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electronic MUSICIAN

Freaky and Fearless

By Ken Micallef | August 19, 2011

DMD-v2The Flaming Lips find brilliance in smashing all of the recording rules into tiny little pieces

“We worked with a producer once who had worked with Michael Jackson,” Wayne Coyne recalls from his home in Oklahoma City. “He said that while Michael Jackson was singing in the studio, he’d be dancing; his feet squeaking on the floor would make these noises. When they’d turn off the vocal track, those noises and that inherent funkiness would be gone. It’s because Michael Jackson was so alive and into it. He’s tapping his jeans and his shoes are rubbing the floor—those noises aren’t something that you try to leave out. Michael Jackson knew that. He would take chances. Noises are part of the atmosphere of the music, and the reason the music is being made.”

The noises, the atmosphere, the music, and the absurdity of it all have made The Flaming Lips one of the most influential and innovative groups of the past 20 years. While other rock bands have collapsed and major labels have crumbled, The Flaming Lips and their loyal Warner Bros. backers have extended their unique brand of colossal head music. The Oklahomabased band rarely bothers to record live together anymore, preferring to record snippets of basic tracks in their individual home studios (a TASCAM 4-track for Coyne, Pro Tools for bassist/engineer Michael Ivins, a bevy of stomp boxes through Pro Tools and Propellerhead Reason for multiinstrumentalist Steven Drozd). Files are then handed off to longtime producer Dave Fridmann, who, both with the band and without, further warps the music at his Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York.

“They create their parts at Wayne and Steven’s rehearsal places,” Fridmann explains. “Michael engineers the sessions. They bring it to me, and we add weird sounds on top of that. It’s a deliberate attempt to not overanalyze what we’re doing and really just get to, ‘Do I like it? Do I not like it?’ A lot of times you think, ‘That’s cool; maybe we can apply this filter to create this other juxtaposition.’ No. We like it or not. If you like it, we’re moving forward.”

After magnificent malcontents like At War with the Mystics (2006), Embryonic (2009), and The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side Of The Moon (2010), The Flaming Lips threw off those shackles that bind. Earlier this year The Flaming Lips pronounced plans to release new music every month for a year. February saw “Two Blobs F**king,” followed in March by the 12" EP, The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian, a collaboration with synth stylist, Alan Palomo. The Flaming Lips 2011 Gummy Song Skull (with internal USB stick) followed, a seven-and-a-half-pound edible gummy bear skull of all Lips music. The band plans to collaborate with Panda Bear, James Murphy, and Jimmy Page (who wants to work in-studio with the Lips, eschewing Internet file sharing); completed collaborations include The Flaming Lips with Prefuse 73, Lightning Bolt, Ghostland Observatory, and Black Moth Super Rainbow. The Lips/Prefuse 73 12" recently hit the streets; next up: a “little fetus” (Coyne) of Flaming Lips music. And if you look fast, you can fi nd all of this music on the Internet, for free.

Coyne’s description of Rhode Island duo Lightning Bolt as “a psychedelic freakout band” also applies to the current Flaming Lips projects, collaborations and otherwise. Take a track, any track: Steven Drozd’s Bonhamish drumming dominates a mix one second, followed by the velveteen blasts of Neon Indian’s vintage synths, or the eclectic Dadaesque cut-ups of Prefuse 73 (Guillermo Brown), and dripping guitars worthy of Jimi Hendrix’s version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

“It isn’t so much a sonic thing as creating something ethereal, or simply an art project,” Fridmann says. “Listen to this, and hopefully you’re going to feel like you’re on drugs. Elements of the production are live, some are not. It’s like how [Miles Davis’] In A Silent Way was all edited together. In some ways you don’t know what the final result is going to be until it’s done.”

Coyne confirms the band’s nearly instant music approach, and the inner workings of his brain that put them there. “Unless you’re just a complete egotistical f**king fool you always run into this dilemma of thinking ‘This is great,’ and ten minutes later you think, ‘This sucks.’ We’re trying to create music in a realm where you’re slave to your subconscious saying, ‘Take me away, let’s see what happens.’ The minute you do that you’re a slave to this other dimension of thinking that’s very critical. You hope that you’ll get hypnotized. But if I had any regrets about what we’re putting out, well, it’s just too f**king late.”

