Few alternative rock musicians have challenged themselves quite like the Flaming Lips. Over the past five years they have created "Parking Lot Experiment," a symphony performed with dozens of car stereo tape decks each playing different music, Zaireeka, a box set of four different CDs meant to be played simultaneously, and the beautifully atmospheric pop album The Soft Bulletin.
Now the Lips are back in the studio working on their next full-length record, tentatively due in May. And while it will definitely be issued on one disc and won't involve a single car stereo, it's proving to be no less demanding than the band's most inventive projects.
At this point, the Lips have 12 songs in semicompleted form, composed of as many as 100 tracks layered together. And the band is pulling all the stops, experimenting with electronics, keyboards and digital recording.
"With all this computer stuff they've got nowadays, you can compile rhythms and work on them relentlessly," singer/guitarist Wayne Coyne said recently from his home in Norman, Oklahoma. "Before, if we had more than 30 or 40 tracks going, we'd have to run it all manually, and it really would be such a physical task that at some point we'd throw up our hands and say, 'That's good enough.' But now we can endlessly pile it on and just keep picking and choosing which atmospheres we think are complimenting which aspects of the song."
Such an approach would seem to lend itself to strikingly experimental tones and textures, but Coyne said the still-untitled disc is shaping up to be one of the band's most conventional yet. Then again, even conventional Lips music makes most freak rockers sound tame.
"It kind of reminds me of The Soft Bulletin, where we really think we're doing some experimental music, but it probably sounds more commercial because of it," he said. "And now I think some of our early records weren't experimental at all, even though at the time a lot of people thought they were. We just thought we were making pop music. And now just the opposite has happened where we go in there with the intent of truly being experimental and a lot of it comes across as being very contemporary pop."
Even if the music is infused with as many hooks as 'NSYNC's finest, Coyne's lyrics will no doubt still make the songs sound like ramblings from a street-corner nutbag. After all, he's toying with the idea of a concept record strung together by a narrative about a cartoonish theme he cryptically refers to as "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots."
"It just seems so playful and fun to me, and I hope other people see it that way," he enthused. "A lot of it is about the same stuff we've always been involved with death, love, the meaning of your own pitiful existence. But when they're presented like they're in a Walt Disney cartoon they almost have more meaning."
Tentative song titles include "All We Have Is Now," "Do You Realise?" "The Funeral in My Head," "Ego Trippin'" and "The Mourning of the Musicians." Some of the songs are expected to be instrumentals. The Flaming Lips started working on the record in March south of Buffalo, New York, in producer Dave Fridmann's studio.
As mind-blowing as the group's next record promises to be, the project that's really twisting Coyne's synapses is a full-length motion picture he and his bandmates are writing, directing, scoring and acting in called "Xmas on Mars."
"When I compare it, I think about the Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch stuff like 'Eraserhead' or 'Dead Man' crossed with some kind of fantasy-space-Christmas aspect, like say 'The Wizard of Oz' or even '2001: A Space Odyssey,' and done without real actors or money," he excitedly spouted. "Surprisingly, I've got about 20 minutes of real edited film with music and sound effects so far, and it looks like a real movie."
"Xmas on Mars" is tentatively scheduled for release next Christmas and is about people on an isolated colony on Mars who are suffering from depression and becoming suicidal. To ease his comrades' suffering, one resident, played by Lips drummer Steven Drozd, decides to put on a Christmas pageant to celebrate the birth of one of the colonist's babies.
"You see his humiliation and his self-doubt because there are all these haphazard things that keep getting in the way of his determination to celebrate this first Christmas on Mars," Coyne said. "I play the Martian super-being that helps him get through his more tragic moments. It's meant to be kind of funny and sort of sad and sentimental and moody. I'm hoping it doesn't come across cheap like 'Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park' or something."
The Flaming Lips are working on "Xmas on Mars" with director Brad Beesley, who made the barehanded-catfishing documentary "Okie Noodling" (which featured Lips music) and the 1999 film "The Flaming Lips Have Landed," which premiered at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival.
Coyne said the soundtrack will mostly be composed of ambient and instrumental segments that complement the action of the film. He compared the tone to that of David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. He added that "Xmas on Mars" will probably not be released in theatres but will likely be showcased in rock venues before its release as a DVD.
"I want to make it a big, visceral event," Coyne said. "I'd like to take a lot of the clubs we play at and treat them like movie theaters. We want to show the movie with a mega-sound system and snow machines and just make it like a bigger event than what has become the typical movie-going experience. I'm hoping people can watch this movie while they drink beer, smoke cigarettes and have a good time."
A spokesperson for the band said an upcoming DVD may feature the full movie with outtakes, all of the band's videos and possibly Beesley's Flaming Lips documentary.