"We're not what we used to be," Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne sang over a gut-rumbling burst of bass-heavy distortion early Sunday afternoon at a private gig in Louisville, Kentucky, as the singer led his band through the second performance of their rarely played rocker "Unconsciously Screamin'" in as many days. That line conveys something entirely different in 2013 than when the singer first belted it on his band's 1990 noise-pop masterpiece In a Priest Driven Ambulance.
If there were ever a bout for heavyweight champions of the neo-psychedelic indie rock underworld, the Flaming Lips would certainly be formidable contenders. So it's fitting that the shape-shifting art-rock vets would treat a crowd of 100 museum members and radio contest winners to a seven-song Storytellers-style (slightly abridged) career-retrospective at the Muhammad Ali Center in Derby City. The band had appeared just down the road at the Forecastle Festival the previous night.
It was the band's second time attempting to celebrate its 30th anniversary with such a revue, the first being a BBC Radio session back in May that didn't go so well. "We got 22 years in and time ran out," as Coyne, sporting a pair of (normal-sized) boxing gloves, told the crowd before opening the show out of sequence with a synth-y, moody take on the 1999 Soft Bulletin staple "Race for the Prize." It was a more fitting set-opening salute to the museum's namesake than the band's first-ever song – 1983's gloriously muddy, British Invasion-tinged, paint-by-numbers "Bag Full of Thoughts," which followed.
"Music [we] made when we were very different people . . . to us still sounds very cool," the singer told lucky attendees before counting the band into its seldom-performed 1987 chestnut "Love Yer Brain." The band proceeded to execute the weird, wistful oldie with an emotional sense of posterity and the same indomitable enthusiasm as the Krautrock-tinged coming-of-middle-age speaker peakers off the band's stark, spooky 13th LP, The Terror.
"It doesn't diminish embracing the new stuff," Coyne told Rolling Stone after the show, explaining why the band is digging deeper than ever for old songs to weave into their new, darker stage show. "I'm really glad we're doing that, because in the past we didn't think about it that much. We'd really concentrate on the popular stuff." Recent set lists have included such gems as "Moth in the Incubator" and "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)."
Held in an antiseptic upstairs meeting/event space perched stories above the Ohio River, with bright natural light pouring in from a panoramic view of downtown Louisville, the space was perhaps better suited for a black-tie hobnob or a PowerPoint presentation. It truly couldn't have been any more of an un-psychedelic setting to see the band appear on a foot-high stage sans spectacular production. But compared to the band's vivid presentation for thousands at Forecastle just 14 hours prior, the classed-up, spotless hall provided a stranger aesthetic accompaniment to the band's wonderfully disjointed catalog than any laser-illuminated stage.
It was an especially weird locale to see the band bust out the creepy acoustic-folk requiem "You Have to Be Joking," from 1992's Hit to Death in the Future Head ("A fantastic record no one knew," Steven Drozd joked from the stage. Coyne regaled the crowd, telling how the band recorded the song through a television set, and the theme to Terry Gilliam's Brazil, included as background interference, got them in legal hot water.
Unlike most bands with a fluke Top 40 MTV-era hit, the Lips are on good terms with their novelty hit. "This was a song that we thought was just a normal thing to sing about," Coyne said, introducing an epic, orgasmic version of "She Don't Use Jelly." "But Beavis and Butthead thought different and made fun of us every half hour for months," he continued. "And that's the greatest thing ever."
Of course, the set came nowhere close to canonizing the band's 30-year, but it did give an effective overview of the Lips' remarkable career, from their early years as nomadic, ne'er-do-well Oklahoma punks to the ageless psychedelic craftsmen behind mid-career game-changers The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
"[After The Soft Bulletin] we even viewed ourselves [like], 'We used to be a rock group, and now we're this sort of symphonic thing; this Walt Disney-meets-. . . " said Coyne. Drozd picked up the thread: ". . . this Frank Sinatra meets Led Zeppelin meets Disney thing."
In the end, the band made it 19 years into their catalog before curfew hit after closing with the current, stripped-down arrangement of their 2002 signature song song, "Do You Realize??"
"We love playing 'Do You Realize?'" Coyne told the crowd. "But you guys gotta get a little emotional." They most definitely did.
In other Lips-related news, yesterday Coyne announced the release of his first-ever "adult-themed" comic book, The Sun Is Sick, a collection of colorfully grotesque panels featuring brains, gouged eyeballs, naked ladies, aliens, oddball creatures and the occasional music journalist's scribbled phone number in loose narrative about a sick and dying sun. The book debuts at Comic-Con 2013 in San Diego this week.
"I do all these stupid doodles while I'm doing interviews," the Renaissance rocker-artist explained while jumping into a cab after shadow-boxing with a phantom Ali, posing for pictures in front of a LeRoy Neiman painting of the boxer during a guided tour of the museum. "I don't really take [drawing comics] all that serious, you know.
"It's just sick shit," he explained.