Creating the Embryo Flaming Lips tracks can begin anytime, anywhere, and often do. “Sometimes I will be at Steven’s and we’ll literally just play a piece of a drum track, and then loop it and add a bass track,” Coyne says. “Then we turn both of those into a loop. Some of this began on my TASCAM cassette 4-track. If I like a minute out of something, I’ll put it into Pro Tools with Michael [Ivins] and we’ll turn that minute into a couple of minutes of a groove. Other times we just play something for 20 minutes and we record. There’s no process that is out of bounds, but it’s all about listening.

“I sent Prefuse what I thought were finished tracks and he found a way to do something,” he continues. “Then we took the end of one of his tracks, just a loop of a string line, and turned it into another track. That became ‘Guillermo’s Bolero.’ Some things happen in a moment; that’s the spirit we like to be in. Some of this we will regret, so what! But sometimes I regret not doing something. You can never live completely satisfied.”

Fridmann
Producer Dave Fridmann

Fridmann and the Lips use any means necessary to create the feeling of drug-induced psychological transportation: extreme/minimalist miking techniques; vocals recorded on handheld tape recorders into a Korg Kaoss Pad or one of Steven Drozd’s vintage stomp boxes; running entire mixes through a Vox AC30 amp with what sounds like a torn speaker; destroying a mix by overloading synthesizers; extreme panning to create “a drum set heard down the hallway” effect (Fridmann). Fridmann lays the responsibility on Coyne, Coyne credits Drozd’s stomp box collection.

“Steven’s distortion pedals provide a complimentary tone to my voice,” Coyne says. “Like I’m from some other dimension. That’s where most music gets its power. Even a Beatles track like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ you think, ‘What the f**k? Where is Lennon’s singing coming from?’ It’s more electronic than the electric guitars.”

Drozd’s 50-plus collection of guitar pedals provides part of the Lips’ arsenal. An avoidance of damage control provides the rest. “I have a lot of old stomp boxes,” Drozd says on the phone from Newark International Airport, where his ticket to Dublin has gone missing. “Nothing too crazy. A Systech Harmonic Energizer for one. It’s really just a bad overdrive pedal with a crazy filter. We also used a Roland [AG- 5] Funny Cat [Harmonic Mover & Soft Distortion Sustainer] from the mid-’70s. It’s a fuzz pedal with compression and an auto wah feature. There’s a separate EQ frequency area for the auto wah. The Musicmaster bass through the Harmonic Energizer is a wicked combination. And we ran guitars through the Funny Cat a lot, but not a whole mix. On ‘In Our Bodies Out Of Our Heads’ (Gummy Skull), that dripping, melting guitar sound is actually a Pro Tools plug-in. Some kids think I am running 20 crazy effects custom-built for me, but sometimes it’s actually just a Pro Tools plug-in. We use a healthy combination of those with old stomp boxes.”

Tarred and Flaming Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios offers gear both vintage and contemporary, including an Otari Concept Elite 40x24 with Total Recall Eagle Automation, Neve 24 input 5104, Otari MTR-90 II 24-track recorder, EMT plate reverbs, an old pair of Ashly GQX-3102 stereo 31-band EQs (his favorite distortion tools), and an otherwise stunning collection of microphones, editing tools, preamps, effects, amps, and instruments. (Learn more at tarboxroadstudios.com.) But the concept is heavymental when the Flaming Lips arrive. Starting with miking placement.

“It’s very limited miking,” Fridmann says. “We used the [Shure] KSM44s quite a bit, frequently through the Otari’s preamps. My technician, Greg Snow, has endlessly modded [Ampex] 351 mic and 610 mic pres. He labels the switches, ‘Don’t touch this!’ or ‘Danger!’ Of course, we touch them all. They’re just ginned up so if a mouse whispered in China it would blow up your speakers. If you choose anything that has any volume to it, you get a crazy sound.

