Life Is Brutal and It's Not Always Sunshine: An Interview with the Flaming Lips
Now, with the release of the Flaming Lips' darkest record yet, Steven Drozd takes us through the creation of The Terror, its inspirations, and explains how the host of a children's TV show completely changed his life.
Steven Drozd is nothing but frank: "By the time we finished the 24-hour song, I was done. I didn't have any ideas."
Having been with the Flaming Lips since 1991, multi-instrumentalist Drozd has been there through the band's major label days, from the fluke hits ("She Don't Use Jelly") to the critical ascension (1999's The Soft Bulletin and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) and even their recent bout of out-there experiments, which include a bevy of collaborative EPs, releasing songs inside gummy skulls, recording a six-hour song and, yes, even recording a song that had a run-time of 24 hours. The band, having built up a loyal fanbase since their inception in the early '80s, could do all of these wacky musical detours without living in fear of losing their day-job. After all, their wildly-experimental blown-speaker masterpiece from 2009, Embryonic, managed to score their highest-position ever on the Billboard charts, crashing into the Top 10 upon release, despite having a song where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O imitated various animal noises through a recorded phone call.
So where does everyone's favorite group of fearless freaks go from here? As their new album The Terror suggests, they dive head-on into the dark, menacing themes that have been hiding underneath their songs for years, and although the record is certainly divisive amidst fans, there's a groundswell of fans who already are calling this the single greatest album of the group's already-storied career.
"A lot of people don't know that for [our early albums] In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head, a lot of that stuff -- even thought there's some humor involved -- a lot of those songs are pretty fuckin' twisted, fucked-up, heavy-duty songs," Drozd tells us, "and Wayne and the Flaming Lips definitely had that too with Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic. Before that era, there was this darker era of 'things may not work out as good as we'd hope.' I like that about it. I want to hear music that's like that when I feel down or bummed out or whatever. It makes me feel better."
Drozd isn't joking. The Terror, the latest album from the Flaming Lips, is a bleak, almost apocalyptic album, one that shuns the quirkiness and humor that has very much become their trademark, focusing instead on stark minimalism, barely any guitar work to be heard, and a sense of loneliness and hopelessness that is unlike anything they've produced before. "The new record," Drozd begins to explain, "instead of it being more cerebral and thinking about what we're doing and trying to write songs or trying to overthink stuff, [this] was just purely emotional. Even though there was a lot of synthesizers and stuff, you wouldn't think that, but it really was. We'd just do these sounds and make these songs without thinking of too much about it and not really guarding ourselves. So I'd agree with you about being our most vulnerable record." He continues: "It's definitely our across-the-board saddest record, just in terms of there's a message and instead of being uplifting at the end, it just stays [a] downer."
While The Terror covers a thematic realm that is immediately more stark than anything they've done prior, it's not without purpose. The record features songs that act almost as soundscapes, with its swirling, 13-minute centerpiece "You Lust" featuring a cameo from Phantogram's Sarah Barthel. While creating a dense, timeless soundscape only four songs into the album may certainly ward off some fans expecting the sunshine-bent optimist-rock that the band perfected with songs like "Do You Realize??" and "Race for the Prize", Drozd isn't all that concerned, especially coming off of the creation of a song that lasted for a full 24 hours:
"Anything I ever wanted to try musically I've tried in this fuckin' 24-hour song. It was just sheer content that we needed, filling up 24-hours worth of music. So the way it influenced the record is that -- for me personally, at least -- there were no ideas. It was almost like were were starting from nothing. I had no ideas I've been wanting to try, no ideals either. It's just putting some sounds together. That's why "You Lust" for us was completely no big decision for us to say "let's make that middle bit really long and floaty and just kind of lose all sense of time", 'cos after the 6-hour song and the 24-hour song, this 10, 11, or however many minutes it is [song] just seemed like nothing. Even though it was a standard LP comparison, it didn't seem like any big deal to make that kind of piece where it just floats for so long. That's how those longer songs influence the making of "You Lust" -- it's not that we didn't care, we just weren't concerned with it being too long."
In many ways, this is the record that Flaming Lips fans have been waiting for for years: The Terror features a sort of thematic unity that is focused and concentrated in a way that the sprawling Embryonic and even At War With the Mystics wasn't: there's a an interpretive theme of us all clinging to some hopeless idea of love completely saving us, blinding ourselves to the fact that death, or the end of the universe, will actually be the thing that swallows us up on the end. "However love can help you / We are all standing alone / The terror's in our heads / We don't control the controls" the band sings in the title track, almost relinquishing themselves to a fate designed for them -- and all of us -- well before our time.
