"We do the thing we really, really want the world to see at SXSW," Wayne Coyne told a 10,000-plus capacity crowd after walking onstage at the Flaming Lips' massive Auditorium Shores gig in Austin last night. "We always want the world to see something radical." Fans who expected to see something as radical, and familiar, as Coyne tumbling over their heads in a man-sized space bubble while confetti canons exploded – a Halford-on-Harley hallmark of the Lips stage show since 2003 – got something a little different, and very new: the band debuting its forthcoming LP, The Terror, in its entirety. And along with it, the band unveiled an entirely new stage production.
Looking back on SXSW 1997, where the band pulled off one of their infamous "parking lot experiments," Coyne said their mentality is still very much the same. "We wouldn't wanna play SXSW if we were just gonna do our normal show," he told Rolling Stone the day before. Later that night, at an exponentially more intimate club gig, the band erred on the side of nostalgia, performing front-to-back their 2002 neo-psych classic, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, also for the first time. That might have been a safer plan for the Auditorium Shores free-for-all. Instead, the band aspired to keep Austin weird, with an album that Coyne expects will freak people out.
"I think our records are getting trippier and trippier," Coyne said, describing The Terror. "We've been a band for so long, but I think our desire to do new things is just bigger than ever because we just know how to do so much stuff now. . . . Our music has always been weird; we've always been weird."
Coyne was as anxious as he was excited about the trial-by-fire reveal at Auditorium Shores. "We're nervous, yeah," he said, "but it's good to be nervous about trying new things. . . . Some of [the new songs] are sort of slow, mid-tempo songs, which are great as recordings, but sometimes to play three or four of those in a row in front of an audience, it can be kind of a challenge. They're songs, you know? We get known for space bubbles and confetti and shit like that."
It'll be awhile before fans see the space bubble again, Coyne says. "I don't know if [we're] retiring it, maybe just not do it for a while, or not do it so much and so much attention to it. . . . I just kind of feel like if we keep doing that, it stops us from doing other stuff."
The band's new stage looks like the inside of giant womb, outfitted as a psychedelic discotheque, littered with various-sized mirror balls and dozens of illuminated umbilical cords leading like roots of a tree to a prosthetic newborn, which Coyne – decked out in a silver suit/Baby Bjorn – cradled while singing and smiling maniacally.
A particularly weird moment came four songs into last night's set, when during "You Lust," Coyne called Phantogram's Sarah Barthel to the stage to help him sing it, which she agreed to if he would pull her hair while she did it. More performance art than festival rock bombast, the sight of Coyne cradling the prosthetic baby in one hand and iron-fistedly grasping Barthel's tresses with the other while she sat at his side, eyes closed, singing the sparse, creepy drone, was as freakish and grotesque as anything the fearless band has ever done. And that's saying something.
Coyne does, however, already envision a pair of Terror songs becoming live staples for the band: "Look . . . The Sun Is Rising," the opening track, and "Try to Explain." "It's pretty heavy," Coyne says of the latter, "it's a little bit like 'Do You Realize?'"
The album's weird potential accessibility might hinge on the universal nature of its lyrical theme: control.
"A lot of it is about this issue of control in your life," he says. "Do you want control? Do you really have control? And I think it's a dilemma of how much of your life is of your own design, and how much of it is really beyond your control. . . . I struggle with that a lot in my life."
As expected, the performance of the heady album — which is heavier on kraut-rock and electro influences than blown-out rock & roll — divided the crowd, testing the patience of some and spellbinding others. To reward the former (and the latter), the band followed The Terror with a five-song encore of Yoshimi favorites, including a closing "Do You Realize?" featuring a guest spot from Jim James, who'd opened the show.