The Flaming Lips - Biography
BY Scott Feemster
Coming from the background of the do-it-yourself, throw-it-all-in-a-blender underground rock scene of the 1980's, The Flaming Lips have gone on to be not only a long-lived and successful band that does things on their own terms, but have become one of the most influential bands of the last twenty years and also one of the most beloved. Their live shows are known for their mind-bending array of special effects and wackiness, and their albums have become increasingly more heart-felt and musically complex, without losing the psychedelic strangeness that has marked the group their entire career.
The Flaming Lips started in Oklahama City, Oklahoma in 1983 after Long John Silvers head fish fryer Wayne Coyne saved up enough money to buy himself an electric guitar. He soon convinced his friend Michael Ivins to play bass, (Ivins thought it would be the easiest instrument to play because it only had four strings), and Wayne's brother Mark convinced himself that he should be the singer. With whoever they could get to play drums, the nascent group jammed on such hits as “The Theme from 'Batman'”, and soon graduated to playing bars, parties and dives around Oklahoma City, including a memorable early one at the town's transvestite bar, The Blue Note. The group called themselves The Flaming Lips supposedly because of a dream Wayne had where he was kissed by a flaming Virgin Mary in his car, (though there have been various other explanations over the years, as well), and quickly recorded a demo tape of the four of five songs they had written, plus the “Batman” theme and a cover of a Who song. After practice and a series of chaotic live gigs, Wayne and Ivins eventually got to the point where they could play fairly well, though it took them almost two years of revolving drummers before they could convince drummer Richard English to stay in the band. With English in the group, they set about recording their self-titled debut EP, originally released on their own Lovely Sorts Of Death label, but later re-issued on the Restless label. Undoubtedly under the influence of beloved classic rock bands like The Who and Cream, but with a good dose of punk energy and influences from peers like the Meat Puppets, Black Flag, and The Butthole Surfers, The Flaming Lips were already on their way to constructing their own kind of southern Midwest lysergic-informed weirdness. Many of their early shows were opening up for touring punk bands in Oklahoma City, as the band had one of the only working P.A. systems available for the bands to use. The Flaming Lips started using their live shows as celebrations of sonic and sensory overkill, and soon built up a reputation for going off on wild psychedelic noise tangents while blinking lights and fog machines obliterated the view of the stage. At around this time, Mark Coyne left the band, and Wayne Coyne took over on vocals. After playing a series of shows on the West Coast, the three-piece band came to the attention of the small independent label Enigma, (later Restless), Records, and was signed to the label in 1986. Their debut full-length album Hear It Is (Restless) was released on Enigma's psychedelic boutique label, Pink Dust, the same year. Whereas it seemed that many so-called psychedelic bands of the 80's were busy aping the fashions and styles of the music's heyday in the late '60's, The Flaming Lips took a more modern and more organic approach, and were not afraid to mix in whatever influences they thought were appropriate. From the outset, The Flaming Lips were truly doing their own thing. The same line-up of Coyne, Ivins and English went on to make Oh My Gawd!!!....The Flaming Lips (Restless) in 1987, a slightly heavier, more druggy take on the sound of Hear It Is. With a cover that looked like a psychedelic nightmare and music that freely quoted such “uncool”, (for the mid-80's) influences as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Mountain and the 13th Floor Elevators, The Flaming Lips were running fully against the stream of what was commercial at that time, and in turn would set the precedent for their career and influence music that was to come. The Lips toured their psychedelic overload show through the United States, and while playing shows at Buffalo University in upstate New York, they met a young promoter and musician/engineer named Jonathan Donahue. After jamming with Donahue and his friends, they decided to take Donahue on tour with them, when they could, to mix and oversee their live sound. Their next album, 1989's Telepathic Surgery (Restless), originally began life as a concept by Coyne and Ivins to make an entire side of noise collage, but eventually the concept got boiled down to just one slightly shorter song later included as a CD bonus track, (“Hells Angels Cracker Factory”), and the rest of the album was an extension of what they had been doing on Oh My Gawd!!!, though now with even more weird effects and random drop-ins mixed into the stew. Drummer Richard English was becoming less and less happy with the direction the band was taking, and after a few shows to promote Telepathic Surgery, he quit the band. Coyne and Ivins, aided by Donahue, played a few shows as a duo before gaining a new drummer in Nathan Roberts. Eventually, as the tour went on, Donahue would step on stage and add some guitar, and by the end of the tour, it was decided that Donahue would be included as a full time member. (Donahue was, at the same time, a member of Mercury Rev).
