The full-effect of The Flaming Lips‘ live experience is not designed to thrive in small club presentations. If the group ever actually did manage to cram themselves onto a small stage, along with all of the various contraptions and structures involved in their overblown stage show, the local fire marshals would probably lose their damn minds anyway. Their productions do well on an outdoor stage, which lands them in various spots on the festival circuit, both in the US as well as overseas. If you’ve seen any footage or images from their performances, you’ve likely been as sucked in as I have. I’ve heard the stories and have seen day-glo, cinematic, confetti-filled photographs strewn across sites like Flickr for years, but had never been able to witness the madness first hand, until just recently. This time, the Washington stop took place at Redmond‘s Marymoor Park, just outside of Seattle.
Marymoor is a 640 acre “active use” State park that holds occasional concerts during the summer months. We pulled into the grass parking lot and walked towards the fenced-off area where the concert stage was located. I went to the little toll-booth-style, wooden Will-Call hut to find out if my photo pass request went through. It hadn’t. My homie Sean Prince entered the show and I simply tossed my camera bag over the janky metal gate and into his hands on the inside. At the entrance were cops standing with event staff, alongside the sort of cafeteria tables that amateur wrestlers slam each other through on the regular. There was a half-ass bag search and then a cop, who had noticed my girlfriend’s subway sandwich in her tote, asked, “Ham and Cheese?” He was wrong, and he chuckled as if to say, “Hey, I’m the fun cop and I’m hep to what you kids are diggin’ on.” Meanwhile, I was thinking about how easy it would have been to sneak in a kilo or a shotgun. They didn’t expect anything too crazy to happen at this place and it was a stark contrast from the recent PHISH lot that I had been on a couple of weeks prior. The environment had a cheesy, family-oriented 4th of July picnic vibe to it. People sat on blankets in the grass and purchased drinks from an espresso bar in the venue. The opening act was already performing as we walked through the gates.
Stardeath and White Dwarfs
Earlier in the day, I received a call from my friend Kyle inquiring about what time we should head out to show, because there was scheduled to be “Two opening bands“. I received a similar call from our writer Onsen, but they were both confused. Star Death and White Dwarfs is actually the name of a single group that has opened for The Lips on their entire tour. The lead singer, Dennis Coyne, is actually the nephew of The Flaming Lips front-man (Wayne Coyne) and the rest of the SDWD have worked as the Lips‘ road crew. The band has a song included on The Lip‘s new digital B-Sides EP and Wayne even directed the video for the Stardeath song “New Heat“. Clearly, Stardeath have made no effort to distance themselvesfrom The Flaming Lips, either musically or visually, and I can’t tell if that is more or less admirable than the angle taken by people like Tori Spelling and Rockwell, who adamantly claimed that their respective fathers played no role in building them careers in their family empires. What I do know is that, when I first heard the music featured on their Myspace account and before I knew their connection, I immediately heard The Lips‘ sound screaming through their music.
I wasn’t drawn in to the Stardeath set and spent most of it wandering around the grass venue. Dennis Coyne looked like a cross between Leif Garret and Super Dave Osbourne in his Red, White, and Blue ensemble. His white, chest-high jumper, which was held up by shoulder straps, had blue stars up the sides and looked like the lower half of a snow suit. He shot colored smoke from the head stock of his guitar and the stage set up-featured a string of large silver orbs on each side of the stage. Everything was very Lips-esque and, although it seems like the easiest description to use, the associations have not been helped by Stardeath. If you have such a large shadow cast over you and know that these comparisons are going to be drawn, it’s going be necessary to do something remarkable enough on your own to stand out. If you are presenting a lesser yet similar product, the best that you could hope for is to be viewed as such. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t take the Warner Bros. deal and go on world tours, make some loot, etc. What I’m saying is that, unless you create something really unique, you can’t justifiably be surprised when you are only identified by your influences. They are still a young band and, being thrust into the spot light early on, may not be the best marketing plan for them. It took The Lips 2 decades to really achieve global success and Stardeath has the time, tools, and ability to progress and find their unique voice in the future. For now, it feels like they are still working on learning an entirely different side of the industry.
Last year, Stardeath and White Dwarfs teamed up to back The Flaming Lips on a cover of Madonna‘s “Borderline“. From across the venue, we could here them finishing off their set with it, as a disappointed Kyle turned to me and said, “I guess The Flaming Lips aren’t going to play that now.” After that, we migrated closer to stand in the, mostly empty, main floor area. in preparation of the headliners. As we walked, the speakers pumped out a song called “The Flaming Lips” by the late schizophrenic rock musician Wesley Willis .
