Until now, you've probably never heard Sade and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne mentioned in the same sentence. But considering that the Lips have made a career out of confounding expectations, one probably should never be surprised by what spills forth from this bunch.
"For this record, we thought, What if Wayne sang like Dusty Springfield or Sade? Wouldn't that be fucking kick-ass?" explains Stephen Drozd, a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums, keyboards, and guitars, and makes countless other contributions to the Lips' ornately layered material. Drozd is talking about his band's latest, the bent, beautiful Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. On it, Coyne's group crafts grooves that flow like liquid, and the singer's once-jarring vocals float over them without making a ripple. He's oiled away every squeak, perfected an upper-register glide, and on several songs, comes closer to replicating Sade's delivery than any 41-year-old white indie icon from Oklahoma should even be able to conceive, let alone execute.
Then again, this is no ordinary band. Some fringe-friendly musicians consider chart-darling records to be a not-so-sweet taboo, but the Lips' members openly embrace everything from Madonna to Glen Campbell. Even more remarkable than the band's lush, lysergic sound is the revelation that the trio's boldly psychedelic, mind-melting epics originate from a drug-free environment.
"Those guys have never even smoked pot," reports Drozd. "Everyone just assumes they gravitate toward that. People will come up and tell Wayne all these wild drug stories, and he'll just say, 'You better be careful.'"
When Drozd joined the Lips 11 years ago, he was as surprised as anyone to learn that Coyne and his musical partner, Michael Ivins, were clean and sober. But he didn't dwell on this discovery for long, because he was obsessed with a far more substantial stunner: One of his favorite bands was asking him for song ideas. The group was already a well-established oddity by the time Drozd entered the fold, and until the shock wore off, he greeted most invitations for input with a meek "Are you sure? You guys were doing fine without me."
But Drozd improved the group's efforts exponentially. "Wayne used to imagine big strings and crazy horns, but he didn't know how to get what he wanted," Drozd says. "I've helped them to realize anything in their imagination. I've always been into complicated chord progressions and harmonically weird stuff. I'm a big music dork."
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, his first full-length with the band, released in 1993, polished the hooks from its earlier work without dulling the jagged edges. A multifaceted masterpiece that's readily available in used CD bins, thanks to one-hit wonderers who played only "She Don't Use Jelly," Satellite briefly introduced the band to MTV, Beverly Hills 90210 (the Lips played the Peach Pit), and Candlebox fans (they once opened for the grunge also-rans). The equally appealing Clouds Taste Metallic followed in 1995, earning the band enough of a critical and commercial cushion to convince its label, Warner Brothers, to green-light Zaireeka -- four discs designed to be played simultaneously. Recently re-released, that set has sold more than 20,000 copies and spawned countless quadraphonic parties.
"We got a letter from Tokyo from some people who rented this warehouse space, put in four massive stereo systems, and had this huge ecstasy-and-acid Zaireeka party," Drozd says. "We get letters from people all the time who do that kind of thing, freaks in Berlin and London. It's awesome."
Oddball title aside, there's none of Zaireeka's shtick on Pink Robots. Coyne delves into some weighty philosophical issues, pondering the existence of love, the precariousness of life, and the occasional necessity of self-defense. Three songs address the titular tale of black-belt Yoshimi engaging in combat with evil androids, and even this seemingly uplifting scenario contains a profoundly sorrowful passage. "One More Robot" introduces model 3000-21, a programmed killer who, Coyne explains, wants to be more than a machine. Capable of feeling synthetic emotions, the robot falls in love with Yoshimi and ensures her victory by committing suicide -- a decision dramatized by a stark symphonic reprise of the tune's melody. Swelling strings represent his growing affection for his opponent; sad synthesized squiggles voice his final cries. Coming on the heels of Grandaddy's tearjerker "Jed the Humanoid," in which a neglected creation shuts down its own system, this instrumental eulogy reinforces the strange depressive power of self-extinguished artificial intelligence.
"You just get a bleak, dismal feeling from thinking about that kind of stuff, which I think is awesome," Drozd says.
The pace picks up immediately with the title track, a perky pro-Yoshimi pep rally, then peaks with a wordless reenactment of the battle that crescendos with cresting dynamics, depicting the brief struggle and Yoshimi's lingering doubts about the ease of her victory.
The kind of unbounded ambition that the Lips display on Pink Robots has made them one of rock's most admired outfits. With some acts, the influence is transparent. "You hear bands take certain elements of our music to the fore; like, they'll focus on the distorted vocals or a certain riff or drum sound," Drozd says. Other groups adapt the Lips' attitude without copping its sound. "A lot of bands that sound nothing like us cite us as a group that can keep evolving," Drozd says. Paying homage to the members' own idols, Drozd's group does some of both -- placing, say, a Sade-style croon into a dazzlingly original context. It's an approach that incorporates influences while preserving creativity, ensuring that, after two decades of challenging experimentation, the members of the Flaming Lips' remain smooth operators.