Flaming Lips | Wizards of Sound

“I do appreciate that people like to read the extra meaning into it, but this one even more so than the other two, it’s really just a bunch of songs. As for the title of the record, Wayne just threw that out in the press about a year and a half ago even before we really even started doing this. So really, the whole idea of an overall philosophical theme or concept, to me, it’s like—well, if you want to put that together, it’s cool, but I haven’t really done that.”

 

 

Judging from their 12th full-length album At War With the Mystics, Oklahoma oddballs the Flaming Lips are through being quiet.

Big, loud, and throbbing with prog-rock impulses, Wayne Coyne and Co. have largely dispensed with the fragile pop compositions that marked their previous two albums—1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—in favor of bombastic guitars and dense layers of electronic frippery that annoy and delight in equal measure.

Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd is one of the parties responsible for the striking new direction—but he would like to remind listeners that, at its heart, At War With the Mystics is, well, just a kick-ass rock ’n’ roll record.

“There are three or four [songs] on the record that are more fun, kind of rock,” says Drozd, speaking from his Oklahoma City home. “I would say half the record is still progressing or evolving from what we started doing with Yoshimi and Soft Bulletin—maybe a little more melancholy, heavier subject material, that kind of thing. It’s kind of a half and half: ‘Hey, we’re just trying to have some fun,’ and the other half is more symphonic pop and elements like that. I think it’s a nice mixture of the two, really.”

To wit: “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” kicks the disc off in eccentric style, fusing ’50s-style hand-jive with a surging guitar riff borrowed from the pinnacle of ’70s arena rock, while “Free Radicals” is crunchy, booming pop-rock segueing into the surprisingly poignant “The Sound of Failure/It’s Dark…Is It Always This Dark??,” which gives way to the lush psychedelia of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion.”

Freed from navel-gazing amid subtle blurbs and boings, Coyne still lets fly with inspirational bon mots (“We’ve got the power now, motherfuckers, it’s where it belongs”) amid the cacophony, managing uplift despite the blood and thunder. However, don’t mistake At War With the Mystics for a grand, sweeping statement.

“I’m never any good at that stuff, even when Yoshimi was coming out,” says Drozd. “It really sounds kind of lame to say it, but [back then] I’d say, ‘Talk to Wayne about that stuff,’ because [with] Yoshimi, he didn’t come up with name of the record or the concept for it until we were finishing it up. It’s not like we went into the studio and said, ‘OK, we’re going to make this record and we’re going to pull all of these elements together into an overall theme.’

“I do appreciate that people like to read the extra meaning into it, but this one even more so than the other two, it’s really just a bunch of songs. As for the title of the record, Wayne just threw that out in the press about a year and a half ago even before we really even started doing this. So really, the whole idea of an overall philosophical theme or concept, to me, it’s like—well, if you want to put that together, it’s cool, but I haven’t really done that.”

Fans of the more subtle, chilled electronics that have marked the Lips’ previous two albums may be taken slightly by surprise at the sheer bombast of Mystics, the ferocity of which recalls the Lips’ earlier, punkier output (Oh My Gawd, It’s the Flaming Lips! or In a Priest-Driven Ambulance) but also has its roots in some of the Lips’ recent work on their cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“I know that we were listening to a lot of, like, ‘Death on Two Legs’ and some other songs off Night at the Opera at the time we were working on it,” says Drozd. “It’s not like that’s a new thing, but I think for us, doing the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ cover was more of some of the other production things and some of the rock things, like Queen would do…reverse reverbs and things like that.

“We had done things like that before but after we did the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ cover, it seemed like we should probably do a lot more of that. Those songs [on Mystics] that are very different from each other, those production sounds are what tie them together.”

Not to draw lofty comparisons, but like the Beatles before them and many bands afterwards, the Lips have built a productive relationship with producer Dave Fridmann, whose Tarbox Studios in Fredonia, N.Y., is the launching pad for the Lips’ cosmic brand of rock.

“It’s really like he’s a fourth member of the band,” says Drozd. “He doesn’t tour, he doesn’t write songs from the ground up, but he helps us tweak songs that we have, sort of like George Martin would do. He just gets better and better with the gear, with the technology, and it just gets easier and easier to try things. The production has become more a part of our sound, it seems…as we try to progress, he’s right there with us.”

To the Lips and Fridmann’s credit, Mystics is impossible to digest in a single listen; it’s a true headphone album that demands attention and rewards the patient with unexpected delights—epic in scope, yet able to sketch small moments of wonder. Drozd realizes that boundless imagination may seem like an effortless stock in trade but, in reality, is a daunting proposition.

“There really is no limit and sometimes it’s kind of frightening when you realize we’ve got all this technology, we have all this gear, we have this talent, we have these people, we have this energy; what do we wanna do?” says Drozd. “We can do anything and sometimes that can trip you up, because you have no boundaries. I remember reading something about Jack White saying he consciously made an effort to say, ‘Here’s the barriers, here’s what we’re dealing with: two people, combination of guitar and drums—let’s see what we can do with these things.’ That’s a valid thing as well, but for us, it’s actually the complete opposite.”

Another element coloring this album is the flood of memories surrounding this band. The Lips have been going at it since 1983 (Drozd has been with the band for 15 years), and 2005 saw a lot of Lips nostalgia—Brad Beesley’s sterling retrospective The Fearless Freaks recounted the band’s seldom-boring two-decade existence, and the coffee-table photo book Waking Up With a Placebo Headwound unearthed a trove of photographic Lip ephemera.

“Michelle [Martin-Coyne, Wayne’s wife]’s book that came out; that’s a real reality check right there, seeing pictures of yourself at 23—damn, have I aged that much?” says Drozd. “You’re like, man, have I really been with these guys 15 years? I guess so. It is interesting, at least for me, when I was 20, 21, 22, I dreamed of being in a rock band and it’s gonna be this crazy thing and I’m gonna live this rockstar life. And now, I ended up, looking back, as far as what’s available now, as far as bands that are around making music, this would be one of the best bands you could possibly be in in the world. So things have worked out pretty good for me.”

At War With the Mystics finds the Lips striking out in a lot of familiar directions, but also quite a few new ones. It’s bracing, gargantuan rock that sounds like little else out there—just don’t try to have Drozd pin it down as a masterpiece.

“If I thought that and said yes, I would look like a schmuck,” says Drozd. “I’m not going to say masterpiece—that’s asking me to shoot myself in the foot.”

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