Lip service

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That thinking is how Coyne and The Flaming Lips have been able to exist on a major label much longer than anyone could have expected when the band signed to Warner Bros. Records in the early '90s -- eight years and five albums, including The Soft Bulletin. Instead of trying to figure out what the label wants, Coyne has always asked what he can do, not what he can't, hoping his ability can match his ambition. No idea is too silly or too unwieldy for the band to try: If it doesn't work, he'll come up with something else, but everything, he believes, is worth attempting at least once, especially if the label is willing to pick up the check.

More than anything else, Coyne has been able to maintain his relationship with Warner Bros. because he knows his credit limit, realizes that many of his ideas aren't very practical. He understands that major labels are more about making money than making art, so he goes into every record expecting someone at the label to talk him down from the ledge. Even after he's finished, he still can't believe they let him get away with it.

It's especially true in the case of Zaireeka. When Coyne came up with the idea for an album in four separate parts, he didn't think for a second that Warner Bros. would let him do it -- he didn't even think he could do it if they let him. Coyne was just beginning to conduct his infamous parking-lot experiments -- disjointed symphonies performed on strategically arranged car stereos -- when he decided to try to capture the concept on a series of discs that would be played simultaneously on separate stereos. When a few Warner Bros. employees paid a visit to Wayne Manor, he laid the concept on them, deciding on the spot that he would need four CDs to accomplish the task.

"And everybody said, 'Oh, OK,'" he says, laughing. "I would look ahead and think, 'Well, even if we got halfway through it and I end up doing two, that would still be true to the vision that I wanted to do something unique in this kind of way.' But that never materialized. It started off four, and it ended up being four, and it actually worked. Everywhere along the way, I'd expect these statements to be made, like, 'What the fuck are you thinking?' Never happened. I think I had just reached a point where people knew that I wasn't insane."

It's much easier to believe in Coyne's sanity now than it was when the band formed in 1983, even as his ideas bounce further off the wall. For instance, the latest incarnation of the band finds drummer Michael Ivins playing live only on a video screen and in the headphones the band passes out before each concert. Ivins is actually there onstage, but he's playing other instruments, filling the gap left when guitarist Ronald Jones left the band after 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic. The band debuted this new configuration in March at Trees after deciding to do it only a few weeks earlier.

The idea was born out of Coyne's contempt for the "ridiculously shitty mixes that come from live bands." He came up with a way to counteract that, buying an FM transmitter and a few hundred pairs of in-the-ear headphones. Ivins' drum tracks, as well as the strings and loops that appear on The Soft Bulletin, are piped through the headphones, creating a new kind of listening experience. Which is exactly what Coyne and the band have been after all along.

"I would always be disappointed when I would take my headphones off and listen to speakers in a room," Coyne says. "I always liked the combination of having headphones on and having speakers on in a room. I think that's a good combination. Of course, you can never tell what's going on outside or anything, but it really isolates you and gives you the impact at the same time. That Dallas show that we did, that was honestly the first time that we'd done it. We didn't even do anything here at home before then. We got all the headphones in about three or four days before then, and we just took them all down there and said, 'Let's see what happens.'"

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain