Flaming Lips on 'Mars,' label future: 'We’re never going to be Radiohead'
A Flaming Lips concert in many ways plays out like a B-level sci-fi film. A makeshift flying saucer descends on the stage. The lead singer walks atop the audience encased in a giant ball. All sorts of costumed characters dance around the stage, and fake blood and puppets are a given.
It's not necessarily a surprise that the band would extend that wildly colorful and ambitious vision into the cinematic world -- only, perhaps, a surprise that it took this long. The Flaming Lips have been publicly talking about making a sci-fi Christmas film since around 2001/2002, and it's finally being released on DVD on Nov. 11 via Warner Bros. Records.
While it takes its namesake from a holiday, "Christmas on Mars" is not the New Year's Eve-like lunacy that is a Flaming Lips concert, where every grand pop orchestration, electronic freakout and manipulated guitar note is a mini celebration. Instead, "Christmas on Mars" is dark, almost horror-like in its vision. The message, ultimately, is positive, but it's a moody, somewhat demented trip, albeit one with amateur actors and giant genitalia in astronaut suits.
"When you go see a movie that cost $100 million to make, that movie should always be good," says Flaming Lips vocalist Wayne Coyne. "For $100 million, it should never suck, even if you don’t agree with it. I go to the theater all the time, and I know in the first 10 minutes that the film is a disaster. But I knew going into this we didn’t know what we were doing. We were just doing whatever ... came to our minds, and so this could really just be dumb, boring arty bull."
INSPIRED BY MUSIC: "IT REALLY DOES SOUND PRETENTIOUS"
If the film was about eight years in the making, its score dates even longer. Coyne and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd say the ambient, classical-inspired sounds of "Christmas on Mars" stretch back to 1996, when the band was conducting its "parking lot experiments," an odd sonic happening in which up to 40 cars were used to play different pieces of music to form one composition.
"We wanted to do a movie soundtrack," Coyne says. "We would have done this music even if there wasn’t a movie. Bands do that all the time, I think, wanting to make music for some imaginary film. You don’t always want to have to worry about some structure.
"It really does sound pretentious. But the longer you’re in it, you realize that you just do it and it’s not pretentious and you hope that it works. The main theme that we use, which plays through six or seven different scenes, is a piece of music Steven came up with in 1996."
At that time, the band had recently released its last guitar-centered record, "Clouds Taste Metallic." It wouldn't be until 1999 that the Flaming Lips would be re-imagined as an orchestrated pop act with "The Soft Bulletin." The music on "Christmas on Mars," which is included as a separate CD in a deluxe edition of the film, doesn't really sound like either, with its lulling, spacey notes and subtle melodic textures that develop out of an electronic hum.
"I wouldn’t play this to an 18-year-old who wants to rock," Coyne says. "I wouldn’t say, ‘You got to check this out! It’s deep and moving!’ I understand this is strange, abstract, moody weirdness. But we would have felt really frustrated if we couldn’t just go in every tangent we got obsessed with. If we weren’t able to pursue this, we’d be an old bitter rock group, or at least more bitter than we are now."
Yet Drozd is also quick to point out that the spooky experimentations that ultimately became the "Christmas on Mars" score did shape recent Flaming Lips albums. The relaxed, jazzy groove -- and the sci-fi effects -- of "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)," the final track on 2002's "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," is one Drozd says was originally intended for "Christmas on Mars."
Adds Coyne, "We would always do these blocks of recordings where we’d have a couple songs where we’d go off on a tangent and say, ‘This is "Christmas on Mars" on music.’ No rules would apply. We would do whatever we thought would work for some imaginary scene."
Of course, the above "Yoshimi" cut is fuller and prettier than anything recorded for "Christmas on Mars," which was filmed in stop-and-start-spurts with homemade sets at Coyne's Oklahoma City compound. Overall, the score is less the sound of a band working together than it is a collection of moments -- brief touches of warmth sprinkled among some lost-in-space electronics.
Some tracks are more fleshed out, such as "Space Bible With Volume Lumps," which flirts with symphonic flourishes. Elsewhere, "In Excelsior Vaginalistic" merges a distant, angelic choir with lilting harp-like sounds. But others, such as "Once Beyond Hopelessness," fashion a mournful melody out of what is little more than a distress call.
"We never really approached this like a group," Coyne says. "A lot of it was just whatever happened, happened. A lot of it sort of works within the context of the film and that mood, but once you get it outside the film, it could just be meandering-around weirdness. But I know I like that sort of stuff. Sometimes we just do stuff if we like it, and don’t really care if there’s an audience."
Much of the score was commissioned to Drozd by Coyne, who was encouraging his bandmate to go in a heavy classical tradition. An early temp track in "Christmas on Mars" was Gustav Holst's "Neptune, the Mystic," a gracefully mysterious piece from the English composer's orchestral suite "The Planets."
"It's this really psychedelic piece of classical music," Drozd says. "Wayne wanted something like that. I would have this folder of all these little pieces, and I would try to sell them to Wayne. 'What do you think of this one?' 'Oh, I don't care for that. It's too European classical.' "
NEW ALBUM, LABEL DEAL: "NEVER GOING TO BE RADIOHEAD:
After making the promotional rounds for "Christmas on Mars," the Flaming Lips will head back into the studio. The act plans to record its next album relatively quick, in time for a summer 2009 tour. A number of tracks are nearly ready to be recorded, Coyne says.
Will the music of "Christmas on Mars" inform the new set, or will the band continue to bring back a bit more of a rock 'n' roll bounce to its orchestral craftsmanship, as it did on 2006's "At War With the Mystics"? Coyne claims to have no clue.
"As bands get older, they get into one groove, and that’s the way they sound for 20 years," Coyne says. "We never really wanted to be like that. We just keep finding new things we want to explore. So we'll just go in there and experiment around."
"Even Radiohead," continues Coyne, "as much as I like their last three or four records, I feel as though there’s a coloring and a shade that they sound like, and which they’ll probably move through time sounding like. I wish, sometimes, that we were as focused and grounded and identified like they are ... But we're just dorks. We're the Flaming Lips. We're never going to be Radiohead."
And speaking of Radiohead, the Flaming Lips' next album will be the last that's due to Warner Bros. The Flaming Lips have been with the major since the early '90s, but now seem primed for a more unconventional label relationship -- something, perhaps, similar to Radiohead, which released its last album, "In Rainbows," on its own to the Web before finding a label partner. The Flaming Lips, for instance, have a dedicated following on the road, an in-depth website loaded with merch and are self-sufficient enough to finance and complete its own sci-fi film.
But don't necessarily look to the Flaming Lips to be rewriting any business models.
"I think we’d only leave because there’s not a reason to stay," Coyne says. "I feel like Warner Bros. really has believed in us … Everything is changing for everyone. If they restructure the way they deal with bands in the next couple years, I’m sure they’ll be thinking of ways that will work for us and them. But our deal with Warner Bros. isn’t something we’re waiting to get out of. We’re not waiting to show them who’s boss."
-- Todd Martens
Photo: J. Michelle Martin-Coyne, courtesy of Warner Bros. Records