The video of the set-closer below provides a great example of the venue and of the environment at that point of the evening.
The Flaming Lips
Naively, I assumed that majority of the elaborate stage setup was already assembled. Men in construction worker orange, who looked as if the Fraggle Rock Dozers had escaped from prison, entered and re-entered the stage from all directions to work on various lighting structures and effects. There was a giant digital screen backdrop framed with spot lights. It was shaped in a half-circle and looked like a sunset pieced together on a lite bright. Day-glo painted smoke machines, confetti canons, and other props were strewn across the stage floor. A handful of audience members were dressed in costume. Most of them were Lips related (Santa hats, aliens, etc.), while others just sported such things as scuba helmets or fake blood dripping from their hairlines. The stagehands slid a big ramp in front of the screen just as it began to light up with images. The show finally looked like it was about to begin, so I left the crew that I was with to move closer and try to get some photos.
On the screen was a glowing image of a woman leaning backwards with her legs open. She radiated like an alien from Coccoon and, althoug the graphic imagery wasn’t detailed, her vaginal area rippled outward and emanated rainbow rings of light. The image zoomed in on her lady junk and, once the screen was filled with nothing but her pulsating psychedelic almond, a panel opened up as if she were about to give birth. Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist, Steven Drozd, stepped through the screen, waving and hopped down the ramp, with what looked like a cell phone in his hand. As, band members, Kliph Scurlock (drums) and Michael Ivins (bass) stepped one by one through out of the vaginal vortex, Drozd captured their entrance on camera with the device that he was holding. While all of this was occurring, Wayne Coyne was underneath the ramp and working his way into a giant rubber bubble. The crowd had filled in, at this point, and eliminated my concern that the singer wouldn’t be able to perform his patented hamster ball routine. The ramp was removed and the rest of the group went into a dramatic introduction as the bubble inflated around Wayne. The intro transitioned into a driving, accelerated beat as Coyne stepped and rolled across the audience like Sonic the Hedgehog on sizzurp. With its drastic tempo change, the larger than life intro song, was reminiscent of the “Also Sprach Zurathrusta” (aka: 2001) into “C.C. Rider” intro that Elvis was known for and I don’t doubt that The Lips were, at least partially, inspired by it. When Coyne rolled back and exited the bubble on to the stage, it was filled with costumed dancers on both sides.
One side of the stage was filled, primarily, with men that were dressed as furry, wolf-like creatures, similar to Max‘s outfit from “Where the Wild Things Are“. Stage left, a group of women donned identical yeti-like head gear but, instead of a full fur ensemble covering them from head to toe, they exposed their midriffs in thick bras with capes attached to them. A fifth member was backing the group on percussion and guitar, as well. After the intro, Drozd switched from guitar to keyboard and Wayne walked across the stage with a long, pipe-shaped pop-gun. As the opening notes to “Race for the Prize” kicked in, tons of large balloons were released and confetti spewed from canons and flickered down over the audience. Coyne blasted even more confetti from his hand-held contraption, before diving into his first vocals of the night. The balloons and confetti continued to shower down throughout the entire song and it ended off with Coyne swinging his arm in a windmill motion, with a handful of streamers. I was familiar with the confetti and hamster ball routine from pictures but, having never attended a Lips show before, I had assumed that this shit would kick in a little later in the program. The set was only about 10 minutes deep and, although it was a hell of a way to start off, I worried that they had already blown their load too quickly.
Wayne used the first paus in the set as an opportunity to bring attention to a camera man and to announced that, as a special occasion, they were filming the show that night. He also mentioned that recording was also being done by Steven Drozd, who was holding up his camera phone again. The video had halted and, as he spoke, a close-up of Coyne‘s face was projected onto the big screen through the miniature camera that was mounted onto his mic stand. He explained that the next track would have a call and response element to it and requested that audience members be “animalistic” and scream out “Woo, woo, woo!” when he gave the cues. Kliph got George of the Jungle-stylee on the drum kit and threw down the crazy tribal intro to their new Juanas Adicción-sounding cut, “Silver Trembling Hands“. The persistent beat of the frantic chase music was mirrored by the brightly colored screen imagery, which now featured young woman in a Nancy Sinatra dress running towards the audience. Half-way through the song, a man in a gorilla costume ran out and lifted Coyne onto his shoulders. It was one of the weirdest gorilla costumes I’ve ever seen, with its over-sized head, gaping mouth, and meaty hippo gums. The vocalist piggy-backed around on the beast, while singing into his clenched mic and pumping his fist into the air.
