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Flaming Lips Stay True and Reach Out with 'Mystics'

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Speaker: They're backstage and ready to go. Please help me welcome the cool, the crazy, the fabulous--Flaming Lips!

(Soundbite of applause)


In 1994, the alternative rock group, the Flaming Lips, entered the pop mainstream after appearing on the T.V. show Beverly Hills 90210.

The FLAMING LIPS (Rock Group): (Singing "She Don't Use Jelly") She don't use jelly or any of these. She uses Vaseline...

MONTAGNE: That appearance helped raise the band above cult status, but its popularity never climbed much higher. Now, after major changes in personnel and in their sound, the Flaming Lips have a new album.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Recently, the front man for Flaming Lips, Wayne Coyne, and band member Steven Drozd, played some of their songs and spoke with music journalist Ashley Kahn.

ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

Listening to a Flaming Lips song is a bit like getting stuck between stations on the FM dial. Catchy melody...

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing "Haven't Got a Clue") You haven't got a clue...

KAHN: Driving rhythm...

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) You don't know what to do...

KAHN: Strange distortion...

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) You used your money...

KAHN: Static and air raid sirens.

(Soundbite of air raid siren)

Mr. WAYNE COYNE (Lead Singer, Flaming Lips): Hello, everybody. This is Wayne. I sing and blow up balloons for the Flaming Lips and this is...

Mr. STEVEN DROZD (Band Member, Flaming Lips): I'm Steven from the Flaming Lips and I play assorted instruments. We're all obsessed with any sound we can get our hands on, and so, you just pile a bunch of stuff on and see what sounds cool and what doesn't.

(Soundbite of various sounds)

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd are two-thirds of the Flaming Lips, a music group from Oklahoma City that also includes bassist Michael Ivins.

Mr. COYNE: Michael is, sort of, more involved in the, sort of, technical parts of it and...

Mr. DROZD: And then, live, we have a guy named Kliph Scurlock who's probably our biggest Flaming Lips fan I've ever met probably...

Mr. COYNE: (Unintelligible) yeah.

Mr. DROZD: Actually plays drums with us now live.

KAHN: In their 22-year history, they've evolved from a punk band to what they are today: a creative sound laboratory.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing "Free Radicals") You think you're so radical. I think you oughta stop. Say what!

KAHN: Coyne is the guiding force behind the Flaming Lips, which he founded in 1984.

Mr. COYNE: 1984--two words: amateur and enthusiastic.

Mr. DROZD: Right.

Mr. COYNE: Couldn't play very well but we really wanted to do it all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COYNE: Two-thousand and six...

Mr. DROZD: Endless possibilities.

Mr. COYNE: Skill, computer...

Mr. DROZD: Technology.

Mr. COYNE: Yeah, all this sort of junk, but still a lot of enthusiasm.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing "Free Radicals") Fanatical!

KAHN: Over the years, the Flaming Lips developed a cartoonish approach to songs and song titles. At times they could be outright avant-garde, like releasing an album on four CD's which were all supposed to be played at the same time.

(Soundbite of clapping)

KAHN: The new Flaming Lips album is a single CD. It's called At War With the Mystics.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: It's an album that should come with a seatbelt--a musical joyride that shifts track-by-track, from the punch of heavy metal...

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) You've got that (unintelligible)...

KAHN: To the sweetness of the 70's rock ballad.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) They only see the obvious. They see the sun go down but they don't see it rise.

KAHN: What stands out most on this album, though, are songs that take a stand on today's political issues.

Mr. COYNE: We started putting this thing on that felt like it could be an absurd song--definitely pointed, if you so wanted to read it that way, into a political, sort of, George Bush bashing, if you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would you do it? Goes like this, right?

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COYNE: (Singing "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song") If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would you do it?

Mr. COYNE: And then Steven says...

Mr. DROZD: (Singing "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song") Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. COYNE: (Laughs) (Singing) If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it?

Mr. COYNE and Mr. DROZD: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song") If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back, would you do it? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. If you could take all the love without givin' any back, would you do it? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And so we cannot...

Mr. COYNE: But I think as much as we're pointing it at George Bush, we also point it directly at ourselves, and I think what we learn from that is that you don't want to ever be given power. You want to earn it. You know, you think that having all this freedom and all this money and all this power, or you can do whatever you want, would be the best thing that ever happened to you--and it's not.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song") With all your power, with all your power, with all your power, what would you do?

KAHN: The Flaming Lips' story is not complete without mentioning their legendary live shows.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

KAHN: Their concerts can include confetti and costumes, lots of balloons, and a moment of collective karaoke as the words to a well-known song by the group Queen are flashed on a huge video screen overhead.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) To me...

Unidentified Speaker: C'mon (unintelligible) we gotta sing along. C'mon you guys.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COYNE: I beg the audience to just play along and as a group, we can all do this thing that really makes for a marvelous moment and we hope at a Flaming Lips show that we've just said, whatever you do in this room, you can do it here. We'll all look stupid together. All that what happens...

Mr. DROZD: (Unintelligible) at a Lips show stays at a Lips show, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of the Flaming Lips and crowd singing "Bohemian Rhapsody")

KAHN: When Wayne Coyne tells his fans that he loves them, it's not the usual stage cliché. He means it. The Flaming Lips have been too long in the periphery of popular focus, and their new CD has all the elements to change that--hooks, lines and sirens.

The FLAMING LIPS: (Singing "Mr. Ambulance Driver") Mr. Ambulance Driver, I'm not a real survivor. I'm wishin' I was the one that wasn't gonna be here anymore.

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is the author of the soon-to-be published 'The House That Train Built: The Story of Impulse Records.' The new Flaming Lips CD is 'At War With the Mystics.'

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.