Staring at Sound

The True Story of Oklahomas Fabulous Flaming Lips




When Led Zeppelin performed at New York City’s legendary Madison Square Garden in July 1973, the band members arrived in stretch limos moments before walking onstage as conquering heroes and self-proclaimed golden gods, as seen in their famous concert film, The Song Remains the Same. More than thirty years later, as the Flaming Lips prepared to play the same venue on the last day of 2004, they arrived seven hours before showtime, helping to haul their own gear, carrying boxes full of balloons, confetti, and furry animal costumes, and armed with rolls of duct tape.

Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins had logged hundreds of thousands of miles performing around the world since the Flaming Lips first played in public at a black cowboy bar in their hometown of Oklahoma City two decades earlier. For the last twelve years of that long, strange trip, Steven Drozd had been at their side, and together they were about to cap the most successful period of their career to date, which started in July 2002 with the release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and ended here on the stage where so many of their heroes had made history.

The Flaming Lips first concert poster in 1984, artwork by Wayne Coyne
Along the way, if the Flaming Lips hadn’t quite reached the level of fame and fortune achieved by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or the Who, they had at least secured their position as one of the best-selling bands in the rock underground, and as one of the most imaginative, groundbreaking, and wonderfully weird groups in the pop mainstream. They hardly took this for granted, though. Backstage in their dressing room before the show, someone had scrawled the evening’s agenda on a dry-erase bulletin board.

Rule #1: Try not to suck.
Rule #2: I told you not to suck, assface!
Rule #3: Fuck you.

An hour and a half before midnight, after an opening set by Sleater-Kinney, the indie rock darlings who had just recorded with the Flaming Lips’ longtime producer, Dave Fridmann, the Lips took the stage to the taped strains of a lush orchestral fanfare—Wayne in a three-piece gray pinstriped Dolce & Gabbana suit, Steven in a pink elephant costume, and Michael in a black-and-white zebra outfit—accompanied by three dozen fans dressed as plushy pandas, baboons, lions, tigers, and bears waving powerful handheld spotlights; six gyrating strippers in pasties and G-strings; a giant inflatable sun; clouds of smoke; a barrage of lights and video; and a nonstop rain of confetti.

Michael Ivins, waving to fans, New Years Eve 2005
Photo Credit: Carmel Carillo
Standing backstage as the group’s roadies bounced dozens of colorful, oversized balloons from a holding bin out into the crowd, one of the Garden’s veteran stagehands shook his head in amazement. “I ain’t seen nothin’ like this,” he said—impressive testimony from a Teamster who’d worked countless concerts and pro sporting events, the Westminster Kennel Club’s 128th Annual Dog Show, the 2004 Republican National Convention, and the yearly visit from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“Hello, everybody! It is truly an honor to be here with you guys tonight welcoming in 2005 at Madison Square Garden,” Wayne announced as the introductory music, an instrumental that Steven called “Plinkee,” ended. The band’s leader took his place behind the vocal mike at center stage, flanked by Steven on keyboards and guitar at his right, Michael on bass and keyboards seated at his left, and touring drummer Kliph Scurlock at the rear behind a transparent pink plastic drum set. “We’re gonna make this the best fuckin’ show you could have ever gone to,” Wayne promised.

With that the group launched into a triumphant version of “Race for the Prize,” a song that Wayne describes as his ideal combination of Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin, and which neatly encompasses several of his recurring themes: seize the moment; dare to live life to the fullest; believe in yourself, work hard, and you can accomplish anything. These maxims sound less like Dale Carnegie aphorisms and more profound in his fanciful lyrics about two scientists trying to save the world. During the bridge, many in the audience of eleven thousand augmented his hoarse, off-key, but endearing voice by adding their own: “Theirs is to win, if it kills them/They’re just humans with wives and children.”

“That’s the way a fuckin’ rock show should begin, huh?” Wayne asked after the song had thundered to a close, and the crowd roared its approval.

