By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Coyne and his band, the Flaming Lips, headline the "1999 International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue," coming to St. Louis this week. Also on the phenomenal quadruple bill are Robyn Hitchcock, Sebadoh and Sonic Boom's E.A.R.
The Flaming Lips have a collective brain that seems to be constantly pushing the needle into the red. Not content to take much for granted, in the past five years the band has experimented with new ways to create and perform music. To wit: experiments in which they gathered dozens of cars in a parking garage and doled out some prerecorded tapes with fragments of compositions on each, then orchestrated a collective stereo performance; the boom-box experiments similar in theory to the car-stereo experiment, though more practical to cram into a club in which the band experimented with 40 portable stereos, creating a symphony of addled sound; 1997's Zaireeka, a four-CD set composed with the intent that all four discs be played simultaneously set up four stereos, synchronize the discs, count to three and hit "play."
"I was looking for this bigger, denser sound without sort of compromising things along the way," says Coyne, in his scratchy voice, of the seeds of the Zaireeka album. "And one day I was probably doing the third or fourth parking-lot thing here (in Oklahoma City, where all three Lips live) one of the people from Warner Bros. (the Lips' record label) was with me. And I just sort of blurted out, "I want to do four CDs that play simultaneously,' and as it came out of my mouth, I thought, "Well, in the real world this will probably get beaten down so much that it will end up being two.' But I said four, and everybody said, "Oooh, that's cool.' And I still waited for the repercussions of "You idiot, why would you want to do that?' And it never came."
The result of their experiments is nothing less than musical epiphany. The boom-box thing, as presented at the Duck Room last year, was revelatory, a stunner of orchestrated sound. Not noise. Not chaos. Rather, blissful order of the most precise nature. The band created true-to-life pop songs out of scraps, piecing them together with the help of 40 audience members, each of whom was issued a stereo and seated as though a member of a symphony. Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steven Drozd then conducted literally, they looked like misfit Vonks with shit-eating grins the boom-box orchestra. A blast.
Same with Zaireeka: In a performance of the experiment in a huge warehouse on Cherokee last year involving four stereos, one in each corner of the space, the sound was all-consuming. In the middle of the room, sound literally surrounds you; Zaireeka appeared in waves of beauty as Coyne's voice floated around the room and rhythms and lush arrangements barraged the listener. It was something brand-new under the sun.
Since forming in 1984 or so, the Flaming Lips have always messed with perceptions. Their early records were obviously influenced not only by psychedelic rock but by psychedelic drugs echo-chamber bursts that combined feedback with punk and garage rock. Gradually their sound grew louder and louder. Live, the Lips seemed to play for the chosen few in the audience who were tripping their brains out: fog out the wazoo; strobe blasts nonstop for two hours; fire; feedback. The Flaming Lips were a visual feast of giddy overindulgence.
Over time the group discovered that the tension of restraint is a tool as powerful as full-blown frenzy and that this tension need not be at odds with melodic beauty. It was this discovery, made around the time they released In a Priest Driven Ambulance, that set them on a path of reconciling extravagance and simplicity.
The band signed with Warner Bros. records, and on their second record for the label, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, bafflingly the Flaming Lips hit the mainstream with the single "She Don't Use Jelly."
Says Coyne of that time: "We always thought, when you're inside the music industry and you have no success in that commercial sense, you feel like, "Oh, there must be a group of five people who rule the world and say, "We like Madonna, so we'll make her popular," or "We like Soundgarden, so we'll make them popular."' And we always thought, well, we don't appeal to this elitist dictatorship, so fuck 'em, and we had resigned ourselves to being controlled by the Man, whoever he is. And then we started to sell records. And we thought, "Well, why is this happening?'" The reason was relatively simple: Beavis and Butt-head. The cartoon pair had a lot of power in 1995, and they used it to promote the Flaming Lips. Then came performances on Beverly Hills 90210 and Late Night with David Letterman.