The Flaming Lips' new universe of sound
By Josh Kun
AUGUST 23, 1999: If you've never seen the Flaming Lips before and you've heard their music, you'll probably be surprised by how normal they look. Normal like college-guy normal: well-groomed, well-built, quietly handsome. Lead singer and band ideologue Wayne Coyne looks thick and manly even when he bangs a gong that's part of the set of the Lips' current indie-rock extravaganza tour, which has been dubbed "Music Against Brain Degeneration" and features, this Friday at the Roxy, Sebadoh, Robyn Hitchcock, Cornelius, and IQU. When I talk to him in person the day after the tour's LA show at his record company's offices, Coyne looks even more normal -- T-shirt, jeans, sneakers -- and he talks with a gruff, country drawl that outs him for the Oklahoma City boy he is.
None of this would even matter if the Flaming Lips didn't make such weird music, if they didn't sing bizarro, wordy back-porch homilies about wounded mathematicians, severed heads, and a superman who can't lift the sun into the sky. They've been building up to this particular brand of weirdness over 14 albums since the mid '80s, a weirdness that on their new album of gentle, cosmic psychedelia, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.), has almost begun to sound as normal as they look. For a while there, they were just another quirky, tweaky indie-rock unit that dabbled in space pop, dissonance, and inscrutable lyricism. They even had a hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," and they got to sing it from the stage of the Peach Pit in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
But then in 1997 the Lips made something called Zaireeka (Warner Bros.), an "album" full of surround-sound barking dog packs, noise shrapnel, and guitar tornadoes specifically (and prohibitively) recorded so that to hear it you had to play four separate compact discs at the same time. Visionary in concept but a pain in practice (Coyne refers to it as "the black hole"), Zaireeka nonetheless announced the arrival of the new Lips, the Lips who suddenly sounded very comfortable swimming in the experimental deep end of rock composition and aesthetics (they followed it up with the infamous boombox experiment: give 40 tape decks to audience gawkers and conduct a symphony of dial twirling).
The irony is, it was Zaireeka's outness and its commitment to indulging in freewheeling, anything-goes sonic gluttony that made the more manageable and ear-friendly new The Soft Bulletin possible -- a single-disc album no less committed to lush audio layering, unorthodox arrangements, and quixotic narratives (it begins, plot-in-progress, with the line "Two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind") but one that rediscovers the power and beauty of the unexpected pop song without meaning to. Believe it or not, the album is full of old-fashioned love songs, complete with sweeping strings, flutes, harps, and cymbals, but love songs dreamed up the Lips way, as songs about bugs splattered on windshields, chemically engineered light, arm-crippling spider bites, and bodily disintegration. As Coyne sings on the whimsical "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," "Heard louder than a gun, the sound they made was love."
The new sonic twist is that all of this love is engulfed in elegant, almost romantic waves of unidentifiable flying sounds (whirs, buzzes, kablows, eeks, shloors), digital-watch beeps, and spray-can hisses. It's then pummeled, nearly from start to finish, by Steven Drozd's tumbling drum thunderclaps, which sound lifted from Todd Rundgren's noise-pop daydream Wizard, a True Star and then retooled in a Brian Wilson haze by DJ Shadow.
"I used to think that without the structure of the song a lot of the things we do would sound ridiculous," explains Coyne. "With The Soft Bulletin, it was becoming the other way. Some of the things I thought we could do to songs actually were more expressive than the song format. Instead of walking in there with a song to attach all these sounds to, it was almost as though I have a big vision of sounds and now I want to place an identity on them. We reached and we said, damn, we got some of that."
The Soft Bulletin is the musical result of Coyne's new sonic philosophy, which with a little help from a mini-manifesto he penned that now doubles as the band's press release goes something like this. Because we live in a world saturated with sounds of all kinds, songs must be understood for what they are, not formulaic building blocks of choruses, verses, and bridges, but collections of sounds arranged and recorded in ways that, depending on their order and the technology involved in their manipulation, generate different emotions, meanings, and melodramas. Or as Coyne puts it, "Songs are vehicles for ideas of sound."
