Imaginative Flaming Lips go after the Bush presidency


virgin festival

September 21, 2006|By Rashod Ollison

The trip is usually worth the wait.

Every four years or so when the Flaming Lips release a new album, the art-rock band takes you on a downright crazy ride full of imaginative peaks and plunges. Ablaze with disparate textures and colors, the group's sonic adventures have been going strong now for more than 20 years.

And they keep getting freakier.

On At War with the Mystics, the Lips' latest CD, the Oklahoma trio does its usual thing: haphazardly melding styles ranging from funk to punk with quirky stops in between. Every time I put the album on, it sounds altogether different.

I share this with Wayne Coyne, the group's figurehead, when I call him on his cell phone at a hotel in Charlottesville, Va. "I take that as a compliment," says the singer-songwriter-guitarist. He and his bandmates - drummer and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins - play the Virgin Festival by Virgin Mobile on Saturday. "I think any artists who want to challenge themselves don't want to make the same music over and over. We like going all over the place. It can be a little bit of danger, though. The audience may get confused and wonder what type of band you are."

Rock lovers have been wondering that for years. But the Lips somehow make their strange musical concoctions accessible. For all the noise-making and style-mismatching, there's usually a strong melody underneath, a catchy pop hook. Though not as thematically tight as the group's last album, 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, At War With the Mystics is emotionally direct but playful. Where lyrically Yoshimi delved into mortality and the fight between good and evil forces, the new album deals with the shadiness of George Bush's presidency and the perpetuation of inanity in American pop culture. Not exactly sunny topics, sure. But the Lips' zany, intergalactic approach gives it all a certain lightness. The band never comes off as too self-important.

"We sound like a kind of drugged-out, radical protest band from out of space," says Coyne, 45. "We don't say it specifically, but there's an air of frustration in some of the songs. I don't want to make it sound like George Bush is controlling us. All of our songs go back and question our own authority and our own power. The only person you know truly and honestly is yourself. The music just reflects that."

At War, whose splashy orange cover looks like art from a vintage comic book, pulls off the trick of being wild and expansive yet controlled and intimate. "The Sound of Failure," a lyrical tale about a young woman coping with a troubled mind, is a fine example of this. Featuring an inspired arrangement of jazzy flutes, soft-rock acoustic guitar and nervy electronic synths, the mid-tempo cut name-checks vapid pop stars Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani: "So go tell Britney and go tell Gwen/She's not tryin' to go against all them/'Cause she's too scared and she can't pretend/To understand where it begins or ends."

"The Wizard Turns On ... ," a noisy, exploratory instrumental, reveals the influence of Pink Floyd and Miles Davis' electric jazz-funk-rock period in the 1970s.

"I'm always interested in artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis," Coyne says. "I love artists who follow their own insanity and seem to go into outer space. But we don't want to live in our heads. We want to make it all entertaining. I'm hoping the audience is giving us enough leeway to be as creative as we can."

After all these years of weird Flaming Lips records, the fact that such a progressive art-rock band hails from Oklahoma still leaves some asking, "For real?" It's hard to escape images of cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans and dusty boots when thinking about the Sooner State. "We wanted to be this freaky art group and the ideal of us being from Oklahoma set us apart," Coyne says. "It gave us a piece of uniqueness. It was absurd that we were from this place making this music. But we've been lucky to follow our own vision and be successful at it. I tell other artists that that's the real reward: being able to do the things you dream of."

The Flaming Lips are scheduled to perform at 9 p.m. on the Clubhouse Stage at the Virgin Festival.

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