Clouds Taste Metallic may not be the most unanimously and critically acclaimed album of The Flaming Lips heralded discography, but it many ways may be the most critical to their growth and maturation, especially if they were to survive the oncoming death of grunge and the vastly changing musical landscape of the ’90s. Their riffs became tighter and less drenched behind noise, and their existential crisis were put to lyrical forefront and just a little less behind cute metaphors involving animals, real or imaginary.
After three decades of constantly changing and aiming towards the future, the Flaming Lips have finally stopped for a moment to look back through their illustrious career. Earlier in 2015, the band performed their Ronald Jones-era breakthrough album Clouds Taste Metallic for rapturous fans, and that set has now been reissued into an excellent 20th Anniversary box set. It features out of print deep cuts, and a powerfully remastered live performance from 1996. Songs from this classic era are making their way back onto recent setlists after spending up to decades in the box. On top of that, they’ve got a documentary about the album in the works, along with a new and profound desire to learn what’s become of the mysterious, now almost-mythological Ronald Jones.
So what’s got the Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne returning to this classic Lips era?
“I think all that was a coincidence. I forget where we were, but we saw a video from around I think 1996 when we were doing the big Christmas Light back drops. And there was a video going around of us playing ‘Abandoned Hospital Ship’ where when all the Christmas lights would explode. Cause Steven had played drums on that and we thought, ‘Why don’t we just try that?’ Literally the first time we tried that it really worked. It wasn’t really connected to Clouds Taste Metallic being 20 years old, but I think all those things did start to combine.”
That homemade Christmas light stage setup has since gone through numerous versions and changes. From the projector setup of The Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Tours, to the alien spaceship that the band would descend onto the stage from. Then came the Pink Floyd half-circle rig, where Wayne would begin the show exiting from colorful, psychedelic vagina, which evolved into the bulbous and pulsating LED orbs of The Terror. Nowadays, The Lips have combined forces with Miley Cyrus to create what Wayne describes as, “A Mach 10 version of the Flaming Lips show.”
Twenty years later, the band still sticks to their DIY approach when taking their massive performances on the road. “Miley only owns some of her stage stuff,” Coyne admits, “while we own all of our production stuff. I think that’s one of the things that makes this work, it doesn’t cost five million dollars in production to go out there. We can be like, ‘Hey wanna go next week?’ which she really likes, and is really kind of how the Lips have been doing things for about 10 years now.”
And what determines what classic songs make the cut for the live show?
“There’s a certain amount of songs that we know and that we know we can play and have the show organized around but we don’t always know which one it is. Sometimes we’ll get lucky and it’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah! That’s great! We gotta keep playing that!’ I think there’s definitely times with all artists where they feel like the mission statement that they made right now is what they’re all about. And that subsidized a bit after after a while until it finally becomes a part of them. Then they feel they can move on.”
As for Clouds Taste Metallic, that now-iconic disc would ultimately go down as a signpost for when the group truly departed from their punk rock roots in full. The quality of songwriting had reached an all time high for the group, as did their pop cultural impact. Album closer “Bad Day” made it onto the Batman Forever sound track, and singer John Tesh reportedly wished to record a version of “Christmas at The Zoo” around this time. Their newfound popularity after the success of their fluke 1993 alternative hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” demanded a touring schedule that really pushed the bands musicianship to the next level.
“Well, probably,” Coyne notes, “because your only allowed to be so rock, rock, rock. The shows we played from 1993 to 1997 — that’s more shows than we ever, ever played. I mean we would play all the, all the time, all the time. And I think because we got to be so punk rocked locked, prog rock meets punk rock, and since nobody stopped us I think we able to push through and evolve into something else. I think we knew we were starting to get away from having the heaviest punk rock stuff. We still liked the idea of punk rock, it just didn’t necessarily have to be so much rock. By the time we got to Soft Bulletin I felt like we turned into something else by then. And I think us being so accelerated on Clouds Taste Metallic helped pave that.”
The 1996 departure of guitarist Ronald Jones lead to the most dramatic change in identity for the Lips. After losing their lead guitarist, it made sense to them that they would forgo guitars almost entirely. However, signs of this sort change could be seen in the array of cover songs that come included in the Clouds box set. Renditions of Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” and Alice Cooper’s “Sun Arise” bridge the inspirational gap between the Lips’ punk rock roots and their sense of melody and composition that would guide iconic tracks like “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” and “Evil Will Prevail”. It’s not too hard to imagine alternate incarnations of the Lips with Ronald playing on later era albums.
