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Flaming Lips bring 'Embyronic's' rock 'n' roll edge to Hollywood

October 16, 2009 |  6:42 am

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The Flaming Lips' brief appearance in Hollywood on Thursday night was almost more notable for what was missing than what transpired.

Gone were the confetti machines, and nowhere on stage was anyone dressed as Santa Claus. Giant metallic spaceships didn’t descend from the ceiling, and if fake blood and puppets were present, they stayed safely tucked away backstage.

Also gone was the Flaming Lips’ more recent electronic-laced pop songs. Performing a mini-set at the Ricardo Montalbán Theater, the Flaming Lips were plugged-in, but considering this is a band whose lead singer generally walks across the crowd in a giant bubble, the set was downright stripped-down.

Yet none of the trappings were missed. Initial reviews of the band's “Embryonic,” which was released this week, may have been mixed, but performing a handful of the songs live on Thursday night at a free promotional concert, the Flaming Lips proved that a return to harder-edged, guitar-driven soundscapes can make for riveting drama, even if the double-LP, 18-track “Embryonic” doesn’t necessarily have a song ready for a car commercial.

Set-opener “Convinced of the Hex” put the band immediately on the assault. Stephen Drozd’s guitar wasn’t used for riffs; instead, the instrument was sending out distress calls. Paranoia already reigned by the time leader Wayne Coyne took to the microphone. “She talks to the ceiling,” he sang, just as drummer Kliph Scurlock and bassist Michael Ivins locked into a militant groove.

It’s harsher than the hand-clap beat of 2006's “The W.A.N.D.,” and significantly removed from the snyth-pop orchestra of the hit “Do You Realize??” Yet it’s filled with more tension than any other cut in the Flaming Lips’ recent songbook, building with precision-like force to a grand finale in which Coyne was smattering maracas on the stage floor.

“When we decided we were going to make a double record, we knew we were going to do this self-indulgent thing, and it truly was us putting aside our experience and our discipline and our second guessing and our craft,” Coyne told Pop & Hiss in a pre-show conversation. “We should just be weirdo musicians, and see what happens. My fear was that you do that, and you sound like the idiot you know you are, so you try it the other way. But I think we just got lucky.”


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That’s not to say the Flaming Lips have lost their playfulness. The band didn’t really perform the new song “I Can Be a Frog,” a cut on “Embryonic” that features the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O yelping animal noises via a telephone, so much as turn it into an audience call-and-response session. For those not in attendance, let’s just say Drozd does a pretty solid impression of a bat.

Additionally, there’s a special edition version of “Embryonic” that comes encased in fur, and the video for “Watching the Planets” probably won’t live anywhere but on the Internet. Think of it as the middle ground between “Where the Wild Things Are” and an art-house porno, with giant flesh-eating fur and plenty of nudity, including Coyne in his birthday suit.

The band didn’t strip off its clothes when it performed the new song, but there was a giant gong outfitted with flashing lights, smattered with authority by recent Flaming Lips addition on percussion, Ray Suen. Filled with banshee howls and plenty of fist-pumping stomps, expect it to be a new live staple.

When the Flaming Lips officially tour on “Embryonic” in 2010, fans shouldn’t necessarily expect an edgier trek than the New Year’s Eve-like parties that a Flaming Lips show has become. Coyne says the celebratory-like live show is now a Flaming Lips staple, akin to revisiting one’s favorite restaurant.

“It’s kind of redone in the way a city is redone,” Coyne says of what the band is working on for 2010. “There’s some great old structures you never want to tear down, and you take chances next to it and you build a new futuristic museum. I would never want people to think that if you saw us three years ago, what we’re doing now has nothing to do with that.”

“Embryonic” was the last album the Flaming Lips had due to Warner Bros., which the band has been working with since the early ‘90s. Now in their 26th year, Coyne says the band isn’t looking to go it alone, and likely won’t be following the path of a Radiohead or a Nine Inch Nails. While the structure of the deal may change, the Flaming Lips, Coyne says, have already decided to stick with Warner Bros.

“We don’t really want money that we haven’t earned,” Coyne said. “We’re lucky that we’re able to earn lots of money. A lot of bands and artists aren’t as lucky as we are. But we would never at this point to just be businessmen and say, ‘We want this much money or else.’ We want to earn it. Bands and entertainers make stupid money as it is.

“It was never the big corporate label trying to change the weirdos from Oklahoma,” he continues. “They made it possible we could be who we are. I will always owe them. That’s the secret no one really ever cares about. We owe Warner Bros. for our whole way of being.”

The Flaming Lips have already recorded a follow-up to “Embryonic.” The band will release a track-by-track interpretation of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in the near future, which it recorded with Stardeath and the White Dwarfs, a band that features Coyne’s nephew Dennis.

Henry Rollins and Peaches make guest appearances on the album, Coyne told the crowd during a pre-concert question-and-answer session. A Flaming Lips spokesman says the album will likely be an iTunes-only release, at least initially.

It will certainly be a more comfortable -- at least familiar release -- than the sonic experimentations of “Embryonic.” But the Flaming Lips’ fan base is one that’s always ready for a challenge, at least that's what Coyne is betting on.

“I think our audience would forgive us for going out in the further regions of whatever we could think of,” Coyne says. “But I don’t think we’d be worthy of being forgiven if we didn’t do that. They’re giving us the freedom, the encouragement, the money and the time to say, ‘Go somewhere where no other band could go, and come back and tell us what it was like.’”

Photos and post by Todd Martens

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