Wayne Coyne, showering Madison Square Garden with confetti, NYE 2005
Photo Credit: Carmel Carillo
Wayne is the first to admit that he isn’t much of a singer, and that he relies on his charisma to carry the show. During the years the group has spent developing the uplifting multimedia circus of its current concerts, he has honed the philosophical edge of his lyrics, and he has acquired along the way a near-messianic appeal, with fans cheering every time he raises his arms onstage, or even when he strolls out before the performance to duct-tape the guitar cords to the floor. A dedicated fan of what he calls “the weird religiosity” of the Who, he’s aware of the down side of gurudom, as described in Pete Townshend’s epic rock opera Tommy, and Wayne will brook no mythologizing of his role as the group’s leader. He insists that people just want to come together to celebrate, and he is simply their designated cheerleader, employing an analogy that’s more convincing when you know he spent eleven years as a fry cook at a fast-food restaurant before becoming his own thrift-store, do-it-yourself golden god.

“Anybody with as much luck and determination as me could do this,” Wayne maintains. “I’m making chicken, and you like chicken. You think I’m making chicken because you like it, Jim, but I’m just making chicken because I like to make chicken.”

Even if you dislike the Flaming Lips’ particular brand of poultry, it’s hard to deny that they are the ideal band to lead a round of “Auld Lang Syne.” The group thought it had ended the touring cycle supporting Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with a show opening for their admirers the White Stripes at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on New Year’s Eve 2003–2004, but the album continued to grow in popularity, and the band had spent another year on the road. Now it was ushering in 2005—or, as Wayne noted on the poster he designed for the show (he’s always done almost all of the band’s artwork), celebrating the night when “Time Begins Again”—as co-headliners with Wilco.

Like many acts that have shared a stage with the Flaming Lips, the Chicago based alternative country/art-rock group felt a twinge of regret in deciding to follow the Oklahoma band. “I don’t know how anyone can follow that,” Wilco bassist John Stirratt sighed as he watched the Flaming Lips’ bacchanal from the side of the stage, though once the Teamsters had swept up the confetti, Wilco did just fine.

Steven Drozd, still dressed as a pachyderm, NYE 2005
Photo Credit: Carmel Carillo
As influential critical and cult favorites on the brink of full-fledged mainstream success, Wilco and the Flaming Lips have few peers on the current music scene, and the bands had once been label mates, though technically Wilco recorded for Reprise Records, while the Flaming Lips record for Warner Bros. proper. Wilco famously split with its label’s corporate parent company in an acrimonious dispute over the commercial potential of its 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In an era of shrinking artistic experimentation and growing number-crunching, some of the company’s executives had decided it was no longer enough for a well-respected band to sell merely a few hundred thousand albums. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this to you and you’re going to write this in a book, but I’ll say it anyway: I think it could have happened to the Lips, too,” said Deb Bernardini, Wilco’s publicist, who had spent several years working in the same role for the Flaming Lips before leaving Warner Bros.

In fact, Warner Bros. nearly dropped the Flaming Lips several times over the last decade and a half, but by keeping their heads low, their expectations realistic, and their relations cordial, and relying on the charm and cunning of their manager, Scott Booker, the musicians persevered to the point where their attorney, Bill Berrol, said they will be the only band he has represented during thirty years in the music business to fulfill the terms of their contract, delivering all seven of the albums the label optioned when they signed in 1990. By all rights, the group should have broken up at any of a half-dozen critical junctures, but the band members say they forged ahead because they simply had no other choices. Nonsense. The truth is that they always believed in themselves, their music, and Wayne’s vision, and this faith finally paid off when Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots sold almost a million copies worldwide.

A band that produces an artistic triumph as well as its most commercially successful effort on its tenth album is nearly unprecedented in rock ’n’ roll, an art form where most acts have a shelf life of Andy Warhol’s proverbial fifteen minutes. But then the Flaming Lips’ unlikely career resembles few others, with the possible exception of Pink Floyd’s, which evolved from the Syd Barrett–driven psychedelic pop of the mid-sixties, to the trippy art rock of the early seventies, to the platinum success that followed The Dark Side of the Moon. Like their heroes the Floyd, the Lips always have used the recording studio as a tool to create beautiful sounds far beyond their own technical abilities, and they have been several distinctly different bands in the process: the noisy indie-rock group of the mid-eighties, the expansive psychedelic combo of the early alternative era, and the strange orchestral pop band of recent years.

