Normal, Oklahoma

Even as they mature musically, the Flaming Lips prove they're still way out there.

FLAMING LIPS

CAKE, DE LA SOUL, KINKY

Pier 62/63, 628-0888, $36

7 p.m. Sun., Aug. 4

"I think people are shocked by how normal we really are," insists the Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd.

It seems an especially curious statement from a group best known for its prodigious chemical intake and blood-and-puppet-fueled stage shows—a group whose catalog includes songs like "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles" and "Shaved Gorilla"; one currently at work on a feature film about chronically depressed astronauts searching for their yuletide spirit on Mars. Yeah, the Flaming Lips are normal—about as normal as Michael Jackson's nose.

But unlike that poor, tortured appendage, the Lips have proven themselves nearly indestructible. Despite a litany of mishaps and hardships—heroin addiction, near-fatal car accidents, an appearance on Beverly Hills 90210—the band has carried on in various incarnations since 1983. A decade after forming, the group enjoyed a fluke Top-40 hit, "She Don't Use Jelly" (impetus for the aforementioned 90210 cameo), but it wasn't until '99's stunningly realized The Soft Bulletin that the band truly found its feet in a land of lush symphonic soundscapes.

These days, the band—Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins, and singer Wayne Coyne—once known for setting fire to club stages around their native Oklahoma City, are gracing magazine covers and selling out large venues without lighting a single match.

The Lips' curious ascendance began with the surprise mainstream success of '93's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. Buoyed by their 15 minutes (an appearance on MTV's Spring Break, openers for a Candlebox arena tour), the band followed with '95s Clouds Taste Metallic. The glowing critical praise for the album would prove the only bright spot in a year that saw Ivins nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver and Coyne undergo a serious mental breakdown.

Despite lackluster sales—Clouds failed to yield another "Jelly"—and Coyne's increasingly erratic ideas, the Lips' label, Warner Bros., held on to the band. The company must have questioned its faith when the group delivered 1997's strenuously high-concept Zaireeka, a four-CD simul-set that proved to be about as commercially viable as a ham and peanut butter Hot Pocket. Two years later, though, the trio redeemed themselves, returning from the brink of an experimental no-man's-land with The Soft Bulletin—a gorgeous sprawling opus that permanently erased their one-hit-wonderdom, selling 300,000 copies and topping numerous "album of the year" polls.

The Lips might have been at their critical and commercial zenith, but Steve Drozd was too busy falling down the heroin rabbit hole to notice. A longtime user, his habit had escalated to the point where he'd squandered all his Bulletin royalties and begun stealing equipment from Coyne and Ivins to finance his next fix. At one point, the man regarded as one of rock's most gifted multi-instrumentalists almost had to have his hand amputated because of an abscess created by his constant hypodermic injections.

"The last year or so, it went downhill so quick," says Drozd. "All my teeth were falling out, I had no money, I lost my car, I was pawning all my equipment—just all the real-world stuff that sucks." Though he managed to make some remarkable music while under the influence, Drozd knew the addict-as-artist lifestyle wasn't working anymore. "My imagination just went crazy, and it was great. But then it sort of flips around, and after a while, the more addicted you are to it, the more it saps your creativity. It takes over, and if you're not high all the time—well, the last thing you want to do when you're [dope] sick is sit there and try to write songs."

Clean since last October, Drozd returned to the Lips camp just as the band was preparing for a full-force multimedia attack. Christmas on Mars, a feature-length motion picture directed by Coyne, had started production, while recording on the film's soundtrack, as well as a Bulletin follow-up, was also under way.

"I'm the main character in the movie," explains Drozd. "We've colonized Mars, and we're living there, and there's this thing that's been documented that the longer astronauts spend in space, the more depressed they get—a couple people have even killed themselves. And so they decide to celebrate Christmas, and Wayne plays a Martian who becomes a Santa Claus figure."

Drozd sums up the flick as "2001 meets It's a Wonderful Life" and says the Mars soundtrack will be a similarly strange hybrid: "The music we're making for it is just incidental—we don't break into song or anything. Most of it is really kind of quasi-religious meets orchestral meets electronic ambient."

A decidedly less confused effort is the band's just-released Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Kitschy sounding title aside, the disc continues to mine much of Bulletin's epic, emotionally resonant quality. More electronically rooted than its predecessor, Yoshimi is a heavily looped luscious journey, shot through with shimmering reverb and a bounty of perfect pop moments like the open- ing "Fight Song" and the elegiac "Do You Realize."

Lyrically, the album functions as a quasi-concept piece about mankind's battle against an encroaching army of robots—the Yoshimi of the title refers to band friend and Boredoms drummer Yoshimi Yokota—but the story is designed more as metaphor than strict narrative.

"Wayne was trying to come up with a sort of concept of human nature vs. technology," explains Drozd, "you know, some deep philosophical thing that I couldn't explain very well. And it just took off from there."

Indeed, much of the album finds the Lips engaged in a fairly heavy exegesis on life and death, meditating on the conflict between man and machine. In some ways, the weighty (and often sentimental) subject matter seems a far cry from the Lips of old. At times, it almost feels like a completely different group than the famously fried, wild-eyed characters who used to warble songs about Godzilla and Evel Knievel.

But lest you think they've gotten too serious and stone-faced, take note of the Lip's recent appearance on British television, one which saw them covering Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" in full-sized frog, dog, and rabbit suits to a crowd of half-ecstatic, half-perplexed onlookers.

Yep. Just another normal day in the life of the Flaming Lips.

lgreenblatt@seattleweeky.com

 
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