Cover Story [Issue
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 Silvers 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 Pennys Easter pageant, and throw
heaps of confetti in amounts that Rip Taylor would call, a bit excessive.
That being said, Coynes 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 regions 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 its
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, Thats 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,
Thats 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 thats
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 its just by sheer dumb luck that its timely. I think
it was going to be called that even if Bush had been impeached.
While Coyne often receives the lions share of the bands 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, hes always writing songs and Im always writing
songs. His ideas never necessarily have the lyrics or the total functioning form
to them, but they have these great bits that hes put together. Its
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 Stevens 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 hes doing exactly what he likes and Im
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 Coynes 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 wouldnt
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, Youre turning into a poor mans
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 / Its 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 didnt 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 thats what
you need. You have to think and imagine every step of the way or it usually becomes
a lot more predictable because its 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 icons creamy playing with Tony Iommis 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 dont
really think of ourselves as a band. I have song and production ideas and a vision
of what Im trying to do and through Steven, Michael [Ivins, Flaming Lips
bassist] and Dave Fridmann [Flaming Lips longtime producer]. Were 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 its 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 Coynes 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 U2s third album has War sounded
At War With The Mystics