‘I want to hear something that’s gonna blow my mind’ A pre-LouFest interview with Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips have been making adventurous, creative and sometimes outright silly rock ‘n’ roll since the early days of the alternative boom. It would be wrong to say they think outside of the box because I’m not sure they ever acknowledged the box to begin with.
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Steven Drozd — who first joined the Lips as a drummer in 1991 — was doing some press calls from his home, and I was lucky enough to chat with him about the Oklahoma City band’s staying power, its forthcoming album and LouFest, where the band headlines on August 26.
Nick Cowan: There’s a lot of excitement about the Flaming Lips being part of LouFest.
Steven Drozd: My sister-in-law lives there [in St. Louis] so I get up there from time to time. I’m trying to remember the last time we were there. A couple of years ago I think.
I think it was two years ago at a place called the Pageant.
So how many years has LouFest been going? Is it an institution or is this a new thing?
Let’s call it a growing institution. It’s in year three and lots of great bands are and have been part of it in a short time.
All I know is that Dinosaur Jr. is playing! When we play festivals as a headliner we try to pull out all the stops. Not that we play a minimized show otherwise, but this will be the full-on, huge, flaming rock show.
How do you prep for a festival vs. a club show?
We have our video set up at these big festival shows. A full size video wall and these things called Versatubes, if the stage is big enough, that outline the video wall. It looks insane. It gives the impression that we’re a stadium rock band even though we’re not.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m taking away from hardcore Flaming Lips fans, but whenever we play a big show like this, we try to gear it towards the maximum possible rock. The mellow stuff is kept to a minimum, we try to keep the big songs as the majority of the set. We want it to be a huge party. Even if you’re not enjoying the music that much you can still have a great time with your friends, and it looks insane and you get wrapped up in the show itself.
In smaller shows we’ll do three or four mellow songs and tone it down in the middle of the set before we do more big numbers. Man, I can’t believe I’m calling songs “numbers.” I sound like some old blues guy. But that’s the only difference.
Since you said “numbers” that’s actually a good segue. “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is being, or has been by this point, turned into an actual stage musical.
True. The rumors are true. I think they’re in the final stages of tweaking it.
How did that come about it? I would never have thought of that in a million years.
Well, Scott Booker, who’s the Flaming Lips manager, is always trying to expand us and get us into different things. And Wayne [Coyne] is just inherently crazy and curious about trying different stuff.
The main guy [Des McAnuff] has done some huge, big-hit Broadway productions. He was really interested in it. And when we first heard about it I thought it was kind of a funny “oh that’d be crazy if they did that” thing. But now here they are. At first I thought they would want or require some additional music, but they’re using songs from “Soft Bulletin,” “Yoshimi” and “At War With the Mystics.” I haven’t really had that much of a hand in it. Wayne has checked on it, Scott is really involved. Anything that can get someone who wouldn’t otherwise be turned onto our music, I think that’s a great thing all the way around. I’m pretty excited about it.
Do you think you guys have some credibility when it comes to this stuff? If a pop star were to do it, I’d let that pass. But you guys come at all your stuff with a lot of creativity that I think brings people in.
I’m just afraid to turn off people by doing it. But then maybe we turn off the people that aren’t hard core fans. I don’t know, we’re always trying different stuff whether we’re recording a 24-hours song or recording tracks with Ke$ha or a Broadway musical. I think it perfectly suits us to do that. If it’s a failure it will be an interesting side note on a Wikipedia page. If it’s a big success, who knows?
I’d rather bands I like do something interesting and fail, rather than tow middle ground and rehash.
And how many bands do that these day? They make a couple of classic records, and then do it over and over again, to diminishing returns usually. I think the things the Flaming Lips are doing now add on to what we’ve done.
Where do sparks for some of the crazier stuff come from? You mentioned the 24-hour song on a USB drive and, going back to the ’90s, the parking garage/boom box experiments.
That’s definitely Wayne. The crazier ideas are usually Wayne’s. The exciting thing about being a musician [in the Flaming Lips] is that I get to try any [idea] I would ever want to try. I mostly have. From writing and composing music that will be played in boom boxes by several people on a stage while we conduct them with the volume, from that to the day-long song, it’s way beyond being just a drummer in a band where you play 50 rock ‘n’ roll concerts. It’s so far beyond that. I hate to use the word “rewarding” because it’s pretty hokey, but it’s pretty rewarding to get to do all this stuff.
