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Music. Mystics. Politics. Pluto. Flaming Lips' Michael Ivins Speaks

Who would have thought, nearly a quarter of a century ago, that these gracious Midwestern boys would grow to become one of the most entertaining, imaginative live acts of the 21st century? Yet here the Flaming Lips are, warding off middle age with fake blood, confetti guns, and infectious enthusiasm. (It's hard to fully appreciate them until you see them play live — it's a sight to behold.)

With the release of this spring's At War With the Mystics and a list of side projects too long to fit here, the Lips have persistently remained in the public eye. Their unique take on psychedelic rock, noisy experimentation, and uplifting pop melodies has permeated the mainstream, thanks to their tireless work ethic and compelling artistic vision. (For the few uninitiated: the Lips have managed the seemingly impossible, not only remaining true to their original aesthetic while continuing to push the boundaries of contemporary music, but consistently sounding like themselves without ever descending into self-parody.)

Neumu recently spoke with co-founder and bassist Michael Ivins. Amid the background noise of guitar tunings and equipment configuration (he was taking a brief break from setting up for that night's show), he told us all about the Lips (including the 1996 departure of guitarist Ronald Jones, which AMG describes as "a spiritual odyssey from which he did not return"), with plenty of detours for rants about the current administration, hybrid cars, Pluto's recent downgrade, and the band's recent tour with Sonic Youth.

So how's the tour been going?

We've been out all summer, but we've been stringing these one-night stands together. Now we're actually out on the road getting our rhythm, instead of sort of these haphazard [shows], because we were doing a lot of flying and that was kind of weird for us. But it was this interesting experiment with being able to play a show in Atlanta and basically playing within the next couple days all the way across the country, like San Diego or something.

I'm from San Diego.

Well, there ya go. Look at that.

For all these gigs, how much of the setup do you actively do?

Pretty much all of it. This might sound lame, but I can screw my back up pretty good, so I don't actually lift heavy boxes. But I currently move stuff around, help get screens set up, decide how we're going to set it up. Lots of times, unless you get into standardized places, it's different every night.

And we usually all take care of all our own gear. It's not really as though we have an army of techs with us that set up all of our gear, and then 20 minutes before the show we walk up on the stage, and everything's right, or somebody gets fired. It's easier sometimes — you know where your stuff is and you can set it up how you want it, and we like being a part of the show from basically the minute we get here.

Sometimes when we do shows where a lot of stuff is taken care of, there's a strange disconnect. If you're right around show time, and you're sitting in a hotel room, or out eating dinner, sometimes it's just a little weird. It's more fun to be part of the whole process. You feel like you've been there, and been through it with the stagehands. The funny part is, they actually think we're part of the road crew, and then after the show, they'll realize —

You get local stagehands assuming, "Well, why would a band show up and do their sound check?" Or loading, and stuff like that. A lot of times, we win everyone over with our work ethic, so to speak. (Laughs) We just think it's fun, and that's why we're here. We're not on a tour of finding the best hotels in the country, or finding the best restaurants. That's more, only when you can do it.

In a new town, [we like] getting a feel for the locals, their way of life, whether it's St. Louis or San Diego or Austria. But a lot of times, we're just here, and we pull in, do the show, and pull out — hey, that's the way we'll do it, too. Because we feel, like, hey we're here for the audience; it's not about really anything else.

I keep hearing rumors of a giant Flaming Lips spaceship that'll descend onto the stage. Is it hard to keep upping the ante with the visual theatrics, or do you see yourself stripping things down, going back to the basics?

Well, we've been talking about how can we do that, but we haven't actually put it into practice yet.

I think we're trying to get into a mindset that we don't have to pick one kind of show over another. We're batting around an idea that maybe we could do something that's big and elaborate, and that would dictate where we would play, if it could fill up a big shed or outdoor venue, or an arena. And then maybe the next night we would go into a much smaller venue and play as a quote-unquote "band."

I guess it just depends on what you want to get out of a show, because a lot of the time, I don't want to go down on the floor right up against the — what do you call it? — against the barrier. I mean, that was great when I was 20 or whatever, but God, it's just, wow. It's almost too much anymore. But I mean, people love it, and you look at them every night and see them squished up right up against the front, and they love it. (Laughs)

I think at some point we'll investigate that kind of idea; maybe we could play these much smaller, scaled-back kind of shows. But I think it all goes hand in hand. I don't necessarily think that the visuals take away from the music. We try to incorporate this stuff into the whole performance.

