BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The Norman club was a closet, anyway. The throng of
collegiates, practically perspiring beer, willingly
wriggled inch-by-inch through the door, compressing into
the raunchy space and straining to see, to be seen, to hear
what was going on. The typically laid-back Norman music
fans were desperate, wild-eyed, clawing over each other's
backs to see a band. A local band, no less.
It was 1992, and the hometown Flaming Lips had recently
signed to a major label, Warner Bros., and, to everyone's
great relief, they hadn't sold out or lost their edge. In
fact, they'd gotten tighter. Their Warner Bros. debut, "Hit
to Death in the Future Head," focused and even magnified the
band's off-kilter squeak-rock, its purposeful and
orchestrated distortion, its kaleidoscopic lyrical visions.
A bonus track even featured 29 minutes of stereo static.
It was a Lips experience: enthralling, frightening,
daring in its wizardry and sheer mass. When Steven Drozd's
drums rolled and crashed on "Hold Your Head," it seemed that
the world would end in that crummy little dive.
The softest bullet ever shot
Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips' de facto leader and chief
sonic architect, finally got through on his cell phone last
week. His voice was strained through the pixelized stops
and starts of cross-continental cellular transmission. Somehow, it was an
appropriate way to hear him.
"We drove from Minneapolis to Seattle yesterday," he said.
"I had some other interviews to do, and the cell phones
wouldn't even work all the way across the Dakotas and
Montana. I thought technology had invaded everywhere."
The Lips are touring in support of their latest album,
"The Soft Bulletin." It's their ninth full-length album, and
it's the most fully realized, all-encompassing, masterful
composition of the Oklahoma City-based band's 15-year
career. The fumbling experiments in sound the Lips have
conducted in the past three years pay off in breathtaking,
sweeping rushes of sound — non-musical noises made not only
musical but harmonious, delicate, emotional and enormous.
Instead of the static guitars and loose-limbed rumble
that supported the grade-A whimsy of the Lips' fluke 1993
hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," the songs on "The Soft Bulletin"
strive for other sounds — plunky pianos, perky piccolos,
nebulous noises. It's as if Coyne & Co. have mastered in
music what poets have been striving for in print for
centuries: the communication of the idea by invoking as
many of the senses as possible. In modern music, though,
Coyne said the range for that expression is quite narrow.
"The music wants to limit itself," he said, crackling
through the cellular relay towers. "Rock bands even limit
themselves, saying, 'We'll play guitars and drums and
that's all.' I've fallen into that myself in the past, and
I kick myself. I use the analogy of painting. It's like a
painter saying, 'I only use red and gray.' That's kind of
limiting. Don't you want to use anything available to
express your idea?"
Gentlemen . . . press play
Car Radio Orchestra was a Coyne experiment conducted in
a parking garage during the 1997 South by Southwest music
conference in Austin, Texas.
Up to 30 volunteered cars, including Coyne's, were led
up to the fifth floor of the garage and arranged in a
certain pattern. The drivers were instructed to open all
doors and windows and crank their stereos up as loud as
possible without distorting. They were each given a
numbered cassette, and when Coyne shouted "Go!" through his
megaphone, they all pressed play.
The first piece was titled "That's the Crotch Calling the
Devil Black," a swirl of white noise and high-pitched sounds
— different parts coming from different cars — culminating in
the breathy gasps and shouts of a lengthy female orgasm. A
second composition followed, full of pounding drums that
reverberated endlessly off the concrete ceilings and floors
like the bouncing ball on a screen saver.
Swelling synthesized music and crashing cymbals
crescendoed into manic madness, and three cars blew fuses.
Setting his sights on sound
Later that year, the Flaming Lips released "Zaireeka," a
set of four CDs designed to be played simultaneously — the
fruits of the Car Radio Orchestra trials. Fans around the
country set up four CD players around their living rooms to
indulge in this new experience in sound.
These projects were not simply the ravings of a madman
with a big budget. (Major record labels — which are giant,
profit-driven corporations — rarely release the whims of a
mischievous employee.) Coyne said he was trying to funnel
his boundless ideas into the medium in which he and he band
"To be merely imaginative isn't the cure we're looking
for," Coyne said last week, his voice distorting now like
the aural equivalent of a television screen moire. "I think
of a million ideas, but I have to have a reason as to why
this idea applies now instead of later. The space we
occupied with other bands eight or nine years ago — the
distortion, effects, no boundaries — that's been absorbed in
the mainstream culture."
"The Soft Bulletin" features numerous environmental sounds
that have been squeezed, pitched and distorted into musical
elements. Coyne was personally taken with the sound his
freezer door made when opening and closing — "this great thud
and sucking sound, familiar to anyone who's spent a
lifetime grabbing popsicles." So he recorded it and used it
as a rhythmic element.
"You can make music out of these!" he said, gleefully.
"We're building sounds out of insects and refrigerators and
using them in a sophisticated musical way. Brian Wilson
said, `I just wasn't made for these times.' I say the
opposite: these times were made for me."
Is it live?
This meticulous crafting of sounds in a recording studio
is surely innovative; this, after all, is a rock band. Rock
bands tour, play concerts. How will we hear these fantastic
noises when the Flaming Lips are onstage?
Enter the backup tape. For the current series of
concerts, the Lips are playing to a pre-recorded tape of
backing tracks and some rhythms. This is not karaoke,
though; unlike the 'N Syncs and Britney Spearses, the Lips
use the backing tracks for our benefit, not their own.
In fact, the current live show is another experiment of
Coyne's: the headphone concert. Upon entering the hall,
most concertgoers will be given a portable radio and a pair
of in-the-ear headphones. Using an FM transmitter, the band
broadcasts the backing track inside the hall, so listeners
can hear what's going in the room as well as enjoying the
more detailed mix and stereo spread through the
"Last Thanksgiving, (our manager) Scott Booker and I were
sitting around thinking about what we were going to do to
present this live," Coyne said. "We don't have Ronald Jones
(a former Lips member) who was a master at rebuilding
things, but even for him this would have been too much. So
I finally sat down and said, 'I know what we're going to
do. We'll play to a backup tape.' "
Some practice runs were scheduled at the Boar's Head
club in Oklahoma City, but Coyne said he didn't like the
way the live music sounded with the tape. He started trying
to think out of the box — how could the band present live
sound in some other way than sending their amplifier
signals through a bunch of speakers? The idea for
headphones came to him at breakfast the next day.
"It's worked, and it's something people really do like,"
he said. "The sort of thing we present, it just gives the
songs more impact. There are so many things missing when
you're standing a few feet from the stage hearing 120
decibels. We're one band you have to hear clearly to get
the full range of the experience."
Music Against Brain Degeneration Tour Featuring the
Flaming Lips with Robyn Hitchcock, Sebadoh and Sonic
Boom's E.A.R. When 7 p.m. Friday Where Will
Rogers Theater, near 44th Street and Western Avenue in
Oklahoma City Tickets $16; in Tulsa from Mohawk Music,
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.