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Two days after the release of the Flaming Lips' brand-new album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, band member Steven Drozd is in that zone somewhere between exhilaration and exhaustion, having survived in the last 48 hours a flurry of radio interviews, phoners to plug the Lips' appearance on the "Unlimited Sunshine" tour, a concert at LA's Knitting Factory and an out-of-hand in-store appearance at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.
"They had to turn people away from the store," Drozd says, sounding amazed. "A couple hundred people didn't get in. It was complete insanity."
But better, he reasons, than if the opposite had happened: "Right, the Spin¨al Tap syndrome. You have a record signing and no one is there."
Nearly twenty years into the Oklahoma City band's existence and more than a decade since Drozd came on board alongside founding members Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins, people are there more than ever for the Flaming Lips -- relatively speaking, that is. Notwithstanding their fluke hit of nine years ago, "She Don't Use Jelly," the group poses no long-term threat to the chart-topping primacy of Nelly or Eminem -- not when that new album boasts a conceptual suite of songs about a young girl who battles a robot in a gladiator-style match and wins because the robot falls in love with her, throws the match and kills himself.
"That's Wayne and his overly fertile imagination," Drozd says with an admiring chuckle. "We had the music for "Yoshimi Pt. 2," that kooky instrumental with crazy drums and weird synths and stuff, and it had no title at that point. And Wayne said, 'Well, that seems really cartoonish and cinematic. You can almost see the music going along with a video or a cartoon or something.' And at the same time, we were friends with this woman Yoshimi [P-We], who is in a band called the Boredoms. She did some screaming on a couple of tracks and played some trumpet.
"'Yoshimi Pt. 1' was just a little four-track recording I gave to Wayne, and he liked it. I never know what he's going to write for lyrics. But he came back with that 'Oh Yoshimi' part. I was, like, 'I'm not sure about that: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- what's that all about?' But if you give it a couple of days, it sort of sinks in and you find yourself singing the tune."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new album, though, is the fervor with which Coyne and company take on big issues such as the nature of love, the precariousness of human life and the difficulty of living in the present moment.
"I guess some ways, lyrically and philosophically, I can see that as a continuation of The Soft Bulletin," Drozd says, citing the band's 1999 release. "Wayne told me that what he wanted to do was have these heavy philosophical subjects covered but in a more lighthearted manner -- that is, some of the music would be lighter and more fun, but the lyrics would still have this sort of heaviness to them. With The Soft Bulletin, you've got some depressing music and some depressing lyrics and some kind of overly contemplative stuff. On this one, especially on a musical level, we thought we were getting more playful with some of the more electronica kind of things -- drumbeats and sounds and loops instead of the heavy-handed orchestral stuff from the previous album."
Does the overall thoughtfulness of Yoshimi mean that the man who spent a fair amount of their last tour pouring fake blood on his head and using puppets to illustrate his points has -- dare we say it? -- matured at last? Yes and no.
"We were talking just the other day about how you'll have artists who start to mature and evolve," Drozd says. "The maturity thing sometimes seems to equal getting bored or toning the music down to where you don't have such crazy elements in there anymore. We want to have these more mature themes but keep the music as interesting as possible -- keep the weirdness or the edginess or whatever you want to call it, but then throw in the heavier lyrical content."
Indeed, the music on Yoshimi is as edgy and intriguing as you'd expect from the group, and it came about in part because, after the lush orchestrations of The Soft Bulletin, the Lips threw themselves headlong into the world of electronica.
"We've been fans of that kind of music for a long time," Drozd says. "But sometimes you'll really be into a certain kind of music but it doesn't necessarily reflect in your own stuff, you know?" So we started getting the idea 'Hey, let's take those elements of electronica and techno and the DJ culture and let's put that into our music. We went pretty far with it in the first three or four songs. But then we figured we could bring in some acoustic guitars and see how that mixes with all that sort of stuff. It's just mixing and matching sometimes. You don't have a game plan. If it sounds good, you go with it. If not, you try something else."