CULTURE- INTERVIEW- Flamers: Being whatever they want to be
When Syd Barrett died in July, it was as a tragic lump of largely unfulfilled potential: a diabetic, schizophrenic, and possibly autistic wreck who had been all but excommunicated from his own band. But anyone who could birth such an inspiringly progressive rock band as Pink Floyd deserves the benefit of the doubt, and one can't help but wonder what miracles Barrett's musical mind might have been able to create if it hadn't been eaten by his other lobes over the course of the last three decades.
In contrast, the wobbly pop of the Flaming Lips visits us this week as a shining example of what mild mental illness should mean to rock and roll: witness Zaireeka, the four-disc 1997 album composed for simultaneous playback on four separate stereo systems; the January 2003 performance in which singer Wayne Coyne ripped the head from the bass-playing dolphin on stage to reveal sweaty, blistered-fingered guest performer Justin Timberlake; or the tour during which remote-controlled vibrating panties were distributed to female audience members and then synchronized with the lights and music.
These days, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, a brilliant 2002 concept album about an ass-kicking Japanese ninja schoolgirl, has given way to At War With The Mystics, a politically ambitious fireball of vagueries that is at once both light-hearted and driven. But, as bassist Michael Ivins tells us, it's only hard to explain because it's so remarkably easy to understand– even if the interpretation might vary from one listener to the next.
Syd, if you're up there, you better be taking notes.
The Hook: Do you feel that this album has a greater sense of purpose, however imprecisely defined, than your previous ones?
Michael Ivins: I think that records take a year after they come out to gain their actual identity. We can know what we were thinking and what was happening at the time and what went into them, but when records go out in the world, they also get shaped by people listening to them.
As we've made records over the years, more and more as they're being written we have a running commentary. Not that notes are being jotted down, but things will happen in the real world that change our perceptions of the song even as they're recorded.
But I don't think that on the whole this record is intrinsically any deeper. We've been dealing with the deep issues for a while– death and love and why you get up in the morning and go on. People talk about how there's a little more of a political thread running through this, but I don't think that's a stretch in any way. A lot of the stuff we talk about is about you living with yourself. Politics isn't about congressmen; it's about people living together.
The Hook: Your ability to not take yourselves too seriously is very impressive. What's the hardest part about balancing that with artistic or political purposes?
Michael Ivins: I don't look at it as balance. That's just who we are. Of course, there's a little bit of a filter– a reality TV show is not always reality, and once you observe something, just the act of observing it changes the event intrinsically. But, basically, what you see is what you get. If you want to call it a balance, we can be political and pissed off that things didn't seem to go our way in 2004 and stunned more than half the country, but we can have a good time at the same time.
As you're living, you can't be a curmudgeon all the time. You have to have some fun. Whatever you're doing, if stuff goes bad or doesn't go your way, you just have to be able to relax and say, "Okay, here we go. This is ridiculous. We'll try to see the humor in it." It should make you appreciate being alive so much more.
The Hook: One of the articles in your press kit recounts a disagreement between you and Wayne about whether it's a protest record. Have you settled that?
Michael Ivins: It really could be either way. Sometimes I like to go a little more militant with the whole thing. You could look at the title a couple of different ways.
On the one hand, it makes you think of wizards and warlocks and unicorns and all this fun stuff, and magic, symbolic of a battle you may have within yourself. But mystics are also the people in the world who are in great positions of power in our government, or who want to kill us because of some arbitrary beliefs.
We didn't write any songs specifically about "We hate George Bush." A lot of people pick up on "Haven't Got A Clue" and think it's about that, but it's actually more about railing against a state of mind. Or even "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song"– that may sound like a protest song, but it's really asking the people who are up in arms– us included– "You have all these ideas, what would you actually do?"
The Hook: Your ties to Oklahoma City are well known, but you don't share the typical conservative values of that region. What's the hardest part about representing it in pop culture?
Michael Ivins: We don't let it bother us. That would be weird thinking for us. We're 16, 25, 35, 45– why should we think that just because a place has these certain values, we should have them as well? That's what's great, or what should be great, about America. People don't choose, "I'm radical, so I'm going to move to San Francisco." On the whole, I don't think people think, "I'm going to go live with people who think like I do."
The Hook: The Lips are not the first band that comes to mind when most people think of highly motivated music– you're certainly not Dylan or Public Enemy, I mean. Do you think your unique aesthetic identity enables you to do anything different with the message?
Michael Ivins: I think we're more open-ended, not only lyrically, but in our songcraft. There don't have to be any rules. It may sound strange, but I think we identify most with the punk rock movement from the late '70s. I think just the idea that it's music and it can be whatever we want. It doesn't have to sonically or lyrically stand up to any sort of criteria. That definitely allows us to be a little freer with expressing ourselves.
The Flaming Lips
THE FLAMING LIPS