Q: Do you take stock? Do you measure your success, however you define that?
A: Well, I hate to sound egotistical about it, but when I see the way that we’re able to work now and the people that are working with me, I think we’re probably right now more interesting, and doing more unexpected things, doing more than ever. But I don’t know if it yields results that sound that way. A lot of times, we’re working in a way where we think nothing is working. Then a couple of years later, you look back and you’re like, “Wow,” all that frustration and all that uncertainty is in the art, which is what you want. You want whatever you’re doing to be in your art so that people can listen to your music and look at your things and know you through it. I feel like the way that we’re working now and the things that we’re doing now are even more stream-of- consciousness, more urgent. But I don’t know if that’ll mean the music is any good. I mean, that’s always a weird dilemma.
Q: Who decides if the music is any good? Is the bottom how you feel about it? Is it how your fans or the critics or history judges it? That’s pretty murky territory.
A: It’s very murky. Someone like Frank Zappa, as he got more and more control over what he was doing, for us his music got less and less interesting because he was surrounded by people who just loved Frank Zappa instead of being surrounded by other interesting artists who would add a dimension to his art that he maybe wouldn’t put in there. And so I think I’m lucky that I’ve shied away from being this guy who controls everything. I want to be surrounded by weirdos who are interesting. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists as they become successful and more “hey we’re going to do things my way.” I’m not necessarily interested in it being my way. If anything, I think I’m listening as much as I’m creating. I make a lot of sounds and noises, but it’s not coming from a musician level, it’s coming from more of an artistic level of “I don’t know what it means. I just like the way it sounds.” I would not be able to tell you what the notes are. I can’t read music. I don’t even really know how to tune up a lot of instruments.
Q: Is that right?
A: If Steven [Lips' multi-instrumentalist Drozd] tunes my guitar to a surprising tuning that I have no way of knowing what it is, he knows that I’ll write two or three songs because I don’t know what I’m doing. Not that I’m a savant. I understand that there’s something going on there. If I work on the same simple devices that I’m always working on, I’ll pull into the same gaps. But the minute those are taken away, it’s like, “Hey, I found this sound.” He’s like, “Yeah, I knew you would because you didn’t know what you were doing.” So we trust that. I mean, we want to hear new things. We’re also surrounded by a lot of new gadgets. We’re always buying new gadgets. When Steven walks into a room, if there’s an instrument he’s never played before I say, “Don’t touch it yet. We’re going to set up so we can record.” Because when he’s playing around with something, he’ll be free of that mechanism of being the musician who understands everything. And there’s a lot of examples of that in music, these mega musicians, say Keith Richards, when he wrote the Rolling Stones‘ “Satisfaction” he was just dicking around. It was not a song. He’s just like, “Yeah, that’s kind of cool sounding.” It becomes one of the most memorable songs of all time. So you see the thing is, control and knowing what you’re doing sometimes is the enemy of that freedom and that spontaneity.
Q: And I think the willingness and the eagerness, really, to have those adventures and manage that uncertainty and even understand the value of that uncertainty has got to be a big factor in staying relevant and feeling excited. You mentioned all these new toys that you get and it occurs to me that your band straddles eras, with a foot in the pre-digital old school music world and another in this exploding world of technology. What is it like navigating those changes?
A: Right. Well, for me it’s wonderful. The way that we record at my house, I have a very primitive cassette four-track recorder that I do a lot of initial demos on, where I’m just playing an instrument and singing, and it’s very intuitive. It’s very immediate. It’s like you press two buttons and it’s happening. I have a lot of things set up that are making these cool sounds and they’re all plugged in already. So if I went up there, within 10 minutes, I could have done three songs because it’s just so easy, there’s nothing to do. And then I go downstairs into the big computer studio where Michael [Ivins, the band's bass player] is set up and I could say, “You know, I like this, but it’s too short. I only sang for 20 seconds. Wouldn’t it be great if it was a minute and we could turn it into something?” So something that was just a little moment on my little cassette recorder can turn into this grander thing because we manipulate it, stretch it, repeat it and refine it and make the noisy bits less noisy or the out of time bits more in time. Anything that we feel like can shape, we can.
Q: What about changes in the business, in the way music is distributed and consumed?
