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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Flaming Lips Face Death

(This time without hope and robots)

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Wayne Coyne was 16 when he realized he would die. He was working at the fast-food restaurant Long John Silver’s when a robber held it up, putting a gun to Coyne’s head. Though he was uninjured, the incident left him with an awareness of his own mortality that would shape the way he lived. Most mornings Coyne wakes up and literally looks death in the eye.

“We have this fireplace in our bedroom, and my wife keeps this giant skull in there,” he says. “And every day I look at it and I’m reminded, ‘Hey, motherfucker, you’re still alive. Make it count. Go live your life.’”

That sentiment has carried over to his records with The Flaming Lips. On 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the records largely responsible for the cult following the Lips carry today, Coyne recognized death’s inevitability, then offered solace. “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die,” he sang, advising his disciples to nonetheless live life to its fullest: “Instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast.”

After those uplifting records, the Lips’ latest, Embryonic, comes as a shock. On it, Coyne again confronts death, but this time can’t muster words of comfort. It’s a chilling record, driven by the most menacing, psychedelic freak-outs the group has attempted in nearly two decades. There are no Yoshimi-styled warm and fuzzies here, or any escapist fantasies about galaxy surfing or time travel. Instead, in a frail, frightened voice, Coyne sings of decay and desolation, resigned to his fate as the music closes in on him.

“I know that sometimes I sing about things that could appear to be naive or optimistic,” Coyne says, “but the things we sing on Embryonic are not optimistic. These songs are not saying that life is only good. We know that life is full of pain, that life is strange, that life is unpredictable.

“That’s one of those powerful things, the awareness of how temporary life is, how temporary happiness is, how temporary comfort is,” he adds. “Your life isn’t set any one way. It’s always in transition. Ideally it’s in a transition from one reasonably pleasant thing to another, but a lot of times it’s not. A lot of times horrible things happen."

The Lips didn’t set out to make an album so overtly bleak. They pieced Embryonic from long jam sessions, hoping that if they recorded long enough they might capture something powerful.

“A lot of music and art comes from your subconscious, and you have to let those ideas seep out,” Coyne says. “So I didn’t know what I was going to sing about, but I thought that I was brutally honest and if I followed whatever muse or whatever trip I was on, that they would eventually come to my rescue. That’s how Embryonic ended up so strange. It’s about some element of the dark and unknown deep within ourselves that we’re not aware of, or that we’re not sure we want to be aware of. It hints at some animalistic, base human experience. I’m not sure we intended to do that, but when it happened we were very pleased and surprised. Hearing it, I thought, ‘I didn’t know we could do that.’”

Coyne cites his favorite song on the album, “See the Leaves,” as an example. Sloppy and ominous, it’s the record’s most striking moment, imagining a world “without hope, without love,” where the sun is failing, leaving the trees to whither. Like much of the album, it was an accident. It began as a closing jam to another track, later aborted, before the band reshaped it into its own song.

“There are drum fills on that song that don’t hit on time, and all these other things about it where if you tried to do them on purpose you would change them,” Coyne says, “but when it all splatters itself so beautifully in front of you, you’d be a fool not to accept it.”

The Flaming Lips play the Riverside Theater on Wednesday, April 21, at 8 p.m.


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