Whether he cops to it or not, Coyne is sounding less and less like a recovering indie-rock oddball and more and more like an ambient composer or sample jockey. In fact, his comments recall those of French studio engineer and electronic-music pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, who in 1948 coined the phrase "musique concrète" -- music made entirely from recorded sound (mostly culled from everyday objects like cookware, toys, steam engines). It was Schaeffer's studio innovations, along with those of Pierre Henry and Karlheinz Stockhausen, that helped revolutionize rock and pop recording so that tape-sliced and multi-tracked trailblazers like Revolver and Sgt Pepper could be possible and Phil Spector's "wall of sound" could be built.
Recalls Coyne, "We would go out and record crickets, put them on samplers and make a tone base out of them. We'd record the refrigerator shutting and put it into a sampler and get this palette of notes out of it. And we found, only after we stood back from it, that once you don't know that this is crickets and doors and stuff, it just becomes part of a song. Because if we'd set out to do simply lush, beautiful music, we probably would have said, well, we don't do that sort of thing. We have no experience with that. We went the other way. It comes across as both weird and normal. If I had tried to do that, I wouldn't have been able to."
What's particularly nice about The Soft Bulletin's embrace and execution of sonic assemblage is how intimate and organic it feels to the Lips' way-beyond-rock compositional vision. Instead of taking the typical fed-up-rocker route and hauling in some marquee electro-schooled producer to make them over, they kept it in-house and pulled their own chairs up to the mixing board.
"We'd love to be able to work with people who have all of the answers already, but at the same time I don't want their answers, I want my answers," says Coyne. "I want to arrive at these things with my own formulas. We're the songwriters, the technicians, we're everything. I like that when people are buying our records, they're buying as much of us as we can possibly give you. If you like the record, then you're liking a lot about us."
Part of what people have always liked about the Lips is Coyne's stringy, high-register anti-singer singing voice -- he doesn't so much hit notes as cracks his voice around them. On Soft Bulletin cuts like "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" and the soaring "Buggin" he goes out of his way to use his voice -- in a decidedly Phil Spector move -- as just one more element of sound in a channel-split mix, the fibery reed that wobbles in and out of crashing cymbals, vibraphones, and timpani. On "The Gash" it becomes part of a bombastic haunted Queen chorus that grows into a warped avant-Rent musical finale (cue entire cast: "With explosions wounds are open, sights and smells, eyes and noises, but the thought that went unspoken was understanding that you're broken").
"I've arrived at a sound in my voice that is actually more pleasant than my singing voice is," Coyne admits. "My favorite singers are women -- Sade, Dusty Springfield, Chrissie Hynde. And there's just something about their tone that I really like. I've forced myself to sound like these women. I can resonate in an area that I know is pleasant and I get into that register enough that it sounds like other things that you like even though it's done with absolutely no skill. I'm not a singer. Everybody who knows what singing is about knows that."
That Coyne has even trained himself to sing a certain way in the studio speaks directly to the second corollary of the Lips' new audio worldview on The Soft Bulletin: "We are not performers, we are recording artists." Like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile -- the two eccentric pop classics it often recalls (Smiley's "Vegetables" and "She's Going Bald" would be perfect Lips covers) -- The Soft Bulletin is an album made entirely through the process of its recording, an album not simply dependent on the studio for its existence (as all albums are), but inconceivable without it. The liveness of musical performance has become beside the point; what matters now is the effect of recording on the listening experience. It's a theoretical shift the band try to address at their shows by handing out FM-radio walkmans to the first 500 audience members willing to surrender their driver's licenses for the privilege of being able to tune into the mixing board during the Lips' performance.
"There've always been huge studio productions that have been based on an illusion of feeling," Coyne professes. "The overall effect is stunning, but nothing stunning ever actually happened. It's all these pieces. I used to think the other way around: something emotional must happen and we'll record it, but now I don't feel that. As long as the recording in the end is emotional, I don't care if everybody along the way was fake. Sometimes just the opposite is true, the recording process is very passionate but the listening experience is dull as hell. And I don't want that. I want the listening to make you cry even if the making of it was boring."
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