A: As far idea this idea of how you make money and how you get the audience to buy your stuff? Most people I know think that you can always download anything for free. Radiohead released their record, I don’t know, a month-and-a-half ago, and almost everybody I knew just downloaded it as soon as it was out there so we could all hear it. We had it on our iPods. And when I looked around I said, “Who bought this?” And none of us could pinpoint who the person was that actually bought it, even though we were all listening to it. I suppose it’s still not technically legal. But we want to hear music and we forget that there’s mechanisms that allow us to pay for it if we want to. I want the audience to be in the situation where if you do not have money, you can still get our music and hear our music. There are other things that we’re going to do that require money, we’re going to play shows, and hopefully our shows are worth the $45 or $50 it takes to come to them. And then we have these objects which you can buy that hold Flaming Lips music, these collectable art objects. That’s the series that we’re doing now with the gummy skulls and the stomp boxes. For me, all these things are fucking a lot more exciting than just making albums and CDs. So when I tell people that in two weeks we’re going to have a life-sized gummy skull with a squishy brain and a USB flash drive inserted into the brain and you’ve got to eat into the skull and the brain to get the music out, people will think, “what the fuck drugs are you taking?” And again, I’m lucky. I mean, initially we were trying to make this skull out of bubble gum and no bubble gum manufacturers wanted to touch it. And we just stumbled upon a guy who was already doing big gummy candy things and we called him and he was a big Flaming Lips fan and he said, “I want to do this with you, what do we got to do?” And so within a couple of days of talking to him, we had a reasonable mold already, mostly because he’s a Flaming Lips fan. And my feeling is if you’re a Flaming Lips fan, you’re already willing to take a chance and do something that’s of another world, not just “how are we going to do this efficiently and make money?” It’s about, “Fuck, I want to do something.”
Q: Who are the Flaming Lips fans? Do you keep generating new, young audiences or is your fan base mostly people who are growing up with you?
A: Well, I would say from my experience there’s always this core of young people from 17 to about 25, which would be where we’re all kind of exploring who we are through the music that we listen to and we’re going to shows, we’re taking drugs, we’re having sex, we’re freaking out. But after about 25, those people will find other things. Of course people who really, really love music will always love music. So I would say if you took a group of ten people and said, “Let’s take them from 17 to 25,” two of them are going to come out the other end and love music for the rest of their lives. The rest of them are going to just go get jobs and have kids and the music that they listened to from the time they were 17 to 25 will be the music that they love the rest of their life. So if you were a fan of the Flaming Lips during this time of your life, you’d probably still come to see us but you’d want us to play that music that was more associated with your time. I think we have an audience that’s always kind of leaving us, but we have a new audience that’s always sort of finding us.
Q: A lot of people believe that pop music is a young person’s game. Have you experienced ageism? Have you had the experience of fans not being receptive to you because you’re too old?
A: Well, a lot of young people really just want to see themselves. And so when they see someone on stage they think, “that’s me, they just happen to be famous and in a band, but they’re really me. They’re singing about me and my life and they look like me.” It’s no surprise that even someone like a Britney Spears, a lot of her audience are girls that look just like her. That’s the phenomenon of Bob Dylan, too. People secretly know that if you really love Bob Dylan it’s because you’re narcissistic, it’s because you want to sing about yourself and you want to sing about how the world sucks and you’re the only one that understands it because that’s what Bob Dylan does. So when people come up to me and say, “Man, it’s weird that you don’t love Bob Dylan,” I say, “I like Bob Dylan, but I don’t love him because I’m not a cynical person.” I think he makes great, interesting art. I just don’t want to listen to him complaining all the time. I think the way we put on the show and invite everybody up there, I think that says a lot about who we are. We’re open to this new experience, which is what we don’t like about most old people, that they’re not open to new experiences. They’re saying, “Look, take it from me. I know everything and you’re too young and stupid.” And I think the Flaming Lips say, “I don’t know the way. Let’s try it out together.” And so I think this idea that we have a lot of experiences, that we can do a lot of things, I have a lot of people at my disposal that will help me do ridiculous things like gummy skulls probably goes back to that– what’s that word?
A: Yes. I guess given the complete freedom that I am arriving at with my art and ideas and my productions and all that, maybe that is what’s happening, because when I talk about the gummy skull a lot of people are like, “You must have a lot of kids around your house, because it sounds like the things you’re doing, kids would love them.” Well, I don’t have kids of my own.