While discussing The Flaming Lips, bassist Michael Ivins puts his anti-social image to a real test, sounding nothing like the “clinically shy” borderline-psycho he’s been made out to be over the band’s 17 years.
“It makes a good story,” Ivins acknowledges. The bassist is painting as we speak, not canvas but cabinets — kitchen cabinets — at his Oklahoma City home. (“Canvas would be a lot more fun,” he agrees.)
The Flaming Lips is the first and only group the 38-year-old Ivins has ever been a member of; the band, fronted by singer/guitarist/performance artist Wayne Coyne, formed in Oklahoma City nearly two decades ago and is now completing its second year of touring in support of its captivating 1999 release, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Brothers). This is a band that puts in its road time — Ivins indicates that if there’s room for live music on the first Martian settlement mission, he’d like The Flaming Lips to be aboard.
There are few groups today that can match The Flaming Lips for poignancy, eclecticism and humor — and still rock with conviction.
“On The Soft Bulletin, we tried to do what we’ve been doing, but do it in a way that, even if it didn’t make sense, would be different,” Ivins says. Coyne writes most of the lyrics, and many of the images come from band members’ long conversations during equally long van rides.
“Some stuff comes in fully formed, and some stuff needs to be completed,” the bassist says. “It comes from everywhere, even real life.” The single “Superman,” with its heart-rending portrayal of a helpless superhero, brought the band some popular success, while “The Spiderbite Song” recounts not only drummer Steven Drozd’s serious bout with a brown recluse, but also the tire that blew off an 18-wheeler and nearly came through Ivins’ windshield.
“Basically, all that stuff really happened,” he swears. “It wasn’t so much that I ran into a telephone pole, but I guess it rhymed better.”
Ivins one-ups Yes bassist Chris Squire on the rip-roaring “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” but says he’s never really listened to bassists, per se: “I’ve always listened to music, but I didn’t actually learn how to play until I joined the band,” he admits. “I didn’t sit around at home practicing bass licks. I didn’t understand that you were supposed to tune it up in any particular order. The stuff we do with the Lips ends up being so different that, barring people like John Entwistle and Chris Squire, who really made the bass their own instrument, it was always more an inspiration than ‘I want to learn how to play like that.’ We’re just interested in ideas and how we can get to them. Someone will say, ‘Hey, got a guitar solo? Well, get in there and come up with something.’ Everyone contributes to the mass.”
Drummer Drozd, jokes Ivins, “is one of these perfect-pitch guys that me and Wayne find very annoying. He hears things, and then will immediately have 10 harmonies ready to go with it. We’re able to assemble songs quickly and [don’t] have to worry so much about what we’re actually going to play — but how we’re going to play it and arrange it.”
Ivins’ early years were spent in Southeast Asia, in Saigon “right before the s••t hit the fan,” he elaborates. He grew up in Hawaii, moving to Oklahoma in 1979 at the age of 16.
“I was into music, but not really in a performance or playing sort of way,” he recalls. “I always thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great to be in a band?’ I had some crappy bass guitar I’d bought at a pawnshop. I thought it would be easier to learn than guitar because it only had four strings.”
The Flaming Lips formed five years later — at a time when “fax machines and computers and all that was starting to come out,” Ivins notes. The band has always liked the mindbending imagery that marks much of their music — but they don’t inhale, so to speak.
“[Psychedelia] is sometimes just a convenient label,” contends Ivins. “We’ve had the opportunity to actually play with bands who base their whole career on the creation of their vision of 1968. But I think that’s just another thing that we like, just the same way we like a lot of the soundscapes that jazz has. We generally take our stuff from all over, because we really like music in general. We’ve also always drawn inspiration from punk rock, even back then, [when] there wasn’t so much of that going on around here. We didn’t ever look at it as a way of doing things. We looked at it as though, even though we can’t really play well, we’re not going to let that stop us.
“We figure, when you can actually go all over the place in one song, why limit yourself to making a whole record of rehashed Pet Sounds, or something like that?”
Yes, “normal” has always been a bad word around the band bus.
“In a way, we’ve set ourselves up to where we can keep doing stuff that we enjoy doing,” continues Ivins. “As some artists get older, they retreat back into what they first learned, or just keep making their type of music and not going anywhere. The Flaming Lips could turn around on the next record and figure we want to try some other stuff. … As we’re getting older, we don’t look at it as our job to compete with every fresh face that comes out. We’ve always just tried to be fresh ourselves, for lack of a better word. There are plenty of ideas out there.”