What do the Flaming Lips have in common with the Ozark Big-Eared Bat? Both are native to Oklahoma, and both are on endangered-species lists. In the Lips' case, it's the ever-shortening column of artistically credible rock bands left on major-labels' rosters. With the economy still on the way down, it would seem that the Lips' brand of ambitious, sprawling, creative psychedelic/progressive pop does not stand a chance in a world dominated by Christina Aguilera, N*Sync and slick, well-manicured “alternative” pinup boys. But so far, the trio has escaped downsizing and lives to fight another day, much like the heroine in the title of their latest album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
These days, in fact, the Lips have been not only surviving but thriving. Critics have lauded the new CD, and college stations have put it into heavy rotation. Beck, a great admirer of the band, brought them on tour with him [see “All Access” in the February 2003 issue], where they're currently doing double-duty as his opening act and backup band. And they're busy: Besides releasing Yoshimi, they've been at work on two projects at far ends of the musical spectrum. The first, a soundtrack to the documentary Okie Noodling, is down-home country music; the second, Christmas on Mars, is a self-made sci-fi film set to be “really depressing, symphonic death marches,” according to lead singer and songwriter Wayne Coyne.
Encompassing such extremes, however, is nothing new to the Lips. Coyne started the band in the early '80s, merging a punk aesthetic with a psychedelic one. (Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid is the title of their retrospective CD.) Over time, Coyne changed bandmates, and in the late '90s, the band began to move away from a traditional rock format and became something closer to an experimental studio band. Drummer Steven Drozd, bass player Michael Ivins and Coyne started creating more elaborate studio compositions, with the entire band playing different instruments on the recording rather than restricted to “his own” instrument.
The fruit of this new direction was the critically acclaimed 1999 release, The Soft Bulletin, which paved the way for Yoshimi's success. The album was an ambitious one, both musically and thematically, tackling the subject of mortality in the wake of Coyne's father's death; on Bulletin, Coyne deals with this in a frank, real and sometimes comically absurd style — a kind of existential rock music. Musically, Bulletin was remarkable for its use of orchestral arrangements that lent many of the album's songs an epic, cinematic quality. Coyne's voice works perfect in this setting. He has a classic non-singer's voice that recalls Neil Young's in its high register, earnest enunciation and tendency to waver and break.
One of Bulletin's surprises is that the orchestras themselves, which sound pretty convincing, came out of a Roland orchestra module. “The real key to that is how great of an orchestrator Steven is,” explains Dave Fridmann, the Lips' engineer and co-producer. “He makes it so real. He knows what the instruments could do and should do.” Drozd also created the massive choir sounds on Bulletin by overdubbing himself, a trick he repeated on the Lips' recent single, “Do You Realize?”
Yoshimi is also partly about death, though its title suggests something lighter. Not quite a concept album, it does contain a loosely sketched, three-song narrative about a protector of humanity seemingly modeled on Japanimation heroines. Her robotic nemesis, however, is not completely unsympathetic: One song gives the impression that it has an almost human consciousness, in the manner of the Blade Runner androids. This moral ambiguity, combined with a wistful musical coloring and Coyne's earnest singing, brings out deeper undertones in the campy sci-fi narrative.
“Any kind of fantastical setting, if it's done in the right way, can illuminate the inner humanity of people in a really entertaining and vibrant way,” Coyne says. “That's why the Bible and Star Wars have the same appeal to people, because it's just fantastical shit. Fire comes from the sky, people have great costumes, and great, exciting things happen that you'll never be able to see in your own life. But if they're done right, they allow some perception or story to be told that lets the inner humanity really shine through.”
While some of the orchestral rock from Bulletin carries over to Yoshimi, electronica emerges as a dominant influence on the new album. Drozd mentions the Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers as bands that contributed to this change. “We'd been listening to that stuff for quite a while, but then the technology got easier and quicker, and we just got more and more interested,” he says. “Dave Fridmann and Michael are really good with that kind of stuff, so between the two of them, we could try more loops and samples.”
For instance, while most of the drums were played live on Bulletin, a lot of Yoshimi's beats are drum-machine sounds, or elaborate de- and reconstructions of Drozd's live drumming using Pro Tools' Beat Detective. In some instances, the band actually sampled drum tracks off of their last album. “We call it ‘reprogramming’ his drums, but it really doesn't bear any resemblance to what he actually played,” explains Fridmann. “He'll play a beat, but then we'll just destroy it and rip it apart in the Beat Detective.”
“We've got such a huge backlog of sounds of Steven playing the drums in different sorts of configurations that if we wanted to, he would never actually have to play the drums any more,” bassist Ivins says dryly.
The resulting sound is a unique hybrid of live and programmed: Drozd's drums stop suddenly, in a machine-like fashion, or fills burst out in unexpected, slightly unnatural ways. It's an interesting effect, partly because of Drozd's recognizable drum playing, a big and exuberant style that recalls Jon Bonham's; in fact, some of the tracks on the album sound like Led Zeppelin making a trip-hop record.
The Lips recorded Yoshimi at Tarbox, Fridmann's studio in upstate New York. Over a year-and-a-half, the band periodically made the long commute from Oklahoma in their van for the recording sessions. “It's sort of a residential place,” Fridmann says. “It's very low-key. All of the amenities are there: a Pro Tools|HD system, Otari RADAR, etc. But at the same time, you get the feeling like you're in your living room, recording on your 4-track. We've had a lot of people come in, and they end up spending a couple of weeks in their bathrobes.”
The 4-track feel is important to the Lips, who do much of their arranging and writing in the studio itself. “Wayne will come in, and it's like, ‘Well, here's how it goes on acoustic guitar with voice, but now, we're effectively starting from scratch,’” Fridmann says. “How the song's going to go, what tempo, what key, who's going to play what — nobody has a clue. We'll fill up one of the 24-tracks with ideas, and go, ‘Alright, track 12, that's gonna stay, and everything else, get it out of here!’ And then we'll start working off of track 12, and then we'll do it again. We're constantly piling on as many ideas as we can in a similar vein and then reducing it into art — the best part.”
Coyne corroborates Fridmann's description. “I never sit down with a direct plan or concepts. In some ways, I work like a painter who's doing a great big canvas. He just throws some junk up there, and stands back for a couple of days and says, ‘That could be a tree,’ or, ‘That could be a face.’ I think, in a way, it shapes itself, by you simply getting in there and doing stuff, as opposed to sitting and conceptualizing what it could be.”
One of the reasons the Lips' music sounds so fresh is that they conceive it through lengthy trial-and-error rather than precalculation. “That's one of the best things about those guys,” says Fridmann. “They will take whatever's best. They will quickly and earnestly throw away whatever they had in their minds to do if they find something better. The happy accident is the rule instead of the exception with them.”