The Flaming Lips
- © Michelle Martin Coyne
- © Michelle Martin Coyne
- © Michelle Martin Coyne
- © Michael Lavine
- © J. Michelle Martin
The Flaming Lips are an American rock band formed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1983. Instrumentally, their sound contains lush, multi-layered, psychedelic rock arrangements, but lyrically their compositions show elements of space rock, including unusual song and album titles—such as "What Is the Light? (An Untested Hypothesis Suggesting That the Chemical by Which We Are Able to Experience the Sensation of Being in Love Is the Same Chemical That Caused the "Big Bang" That Was the Birth of the Accelerating Universe)". They are also acclaimed for their elaborate live shows, which feature costumes, balloons, puppets, video projections, complex stage light configurations, giant hands, large amounts of confetti, and frontman Wayne Coyne's signature man-sized plastic bubble, in which he traverses the audience. In 2002, Q magazine named The Flaming Lips one of the "50 Bands to See Before You Die."
The band is best known for its associations with 1960s and 1970s psychedelic subculture, with elements of this culture permeating the group's instrumentation, effects, and composition. Coyne's lyrics, in particular, both reference and embody the fascination with the science fiction and space opera genres of fiction that were popular during the golden age of psychedelic subculture. His lyrical style tends to use the imagery and plot conventions of space opera to frame more abstract themes about the unfolding cycles of romantic love, highlighting its vulnerability while delving into its metaphysical implications.
The group recorded several albums and EPs on an indie label, Restless, in the 1980s and early 1990s. After signing to Warner Brothers, they scored a hit in 1993 with "She Don't Use Jelly". Although it has been their only hit single in the U.S., the band has maintained critical respect and, to a lesser extent, commercial viability through albums such as 1999's The Soft Bulletin (which was NME magazine's Album of the Year) and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. They have had more hit singles in the UK and Europe than in the U.S. In February 2007, they were nominated for a 2007 BRIT Award in the "Best International Act" category. By 2007, the group garnered three Grammy Awards, including two for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
The Flaming Lips formed in Norman, Oklahoma in 1983 with Wayne Coyne on guitar, his brother Mark singing lead vocals and Michael Ivins on bass guitar. The band debuted at Oklahoma City's Blue Note Lounge. After going through a host of different drummers, Richard English joined the band in 1984. That same year they recorded their only release with Mark Coyne singing lead vocals–The Flaming Lips.
After his brother's departure, Wayne assumed the vocal duties and the band released their first full-length album, Hear It Is, on Pink Dust Records (the psychedelic-rock imprint of Enigma Records) in 1986. This line-up recorded two more albums: 1987's Oh My Gawd!!! and 1989's Telepathic Surgery, the latter originally planned to be a 30-minute sound collage.
Nathan Roberts replaced English and Jonathan Donahue (also a member of the alternative rock band Mercury Rev) joined in 1989. In a Priest Driven Ambulance, their first album with producer Dave Fridmann, was recorded at the State University of New York in Fredonia for $5 an hour on a $10,000 budget. The album was host to a marked expansion in the band's sound and their previous experiments in tape loops and effects were given a more prominent role. During this period, Coyne made his transition to a higher, more strained vocal style akin to Neil Young, which he first used on Telepathic Surgery's "Chrome Plated Suicide" and has employed ever since.
In 1990 the band caught the attention of Warner Bros. Records and were signed promptly after a representative of the label witnessed a show at which the band almost burned down the venue (American Legion Hall in Norman, Oklahoma) with the use of pyrotechnics.
In 1992, the band released their major label debut Hit to Death in the Future Head. After the recording of this album Donahue left the band to concentrate on Mercury Rev and Roberts left the band as well, citing creative differences. They were replaced by Ronald Jones and Steven Drozd respectively.
In 1993, they released Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. This was the only studio album since In a Priest Driven Ambulance to date in which Dave Fridmann has not been involved. Because of the success of the album and the single "She Don't Use Jelly", the band was featured on five popular television series: Beverly Hills, 90210, the Late Show with David Letterman, Charmed and Beavis and Butt-head. The success of this record led to long stints of touring, opening for bands including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Candlebox.
Clouds Taste Metallic was released to much critical fanfare in late 1995, though it did not achieve the commercial success of its predecessor. The strain of the year-long Clouds tour, added to the stress from the three years touring in support of Transmissions, was a major factor in the departure of Ronald Jones in late 1996. He was said to be suffering from a severe case of agoraphobia, although the documentary Fearless Freaks states that he left because of his growing concerns over Drozd's drug use.
