Well before Wayne Coyne rhymed Vaseline with tangerines on “She Don’t Use Jelly” in ’93, The Flaming Lips were making music however they felt like doing it. From the weird to the superweird, they did it their way. And now, 26 years into their career, Oklahoma City’s biggest band has a huge fan base happy to follow The Lips into whichever bizarre rabbit hole they choose to throw themselves.
For their 12th album, Embryonic [Warner Bros.], singer/guitarist Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins, and drummer Kliph Scurlock decided to make it a double: two discs and 18 songs that took them in crazier directions than ever, with MGMT and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer Karen O going along for the ride on several tracks.
A double album is certainly not the strangest thing The Lips have ever done: In ’97, the group released Zaireeka, a four-disc set designed to be played on four different stereo systems simultaneously. Then there were their parking-lot experiments and boom-box concerts. The latter involved volunteers from the audience pressing play on 40 boom boxes in unison and The Lips “conducting” the music by raising and lowering their hands to signal volume changes.
But in this iTunes era, when many kids will often download a single track before their attention flits elsewhere, a double album might seem a risky, strange step. “For our audience who’s interested in all dimensions of how music is made and why it’s made, I think it’ll just be another weird thing that perhaps a group like Flaming Lips would do but maybe Lady Gaga wouldn’t,” Coyne suggests. “That would be cool, though, if Lady Gaga did a double record.” [Laughs.]
EMBRYOS OF JAMS
It all started this time at Drozd’s old, vacant house. The only things remaining in it were his Pro Tools system, a couple drum sets, some guitars, and a bass rig. Coyne, Drozd, and Scurlock set up instruments in the living room—with wood floors— and started jamming.
“I think sometimes there’s this thrill and fearlessness about just making music spontaneously right in front of you,” Coyne says. “So we set up two drum kits, and I set up the big bass rig and played some distorted bass out of the sheer joy of dorks who get to play dorky music, not thinking that this is great or this is anything.”
The guys would start with a simple jam, narrow in on the best slice of it, and overdub other ideas later. “I was only playing two notes, and they were playing this great syncopated but funky rock splatter-y kind of beat,” Coyne says. “The next time we got together, Steven had grafted a little piece of this one jam. He said, ‘I really like these couple of minutes right here—the five minutes before is bullshit, the five minutes after didn’t do anything, but for a couple minutes in the middle there, we really locked on.’”
“Aquarius Sabotage” is one example of a fruitful jam that turned into chaotic sounds of breaking glass and feedback (a Propellerhead Reason harp sound through echo and distortion), followed by pretty synths and vibraphone. “That was one of our most inspired little pieces of a jam,” Coyne says. “I think that may be the very first thing that pushed us to pursue making a record like this. It was only good for a couple of minutes, we had no idea what we were doing, and it quickly disintegrated in on itself.”
It was an unexpected surprise that the guys were barely ready for. “This is where it gets incredibly, like, ‘Look, you know you’re not supposed to do that,’ Fridmann says, laughing and sighing. “It ended up really literally being a mic in a room. I think [Drozd] used a [Shure] KSM44 through the Universal Audio 6176 mic pre/compressor straight into his Digi 003.”
The Lips had already written a bunch of songs before the random jamming commenced, but they set those ideas aside and went with the new flow. “Even on our previous records, the things that we thought were amazing were just sort of dumb accidents that happened when we were recording,” Coyne says. “I think we’re always aware that we can’t know what we’re going to do. You really just have to be flying into the future doing stuff—doing, doing, doing. And if you’re lucky, you’re listening later and going, ‘Oh wow, what was that? That was cool.’”
But the guys had to be patient, because the diamonds weren’t always so easy to find in the rough. “There were some jams that yielded nothing or very little,” Drozd admits. “For example, ‘Aquarius Sabotage’ is a oneminute blast of inspiration edited from 20 minutes of screwing around!”
After going through everything, the guys took hard drives to producer Dave Fridmann’s house. “They’d come up with an outline or a plan of what they thought would work, and we’d get them up here and whip the tracks into shape and continue on from there,” Fridmann says. “It was a very strange way of working for all of us.”
SOUND FIRST, SONG LATER
Verses and choruses weren’t the first things on the guys’ minds while recording the album. While a structure did come together eventually, they were more interested in strange sonic ideas. So if a song didn’t start with a random jam session, it started with a random sound. “We were just letting the sounds and the interesting little quirks of the things we created dictate what the song should be about as opposed to writing the song and then putting sounds on it later,” Coyne says. “We were making sounds and putting a song on later.”
One key example is the synthetic blast that shows up intermittently in “Silver Trembling Hands.” Coyne, Fridmann, and Drozd’s memories of how it was created are vastly different. Coyne remembers Drozd recording one note at a time on his guitar through “a big echo chamber,” each note on a separate track, and then playing all the notes simultaneously in Pro Tools. Fridmann recalls it manifesting from Drozd accidentally hitting the wrong guitar pedal while playing and capturing the fortunate mistake on tape.
