Since Dutch Reagan‘s second term serving jellybeans, the Flaming Lips have been rolling into lucky towns across America on a near-annual basis, regardless of whether they’ve had a new album to “work.” Following some strange Saturnian calendar, Oklahoma‘s Finest Freaks regularly venture forth from their fabled compound in the heart of America’s heartland — Oklahoma CityCreationist Central — to bring their music-and-lights spectacle to the lower-budget heads of the nation.
For much of the ‘90s, this meant that a Flaming Lips show involved a psychedelic-indie-rock band with good songs, great guitar sounds and three Sav-On-aisles’ worth of Christmas lights. But with their return to live performance last year after a series of midcareer hiccups — including a novelty hit (“She Don‘t Use Jelly”), avant-garde sound performances (the 150-boom-box “Parking Lot Experiments”) and a quadro-CD simul-play studio album (1997’s Zaireeka) — the Lips have made some major revisions to their stage show‘s red-green-blueprint. Gone is guitarist Ronald Jones, due to genuinely artistic differences. Gone is bassist Michael Ivins’ massive Jewfro, due to the ravages of time. And gone is a live drummer.
What you do get now when you see the Lips is something that has already thrilled tens of thousands during the last year: a sort of homemade, human-scale Pink Floyd concert, featuring short films, songs from the Lips‘ last three albums (including 1999’s super-feted The Soft Bulletin), videotaped drumming by multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd on big-screen behind the band, lotsa props (blood, puppets and costumes), and a live broadcast of the show‘s soundboard mix via micro-range FM to Walkmans distributed to audience members at the door. It’s a pretty wild scene.
“If you‘ve never seen us before and you’re walking in to see us now, after we‘ve done this show maybe 200 times, it could look like some kind of mad sorcerer has gotten all this crazy stuff to work,” says Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne, calling from “Stately Wayne Manor” in OK City. “But it’s only because we‘ve done it so much that it’s a finely tuned show by now. This is the most high-impact, most bombastic thing that we can do. We want people to walk away impressed.”
The band‘s last two albums have been extremely detailed and painstakingly layered projects, with sounds becoming as important as songs and band members’ individual roles becoming increasingly less defined. The Lips have transcended the rock-band form; as Coyne commented in a 1999 press release, “If someone was to ask me what instrument I play, I would say ‘the recording studio.’” So, one would guess that leaving the studio to do the occasional tour — no matter how unconventional — might be unappealing . . .
“If it was totally up to me, I would never leave the house,” Coyne says with a laugh. “I would sit in here, drink coffee, watch TV, listen to music, not bother anybody. And just create some music in the studio — that really is a whole artistic field that you could just immerse yourself in and never look up again. But, you know, luckily I don‘t have that luxury; I have to put a face and a personality and all this stuff on it. Which is great!
”Rock & roll has so many things going for it: You can make little videos that show off how you look and how you dress, you can promote yourself in so many different ways other than just having your song be the only vehicle by which you can reach people. I’ve sorta been forced to do all these other things — which I think have made it so much better and so much more appealing to people than just some weirdo sitting at home.“
Coyne has big plans for down the road: to get off of it.
”What I‘d like is to have our own theater here in Oklahoma City where you come to see us, almost like you go to see Wayne Newton in Las Vegas or something. The biggest trouble with having something big and bombastic is that you have to carry it around everywhere. So, I stay here and you come to me! The theme would change all the time, but I’m sure it‘d be based on the idea of ’Christmas in Outer Space‘ or something like that.“
LipsLand? Brainville? The Zaireeka Embassy? It could happen. And where better to try it out than Oklahoma City?
”Oklahoma is a good gauge of what will fly in America, for sure,“ says Coyne. ”A lot of times, when restaurants are opening up a new chain, they do it in either Tulsa or Oklahoma City first. It’s kind of a test market — like, if these people here will buy it, it‘ll probably work everywhere else!“
The Flaming Lips perform at the Palace on Friday, November 17.