Progress Report: The Flaming Lips
Name: The Flaming Lips
Progress Report: Steven Drozd talks about the Lips forthcoming studio album (their 15th!) and the joys of being loved in your own hometown.
As a native Oklahoman, I’m admittedly pretty biased when it comes to the Flaming Lips. Some of my earliest experiences with live music involved me underage-driving to Oklahoma City to see the Lips play club shows, which were often known to include things like “playing” a revved-up motorcycle on stage or narrowly escaping being beaten by a chain-swinging gang of bikers after seeing the Lips play what was probably a totally illegal show in what had previously been a giant abandoned church. The band’s continued success over the years has provided me a sense of pride regarding my hometown (a place too often only notable for being extremely right-wingy and the birthplace of Garth Brooks). While many rock bands currently nearing the 30-year mark are struggling to remain relevant or are simply happy to operate as a nostalgia act, the Lips continue to follow their own psyched-out muse wherever it leads them — generally with great results. This year, among other things, they played lots of shows, oversaw the completion of a Yoshimi musical, collaborated with tons of folks on the Heady Fwends record, pissed off Erykah Badu, and covered an entire King Crimson album. In between all that, they also recorded their 15th studio album, The Terror — which will see release in early 2013. I had to chance to chat with Steven Drozd about what the band has been up to while also shouting out a little bit of Okie pride.
STEREOGUM: Between the Yoshimi musical and the various collaborations you’ve being doing with other over the past year, how have you also had time to make a new record? I heard that it’s almost done.
DROZD Yeah, we’ve finished the new record pretty much. I mean it’s just some final tweaks and mastering and then it’s done. It was done really in a fast creative blast. We did most of it over the course of six weeks or something. It’s almost as though we exhausted a bunch of new ideas and were kind of backing away from that — “where do we stand, what do we want to try now?” — and that’s where we ended up with the sound for this new record. It’s a lot of synthesizers — not like the synthesizers that we’ve done before but really lo-fi mono synths. Right now things are kind of slowing down, but the last year and a half has just been insane. We did the six-hour song and we did the 24-hour song. We were touring during all of that. We played eight concerts in 24 hours. It feels like we have a little bit of a break right now. I’m not sure how long it’ll stay that way because Wayne seems like he doesn’t like to sit around for too long … but what was your question?
STEREOGUM: New record?
DROZD Ah yes, making the new record. I don’t know. I like the way we did it because a lot of times we’ll take a long time to make a record. It’s not like we’re recording for long periods of time, it’s just we’ll record stuff and we’ll sit with it for a long time and see how we feel about it before we move on. But we didn’t do that with this one — we did a few songs, took just a very short break, and then did all the rest of the songs. All the songs except for I think one were really just brand new, recorded this year. We think it’s a different trip, but I’m always surprised when people hear our new stuff and they don’t think it’s very different from what we’ve done before. Of course we think it’s … not a radical shift, but it’s definitely a shift from Embryonic. To me it’s kind of like Embryonic meets The Soft Bulletin in a weird way, where it’s like super lo-fi, there’s a lot of atonal stuff, there’s also some, for lack of a better word, pretty melodies. But it was all done very quickly. We didn’t really sit around trying to write songs. Wayne and I would go into his studio here in Oklahoma City and we would get the drum machine going and it was like, “Oh that sounds cool, record that,” and then we put some keyboard line down that just sounded cool. We didn’t know what the chords were, we didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of what it was going to be. We were really just recording blindly by using sound, and then a song would be finished in just a couple of days. That’s kind of a new thing for us. To do a whole record like that is kind of a new process for us. But I love it, and I’ve stopped myself from listening to it for a while because I do it every record we get done. I listen to it listen to it listen to it, and by the time it comes out I’m sick of it, so I’m trying not to listen to it that much.
STEREOGUM: Are you guys sneaking any of the songs into your live sets?
DROZD No, but we’ll start doing that soon. We’ve had so much stuff come out in the last couple of years, all these collaborations and all the stuff we put out last year. We’re trying to play some of that stuff, and I feel like definitely for now that’s enough new stuff for people to take in. I know there are the hardcore fans that come to every show, and maybe for them there’s not enough changing from show to show, but we’re definitely bringing some stuff in. We did the song with Bon Iver for Heady Fwends and we’re doing that live right now. We did it on the Colbert Report. So that’s a new thing for us. I would imagine as this year progresses, by the time the record does come out, we’ll definitely be ready to play three or four of these things. It’s great that the record is pretty much finished. I feel artists always say, “It’s our best work ever,” and when you read that and it’s like, “Yeah that’s one of the worst things you’ve put out,” but I really do, I feel it’s one of the best things we’ve done.
