Staring at Sound

The True Story of Oklahomas Fabulous Flaming Lips




Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips traces the band’s history from its earliest days playing local dives to their current status as cult kings, from ambitious noise rock to ambitious studio symphonies, and from borrowed equipment and menial jobs to state-of-the-art studios and elaborate, exuberant concerts. With enviable access to the band, Chicago-based music critic Jim DeRogatis effectively builds on the band’s recent documentary, the Bradley Beesley-directed The Fearless Freaks: The Wondrously Improbably Story of the Flaming Lips, as well as the band’s own autobiographical liner notes. He incorporates a wealth of research and represents numerous points of view, remaining accessible and level-headed in the retelling. Pitchfork


With some rock band biographies, back story is just something to skim en route to later fame-induced decadence. With Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips, it’s quite the opposite. DeRogatis, the pop music critic for The Chicago Sun-Times and the author of a biography of Lester Bangs, does a nice job rendering the 60’s and 70’s cultural dust bowl that produced these alt-rock lifers. Whether you find the Flaming Lips’ noisy excursions and psychedelically embellished melodies endearing or a bit grandiose, their leader, Wayne Coyne, emerges in “Staring at Sound” as a fascinating character: a mid-American mix of organic capitalist, badgering colloquist and charismatic quester. DeRogatis’s account of the band’s early road-warrior touring echoes the D.I.Y. pattern of any band crisscrossing the country during the all-ages-club heyday of the late 80’s. But his focus on Coyne results in lots of pithy quotations from a guy who had his hometown scene wired from Day 1. With an audience initially made up of Coyne’s own working-class family, the Lips moved on to a large and loyal following that still comes to shows assured of big melodies, swirling guitars, bubbles, bear suits and other trip-friendly spectacles. — Laura Sinagra, The New York Times


The Flaming Lips just released its 12th album, At War With The Mystics, after 20 years of recording and touring. Chicago Sun-Times writer DeRogatis, author of the wonderful Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, manages to draw a line, albeit a wiggly one, from the band’s beginnings as enthusiastically atonal punk rockers in Oklahoma City to their present day success as world renowned art-rock visionaries. DeRogatis tells the story simply, with testimonials from past and present band members, friends, family, fans, collaborators and others. He’s thorough and exhaustive, though I did detect a few minor factual anomalies. Wayne Coyne, the Lips’ leader, emerges as an archetypically relentless innovator whose near-heroic discipline belies a practical and whimsical approach to art and life. It’s almost too bad there’s already a terrific documentary on the band (The Fearless Freaks) but Staring at Sound stands as one of the best band bios of all time.  — Richard Pachter, The Miami Herald


DeRogatis is polite, jolly and generous, not the stereotypical rock critic who inhales three smokes a minute and hasn’t left his room for two days. When talking about something he adores--like music, obviously--he’s energetic, and the effect is charging. Get him to talk about the Flaming Lips, and you don’t have a chance. New City (For the paper’s cover story profile of Jim DeRogatis, click here.)


Their new CD, “At War With the Mystics,” and their well-timed biography “Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips” by Chicago pop-music critic Jim DeRogatis’ marks one more artistic (and perhaps commercial) high point for the band. The Lips are one of the few experimental acts who seem to remember, and care, that the audience is listening. “Mystics” is an invitingly freakish, downright pretty and even moving record: one part early Pink Floyd, one part the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and one part small-town science museum. It features shimmering keyboards, fuzzy psychedelic guitar and everyday found sounds - a creaking door, a beeping alarm - and the songs are tethered together with what sounds like signals from outer space. — Lorraine Ali, Newsweek


Staring at Sound, by Chicago Sun-Times pop critic Jim DeRogatis, brings the very improbable career of the Flaming Lips screaming to the page. The author, who's covered the band since 1989, has seen it all—lineup changes, mood swings and more than one turning point… [and he] depicts what is, by any measure, a mesmerizing chronology of a pop music success story. — Mark Brown, The Tulsa World


In Staring At Sound, DeRogatis mirrors his work in 2000’s Let it Blurt by reverting back to his days as a cub reporter in New Jersey and digging deep for long dormant facts and articles by the book’s subject… finding the little nuggets that no one, oftentimes not even the subject’s themselves, knew about. — Static Multimedia


Following up his bio of famed rock critic Lester Bangs, the Chicago Sun-Times’ DeRogatis tackles one of pop music’s true eccentrics: Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips’ eternally optimistic frontman and master of on-stage ceremonies. This 270-page paperback chronicles the Lips’ unlikely rise to weirded-out, major-label stars, the rare band that scored its first hit record some 20 years into its career. It’s as inspiring as it is entertaining. The Daily Camera


DeRogatis has been a fan of the Oklahoma rock band The Flaming Lips since 1989 and tabbed their 1993 release Transmissions from the Satellite Heart his pick as that year’s finest release. But neither his admiration for their music nor closeness with the band members, particularly frontman Wayne Coyne, prevented him from making his book Staring At Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips (Broadway) an unbiased, freewheeling account that details several unflattering incidents in the band’s rise to stardom. — City Paper


Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis charts the unlikely rise of a few music-obsessed oddballs to rock stardom in Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips. The book has all the essential elements for a good rock and roll biography—drugs, breakups, blood, fire—and even the willing cooperation of the band itself. It’s part of the Flaming Lip’s populist appeal that despite their success, they simply seem pleased that someone would want to write a book about them. The Daily Yomuiri


Jim DeRogatis interviewed on WNYC-FM’s “Sound Check”


Jim DeRogatis interviewed on The Current, Minnesota's hippest radio station


 Jim is a constant reminder that no matter who - whether it’s the band just a week old or the million-dollar band with private jets - there’s no such thing as free passes. If you speak with conviction and are honest with the facts, the readers will decide on their own whether the music is good or bad. Question his opinions, but what can never be questioned is his passion for the music. And for that I stand and applaud him wholeheartedly. — Getting In Tune


Local rock critic Jim DeRogatis has spent the last few years pestering members of the Flaming Lips for interviews, haranguing them in the studio while they tried to get work done, bugging singer Wayne Coyne’s significant other for photos of the band and digging through years and years of smudged newsprint mining old interviews with and profiles of the band.Chicagoist


DeRogatis has been a fan of the band for a long time and it’s apparent on every page, but he’s not a cheerleader. Poking holes in the band’s Boom Box Experiment shows are just some of them, but he isn’t focusing on the negative. He gives a more balanced form of constructive criticism that doesn’t tip towards extremes. I think all great rock bios shed more light on things that the fan didn’t know and Staring at Sound is no exception. Information on things like the supposed spiderbite that drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd had (as discussed in “The Spirderbite Song”) wasn’t a spiderbite at all, how the tour with Beck wasn’t all smiles and how the band stayed on Warner Bros. for so long really interested me. This was fascinating and it didn't feel like tabloid-ish gossip. Another by-product of great rock bios is when the reader gets the urge to hear the spotlighted band's music. It had been a few months since I had listened to Clouds Taste Metallic, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, so I figured I’d put them in my CD wallet. This helped keep the band's music on my mind as I read more and more about their story, creating the always cool, multi-level fan experience. — Theme Park Experience


It’s clear throughout the book that DeRogatis is a big fan, though he’s as critical of the band’s weak material as he is celebratory of its best. A far cry from his last book, the canon-toppling collection Kill Your Idols, Staring at Sound feels like an argument for the Lips to go down in history as one of rock’s legendary acts. — Time Out Chicago


From Esquire, April 2006, The “Man at His Best” Awards: No. 7. Bloodiest Style: Wayne Coyne. “At first he shopped the thrift stores, but when he discovered that the blood washed out more easily from more expensive clothing, he turned to Armani and Dolce Gabbana.” — From Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips, a biography of the rock band by Jim DeRogatis


Chicago rock journalist DeRogatis (Let It Blurt ) chronicles the Flaming Lips’ 23-year journey from local oddities to nationally famous stars. Formed in 1983 by charismatic front man Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips have enjoyed a career boasting almost all the hallmarks of the usual indie band-except they’re not an indie band. They’ve released nearly all their work on a major label, Warner Brothers, and are one of the few bands of the 1990s to fulfill the terms of their contract. Along the way there were many tense moments, lineup changes and struggles (for 10 years, Coyne would come off tour to work as a fry cook at Long John Silver’s). More than two decades later, however, in a testament to their dedication and vision, the band has a platinum record under their belt. Luckily for them and for their fans, they drew DeRogatis, one of the nation’s best newspaper music critics, as a biographer. DeRogatis handles the story soberly yet intimately, without relating the usual tales of drug-fueled rock star excess, which the band has always eschewed. Although the book lacks some flair for that reason, fans will appreciate that the Flaming Lips have avoided cliché in their lives as they have in their music. — Publishers Weekly


DeRogatis, the pop music critic at The Chicago Sun-Times, makes ample use of his skills as both a street reporter and a music critic here: As with any biography, there’s the usual who, what, when, and where’s, but also an in-depth reading of the Flaming Lips’ discography. So you’ll not only learn about founding member Wayne Coyne’s blue-collar origins, his siblings and girlfriends, and the inside poop on the band’s various members, managers, and record deals (as well as its long and contentious history at Warner Brothers,) but also which of the band’s many albums DeRogatis considers revelatory and essential, and which ones he thinks missed the mark. Along the way, there’s an insider’s look at Flaming Lips extravaganzas like its infamous Parking Lot symphonies, the bizarre Zaireeka box set (featuring four CD’s that were designed to be played simultaneously on four different CD players,) and the band’s career-defining New Year’s Eve concert at Madison Square Garden which rang in 2005.  In between the lines, there’s a true American success story here, an old-fashioned Horatio Alger tale of perseverance and hard work that proves that if you stick at something you love, eventually you’ll succeed. So many other great bands’ stories tell us something different, but at least you can go into Staring At Sound knowing there’ll be a happy ending. At least until the next record comes out. — Jersey Beat


Read Staring at Sound's review from Popular Music and Society