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Interview: Steven Drozd (of The Flaming Lips)

on April 15, 2013, 12:00am
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theflaminglips catherinewatkins Interview: Steven Drozd (of The Flaming Lips)

In the album’s press material, Wayne claimed that neither of you were trying to make a record, rather you were “being completely self-indulgent.” At what point did you realize that was no longer the case?

Well that’s what I was saying before. It took a few songs. Definitely that first thing, “You Are Alone”, was me being completely self-indulgent, not thinking. I was just doing it for my own entertainment and not thinking it was going to be for any specific release. As I was saying before, we always have so many things coming up. “We need a song for this, and this thing is coming out next month.” And in 2011, I don’t know how many things we put out, that I almost lost track of some of it. It was just so much stuff. When we first started on that “You Are Alone” piece, that was completely self-indulgent, and then we decided to do a couple more tracks like that. I would say it was four songs in [that] we realized we’re just going to make this a record. It seemed like it was going to work and then we started doing the work where it has to be something instead of it could be something.

For me, there was a big difference between, “Hey I’m just doing this for fun,” and it’s either existing in my imagination, or in my little computer, and there’s no consequences of it, and then at some point it does switch, where if this is going to be your whole new record, is this really what you want? So I would say four or five songs in is where that flipped.

Once again, Dave Fridmann is producing, a role he has held with the Lips since ‘95’s Clouds Taste Metallic. I imagine you all have tons of ideas flying around while making a record that could easily overwhelm or distract from the goal. Though you’ve said that Fridmann is practically a member of the group, do you think having him be able to stand outside of it makes it easier for him to keep you all on task and rein you in when need be?

Oh totally, yeah. I mean, his ego is involved too, but not in the same way ours is. He’s not going around the world touring this new stuff. He’s not going to have to stand up in front of people [playing] the music, so his ego is involved a little less. But it is still. He has to have his name on the record. I think he’s great like that. I would say even more than The Terror, when we were working on Embryonic he was the person that averted disaster in a way, because we were trying so many different kinds of styles and different songwriting things, and when we were putting them all together it just wasn’t working. He was the one who said, “If you’re going to do this one kind of skronky jam thing that sounds like Krautrock mixed with early ’70s Miles Davis, or whatever you want to call it, you should really just do that and stick to that rather than trying to jump all over the place.”

To me, that’s a great example of him being “producer,” where he’s saying, “No, let’s rein this in and try to turn it into something that’s not completely all over the place.” So with The Terror, I think we decided early on that we were going to try and stay in this one kind of sound world, and he definitely helped us in that regard. “If you’re going to use these five kinds of synthesizers and this kind of reverb and delay on the voice, you should try and do that where it stays in that same realm.” That is where Dave Fridmann is perfect for that, and if he was a member of the band, I don’t think it would be quite as easy for him to look at it objectively.

He represents the second connection between the Lips and Mercury Rev, Jonathan Donahue being the first?

Yeah, Jonathan played on two records and I think he definitely helped get the Lips to mutate to a different place than they were before. And then Fridmann was the producer, but he’s also a musician too, and I think he played keyboards on those two records Jonathan did. They came together as a package. This was before I was in the band and I only know it from stories. Jonathan worked at the University of Buffalo, and he wanted to book the Lips there, and he did book the Lips. Meanwhile, I think their drummer was leaving the band. Their drummer at the time, Richard English, was leaving the band. Jonathan jumped in the van with them and Wayne and Michael asked Jonathan to do a couple of shows, just like, “Hey, let’s see what happens.” Shortly after that Jonathan was saying [Dave] was one of [his] best friends, and they have a band together, and he was taking recording at school. That’s when he recorded Priest Driven Ambulance.

I think it was quickly after Jonathan joined the Flaming Lips that Dave Fridmann was in there as well. By the time that Jonathan was doing his first full-on tour with the Lips, Dave Fridmann was running sound. And when they recorded In a Priest Driven Ambulance, that was in Fredonia, New York, at the college, and that was Dave Fridmann’s senior class project, if you can imagine that. His class project was that LP. To me, no one is ever going to top that. Whatever happened with Mercury Rev and the Lips, Jonathan pursued that and Dave ended up sort of staying in both camps, and that’s continuous to this day.

When referencing the making of Embryonic, you said that you believed it was the first time the Lips entered the studio with nothing, effectively constructing the album out of jam sessions. The Terror sounds quite the opposite. Do you think The Terror could have been made the way you made Embryonic? Was that an experience you’d like to revisit or was once enough?

Well, I do have to say that a lot of The Terror stuff was made like Embryonic, but instead of getting us all together and jamming, it would usually be that Wayne and I would just go, and we did a lot of stuff as his studio in Oklahoma City. And we would meet every day, we’d turn on whatever synthesizer we looked at first, find some sound that we thought was cool, record the sound and make a song out of the sounds. To me that’s an extension of what we did on Embryonic, where instead of one us coming to the studio with a song, we would all just show up and start playing. We would jam and record it for an hour until we found something that we really liked, and we would take that, and shape it a little bit, and make a song. That was Embryonic. So, The Terror to me is an extension of what happened on Embryonic, where again, instead of having songs when we come in, we’re just really recording sounds, and seeing what strikes us, and then going from there. But we couldn’t have made The Terror if we hadn’t made Embryonic first. I don’t think that would have happened.

