Lip service

Every few weeks, Wayne Coyne drives the three hours south to Dallas from his home just outside of Oklahoma City, a place he refers to as "Wayne Manor." It's a trip he's been making since the mid-'80s, when his band, The Flaming Lips, took the stage at Theatre Gallery or Twilite Room seemingly every weekend, playing with Three on a Hill almost as many times as guitarist Tench Coxe. The Flaming Lips were such a fixture in the nascent Deep Ellum scene, they should have been included on 1987's The Sound of Deep Ellum, the compilation Island Records put together to document what was happening between Commerce and Elm at the time. But Coyne doesn't come to Dallas with his band much anymore, maybe once or twice a year. These days, when he's in town, it's usually so his longtime girlfriend, Michelle, can visit her sisters. He's more of an outsider when he's in Dallas now, long since removed from the local musicians he once could have been mistaken for.

Coyne still remembers those days, mentioning former Theatre Gallery boss Russell Hobbs and ex-Three on a Hill frontman Peter Schmidt almost as soon as our conversation begins, asking what they're up to. But just as he's discussing the current fates of some of the names and faces from his past, Coyne drops the phone without much warning so he can go outside and help track down Boss Man, his neighbor's pit bull. Boss Man is really a sweet dog, Coyne tries to explain when he returns a few minutes later, unsuccessful in his search, but it scared the hell out of the kids Coyne had hired to mow his lawn when the pit bull escaped from his neighbor's fence, sending the kids scurrying into his house for help. Before long, Coyne abruptly leaves again, this time to explain the situation to Boss Man's owner. When he comes back on the phone, he warns his interviewer he may have to bail out yet again if he sees Boss Man outside.

Right at that moment, it becomes clear that the strangest thing about Coyne is that he's not that strange at all, just another friendly neighbor trying to help out. It's an unexpected image, one that seems totally at odds with the memory of Coyne onstage at Theater Gallery, singing about "Jesus Shootin' Heroin" and the "Hell's Angel Cracker Factory," songs that were at once so pretty and so ugly. Since Coyne formed The Flaming Lips in 1983, he has always been thought of as an Okie from God-knows-where, the man who cracked open his brain and let it all spill onto the tape. His recent experiments with car-stereo symphonies and build-it-yourself albums have done nothing to shake those thoughts, but strengthened them until they became established facts. So maybe at this stage in his life and career, the most unusual thing Coyne and his band could do is be normal.

That's just what The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips' recently released 10th album, is...almost. Then again, a pop record full of lush strings and hushed harmonies couldn't help but sound straightforward after the band's last effort, 1997's Zaireeka, a four-disc set designed to be played at the same time, an album that came with some assembly required. However, The Soft Bulletin isn't a reaction to Zaireeka but an extension of it, the result of a band writing songs after it has learned a new alphabet. It's fuller only because Coyne and the rest of the group -- Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins -- discovered room they never knew existed before when they were recording Zaireeka, sometimes spending three months on a single song. Zaireeka opened their eyes, and Coyne doesn't plan on closing them anytime soon. But he's not sure whether the band was ready to make a record like The Soft Bulletin until now.

"Some of our stuff I don't think actually would be any good, especially some of the older stuff, if you take away some of the more abrasive elements," Coyne says. "It really is part of the song. You can't necessarily take the sound and the song apart. I think with this new stuff, we just went a little further into that, and I think at the time when we were doing the sounds and stuff for The Soft Bulletin, it was hard to say what sounds are going to be considered new or radical or any of that. So we really just threw that thinking away, and just said, 'Well, why don't we just do whatever we want to do at the time?'

"We want to say what's on our minds, so we just started to do that," he continues. "If we want to hear piccolo here, or some timpani there, or a harp here, or a distorted piano there, we'll just do it. If we want to hear harmony vocals or whatever, we'll just do it. And really, it didn't feel as though we were doing something that was going to be accessible or something that was going to be obscure. We didn't even think about it. That's really been our policy, even going back to 1988, just to say, 'Well, fuck it. Let's just do what we like, and hope for the better.' I just know too many bands who feel as though they were forced to do something artistically that they felt compromised what their real ideas were, and then they just bitch about for the rest of their lives."