“You know Steven and I talked about it all the time,” Coyne starts. “I think if Ronald had stayed in the group I think he would have absolutely loved to have been apart of it, and would have wanted to do everything we had been doing. That’s the way we see it. We would be playing things and we would just go, ‘Oh fuck, Ronald would have loved this.’ It was part of his abilities and part of his uniqueness that made us pursue all that stuff. He helped us understand another level of what we could be.”
No official statement has ever been made by Ronald himself in regards to his departure, leaving hardcore fans to speculate as to what truly happened. The Lips have always been very forthright about what little information they have about his reasons for leaving. The most commonly-cited excuse is that the Flaming Lips drummer and all around musical wizard Steven Drozd’s, intense heroin addiction served as the inciting incident. Although, to hear it from Coyne, he believes there was more to it than just their bandmates addiction.
“Towards the end of Clouds Taste Metallic, [Jones] wasn’t liking being a group. I don’t think it was that he didn’t like being apart of The Flaming Lips, I think he just didn’t like that much intensity. When he first joined The Flaming Lips, most of the people we attracted because they knew we made freaky music, but by the time he left the audience had grown a little bit into an audience that likes you because your starting to get famous or something. He didn’t really allow himself to just embrace it and not worry about it. He was younger, and by then for me I was like don’t worry about it, just have fun with it and we can go home. Let’s just do our music. He didn’t want to do it that way. I think he looked ahead in his life and just saw a life he didn’t want anything to do with.”
Since his departure, a small cult following has built around the enigmatic guitar hero. Renowned for his impeccable guitar style, Jones exhibited a control over noise and effects that others still struggle to replicate some 20 years later. Websites have been made by fans to discuss all his known whereabouts and the finer details of his gear and pedals. Occasionally you may come across someone online who’ll post about knowing him through a friend-of-a-friend, or through their local music scene, and though sometimes these posts may seem to have some validity, at the end of the day they’re still just posts from random strangers on the internet. All this has lead to Ronald Jones to become an almost mythological character in the story of The Flaming Lips, which bleeds directly into the creation of Clouds.
“Well, ya know we didn’t think about it that much back then,” Coyne mulls, “but I think as time went on it did become more of a mystery and more of a mythological connection. And because we love Ronald and we still love playing that music. I think that probably helped us along, but we never went away from it. I think it’s just because we keep going and it becomes an even deeper mystery. Then more people start asking what the fuck happened? He did a few recordings with some friends here and there. Then little by little, nothing. I think there were some mental illness factors that we weren’t allowed to know about which I think played a part in it too. To the best that we could we tried to find him, and the documentary we’ve been making has been to get to talk to Ronald and figure out what is the story in all that? What did happen? That’s the reason we wanted to make this.”
While celebrating Clouds Taste Metallic with an anniversary full album performance at Minneapolis’s famed First Avenue, the band took some time to record interviews and footage for their in-the-works documentary. The project is still going through post-production even while on the road with Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Long-time Lips collaborator and director of their Fearless Freaks documentary Brad Beesley has also reopened the vaults for more archival footage of the group. The big fish of the story however, is the early stages of reaching out to Ronald Jones.
“We haven’t talked to him, but I think if we keep trying we’ll eventually be able find out enough to know if we’ll ever be able to make a documentary with him or if we can do something. The idea that were making it, and trying to include him, and want him to be apart of it I think is a big show of we’re interested in you.”
Coyne continues: “For me, I think the main story is Ronald Jones. Steven and I talk openly about every aspect of The Flaming Lips, so I don’t think hearing us talk about it is that much of a revelation. It wouldn’t be that much a of a story. That’s why we want to message him. We want Ronald or anyone that could be attached to him that we’re interested in seeing if we could talk to him and see what he says. To let him know that we’re all interested in what he is, and what he was, and the mystery he continues to be.”
After a recent seven-year stretch of the band releasing some of their most intensely experimental music ever, will their next record find the Flaming Lips steering back towards the songwriting territory the honed throughout Clouds Taste Metallic and The Soft Bulletin? Which direction do you head after working on a double-disc weed-addled pop album with Miley Cyrus?
“That’s just what you do,” Coyne notes, surmizing his overall do-anything philosophy. “You get into a state of mind, you obsess and you push as hard as you can, and something else opens up in its wake. On the Dead Petz album, some of the songs automatically changed poppy because of Miley singing on them. It would be interesting to see if they seem poppy just because she’s on it, or is it just another side of The Flaming Lips?
“But we love pop music, to me, I guess I never think about what’s pop and what’s rock. Some people would consider the Pink Floyd Syd Barrett-era poppy, but others might consider it more experimental.”