But Fridmann defers to Drozd’s memory insofar as how certain things happened: “This is my problem with working for The Lips is that Michael [Ivins] writes everything down—‘At 4:23 PM, Dave sneezed.’—so I never have to remember anything.”
So it’s probably best to go with Drozd’s recollection. “I was looking through my Pro Tools WAV files, just searching for a sound that I could play with, and I found a lead track from something I had thrown out,” he says. “I isolated one note, then copied it three times and pitch-shifted it to different notes, and then added reverb. I loved it so much I tried to build a song around it.”
A similar thing happened on the slow and serene song “Gemini Syringes,” which features a sound reminiscent of shaking a spray can. In fact, it’s a sound Karen O made over the phone. While she was on tour, she had a 45-minute phone call with the band, in which Fridmann recorded her singing the lead vocal on “Watching the Planets,” voicing animal noises for “I Can Be a Frog,” and making that clicking spray-can sound (which Coyne calls a gunshot) on “Gemini Syringes.” “Once we put it in, it evoked some kind of menace within the song,” Coyne says. “And then we put the overdub of the German mathematician trying to explain the fundamental workings of the polynomial ring over the top of it.”
The band’s imaginative “anything goes” attitude kept the writing and recording process fairly stress-free. “To me, it’s kind of like sleepwalking,” Coyne says. “You have to get into this state of mind where you believe things are going to work out, and you just have to start to do them. But music is so malleable, and ideas are so abstract sometimes that they don’t just work one way. Sometimes music loves your mind so much that you almost feel like it could work a thousand different ways.”
STRANGE MIC, ODD COUPLES
In their tradition of doing things in non-traditional ways, Fridmann recorded most of Coyne’s vocals on a white plastic Motorola dispatch mic, which Coyne says sounds a bit like the intercom at a Home Depot. On past records, Fridmann placed the mic in the corner while Coyne sang into a more conventional condenser mic, and they’d blend the two mics.
“I’ve used that mic on lots of different records and different circumstances before, but never to the point where it was the only mic we were using,” Fridmann says. “Wayne was facing away from the mic, and it was about 15, 20 feet away from him. So we’re really capturing the sound of the room more than anything else. We knew it was like, ‘Well, here’s something you’re not supposed to do. Let’s do that!’ [Laughs.]
“That particular microphone oddly has been modified by my tech, Greg Snow, who modifies nearly everything we have here,” Fridmann says. “Now it takes phantom power and it has a built-in compressor in the circuitry. And I think for that mic we almost always used an additional compressor, like a dbx 160, and then the Otari Concept Elite console mic pres.”
In addition to odd mic choices, the group made some odd pairings between instruments and effects, such as a Korg microKorg played through distortion and delay, and a Suzuki Omnichord played through an Electro- Harmonix Holy Grail reverb pedal on “Watching the Planets.”
“The Omnichord by itself, I mean, I liked it, but it didn’t sound like anything,” Coyne says. “It has a pretty simple little drum patch in there—you get your pick of disco or rock or samba—but through this reverb pedal, it just sounded amazing.” Coyne liked it so much, he scrapped the song that went with it and rebuilt a new idea from the reverbed Omnichord beat up.
“I think most of the good tracks on the record have an element of that,” he says, “kind of freeform experimenting that’s not being so precious about its outcome—just letting our own creation spur the next leg of the creation,” he says.
YOU CAN’T DO THAT!
While a lot was recorded on a Pro Tools|HD 3 system or 003, some ideas were captured on a TASCAM DR1 handheld portable recorder. “It was a really random pile of stuff that we did, even for us,” Fridmann reveals. “It’s kind of ridiculous because in the studio we’ve got anything that you can think of that you’d ever want, and yet we went out of our way to make sure it was gritty, strange, and weird at every possible turn.”
For bass tracks, that meant recording a Music Man bass through a Fender Bandmaster head and then into a 12-inch, mid-century Kodak speaker box (miked with a Royer R- 121). “It’s meant to hook into a 15- millimeter projector, like at your school,” Fridmann says. “I’m old enough that they showed actual films in school instead of videotapes. You had to bring in the projector, and then you had to hook up a special speaker. It’s a very special, high-sensitivity speaker, so you only need a small amp—you can actually blow it up with a 30-watt amp.”
Although some songs started with drum-kit jams at Drozd’s old house, plenty of tracks were recorded from the ground up at Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, New York. Fridmann used “a standard complement of mics” to mic the various drum kits they set up for each song, but there were a couple of “you can’t do that” pieces of gear used, too.
“We used a MagnaRecorder mic pre that I have,” Fridmann says. “It doesn’t matter what microphone you put it through—and typically we put an SM7 through it—it just has this crazy sound that’s all crunchy and old and distorted, and not what you’d normally think of as good crunchy and old and distorted. It’s meant for speakers that have no high end because the high end is blistering. It’s meant to make a recording that will work on an old transistor radio where you’re not going to hear anything above 4kHz. So we’d utilize stuff like that that made it crazy. We wanted it to sound completely out of control as much as possible.”
