Free Williamsburg caught up
with the lead singer of The Flaming Lips on the recent American tour with
Looper. Their new album, The Soft Bulletin, has received so much
acclaim that it would be difficult to live up to it. But The Flaming Lips
live show, witnessed by a sold out crowd at Irving Plaza April 17, was
theatrical and spectacular.
by Alexander Laurence and Robert Lanham
AL: I know that you don't use drugs anymore. What do you think about drug use?
WC: I read this story about
Stanley Kubrick when he was talking about his film 2001. They ask
him if it was supposed to be a psychedelic experience. In 1969, people
were curious about that. They asked him if he had taken LSD, or if that
movie was about an LSD trip. He said "No."
AL: What do you think of older musicians like Mick Jagger who seems to be in the papers all the time for his antics?
WC: He's got to be a smart guy. The things that we read about him and the things that he really does in his real life are drastically different. He loves the idea of being on VH1's Naughty News when he has gotten some model pregnant. He calculates it out so we think of him as some sexy old rock star. In real life he's a smart guy and people around him love him and respect him. I would never want to speak for someone who has manipulated so much of what we think of him. It's great. It's what a lot of artists do. They say "I'm going to invent a character and people will love him." I don't do anything like that. I'm just me. I don't have a persona.
AL: But with the band gaining popularity, and The Soft Bulletin getting so much positive response, does that allow you to hang out with Madonna, and have sex with models?
WC: No. We used to pursue that
stuff more in like 1992, when we first started hanging around with celebrities.
It's really exciting the first time you're in a room and someone like
Perry Farrell walks in.
RL: Is The Soft Bulletin your most successful album to date?
WC: No. "She Don't Use
Jelly" off of Transmission has still sold more. But as this
year goes on, I'm sure that The Soft Bulletin will do better. When
we were doing it, we thought that it would be the end of us. It was so
elaborate and "out there." It's more of a work of art than anything
we have done is. We isolated ourselves and said "Let's make music
the way we want to do it." With our past records we would occasionally
look out and see what the market was doing commercially. With The Soft
Bulletin, we figured whatever happens happens. It was liberating in
some ways but at the end of the day you think "What are we going
to do now?"
AL: What is the connection with Mercury Rev? The Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs were recorded at the same time with the same producer. Were they an influence?
WC: Totally. Me and Jonathan
have a lot of similar things we're trying to do. I think that honestly
when we were doing these records, Jonathan was thinking "I'm completely
going into outer space and doing my own thing." We both probably
thought that we were going into different and opposite directions. In
the end it turned out we were doing very similar things.
RL: Are there any current influences? Are there any records that you are listening to now?
WC: I listen to everything
now. I bring about fifty CDs along when I go on tour. After a week I'm
sick of those. I listen to everything from classical to jazz, from old
to new, from techno to folk rock . . . everything. I don't have any area
where I won't go anymore.
AL: What do you think about bands who use a lot of techno gear and computers versus bands who play all the instruments live? I ask because you use backing tapes in your live show.
WC: There are people who say if there aren't real musicians playing, it sucks, and other people who think that real musicians are old-fashioned. I just sit in the middle and I think that I have no stance either way. If it's good, let's have it. People want to restrict you because they have this idea how music should be presented. I'm sure that the greasers in the late 1950s were bummed out when they stopped having the sock hops every Saturday night. Evolution moves on. It's fine to gravitate towards things that you like. Those things don't have any intrinsic meaning. People give meaning to a longhaired guy playing an E chord. To me it's no big deal. It's what they do. People have asked me "Is the guitar dead?" And I say an instrument is never dead or alive, the people playing them are. People who have too much time analyzing their record collections are the only people who think of these things. We have noticed with our live shows that they don't even notice that we're doing something weird. They just think that this is a great show.
AL: Do you like these new shows more than the shows you did ten years ago when there were more people in the band? Not having to play guitar allows you to be more of a showman.
WC: I'm a horrible singer.
And I'm even worse when I have to play the guitar. To me, I like it much
better now. I don't know how people can do both. They are talented and
should be applauded. I'm not one of them. I'm more entertaining and focused
when I don't have to play the guitar, because I'm not a very good guitar
player either. There's something in my voice that people like. They let
me sing. People can come to see us and I could play guitar all night and
they would go "Man, I didn't come to see this." At the end of
the day, they came to hear me sing, in the context of the band.
AL: We were just over at the Virgin Megastore and I was looking at the new Q Magazine. In this month's issue they had an article about "The 100 Crazy Acts by Rock Stars." Number 30 was the Zaireeka album [a 4-disk cd intended to be listened to simultaneously on 4 seperate boom-boxes or stereos]. It was beat out by the John Lennon and Yoko One nude picture, Jim Morrison's poetry, and I think Ginger Spice becoming a UN Ambassador among other things.
WC: That's regrettable, definitely. When we started Zaireeka, people were going "You got to be kidding?" I don't see it as being anything special. We had an idea for a record we wanted to pursue. We were able to do it, not because we wanted applause or attention, but because we knew it could be done and I wanted to push the possibilities of what listening could be like. So much of the responsibility goes on what you do making the record and everybody listens to them the same way. And I just wanted to force the hand both ways. That we make it differently but you have to listen to it differently as well. It is an area where new things can be done.
AL: Did the sales of boom-boxes go up after you released Zaireeka?
WC: Even as we were experimenting with the boom-boxes, we discovered ways of doing it more easily. People would go to their friends who worked at hi-fi stores and they would put them all in. I thought that the audience that got it, were the people who did get it. People who were much like ourselves, people who were in bands, or involved in music. Those are the people who are pushing the evolution one more step. It's rarely that the casual listener who really contributes in any way. It's usually people who were digging and digging and trying to find something. It's rare that an idiot wakes up without giving it any thought and says "I've invented the greatest thing ever!" Those who try harder usually find it. And we do try hard and I do go consciously into the unknown and unexpected.
AL: Was "Waiting for Superman" influenced by Nietzsche and his ideas about a "superman?"
WC: Unlike Nietzsche, who wanted the world to improve, I think it's already great. I don't have any complaints. I don't do art to make the world a better place. I do art cause I like it. The world is already as good as it could be. It doesn't need to be saved or improved.
AL: What about your hypothesis about love being a chemical related to the Big Bang? Have you done any further testing?
WC: I have no way to do any testing. I feel that it's a theory that may proved right or ludicrous. It's a great concept. It occurred to me that we are all made up of the same sort of things, and the most powerful thing drawing us to each other is love. People will die for or kill over love.
It's a vague observation. I'm not trying to predict the future. But as far as songs go, what a great thing to sing about. The universal revelation that love is what connects us all.
RL: Scientists are trying to re-create the Big Bang somewhere out West. They were talking about the possibly of creating a black hole if the experiment goes wrong.
WC: I don't know what people like Stephen Hawkings envision with all that mathematical jargon about how the universe folds in on itself. Some of that stuff is so abstract I can tell how it's going to have any impact on me. I sometimes wonder how much science and reality can explain each other. That's the great thing about art and ideas: some of them are based upon science, but a lot of them defy science. There's no formula for how you get to things in art. That's why it appeals to me I guess. You don't have to have any knowledge of the elements to come up with something amazing.
Alexander Laurence is a writer who lives in New York City. He has interviewed over 100 novelists, many of which are accessible through the Internet. His book reviews have appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, American Book Review, East Bay Express, LA Reader, Bay Guardian, and American Book Jam. He has been the editor of Cups magazine since 1993.