Wayne Coyne doesn't tread the traditional path. After 17 years of crafting challenging and exquisite music, Coyne is constantly exploring different routes to achieve his ends be they pop perfection, orchestral brilliance or approaches to sound so strange it takes 40 car stereos playing different music simultaneously to fully understand it.
For the mastermind behind the Flaming Lips, sidestepping the norm isn't enough. Sometimes putting your best foot forward means taking a step back.
"A lot of musicians just love to hear themselves play," he explained. "They're really just playing and someone puts a microphone in front of them and says, 'We'll make a record while you play, and that will be what your records are.' And I never really came at it from a standpoint of being a musician. I come at it like a listener. 'What kind of record would I like to listen to at home?' And then sort of go backwards in that process."
Coyne's latest domestic listening preference, the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, released July 16, continues the direction 1999's The Soft Bulletin took the band, in terms of sweeping multi-instrumental compositions. It forgoes, however, some of the grandiose orchestrations in favor of a sparser, more beat-centric sound spiked with kooky electronic bursts that yield to delicate acoustic melodies.
The only constant throughout most of the Lips' 10 albums has been Coyne's distressed falsetto, and here he uses his high-pitched warble, backed by moody yet diverse constructions, to stitch together a loose theme about facing a challenge, overcoming adversity, then wondering if it was all worth it.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots began in the spring of 2000. The band was touring to support The Soft Bulletin and was receiving e-mails from the family of a Japanese fan/friend who, unbeknownst to them, had died. Because the correspondence was poorly translated into broken English, Coyne and bandmates bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steven Drozd couldn't understand what the deceased woman's sisters were trying to tell them.
As the sad news eventually sunk in "a gentle devastation" as Coyne described it it impacted their then-current undertaking, a B-side to The Soft Bulletin's "Race for the Prize." The song, "It's Summertime," an optimistic view of remembering life through what's been lived and not dwelling on the end, wasn't released and instead became the basis for Yoshimi.
"That's how songs work best," Coyne said. "Whatever is in your life at the moment seems to get embedded into this melody and stuff that's coming out of you."
Although the presentation of Coyne's philosophies could come off as pretentious, he's not beyond getting a bit silly and strange for the enjoyment of his audience. Unlike other bands who stumble on a hit and then spend years attempting to re-create it, the Lips followed their biggest song, the top-40 "She Don't Use Jelly" from 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, (and appearances on MTV's Spring Break and even a guest role on "Beverly Hills 90210") by getting downright bizarre.
In addition to continuing his work on the band's movie about an isolated, depressed colony on Mars (see "Flaming Lips Spew About New Album, Martian Christmas Movie"), Coyne is constantly devising ways to present his art as a multisensory experience. Besides the car-stereo experiment, which evolved into 1997's Zaireeka, a four-disc set meant to be played simultaneously, Coyne has doused himself with fake blood onstage, used hand puppets and has equipped entire audiences with Walkman-like receivers and headphones to hear his performance mixed to his liking. On the band's current trek the Unlimited Sunshine 2002 Tour, with Cake, De La Soul and Modest Mouse Drozd and Ivins will be wearing pink bunny suits.
Not all of the band's stunts come off as planned. The idea of filling giant balloons with talcum power blew up in Coyne's face, literally, and practically choked members of the band and the audience. And then there was the incident with the leaf blower and the garbage bags filled with popcorn.
"[Bits] would stick to your eyeball, and that just doesn't work," he said. "I remember digging particles of popcorn out from under by eyelid days later. That's how bizarre things get sometimes."
The band's history will soon be mined for the benefit of Lips completists and music fans who may have still been in training pants when Coyne was singing about "The Maximum Dream for Evil Knievel" or "Charlie Manson Blues." Two multi-disc collections of early albums as well as rare and out-of-print material are set for release this fall, both remastered by longtime Lips producer Dave Fridmann and Ivins, while Coyne revised the liner notes and crafted the albums' cover art.
The first, Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid 1983-1988 (September 17), is a three-disc set of the band's first three LPs Hear It Is, Oh My Gawd!!! ... The Flaming Lips and Telepathic Surgery plus 16 bonus tracks, among them the Lips' out-of-print debut EP.
The Day They Shot a Hole in the Jesus Egg (October 1) combines 1990's In a Priest Driven Ambulance with the EP Unconsciously Screamin' and is bolstered with outtakes and import singles.
Because they've remained one of the most dynamic bands of the past two decades, evolving from their early psychedelic rock to college-radio-friendly alternative music to avant-garde atmospheres that have grown into their present sonic conceptualizations, the Lips have alienated some fans while turning on others. But the entire body of work is embraced by diehards who admire the Lips for being one of the few groups that, like it or not, is never boring.
"We really are hoping to become just the Flaming Lips," Coyne said, looking toward the future. "If the Flaming Lips are using an orchestra, well, that's what they're doing. If they're using a swimming pool full of bullfrogs as their backing, then that would be the Flaming Lips as well."