2002 / Interviews / Music

Interview: Flaming Lips Succeed With Another Surprise

Band Cofounder Talks New Album, Pop Music And Touring With Beck

In the Flaming Lips’ almost 20-year history together — time that saw them evolve from being just another covers-dependent punk band into psychedelic music adventurers, then one-hit wonders and eventually critics’ darlings — the Oklahoma-based trio has established a track record for consistently attempting the unexpected.

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Approaching their art with an attitude that anything is possible, it seems like the Lips will try just about anything that pops into their heads: from releasing an album of uncommercial, freaky psychedelia split over four CDs but meant to be played simultaneously to performing with roadies dressed as furry animals to making a movie about the first Martian Christmas to cutting accessible albums filled with ornate pop-rock symphonies to their latest artistic gamble — being the backup band for fellow alt-rocker Beck.

From a business perspective, agreeing to such a high-profile gig couldn’t come at a better time. This past summer, the Lips released “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” an exceptional, surrealistic album that solidifies the creative breakthrough the band achieved with 1999’s much-lauded, “The Soft Bulletin.” For their effort, “Yoshimi” landed the group at the No. 50 spot on the Billboard charts, their first appearance on the list since 1995’s top-10 hit, the quirky “She Don’t Use Jelly.” At the same time, two anthologies, “Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg” and “Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid 1983-88,” were released in the last couple weeks and are surely capitalizing on the band’s higher profile.

According to Lips’ bassist and band cofounder Michael Ivins, the Beck tour (set to start on Oct. 17 at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis) basically fell into their laps. It was also an option that appealed to their curiosity.

“We like Beck a lot,” Ivins said. “It was sort of really weird when we first heard about the idea. We were really game for it, just cause it seemed really weird.”

With a new album of his own out and the members of his usual backing group busy with other projects, Beck called the Lips — which also includes singer/guitarist Wayne Coyne and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd — about hitting the road together. He asked them to open the concert and then support him during his set.

In an interview with MTV, Beck said that he was a longtime fan of the Lips and that it was just a happy coincidence that both have records to promote.

“I thought instead of trying to form a new band, I’d just try to find a band that already existed,” he said.

Beck added that he hoped the pairing would wind up reinventing some of his songs.

The band and Beck started initial rehearsals for the tour in the Los Angeles area in mid-September. Ivins said that the sessions included the group learning and running through 20 songs or more in the course of a few days.

As the date for the rehearsals approached, Ivins confessed that he and his bandmates were a bit nervous about the collaboration considering Beck had recently completed a solo acoustic tour.

“(He) sounded pretty good,” he said.

However, Ivins said the rehearsals were fruitful, and that the group’s approach is to simply provide a “different energy” for Beck’s catalog of material without drastically recasting the songs.

Ivins said that as a result of the sessions, he and his bandmates gained a greater appreciation for Beck.

“He’s a lot more of an actual musician than we had thought he was. He sings great and plays guitar really good,” he said. “Sometimes it’s rare to find something like that.”

Ivins said that he thinks that their collaborations on stage will likely lead to some work in the studio.

“I’m sure as we go along, we’ll end up doing something,” he said. “I’m pretty confident that something like that will happen.”

Ivins was tight-lipped when it came to revealing what songs might end up on Beck portion of the show, but he said that the Lips’ opening set, which has included the group playing in front of a projector screen and four enormous mirror balls, will likely be similar to recent outings except for some furry additions.

“We’re going to try to have a lot more furry animals onstage,” he said.

Starting sometime in 2000, the band has performed with several roadies (and occasionally band members) dressed as rabbits, dogs, frogs, bears and other creatures. The idea, Ivins said, came from a fan.

“We played a show and we looked out in the audience and some guy had shown up at the show in a rabbit suit,” he said. “He was standing in the audience, rocking out. People ended up thinking it was our idea so, of course, we just stole it.”

An equally bizarre fixture of the band’s recent shows has been a stripped-down, beatless rendition of Kylie Minogue’s dance hit, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” which they tried on the Cake tour. Ivins said that although it might appear as though the group was satirizing Australia’s dancing queen or just trying to shock listeners, he and Coyne found that they would keep the video for the song on whenever it popped up on TV.

“We actually, truly like the song,” he said. “It’s got a great melody. It’s actually a great song.”

Ivins said that in the realm of pop music, it’s impossible to know what will capture people’s attention.

“You can never tell what people are going to latch onto,” he said. “In the same way, I can’t ever tell what I’m going to latch onto.”

He said that the Lips are equally mystified by the praise the group has earned for their last two records.

“You can’t predict what the general public will like,” he said. “Who would have thought the White Stripes would be popular?”

For many, it might also have been suprising that the band would follow “The Soft Bulletin” with such a perfect sequel. Ivins said that he believes the “Yoshimi” record is a natural outgrowth of “The Soft Bulletin.” Both albums’ songs focus on characters wrestling with fundamental, life-changing issues that everyone encounters (albeit presented with a sci-fi, dreamlike twist). The music mingles bits of classic pop, progressive rock and studio wizardry together.

He said that while a majority of the band’s career has been filled with musical experiments making the easily digestible “Yoshimi” record wasn’t a conscious move to make an album just like “The Soft Bulletin.”

“I don’t think it’s limited, that we had some choice in making ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ or to do some record that you play and then fly to London and listen to the record on your answering machine or some avant-garde thing,” he said.

Ivins said that listeners shouldn’t think the group has forsaken their experimental side. Although the Beck tour is scheduled to run until December and the Lips’ own headlining world tour is set for early next year, Ivins said the group’s is continuing work on Coyne’s pet project, “Christmas On Mars, “a full-blown science-fiction movie about the first Christmas celebration on the planet Mars.

Underway for more than a year and tentatively set for release around Christmas 2003, the band members are both starring in the picture and slowly recording a soundtrack to accompany it.

Is there a chance that Beck could wind up in the movie?

“Sure,” Ivins said. “Anything’s possible.”

Beck/Flaming Lips Tour Dates:

  • Oct. 17, Minneapolis
  • Oct. 18, Chicago
  • Oct. 20, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • Oct. 21, Detroit
  • Oct. 22, Indianapolis
  • Oct. 24, Columbus, Ohio
  • Oct. 25, Cleveland
  • Oct. 26, Syracuse, N.Y.
  • Oct. 28, Boston
  • Oct. 30-31, New York
  • Nov. 2, Acapulco, Mexico
  • Nov. 12, Austin, Texas
  • Nov. 13, Houston
  • Nov. 14, Forth Worth, Texas
  • Nov. 16, Lawrence, Kan.
  • Nov. 18, Denver
  • Nov. 19, Salt Lake City
  • Nov. 21, Tempe, Ariz.
  • Nov. 25, Universal City, Calif.
  • Nov. 26-27, Oakland, Calif.
  • Nov. 30, Seattle
  • Dec. 2, Portland, Ore.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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