According to Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne, there is “a deluge of metaphysical paranoia” flowing out of a “hippie, drug culture underground” in America, fueled by the “exaggerated, evil powers of George W. Bush.” But while these quotes from the band’s press kit illustrate an influence on their next record, At War With the Mystics, fans may notice some different influences—namely, the fluid and stern guitar riffs of Yes and Black Sabbath.
“We were doing [the White Stripes’] ‘Seven Nation Army’ live, and we got a high out of that,” says Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd. “Then we covered ‘War Pigs,’ which I think was Wayne’s protest response to the Bush Administration, and it lit a fire for us. That’s what At War With the Mystics is. There’s plenty of the symphonic pop we’ve been playing for the last couple of records, but there’s also three or four songs that are amped-up guitar rock.”
As for the lyrics, while the new record finds the band at its most political, fans needn’t worry about Coyne turning into Sean Penn.
“There’s nothing that’s out and out against George W. Bush, but for the Lips there’s definitely more heavy-handed stone throwing at The Man than we’ve done before,” says Drozd, who says the album’s first single, “The W.A.N.D.,” could definitely be perceived as political. “I take that song as, yeah, we’re talking to W. and Cheney and the whole Bush Administration, but I think Wayne wanted to be more open-ended than that. It can also be your own existential fight for your own life and your own space.”
“The W.A.N.D.,” which is currently available online from iTunes and other outlets, stands for “the will always negates defeat.” The song is a combination protest song and salute to a Vietnamese homeless man Coyne saw fighting off imaginary demons with a magic stick.
Musically, the song conveys an authentic lo-fi vibe reminiscent of early ‘70s Yes—both musically and vocally. And while a ‘70s sound is well represented on the record, it’s not at the expense of the psychedelic fluidity Flaming Lips’ fans are accustomed to.
“I’d say the record’s about half and half,” Drozd says. “Some of it is frivolous rock, and some are prettier songs with Wayne’s deeper messages. We always want to do something different, but we drag a bit of our past along with what is new—it’s not like we’d make a Metal Machine Music record or something that would throw our fans off.”
The Flaming Lips is a three-piece (Michael Ivins rounds out the trio). Drozd played all of the instruments on the band’s last record, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. On At War With the Mystics, Drozd plays most, while Coyne takes up the guitar and Ivins the bass on some songs, in an effort to rock out the sound.
“That’s what we’ve arrived at over the last few years, because it’s a more efficient way of working for us,” says Drozd. “Ten years ago we were a four piece. We had a guitar player named Ronald, and when he left, Wayne became the overseer guy, I’m the musician guy, and Michael is the computer programming guy.
“I love it because I love playing the instruments, and Wayne would rather have someone else have a great idea and have to execute it and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then to actually have to come up with ideas.”
If their process and music are unique, their live show may be even more so, with concerts involving animal costumes and giant balloons and bubbles passed around the audience. The band is a rarity in the amount of freedom they’re given by a major label.
“We’re in this position with Warner Brothers where they give us X numbers of dollars to make the record we really wanna make,” says Drozd. “They’re not making any demands on us. If they say anything, it’s, ‘Can we do a remix of this song?’ or, ‘Can we release this as the first single?’ We still get to make the record we wanna make.”
Judging from “The W.A.N.D.,” the band is likely to be facing many pleased fans in the near future. But an act as original as the Lips attracts some fanatical die-hards, and you never know. At War With the Mystics recently leaked onto the Internet, and Drozd checked out the Lips’ message board to gauge the reaction. What he learned is that whether you try new things or stay the same, whether you emulate Black Sabbath, Yes, or no one but your own past, you can’t please everyone.
“There’s a song on the record where the bass line is reminiscent of ‘One Of These Days’ by Pink Floyd,” says Drozd. “This one thread on the message board starts out, ‘Man, that bass line is wicked on that song, it reminds me of Pink Floyd.’ That starts it. Then, a couple of people later, it goes, ‘Yeah, that’s bullshit, they stole that; fuck those guys for ripping off Floyd,’ and it just careens out of control from there. So you never know which way it’s gonna go.”