When the band returned to Oklahoma, they all moved in together and decided, on their next album, that they would try to construct more of the songs before they went in to the studio. As their label, Restless, was in danger of imminent collapse, The Lips wanted to make one last grand statement before they might be left without a recording contract. In A Priest Driven Ambulance (Restless) was released in 1990, and it was obvious that the band had taken more time and care in the recording of the album. Where before the group had sort of thrown everything against the wall to see if it would stick, In A Priest Driven Ambulance was a cohesive and solid effort that showed the band maturing beyond their image as weird psychedelic noise-mongers. After receiving next to no support from Restless to tour, the band decided to stay around Oklahoma City to play some local shows and plot their next move. It was at one of these shows, where The Lips almost burned down an American Legion hall with their pyrotechnic display, that a representative from the major label Warner Brothers witnessed the band live and positively reported back to the label about this crazy band with good songs and a wild live show that was looking for a new record deal. After a series of meetings were set up between the band, their new manager Scott Booker, (who had previously been a manager of a local record store), and the label, The Flaming Lips were signed to Warner Brothers in 1990. (Restless later reissued much of the band's early material in three collections, A Collection Of Songs Representing An Enthusiam For Recording...By Amateurs (1998), Finally, The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid (2002), and The Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg (2002) ). Now with a healthy advance to bolster them and a bigger recording budget, the band put together their major label debut, Hit To Death In The Future Head (Warner Bros.). Hit To Death... was much in the same vein as In A Priest.. in that it was a more cohesive collection of songs, though this time the band had more time and budget to indulge their sonic fantasies, including a final hidden track on the album that consisted of 29 minutes of noise shifting from speaker to speaker. Within just a few weeks of the album being completed, both Roberts and Donahue quit the band, Roberts because he was having too many arguments with Coyne and Ivins and was also soon getting married, and Donahue because he wanted to spend time full-time with his other band Mercury Rev. Unable to really tour to support the record, Hit To Death.. languished.
Ivins and Coyne returned to Oklahoma City to jam with various local musicians to see if they could come up with another line-up. The first to click was local drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, who brought a powerfully solid back-beat to the band. After a couple of experimental line-ups that, at one time, included The Lips graphic designer, Jon Mooneyham, the band eventually found guitarist Ronald Jones. The new four-piece line-up hit the road and toured incessantly for a while, trying to re-establish their name in audience's minds and gel as a unit. Once back from the road, the band got quickly back to work and recorded their next album Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (Warner Bros.)(1993) over the course of a summer in Oklahoma. With Jones and Drozd in the group, the band had even more focus and musical ideas at their disposal, and came up with an album that was almost universally hailed by critics. The general rock-listening public, however, still didn't really know who The Flaming Lips were. The band toured in support of Transmissions for almost year, but it looked like they were never going to break beyond the level they were already at popularity-wise. That started to change when a DJ in Oklahoma City started to play a track off of the album, “She Don't Use Jelly”, and played it so often that it became a regional hit. Soon other DJ's around the country followed suit, and the Flaming Lips actually ended up having a minor hit. This increased exposure translated in to inclusion on the Lollapalooza tour, appearances on the David Letterman show, and an almost legendary appearance on the program Beverly Hills 90210, as well as opening slots on tours with Candlebox and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Lips spent almost three years on the road before they decamped to Chicago to record their next album Clouds Taste Metallic (Warner Bros.)(1995) with producer Dave Fridmann, who had worked with the band on some of their earlier albums. Whereas Transmissions... retained a harder edge, Clouds... seemed to be much more influenced by the intricate pop constructs of Brian Wilson, and pointed towards a new direction the band might take. The group took to the road once again, but after a year or so of touring around the world, Jones, who had become increasingly more involved with spirituality and was also unnerved by Drozd's increasing drug use, quit the band.