The departure of Jones and a general dissatisfaction with standard "rock" music led to the three remaining members of the group to redefine the direction of the band with the experimental Zaireeka (1997), a four-CD album which is intended to be heard by playing all four CDs in four separate CD players simultaneously. The music incorporated both traditional musical elements and "found" sounds (as in musique concrète), often heavily manipulated with recording studio electronics.
As part of the development of this project, the band conducted a series of "parking lot experiments" and then later, "boombox experiments". In the parking lot experiments up to 40 volunteers were given cassettes created by the band to be played at a parking lot in their cars' stereo systems simultaneously. In the "boom box experiments" an orchestra composed of up to 40 volunteers with modified "boombox"-type tape players was "conducted" – directed to vary the volume, speed or tone of the tape they were playing (again composed by the band) – by Wayne Coyne.
In the meanwhile, a series of unfortunate incidents (recounted in the 1999 song "The Spiderbite Song") beset the band. Drozd's arm was almost amputated needlessly because of what he claimed was a spider bite (it turned out to be abscessed as a result of Drozd's heroin use), Ivins was trapped in his car for several hours after a wheel spun off of another vehicle into his windshield, and Coyne's father died after a long battle with cancer.
Though their experimental endeavors received some press coverage, their real breakthrough came with the 1999 release, The Soft Bulletin. Marrying more traditional catchy melodies with synthetic strings, hypnotic, carefully manipulated beats, booming cymbals and oddball but philosophical lyrics (sung much more strongly than on earlier releases), the album quickly became one of the underground hits of the year, even widely considered to be one of the best albums of the entire decade.
Compared by many music critics to The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds because of its inclusion of harmonies and orchestrated sounds, The Soft Bulletin also featured greater use of synthesizers, drum machines, sound effects and more studio manipulation. After this album was released, Coyne stated that, "if someone was to ask me what instrument do I play, I would say the recording studio." The band considered an attempt to recreate this complex album live solely with additional musicians to be complex and expensive, the group decided to tour as a three-piece and make extensive use of pre-recorded music to fill out those parts that were not performed live by the members of the band. Perhaps most notably, this led to the decision to have the drummer Drozd play primarily keyboards and guitar live instead of the drums. This, in turn, led to a decision to utilize video recordings and projections of Steven playing the drums for some of the band's older songs.
To enhance the live experience for their audience and to accurately reproduce the sound of The Soft Bulletin live, the Lips devised the concept of the "Headphone Concert". A low-powered FM transmitter was set up at shows, and the concert was simultaneously broadcast to small Walkman-style receivers and headphones made available for free to audience members. This would, in theory, allow the audiences greater sonic clarity while still feeling the power of a full live P.A.. This concept was debuted in Dallas, Texas and at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas in March 1999, and was subsequently used on the International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue tour. This tour featured Japanese band Cornelius, Sebadoh, Robyn Hitchcock, Sonic Boom's E.A.R. and IQU.
Three years later, in the summer of 2002, The Flaming Lips joined bands Cake and Modest Mouse on the Unlimited Sunshine Tour. They also released the full-length Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots to much critical acclaim. Featuring guest musician Yoshimi P-We and demonstrating more use of electronic instruments and computer manipulation than The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi is widely considered to be The Flaming Lips' first critical and commercial success after nearly twenty years as a band. The final track on the album, "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)" earned a 2003 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, and the album was certified gold on April 10, 2006. In March 2007, the band revealed that they have recently teamed up with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to produce a Broadway musical based on the album.
In January 2012, Pitchfork TV released a forty-five minute documentary on The Soft Bulletin. The documentary featured several rare archival photos and videos along with interviews from the members, producer Dave Fridmann, and manager Scott Booker.
Both The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots have been released on DVD-Audio.
Following the success of "Yoshimi", Steven Drozd completed rehab for heroin addiction. This decision was spurred by a physical altercation between Drozd and Wayne Coyne.
Shortly after Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips released two EPs in the same vein of their previous album's robotic theme which containing remixed songs from Yoshimi, Fight Test and Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell. They also appeared on the track "Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)" on the Thievery Corporation album The Cosmic Game. In 2002 they were invited to work in the studio with The Chemical Brothers, they produce together the single called The Golden Path, included in Chemical Brothers compilation album Singles 93-03. In this song, the lead vocals were performed by Steven Drozd with Wayne Coyne performing harmony vocals.
