The weirder, jokier and more indulgent the Flaming Lips get, the more their fans seem to love them. With their whimsical tunes about astral phenomena and spider bites, Merry Prankster-style stage antics, and a frontman with a voice that evokes Neil Young on nitrous oxide, the Oklahoma City band managed to build a cult following that exploded into something bigger in the late Nineties and 2000s.
The Lips debuted on a self-released EP from 1984. Vocalist Mark Coyne left to be married the following year. Their Restless Records catalogue taints mildly dissonant college rock with acid-fried guitar and lyrical excesses ("Jesus Shootin' Heroin," "Drug Machine"). In a Priest Driven Ambulance marks the arrival of abstract-noise guitarist Jonathan Donahue (who later left to pursue Mercury Rev). Warner Bros. signed the Lips in the early Nineties, and they began dousing their albums with orchestras, crazed overdubs, and samples. Guitar wizard Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd joined frontman Wayne Coyne (Mark's brother) and cofounding bassist Michael Ivins for the increasingly accessible Transmissions From the Satellite Heart (#108, 1995) and Clouds Taste Metallic.
Disheartened by Jones' 1996 departure, the trio changed direction, conducting "parking lot experiments" in which the audience triggered prerecorded sound sources (e.g., fleets of boomboxes or car stereos). These interactive spectacles led to 1997's critically lauded Zaireeka — four CDs, designed to be played simultaneously, individually, or in the listener's preferred sequence and/or combination.
The Soft Bulletin (1999) organizes the studio trickery and mellow drone pop into more manageable songform, and represented a significant turning point for the band, in both image and sound. Gone were the unhinged, absurdist psych-pop freakouts that had defined their earliest years: in its place were gorgeous, elaborately orchestrated songs that contemplated weighty issues — chief among them, mortality — and were meticulously crafted rather than sloppily assembled.
Bulletin proved a creative rebirth: the band significantly stepped up their stage show, transforming it from concert to carnival. They appeared onstage with a troupe of friends dressed in animal costumes, shot confetti on the crowd, employed magic-store special effects (Coyne would smear fake blood on his head during "The Spark That Bled") and video screens showing different, surreal films for each song. Coyne now adopted the manner of a dignified but eccentric professor, taking the stage in a white, form-fitted suit and encouraging an atmosphere of joy and participation from the audience. Word of the Lips' revamped live show spread quickly, and the tour in support of Bulletin stretched out endlessly, with bigger crowds turning out for each pass. With a single album, the Lips had transformed from cult hit to concert phenom.
They continued their upward momentum with 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which continued the sonic and textural feel of Bulletin, but dressed the songs with a greater amount of electronics. Early that year, they served as Beck's backing band on the tour for his album Sea Change, but Coyne later complained about the pairing in interviews, claiming he found Beck too serious. One particular, telling altercation occurred when, scheduled to play a show on John Lennon's birthday, Beck wanted them to learn a more obscure Lennon song while Coyne insisted on "Imagine." This divide reveals both the Lips charm, and their Achilles Heel: their impulses are populist, but sometimes to a fault.
Nowhere was that more evident than on 2006's At War With the Mystics. The group had spent the intervening years touring and releasing stopgap EPs, and by the time Mystics arrived there was a general feeling that the Lips had descended into schtick. It didn't help that the group was also busy laboring on Christmas on Mars a film about — you guessed it — Christmas on Mars that the group had begun in 2001.
Additionally, the Lips hadn't significantly changed their live show since the arrival of Bulletin, and the songs on Mystic felt hammier and jokier than any in the band's catalog. Accordingly, the record met with a generally mixed response, though the group toured behind it as dutifully as ever.
In 2008, their song "Do You Realize???" became Oklahoma's State Rock Song. The Lips' tours grew steadily more elaborate, incorporating more and more special effects (a U.F.O. soon became part of the stage show, as did a gigantic hamster ball which Coyne climbed inside and used to walk over the heads of the crowd).
So it was a significant surprise when a creatively-revitalized Lips released the harrowing, masterful Embryonic in 2009. A complete about-face from the cartoonish antics that had come to characterize them, Embryonic was a dark and bracing double-album that stemmed mostly from jam sessions and long bouts of improvisation. It was a dizzying work, one that met with mixed reception from fans but generally positive reviews (it placed in the Top 10 of that year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll).
The group played a pair of stripped-down shows in Hollywood California during the week of the record's release, but made no major changes to their live show after that. Two months after the release of Embryonic, the Lips and fellow Oklahomans Stardeath & the White Dwarfs (a band led by Coyne's nephew) covered the entirety of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and released it on iTunes. At their annual New Year's Eve Freakout, in the opening moments of 2010, they performed the record from start to finish.