With Drozd’s collection of 250 vintage guitar pedals, there were a multitude of ways the group tortured guitar parts, too, such as the 1966 Fender XII 12-string that was forced though a Roland Funny Cat pedal to get a “crazy screeching sound,” Fridmann says.
Other tortured instruments included a 1975 Fender Telecaster Deluxe, Fender Jazzmaster, and 1967 Gibson ES-330 guitars. And other torture devices used were a DeArmond Thunderbolt fuzz wah pedal, Systech Harmonic Energizer EQ/overdrive pedal, Pluggo plug-ins, and an Antares Kantos filter/synth/overdrive plug-in. On the prettier side of the spectrum, Fridmann used Lexicon PCM 41 rack delay and Roland Chorus Echo units.
In Fridmann’s studio, everything was fair game. The guys would record outside, record live with one mic and no baffles, and try any other experiment some producers would scoff at. “We recorded every possible thing we could think of,” Fridmann says.
NOT THAT MIXING WAS EASY . . .
All The Lips’ methods certainly did not make the mixdown phase a breeze. “We knew what we were doing, that it was going to be trouble,” Fridmann laments. “You always hear those stories of Paul McCartney saying, ‘I want more bass,’ and they’d just string together as many Pultecs as it took until he was satisfied. We just did stuff like that, like, ‘Let’s use every EQ we’ve got and every compressor we’ve got and we’ll just keep stringing these damn things together until it sounds cool to us.’”
Some of the saving graces were Prism EQs, Gates Level Devil and Collins 26U-1 compressors, Ampex preamps, and the iZotope Ozone mastering plug-in. “We just continued to ease up and smash everything until it all sounded like it was all part of the same thing,” he says.
One technique he used to deal with the recordings captured on one mic was parallel EQing. “I’d send the track out to like, 10 different returns on the console and be like, ‘Let’s EQ this so that the kick drum sounds best on this one. Let’s EQ this one so that the vocal sounds best on this one,’” Fridmann says. “And we’d label them ‘vocal’ and ‘kick drum’ even though obviously it’s the ‘everything’ track. We’d try and separate it at least for our own brains so we could point to it and say, ‘Give me a little more vocal.’ We’re just EQing it differently just so that it’s as idealized for just the vocal as it can be.”
Fridmann is also a big fan of panning: “As much as possible all the time. I like a lot of movement in things I’m listening to.” However, because instruments sometimes shared the same tracks, panning was limited. “But then the one or two elements that do pan could be much more dramatic,” he says. “We’d have a track representing 90 percent of the song, and then we’d have one or two overdubs that could be flying all over the place because nothing else was.”
FROM INSTINCT TO “CODE BLUE”
While Coyne loves to chase musical magic, he’s down to earth about how he captures those moments. “Sometimes the very first thing that you sing—not having any idea of what you’re even going to sing—has a strange energy or newness about it before your rational mind starts to shape it too much,” he says. “Some of my best songs have been things that I just simply by accident screamed into a microphone and then claimed responsibility for later, like, ‘Look what I created!’ But I don’t know if I can say I really created it. Certainly I sang it, and certainly I said this is worthy of pursuing, but I think a lot of great music is like that. It kind of erupts out of you, and you grab it.”
While his good fortune and devilmay- care creativity could provoke envy from less successful musicians, Coyne and The Lips experience their fair share of frustration in the studio. For example, the “newness” of an idea doesn’t mean everlasting love. “Once your mind knows all the mysteries, the sensation just isn’t as enjoyable,” Coyne admits. “It’s like when you cook your own food, you know all the junk that goes into it. It’s not nearly as enjoyable as when you go to the restaurant and they do it all for you.”
And sometimes moments of brilliance are followed by hours of bumbling boredom. “We run into things that we call ‘code blue,” where we know we’ve got something great, but everything that we keep doing to it makes it worse instead of better,” Coyne says with a laugh. “We’ve been given this great gift of having a great moment here, but us being stupid humans, we can’t f**kin’ figure out how to turn it into something expressive and communicative.
“And that’s the reality. Most sessions are full of frustration. They aren’t inspired. When the moment’s there, it’s great, and when they’re not, it’s normal. But I do believe that you keep trying. If you’re really imaginative, something will come up. I like being utterly obsessed with the idea that you don’t have to question your confidence in what you’re doing. You’re just so crazy about it, you’re so crazed by it, that you can follow an idea all the way through even if it’s utterly absurd. Sometimes you wake up the day afterwards, and you’re like, ‘What the f**k were we thinking?’ But I think some of the best songs in the world are just dumb, absurd things.”
If in a bizarre twist of fate, Dave Fridmann was forced to abandon every piece of gear he’s ever accumulated—see it all here: www.tarboxroadstudios. com/equipment.html—and keep only one thing, it would be the Korg Kaoss Pad 2. “It is a fantastic all-purpose mic pre/EQ/compressor/panner/reverb/chaos inducer,” he says. “Everything it does, it does fantastic. I can use it in a million different ways, and I always use it all the time.”