The opening band hadn't shown up for soundcheck. Naturally, that's who I was supposed to interview on this particular spring Saturday in Norfolk, Va. I'd driven three hours to talk to The Sun, a scrappy indie band from Ohio who had just signed to a major label (and were subsequently forgotten). They eventually arrived, and we talked in their van out front, conversing in the dark but for the glow of nearby streetlights and the frontman's jazz cigarette. But, of course, there was the rather idle interim...
Bounding across the wide wooden floors of The NorVa, a beaming Wayne Coyne greeted me. For some reason, the frontman of The Flaming Lips seemed to feel bad for the wait his "special guests" had created for a college reporter with a tape recorder. He waved, introduced himself and asked me if, because I had some down time, I'd rather talk about The Flaming Lips than The Sun. I explained that his publicist had explained that this wouldn't be possible, that this celebrity was far too busy to talk—about Yoshimi or the pink robots or the spider bite—with a student paper that no one would even read. (That publicist was probably right.) Coyne just laughed and invited me upstairs. For an hour, we talked about Beck, showmanship and how to guarantee—night in and night out—that the suckers who had paid money to see you went home feeling like something other than suckers.
In truth, there was nothing particularly special about the interview or the story that followed, but, in retrospect, that moment speaks volumes about what The Flaming Lips already were and continue to become: Relentlessly rebellious spirits who have been successful because they've done exactly what they've wanted to do, in spite of industry wishes. Consider, for instance, that these Oklahoma dudes had already transitioned from a wiry psychedelic rock band with a one-hit, 90210-immortalized number about jelly and lubricants into a pop band aiming squarely for indelible tunes abetted by production big enough for arenas. They'd made an (of necessity, expensive) album split over four CDs that forced listeners to play all four discs simultaneously on separate CD players—or to buy a bootleg with all of the discs mixed together, which is basically the last thing the label that paid for it would ever want.
It's been two years since The Flaming Lips released their last proper full-length, 2009's Embryonic; that record utilized the same grand scale that helped make the Lips famous during the previous decade, but the band had taken a decided turn for the dark and brooding, not unlike early Pink Floyd mixed with the fringes of Krautrock. It was a deliberately noncommercial move, and it was also their best work since Yoshimi. The lack of a full follow-up doesn't mean the Lips have been idle, however. They've toured incessantly, creating new baselines for what a show can be (confetti and a frontman in a ball that bounces through the crowd and fake blood and strobe lights and video screens and pretty much everything that's awesome) while pushing the ideas of performance art squarely into pop music.
What's more, they've stayed connected, whether by joining MGMT to cover that band's hit onstage or collaborating with essential young acts like Lightning Bolt, Prefuse 73 and (more debatably) Neon Indian. They've stuffed new songs on flash drives inside of gummy fetuses and vaginas, and they've covered Dark Side of the Moon. Really, a summary of headlines about The Flaming Lips reads like the "Sheet of Stoned Ideas" from a band less interested in satisfying the suits and more interested in using their rare position as a profitably strange and strangely profitable act to try things, to have fun, to make pop something more than it has been before.