Flame on

Pub date July 18, 2006
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

› kimberly@sfbg.com
SONIC REDUCER To the naked eye — and deep-fried, extra-crispy spirit — working fast food is a lot like what the Flaming Lips call the “sound of failure” on their latest album, At War with the Mystics (Warner Bros). It’s the worst of times … and the worst of times. And I can feel the pain — I once broke my back and suffered hypothermia of the right hand for Häagen-Dazs.
That’s probably why I found it so poignant when, in the recent Lips doc by SF filmmaker Bradley Beesley, The Fearless Freaks, Wayne Coyne went back to the Long John Silver, the spot where he’d donned a ludicrous pirate getup and tossed salted bits of seafood as a fry cook for more than a decade. And it was inspiring — because Coyne, now 45, is so shameless and proud about his contributions to our fast food nation. “I think that kind of mindless manual labor really does save the world in a way because you’re just busy doing stuff,” he told me over the phone from his Oklahoma City home in April. “Being busy keeps you out of trouble — keeps you away from too much existential doubt.”
Who’d’ve thunk that grease monkey in the plumed hat would become the blood-spattered, bubble-riding, balloon-shoving ringleader to a Flaming Lips nation? Certainly not me when I caught their brave but somewhat ineffective Walkman experiment at the Fillmore in ’99, during their Music Against Brain Degeneration/Soft Bulletin tour. Tuning into the selected radio channel, I could barely hear anything of the show through the flimsy headsets. But I guess word spread because the scene at this year’s Noise Pop opening show with the Lips was beyond standing room.
The opening moments of the show were worth it — the band tore into the stirring, trebly melody of “Race for the Prize,” Coyne whipped a lit-up sling around his head, smoke poured off the stage, and Santa-suited techs threw far too many balloons into the sold-out crowd. The punks had taken acid, to paraphrase the title of the 2002 Lips compilation, and it was a genuine spectacle, replete with darkness (in the form of Coyne’s monologues critiquing the Bush administration) and light (the cute animal costumes) and sing-alongs to Queen’s seemingly uncoverable “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The key to regime change lay with each individual, declared pop philosopher Coyne, suggesting that his audience make it “popular to be gay, smoke pot, and have abortions” throughout the country, not just in San Francisco.
“Maybe I’m a fool, maybe I’m embarrassing, maybe it’s humiliating, but at least it opens it up to say, ‘Well, you speak your mind,’” Coyne said later. “In San Francisco, you guys don’t grapple with the same problems that you would in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City doesn’t have a tolerance of smoking pot, and gay people are on the verge of having all their rights taken away. You almost wonder, will people at some point try to reverse the civil rights movement.”
Speaking about the Lips’ 1983 inception, Coyne told Staring at Sound biographer Jim DeRogatis that “he’d like to be in a band like the Grateful Dead, throw big parties with people coming to them and having a great time.” DeRogatis said, “[Coyne] also said, ‘We’d like to be different; we’d like to still make records that don’t suck.’ They have elements of a jam band following, they have people from the indie rock ’80s. They have people who’ve discovered them in the alternative era. They have new Gen Y fans that downloaded The Soft Bulletin and think it’s incredible. Their audience is all over the map — they don’t fit into any demographic in terms of the way that corporations are slicing up the audience.”
The trick, said Coyne, is to never get too comfortable. “We always force ourselves to do something new, even if we’re not comfortable with it. I don’t think we really have any agenda other than to freak ourselves out.”
Ushered in with The Fearless Freaks; 20 Years of Weird: the Flaming Lips 1986–2006 (a collection of live recordings and oddities), their current tour, the DeRogatis book, the Fearless Freaks documentary, and next year with luck Christmas on Mars (Coyne’s feature film debut as a director), At War turns out to be, indeed, a war album, questioning uses and abuses of power with the opening track, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.”
But that’s not to say Coyne shies away from the band’s evangelical tendencies. “We’re using drama and music and sort of heightening the whole experience to be somewhat of a religious experience,” he explains. “I think all good rock ’n’ roll has that. But hopefully the agenda is that you, as an individual, at the end of the day, decide what’s great about your life instead of looking to some rulebook or some invisible force up in space somewhere. Music is just one part of it, and at the end of the day, to me, it’s dumb entertainment.” Aye, aye, matey? SFBG
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