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Cirque Du Soleil
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Cover Story [Issue # 20 ]
Flaming Lips: Psychedelic Soldiers

By Dean Truitt

At War With The Mystics ( CD Warner Bros. )

Wayne Coyne is an overachiever, a notorious workaholic, and possibly a genius, which is somewhat of an unusual statement about a man who proudly spent 11 years of his life working as the first mate at a Long John Silver’s in Oklahoma City.
It might also seem odd to bestow Mensa-approved status on an individual who has been known to walk across crowds inside a giant plastic balloon, perform onstage with a band of merry revelers dressed in costumes befitting a JC Penny’s Easter pageant, and throw heaps of confetti in amounts that Rip Taylor would call, “a bit excessive.” That being said, Coyne’s band, The Flaming Lips, has managed to accomplish a series of amazing feats within its 21 years of releasing records. The group has continually crafted some of the most daring music in the last 20 years, which is particularly remarkable considering the most noteworthy exports from their home state of Oklahoma are: college football, Garth Brooks, and crude oil (in that order). To call Oklahoma a “red state” is something of an understatement. The region’s political leanings are so red, even the dirt itself has a ruddy hue. Yet, Coyne and his compatriots have been creating music so mind-bendingly, envelope-pushingly radical, it defies category. He reveals, “There is a certain freedom in the context of what The Flaming Lips do. We can do instrumentals, we can do electric music, we can do symphonic music, we can do rock music, and it’s all kind of allowable. None of it seems too far out of what the listeners expect. We would just hear these things again and think, ‘That’s cool!’”

While The Flaming Lips were crafting their latest psychedelic tour de force, At War with the Mystics, the band probably found themselves repeatedly uttering, “That’s cool!” because the album taps into the same seemingly bottomless reservoir of surrealist
creativity as their two previous off-kilter pop adventures, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. As far as the name of the record itself, the 45-year-old Pied Piper acknowledges the title ultimately took on political undertones, but that was not the initial intention. He explains, “As recoding went along, it seemed to become more politically relevant. It was just kind of a freaky, psychedelic title that was more about mystics and warlocks that had to do more with magic than mystics in the sense of this religious war that’s going on now in this country with Bush and the Christian right wing. These sorts of debates are starting to be kind of heated and people are starting to have opinions about it, so it’s just by sheer dumb luck that it’s timely. I think it was going to be called that even if Bush had been impeached.”

While Coyne often receives the lion’s share of the band’s glory, any casual fan of the band knows that The Flaming Lips’ not-so-secret weapon is the multi-instrumentalist wunderkind, Steven Drozd, who joined the lineup in 1991. Even while wrestling with heroin addiction he has since overcome, Drozd shared in the Lips’ prolific writing output with Coyne. The two complement one another with a different set of artistic strengths and interests. Coyne elaborates, “With me and Steven, he’s always writing songs and I’m always writing songs. His ideas never necessarily have the lyrics or the total functioning form to them, but they have these great bits that he’s put together. It’s in a slightly free-form way that it could go. My songs are always very simple. The lyrics, chords, and melody all get played at the same time. My songs always tend to be simpler and Steven’s tend to flow with musicality and color. His tend to need my input in terms of structure. In the way that we like to do things, it works out perfect because he’s doing exactly what he likes and I’m doing exactly what I like. We think of ourselves as more of a production team.”

Despite any messages The Flaming Lips subtly or overtly attempt to weave into the songs, the band has truly been about entertainment more than challenging the listener with cerebral pontificating. In fact, the opening of the album begins quite simply with a childlike a cappella chant of the word “Yeah” exactly 60 times in (you guessed it) “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” Though the song sparkles with a wide-eyed lyrical simplicity and sounds as though lovable Saturday morning television sock puppets are performing it, the message examines ideas about making decisions in life to benefit oneself or society at large. The verse lyrics ask, “If you could make your own money and then give it to everybody / Would you do it? / If you knew all the answers and could give to the masses / Would you do it?” Obviously, there exists a throwback hippie ideology to such beliefs that some might call naïve, but Wayne Coyne’s delivery is so earnest that no one could ever accuse him of being insincere. Moreover, the upbeat performance sounds like ten shots of espresso and one really wouldn’t have the will to say no to his musical inquiries.

As the quirky pop philosophy musing lapses into “Free Radicals,” Flaming Lips shift into a funky grind with a searing guitar that finds Coyne channeling Beck with an unstoppable, quirky falsetto. The conversational tone and lyrical references to such cultural icons as, “You’re turning into a poor man’s Donald Trump,” gives the listener the sense that the band has their its somewhere on the pulse of the underground zeitgeist. From that point, the Lips launch headfirst into a stream of consciousness experimentalism, both lyrically and musically. The band forays into futuristic Pink Floyd-tinged epics like the lush, sprawling, “The Sound of Failure / It’s Dark… Is It Always This Dark?” A series of songs whisper into existence and gradually explode into euphoric fireworks of rapturous sound. Even the heaviest messages float above the expressive terrain with jubilant optimism.

The Mystics’ track that best embodies all the hallmarks of The Flaming Lips sense of experimentalism while keeping a foot in confectionary pop is the first single, “The W.A.N.D.” He recalls, “When we rehearsed ‘The W.A.N.D.,’ stylistically and production-wise, it was kind of funky. It sounds like Black Sabbath meets Herbie Hancock or something. Some of that came kind of by accident because we were intending to play a prog rock riff, not knowing if it was going to turn into anything. It didn’t have any lyrics to it, but it was a nice piece of music. We took it out a couple of months later and turned it into more of a song.” In his celebrated career, Coyne has always found that there exist specific moments of epiphany that guide the vision of any artwork. He muses, “Those are great magic moments, when you realize that’s what you need. You have to think and imagine every step of the way or it usually becomes a lot more predictable because it’s happening inside your mind instead of just things happening as you experience them.”

What differentiates the group from other artists is not only the members’ desire to cross-pollinate previously inconceivable styles (unless fusing a jazz piano icon’s creamy playing with Tony Iommi’s chainsaw riffage is old hat to someone), but also making the results very much their own. No one would ever consider the points of reference when listening to the joyfully anthemic single that sets hands a-clapping and toes a-tapping. Coyne is quick to credit his entire team for the unprecedented success that his “little band that could” from Oklahoma has been able to achieve in terms of realizing his abstract ideas. He realizes, “Now I see the way we work is really different. We don’t really think of ourselves as a band. I have song and production ideas and a vision of what I’m trying to do and through Steven, Michael [Ivins, Flaming Lips bassist] and Dave Fridmann [Flaming Lips longtime producer]. We’re all contributing to the idea, for better or worse. So, I can show up with a very minimal skeleton of something I feel like we can work on, knowing that everybody wants to contribute. It really allows you to work on the smallest little thing and know that it could become something. Whether it’s good or not, who really knows? But, it does give you a lot of freedom and a lot of ways you can work.”

In a beautiful close to the album, The Flaming Lips offer, “Goin’ On,” which resembles a life-affirming secular hymn. The message reflects about making the most we have with our limited amount of time on Earth, which is an ongoing theme in Coyne’s lyrics. He certainly lives his message by example working relentlessly to bring happiness to the army of Flaming Lips devotees throughout the world (and possibly beyond). Not since U2’s third album has War sounded so wonderful.

At War With The Mystics
Warner Bros.

Psychedelic Soldiers Flaming Lips At War With The Mystics

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