STEREOGUM: Well that’s how you should feel regardless. I feel like if you don’t feel that way, that’s a bummer, and you shouldn’t put out new material unless you really have that feeling about it. I grew up in Oklahoma and some of the earliest shows that I ever saw, that I was able to drive myself to see as a teenager, were seeing you guys play at various places around Oklahoma City. And I still think of some of the shows as being some of the craziest things I’ve ever seen — not even just you guys but things I saw at those shows. I mean, I live in New York City now and you see a lot of crazy bullshit, but still, some of the most profoundly weird people I’ve ever encountered and some of the weirdest, most bizarro stuff I’ve ever seen people do happened when I still lived in the Midwest.
DROZD Well I think it’s because people aren’t trying so hard to look and be cool. When you live in New York City there’s kind of a standard to uphold, especially when you’re at a rock show. You can only get so wild, otherwise it’s like, “Well that guy, he’s not cool.” Whereas here there’s no cool index like that. People have no idea what they are or aren’t supposed to do, so they just get a bit wilder.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about those old Flaming Lips shows, which made me think about what an expansive back catalog of music you guys have now. You have a lot of records. I know it’s challenging when you’ve been around for a certain amount of time and there’s certain songs that people would just freak out if you didn’t play, but do you feel compelled ever to dip back further into your back catalog? Are there songs that you miss getting to play? As much as I love Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, I’d personally pay good money to see you guys rip through In A Priest Driven Ambulance.
DROZD Well we do, every once in a while we’ll put out [an early Lips song] — I remember probably five years ago we started doing “Love Yer Brain” from Oh My Gawd as an encore. And there was a very small portion of the audience who were about to lose their mind, they were so happy about it. And the majority of the audience was like, “Oh what is this, I wonder if it’s a new song.” We’re always trying to decide how far to go back, how obscure to go. Some songs we were just never able to pull off live. I can name a good 10 songs from when I was playing drums live that we could just never do, because as hard as we tried to rock, it never had the same heaviness as the record. So we’re always having to consider all these things. But I think we’re getting to the point that maybe starting next year where we do our “normal” big rock show, and then starting to do smaller club shows where we play a whole record in entirety or play all stuff before Soft Bulletin or play only B-sides. But as far as our regular show, it’s tough. We play “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and recently we’ve not been playing it during shows, and for us it’s great to take a break from that song, but I guarantee that every time someone in the audience is like, “Why don’t you play ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’?” and it’s like, “Do you really want to hear that?” The answer is yes, they do. I guess it’s kind of connected to us, like “Creep” is connected to Radiohead. I’ve heard they don’t like to play that. We don’t have the same view where we’re not connected to our past — a lot of it’s just practical. Especially if we’re going to play new stuff, well how much of this other stuff can we play? For a while we weren’t playing anything from Soft Bulletin and we realized it and it was like, “Oh man, we’re not playing ‘Race For The Prize,’ we’re not playing ‘Superman,’ we’re not playing anything,” and then all of a sudden it seemed weird that we weren’t representing that record in any way. We didn’t have to, but we decided to start playing ‘Race For The Prize’ again. There’s so much material, it’s hard to decide what old stuff to pull out, and if we’re going to throw something new at fans, how much should we do? It’s always changing — I know a lot of bands do a bigger variety of songs from set to set than we do, but I think we do pretty good. We’re always trying to please the older fans but not go so deep that other people get turned off by the experience.
STEREOGUM: I think because I grew up in Oklahoma and I sort of am familiar with the general mindset of that place, it makes your success all the more amazing to consider. You guys have had such an extraordinary career, and it’s so cool to see you be recognized there. I mean, if you had ever told me when I was a teenager that something that I particularly loved back then — this loud, druggy, messy band — would eventually be recognized by the state itself, or that you’d have a street named after you, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think that the career you guys have had is really inspiring on multiple levels, but mostly because it seems like you were a band that just did whatever you wanted and found a way to make that work.
DROZD Well I’m glad you said that, because coming from you — you being a fan for a long time — that actually means something. I wonder sometimes if people are like, “Oh they just sold out, they’re just old rock dudes trying to look cool in their hometown,” and I hope people don’t see it that way, but for you to say that is the best possible compliment. We really do get to do what we want to do, still to this day, and our record company and our fans seem to respect that. But still there’s this acknowledgement in Oklahoma like, “Hey they’re from here, so let’s recognize them locally.” That’s the best possible of all worlds. Every time I walk in the airport, as you’re walking past all the gates, all the glass there, and this local artist did an etching of all the things from Oklahoma and there’s an etching of us up there. I can’t help but crack up, I’m really glad it’s there.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is playing now at the La Jolla Playhouse