In 2002, they performed as the opening act, as well as the backup band for singer Beck on his Sea Change tour. In the summer of 2004, it was announced that The Flaming Lips would appear among the headliners on the 2004 Lollapalooza tour, alongside such artists as Sonic Youth and Morrissey; however, the tour was canceled because of lack of revenue. Also in 2004, the band recorded the song "SpongeBob and Patrick Confront the Psychic Wall of Energy" for the soundtrack of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Following the concerts' cancellation, the band entered Tarbox Road Studio with producer Dave Fridmann and began work on their eleventh album, the more organic-sounding At War with the Mystics. The record, aimed to be a more guitar-based and heavier effort than recent albums, featured more politically conscious lyrics than any of their previous releases, and was released in April 2006 to a mixed yet mostly positive reception.
In 2005 the band was the subject of a documentary called Fearless Freaks, featuring appearances by other artists and celebrities such as Gibby Haynes, The White Stripes, Beck, Christina Ricci, Liz Phair, Juliette Lewis, Steve Burns, Starlight Mints, and Adam Goldberg. In that same year, The Flaming Lips contributed a version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" to the album Killer Queen: A Tribute to Queen. Also in this year, The Flaming Lips released the DVD VOID (Video Overview in Deceleration), which chronicles all of their ventures into music video that have been produced since they signed with Warner Bros in 1991. In October 2005, The Flaming Lips recorded a cover of "If I Only Had a Brain" for the soundtrack of the video game Stubbs the Zombie, which features modern rock bands covering songs from the 1950s and 1960s. Additionally, the band released one new song, "Mr. Ambulance Driver", for the soundtrack of the 2005 film Wedding Crashers (a slightly edited version of the song found its way on the new record).
The band released two singles from At War With the Mystics: "The W.A.N.D.", which was featured in a Dell commercial and which was originally put out as a download-only single in early 2006, and "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", which became their highest-charting single on the UK Singles Chart, peaking at No. 16. A 4-track EP, entitled It Overtakes Me, was released later in the UK that year. The only instrumental on the album, "The Wizard Turns On... The Giant Silver Flashlight and Puts on His Werewolf Moccasins", earned a 2006 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, making it twice in a row the Lips have been nominated in that category and won.
Following the April 4, 2006 release of At War with the Mystics, the band began a tour to support the album in the United Kingdom, including a finale at the Royal Albert Hall and performances at the O2 Wireless Festival. At the Leeds England date of the festival, the band opened for The Who, of whom they are long standing fans.
The band continued to tour throughout the fall of 2006 stopping in Montreal, the Virgin Festival on the Toronto Islands, Atlantic City's House of Blues, The University of Vermont in Burlington, their hometown Oklahoma City, the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and New York City, NY as well as several other cities. The homecoming show in Oklahoma City was performed at the Zoo Amphitheater and included the unveiling of a new UFO stage prop, and would provide footage for the U.F.O.s at the Zoo concert DVD.
On December 5, 2006, Oklahoma City honored the band with a downtown alley named after the band. Vince Gill and Charlie Christian were also given street names by the city. Flaming Lips Alley is at the center of Oklahoma City's entertainment district, Bricktown. At the official dedication in 2007, Coyne said of Oklahoma City, "...We're on the way to becoming, I think, the fucking coolest city in America."
In 2001, The Flaming Lips began filming a low-budget indie film entitled Christmas on Mars. Filming for the movie ended in late September 2005 and premiered on May 25, 2008 at the Sasquatch! Music Festival. The film tells the story of the first Christmas of a colony set-up on the surface of Mars and was written by Wayne Coyne, and co-directed by Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury, with the band and their friends acting in the movie.
The band brought the film to rock festivals across America during the summer of 2008 and screened it in a large circus tent they had bought for that purpose. The film was released on DVD on November 11, 2008, along with a soundtrack written and performed by The Flaming Lips.
The band released their first live concert DVD, UFO's at the Zoo: The Legendary Concert in Oklahoma City, on August 7, 2007. The band also contributed original songs to the soundtracks of several 2007 films, including "The Supreme Being Teaches Spider-Man How to be in Love" for Spider-Man 3, "I Was Zapped by the Super Lucky Rainbow" for Good Luck Chuck, "Love the World You Find" for Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, and "Maybe I'm Not the One" and "Tale of the Horny Frog" for The Heartbreak Kid.
