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Interview: Steven Drozd (of The Flaming Lips)

on April 15, 2013, 12:00am
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lips feature

Considering the fact that he hasn’t played drums live since 1996, it is astounding at how many people today, when they hear the names Steven Drozd and The Flaming Lips, respond with something along the lines of, “He’s the drummer right?” When he first joined The Flaming Lips in the fall of 1991, it was as the band’s drummer, but Drozd’s role almost immediately expanded to include playing keyboards and guitars, as well as eventually arranging much of the group’s material. As a member of the Lips, Drozd will be the first to admit that he’s part of a team; however, much of the band’s musical personality outside of frontman Wayne Coyne’s lyrics is the handiwork of Drozd.

The impetus for The Flaming Lips’ most recent release, The Terror, grew from Drozd tinkering in the studio late at night. Though the album resonates with familiar themes, The Terror is a bleak and gloomy record, with little of the ebullient energy found on the band’s early-mid 2000s releases. “It just sounds like a different trip for us,” said Drozd. “I’m sure a lot of our hardcore fans will think there’s things different in it, but I’d be curious to see what the man-on-the-street has to say about the record.”

Consequence of Sound caught up with Drozd to discuss The Terror, what he and the group feel about the new material and current direction, the importance of Embryonic, and just how the Flaming Lips convinced Warner Brothers to release Zaireeka.

The ending of Wayne’s romantic relationship of 25 years is reflected in some of The Terror’s lyrics. However, according to him in a recent interview, the roots to the whole album lie in your song “You Are Alone”, a song he described as an “honest piece that didn’t hint at being sorry there was no hope in this music.” You’ve talked about its lack of chord changes, but where did this song come from and how did the album develop from it?

I would agree that that was sort of the jumping off point for the new record, but when I was working on the music, it was kind of in a void. A lot of times we’re doing stuff, and we have deadlines, and the music you’re working on, you know what project it’s for. When I was working on that thing, it really was just to kill time. I had some free time in the studio in the other room at Dave Fridmann’s studio. I was just putting together sounds for my own enjoyment and just to pass the time, not really thinking it was for anything, which was a relief after all the stuff we’d done. We were working on the Heady Fwends, we’d done that fucking 24-hour song, we’d done a six-hour song. We had been doing all this stuff, so for me it was like my mind was a blank sheet and I was just doing stuff for fun. I guess one of my theories about it is that I was doing it from some emotional place instead of a logical place, or a reasoning place. It was just like I was putting down sounds that I thought sort of described how I felt at the time.

I didn’t really think that much about it, and then Wayne heard what I was working on. He really reacted to it. He really responded. If he likes something I’m doing, he’ll always say so and I’ll know if I should keep working on it, thinking it’s a Lips’ thing, or if I should throw it on a pile of other stuff. He’s usually not as vocal as he was that time and he just really wanted to know what was going on with it. And once Wayne gets involved with something and gets his energy into it, it takes on a whole new dimension. So we worked on it together. He started helping me craft some lyrics because, to me, I’ll usually just sing an idea with no real words and he fills in the words. But him jumping in kind of gave it a whole new energy. We both liked it enough to say, “Hey, let’s try and do a few more pieces like this, and see what it’s like to try and stay in this same sound realm.” And after three or four songs we decided we should make a whole record like this. That’s sort of how it evolved.

The Flaming Lps The Terrors

You’ve said that the title is derived from that doom and dread, that despite appearances, everything is going to end one day. You’ve touched upon this sentiment before in “Do You Realize??”, only with a positive, somewhat more optimistic outcome. I wouldn’t say The Terror is pessimistic, but it’s certainly not all sunshine and lollipops. Is it fair to think of it as something of a flip-side to “Do You Realize??” or your earlier tackling of the subject?

I guess so, in a way, because like you said, “Do You Realize??”, overall it’s a positive message, but it’s got a couple of lines here and there. Even though the very last line of [this] record, Wayne gets in that last line, “Joy of life that overwhelms,” which is obviously a very positive thing to say after all this dread, I think that, to me, the record is like accepting the bad. I know Wayne talks about it being good as well, but to me it’s almost like a communication of how much doubt you can feel about everything and connecting to it instead of fighting it. It’s almost like accepting it.

Everyone we know is going to die. To put it that way is to oversimplify it. I just like it because to me, the whole record seems to have this one kind of general vibe to it. I guess in a simple way you could say it would be like the negative image of “Do You Realize??”. I guess even going back before “Do You Realize??”, even before I was in the band, the Flaming Lips had a lot of songs. Go back to “Godzilla Flick” off Here It Is, and it’s really just, that’s it, that’s the whole message. It’s basically that we’re all fucked. There’s no redemption to it. We’re all going to die. This is no Clint Eastwood flick with the people that you love shooting the lives out of themselves. To me it almost harkens back to an earlier Wayne Coyne or Flaming Lips mindset.

To us it felt like a nice contrast. We had been doing the balloons and the confetti and the people dancing on stage. To us it felt like it was time to say that there was more to it than that. I know a lot of Flaming Lips fans that were fans from early on have probably gotten turned off at our blatant commercialism the last several years. [Laughs.] It just seemed like it was a good time for us to do something like this, to make a whole record that was of this one kind of statement. I’m not sure if I answered your question, but it feels like the negative, the photographic negative image to whatever “Do You Realize??” is, accepting that death is part of life but not necessarily being cheery about it like it is in “Do You Realize??”.

