(with Steven Drozd)
Chris McKay: Is Athens the first date of the American tour?
Steven Drozd: You know whats weird is that the last show we played was Athens, Greece. Seriously. We got home last Tuesday and now were starting this next tour in Athens, Georgia. I thought that was really cool.
CM: Have you got any specific memories of Athens, Georgia from all the times youve played here?
SD: I remember when Walters Barbecue was still open. You remember that place? I think its shut down. The first time I came to Athens with the Lips was probably 1992 or something. We went to Walters and it was really good. The second time we came through, there was a big party at Peter Bucks ex-wifes house and that was great. I remember I was really drunk and it was like five oclock in the morning and Mike Mills was there and I was like pissing my pants. Of course, I havent liked an R.E.M. record since 1986 or 1987, but theyre titans in the alternative rock world, you know? I was sitting there talking to him and I asked him why they decided to turn the reverb up on the bass track of Seven Chinese Brothers at the very end, which was a total fan question. He was like, Hey man, youre on your way to becoming a producer asking questions like that. So actually I have a lot of fond memories of Athens.
CM: Youve got to get one of those guys up on stage in a bunny costume
SD: Wouldnt that be great? Who would it be, though? With Michael Stipe that would seem way too fucking creepy. Bill Berry would just look like a dufus. Maybe Mike Mills, I dont know. You know, the first time we came through we were opening for The Throwing Muses and I tried to get Michael Stipe to give me an autograph and he wouldnt do it. I dont know if Id wanna see him (in a bunny costume). Plus, I suspect he probably has really bad body odor. Alright, Ive got to quit razzing R.E.M. I will say this: their first three records fucking changed my life.
CM: The Flaming Lips live shows are always really elaborate and theatrical. What do you have in store this time?
SD: Well, if I tell you it wont be a surprise. Well have 20 people in animal costumes, youve heard about that. We have these videos that are synched up with our music, which is pretty weird. Waynes got some nice stage prop kind of things that are pretty tripped out. Imagine Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd with The Wizard Of Oz with Wayne Newton in Las Vegas and The Butthole Surfers in 1987. Maybe Im making it sound too great, but its fun.
CM: Are you influenced by the likes of Pink Floyd? You seem to be the modern day version of that really.
SD: All of us in the band are obviously big Pink Floyd fans. I think all of the stuff that weve been doing has just slowly been coming together over the last five years. When Ronald (our guitar player) quit, we made The Soft Bulletin and Zaireeka. When it came time to start touring, we didnt know how we were going to do it. I didnt want to be stuck playing drums. I wanted to play some guitar and piano. So we decided to leave the drums on tape which freed us up to make it more theatrical and that gave Wayne the idea to have videos play behind us. Over the last few years, its just been slowly, slowly getting to where it is now where weve got fucking animals onstage, weve got confetti cannons, weve got smoke machines and Waynes got a strobe light he wears as a fucking necklace. Well do something and it works pretty good so that encourages us to keep going on that idea.
CM: Do you enjoy all of that madness? Does it keep it interesting or just get on your nerves?
SD: Ill be the first to say Im really sick of it actually, but to go the opposite direction, just to get up and play might be fun for me and there might be a small, hardcore group of fans that would be interested, but I think the paying audience would be like, Damn, they dumbed it down. Im not against what were doing. I think its great. Theres a lot of entertainment for your alterna-rock dollar, but Im kind of sick of wearing the animal suits and the unbridled enthusiasm onstage, but Im sure that within the next couple of years well think of something thatll go somewhere completely different or well progress further into this thing and itll become new and fun again anyway.
CM: You recently toured as opening act for Becks tour and then served as his backup band for his sets. Did you ever think twice about going out as someones backup band?
SD: Well, we did but it was Beck so it seemed like a great idea. We didnt think about it all cause it was fucking Beck! He writes fucking great music, you know? Yeah, he just called out of the blue, Hey, Ive got a record coming out. What are you guys doing? You want to come be my band? So we got together and rehearsed for a couple of weeks to figure out what songs we wanted to do. We heard his new record and we were like, Fucking yeah! We never realized the amount of hard work that would be involved. Actually, there was just this warring between the two factions of Beck and Wayne for a while there. There was this article about us in Esquire Magazine last month. If you see it, read it. Wayne never said anything about Beck being a dick, but one of the headlines of the article was like, Beck Is A Dick. This writer hung out with us and traveled on our bus for two days. He was there for two whole days, and the reporter was like, Guys, I dont know about Beck. Hes not as cool as I thought. We were like, Well, whatever angle you want to work for your story is cool with me, cause I hung out with the guy a lot. We got drunk and we had a good time. I ended up feeling pretty uncomfortable that he said some mean things about Beck, you know?
CM: And Beck took it personally?
