Flaming Lips
w/ Cake, De La Soul, Kinky

Sun Aug 4, Pier 62/63, $36.

By music industry standards, a decade is a lifetime. Labels sign and drop bands with such alarming frequency that surviving five years with a single label--let alone 10--can certainly be claimed as a triumph.

The Flaming Lips can claim success; they have enjoyed a relationship with Warner Bros. for nearly 11 years now, which is all the more inexplicable given that they've never really made it into the mainstream. There have been moments of breakthrough, to be sure--the brief frenzy for "She Don't Use Jelly" in 1993, for example (a craze that culminated in the band's bizarre appearance on Beverly Hills, 90210)--but for the most part the Lips have remained below the general public's peepers, quietly releasing records coated in critical drool but devoid of interest to the unwashed masses.

Now comes Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Lips' 11th release, and once again the low hum of mass acceptance is slowly building. Whether or not said hum reaches a sizeable volume this time around remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Warner Bros. continues to stand by its band. Hence the reckless P.R. push for the Lips' upcoming U.S. tour, and hence my receiving Steven Drozd's cell phone number along with an allotted time to call and interview him.

As the guitarist/bassist/drummer/keyboardist (et cetera) for the Lips, Drozd is the creative force behind singer Wayne Coyne's wacked-out ideas. A third member, Michael Ivins, rounds out the band, but it is mainly Drozd who bangs things out live in the studio. "I'm sort of half artist, half studio hack, which is the best of both worlds," Drozd says. "When I was a teenager I always thought, 'Man, I'm gonna move out to Los Angeles and become a studio session musician.' Now I kinda get to do that. I get to write the songs with Wayne, and I get to be the studio musician guy doing all the parts."

Drozd joined the Lips in 1991 as a touring drummer, and made his first liner notes appearance on 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (1992's Hit to Death in the Future Head gives him a meager thank-you listing). Since his addition the Flaming Lips have gradually moved from guitar-oriented psychedelia into more fruitful, complicated territories. Following Transmissions was 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic, then the four-disc simul-play curiosity Zaireeka. But the real breakthrough came about with 1999's The Soft Bulletin, a pure wonder of a record that mixed the Lips' aforementioned psychedelia with easy-listening qualities--a mixture that could have, should have, gone hysterically wrong, but somehow didn't.

"The thing about The Soft Bulletin," Drozd says, "was it was like, yeah, a lot of people like jazz and orchestral music and strings and horns and all that, but for us to actually try to put that into our own music was like, 'Wow, can we do this?' And we tried it and it seemed to work pretty well. So that was kind of encouraging."

That encouragement has bled into Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Less dense than The Soft Bulletin, yet somehow more complicated, Yoshimi finds the Lips moving beyond orchestration toward pure electronica--a sort of Flaming Lips-meets-Air sound that, though not quite as shattering as The Soft Bulletin, nonetheless lodges itself squarely within your chest. All the standard Lips fetishes are still there--the pretty melodies, Wayne Coyne's obsession with science--but the package has been sanded down to the smoothness of marble. To put it another way: The Flaming Lips are still restless, still transforming.

Which brings us back to Warner Bros. and their improbable devotion to one of their strangest, most unruly acts. To quote Drozd: "Since 1991, when the Lips got signed, they've been really supportive and let us do our own thing. They always put our records out and don't complain too much about anything, no matter how weird it is. To be honest, I'm still confused as to how we're still on them. But now they seem to be more supportive than ever."

Support The Stranger