I think that sometimes doing this over-the-top joyful celebration, as it were, kind of lets us get away with playing some of the more heavy songs. It just lets people realize that even though things are sometimes bleak or desperate, it's always worth moving through all these things because it makes you appreciate the good stuff. Because if everything were good, it certainly would be boring after a while. I think you really have to go through things like experiencing somebody dying that you know, and just realizing that you're going to die sometime.

Can you elaborate on this balance between light and dark elements? Sometimes "Do You Realize???" reminds me of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows?", because of lyrics like "I may not always love you" and "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?" — and then these beautiful pop melodies.

Well, I don't think that we necessarily look at it as a dichotomy, just in a philosophical way, like there's light and there's dark. I think it's all part of the same thing. Obviously, if you're planning to do an outing of some sort, and it rains, all of a sudden, rain becomes bad weather. But sometimes, the rain is all weird and gloomy looking, and it's just the best thing ever.

And we just sort of look at these things, like these things aren't intrinsically good or bad, or light or dark; it just is a part of life, in the same way that death isn't some opposite of life. I think that we believe that knowing things and accepting things like death, and that things aren't always going to do your way — it frees you up to get on with it. Not to get on with it in some mopey, Eeyore-from-Winnie the Pooh kind of way of looking at things, but we're not bubbly optimists, either.

We're just like, hey, let's go, make the best of everything that comes along. And with our music, in the context of the band, I think that it really is us, when you hear the music and you see us perform, that it's not necessarily an act or anything. I mean, obviously you make these personas a little larger than life, but we try to make it, "This is us, this is who we are."

And we when we encourage people to "always look on the bright side of life" (laughs), that is what we are doing, how we have decided to move through life. Like I said, not just bubbly "Hey this is the best of all possible worlds," but we like to call ourselves cautious optimists, and to move forward, and to make these realities that we would like to see happen, actually happen. And I think there's a lot of power in that way of thinking. I think if more people thought like that, perhaps we could move forward as a whole.

What's it like touring with Sonic Youth? Do you guys learn lots of things from each other?

I suppose there's the perception, and there's the actual reality of bands actually touring together. Especially when you're on tour, you have these obligations to do things that are more specific to your actual situation.

Unfortunately, it's not the big party atmosphere, which of course we would all love to happen. (Laughs) We would love it to be this "meeting of the minds," and it is unfortunate in some ways, because a lot of the bands that we do tour with are great people and fun to be around. You feel like you could learn a lot, or even just get some insight on how are these people doing. The same sorts of things — musical ideas, touring ideas, or performance ideas — and it sort of is unfortunate that the reality doesn't usually pan out to be, "Hey everyone, here's everyone hanging out, having a cocktail!" (Laughs)

So when it does happen, it's great. And we've run into Sonic Youth, really since the mid-'80s, and kind of know them, but it's not like we're actual friends and keep in touch or anything like that. Maybe that's unfortunate, but I suppose that's just how it is.

But I think in the same way that they've just kept going — done what they love doing, just living life, and are always staying in the public eye, so to speak. They do things that a lot of times are interesting, and take a chance and do what they want to do, and sometimes it doesn't always work — I think is very similar to what we try to do.

Not just music, but films, documentaries, art, all kinds of multimedia.

Exactly. And a reason why we delved into that had a lot more to do with circumstances happening during the mid to late '90s, when we went through what we thought was, "Hey this is the lineup, this is what we'll be doing forever" — and, well, we lost our guitar player Ronald. And then a lot of stuff happened in the music world, so to speak, and a lot of stuff happened in the music-business end of things, and I think we, out of desperation really, thought that we should and could do other things.

We didn't have to be tied down as just being this rock band that makes records and goes and tours, and lives and dies by that. We could go out and do stuff and sort of not "reinvent" ourselves, but add more dimensions to ourselves, even in the way that we approach making music in the studio. It's not, "Oh, here's the singer, here's the bass player, here's the drummer," and then the drummer lays down his tracks and goes and plays Nintendo for three weeks. (Laughs).

I think letting go of those sorts of roles, we were able to actually expand into roles and areas of interest and really help move the whole concept of "The Flaming Lips" a lot farther afield than we were, even 10 years ago.

Speaking of roles, what was your role in the production of At War With the Mystics? The mixing process seems a little bit different this time around.

Well, I think we're all sort of interested in those sorts of ideas, especially Dave Fridmann. And I think that he likes the whole idea of hi-fi in the same way that I like the hi-fi idea. Even if it's going to sound like a speaker with a hole in it, really just a crappy sound, we usually end up — like when people wake up in the morning and spend all day long trying to get the "I just got out of bed" look — sort of with that same approach to making sounds. We'll spend a lot of time working on a particular kind of distortion, because we look at it a little bit different.