Wayne Coyne picked up an acoustic guitar with random shit stuck to it; most notably is what appeared to be an old cell-phone. The percussionist was wielding drum sticks over his congos, Michael Ivins remained seated with his bass, and Steven Drozd had a double necked Gibson SG with the 6-string neck busted off. They played the upbeat “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and kept the crowd hopping energetically up and down. The audience sang the anti-capitalistic lyrics along with the footage of Coyne’s mouth, that was streaming in black and white through the mic-cam. Whether they knew the lyrics from the At War with The Mystics album or if it was, ironically, due to the KRAFT commercial that the song was featured in, I don’t know. For this tune, Steven utilized his Frampton-style talk box to warp his guitar solos and backing vocals. Towards it’s conclusion, Wayne Coyne wrapped his guitar neck in streamers. He then used the head stock to stab a gigantic balloon, which busted open and emitted a cloud of confetti everywhere. Similar monster balloons, also filled with confetti, floated over and burst onto the heads of concert goers.
Next, they slowed the show down by playing a very minimalistic version of “Fight Test“. Ivins played a synth and there were two guitars and drums on the track, but everything was extremely toned down, with most of the focus on the vocals. This relaxed version made the song sound even more like Cat Steven‘s “Father and Son“, the song that The Lips were sued for “imitating”. Stevens Yusef settled for a split of the song’s royalties, but obviously missed out on the opportunity to bring litigation against Coyne for having a similar skull appearance as him. As the singer strapped on his electric guitar for the next song, he made a quick speech about the power of dreams and bettering one’s situation by stating that, although all dreams don’t come true, he wanted to remind us that “the beauty of just being able to dream about shit is already a great source of luxury and satisfaction.” He followed it up by saying, “This song is about that“, before going into the song “Bad Days“. By now, there was already a giant inflatable creature on each side of the stage. One was a butterfly in a crown, that looked like a Glow Worm, and the other seemed to be a huge white catfish in a skipper uniform. Before taking off his electric, Coyne and his crew continued the optimism theme by performing the lesser known, “Enthusiasm For Life Defeats Existential Fear“.
“Convinced of the Hex” is another new track from the upcoming double album, Embryonic. For this one, Coyne shook maracas and Drozd continued to man both the guitar and keys simultaneously. The screen featured a nude woman aptly dancing to the psychedelic jam and transitioned into images of the solar system for “Vein of Stars“. They dedicated the song to Obama and ended it with Steven doing his typical Igor Stravinsky piano jam outro. This was followed by a stripped down version of “Yoshimi” and, even with Ivins and Drozd on dual keys, the song was a quiet smooth jam that twinkled like a toy piano. This version was similar to that of “Fight Test” because of its slow, drawn out delivery and crowd vocal accompaniment. With his hands together, as if in prayer, Wayne ended the song by bowing repeatedly to the audience, which was screaming and going ape shit. He turned and commented, “Steven, they’re louder than we are! Fucking ‘A’!” To which Drozd responded, “Thank god, yeah.”
Steven Drozd introduced “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung” by saying, “Next, Wayne’s gonna play the gong on this one.” The front man had already foreshadowed this by hopping up and down with a mallet and swinging his arm to form large circles with the streamers attached to it. Everything lit up and smoke flooded the stage like a radioactive tangerine grove was on fire . It was an all-you can-eat Brazilian grill for the senses. There was a ring of lights around the gong that would light up every time that it was struck. Then, the gong and it’s attacker would slowly vanish behind thick white clouds. The sonic chaos finally ended with Kliph smashing hand cymbals together and with an explosion of streamers coming down like digital rain
At this point, the night took on its most somber, not to mention political, tone yet. Equipped with a bugle, Wayne announced that he was about to play a military funeral song (aka: TAPS) and that they explain it’s significance whenever they play it in other countries around world. He further added, “We fucking want this fucking war to end” and vowed to play the song at every show until it did. He convinced the audience to throw up peace signs in the air, as he held the bugle to the mic. His mouth was nowhere near the instrument and the music played automatically, via an internal mechanism in the horn. The simple tune floated out on keyboards and then turned into overhead hand claps across the venue. The stage was mostly dark when the opening riff for “The W.A.N.D.” began, but amplified as the rhythm section kicked in. The crowd was psyched and, if the clapping intro for the song didn’t alert them to the track, that main riff is highly identifiable. Anyone who has seen the Dell Inspiron commercial that it’s been used in could easily recognize it. Coyne strapped a fluorescent lantern around his neck, about the size and shape of a small toaster oven, and then shot a fat stream of smoke from the same megaphone that he would later scream his lyrics through.
