There were a lot of moving parts when the Flaming Lips teamed up with the Colorado Symphony to perform the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin in its entirety at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 2016. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne likened his experience ahead of the show to an ambulance driver's.
“There are just so many things to do,” Coyne says. “You don’t have too much time to think about it. It’s really just a complete panic to the second you’re playing. You’re using every second you can to keep working, keep getting it better, keep making sure everybody has their cues.”
Coyne says that before he knew it, the audience was there, which was a relief.
“We work absolutely to the last second preparing as much as we can,” Coyne says. “And then at some point you just say, ‘Well, we’ve done everything we can, and now let’s have a good time.' I never want the audience to stress out. I’ll stress out enough for everybody. But once the show starts, I really kind of relax. I know everybody in the group is trying, and that includes the bigger group with the orchestra. I know they’re all doing everything they can to make it work.
“And then you go, 'Well, here we go.' Usually it goes great. I think the audience kind of likes when it doesn’t go perfectly, because it’s really happening; it makes a little bit of excitement, and it makes a little bit of tension. It makes things that you’re not going to get just sitting at home listening to it or watching it on TV. You want that real energy. “
The Flaming Lips reunite with the Colorado Symphony on Friday, February 22, at Boettcher Concert Hall to perform The Soft Bulletin again. The concert will be filmed, possibly for a DVD that will include footage from both the Boettcher show and the 2016 Red Rocks performance.
Last year, Coyne asked fans to submit videos they’d taken of the Red Rocks show, but a lot of the videos the band received were shot from high up in the venue.
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“It didn’t give us much to work with as far as like, ‘Oh, if you want to see these horn players playing, if you want to see the drummers drumming’ or whatever,” Coyne explains. "We’re probably going to use some of that footage and some of the Red Rocks footage together and just make it seem like, ‘Well, this is not the Red Rocks show, but it is a version of the Red Rocks show... It may not be the exact musicians playing everything, but it’s something like that.'”
An album of the Red Rocks show, which will be produced by Dave Fridmann at Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York, is in the works as well.
“It was quite a mountain of work for him, because there’d be things that would be working well on one song, and then they would collapse and then not work at all,” Coyne says. “And that’s typical of big live recordings, you know, when you’ve got a lot of microphones on everything you’re trying to capture.”
Overall, it’s a great recording, Coyne says. "It captures a lot of the intricacies of the group, the Colorado Symphony and the fifty-plus-person Colorado Symphony Chorus.
“I think it really does make it insanely special, because you’re just not used to hearing a choir like this, where they’re so emotional and so crazy,” Coyne says. “We knew that was happening, because I’d seen some of that in rehearsal. But when you’re playing, you’re kind of involved in the little intricacies of your own sound or whatever. But hearing the recording later, I was impressed. Not just impressed with the Flaming Lips part of it, but the whole arrangement and the power of it and all that.”
A number of people had to sign off on the live album before the band could release it, including the orchestra and Red Rocks, which is owned and operated by the City of Denver.
“There’s a lot of dilemmas with getting the rights and negotiating and all that,” Coyne says. “I think all that got settled. And now I think we’re in the process of saying, ‘Okay, now when will we release the record and how will we release it?’”
Looking back on The Soft Bulletin two decades later, Coyne says there's a secret code within the album that he’s better understood as he’s gotten older. When he and his band first started working on the album in the late ’90s, he didn’t think they would be performing it in front of people. They took more of a Beach Boys Pet Sounds-era layered approach to recording, with Steven Drozd playing many of the instruments on the album and using synthesizers to emulate string sounds.
“You don’t really ever think that you’re going to have to stand there and play them in front of people,” Coyne says. “In the beginning, it wasn’t embarrassing, but it was just a very strange thing. We were used to being more of a rock band, and then we sort of just changed ourselves into this other thing, which I think is absolutely insane and great. But we were never that aware of how the songs were affecting the audience.”
Coyne, whose father died while The Soft Bulletin was being made, says that after about ten years of playing songs like “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Race for the Prize,” “What Is the Light” and “Feel Yourself Disintegrate,” he and the band started to notice how much the audience was moved by those songs, some of which deal with death and love.
“And these are the songs that they would know before they got to the show, and then once you start to play them, you could see people being, you know, overwhelmed by it,” Coyne says. “And I think by then we kind of understood, oh, that this music has something in it. When you think people are being affected by you...to us it’s quite embarrassing, or it’s just awkward, because we kind of feel like, ‘Oh, geez, I don’t know what to do about that' — but I think as we went along, we started to understand they’re affected by the music and the lyrics and the place in their life where this song got them through something.”
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While the Flaming Lips get ready to release a live recording of the 2016 Red Rocks concert, the band is gearing up to drop King’s Mouth, which Coyne says is “really beautiful music.” The album is set to come out on Record Store Day, April 13.
Mick Jones, former guitarist and singer for the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, narrates the ten-song album, but Coyne says they weren’t in the studio at the same time; rather, Jones sent him a recording of the narration after Coyne reached out to him through Don Letts, famed DJ and former member of Big Audio Dynamite. Coyne decided to collaborate with Jones on the project after watching a documentary on the Clash and listening to the band.
“I just started to hear him talk, and I liked the idea of it feeling like, I don’t know, an Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Coyne says of Jones. "He’s very British. And his British is...I’m not sure what you’d call it. It’s really unaggressive politeness. People were struck with it when you would hear, like, John Lennon talk or something. There’s something about it that just has a kindness about it, a gentleness about it. But it’s really funky, and I think it’s fun for American ears to hear that little twist.”