You recently said, “I’ve always wanted to change something on every Flaming Lips record afterwards, [but] there’s nothing I would change about this one.” That’s something of a bold statement. What are some of the changes you’d make to your earlier recordings?

When I say that, that’s the only way that I can say… because Wayne has said that he thought this might be the best Lips record ever, and I couldn’t go that far. [Laughs.] Usually, when somebody says that, it’s someone who’s been making records for 40 years, and the thing they just put out is the last thing you want to hear by them, and they usually say, “It’s my best work so far.” To me, I made that connection and I couldn’t quite say that, so the best I could come up with is that there’s nothing I would really change. But you know, with every record, there’s things that still nag at me. Like, “I wish we wouldn’t have done that this way, and yadda yadda yadda”. But you want examples right?

Well, I wasn’t sure if you were being literal or figurative, but apparently you were just being figurative.

No, literally. Like At War With the Mystics, I think if we sequenced that differently and got rid of two songs, that record would seem a lot less all over the place. It just seemed like we tried too many different styles on one record. That’s my opinion of it when I hear it. So what I would change about that one would be I would get rid of a couple of songs and change the sequence. [Laughs.] Embryonic, there’s a couple of songs I thought just didn’t really fit with the rest of the record. I know that people talk about The Beatles’ White Album where it’s all these different styles, but even with all those different styles, and it’s four different guys, it still sounds like one record to me. Whereas there’s a couple of songs on Embryonic that I just wish we wouldn’t have put on. That’s a couple of examples for you.

Let’s go back to when you guys became a three-piece. As you had already been playing a lot of guitar in the studio, I can understand it when you once said, “I don’t think there was ever a time when it was a struggle for us to make that switch from the four-piece to the three-piece.” But at the time, how big a blow was it to the group when Ronald Jones left, considering that he was a man you once described as something of a “Kevin Shields meets Miles Davis”?

Yeah, yeah. I want to make it clear that when Ronald left, we had no choice but to change. People were like, “Why don’t you just get another guitar player?” There was probably 20 guitar players in line that would want to fill Ronald’s shoes. To my mind, there was no one that would even compete with what he does on the guitar. There are guys that have a lot of effects pedals and, sure, they can do a lot of crazy sounds, but Ronald was beyond effects pedals. He could just grab a guitar, plug it in to an amp and play something that would just blow your mind. It would be such a simple idea that you wouldn’t expect it, but [it would] work perfectly for the song, or be some real prog rock-y thing that you wouldn’t ever think of. I’m trying to explain that he was an incredible musical figure.

So when he left the group, we knew that that element of guitar playing for the Flaming Lips is gone. We can’t get anybody else that’s going to do that. By that time I was leaning towards wanting to do this sort of heavy rock meets prog rock meets orchestration kind of stuff. So, really, when he left, it almost opened the door for that to happen a lot easier. So instead of saying we’re going to do this stuff but we’re also going to have Ronald’s stuff, knowing we didn’t have Ronald’s stuff kind of left us this void that we had to fill. And that’s when we made this sort of stylistic change.

I would definitely say that in the summer of ’96, when he was quitting, I know Wayne and I had quite a few discussions about, “What are we going to do?” At that point it hadn’t even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be playing drums live anymore. I was just thinking, “How am I going to play drums and we’re going to [do] all this shit at the same time?” But it all worked out, because we didn’t actually tour together as a rock band until 1999, so we got a couple of years. We did a bunch of boom box experiments, and we did some parking lot experiments, and we made Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin in that time.

That whole period gave us a chance to mutate and evolve to whatever became the three-piece that toured for The Soft Bulletin. If we had to go right from Ronald quitting to touring as a three-piece, I don’t think it would have worked that same way. Just the way things worked out we had a couple of years to evolve that. But yeah, it changed the whole group when Ronald left. It was almost like the end of, and we kind of wanted it to be the end of post-grunge alternative shoegazer guitar rock stuff, if that makes any sense.

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You can almost look at it like that change in the group allowed the group to survive the ‘90s alt rock phase.

I think so. If things had gone a couple of ways differently we would have gotten dropped from Warner Brothers and it would have been like, “Oh, that’s that band that had the ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ song back in the ‘90s.” It could have ended there. But luckily, with The Soft Bulletin, it gave us a whole new career basically. A younger generation of people, or people that might not have liked what we were doing before sort of embraced this new thing. I’m sure we lost some fans along the way but obviously we gained a lot more than we lost.

The success of The Soft Bulletin in 1999 certainly changed Warner Brothers’ position on the band. But if things were iffy with the label as far back as ‘95, why even attempt an album like Zaireeka?

