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No vaseline required

Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne explains how one of the most experimental bands of the past decade has thrived in a major-label environment.

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"We were on the Jenny Jones show last Friday," claims Wayne Coyne, vocalist and guitarist for Oklahoma's favorite psychedelic cowboys, The Flaming Lips. But he wasn't there as a teen seeking a makeover or even, as some older fans might suspect, to serve as one of the show's hired drug "experts." He was simply an observer.

"(Jenny Jones) came out before the show began to say hi to all the tour groups and colleges there, and she said, 'I don't know who they are but our producers really like these guys, The Flaming Lips,'" says Coyne. "And no one really knew who we were."

Don't feel bad for Coyne and the remaining members of the 16-year-old band though. What many perceived to be the group's 15 minutes of fame occurred about six years ago when the "She Don't Use Jelly" single was beginning to grind on modern rock radio listeners' nerves, and the Lips made appearances on MTV, The Late Show with David Letterman, and even Beverly Hills 90210. "That's something that impresses your friends and family back home," says Coyne. "It's not something that gets you a better table in a restaurant or anything."

Maybe not. Since then the group has toiled in the relative obscurity most true artists crave, allowing Coyne to pursue creative endeavors such as 1996's "Parking Lot Experiment." On this particular Halloween, auto owners and fans from around the Oklahoma City area (a place the Lips still call home) gathered in a parking lot to perform a Coyne-synchronized rock symphony, with each car stereo playing a distinct part.

But displays of inspired insanity like this have led to more than just headaches for the OKC meter maids. Zaireeka (a 1997 four-CD set meant to be played simultaneously) and 1999's The Soft Bulletin (a single CD fans play repeatedly) are arguably two of the most aurally engaging albums to come out in the last five years, and a far cry from the Lips' earlier efforts.

"We stumbled on all this stuff," says Coyne. "We've always tried to bite off more than we can chew, but never enough for it to bite back. We've tried to master each stage, and by the time we went in to do Zaireeka and even some of The Soft Bulletin stuff, the reach of what we wanted to do seemed like a lot, and seemed to border on the impossible. But it seemed doable, knowing the amount of time and ambition and the amount of work we were willing to do based on what we had done in the past.

"Even if it truly is a great record, a lot of it is as accidental as any of our other records. We didn't set up shop three years ago with some design that went into being The Soft Bulletin, we just started doing junk and hoped it worked out."

Here, one man's junk proved to be another's treasure. The record was voted one of the year's top 10 by critics across the country, and, surprisingly, it was even cherished enough to land in the same spots at Rolling Stone and Spin.

"The circumstances that you put a record out in have to do as much with it being accepted as the sound on it," Coyne says. "I'm sure there are people that think we're shit, they just don't come up and talk to me about it."

This self-effacing attitude makes it hard to remember that in the past this sort of critical support is almost unprecedented for a group written off by some as an antigrunge novelty. As it turns out, throwing off critical shackles to receive these accolades was only made possible by the group shedding the protective layers of guitars it had built around itself.

"Unlimited freedom paralyzes people as much as big restrictions do because they don't have any guide. I think we always held ourselves back a little bit by saying we don't really know what we're doing. So it's best to follow people that do," confesses Coyne. "We usually followed things that we thought were great, whether it was Sonic Youth in 1986, or Dinosaur Jr. in 1989, or My Bloody Valentine in '91. We would look and say, 'What they're doing seems to be accepted and we like that. Why don't we do something in that vein?' I don't know if that's how our records sounded, but I know we didn't look at it as being on a path by ourselves.

"But there came a point when we weren't necessarily bored, we had just reached the point where the stuff that we were talking about had never been done before, or at least no one was talking about it now. So as we feared less that we would be on our own path, we accidentally found that we liked that.... It freed us up to say, 'Fuck, let's just do all this other stuff we've never done before.'"

Eventually, the parking lot experiment turned into Zaireeka, which became the boombox experiment (just like the parking lot, only indoors) when taken on the road. To that end, The Soft Bulletin itself, with its use of everything from refrigerators and tubas to insects and harps, is like some acid-induced Beatles free-for-all through the natural sound closets of Native America. "I don't know why we didn't do that before," explains Coyne. "We had just restricted ourselves in this palette of guitar-driven/effect-driven, slightly symphonic stuff, but based in a sound collage that came almost specifically from guitars."

Yet for some reason, wherever these whimsical trips landed The Flaming Lips, Warner Bros. has remained their major-label home for the last 10 years -- a relationship almost unheard of in the modern, consolidated music industry. Even though the label can claim such disparate acts as Built to Spill, Candlebox, Cher, and Cibo Matto, it seems odd for the suits to stick with a group whose first EP was a collection of rock insanity called Wastin' Pigs, through the glory days of Satellite Heart, and into the creative and costly years of late. If the men at the top of Warner are truly visionaries who saw The Soft Bulletin coming, everything that has been assumed about corporate rock in the 1990s goes out the window. Thankfully though, all these years of spite haven't been misdirected, for Coyne has an easier explanation: "I think they kept us because at the right time we made them money.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they love what we do, but from what I can tell, and it's true about any band on any record label, there are people at Warner right now who would tell you they love us but have no idea what we sound like." Like many things for this band, says Coyne, "it's been by total arbitrary accident, without us even knowing that a review is coming. And suddenly we looked profitable, and they threw us back in the pile and said, 'Let 'em try one more.'"

Coyne is almost certain the band's last two records could not have been made without the label's financial and promotional backing, a situation fans have become all too familiar with in recent years when established artists are dropped from major labels and forced to work under budget and time constraints that produce lackluster results. Coyne agrees he's in a fine mess, but after 10 years on the inside, when Coyne says, "I don't know why most artists don't try to get to this point where, when they're at the peak of their abilities, they're also at the peak of their money," you have to wonder about his perspective.

However, there were some financial concerns to overcome when taking The Soft Bulletin on the road -- concerns that wouldn't have existed for some of The Flaming Lips' labelmates that sell millions of records. But in typical Lips style, the problem was solved by a refusal to play by the old rules of rock. This took the group from keeping a handful of songs on each record it could pay live and treating itself to a few studio-only gems, to letting it all out in the studio and finding a way to cope on stage later. In a move that would make some musicians choke on their pride, the Lips decided to use a backing DAT recording of, as Coyne puts it, "the symphonics, the big vocal things and some of the drums," while the group performs in front.

"What sealed it for me was when I went to see Brian Wilson do some shows," Coyne remembers. "Here was this huge, marvelous band, with great players on stage, and honestly I didn't give a shit until Brian Wilson came on stage -- and the crowd didn't care either. (The band) was just a bunch of guys who play wonderfully, but Brian Wilson is what mattered. When he left, they didn't applaud the band, they applauded Brian.

"It made me realize that even if we did bring 30 people with us, you wouldn't pay to see them, you would pay to see us play our songs." And now while touring with only three players, Coyne should be easier to recognize on his next visit to Jenny Jones.

The Flaming Lips with Looper Thursday, March 9 at The Granada

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