THE FLAMING LIPS with WOLFMOTHER at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Tuesday (April 4). $39.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Austin - It's the evening before St. Patrick's Day, and East 6th, Austin's main party strip, is lined with spring breakers who've started celebrating a night early. Puddles of puke spill off curbs, wasted cheerleaders in heels and halter tops dangle off their thick-necked boyfriends' arms, and wannabe impresarios try to lure crowds into every frat bar on the block.
Inside this dark dance club, things have taken a turn for the surreal. Massive balloons bounce through the air, streamers and confetti cascade from the balcony. Onstage, Wayne Coyne, the grey-maned frontman of the Flaming Lips, is leading the crowd through a thousand-person rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.
But this isn't just some beer-fuelled college jock moment. Most of the folks batting balloons are cranky music journos and jaded industry knobs. Five minutes ago they were grumbling in a zombie-like queue along East 6th, overtired and irritated by the fact that word of this "top-secret" Flaming Lips gig seemingly spread through Austin like the clap. Suddenly, though, they're pumping their fists in a full-on inner-child freak-out. There are more ecstatic grins than there are beers in the audience.
Welcome to Wayne's world.
"I've been around lots of people who are insecure or bitter or negative, and you can be having the best day of your life but they'll still bring you down in 20 seconds," says a suit-sporting Coyne the next day as we hang out beside a fake waterfall in the Hyatt lobby. "People don't realize how much influence we have on one another. When I walk into a room, I hope it suddenly becomes a better room. I want people to say, 'Wherever Wayne is, that's the room I want to be in.' Put that in the context of a show and it's multiplied by 10,000 - that's the best room of all."
Any given Flaming Lips show - whether it involves Coyne coasting over crowds in a see-through bubble or Justin Timberlake and Kathleen Edwards sporting furry animal suits at Toronto's SARSstock - is a Teletubbies-meets-Lewis Carroll psychedelic love-in.
Though he shies away from admitting he's trying to promote any sort of Dadaist breakdown of the barrier between artist and audience, Coyne claims he wants to make folks feel it's okay to be silly.
"I wish more performers would do that for me. I mean, I'm the biggest fool in the world and I'm up there onstage, so don't be scared. Not that we're trying to make people adhere to some sort of group mentality," he quickly adds.
Trying to create (im)possible worlds where conventional rules don't apply is a chief characteristic of the Flaming Lips' music - or at least it has been since 93's warped noise-pop freakshow Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, the first album featuring current drummer Steven Drozd and the one that produced the band's first semi-breakout hit, She Don't Use Jelly.
Sometimes those alternate realities are tangible, as with 97's Zaireeka, an ambitious quadruple-disc experiment that required four separate stereos to play. On their last studio album, 02's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Coyne and co. conjured a cartoonishly detailed conceptual universe, one where a Japanese punk rock princess wages war on evil automaton forces with a Beach Boys-in-outer-space soundtrack.
Their latest, At War With The Mystics, finds the Flaming Lips somewhat more grounded in their own place and time, offering up messages of optimism in an increasingly unstable social and political climate. The sound may still be a hallucinatory mishmash that combines Bread-style 70s AM radio aesthetics and jerky New Wave rhythms with sludgy stoner rock and Freddie Mercury flamboyance, but the stories and characters on Mystics come from the very real dystopia that is the contemporary United States.
"The songs feel like they could be showcasing our disdain for George Bush and his administration," Coyne asserts. A chief inspiration was the opening line of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, which has become a staple in the Lips' recent performances. in Austin they tore through a particularly incendiary version with Peaches (apparently a close pal).
"'Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses. / Evil minds that plot destruction, / Sorcerers of death's construction.' People forget what genius Ozzy Osbourne is capable of," he effuses. "We were touring before the last presidential election, and we started to play it at the end of shows, just to remind people to go out and hate George Bush. After he won, we felt we should keep singing it, cuz if Bush could shut down the Flaming Lips, then he'd really have won."
Coyne's own lyrical sentiments on the record aren't always the most sophisticated. Free Radicals pokes fun at extremists on all sides with a schoolyard taunt of "You think you're radical, but you're not that radical; in fact, you're fanatical."
It's the visceral feelings and melodies of their tunes that communicate the Flaming Lips' intentions: listen to how the sweet Zen romanticism of Yoshimi's Do You Realize?? resonates with the heart-skipping oomph of a classic love-and-death ballad.
Part of that power comes from the ability Coyne and bandmates Drozd and Michael Ivins have to completely let down their guard in a way most rock stars at this level of celebrity have long since learned to resist.
It comes across in every move Coyne makes in person, whether he's excitedly jumping around onstage explaining the tricks behind the tracks on Mystics for a hungover crowd at a mid-afternoon Q&A in Austin, inviting random people to come up and "bug me to sign stuff" if they see him on the street or grumbling about the bagpipes that suddenly interrupt our interview. There's no attempt to maintain an untouchable persona.
You can see it on a deeper level in The Fearless Freaks, the shockingly intimate documentary on the Lips directed by long-time buddy Bradley Beesley that came out last year.
Beesley's close personal relationship with the band members - over several decades - provides a perspective on the Lips that often feels almost too intense, as in the scene where Drozd speaks candidly about his drug addiction in a close-up shot. The camera gradually pulls back to reveal the soft-spoken savant shooting up in a stark garage.
"What you see in the thing isn't like Sid Vicious, messy and nodding off with Nancy Spungen," says Coyne, trying to explain how he and his peers were able to let themselves be so vulnerable on film. "He really is a funny, charming guy. As much as we wished that he wasn't addicted to drugs, Steven could still play marvellously. He'd be backstage, slumped over, and we'd tell him it was time to go onstage. He'd still perform like one of the best musicians you'll ever see."
He takes a deep breath and sighs.
"These are some horrible drugs, heroin, crack and crystal meth. I like the drug experience - with other drugs there can be an element of exploration and you can understand yourself more, but those ones are just too powerful."
The doc also reveals the darker flipside - poverty, hopelessness, crappy jobs, crime, death - that's the yang to the dreamy buoyant yin of the Lips' music.
"You can only believe the optimism if we show you the other stuff," Coyne insists. He points to the example of The Sound Of Failure/It's Dark Is It Always This Dark??, a Mystics track about a young girl whose best friend has just died. The song is a melancholy but hopeful narrative that manages to sound profoundly philosophical while simultaneously dissing Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears.
"I'm not against mindless pop in general," he continues, "but if you avoid the mysteries and the dark edges of life, you're gonna miss out. This girl, she's standing in the graveyard at night, she fears the darkness, the unknown. But there are things at night that you can't see during the day, like the moon. Like fireworks.
"She ventures into the unknown against the advice of her ill-informed friends, who just want to jump around. She wants to embrace being inexperienced - I think that's something all of us need to do."