Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the latest from good-hearted Oklahoma City psychedelics the Flaming Lips, is the record you've been looking for this summer if Signs creeped you out and the new Def Leppard leaves you a little cold--it's sonically imaginative, structurally adventurous work that doesn't skimp on the Big Meaningful Statements. Like The Soft Bulletin, the Lips' 1999 creative breakthrough, it's also proof positive that guys with gray hair can still show us a thing or two about redefinition. We called top Lip Wayne Coyne at home in Oklahoma, and he told us why.
Dallas Observer: The Soft Bulletin was a pretty big deal for you guys. What's been going on since then?
Wayne Coyne: Well, you know, you put out records and you don't know what kind of response they're gonna get. I don't think any artist can sit there and think, "Oh, this is a good record, so people will like it." I think all artists probably think, "Oh, this is a great record, and people should love it." And you don't know which way it's gonna go. But we've done so many records, and really for purely our own enjoyment. At some point you really do give up, and I don't know how often you can reach the audience in the way that you want to reach your audience, but for us in the beginning of our musical career we knew we couldn't actually entertain people, so we really just started to entertain ourselves.
DO: But that album entertained a lot of other people, too.
WC: But it really came out of that, as well. We want people to like what we do, but there's so little control you have over that that we'd kind of abandoned it. You get a very thick skin to it all, because you have to be so ready for people to hate what you do and to be vocal about it. Usually if someone really despises you, they can't keep it in. If they don't like you very much, they just ignore you. But if they love you, they'll say it, and if they hate you, they'll say it. And a lot of times people really despise what we do, and so they'll tell you: "We think you guys suck." We're sorry about that.
DO: What's that aphorism about American lives not having second acts? Bulletin surprised me because it actually sort of introduced a third phase to you guys' story--first the drugged-out indie-rockers, then the freak Top 40 alternative band and now this.
WC: Yeah, you're totally right. It really did signify our third time around.
DO: Who among the band's original fans would ever have counted on that?
WC: Well, but at the same time, if people were listening to us, and they were 20 years old in 1984 when we started, they're old fuckers like me now, so hopefully their tastes have matured or expanded or something along the way. Not to compare us to anybody, but a lot of bands will do the same thing from day one to day 1 million, because they like to do a certain type of music. We really have ideas, and so we just explore the ideas, and we didn't ever want to have to have a certain style, because we know we have an overly restless agenda. We want to do other things. And it was always the fear that we think we're doing different things, yet we would listen to it and it would all really sound the same. Like, I think probably if you asked the Ramones, "Why do you make the same record over and over?" they'd say, "You're crazy, the first one's about surfing, and the second one is about getting high, and the fourth one is about not having any money." To them, they would just look at it and say, "We're singing about different things with the same instruments." And they would probably be right, to their own point of view. I don't want that. I really like a big variety, I like music to change, I like what happens in our lives to be reflected in the music. And not necessarily in just what we're saying in the music, but in the whole atmosphere and the whole scope of what our identity could be.
DO: But there's the pressure to keep doing the same thing, especially when people like it.
WC: Well, luckily we've had so little success with our career that we weren't really compelled to keep doing it one way or the other. I mean, I can see where someone like Michael Jackson, who, you know, fucking sells a hundred million records every time he puts one out, might at the end of the day say, "Gee, I'd kind of like to be an experimental DJ, but everybody likes the white glove and the weird face, so I'll stick with that." We just don't really have any temptation to keep making the same thing over and over.
DO: Did you enter into Yoshimi in the same way you did Bulletin?
WC: We did, and honestly we did some tracks that we didn't put on the record that I think did that same type of thing as some of those songs, where it's behemoth to the point where it's not just big; it's like Frank Sinatra's band, only there's 20 of them playing at a time. And we wanted that then. It wasn't just to put strings to rock music; it was to really encompass a heaven of sound, a hugeness of sound, and then have this little out-of-tune singer singing in front of that. We tried very hard to make that work. And we went into Yoshimi not really knowing, "Are we making a new record, or are we just adding to the old record?" Some of the songs that we started to work on were in the same vein of that overly striving sound, and in the end I was getting a little beaten down by it. I didn't want people to think that that was the one track that we were settling on. I mean, I love the idea of the existential-mind-questioning-the-universe sort of sound that some of those Bulletin songs implied, but I just thought, "Well, there's other things that we can do as well."
DO: Yoshimi feels smaller, more cozy.
WC: We were using the phrase "epic but gentle." When people would ask me, I'd be like, "I don't know what it is; it's not necessarily that it's mellow, but it's gentle. It doesn't just wanna beat you up all the time."
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DO: I'm sure you get this all the time, but some of the quieter moments really remind me of those womblike passages on Dark Side of the Moon.
WC: Those are great achievements. It's the sort of thing where if you tried to do it, you'd probably screw it up every time. You run into these accidents where things happen, and you're just like, "Ooh!" It's not a coincidence that the things that you like are things that I like; there's just triggers of sounds that make people feel certain ways, and it is kind of magic that happens. I think it happens in film, it happens with painting, it happens with food--you just happen to put this flavor and that flavor together and something good happens.
DO: There's also a lucidity to Yoshimi, and Bulletin, too, that I think is very different from the murky feel of your older records.
WC: When we were doing [1993's] Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, even [1995's] Clouds Taste Metallic, we were a raucous kind of rock band, making a racket with as many things as we could, and we weren't trying to be very precise. We wanted it to be kind of a mess, and it kind of is. And with the new stuff, it isn't as though we think that precision is better than the chaos; it's really just different. We have different things to say. I'm all for chaos--there's plenty of times I see bands, and I just love it when they're a mess. I don't really have an agenda. But I know exactly what you mean. I listen to some of the old stuff, and I'm just like, "My God, these guys sound like they're fucked-up." Which I think was part of our intention.