Q&A: The Flaming Lips talk ‘The Terror,’ Maha Music Festival and the band’s SXSW set that I didn’t like

The Flaming Lips headline tomorrow's all-day Maha Music Festival.

The Flaming Lips headline tomorrow’s all-day Maha Music Festival.

Two things: First, The Flaming Lips are pretty excited to play Maha Music Festival this weekend. Second, this is Rock Candy’s 800th post since its debut more than four years ago.

First off, let’s talk about the second thing. I started this blog because I wanted to go to Lollapalooza and write about it. I also wanted to talk about stuff that wouldn’t make into the paper for whatever reason. There have been times where I’ve updated a lot and times when I haven’t, but I want to take a second to thank everybody for being there to read all of these posts. You guys apparently enjoy it, so I’ll keep doing it as long as you’ll have me.

Second off, let’s get back to the first thing. The Flaming Lips will headline Maha tomorrow. They’re arguably the biggest headliner and commanded the largest amount of money the festival has ever doled out in its five years.

Last week, I got on the phone with Steven Drozd, who many would refer to as the Lips’ drummer. He joined as the drummer, but he’s now their chief composer (most of the band’s songs are co-written by Drozd and frontman Wayne Coyne) and, on stage, he routinely rocks the keyboards.

Drozd was happy to come back to Omaha for a few reasons. First, the Lips’ Michael Ivins was actually born here (which I didn’t know), and second, he knew the band hadn’t been here in awhile and was happy they were bringing the band back through.

Q. What are you guys doing right now?

A. Recording. It’s mostly kind of mellow til our next set of dates. It’s pretty mellow, and we all need a break.

Q. I saw you guys at South by Southwest. (My review was not kind.)

A. Oh yeah. I don’t know how it’s perceived out there. It was kind of a disaster. I don’t know If Wayne likes to talk about it too much, but we tried to do something completely different and we weren’t ready for it. It’s a completely different dynamic. It was a struggle getting to that show.

Now, we’ve had many shows to work out the dynamics and figure out what sort of shows don’t work well live and how much of the old shows to bring into the new show. We’ve really gotten to a good spot, and you’ll see the progress we’ve made.

Q. What did you think of the reaction you got?

A. I’m actually glad that we got some response out of people. I’d rather people be like, “What the f*** is that?” We had a big buildup to that Austin show. Wayne had been getting sick and, you know, he’s the mastermind of the way the live show works. He wanted the stage show to reflect “The Terror.” He said, “I think you’ll be surprised. We know what we’re doing.”

For that show, we were just so relieved to not do the same f***ing thing. Some people are still maybe bummed out we’re not doing the big party show.

But now we can play and enjoy it and not be panicking.

Q. You dropped a lot of the dancers and the hamster ball and stuff, but there’s still confetti and lights. Did I hear right that the confetti is black?

A. It looks like a swarm of locusts that comes out. I really love the black confetti. We still have a crazy light show. It’s even more extreme than what you saw. They figured out this way to do this blue and red strobing thing. It really f***s with your depth perception. It looks unreal. There’s some really, really fun stuff going on.

It’s not the same joyous celebration. Well, in some spots, it is. We do some of “Race for the Prize” and “Do You Realize” and other cool rock songs. SXSW was a really big contrast to what people are used to, but we worked some things out so it’s not so off-putting.

Q. Do you do anything different for a festival?

A. There’s a few considerations. Usually for a festival, you’re playing outside. We’ll change the order of songs, and save the best light show songs for when it’s dark. When you’re playing a festival, you have to be at a good festival time. But we don’t change that much. It’s not like we have a totally different rip. It’s the same overall vibe.

We have played a bunch of festivals, so we know how to play the festival, but we’re doing this darker, weirder show. We just did it in Salt Lake. People were, to be honest, so f***ed up they don’t care who’s playing. So you kind of have that going for you. (laughs)

But ff it’s dark and if we start with “Look the Sun is Rising,” it’s gonna f*** with people, and it’s gonna be a good time.

Q. When you started “The Terror,” weren’t you just – maybe it was more serious than this – but weren’t you just kind of messing around?

A. Yeah. That can make a big difference. Whatever we’re working on, we have some agenda for it. We know it’s for a soundtrack or a release or some collaboration. I was just dicking around in studio B in Dave Fridmann’s studio. They were working on “Heady Fwends” stuff, so I was messing around with no agenda. I didn’t even know what it was fore. Dave’s got a bunch of cool, old synthesizers.

