Interview with Flaming Lips Guitarist Wayne Coyne and Bassist Michael Ivins

June 22, 2006

On some tablet of rock history it is written that punk music was born as a reaction to overwrought, psychedelic prog bands such as Yes and Pink Floyd. But what if some freaky Midwestern punk rockers who actually enjoyed Yes and Pink Floyd kept at it long enough to evolve into something equally musical, cinematic, and overwrought as the aforementioned rock deities, but without taking themselves so damn seriously? That’s the short version of the Flaming Lips story, which began in Oklahoma City more than 20 years ago.

The two constants in Flaming Lips lore are singer and sometime guitarist Wayne Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins. Coyne is the band visionary, and, back in the ’80s, he wielded his guitar with reckless abandon to create noisy, sometimes magical, punk pop. However, Coyne eventually “realized his limitations,” and handed over the guitar duties—first to Jonathan Donahue, and then to Ronald Jones. Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd officially joined as the Lips’ drummer, but it was his pedal-steel hook that drove the band’s breakout 1993 hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” from Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. When the band whittled down to a core trio of Coyne, Drozd, and Ivins in the mid ’90s, Drozd’s flexible guitar, keyboard, and vocal abilities allowed Coyne to mold the Lips into a more sophisticated musical ensemble.

The band’s latest release, At War With the Mystics [Warner Brothers], is its most directly political effort, and it combines the guitar bombast of the early Lips with the epic nature of the group’s more experimental work such as Zaireeka (released as four CDs designed to be played separately on multiple stereo systems). Coyne contributes killer fuzz riffs to “Free Radicals” and “The W.A.N.D.,” but Drozd is once again the main man musically, playing about 90 percent of the guitar parts, and creating the vast majority of the album’s far-out tones.

Steven, what’s your live setup?

Drozd: My main guitar is a ’67 Fender Jazzmaster , and my second guitar is a Epiphone SG doubleneck. I originally bought the doubleneck for Wayne to encourage him to play more guitar onstage. He taped a broken iPod on the body to make it look cool, but he didn’t actually play it, so I started playing it. The 6-string neck is broken, so I covered it with tape. I like the 12-string’s darker tone, because I’m not interested in that classic Byrds chime.

My guitar signal runs through a Boss GT-8, a Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeler, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, and an old Fender Super Twin. I also use a Dunlop/Heil Talk Box on the chorus of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.”

What inspired you to play more rock riffs on At War with the Mystics?

Drozd: We’d gone through our mellow symphonic-pop route, so now it feels fresh to play amped-up rock. Also, while we still worship Led Zeppelin, we discovered a lot of hokey fuzz-guitar rock by second and third tier acts such as Uriah Heep, Montrose, and David Essex.

How did you achieve the more radical guitar sounds on your CD?

Drozd: I love to use the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, because that pedal is insane. It makes the same crazy fuzz sound regardless of the guitar and amplifier. It just takes over whatever you are doing. We also ran a bunch of cheapo guitars into this weird amplified drum from the ’60s called a Timpano. Our producer, Dave Fridmann, had the idea to use the thing as a guitar amplifier. We ran the signal from a bottom-of-the-line, early ’60s Sears Silvertone double-cutaway into the Fuzz Factory and a Fender Super Twin, and then ran a line from the amp’s speaker-extension jack into the Timpano, which has a built-in 10" speaker. We miked the Timpano, and got that crazy little guitar sound that was used on “The W.A.N.D.,” “It Overtakes Me,” and “Free Radicals.” On “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung,” I plugged a funky old 12-string straight into the Timpano, and I overdrove its onboard speaker to get that really pingy tone.

Do you use any unique guitar techniques?

Coyne: I don’t know the rules, so I’ll sometimes jump to a strange key or a strange rhythm that’s perfect. My ignorance plays into stumbling upon new ideas and sounds.

Drozd: I’m obsessed with finding ways to play chords with weird combinations of droning open strings. I’ll take a standard barre chord, and then experiment by lifting different fingers off of the fretboard to find open strings that work. I’ll also move my other fingers around until I find unique chord inversions.

How does the songwriting break down in the Flaming Lips?

Drozd: I’ll often come up with chords and a melody, and Wayne will write lyrics. I find that when I write on piano, I usually wind up taking a more traditional path, whereas on guitar, I always try to come up with some gimmick to make the idea feel unique. For example, “A Vein of Stars” came about because I had tuned the guitar to this funky F6 tuning—[low to high] F, A, D, F, C, C.

Coyne: Sometimes, Steven will come up with something that’s gloriously complicated and emotional, and I’ll simplify it with some lyrics and a story. On other songs, Steven might add more sophistication and color to a simple idea I started. A perfect example of that process is “Do You Realize??” from Yoshimi. The song is a basic, Beatlesque chord progression using open chords in the key of C. But Steven added the break where the key jumps up for a minute, and then finds a graceful way back. I would never know how to do that.

Wayne, what’s the deal with that acoustic guitar you play onstage? It has a synthesizer mounted in the soundhole and a bunch of strings missing.

Coyne: That Alvarez 12-string is the first guitar I ever bought, and, onstage, I just use it as a prop—like Elvis Presley. I stuck an Alesis Air Synth in the soundhole, which has some great sound-shaping effects you can manipulate by waving your hand over it like a Theremin. I occasionally play Steven’s guitars, but mostly I’m blowing up balloons and playing that silly acoustic guitar. I’m trying to do something that looks cool onstage, whereas Steven can actually play.

Steven, do you ever feel that the onstage extravaganza overshadows your considerable musicianship?

Drozd: I really struggled with it for a while because you want to be taken seriously. It’s like, “Hey, I’m up here cutting on this guitar, and no one hears it because Wayne has a flashlight on his head!” But then I tried to put myself in the shoes of a music-obsessed 16-year-old. Now I think that as long as the musicianship is there to back it up, I’d be blown away by all the stuff that goes into the show. It makes more of an impact than watching guys who just play guitar. Of course, I’m not wearing the bunny suit any more [laughs].

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