In March 2009 "Do You Realize??" was announced as the official rock song of Oklahoma. Ten choices were put to a public vote, and out of 21,000 votes cast nearly 51% were for "Do You Realize??" The Oklahoma Senate approved this choice unanimously. The Oklahoma House of Representatives failed to confirm the choice after Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City attacked the band for its use of offensive language, and Rep. Corey Holland, R-Marlow said he had been "really offended" when Michael Ivins came to the announcement ceremony in March wearing a red T-shirt with a yellow hammer and sickle. However, that evening Oklahoma governor Brad Henry announced he would sign an executive order naming the song the official rock song. Henry said that for more than 20 years the Flaming Lips have produced "creative, fun and provocative rock music." "The music of the Flaming Lips has earned Grammys, glowing critical acclaim and fans all over the world", the governor said. "A truly iconic rock n' roll band, they are proud ambassadors of their home state... They were clearly the people's choice, and I intend to honor that vote."
In 2009, the band released their twelfth studio album and first double album, Embryonic. The album, which was the band's first to open in the Billboard top 10, was widely critically acclaimed for its new direction. In December of the same year, the band released their second album of the year and thirteenth overall, The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon a track-for-track cover of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, which was recorded with Stardeath and White Dwarfs and features guest appearances from Henry Rollins and Peaches. The album was released physically on vinyl and CD in 2010.
In January 2011, the Lips announced their intention of releasing a new song every month of the year. In February, they released the first track titled "Two Blobs Fucking". The song exists as 12 separate pieces on YouTube and must be played simultaneously to be heard as intended.
In March 2011, the Lips released the EP The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian. In April, the band released the Gummy Song Skull EP, a seven pound skull made of gummy bear material with a gummy brain, which contained a flashdrive with 4 songs on them. This release was extremely limited, but was soon leaked on the internet shortly after its release.
In May, the band released its second collaboration EP titled The Flaming Lips with Prefuse 73. It contains four songs and was released in a similar way to the earlier Neon Indian EP, in that the run was extremely limited and consisted of randomly colored, one of a kind discs. This EP was briefly available on the band's official website but sold out shortly after it was put up for sale.
June saw several releases by the band, the first being The Soft Bulletin: Live la Fantastique de Institution 2011, a live-in-studio recording of the band's 1999 album The Soft Bulletin which was on a flash drive embedded in a marijuana-flavored brain inside a strawberry flavored gummy skull. This was only released at the band's two night show at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on June 14 and 15. This show was a special two-night, one morning event in which they played the entirety of The Soft Bulletin one night and a new revamped version of The Dark Side of the Moon and collaborated with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros for a performance of "Do You Realize??" at dawn of the second day. Also included on this flash drive was a best-of compilation titled Everyone You Know Someday Will Die. It included songs from every portion of the band's career as well as a newly recorded intro. The final June release was the Gummy Song Fetus EP which consisted of three songs on a flash drive embedded in a bubblegum-flavored fetus made of gummy bear material.
In July, the band released The Flaming Lips with Lightning Bolt, a collaborative EP with experimental rock group Lightning Bolt, featuring the songs "I Wanna Get High But I Don't Want Brain Damage" and "Working at NASA on Acid." This EP was released on randomly colored vinyl as with the previous two collaborative EPs.
In late August, the band announced that it would be recording a six-hour-long song titled "I Found a Star on the Ground". This, along with two other songs, were released in September packaged with a set of spinning discs with animations on them. This release is officially called Strobo Trip. Featured in "I Found a Star on the Ground" is Sean Lennon who, with his band, opened for the Lips in early 2011. In the song Lennon reads off several lists of names of people who donated $100 to the Oklahoma City SPCA and Academy of Contemporary Music at University of Central Oklahoma. 212 names are featured in the song.
At midnight October 31, 2011, a 24-hour song was released titled "7 Skies H3". The song plays live on a never-ending audio stream on a special web site set up by the band and was made available for purchase as a hard drive encased in an actual human skull, limited to 13 copies.
