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The Flaming Lips: Okies From Outer Space

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For the past fourteen years, Coyne and his wife, Michelle, a photographer, have lived in the same home in Oklahoma City, only a few blocks from where Coyne grew up. When I ask if he's ever lived in any other cities, Coyne says, "Norman, for a couple of years." He's referring to a college town less than a half-hour away.

The Coyne home – two floors, red-brick and as square as a bunker – would stand out in any neighborhood, but surrounded, as it is, by dilapidated wooden ranch houses, the building is especially conspicuous. The Coynes live in a rough part of town. Their home was built by its previous owner, a contractor who used leftover parts of various building projects (marble from a courthouse, a spiral staircase from a theater, diner banquette in the kitchen).

"He was this weird old man who lived in the front and worked out back, and now, forty years later, there's another weird old man who lives in the front and works out back," Coyne notes with pride. "We got this place for $20,000. It's not like we think this is the greatest neighborhood in town. But a couple of years ago, when we finally had enough money to either buy a big house or make this our spot, we decided to stay.

"Oh, see, now this gal looks like a prostitute," Coyne continues excitedly, grabbing my arm and pointing out his breakfast-nook window. A woman in a tank top and blue short-shorts is talking to a man in a truck. It's just after noon. In the next few hours, we'll see several more likely prostitutes as well as the police arresting a man in front of a nearby crack house.

The Coynes have never had any break-ins and don't seem overly concerned about the possibility. "I think most people in the neighborhood are actually sort of afraid of Wayne," says Lips touring drummer Kliph Scurlock. Coyne has purchased three of the houses adjoining his own. He tore one down – the previous owner had been running a meth lab out of his bedroom – and houses a Lips roadie and a tech guy in the other two, creating a minicompound. Props from Christmas on Mars, an unfinished low-budget science-fiction film written and directed by Coyne, are scattered throughout the yard: a propane tank turned space capsule, a deflated astronaut's suit. The Coynes have also taken in three large stray dogs. One of them, the Dragon Dog, had mange and has been exiled to a fenced area in back; signs in the kitchen, warn, "Do not let Dragon Dog in house." For the past few weeks, Coyne has been trying to capture a fourth stray by rigging up a cage with a tripwire, a la Wile E. Coyote.

Coyne always hated school, and when he was a teenager he began working as a fry cook at Long John Silver's, selling pot on the side. He didn't last long as a dealer but remained at the restaurant for nearly twelve years and says he always liked the job. The Lips started with Wayne's older brother Mark, the quarterback of the football team, on vocals, and Michael Ivins, a quiet guy with a weird haircut who had been class valedictorian, on bass. They took drugs and emulated their stadium-rock heroes – Led Zeppelin, the Who – but couldn't really play their instruments, which led Wayne and Michael to messier, punk-inspired bands like the Minutemen and the Butthole Surfers. Mark eventually left the group, and Wayne took over as vocalist. "People act like you're limited by your gifts, but I don't know," Coyne says. "When I started out I couldn't sing at all, and now I can sing pretty good, just by trying to sing like people I liked." Like? "Carly Simon. Gladys Knight. People always think I'm trying to sound like Neil Young. I do like him, but I never wanted to sing like him."

Early on, the group specialized in feed-back-heavy psychedelic freakouts, with trippy stage shows to match. "We did pyrotechnics for a while," recalls Ivins, "until it set my hair on fire." Drozd, the only Lip with actual musical training – his father had made his living playing saxophone in polka and country & western cover bands – joined the group in 1991.

Shortly thereafter, the Lips signed with Warner Bros., where, surprisingly, their unique sensibility remained wholly intact. Their very first Warner Bros, release, at the height of the Ice-T "Cop Killer" controversy, was an EP titled Yeah, I Know It's a Drag . . . But Wastin' Pigs Is Still Radical; a few years later, when the majors began unloading the commercially unviable indie bands they'd signed during the alt-rock boom, the Lips persuaded Warner Bros to release Zaireeka, a four-disc album in which all the discs were meant to be listened to simultaneously. The band scored a fluke hit in 1993 with the single "She Don't Use Jelly," which featured a big, catchy, grunge-era guitar riff and nonsensical (but weirdly sexual) lyrics about Vaseline and toast.

"For a while we loved being the weirdos," says Coyne. "We loved setting things on fire and being like, "We're freaks! We're pirates!' And that served us well, because we could do a lot in that context.

"But we always wanted to play beautiful music," he continues. "We loved the Butthole Surfers, but we also loved the Bee Gees. We wanted to be able to make emotional, touching music. But that really does take a lot of skill. It's hard to stumble upon sounding like Stravinksy. You can almost by accident, here and there, sound like Sonic Youth, just by dicking around. You don't ever really sound like Beethoven, not by accident. But we wanted to."

The Lips' creative watershed would come sixteen years into their career, with the 1999 release The Soft Bulletin. The album was something no one quite expected: a leap forward in terms of craftsmanship and ambition, akin to Radiohead's progression from Pablo Honey to OK Computer. In the case of the Lips, a band known for fuzzed-out guitars and absurdist lyrics, they made a bold feint in the opposite direction, embracing lush orchestration and, in Coyne's lyrics, an often poignant sincerity.

"It came out of us being sort of disillusioned," says Drozd. "It just seemed like there was such a proliferation of third-rate alternative-rock crap. And we were right there, smack dab in the middle of it. It felt good to say, "Well, fuck guitars and goofy lyrics.'"

"I think the minute I stopped trying to be weird," Coyne adds, "people thought I'd actually gone insane."

Before Coyne recorded the album, his father died, and the singer found himself questioning everything about his life. "I really thought we were going to be singing suicidal songs, these songs of existential despair and how horrible the universe is," Coyne says. "I thought you'd hear the record and be like, 'This is the worst fucking negative doom-and-gloom bullshit I've ever heard.'" (Along with the death of Coyne's father, the band was coping with Drozd's heroin addiction.)

Throughout The Soft Bulletin – and on the 2002 release Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – Coyne, indeed, sings about seemingly hopeless moments: a superhero admits the world is too heavy to lift ("Waitin' for a Superman"), a guy unpacking groceries is struck by the inevitability of death ("Suddenly Everything Has Changed"), a man from the future travels through time to deliver bleak news ("All We Have Is Now"). Yet the music continually soars, and surprises, with warped string sections and cinematic choral accompaniments giving way to Trampton Comes Alive-style vocal effects and free-jazz percussion. It's all pretty enough to make even the darkest lyrics go down easy. A couple of years ago, the Lips song "Do You Realize??" was even featured in a Nissan commercial. (Perhaps wisely, the rest of the song's titular question — "that everyone you know someday will die" — did not make the ad's final cut.)

"The more I would try to sing about the universe destroying me, the universe being dark and mysterious," Coyne says, "the more I sounded like I was worth listening to. It's strange. It's like, the guy who'll get up there in front of people and not be afraid of humiliation is the most powerful guy in the room. The more insignificant I thought I was, the more significant I think I sounded. The more I admitted I was helpless, the more powerful I became.

"As we started to make The Soft Bulletin, I was like, 'This isn't gloom and doom. These are resilient, optimistic believers. These guys aren't defeated at all.'"

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Song Stories

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