And then on Wayne’s side of things he’s just a maniac. He’s always having to do something and he always embraces the absurdity of different things. Usually he’ll blurt out some idea and it’s up to the rest of us or me or whoever to make it work. Figure out the practicality is one way to put it. There’s just such a big variety of things for us to even try.
Is there anything Wayne has come up with where you guys have said, “No, Wayne, we’re not going to do that.”
Um, trying to think (brief pause). Probably not. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. There’s been a couple that we tried and decided not to do.
The last couple of years have been so much of this insane crazy stuff. We’re trying to keep it interesting in these times. There are bands out there that have been around as long as us and a lot of people aren’t interested in their new output. People will go see them because it’s a nostalgia thing….
And the idea those bands’ songs haven’t grown with the audience’s taste or were as good as what they were in the past.
Yeah and besides that we live in an age where a 14-year-old kid can Google everything from John Coltrane to Led Zeppelin to the Stooges to Lady Gaga to Ariel Pink in 30 minutes and they have access to everything.
And I hate to say it but sometimes the music doesn’t stand on its own in some ways these days. That’s a really cynical way to say it.
But you’re not the first.
Yeah. The idea being that if you keep doing this stuff people will always be curious. And hopefully the music is good too. You have to do these things to keep people guessing what the hell you are.
Do you think it keeps fans on their toes?
Yeah. I really am curious about new music. I want to hear new bands, I want to hear something that’s gonna blow my mind. I don’t want to sit at home thinking that the early ’90s was the greatest. I fear becoming the old curmudgeon aging-rocker dude that thinks everything that could be done has been done. I fear becoming that if I don’t pursue and check out different stuff. It’s a bummer if you stop listening to new music in your mid-20s.
Speaking of the mid-’90s, the first time a lot of people heard the Flamings Lips was “She Don’t Use Jelly.” That got on MTV and came at that moment in musical history, when the songs could have made you think, “We can become super huge with this thing.” But instead of that temptation, you didn’t go that way.
We may have had that temptation for a little while to try and become this huge rock band, but I don’t think we could have done that naturally. I think there’s too much weirdness inherent in the Flaming Lips.
Also, well, we just got bored. By the time we did “Clouds Taste Metallic” it seemed we’d taken the skronky guitar stuff as far as we could take it at that time. And Ronald [Jones], who was the guitar wizard back then, left the band so we were forced to change what we were going to do anyway. We knew we couldn’t replace him. It was almost like him leaving the band gave us free reign to try a new direction.
There were things I’d been wanting to do for a little while, and Wayne too or it wouldn’t have happened. These things all just seemed to line up. And we felt that grunge thing was dying out and the alternative thing was dying out. It seemed like it was already done by the time Kurt Cobain killed himself — the thing was already done. And everything that would happen after that would be a watered-down version of what people thought all that stuff was. We were OK with that. Also, we didn’t get dropped from Warner Bros. whereas a ton of bands did after the alternative rush died out.
It sounds like you were already bored with the idea before you even decided if you want to go full-on, stadium-guitar rock.
Yeah, we decided that we wanted to do more. And then when Ronald left we really had to figure out what we were going to do. We lost that element, beyond just loud guitar, which was this other world of guitar sound-scaping stuff. That’s when we started on the boombox experiments and stuff like that.
You’ve got an album coming out early next year, [tentatively titled "The Terror"]. What can you tell me about it?
I hope that fans perceive it as something different because sometimes we think we’re making some radical new shift in the Flaming Lips’ sound, and then it will come out and no one really bats an eye.
We did most of it really quickly. The idea with this record was that instead of sitting down writing songs, and then figuring out how to record them, we would start our recordings from a sound.
I’d go over to Wayne’s where we’d acquired a couple of junky old synthesizers over the past few years and a bunch of weird effects pedals. We obviously have a bunch of guitar stuff.
Our daily mission was to record a couple of sounds and try to build a song from them. With “Embryonic” we did jams that became songs, but this was the first we set out to build a whole song just based from sounds. A lot of the new record doesn’t have chord progressions per se, like a pop song, but it’s weird atmospheric drones that we turned into songs. To me the whole record has a really uniform, weird, lo-fi, hi-fi, druggy, fucked-up, depressing sound to it. There are some great lyrics and there are some really sad, depressing, melancholy kind of melodies that I definitely love to do. I hope people will hear it and get that from it and like it as much as I do.
Thanks for doing this, Steve.
Are you going to the show on Sunday?
Oh yeah, kids in tow for their first festival.
We’ll keep that in mind and try to amp the rock even more.
The Flaming Lips headline LouFest on Sunday, August 26. 88.1 KDHX is a media cosponsor of LouFest 2012.