In the wee hours of the morning on Monday, September 14, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne was signing autographs after his band performed at upstate New York's All Tomorrow's Parties festival when a burly young fan approached him with a length of industrial strap. Coyne recognized it as one of his own, used for tying down equipment like the large cannons that shoot confetti into the crowd throughout the band's stage show. The fan told Coyne the strap had been shot out of the cannon and hit him in the chest, but he calmly handed it back, got his shirt signed and walked away.
This isolated incident symbolizes a few things about the Lips -- their fans love them with a devotion that borders on insanity, the group's live shows are such spectacles that flying straps might very well be part of the festivities, and they're one of the luckier bands around.
The group started in the early '80s and has survived addiction, in-fighting and a holdup at a Long John Silver's seafood restaurant; had an alt-rock radio hit, She Don't Use Jelly, in 1993; and played the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills, 90210. Critics love them, audiences adore them, and they sell albums. 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots has sold 570,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and follow-up At War With the Mystics has sold 220,000.
Now the band is preparing to roll out a new album, Embryonic, due October 13 on Warner Bros. The 18-track set initially was conceived as a double album but will be sold in one- and two-CD packages. We realized that as much as we wanted to do the double album, all the songs fit on one disc, Lips manager Scott Booker says. We wanted to keep the costs down for our younger fans, and we'll also be releasing a double disc with added content, a fur-covered double album for collectors and a vinyl version.
Coyne describes Embryonic as slightly disturbed, but pleasant, adding, We tried to make it feel like, 'If you like two songs, you'll like the whole record' and 'If you don't like two songs, you probably won't like any of this.' The record has echoes of acts like Can and Joy Division and sounds cooler and less whimsical than previous efforts, especially on the opener Convinced of the Hex.
YETIS AND CONFETTI
But while the album might sound calmer, the live show remains frenetic, complete with dancers dressed in yeti costumes, Coyne rolling across the audience in what can only be described as a man-size hamster ball, and confetti -- lots and lots of confetti. We have the confetti shipped out to us, Coyne says. If we were to take it all and go out for a month of shows, it would fill a truck. It's a lot of confetti.
Warner marketing director Tom Osborn says the live show is the band's calling card. Q magazine in the U.K. said the Flaming Lips were one of the 50 bands you had to see before you die, he says. They've had some of the core elements of the live shows in place for a while, but Wayne is constantly trying to do new things and updating the visuals. They want it to be much more of an experience than just a rock show.
For a recent string of dates, fans also had the chance to preview the new album. We gave away three tracks from the new album digitally when people bought tickets to the last tour, Osborn says. Then, a week before the show, fans got digital copies of three classic B-sides sent to them. Finally, they could go to a Web site after the show and download a live version of the concert they had attended. It was all built seamlessly into the ticketing so fans didn't have to do extra work.
Concert attendees could also listen to the entire album at stations set up next to the merchandise table. I don't know if anyone missed the show and listened to all 18 tracks, but the idea was to give them a taste, Osborn says.
Embryonic was streamed live on the Web site for The Colbert Report to coincide with the band's September 16 appearance on the show. I wanted to stream the last record, too, but Warner was more cautious, Booker says. Osborn adds that at this point, we know records leak, it's just going to happen. The Lips have a very loyal fan base and we think they'll buy the record anyway.
The Lips are planning to spend some time in Los Angeles around the release date, doing TV shows and playing events. They also will play one-off dates at festivals like Treasure Island in San Francisco and Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, and will return to their hometown of Oklahoma City to participate in the annual March of 1,000 Flaming Skeletons on Halloween. Last year CNN covered it, and 30,000 people came to the parade, Booker says.
The Lips will then head to Europe and the United States in November, and they plan U.S. tour dates in the spring.
If there will be nothing in the sense of a traditional radio campaign for the new album, that's because radio has never really been available to us, Booker says. 'She Don't Use Jelly' was a happy accident that happened at a totally different time.
Recalling the early '90s, Coyne says that we were on tour with groups that were selling millions of records, like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox. ... I don't know if we really ever would pursue that type of success on our own. We were starting to be like, 'We're just taking whatever comes.' So when we got asked to be on 'Beverly Hills, 90210,' if it would've been six months earlier, we probably would've still had some control issues left over from what we thought our group's manifesto meant. But by then we knew that if we were lucky, there were going to be a lot of absurd things that you could experience if you just let s--t happen. Once we did that, I think it became a lot more fun to be in a group whether you succeeded or you failed. It opens up a world.