Just as a wide variety of groups have drawn from different periods in Pink Floyd’s evolution, the Flaming Lips have emerged as one of the most influential bands of their generation, inspiring some groups with their psychedelic rock efforts (Modest Mouse, Grandaddy, the Secret Machines, Longwave, Apples in Stereo, Super Furry Animals, Earlimart), others with their orchestral pop (the Polyphonic Spree, the Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Arcade Fire), and others still via mutual admiration and the more general example of how they conduct their career (Radiohead, the White Stripes, Wilco, Tool, Deathcab for Cutie, Sparklehorse). But unlike Pink Floyd, which eventually split into two acrimonious camps, devolved into mediocrity, and lapsed into inactivity, or even some of the bands the Flaming Lips have spawned, they remain a vital and vibrant concern, poised to reach an even larger audience in 2006 with their new album, At War with the Mystics, and their first feature film, Christmas on Mars.

Jim DeRogatis and Wayne Coyne on the set of Christmas on Mars
Following the sudden twists and turns and unexpected highs and lows of this roller-coaster career has been enough to give any longtime fan whiplash. I first interviewed Wayne and Michael in 1989, before the release of In a Priest Driven Ambulance. In the years since, I’ve praised the group as one of the most inventive bands to emerge from the American underground, and I’ve sharply criticized its occasional missteps; Wayne still loves to debate me about the merits of the Boom Box Experiments. I’ve seen the band perform fifty times in five different cities; been a fly on the wall in the recording studio during the making of Clouds Taste Metallic and At War with the Mystics; participated in its biggest and best Parking Lot Experiment (like the Boom Box Experiments, this is impossible to explain briefly; see Chapter Eight), and dressed as the giant inflatable sun to introduce Wayne during a speech at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in 2004.

Because of this history, Wayne didn’t hesitate for a moment when I called in late 2003 to say that I intended to write this book. “Well, sure, Jim, whatever you wanna do—it will be your version of the Flaming Lips’ story.” He knew what he was letting himself in for: that we’d spend countless hours talking about issues large and small; that I’d rifle through family photo albums and track down former girlfriends and bandmates he hadn’t spoken to in years; that I’d pin down contracts, recover embarrassing articles from the past, and recount unflattering incidents he sometimes excluded from his own otherwise frank histories of the group. Wayne once wrote of my work: “Jim has always taken the ‘investigative reporter’ approach to any area of exaggerated hype in music culture—which usually means the bigger the egos of those being critiqued, the more fun he has pointing out their blunders. If only he could’ve been around for the birth of Christ.”

To their credit and my gratitude, Wayne, Michael, Steven, Booker, Fridmann, and their spouses and family members never failed to cooperate fully and graciously with my intrusive efforts, allowing me to probe wherever I saw fit, and answering any and every question I posed without once asking to review, revise, or rescind their comments, much less see the manuscript before publication—a rare gift for any journalist in these days of omnipresent media manipulation. So Wayne is right: This is my version of the Flaming Lips’ bizarre odyssey, but I hope that it is also the most thorough, insightful, and honest one, and that it is as inspiring and entertaining as their music. They deserve no less.

“I’d like to see the Lips in twenty years be kinda like the Grateful Dead—not their music, but this group that still goes around and people come see ’em and it’s like this big party that never ends, although hopefully we’ll keep making good records,” Wayne told me in 1993. “We could do this for a hundred more albums, as long as Warner Bros. wants to keep giving us money.” Thirteen years later, the Flaming Lips show no signs of slowing down, and that vision of the future seems more attainable than ever. I hope that they’ll greet me with the same enthusiasm when I call in 2026 to begin working on Volume Two.