“Miking-wise,” he continues, “the idea is like making a cool sample of yourself. When you sample somebody else’s music, you capture this atmosphere that someone else has created and apply it to your art. We create atmospheres and purposely put ourselves in these awkward situations where the drummer’s cymbals are behind him, for example, so he has to play that way.”

Using minimal miking when the Lips record at Tarbox Road, Fridmann practically follows antistandard approach. It’s like spraying a wall with cherry pie and watching for what sticks. “We’ll put the drum mic near the bass amp and the bass amp mic near the keyboard player, and put the vocal mic next to the guitar amp,” Fridmann elaborates. “It’s about doing some strange things to push yourself in a direction you wouldn’t normally do in the studio. Whatever the book tells you to do, don’t do it that way; do something different. Sometimes even to the obvious detriment of the recording. But it creates an atmosphere, it creates a space, it creates an idea while you’re making the recording that is totally different from a normal studio environment.”

Like John Lennon, who famously hated the sound of his own voice, Coyne enjoys treating his vocals, but he doesn’t leave it up to the producer alone. He’ll sing through one thing, put it through another thing, pass it off to Drozd, and then expect Fridmann to add effects beyond that.

“Dave has these rare mics, as well as the shittiest little broken mics,” Coyne says. “I prefer the latter. If I sing into one microphone, he’ll place other mics around me to grab different types of air or layers or depths. The one we end up using a lot looks like something you’d see a guy in a car lot using. It’s an announcer microphone [Motorola RMN 5068] that makes anyone sound like they are talking from beyond. It creates a mood. I sing through that more than the other microphones. At home it’s my mic with the TASCAM 4-track, but often Steven runs [that signal] through some f**ked-up DeArmond Thunderbolt wah-wah pedal that gives my voice a different tone. And even if we don’t use the 4-track, I still run a lot of things through the TASCAM’s preamp. Maybe it’s a tone that not everyone likes, but I like it and I know what it is. We don’t want to use the same coloring and texture and plug-ins that you hear everywhere. It’s our duty to create things you’ve never heard before.”

Fridmann used an Ampeg SB-12 head for Michael Ivins’ live bass, running it through an old “Kodak movie projector speaker cabinet miked with a Neumann TLM 170,” he explains. That’s got this really punchy sound. It’s not really just the amp, but that old speaker, it’s a highly efficient speaker. It’s not meant to take too much power.”

Proving that he will close-mike when that type of sound is desired, Fridmann admitted to using “anything that’s pluggedin” to record the guitars of Coyne, Drozd, and Derek Brown.

“I’ve been using the DPA 4006 lately,” he says. “Usually pretty straight on the cone, because the sounds they come up with are so ridiculous anyway, if I can just capture that, I am pretty good. I don’t need to add any more character to those.”

For the Neon Indian collaboration, Alan Palomo played what sounds like a Mellotron but is actually a Yamaha CS60 through a Vox AC30 amplifier. He also brought along (and ran direct) an ARP 2600 and a Korg MS20, and the Lips played an old Suzuki Omnichord (on the brain-dribbling, droning sonic delight, “Is David Bowie Dying?”). Often, the synths momentarily threaten the mix, then quickly take over entirely, then as quickly disappear.

“Some of that synth [overload] is intentional where you just have a couple of microphones and whoever is loudest in that channel, that’s what you get,” Fridmann says. “Or sometimes there are elements happening in real time, then we might decimate the mix, which could be anything from putting the entire mix through a chain of three Eventide 3000s in a row and seeing what happens. Sometimes we run the mix back out through a couple of amps and throw some pedals before that. It’s a real conglomeration. Whenever we feel dissatisfi ed, let’s do something we’re not supposed to do and see what happens.”

Drum Down Drum miking is the X factor in any Flaming Lips recording. Drums come from anywhere and are processed through anything. Though Fridmann’s random technique is one option, he occasionally opts for close-miking the drums with two transducers, tops.