So, I was not thinking too much about it. Then Wayne heard what I was working on and he responded very positively to it. He really wanted to know what it was and what was going on. Then it went from there.

He said, “Let’s do a whole record like this.” It just happened so easily. It was the easiest Flaming Lips record that I’ve ever made. It was the least stressful and had the least second guessing even though it’s such a heavy record.

Q. You and Wayne both had personal stuff (Drozd had a drug relapse and Coyne was separating from his wife) going on at the time, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect that, does it? Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

A. We know that. Maybe not everybody knows that. People read too much rock history or something like you have to be some suffering loser to make sad music.

And that’s my point exactly. With this record, I had some of the funnest and easiest times I’ve ever had in the studio, but people like a good story.

Wayne even mentioned my drug relapse and all that. There was some truth to it, but it was way overblown. I wasn’t suicidal.

Wayne likes to turn songs into stories, and he made that a point that he was going through some suffering and I was struggling, which makes it seem heavier. It’s partly true, but after the first session, it was easy. We laughed a lot. I couldn’t believe how easy it was and how much fun we were having.

If you don’t like the music you’re working on, that will kill you. You know, with “Embryonic,” there were a few things we were working on that were like, “What the f*** are we gonna do?” We ended up throwing a few songs away because we just didn’t like them.

Q. You joined the band as a drummer, but your role has expanded since then. How did the roles in the band develop to where they are now?

A. I joined the band as the drummer, and then Wayne and I discovered really early on that he and I had some weird dynamic together.

I played him a couple of song ideas after the first few months I was in the band. He liked them and wanted to know what they were and work on them. So he and I developed this co-writing thing.

He would work on lyrics and shape the melody some. By the time we got to “Soft Bulletin,” we had been doing that for a few years.

Right now, he and I are in this phase. He doesn’t want to write songs with chord structures. He’s sick of it. And I can’t come up with chord progressions, so I’m sick of it, too. There’s only two songs (on “The Terror”) that have chord progressions. They have these drones, and that was a different thing to do.

So it sort of evolved. I was involved more with the songwriting stuff early on. Then when Ronald Jones left, we knew we couldn’t replace him. It forced us to rethink what we were going to do, and we didn’t want to be a guitar band any more anyway. So I said, “I’ll play drums on the record and onstage we’ll have the drums play on a tape.”

Then Kliph (Scurlock) joined. But even on “The Terror,” that’s me playing drums drums on “The Terror.” Sometimes the way that Wayne and I work, it’s done before anyone else gets involved.

But Wayne’s grown tired of him and I writing songs, I think. Derek is more involved and Kliph is more involved. I think he wants to keep changing what we do, which is totally cool. It all happened very naturally.

Q. You’ve been on Warner Bros. for more than 20 years now, which is interesting to me. You guys have done some different stuff, which most record labels might not be cool with. Do you feel like the major label band with the most freedom?

A. Luckily for us, Warner Bros. could have dropped us in 1996 when “Metallic” sold nothing. But not only did they not drop us, but they let us put “Zaireeka” and “The Soft Bulletin” out.

They were probably happy with how that turned out. They don’t expect too much from us and we don’t expect too much from them.

They don’t expect the Foo Fighters. I know they’re glad we’re still on the label. We’re one of their flagship bands now, and they can tell young bands, “The Flaming Lips have been on here since 1991.” We get to do what we want. There’s no secret to it.

They never gave us too much money to let ourselves get lost in some unrealistic expectation. We kind of get to do what we want to do. They don’t mind us dong this other project, and we do all these other weird side projects.

Now, wee’ve outlasted how many generations of people hired and fired at Warner Bros. (laughs)

Q. Speaking of the weird projects, a friend has one of the blood vinyls and was talking about doing a short documentary on them and where they ended up. How do you guys do all of those?

A. Wayne had to really draw blood to get everyone’s blood in there, and it ended up being a pain in the ass. I can’t remember if it was Bon Iver or one of the guys from Edward Sharpe, but one of those guys had the hardest time drawing blood.

You know, a lot of these releases, I don’t even have a copy. Like the 24-hour song skull, I don’t have one.

A lot of those come from the idea of, “How can I get people interested in buying physical releases instead of just downloading stuff?” It’s keeping up this awareness of buying a physical thing that has the music on it. It’s so absurd, but it’s art. It’s interesting without the music.

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