Coyne had hoped the last incarnation of the band would last for a while, but after Jones left, he re-evaluated what he thought The Flaming Lips were and what they could be. Once back in Oklahoma City, he embarked on a project called the Parking Lot Experiment, which consisted of The Flaming Lips recording sounds and different parts of songs onto different cassette tapes, then handing them out to local fans, and then having the fans gather together at pre-disclosed parking garages to play the cassettes back in (somewhat) unison out of their cars. Though the concept sounded like another step up in Coyne and The Lips enlightened insanity, it actually sometimes worked, and the three remaining Lips used the concept to record what would be their most challenging album, 1997's Zaireeka (Warner Bros.). Zaireeka was an album that was not only obtuse and dense, but was a 4-CD set that was made to be played simultaneously on 4 different sound systems. After an initial release of just 5,000 copies, word of mouth and interest was enough that Warner Bros. ended up pressing another 18,000 editions. After an initial test concert in Oklahoma City, The Flaming Lips took the concept of Zaireeka on the road in a series of events called the Boombox Experiment, where different members of the audience were given tapes of different parts of Zaireeka and were directed when to play them and at what volume by Coyne and Drozd. From there, the band decided to carry on as a three-piece, and while taking the next couple of years to write a new album, several strange, life-changing events happened to the members of the band. Michael Ivins came inches away from being killed when a wheel came flying off of another car and smashed into his windshield, Steven Drozd almost had to have his arm amputated after an abscess, originally thought to be because of a spider bite, but later revealed to be because of Drozd's intravenous drug use, became infected, and Wayne Coyne went through watching his father fight a losing battle with cancer. (Drozd later entered a rehabilitation program to rid himself of his heroin addiction). All of those events and the band's songwriting maturity added to the tone of 1999's The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.). The album, with it's increased reliance on keyboards and a much wider palette of sound, was a huge critical success, and because of the positive word-of-mouth, also became a commercial success, as well. The band took their new-look live show on the road, which featured Drozd now playing guitar and keyboard with his drum tracks and additional sound being played back on backing tapes. The backing tapes were often synchronized with actual film of Drozd playing drums, which was projected behind the band while they were playing. Coyne, also taking advantage of new technology, had a close-up miniature camera installed on his microphone, and the feed was often projected behind the band as well, complete with Coyne using hand puppets and visual gags. All of this, along with their now-customary use of fog machines, confetti and balloons, added up to a sensory extravaganza that saw the band very much in demand for touring.
After touring extensively to promote The Soft Bulletin and basking in the knowledge that they were finally successful, the band started working on three more different projects at once. The first was a soundtrack to their friend, (and frequent video collaborator), Bradley Beesley's film about the curious practice of catching catfish in lakes with your bare hands called Okie Noodling. The group crafted several suitably country and western sounding songs for the soundtrack The second project was a long running science-fiction film project Coyne wanted to shoot mostly in his backyard and basement called Christmas On Mars, which carried the story line of strange occurrences that happen during the first Christmas on a space station on Mars. (The film and the soundtrack would eventually be released in 2008 on Warner Brothers Records). The third project was a follow-up album to The Soft Bulletin, and the band took many of the ideas started on their previous album and combined them with a more beat-heavy approach to produce Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Warner Bros.), released in 2002. Yoshimi... was not only another critical success for the band, but also a commercial success, and the group even earned a Grammy for the track “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)” as the Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Two EP's were issued after Yoshimi...; Fight Test (Warner Bros.)(2002), which featured remixed tracks from the album as well as covers of Radiohead and Kylie Minogue, and Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell (Warner Bros)(2003), which also featured remixes as well as four previously unissued tracks from the Yoshimi sessions. The band returned to the road to promote the album, this time with drummer Kliph Scurlock playing the live drum parts Drozd laid down in the studio, and even served as both the opening act and as the backup band for Beck's Sea Change tour in 2002. A comprehensive documentary of the band, called Fearless Freaks (Warner Bros.)(2005), was directed by Bradley Beesley, and featured interviews with celebrities and fellow musicians, as well as archival footage of the band and interviews with their family members. Originally the group was scheduled to be one of the headlining acts on the 2004 Lollapalooza tour, but the tour was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. The Lips took advantage of the extra time they now found themselves faced with and entered the studio with producer Dave Fridmann to record their next album, At War With The Mystics (Warner Bros.), released in 2006. Though At War With The Mystics was much in the same vein as Yoshimi.., there was a conscious effort by the band to make the album a little more heavy and guitar-based than their previous two albums. The lyrical content was also more concerned with politics both personal and public, skewed, of course, through Coyne's fun-house imagination. The group embarked again on a long cycle of touring, which was capped by their homecoming performance at Oklahoma City's zoo. The concert at the zoo featured The Lips new UFO stage set, which Coyne emerged from at the beginning of the show encased in a giant plastic bubble and proceeded to walk over the surface of the crowd before returning to the stage to begin the band's set. The festivities were filmed and released as the DVD UFO's At The Zoo: The Legendary Concert In Oklahoma City (Warner Bros.)(2007). The Flaming Lips continued to play selected shows and festivals for the next couple of years, while also completing their Christmas On Mars project. The group is reportedly working on new material for release sometime in 2009. It is, at times, hard to believe that a relatively obscure psychedelic punk band from Oklahoma City could one day be one of music's most celebrated and beloved musical groups, but The Flaming Lips always followed their own lead, and have carved a unique niche for themselves in the fabric of modern music.