“Wayne, Michael, and Steven do a lot of recording at home, [but in my studio] I want to have the capability of having a normal sound if desired, so I will use a few mics on the drums,” he says. “I’ll usually place a DPA 4006 overhead and another one in front of the kick just because I’ve never done it before. Then you have a screaming Vox amplifi er a foot away from the drums and a Moog going through it. So all bets are off . The miking becomes a non-issue. We’ll try something to try it, but what’s happening in the room is so chaotic it almost doesn’t matter.”

Drozd explains his various drum conceptions—miking and otherwise. “Why not put a microphone 30 feet away from the scene of the crime?” he asks. “Going back to ‘Brainville’ (from Clouds Taste Metallic), for example, I had three bass drums, with one tuned as the snare drum. The secondary bass drum would play the two and four usually associated with the snare drum. And my hands did nothing. That’s an example of setting up in a weird way to make yourself play differently, therefore playing a rhythm you might not normally play. Two of the Gummy Skull tracks I recorded upstairs at my house with one mic, a KSM44, placed between the bass drum and snare drum ten inches off the floor. That’s why those drum sound’s frequency range is really small. Dave beefs it up, but it’s only one mic.

“At times,” Drozd adds, “I’ve set up two snare drums: a giant rock snare drum, and a smaller dance muffled snare. Then ‘Race for the Prize’ has two distinct kits: a huge Bonham kit, then an Eagles-sounding kit. I beat the wideopen drums like mad, then the soft drums I play like Karen Carpenter. I do that a lot.”

Is failure an option for The Flaming Lips? Where does any band, even one as seemingly crazed and definitely as creative as The Flaming Lips fi nd the courage to bare it all? With an ongoing year-long world tour happening concurrent with their scheduled musical collaborations, the Lips may finally be stretching themselves too thin. Or maybe that’s the idea all along.

“Being fearless means you don’t care if you fail,” Coyne claims. “The way to be fearless is to try it. If it’s safe, don’t do it. If you’re doing the same thing you used to do, do something different. In those times that we are at our bravest, I wake up and think, ‘F**k, what are we doing?’ But I don’t want to return to the normal rational way. I like living with the oblivion and making whatever music and saying whatever comes to mind.”

Dave Fridmann On Maintaining Mystery in the Mix

“Steven or Kliph [Scurlock] will be playing drums in a room. Down the hall it sounds cool, but when you get closer, it just sounds like drums. As long as you can maintain that mystery in the mix, whether you’re behind a door or under a blanket, that’s what makes it interesting. We’ll catch some weird reflection in a certain spot, then try to capture that to tape. It’s a weird combination of playing something the right way with the mic in the right position, with the right setting. But if you move the mic two inches over, it’s gone. We create these atmospheres and possibilities other than what you’d normally have with standard miking. In that way we can effectively sample these environments and put the listener into a space immediately without having to manipulate or create that space later. That’s the only space there is. You don’t have to decide later, ‘Oh, do we like this or not?’ It’s not a choice, that’s all we have.”

EQ and Wayne Coyne

“I’m just battling back whatever Wayne’s sending me,” Fridmann laughs. “Sometimes he’s running his mic through a guitar amp or a stomp box with the high end turned up all the way, into a Kaoss Pad. Or he’s singing through a handheld tape recorder. It’s pretty shriek-y by the time I get it. I mostly try to get things back into a repeatable listenable format. Often that will require multiple stages of compression and de-essing along with some heavy EQ as well. I will go back and forth: an EQ, compressor, de-esser, then another stage of those three in a row, running de-essing, compression, and EQ. I want to affect the first compressor a certain way, so I will EQ that. Then when I get the compression I want, I de-ess that, then I will go back again—I might want to take 20dB on one de-essing frequency, so I will do a broad one then a more tight one on the second round of EQ. I will do a de-esser, then another compression stage, then a final EQ. Some of this will happen on the board, some of this will happen with outboard gear. Sometimes even a plug-in. These are the lengths I go to to accommodate Wayne, but it’s not necessarily the perfect way to record vocals. You have to do whatever you can to make the artist comfortable, no matter how ridiculous it may seem.”

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