Space cowboys 

Keith Richards once described the impact rock ’n’ roll had on him as a teenager by saying that hearing it transformed life from black-and-white to Technicolor.

You could make a similar case for the liberating effect Steven Drozd had on the Flaming Lips when he joined the Oklahoma City band in 1992. Prior to that point, the Lips were a mildly amusing, but musically crude unit who unapologetically aped the Butthole Surfers. Even the most generous assessment of the early Lips, that they marked the moment when punks started taking acid, is off the mark, because the Butthole Surfers beat them to the lysergic as surely as they beat them to stage pyrotechnics and vocal-distorting bullhorns.

Looking back, however, at tracks such as “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” (from 1986’s Hear It Is) and “Everything’s Explodin’” (from 1987’s Oh My Gawd!!!... The Flaming Lips) you can detect some adventurous lurching in the dark that would ultimately lead to the fully-formed surreal, psychedelic space-pop that the band delivered with its 1999 masterwork, The Soft Bulletin, and 2002 sci-fi conceptual work, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. With these records, the Lips answered the hypothetical question of what might have resulted if Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett had collaborated in 1967.

Drozd layered most of the instruments on these albums, operating with effortless skill and tasteful creativity. Little wonder that when Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes was asked to name Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne’s greatest asset, he laughed and answered: “Steven.”

Lips bassist Michael Ivins, the only band member other than Coyne to have been along for the entire ride, says that Drozd’s musicality simply allowed the group to execute ideas that it had been aiming for since its formation in 1983.

“We always had the idea of the band being made up of people with ideas and it not actually mattering whether you had ability or not,” Ivins says. “And I think the big turning point was, we had a lot of the ideas, we just really couldn’t do them.

“When Steven came on the scene, we were able to do a lot of the ideas we were thinking of. And I think we’re interested, all of us, in that the studio can be used as another instrument — like an orchestra, almost.”

These days, the Lips are more like a music lab, like a pop equivalent to LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate, than a conventional band. Coyne is the conceptual visionary and grand showman, Drozd the musical architect, and Ivins the studio engineer and detail specialist.

“When bands are first starting out, everyone’s very possessive of a part they might play,” Ivins says. “Fairly quickly, we moved past that, and once we got to The Soft Bulletin, it didn’t matter who physically played what, it was just, ‘Are the ideas getting to tape?’”

When Ivins joined the band in 1983, playing any part was a serious challenge for him. Responding to a musician-wanted ad placed by Wayne and his high-school-jock brother Mark (the Lips’ original singer), Ivins falsely claimed that he knew how to play bass, a contention made more credible by his wild halo of hair and penchant for goth fashion. Learning on the fly, Ivins quickly became competent enough for the noisy mayhem the Lips initially generated, but he remains modest about his technical ability.

“I don’t want to say it came easy, because I don’t look at myself as an actual musician, in the sense that Steven’s a musician,” says Ivins, now known as the bald Lip. “He’s basically been a professional since he was 9, honing himself in honky tonks and bars all across Texas. He is genuinely a gifted musician. We might be on tour and somebody will say, ‘Hey, do you want to play this song with us?,’ and he can do it, just like that. With me, it takes a lot of rehearsal.”

Although the Lips scored only one radio hit in the first 15 years of their career — the loopy 1993 novelty track, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” over the course of the ’90s they developed a reputation for fearless experimentalism, best demonstrated by Zaireeka, a Coyne brainchild released as four CDs meant to be played on separate stereos at the same time. Coyne ushered in the interactive concept with an infamous Austin parking-garage experiment during SXSW, arming fans with boomboxes and working them like an orchestra conductor.

Zaireeka was something of a noble failure, with its chief flaw being that CD players don’t generally synchronize perfectly with each other (a fact that probably intrigued Coyne more than it frustrated him), but it set the stage for the anything-goes spirit of The Soft Bulletin. In the Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks, Coyne says that the fan loyalty demonstrated during the Zaireeka experiment inspired him to create something that would be worthy of that loyalty.

While the band was creating its greatest work, however, Drozd was sinking deeper into heroin addiction. The problem became so unwieldy that Coyne, a live-and-let-live type by nature, punched Drozd during recording sessions for Yoshimi.

“For the longest time, he never really let it get in the way of what it was we were doing,” Ivins says. “I mean, when we made records, just because `producer` Dave Fridmann has kids there was a no-illegal-substance policy on the facility, so basically Steven would have to stop. And by the time we were done with the session, you’d see the glimmer of the guy that you wanted back.”

Ivins, who currently lives in Fredonia, New York, encouraged Drozd to crash at his home for a few months, hoping that it would help Drozd escape his Oklahoma City drug connections. The resulting detox probably saved Drozd’s life.

These days, the band is putting the finishing touches on a long-talked-about Coyne film called Christmas on Mars, a space fantasy starring Adam Goldberg and the members of the Lips. At this point, creating music is just one aspect of Coyne’s restless, multi-media onslaught.

“As time’s gone on, we’ve allowed ourselves to encompass a lot more,” Ivins says. “We are able to make records, put on shows, and even think about making movies and doing other projects, and I don’t we’d actually be able to do that if we hadn’t allowed ourselves to break out of the mold of being a guy who plays an instrument.”

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LIVE MUSIC

The Flaming Lips w. Birds of Avalon
8pm Mon, Sep 24
$20
Sunset Station
(Lonestar Pavilion)
1174 E. Commerce
(210) 222-9481


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