"'What are you going to do next? Ten CDs?' People would say that, all the time."
The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne is laughing about the overblown speculation which greeted the band's latest album, The Soft Bulletin. But really, you can't blame folks for having wild expectations, given the precedent of 1997's Zaireeka, the innovative release featuring four CDs designed for synchronized play. Coyne (along with bandmates Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd) never worried about an encore, however.
"I didn't look at Zaireeka as being an ultimate statement," Coyne shrugs, in a call from his Oklahoma home. "It was really just another record that we made. I'm glad that it's viewed as a big leap of some kind, an ambitious effort. And it was ambitious -- don't get me wrong. We knew when we were doing it, that just 'Gosh, this is really a lot of work. It's a crazy idea.' But we never looked at it as some high mark that we would have to outdo next time. That's only implied by other people. We just hope to do the ideas that we currently have. We want them to be good, and we want people to think our records are important. But we never think, ooh, that's going to be hard to outdo. Not at all."
The Soft Bulletin may lack Zaireeka's conceptual novelty, but it's no disappointment. Far from it. Undoubtedly the group's most gorgeously crafted release ever (if one of their least aggressive), The Soft Bulletin lives up to its title with a program of atmospheric tunes depending on lush detail and vaporous melodies, rather than buzzing distortion and gnashing beats.
"The idea of a news bulletin is what I always thought a new record is, in a way," Coyne explains. "It merits your attention: 'Hey, news bulletin!' And if a record isn't going to be news, then why put it out? There's no shortage of music out there. To me, it should be announcing the news to the world, even if it's your own personal news. That's the idea. But at the beginning, we were also toying with the words 'bullet in,' like a soft bullet that's going in. So we're using it with two different meanings. We were thinking of the impact that songs can have on people's lives, that it would be analogous to shooting someone with a soft bullet. They wouldn't even realize they had been shot, but the effect would be felt for the rest of their lives."
Coyne's penchant for woolly philosophizing carries over to the record, which is soaked with musings about life's spiritual path. It's the sonic pleasures which dig the deepest wounds, however. Muting guitars in favor of a fanciful array of sampled instruments and effects, the Lips use studio wizardry to lead an imaginary orchestra through spacious odes such as "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," "Race for the Prize," "Buggin'" and "The Gash." The sound's breadth can be startling, and Coyne's frayed wail provides a perfect counterpart to the boundless swirl of instrumental color, which could've seemed pompous if topped with a more powerful voice.
"I think we're taking some of the more obvious guitar noises and saying, well, gee, why don't we not do some of those over-the-top noises -- let's try to express more of the sentiment in the song, as opposed to just building these washes of big guitar sounds," Coyne says. "And I'm not saying one is more effective than the other. It's just that a lot of that has been done by us, and by a lot of other people. It's not necessarily that we've evolved away from it. It's just to do something different."
The Flaming Lips have been defying formula ever since they rose above the psychedelic underground of the mid '80s, a generation which also resonates today via Spiritualized, Mazzy Star and the Screaming Trees. After releasing four albums on the independent Restless label, the Lips moved to Warner Brothers for 1992's Hit to Death in the Future Head. That disc didn't make much commercial headway, but a breakthrough came with the following year's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, which bore a genuine hit single: the irresistible "She Don't Use Jelly."
Their audience now secured, the trio stretched with subsequent releases, allowing more balladry and understatement to shade their work. A second hit didn't appear, but the group's critical acclaim grew. Clearly, the Lips weren't content to repeat the nursery-rhyme gimmicks of "Jelly." Coyne knows better than to pursue success so cynically.
"A lot of times, fame seems to restrict people to doing what the fans want, as opposed to doing what you want," he says. "But you know, we've been doing this a long time, and I've seen a lot of people go through that kind of minor-celebrity-hip status which we had in 1994. And in some ways, it changed us. We made a lot of money. We became famous. We got to be on David Letterman and play 90210, and do all these crazy things that you can only dream about until someone allows you to do them. And I'm glad that we've done them all, but hopefully it hasn't changed us a whole lot."
"A hit is a hit," he continues. "You can have 20 songs that sound just like it, and no one will give a shit. So we knew it wasn't really a risk to follow our own muse. If we want to do something different, we just do it, knowing it isn't that we're giving up this big, popular status. That stuff is just too unpredictable. We basically just do what we like, hope that it's marketable and try to convince people that it's worth buying."
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