We're not like other bands, and I just know that because I get to work with a lot of other bands. As soon as we decide what sort of direction to take, we're already mixing. And a lot of times, songs will come to a screeching halt, because we can't figure out how to get a certain sound. And sometimes we stumble upon these happy accidents and I'll say, "Hey, that's cool, why don't we try that?" And that will sort of push us in a whole different direction that we maybe would never have moved into.

Would you consider this your most political record? I read that you called this a "protest" record.

(Laughs) I was just sort of running with it. I think it sort of does have this multilayered way of looking at it, and I think that at some point we're going along and a record just starts off as a collection of songs, and you don't really know how they'll hang together. We really were a lot more aware, with what was going on during the last election, and all the crazy stuff with the war, just — it seems crazy. You know people aren't actually here fighting in the streets, but there is definitely a battle over control over something — I'm not sure exactly what.

I think At War With the Mystics just started out as a cool name for a song, and it started out just as a tiny bit of music called "At War With the Mystics," more literally ironic. Just conjuring up ideas of sorcerers and all that sort of symbolism. But I think as time went on, it took on this other meaning, that there is a war with these mystical people — and it is not a compliment.

While we were starting the recording, playing some shows here and there, we started covering "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath, and actually saying some things about the war and the current administration. It's not to say that we have all the answers, but something is not right. And who knows if things would have been better or worse with Kerry in office, but I mean, I don't know how it could be worse.

In some ways, I think it's time to think in a whole different way. I see these pundits who get on CNN shows, and a lot of them are actually squeezing in the phrase "We have to get away from oil." Of course they get cut off and nobody ever talks about why that's a good idea, but a lot of people are starting to say that.

But as far as I'm concerned, one of the solutions does seem to be, if we didn't use so much oil. Actually, if we didn't use any oil, the world would be a lot better off. I'm all for gadgets and cars and that sort of thing — we don't necessarily have to cut back on that kind of lifestyle — but more the way that we power our lifestyle, I think, needs to be rethought. I mean, it's windy right where I'm sitting! There should be windmills right here, and solar panels on top of everybody's buildings, that should just be how it is. How about every car that's sold in America starting today — retool all the factories, and they're all hybrids, and there's no choice. You get a hybrid car, while they're working on solar power cars, or something like that.

And the idea that democracy is this sort of thing — I forget what the exact quote is from Jefferson, that the minority is protected from the tyranny of the majority — well, that seems to be going by the wayside, too. Bah. At war with the mystics!

(Laughing) OK, let's get back on track. Wayne [co-founder Wayne Coyne] was once quoted as saying, "Me and Michael, we both know we're not musicians." What did he mean?

Well, say you got Steven [drummer Steven Drozd], who can actually tell you what note an actual car horn is. He's got perfect pitch, he knows what all these notes sound like, and he can put in his head all this orchestration. And it's great, [Wayne and I] can come at it from a non-musical, sometimes, point of view, and say, "Hey, we have this idea!" And Steven can actually make it work in the theme of things.

Or sometimes we can even help in the sense that we can push things in ways that don't necessarily make sense, because we don't know what the rules are. But he knows what the rules are, and then he'll see how that works. He's fast in that way.

[Steven's] one of those guys — he could get up and play with other musicians. And we're more — well, we're great Flaming Lips members. I think that was said of Nick Mason from Pink Floyd: "He's the perfect drummer for Pink Floyd." Not whether or not he's an actual good drummer, but he's perfect for the band, and that's what needs to happen. And I think in that way we're more of that ilk.

I have the classic bassist story — it had less strings, so I thought it would be easier to play than the guitar. But I never really mastered it in the way that, say, Steven has. It's something that goes beyond just the instinctual "Oh hey, that sounds cool!" Well, he knows why things are going to sound good, sometimes before they get played. And then we're afforded a lot of luxury, being able to work in this way. A lot faster. So we end up being more like a production team, only we work on only our band.

What is the line between weirdness and innovation?

I don't know. It ends up being, if we end up liking it and find it interesting — not to be pompous or arrogant about it, but if we find it interesting and worthy of following up or exploring, then we just do that. And I think we're lucky in that way, that we're afforded a lot of latitude. I hear a lot of horror stories from bands that feel that they're trapped in a particular way of doing things, whether it's what their audience expects or what their record company expects.