Well, that’s the beauty of having Scott Booker as your manager and Wayne Coyne as your sort of front man and creative overlord. A bunch of bands got dropped and a bunch of people lost their jobs in 1997-98. For us, right at that time, we were right under the radar. We weren’t touring and we were starting to work on music, but we didn’t know what it was going to become quite yet. Even “Race For the Prize”, I think I had a demo for that in the summer of ’95. I had two demos. One sounded like the Carpenters and one sounded like Led Zeppelin meets Dinosaur Jr. And it took me a while to get those two put together. Around that same time, Wayne was writing “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet” [“Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair”], that’s on Zaireeka.

So, we were kind of getting in this area, but we weren’t in Warner Brothers’ faces. We were just under the radar when a bunch of bands got dropped. So by the time we were actually recording in the studio and talking about this, Scott and Wayne had gone to Warner Brothers and said that if you give us this amount of money to make a record, we can make our next record and this four-CD idea thing called Zaireeka. Somehow Scott and Wayne sold them on the idea. They pulled it off.

Zaireeka came out in October of ’97, and then in ’98 we did a bunch of parking lot experiments and boom box experiments and I think that made it seem… well, not made it seem, it really was. We were doing something different. The cool people at Warner Brothers, there were enough cool people still left, they were saying, “Let’s let these guys do what they’re doing for the next couple of years and let’s see what happens.” Just when it could have gone really bad, The Soft Bulletin came out and ended up on a bunch of critics’ lists.

How do you think covering Dark Side [Dark Side of the Moon] affected The Terror? I ask because Wayne indicated in an interview with Mojo that he felt that elements of Pink Floyd and Dark Side in particular hovered throughout the album. And you, in the past, have said that “The Floyd is never far from our minds.” Do you think The Terror would have sounded differently had you not covered that album?

I think so, because I think we would have had more rock in us that we wanted to do. See that’s the thing. By the time we got to the end of doing The Dark Side of the Moon, and the six-hour song, and the 24-hour song, and all these different things, the Heady Fwends, by the time we got to the end of that I didn’t want to rock. I just wanted to hover around in these sad mono synths with a bunch of reverb and machine sounds. I think it affected it in that way. I just didn’t care about playing rock per say, and I’m sure Wayne would agree with that. But I think how you mean is how it stylistically affects us.

When I say the Floyd is always hovering around our brains, it’s true. But I guess, to me, The Terror, I don’t really hear those Pink Floyd elements like I do in a lot of our stuff. To me it’s more akin to Suicide or Silver Apples, some later Joy Division. To me, I don’t really hear the Pink Floyd so much. But it definitely wouldn’t have sounded that way if we hadn’t burnt ourselves out on the previous two years of making music.

I know you’ve done a couple scores, but in particular that you composed part of the score to The Heart Is a Drum Machine before ever seeing any footage. With regards to scoring for film, do you prefer to compose for the visual medium relying solely on the images you conjure up from discussions with the director, or do you like having an already established visual framework to apply your music?

I would rather have an established visual framework or at least some general idea of how it might look. You might not say, “Send me the dailies,” but you might want to see three minutes of just what the film looks like. I only did that with The Heart Is a Drum Machine because they didn’t have anything yet and I knew that the Lips were about to get really busy, so I wanted to do some stuff while I had the time, just doing some stuff at home. I much more prefer scoring to actual scenes. Like on Christmas on Mars, there are a couple of scenes where Wayne and I would watch the scene and I would sit at the keyboard and try to play to whatever the mood of what I was seeing. I definitely prefer that. But The Heart Is a Drum Machine, when I hear it now, it seems really stiff musically. I wish it wasn’t so stiff.

I’ve got one last question, and it has nothing to do with Flaming Lips or your music. Once, when asked about guitarists who influence or inspire you, you mentioned both Duane Denison and J Mascis, both of whose bands have released albums relatively recently. Have you gotten a chance to listen to either the new Tomahawk or Dinosaur albums?

I haven’t, no. I actually just ran into Duane Denison in Brazil last week, or two weeks ago. I saw him and it took me a few minutes to remember, “Oh my god, I used to worship this guy.” We’re sitting [and] having coffee in this hotel lobby and after a couple minutes, I got this old feeling, “Oh, my god, I’m sitting here with Duane Denison, I better sit up straight.” Especially in the mid-late ’90s, I just loved him. He made it cool to listen to Steve Howe [guitarist, Yes, GTR, Asia] and some prog rock guys. He was, to me, clearly influenced by those guys, but then had listened to a lot of Einstürzende Neubauten or something, or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He was like the link between noodly prog rock and just bad-ass noise stuff.

That being said, I haven’t heard the new Tomahawk and I haven’t heard the new Dinosaur Jr. But both those guys, to me, it went way beyond punk rock. They took more music from the past and then filtered it through punk rock and made their own things. To me that’s as valuable as Jimmy Page or something, which I hold in very high regard as well.

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