The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd on Longevity, Acting and Terror
Photo by J. Michelle Martin Coyne
Do you realize that The Flaming Lips have been playing their brand of psychedelic rock for 30 years? That’s no small feat for a kooky band from Oklahoma City that’s thriving in a business so fickle that new musicians are first heralded as the second coming, then quickly wear out their welcomes as they’re chewed up and spat out by the same adoring fans and record labels. From their spaced-out musical compositions and a circus-like production that is the hallmark of their live shows, which has included a flock of costumed dancers gyrating around the stage while being showered with multicolored flecks of confetti as frontman Wayne Coyne floated atop the audience in bubble built for a man-sized hamster, the band is an unpredictable force in the music business. With the frenetic pace at which they operate—they’ve released not one, but two records this year: The Terror, the band’s 13th studio album; and Peace Sword, an EP inspired by the sci-fi film Enders Game; and have a dizzying tour schedule—it’s no wonder Q magazine named them one of the 50 bands to see before you die in 2002. Submerge talked to the Lips’ Steven Drozd about staying relevant in the music industry, their new “subdued” stage show and how the heady days of the billionaire rock god is a relic of the past.
What’s the band’s secret to longevity?
I’ve been in the band for 22 years, [and] I think one thing that actually worked for us was not being too successful too early. I think if the band had been more successful, if the band had a big hit their second record in, [or] if we’d had a big hit when I joined the band, things could have gone the other way. I think not having any big success until much later in the band’s career worked in our favor. I think another thing is just being interested in new music, instead of a lot of bands [where] they get something that works for them and they just stick with that formula. I think for us we’re just trying to keep changing what we’re doing.
The Terror has been described as the Lips’ darkest album to date. How does this new, darker material translate into the live show?
It took a little while. Some of the first shows where we were playing The Terror stuff it was kind of rough. I think we were just going on the excitement of doing a whole new show…but the first few shows were chaotic in a way, meaning we hadn’t found the right dynamic for some of those songs. We’re not doing the big party balloons anymore, Wayne’s not doing the space bubble and we don’t have people dancing on stage, but it’s a different kind of intensity. We still have confetti, but it’s black confetti that gets shot out into the crowd. We still have a crazy light show, but it’s crazy in a different way.
It’s been written that the band is at the peak of its creative career, where do you go from here?
I don’t know, I think that in some ways people might have thought we peaked after The Soft Bulletin and where were we going to go from that. Then some people think [we peaked] after Embryonic. I just hope that if we keep being interested in music and keep trying new things that even if we fail commercially at least we can feel like we’re trying something new. Maybe people will think that we’re at some kind of creative summit, [but] I guess I don’t think about that kind of stuff really. I think that if I did it would drive me crazy.
Tell me how your side project, the Mutating Cell Ensemble, came about?
I just had this thing in my head for a little while, I always had these little rhythmic and music theory things that were percolating in my head. We only did one show, but I want to do another one. I just had this musical idea I wanted to try. I knew it wouldn’t be with the Flaming Lips and I wanted to get just a group of musicians of different calibers, but people that would be interested in trying this “experiment.” I got a group of music students from the [Academy Of Contemporary Music] here in Oklahoma City and I told them that we’re basically going to be playing the same two-note riff and see what happens if we play it for an hour. We did a performance of it and I thought it was incredible. I felt high when we were done, it was so intense.
I know you’ve dabbled in acting before, any plans to delve more into that medium?
Oh…that Christmas on Mars thing. I still apologize to Wayne for that because when he started working on it, I was like, “You know in sixth and seventh grade I was in drama and I did really well in drama class,” and so he decided to make me the Major Syrtis character and now whenever I do watch it I’m just like, “Oh, god the acting is so bad.” It’s so bad that it’s interesting, you know. If I was given another chance I would definitely try much harder and I’d be more committed to the project. I wouldn’t rule it out; if anyone wants me to try do any acting for them I’d be glad to do it.
If you had one word to describe the evolution of The Flaming Lips what would it be and why?
Uncanny, because for all of the things we thought we had control over, I think for every one of those there were things we had no control over that actually worked in our favor. I think it’s us letting things happen, and letting that kind of guide us in some ways really benefitted us in a big way.
Speaking of the music industry, it appears to be at a weird crossroad. What do you think about where the industry is going and sites like Spotify?
I have no problem with Spotify, I really don’t. I guess for me the thing is I just can’t accept that there’s not going to be any huge cultural shifts like there used to be. To me, that’s a bummer to think about that. It’s just a different world we live in now and to me it’s just a bummer that whole cultural, underground big shift can’t happen again, and I really believe it won’t happen again.
The Flaming Lips were scheduled to headline the Last Chair Music Festival at Squaw Valley Jan. 9 – 11, 2014 but literally HOURS before we went to press, it was announced the gig was postponed until further notice. To keep up on all things Flaming Lips, go to Flaminglips.com.