[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, June 22.]
The Flaming Lips have spent the better part of the past decade and a
half spiking their pop confections with the oddest of sonic ingredients.
But you would be wrong if you thought they'd reached their trippy peak
with 1997's Zaireeka -- four CDs of aural effects meant to be
For the Oklahoma City trio, that was just the beginning.
The Lips retreated into an upstate New York recording studio for nearly
two years and emerged with The Soft Bulletin, released Tuesday
(June 22). It's a project that was inspired by the Zaireeka sessions,
Lips leader Wayne Coyne said.
"When we started making Zaireeka, we knew we would make two
records at the same time," Coyne explained recently. "Zaireeka was,
in theory, going to make us aware of what our next record would be. If
given enough freedom to do whatever, then eventually you go as far as you
can go. [For the next record,] we would be pulling back to a more realistic
Instead of moving from the esoteric tones of Zaireeka to a more
traditional sound, Coyne and his bandmates bassist Michael Ivins
and drummer Steven Drozd explored the furthest reaches of the
offbeat on such songs as the album's first single, "Buggin' "
excerpt), a ditty about bugs that buzzes on a bed of angelic
vocals and sugary violins.
The trio's endless experimentation permeates all 14 selections on The
Soft Bulletin from the melting strings of the opener, "Race
for the Prize," to the monstrous, skittering drum & bass beats and pistonlike
drum machines that break in halfway through the otherwise fragile ballad
"A Spoonful Weighs a Ton."
Chicago producer Peter Mokran, best known for his work with such R&B
artists as Michael Jackson, The Artist (when he performed as Prince) and
R. Kelly, remixed several songs on the album, including "Race for the
Prize" and "Waiting for a Superman" (RealAudio
While The Soft Bulletin continues the Lips' experimental push, it
also reveals a more emotionally accessible side of the band. For a group
that has spent nearly two decades honing its psychedelic-pop sound on the
fringes, Coyne said that working with the mainstream Mokran to find a
"radio-friendly" sound was perhaps the edgiest thing it could have done.
Mokran, 30, who'd never heard the Flaming Lips before he began working
with them, said it was a different experience from most of the projects
he undertakes. "Initially, it was set up as an experiment, a 'let's see
what happens' thing," he recalled. "But it went really well."
Since even the rough tracks for the album were overstuffed with sound,
Mokran said he had to work more as a reducer than a producer. "They're a
band that's never really short on ideas," Mokran said, laughing. "The
main part of my gig was to reel it all in and determine where the song
The Lips have hovered just outside the mainstream since their formation
in 1983 in Oklahoma City. Originally comprising Coyne, his brother,
vocalist Mark, and bassist Ivins, the group has explored a fractured world
of acid-drenched dream-pop beginning with its self-titled, self-released
1985 debut album. Following Mark Coyne's departure that year, Wayne Coyne
took over the band for 1986's Hear It Is and has led the Lips ever
In addition to packing the album's songs with dramatic strings arrangements
and exploding drum sounds, the often-enigmatic Wayne Coyne dropped the
lyrical puzzles of such quixotic Lips songs as 1993's unexpected hit,
"She Don't Use Jelly" (RealAudio
excerpt), in favor of more personal messages.
"I wanted people to realize that we're really trying to explore new
ideas, even if it's to just analyze yourself further, to use yourself as
your own victim," Coyne said of such emotionally charged songs on The
Soft Bulletin as "Waiting for a Superman" and the slowly unfolding
ballad "What Is the Light?"
"The idea of exploration," he noted, "is something people have done on
records like this for years, but it's not until you do it yourself and
tell your own story that you understand."
In the whimsical "The Spiderbite Song," Coyne explores issues raised by
Drozd's nearly fatal encounter with an arachnid in 1996 and Ivins' equally
life-threatening injury that same year. "I was glad that it didn't destroy
you/ How sad that would be/ 'Cause if it destroyed you, it would destroy
me," Coyne sings.
He delves further in two of the new album's most dramatic songs, the
frantic opener "Race for the Prize" and the majestic piano-and-bass-drum
ballad "Waiting for a Superman," both of which deal with the death of
Coyne's father from cancer last year. "Is it gettin' heavy?" Coyne wonders
in the latter song's chorus. "Well, I thought it was already as heavy as
Coyne said he learned through his struggle with loss that love is too
valuable not to feel it even for a second, even as he acknowledges that
it brings pain. As he sings in "The Spiderbite Song," "Love is the greatest
thing a heart can know/ But the hole that it leaves in its absence can
make you feel so low."