO’s violinists make written notations on their charts while the frontman of the Flaming Lips, Wayne Coyne, looks on and nods approvingly.

“Now, can I get one more round?” de Ridder asks.

This time, there is no confusion. The song, “Sleeping on the Roof,” ends powerfully with the full force of the orchestra, as well as a fifty-plus-person choir, in perfect harmony with the band.

“NICE!” exclaims Coyne. “There’s a lot of cool stuff there, for sure.”

On Wednesday evening, Westword witnessed this moment — among many others –- after being invited to Boettcher Concert Hall for a behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsal between the Flaming Lips and the CSO ahead of Thursday night’s joint performance of the Lips’ classic album The Soft Bulletin at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Even in rehearsal, the collaboration sounded fantastic, and suggests that tonight's show at Red Rocks will be one to remember. While The Soft Bulletin is already considered by many Lips fans to be the band’s masterpiece, the 1999 album reaches a whole new level with a symphony orchestra behind it.

“One of the things that [Flaming Lips bandmember] Steven Drozd told me was that if they had had an orchestra when recording the album, they would have used it," says CSO Senior Vice President of Program Innovation Tony Pierce.

Thursday’s concert at Red Rocks will mark the first time the Flaming Lips have performed the album with an orchestra. In fact, the sheet music and orchestral arrangements for The Soft Bulletin were written specifically for the show.

CSO’s Pierce says that the idea to team up with the Lips stems from an ongoing effort by CSO to collaborate with popular musicians across genres; in the past few years, the CSO has paired with well-known artists like DeVotchKa, the Lumineers, Gregory Alan Isakov and Nathaniel Rateliff.

But the particular genesis of this show goes back a couple of years, to a serendipitous encounter between Pierce and the Lips’ longtime manager, Scott Booker, at a music-industry conference in Denver. That day, the two exchanged business cards on the off chance that they would ever want to work together.

As it turned out, that would come to pass thanks to de Ridder. Last year, Pierce was Skype-ing with the German conductor, well known for his work with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz, about potential show ideas when Pierce brought up the Flaming Lips.

“I mentioned Scott Booker and the Flaming Lips, and the first thing out of André’s mouth was, ‘We’ve got to do The Soft Bulletin,'" Pierce recalls.

It didn’t take much to convince the Flaming Lips to come on board, either, especially once Pierce secured a date at Red Rocks. The Lips had been looking for an opportunity to return to the venue since their last performance in 2011, when they played a rendition of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. 

“Red Rocks is just one of those classic American venues,” says Coyne. “People will go there for anything...they’d go there for Bingo Night if they could."

Of course, performing The Soft Bulletin at Red Rocks with the CSO would require entirely new sheet music and orchestral arrangements, because the album’s original string sounds were recorded using synthesizers and samples. So in January, Pierce went to Oklahoma City and introduced the Lips to Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa, who offered to write the orchestral charts.

“And Tom [Hagerman] and I were in and out of Oklahoma City the very same day," Pierce says. “We spent a couple hours with [the Flaming Lips] before we were back on the plane and [Hagerman] started writing."

Since that day in January, the band and Hagerman have exchanged sheet music and notes with each other using Dropbox. 

Even with that preparation, it has still been a mad rush to get everything ready ahead of tonight's show. Beyond discovering little things like missing measures on the violin charts, some of the sheet music wasn’t finished until Tuesday, when the band needed some last-minute arrangements for encore songs planned for Red Rocks.
During Wednesday evening’s rehearsal at Boettcher Hall, the band is positioned toward the front of the stage, separated from the orchestra and the choir by a short Plexiglas sound barrier.

There’s also an observable and humorous division between the musicians in terms of fashion choice: On one side of the Plexiglas, seven bandmembers wear tight-fitting pants and T-shirts. On the other, it’s all collared button-downs, blouses, sweaters and slacks.

Coyne is front and center, perched atop a pedestal with his back to conductor de Ridder. With his lion’s mane of hair, he looks like a mad composer himself – a sort of psychedelic Mozart – and he’s clearly having a good time.

On multiple occasions, he wheels around to face the orchestra and adds his own dramatic conducting gestures, not so unlike a class clown trying to distract his classmates behind the teacher’s back.

Other times, he leaps off the platform and goes to immerse himself within various sections of the orchestra or in front of the choir, soaking it all in and taking pictures with his cell phone. He’s as excited as anyone to explore this new arrangement of The Soft Bulletin.

Mostly though, Coyne and his bandmates are focused and courteous. After all, Coyne says, the Lips have had some past experience playing with classical musicians.

“We’ve played with an orchestra before,” he explains, referring to a concert the Lips played with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in 2010.

On Wednesday evening, playing with an orchestra involves showing some restraint, as when the band is just getting into a groove — and de Ridder cuts the music. Rather than play songs in their entirety, de Ridder only has the orchestra practice the sections of songs that need more work. But you can tell that the Lips want to keep playing out their solos at times.

Coyne also cracks some jokes during a required fifteen-minute break, saying that the Lips usually just practice straight through. That's because there are no union requirements or regulated schedules being a rock musician. “We don’t have a schedule, so if we’re gonna go ’til five o’clock in the morning, we just do it," he says.  

At the same time, Coyne knows that grunt work is required for Thursday’s show, and it’s not like the rehearsal is without its fun and quirky moments.

During the song, “Buggin’,” the orchestra and choir have been instructed to make a buzzing sound, like bees, and to watch Coyne’s hand gestures for volume.

“All those bugs, buzzin’ round,” Coyne sings, lifting his arms by his side higher and higher, passing from forte to fortissimo to fortississimo.

The buzzing in Boettcher gets so loud and overbearing that a couple members of the choir can’t stop themselves from laughing. One man has to cover his mouth.

The orchestra and choir make the Flaming Lips sound incredibly lush and beautiful. During a run-through of “Waitin’ for a Superman,” half of the band leaves the stage so that it’s only Coyne singing and Drozd on keys. Without percussion, the complexity of the orchestral arrangements by Hagerman really comes through, and its overlapping harmonies give the song a sense of profundity.

Coyne is particularly excited about the choir. “It’s great. It just really adds drama to shit," he observes.

He also assures fans that having so many other musicians on stage on Thursday will not dampen the visual spectacle of the Lips’ show.

“We have some things that will heighten the experience," he promises. “I’ve got this crazy suit I get to sing in, and toward the end we do a couple songs by ourselves, so I’ll probably bring out the space bubble and things like that."

It’s probably worth the effort to figure out how to structure the show around an orchestra, because DeVotchKa’s Hagerman says that the Lips get to hold on to the arrangements he wrote for them and use them with other orchestras.

According to Pierce, “We’ve already got people from the Holland Festival in Amsterdam calling, and people from the Seattle Symphony are coming [on Thursday].”

After hearing the rehearsal, it’s understandable why other orchestras will want to book their own performance of the The Soft Bulletin. This Red Rocks show will be spectacular.