Wayne Coyne is no madman. Julian Cope may have fried his brain and come out the other side barely intact, but Coyne (rock's other modern-day psychedelic warrior) makes it a point to soberly lead the Flaming Lips into the studio playground to tweak and twist the five senses. The Soft Bulletin, the Lips' latest album, does not require four CD players to reveal its quadraphonic magic, like 1997's Zaireeka. Instead it's almost old-fashioned: 50-something minutes of compact pop and modest freakouts -- twelve songs, two remixes. What differentiates it from the glut of current alternative rock releases is what has always separated the Lips from the average body: vision. Coyne treats his albums like a film, anxiously directing the songs to unfold real drama, with a twisted vocal here and a shady guitar figure there.
The Soft Bulletin is also the most "commercial" album the Lips have ever made. And, believe me, those quotes are important. You can hire someone like Peter Mokran (who has worked with Michael Jackson and Lisa Stansfield and who remixed two tracks here), but if the music already on the tape has been manufactured by the Flaming Lips, well, there really isn't much chance of catching up with Ricky Martin. Like Pere Ubu's Cloudland, which employed Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague to sharpen a few commercial hooks, The Soft Bulletin is a suitable diversion, something every art band should try at least once.
The Flaming Lips have been signed to Warner Bros. since 1990 and have had their share of surprise success. "She Don't Use Jelly," from 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, became an MTV hit and the band was subsequently invited to the set of Beverly Hills 90210 to play themselves. "I think at the time we went into it with our chest up saying, 'We're not going to bow down to this corporate TV bullshit. We're going to do it our way,'" says Coyne. He begins to laugh and continues, "But as soon as we got there we were totally disarmed and did anything they asked. And that is the power of being around a bunch of celebrities and knowing that all your friends are going to see it and everyone's going to talk about it because it's 90210. You end up reveling in it because TV's fame is immortal." He adds dryly: "They invited us on only because they couldn't get like ten other bands."
The success of "She Don't Use Jelly" was a fluke, however. The band never had much of a career game plan other than to simply survive, and Coyne is well aware of the divergent natures of art and commerce.
"If you were to use the analogy of big-budget movies, we're making big-budget movies that play in the art houses," says Coyne. "We know that sometimes what we're doing is pure sound, and at other times we know that we really do have to make sure that it can be marketed to enough people to make it worth doing."
Lips spent two years recording Bulletin in western New York State. They keep their home base in their native Oklahoma, far from the maddening crowds where most rock bands' seven-year plans are hatched.
"Art is not about community; art is about isolation," Coyne explains. "It's about a man sitting inside his head. It's not about a man sitting in New York City. It requires isolation. You don't want so many people around when you're doing your work."
As usual the band started from scratch.
"There really is nothing laying around. We're up-to-date," he remarks. "There was no idea that we were setting out to do this. Since we're always just going down the road, we're always moving away from what we were doing."
Constant motion is a good way of describing the Lips' sound. Listening to their earliest music, one hears a spirited but shitty little garage band. Tracks such as "Jesus Shootin' Heroin" and "Trains, Brains, and Rain" from their 1986 full-length debut Hear It Is (Pink Dust), acknowledge that their spirit was willing even if their chops were weak.
"Records are always embarrassing to me when they're five or six years old. After that it's another band," says Coyne. "And I listen to it as if it's not myself: 'Boy, that guy has a lot of spunk in him.' I can be really objective and not feel any responsibility for how good or bad it is. Sometimes I listen and know what we meant to do, and it's like, God, we missed the mark on that. It's rare when I listen to something and think I like that."
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It's a delicate balancing act for Coyne between modesty and ambition. He's quick to point out there was never a question of what he was going to be. As a child he watched his older brothers draw and found himself emulating them. His talent was immediately recognized and encouraged.
"I think some people get to college and they have to take a course in art. Hopefully they'll come out the other side, and they'll be an artist," he says. "I never did struggle with that, as pompous as that sounds. To me 'Oh, you can be an artist' sounds as natural as telling someone 'You can be a football player,' or 'You can be a mechanic.'"
Coyne also stresses that though the Flaming Lips play music often associated with drugs, his band is not about that anymore. For their self-released 1985 EP, the band members titled their record label Lovely Sorts of Death (get it?), but that attitude is far gone.
"I think being sane and sober and critical of yourself is more important than taking drugs and thinking the world is great," Coyne notes. "As I get older I've realized that very little music of any quality has ever been made while people were on drugs. Great music is made in a studio with a bunch of expensive equipment, run by people who know what they're doing. It's done by musicians who have some skills. I can't imagine why anyone doing anything of merit that takes any amount of serious time would want to do it on drugs.