Old footage came on the screen from when The Lips performed on Jon Stewart‘s original MTV show in the ’90s. After the host introduced the band in the clip, they played “She Don’t Use Jelly” just as they had on the episode being sampled. Wayne rifled off a series of his Roman Candle-shaped confetti blasters, back to back, as if he was trying to finish off the last of his fireworks before the holiday ended. Along with an extended drum-roll, they sustained the last notes of the song for about a minute. During this finally, Coyne inflated a larger-than-life balloon with a leaf blower, until it exploded even more confetti and streamers onto the audience. After a brief break they returned to perform their one and only encore, “Do You Realize“. Until then, I had assumed that I had seen an incomparable amount of confetti that night… I was wrong. The little scraps of paperpoured down from the beginning to end of that last number. It looked as if a silos worth of Fruity Pebbles had been dumped from a cargo plane. They abondoned the stage to screams of joy, leaving a venue full of piñata casualties in their wake.
I understand that The Lips are not The Grateful Dead and that they are not expected to create new versions of their songs and switch up the set list every night. Still, some elements feel as if they may be falling short of their capabilities as performers. The benefit of being around for as long as they have is that there’s a huge catalog of songs for the band to pull from. By building a fan-base through less orthodox/mainstream means, The Lips shouldn’t have to adhere to a game-plan of performing the “hits”, but they do it anyway. It’s hard to feel like you’re experiencing something honest and that you’re part of an inner circle or having an exclusive experience when images of laptops, ranch dressing, and car dealerships are automatically triggered and forever welded to what have become, in many ways, no more than really great jingles. 3 out of the tracks that The Lips are using in their set-lists have been sold for commercial use. I don’t mind banter at shows, because it was cool to learn that the first Flaming Lips show in Seattle was as a supporting act for Melvins, but the corny political preaching is something that I could do without. I understand that it took The Flaming Lips 20yrs before they really solidified global rockstar status, so I believe that they have the right to sell off some of their tracks and capitalize off of the success that they’ve fought so hard for. Still, it feels a bit hypocritical to hear a “no blood for oil”/anti-war speech to intro a song used for a computer commercial and then encore your show with a track that has been sold off to help sell Sports Utility Vehicles.
I would be lying if I said that The Flaming Lips didn’t put on an amazing show or that they didn’t sound great that night, because they did, but I would also feel dishonest if I address the disappointmenting aspects of their performance. Some of the disappointment was my own fault and was caused largely by the fact that I viewed too much of the show through my camera lens, instead of just enjoying it. It was a typical, amazing show for them, but I felt as if I had already seen almost every one of the their gimmicks represented on sites like Flickr and Youtube over the last few years. It’s great to be able to expect an exciting performance and know that it will be delivered every time, but how can the excitement be sustained when you know exactly what to expect? It’s clear that the production was painfully orchestrated, at one time, but they’ve been riding the same routine out for quite a few years now. Even the “spontaneous” remarks about weed smoke wafting in from the crowd or about the beautiful venue that they were so happy to play before the summer ended, were quoted almost verbatim, as evidenced by Youtube footage from other stops on the tour. Occasionally, they bust out their over the top UFO prop but, otherwise, the routine doesn’t appear to change too much from show to show. This lack of variation is exactly why I’m at a loss as to why they offered ticket-holders free MP3 downloads of the specific shows that they attended. I can hardly see the point. The Flaming Lips are one of the most innovative live acts of all time and I would like to see them continue to deserve that title. I’ve been hearing stories forever about crazy antics at their shows, such as headphones being passed out to the crowd to enhance the experience, and about how “You never know what they’re going to pull out on stage!” Now, it feels like the audience knows exactly what to expect and that’s a shame. Still, if you are a fan of the band’s music and have never caught a performance, I would still recommend you doing so and can guarantee that you will get your money’s worth. Regardless of my critical assessments about commercialism, and creativity hitting a wall, I believe, whole-heartedly, that The Flaming Lips‘ only intention is to provide the greatest show possible to their fans. It was hard not to notice the undeniable excitement and appreciation on their faces throughout the entire performance. Its clear that they truly love what they’re doing and put a lot of effort into throwing the best party that they know how to every time. With their multiple projects, recent years have shown the members spreading themselves a bit thin and I think it’s time to refocus on mixing up the live presentations. While they’re doing that, they could throw in a few slightly more obscure tracks, that haven’t been beat to death like a Florida hooker in a hotel room rented by Vince “Sham-Wow” Offer. From what I’ve heard, the new material sounds promising and, with any luck, those renovation will take place after the Embryonic album drops and they begin their official tour in its support. Of course, as soon as they change their tunes, I can pretty much guarantee that I will be changing mine, having felt honored to have witnessed this amazing era of their live act, before it was put to rest.