At punk-rock high, the Flaming Lips were the psychedelic clowns in the back row of the stellar class of ’84. Once merely the pride of Oklahoma, the Flaming Lips are reinventing themselves and making converts around the globe, and their new The Soft Bulletin has been acclaimed as the finest headphone rock since OK Computer. Although the Lips make some outrageous demands on their audience – their 1997 Zaireeka is a set of four CDs designed to be played simultaneously – they have staying power. “I never expect the audience to come along with us,” frontman Wayne Coyne confesses. “I’m always surprised.”
The Lips – Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd – were already grizzled veterans in 1995 when they scored their fluke pop hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” “Momentarily it may have tricked us into thinking we could be the next, I don’t know, Stone Temple Pilots or something,” says Coyne. “But a lot of bands have hits that size, and it derails their whole evolution. They start following something arbitrary, which they have no control over, as opposed to following their muse.”
Instead of capitalizing on their pop success, the Lips went their own way, exploring the studio as an instrument, and their payoff is the expansive head rush of The Soft Bulletin, the result of two years of obsessive fiddling. It’s especially impressive from a band that, by all rights, should have started to suck years ago.
“Enthusiasm and persistence can win in the end,” Coyne says. The Soft Bulletin is an ungodly mess, and that’s exactly how Coyne likes it. “There are moments when it sounds like, ‘Whoa, these guys have mastered the studio,'” he notes with pride. “And other times it’s like, ‘The studio is clobbering these guys!'”
This story is from the October 14th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.