The theme is doleful, but it is arguably a realistic point of view. How much of the darkness stems from maturing, growing wiser, and seeing things for what they are rather than what you want them to be? And how much is connected to personal darkness, such as your struggles with addiction? I imagine that being a father has changed your outlook on the world. Has that affected your songwriting?

Well I should say that when that whole thing came out, I think Wayne had talked to Rolling Stone, and the quote was that it was the worst time in my life, I was suicidal and all this stuff. That was greatly exaggerated and that was the only part about it that really upset me. I wasn’t necessarily trying to hide all of it, but I definitely wasn’t suicidal, and I can honestly say there was no way it was the worst time in my life.

The worst time in my life was easily 2001. I had been addicted to heroin for many years and I was trying to get out of that. It was a struggle for months, getting into a couple of years, just to change my whole mindset about life. Well, you fast-forward several years, I’ve got two children, my wife. She was my girlfriend for years. We’ve been in love since 1991 and here we are together. We’ve got this beautiful family that’s all going well, and my relapse was really just a small slip, but when I was getting back out of it, it was enough for me to question everything.

So, for three or four days when I was working on that piece of music that I was working on, I was tapping in to whatever that was, and I guess it came out in the music. And then Wayne responded to that in a way where he wanted to make that part of the story, which I was fine with. But again, it was greatly exaggerated.

But to answer your question, I guess in some ways I know I’m a happier person than I was however many years ago, and I’m not fighting everyday to wonder how cool I am, or if I’m going to make it in life. It seems like, unless something terrible happens, which it could, I’m probably going to be okay. Musically speaking, I feel that Wayne’s probably in the same boat too. We got to the end of whatever it was trying to be songwriters. I just felt like if you’re using chords and melodies, I had gotten to the point where I didn’t have any ideas. And like I said before, starting with a blank canvas, I was just tapping into these sounds, whatever they were. It wasn’t based on chords or melodies, it was just sounds, and I was using the sounds to express whatever it was I was feeling without really realizing it.

Overall, I would say I’m a happier person than I was 15 years ago, but the thing is, now you have experience that you can draw from. I can think about the past and get really sad, or upset, or depressed and I can tap into that for something creative to flow. It’s less unknown. I can look back to the past and draw from that and that’s where I can get some sadness.

Can you be objective? When you look back now to draw inspiration, are you able to step outside of it and see the big picture, or do you still see it as what your role was in it?

I can do both really. I was talking with somebody last week and they were asking me what my biggest regret was, and without even missing a beat, it was that I just wish I had enjoyed some of the stuff a lot more. Like in the early 2000s, when we got finished with Yoshimi and the band was really on an upward climb, things were going great for us. And when I look back now, I wish I would have appreciated those times more instead of struggling with it so much. To me, I guess that’s subjective, but it’s also objective. When I also think about the band in the late ‘90s and things could have gone horribly for us. We could have gotten dropped from our label, we could have tried to make The Soft Bulletin and no one cared. I look at it in terms of how my life is and I look at it in terms of, say, the band or the music industry in general

A year ago last October [Oct 2011] marked your 20th anniversary with The Flaming Lips.

I joined in ’91. It’s funny because my wife, Becky, we met in August of ’91 and then like a month and a half later I met Wayne and the Flaming Lips. So, like, two of the most important things that happened in shaping my adulthood happened within a couple of months of each other. Becky and I’ve been together however many years and then right after that is the Flaming Lips, so those are like my two marriages.

Over the last two decades your role has evolved from drummer to arguably becoming the sonic thumbprint of the band, while Wayne provides the lyrics. Can you talk to the songwriting relationship you have with each other?

That’s a really simple way of looking at things. I mean, Wayne plays less and less over time, but it’s not like he doesn’t have a hand in creating the music.

I didn’t mean it entirely like that, but it seems that when it comes to the roles of the band, Dave and [Michael] Ivins are on the recording side, you’re playing a lot of the instruments and coming up with the arrangements, and Wayne was principally in charge of the lyrics.

Definitely, yeah. I guess the thing is, and it’s taken me a while to realize, that I think that we’re just really lucky that we have such an easy working relationship. I would say that 95% of the time Wayne and I agree on what sounds cool, what we like, or what we like to do. Usually we’re in the same boat. Every once in a while it doesn’t jive, but those times are really few and far in between. I guess the way it happened was, when I first joined the band, I joined the band as the drummer. But even years leading up to that, if there was a piano around I was always playing piano. I was always playing guitar. I always had little progressions or something like that. But at that time I was just really wanting to be a rock drummer, so that’s what I focused on.

After being in the band for just a little while I would come to Wayne with a song idea or something and he would really respond to it. He would want to do something with it. That kind of encouraged me to keep doing it. And then as time went on we just became more connected in that way. If he had a song idea, he would come to me to see if I could help him, whatever he wanted help with, if he wanted it. And I would always have a musical idea but with no words, knowing that if I gave him something like “Race For the Prize”, which is kind of a cool piece of music, but once you put the lyrics and all that imagery, that music becomes a whole different thing. Over the years it’s just evolved in that way where we got more comfortable writing stuff with each other and contributing to each other’s ideas. And like I said before, luckily always, almost always agreeing on things.

So The Terror, even though it sounds bleak and all that, to me, it’s one of the easiest records we’ve made out of all the records we’ve made. It just seemed like whatever I was getting into musically he seemed to really want to do that same thing, and then he started getting his energy into it and it all happened very quickly.

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