"I hoping that this'll be the Flaming Lips record that people will grab when they're really bummed out about something," Drozd continues, "it's a rainy day or they're feeling like shit or they're hungover and they just want to lay and listen to a record on a Sunday morning -- I feel like this is will be the record to do it. It seemed like a good companion to Embryonic which is just a crazy two-record, sprawling mess of these crazy jams and wild experiments. This one seems like the come-down from that, you know? [laughs] Like the party is over, the acid/Ecstasy has worn off, and now the sun is coming up and it's really a bummer and we're just trying to get through, you know what I mean?"
While their last two records are certainly sprawling (and that's still nothing compared to the wild barely-contained hoo-ha that is last year's quite good Heady Fwends compilation record), The Terror was actually initially conceived to be a continuous piece of music, something that was meant to be taken as a complete whole:
"We did talk about the main release being the whole record as one thing so you couldn't download individual songs. But then we backpeddled and thought "Ya know, it's pretty presumptuous and douchebaggy to do that," so we kind of backed away from that. The idea was -- I think moreso than any of our records, like The Soft Bulletin or any of these "concept records", Yoshimi -- this one to me feels a statement records, [with] one trip or vibe for lack of a better word. The whole album was mixed in one session. I guess people do that anyways, but we really were going on this thing that this was going to be one continuous piece of music. Now it's divided into however many songs, but it's one continuous piece of music. I feel like it feels like more uniform record than anything we've done, really. "
When fans purchase the iTunes version of the album, some of the bonus material they'll receive is certainly a bit off the beaten path: they'll get a recording of "Sun Blows Up Today" (aka the song that the band licensed out to a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl), the album mixed as a single, continuous track, and an epic 14-minute song called "Don't Control the Controls" which the band had to excise from the disc, which was more out of necessity than anything else.
"I guess it was just that we felt we were getting to a point where if we added anything else to what we had," Drozd tells us, "then it wasn't going to be an LP of traditional kind of standard links. Even that add-on, "The Sun Blows Up Today", that bonus thing that's attached to the record, I was a little bit bummed out about it 'cos to me it has nothing to do with what The Terror sounds like. I can understand why it happened, whereas "We Don't Control the Controls" ... I don't know. I felt that if we did anything else, then it's going to be too long to be considered -- I mean we're already pushing that anyways, I think the record is 52, 53 minutes, and we wanted to reside in that 40-45 minute category."
He continues: "And Embryonic was technically a double-record, so I guess we felt like anything more than what we ended up with would be too long. That's really the only reason."
I press Drozd on the issue of whether or not this record has a meaning, and indicating that while what I personally take out of the record (noting how death is something that is absolutely inevitable and that this record feels like an acknowledgment of the ways we trick ourselves into thinking that everything will work out despite all evidence to the contrary) may not be what he takes out of the record, fans pressing meanings onto the work of the Flaming Lips is nothing new.
"Yeah, but that's always the case," Drozd explains about fans sending in their own interpretations of what the albums mean, "especially since The Soft Bulletin. I mean, 'cos Wayne puts up some message and people love that. People want it to be a theme or want it to be a concept record, even if it's not, necessarily. People want to add that meaning to it which I guess is a valid thing. I guess the message with this is that we're saying there's another side of the band. Maybe you haven't heard much in the last several years, but there's another side that's not just "Do You Realize??" with confetti and people merrily dancing onstage. There's another side to us: yes, we know things are heavy and potentially very sad and life is brutal and it's not always sunshine. That's the message I think we're getting across. When I hear it, there's nothing I want to change about it. I'm glad we did all these things, that we kept it in this one area of heaviness lyrically and musically they sound very similar, which is what we want it to do. That's just the message: it's a heavier deal than usual."
Heavier indeed. Even since its release in the UK (a full two weeks prior to the release in North America), opinion already seems divided: noted Lips biographer Jim DeRogatis has called the album a depressing and dismal dud, while Rolling Stone easily foisted a four-star review onto the disc, noting the marked change in direction the band has taken. In many ways, this is exactly what the Lips wanted, and what Drozd has feared: that someone would view it as "just another Flaming Lips album."