We just decided a long time ago, because we were really just ignored for the longest time — don't get me wrong, plenty of people seemed to like us all along — in a weird way, to let us operate in a sort of vacuum that was more "Hey, we're just going to do our own thing."

As we progressed farther along, or decided we could learn techniques that either let us get around our limitations or actually fulfill our ideas, we found out that we were able to move in a direction that we felt like we wanted to move into. But then in the other sense of having songs that seem to not be any great shape one way or another, but they are somehow communicating some sort of feeling and idea, and too much stuff would just wreck it — sometimes just knowing how to be simple, and let a song be a song.

Instead of, as we were wont to do, early on in our history (laughs), just piling in every melody and variation that you can, [which] is sometimes just more clever than actually communicative. Sometimes I think that we would lose the plot. Don't get me wrong; sometimes we listen to early stuff here and there and say, "My God, how did we think of this? What is going on with that?"

A lot of fans treat you with reverence, almost like spiritual leaders. As a result, there's been this ongoing mythologizing process about the band. Has this process overwhelmed you?

But that's what I mean when I said earlier — we're just some people. We happen to be in a rock band. We love music. And we like being in the studio, and man, we really like putting shows on.

I would hope that it wouldn't be that we're on some sort of pedestal. People should just go out and do stuff, and they may fail. That's the great thing about us, is that we fail sometimes, but we keep moving forward, and that seems to be the best way of doing things.

Interestingly, I've found that children usually have a positive response to your music. What is it about your music that makes it easy for kids to like so much?

Well, I don't know if it's something conscious that we write a kind of music that seems to resonate with children, but I think a lot of people go through life climbing a hill, and then at some point in their lives, they just plateau out, and that's just the rest of their life, this big plateau. And I just look at it, with every day — I mean, I try to, sometimes it's harder than other days — but just to look at every day as if it's actually better, and tomorrow is actually going to be better, even though I might have had the best time of my life three days ago, I'm still looking to have a good time, or fun, or see something cool.

You know, I'm kind of bummed out that Pluto's not a planet anymore. But hey, what are you going to do? (Laughs) It makes sense after a while; it always was a little confusing why you've got rocks up until Mars, and then everything's made out of gas until you get to Pluto, and it's a rock again. Seemed a little suspicious here and there. But hey, there you go, we've got eight planets.

Every day is another opportunity to live and have a good time, and who knows what's around the corner. I think getting to be out here and watch Sonic Youth and the Magic Numbers, and have a good time and talk to people, and maybe get some good food or something like that — hey, what could be better?

And kids, I think that's what they think about. They get up every day and say, "What's new today?" "What's awesome in the back yard today?" "Can I actually see a blade of grass grow?" I think we definitely try not to let go of the wonder. Hey, you never know what you're going to find, and I think that comes through in our music. And kids don't really have the filter that adults do…

Of cynicism or experience?

Well, I think they get experience, but no one tells them that these things are bad or good, and they can just move forward with knowing these things.

Don't get me wrong, I love Santa Claus and the idea of Santa Claus. But — and I don't know, maybe it's some sort of life lesson that kids are supposed to learn, but it really only seems to happen in the United States — you're a kid, and you're basically presented with the idea that Santa Claus is an actual, real person. Instead of it being symbolic of something, kids grow up believing that there's an actual, real person named Santa Claus. Then when you're about 6 or 7 you're dealt the crushing blow that he doesn't really exist, and you have to put him away.

Actually, if I had been on a rant today, that's one of my analogies I like to throw out, is the Santa Claus/Jesus Christ analogy. They're basically both these people that are supposed to be real, and they're watching you all the time to make sure you're good and you get a reward — one gives you a reward after you're dead, and one gives you the reward every year at Christmas time. And the idea that you're told you have to give up Santa, he's not real, but oh, the other one, nope, that's real. These ideas — everyone wants to fight over who's right, and it all just seems like a bad idea at this point. That sort of fighting is just not going to get anyone anywhere.

OK, one more question. I read that you graduated at the top of your class in high school —

(Laughs) A lot of good that did me! Nah, I'm just kidding.

What else could you see yourself doing if you weren't in the Flaming Lips?

Well, I sort of had these visions I would've continued on in college. I could've been a professor, maybe some sort of history professor — oh, I don't know, maybe it's too late. Or maybe it's never too late. But it's far more fortuitous for me to go down this path.

My parents have finally come to grips with the fact that I'm not going to go to back to college. "Oh, you're actually doing good here and not starving in a gutter somewhere!"

That just might be the understatement of the year.

— Natasha Li Pickowicz [Tuesday, September 26, 2006]

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