The Flaming Lips: Melt Your Head Again

By: Nancy Dunham

The Flaming Lips
For all the cool things that can be said about Wayne Coyne, perhaps the coolest is that he just doesn't take himself that seriously.

At a recent concert outside of Washington, D.C., the frontman and founder of The Flaming Lips spent 20 minutes or so working with the band's roadies to set up equipment before the show. And with his help, one of the typical Lips high-energy extravaganzas was underway.

"I love it. I love it like I love my wife and my family and my dogs," said Coyne of his band and its music, "but I am completely untrustworthy - a fanatic. I don't climb mountains or shit like that. So, I put my energy into music and I act like it's the most important thing in the world. But I know it's not. Everybody should love the things they do in their lives, the people in their lives, more than [they love] some stupid rock band. I know that."

Let's face it, you don't hear many rockers who have won three Grammy Awards plus a multitude of critical and commercial kudos dissuading people from obsessing over the music they create. Yet perhaps that self-effacing manner is why Coyne, who in 1983 started the psychedelic rock band that has morphed into something of a cultural phenomenon, is so much more successful than many of his peers. While the majority of his contemporaries in other groups have long since disbanded or are now relegated to shows at small venues and state fairs, Coyne and his bandmates still play amphitheatres and have fans pining for new material.

The Early Years

What started as something of a lark for Coyne, his brother Mark and bass guitarist Michael Ivins – who has said that rampant drug use as kids is what led them to make "weird music" – has developed into one of the most influential bands of the day. The Lips could even be considered role models for alt-rockers with Coyne serving as the wise elder statesman. But it wasn't always that way, and the path has been long and twisted.

The Flaming Lips circa 1989
After releasing its self-titled debut in 1985 with Hear It Is following in 1986, the band played a Buffalo, New York show supporting the Butthole Surfers. That show resulted in Coyne meeting Jonathan Donahue who later became the group's sound technician and guitarist.

Despite what Coyne and Ivins call a more cohesive feel to their sound, it wasn't until 1991 that the Lips signed to Warner Brothers. The Lips' major label debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, was released in 1992 and was quickly followed by Donahue's departure to focus on his other band, Mercury Rev.

It took several more years – where the band appeared everywhere from MTV's annual Spring Break broadcast to a lip-synched performance on Beverly Hills 90210 - for the band to build buzz. Of course, that was helped by a bit of PR when 90210 cast member Ian Ziering – in the role of Steve Sanders – said, "You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!"

The band flirted with commercial success at various times only to stumble and land back in cult status. In 1996, it seemed the Lips would implode due to an array of injuries and odd accidents. Then various strange musical experiments, including 1997's Zaireeka, a set of four discs designed to be played simultaneously, created the impression that Coyne and his band were just plain odd.

"Sometimes you want everything to be like it was with your first album where everything is new and anything is possible," Coyne said. "If you have enough experience you always know everything involved. We have made about 12 records by now and you get in these quagmires. It can be difficult."

The Flaming Lips
But, according to Ivins, a brotherhood of sorts is what has always keeps the band moving ahead musically.

"I would hope that in the big picture that we have arrived at this point that we are making Flaming Lips music, our own sound," said Ivins. "It's odd to look back at ourselves. I think for a while we were making record collection music and stumbling accidentally on twists and turns in music. We never actually sounded like we wanted to sound. At points earlier in our career we thought that birthday party stuff sounds cool and then we got it wrong and had some weird songs. Since the late 1990s, we were able to make or break or at least get a handle on how to really use the language of music – the melodies and lyrics - and put them together in a way that made sense."

That language of music, according to Coyne, isn't always easy to grasp but you simply have to keep trying. Because even when difficult, it's often through the process of doing it, of just going into the studio and working, that meaning can be found and magic can happen.

"The worst thing that happens - I think it happens with all things - is you walk in there and you think you have this great song or great ideas and you record them and they are just boring," Coyne said, "and they are not thrilling you, they are not thrilling [others] and you don't even pursue them. What we have learned is that is going to happen but you still have to work through them anyway and keep going. I think you just have to keep fighting and if something hits you, you have to have the imagination and energy and make something happen."

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