Yet even with that, and even with the many experiments that the band has undertaken just in the last two years alone, I can't help but wonder what the band is going to be doing in the future, what new boundaries they're going to break. In truth, Drozd doesn't know much about the band's future either:
"I want to explore further this thing where we're taking these very simple synth or even guitar riffs, putting a beautiful choir on top of it. There's a '70s band called Popol Vuh that we were listening to a lot that's kind of [featuring a] Mellotron choir kind of creepy gothic sounds, and I'm just speaking musically, I'm not speaking thematically. I want to explore this thing with this simple riff stuff with this beautiful choir stuff on top, and we can do more stuff in that vein. As far as the actual whole career of the band, I'm at this point where this record just came out and I haven't been this excited about one of our new records since Yoshimi, maybe. This is the most excited I've been about a new Flaming Lips record in a long time. And that's not to say I'm not excited about the previous records, but that's just to say I'm very excited about this one. Just to see if people react to it, if they think it's anything different from us or if they think "It's nothing! Who cares?" or if we get some reaction from people that it's different and heavy and all that. For the next two years, we'll just be touring like crazy, so by the time we sit down to make the next record, we'll be in a completely different place than we are now, so we'll see. For me, I'm just going on the energy of the record coming out, so I'm pretty excited about that."
Of course Drozd is used to upsetting expectations, having taken some of his free time and applying it to things like Songs for Dustmites, the 2003 record he did with former Blue's Clues host Steve Burns, which actually garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim. I bring this up to Steven, and he immediately lights up: "When I met Steve I was going through the worst of kicking heroin; in 2001 when we met and he wanted to do something, anything with any of the Lips guys. So he came to Dave [Fridmann, the long-standing Lips' producer] and I was up at Daves and within 30 minutes of meeting each other we really hit it off. So here I was, this junkie going through the throws of withdraw, and here is, the host of Blue's Clues, and we're upstairs making up these goofy songs within 30 minutes of meeting each other.
"He changed my life, I mean he really did," Drozd continues. "Steve Burns changed my life. We're still really good friends to this day. In fact, day after tomorrow I'm shooting a bunch of videos with him for this kids record we made that we're trying to get finished and put out called STEVENSTEVEN. And it's just him doing all the singing and me doing all the music and we're gonna make some videos for it and we're tryin' to get this website created. So meeting Steve at that time was a great thing for me. It helped me get through some of the worst of the depressing and stuff just to stay busy and do those recordings 'cos he such a fun-loving guy."
Last but not least, I broach upon the issue of what he feels his biggest regret is with the band, and -- conversely -- what his proudest accomplishment is. While he did previously note on how he has a deep-seated fear of how the album would be received ("To me the worst thing would be that the record comes out and no one even notices that we tried to do something different or they don't hear it as being something different. I guess to me, I'm just glad we tried to do something different for us."), his biggest regret stems from the time he had in the band while they were experiencing some of their greatest successes, and how he was almost numb to the experience as a whole:
"I don't have a lot of regrets. Probably the biggest thing -- and this is such a lame answer -- but there's a couple of songs on Mystics that I wish wouldn't have gone on the record [laughs]. They made the record seem not as cool as it would've been if those songs weren't on the record. But that's not a huge career destroyer or anything. I guess I just wish I would've enjoyed some of this more than I did at the time. I'm sure a lot of people say that. Even past Yoshimi in those first couple of years when we first got this whole new career -- a lot of it I just didn't enjoy, and I didn't think it had really anything to do with the Flaming Lips or Wayne or whatever. I think it was just a period of my personal life that was not great and I wish I could've enjoyed it more."
Yet Drozd continues on this tangent, nothing that "for the most part, for me specifically, I'm this musician that's been playing music for a long time, there's a bunch of different ways my life could've gone, but I ended up in this situation where I pretty much get to try all the music I wanted to try and a lot of it is appreciated and love by a lot of people -- it's a pretty good deal.
"As far as our greatest triumph?" he asks, "this might sound kind of pompous, but I really think our greatest triumph was surviving the mid- to late-90s and getting this whole other career. Really, they were already old timers by the time I joined the Lips in 1991 or 1992. We put out a couple of records and it seemed like "OK well these guys are really done now", and for a chance to get to do Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin and get to pass through the grunge/Seattle/alternative fuckin' hangover where labels were dropping all the bands and electronica was hitting and all this stuff was happening -- to survive that and and get to make a record that fuckin' anybody cared about -- that probably seems to me be our biggest triumph. And after that, we got a whole new chance to make records!"
One of those records, of course, turned out to be The Terror, and love it or hate it, this is a record that boldly affirms the Flaming Lips as one of those rare bands today that refuse to compromise their vision, following whatever wild hares they want when it comes to artistic satsifaction, even if it results in the single bleakest record of their careers, released some 30 years after the band's initial inception.
For the band to withstand the test of time for as long as they have, much less to make the genre-defying music that they have, is nothing short of an accomplishment. With The Terror, they feel like they're entering a whole new chapter. Where they'll end up is a mystery to them just as well as it is a mystery to you and me, but if The Terror is any indication of where they're heading, let's just say that we can't wait to see what they'll do next.