With their previous contract with Warner Bros. Records having expired in 2011, the band re-signed to Warner Bros. for the United States and to Bella Union in Europe in early 2012. The first release under these new deals was The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, initially released as a limited edition vinyl-only package for Record Store Day on April 21. The album features collaborations with artists such as Kesha, Nick Cave, and Erykah Badu. In an interview with American Songwriter, Coyne stated that "Since we were releasing music every month, we thought it would be a little bit boring for us each month to say 'Well here's four more Flaming Lips songs.' We just thought 'Well we'll get some of our friends, and we'll do collaborations and see what happens.'" The album later received a wider release on CD and digitally on June 26 in the US and July 30 in Europe.
The Flaming Lips broke Jay-Z's Guinness World Record for the most live concerts (8) in 24 hours, on June 27 and 28, 2012. The attempt was part of the O Music Awards, and was Livestreamed online for the entire 24 hours. The attempt started in Memphis on the afternoon of June 27 and ended in New Orleans on the afternoon of June 28, with 20 minutes to spare. The band played with guests including Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Neon Indian, Linear Downfall and Phantogram among others.
The concerts, which were required to be at least 15 minutes long, as per Guinness rules, featured a mix of special covers, songs rarely or never performed live by the band before, and new songs from Heady Fwends.
In November 2012 the band's Lovely Sorts of Death Records released a collaborative track-by-track reinterpretation of King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King with Stardeath and White Dwarfs, Linear Downfall, New Fumes, and Space Face entitled Playing Hide and Seek with the Ghosts of Dawn on vinyl and on their own 'Satellite Heart Radio' website.
The band's most recent studio album, titled The Terror, was originally due for release on April 2, 2013 in the US and on April 1 in Europe. Due to a corruption while mastering the record on vinyl, the US release was delayed for two weeks, until April 16.
In anticipation of the album's release their song, "Sun Blows Up Today", was featured in a Hyundai Super Bowl XLVII commercial. The band also released a lyric video on Video on YouTube for "Sun Blows Up Today" with animations created by long-time Lips collaborator George Salisbury. The band premiered the new album live at a free outdoor concert at SXSW on March 15, 2013.
Critical reception of the album has tended to focus on its thematic bleakness and the turgid noisiness of its instrumentation. Like the three albums often referred to as "a trilogy" accounting for the majority of the band's mainstream production over the past 15 years (consisting of The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and At War With the Mystics), The Terror adheres to the love story/space opera narrative structure while taking a much darker approach. As noted in a review by Pitchfork, "The Terror deals in more personal turmoil– loneliness, depression, anxiety... Perhaps not coincidentally, the album was preceded by news of Coyne's separation from his partner of 25 years, Michelle, and of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsing temporarily."
Jon Pareles of The New York Times summarized the thematic content of the album fairly succinctly when he wrote, "The lyrics find cosmic repercussions in a lovers' breakup; loneliness turns to contemplation of grim human compulsions and the end of the universe." Another critic goes so far as to say that the album underlines the Lacanian psychodynamics structurally inherent in the conventions of the Space Opera.
Wayne Coyne's own description of his process or the theme of the album jives well with this critical diagnosis:
"We want, or wanted, to believe that without love we would disappear, that love, somehow, would save us that, yeah, if we have love, give love and know love, we are truly alive and if there is no love, there would be no life. The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on... we just go on... there is no mercy killing."
In November 2013 they produced and curated "The Time Has Come To Shoot You Down…What A Sound," a reworking of the Stone Roses' debut album featuring New Fumes, Space Face, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, Foxygen, Peaking Lights, Polica and others.
In March 2014, longtime drummer Kliph Scurlock left the band. In May, Scurlock claimed he had been fired for negative comments about Wayne Coyne's friend Christina Fallin, the daughter of Oklahoma's governor and leader of a band called Pink Pony. Fallin had recently been criticized for cultural appropriation after she wore a Native American headdress in a publicity photo. According to Scurlock, his criticism of Fallin's actions led to conflict with Coyne and his dismissal. In response, Drozd said, "his Lips/Kliph bullshit has gone too far. We parted ways because of the usual band musical differences. The rest has been blown way out." Coyne went even further, calling Scurlock a "pathological liar" and stated that he never meant his defense of Fallin, which included posting a photo of his dog in a feathered headdress, to be offensive but "if I offended anybody of any religion, any race, any belief system. I would say you shouldn't follow my tweets; you shouldn't even probably want to be a Flaming Lips fan."
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