July 8, 1999 Salon article on head Lip Wayne Coyne, around the time of The Soft Bulletin…
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne believes in the thrill of wonder, the miracle of everyday life and the extraordinary sound in his head.
For six years beginning in 1984, when the Flaming Lips wanted to make a point, they turned up their amps. They gave their songs monstrous guitar hooks, surging bass swings and huge beats, all infused with a catholic belief in the power of volume and noise. Around 1990, the band, marshaled by singer and guitarist Wayne Coyne, learned how to record, which allowed the psychedelic boho careerists to refine the noise and play around with cartoony pop for four records. A three-year set of sonic experiments followed, producing a parking lot symphony, a boombox orchestra and Zaireeka, the most adventurous record ever released by a major label – a set of four CDs engineered to play at the same time on four different machines.
The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips’ 11th full-length record, is something else. It trades insanity for practiced weirdness, the whoosh of chemicals for the brightness of everyday life. “I want you to listen to it while you’re eating a sandwich,” says Coyne about the album, talking over the phone from the Lips compound in Oklahoma City. “In some ways it’s so crazy, more so than Zaireeka. Ideas can be of all qualities. That’s the magic of music: It doesn’t have to be about complicated things.”
His music is also, for the first time, subtle. But it’s so dense, so particular, that it’s easy to blow over the surface and pass it off in one or two listens. Stick with it. Turn it up and tune into the way the harmonies bounce off one another, the complexity of the lyrics, the fragility of Coyne’s delivery. The Soft Bulletin is sophisticated pop, a children’s record for adults who still listen to music on headphones.
The Soft Bulletin, if anything, is a record about wonder, the miraculousness of the mundane and the ability of ordinary people to connect with it. It’s also about the moment of discovery, the second that an idea cuts through reason and explodes into consciousness. “The Spark That Bled” is about cinder-block realizations, the times that you feel like you’ve been hit on the head with a colossal idea. For Coyne, the ideas blare like trumpets and fire off chain reactions. This is how he puts it in the song: “I stood up and said ‘Yeah!!’/I stood up and said, ‘Hey!! Yeah!!'”
“[‘The Spark That Bled’] implies that it’s a human condition to have ideas,” says Coyne. “It’s about how ideas come through your head and how that rejuvenates you.”
He says it another way in the Zaireeka liner notes: “Sometimes this force is so great that it seems to bypass all the usual checkpoints of reasoning, striking with such impact as to make its receiver appear insane, stupid or retarded, but nonetheless invigorated.”
The genius of The Soft Bulletin is that, musically, it uses the marvels of a high-tech recording studio to evoke Coyne’s sense of wonder. Produced by the Lips – now just Coyne, drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins after the loss of lead guitarist Ronald Jones — Dave Fridmann and Scott Booker, the music sweeps and swells, brightly popping out of the speakers. Tinking piano and smooth “oohs” underline soft drum shuffles on “Waitin’ for a Superman.” Synthesizers pick up a whistle, replicate it, and trail off as it fades into the distance on “The Spiderbite Song.”
There’s a certain cinematic quality to The Soft Bulletin, something that places it alongside the Broadway dreams of Mercury Rev’s last record, Deserter’s Songs. The lyrics at times read like plot outlines. And the stories are populated by ordinary heroes: They’re not artists or geniuses, they’re everyday people caught in the throes of discovery. In “Race for the Prize,” two scientists work toward an some sort of cure “for the good of all mankind.” The key to the song is its refrain: “They’re just humans/With wives and children.” The second song, “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” picks up the storyline after the scientists have saved the world. “And though they were sad/They rescued everyone/They lifted up the sun.”
It’s as if the pop effluvia that surrounds us bores The Flaming Lips, but instead of poking holes in it, they manufacture a parallel world for themselves. If pop culture exists in their songs, it’s vintage pop characters like Superman. The group once appeared in the Peach Pit on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 at about minute 14 of their post-“She Don’t Use Jelly” fame, but its almost impossible to imagine them ever writing a song about it. They’re far more fascinated by humans, relationships and the natural world.
Bugs, for instance, are a regularly recurring theme on Lips records, from “Moth in the Incubator” on Transmissions from the Satellite Heart to “The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now” on Zaireeka. The Soft Bulletin features “The Spiderbite Song” and “Buggin'” side by side. The first is a love letter from Coyne to the band. In the second, the bugs buzz around, “fly in the air as you comb your hair.” For Coyne, writing about bugs is, yet again, an expression of wonder. “I do think normal life is extraordinary,” he says. “Without sounding like some sort of born again weirdo, I do. Bugs are … cool. I think animals and all of those creatures are great things. Sometimes they’re good analogies and good metaphors. Sometimes they’re just fun.”
The Lips might have another fluke novelty hit, but they’re never going to appeal to a huge audience. Coyne’s voice is charming if you’re a fan, but it’s prohibitively whiny for most radio. And the band’s songwriting style skews toward repeated passages, musical echoes and long codas instead of direct verse-chorus-verse structures. Even their nods to orchestral pop of the ’60s doesn’t stand a chance of softening up a mainstream audience: Pet Sounds was the worst-selling Beach Boys record when it debuted in 1966, and didn’t even go gold.
But the Lips are worth watching, partly because they follow the kind of quirky ideas and fascinating brainstorms that you have to sell. The latest brainstorm is a tour revue, “not a festival with smart drinks and stuff,” says Coyne. “I feel like the audience would rather not spend all day watching bands. It’s the summer. We hate going to these shows when all these bands play for two-and-a-half hours. This will be two-and-a-half hours and you’ll get five or six bands. These are quality acts and it will be their best songs, all the hits, with a five-minute break.”
Coyne’s quality acts include oddball Robyn Hitchcock, Japanese pop star Cornelius, electronic acts DJ Kid Loco and ICU, Finnish techno band Panasonic and Sebadoh, the indie rock band that will hugely benefit from a stopwatch. “It’s my take on a variety show,” says Coyne.
Of course a variety show won’t be enough for the Lips. Coyne is still indulging the whimsy that prompted his boombox experiments. The Lips will tour with a small, portable low-watt radio station and at each venue, they’ll pass out receivers and headphones to the crowd. As the Lips play, they’ll broadcast a live performance of themselves to the radios. (Cornelius did a similar experiment in Japan, but he used the radio to add additional tracks to the stage sounds.)
“I did a lot of experimenting at home,” says Coyne. “When I go to a concert it’s the worst sound that I hear. We won’t do additional tracks. What you’ll hear is what you hear out of the speakers with a subtle EQ. It’s really is fun – it makes people involved. And people like it because they can go to the bathroom without missing a song.