SD: Well, Beck emailed Wayne and was like Why is this happening? Wayne said, I had nothing to do with it. People ask us questions and were usually pretty honest. So Beck said, Well, what kind of answer is that, Wayne? Im too much of a coward to confront someone and go, Yeah, this is bullshit, but we had some pretty tough times on that tour. I think we thought thered be more jamming and more hanging out and playing music and it wasnt like that. We actually became his backup band. Wed rehearse then hed show up. Wed run through it a couple of times and hed say, Yeah, I guess well do that one tonight. We never actually hung out.
CM: So was it worth it? Did you take anything out of that tour that you could use?
SD: I took a lot of money from it! We got real paid. This sounds really fucking hokey, but I think it made us all better musicians. Just because we had to learn so many fucking songs! We had to learn 25 of his songs in a week and a half. Then we learned another 15 while we were on the road so that wed have a big variety to choose from. It just helped us all. Plus, we were playing twice a night. Wed do the Lips show first. Then wed walk offstage just to come back on and do Becks set. Thatll fucking get you in shape, man. Were all playing better now. Plus, I got some good stories here and there. Becks a weird dude, for sure.
CM: OK, you opened up that one. What do you mean by that?
SD: I did, didnt I? Lets just say he has a very strange diet. He has food issues (laughs). He has special dietary needs that are strange. We actually had a chef go on tour with us. Thats living there, buddy! Hes a weird guy, man. (laughs) Wed met him a few times before this all went down and wed talk. When we were on tour, we werent on the same bus. We had different tour buses. It was just really weird to spend every day with him for two months.
CM: Now I see youre padding his pockets a little with a cover of The Golden Age on your new E.P.
SD: (laughs) I didnt think about it that way padding his pockets (laughs).
CM: So whats up with the E.P. since its not out yet?
SD: Its not like all new music that people are dying to hear. Its just odds and ends, you know spics and specks. Im not even really sure whats on it.
CM: I can tell you if you want to know.
SD: Theres a Kylie Minogue cover on it, right?
CM: Yep, thats on there. Golden Age, Knives Out, Do You Realize (Remix), Strange Design Of Conscience, Thank You, Jack White and Fight Test.
SD: Right I didnt realize that Strange Design Of Conscience and Thank You, Jack White were going to go on this thing. We recorded those like a fucking month ago literally. We did them like wham-bam really fast. Its not a Dave Fridman production. We didnt do it up in New York we did it down in Oklahoma. We recorded Thank You, Jack White and Strange Design Of Conscience in about seven hours total. You can tell with Jack White. Thats just acoustic guitar, Waynes singing and Im playing a little electric guitar. The other ones kind of weird and moody. It reminds me of Everything But The Girl meets Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young or something. Its a pretty strange mood that its got. I didnt even know it was actually coming out so you know better than me, then!
CM: How did The Flaming Lips manage to survive, be creative and keep moving forward all this time without the benefits of hit singles or significant coverage? How have you managed to flourish under the notoriously bottom line oriented umbrella of a major record label when so many others were tossed out?
SD: Thats a fucking really good question. I dont know. It seems like we got lucky there for a while. When the axe fell and people were getting fired for some reason, we wouldnt be talked about that week. We didnt have a record that had just come out. It was like ours had been out for six months and nothing happened with it, so they just forgot about us! We just barely survived the downfall of the boom era of the alternative rock movement. Part of it was when Ronald quit. It looked like we might get dropped so we just decided to fucking do what we wanted to do. It wasnt like we werent doing what we wanted to do before. It was just like we got older and changed, you know? We wanted to do heavier music with strings and we just wanted to do some new stuff. We thought, Well, nows the time to do it, because were probably not going to stay on the label anyway. We thought it would be our last record, The Soft Bulletin, but people loved it and that encouraged us to say, Hey, we can do what we want and get by okay! After the success of that record, Warner Brothers have been totally behind us one hundred percent which is really cool.
CM: and unheard of.
SD: Major label or not, there arent a lot of bands that have been around for twenty years that are still making cool music.
CM: And how many of those few bands are still getting bigger with each release?
SD: Thats true. Thats a weird thing. Ive been in the band since 91. Im still the new guy. I cant really think of anybody thats still together. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been together for 20 years and theyre as big as they were ten years ago.
CM: Yeah, but theyve come, gone and made a come back. It hasnt been a steady build like The Flaming Lips. Remember, that Red Hot record they did with Dave Navarro on guitar didnt sell and the shows didnt do too well either.
SD: Thats true. That record with Dave Navarro sucked.
CM: But youre still evolving. Originally, the Lips seemed very confrontational and cynical, whereas now the material is very open hearted and sentimental.
SD: I know what you mean. Thats Wayne. We all got older and things are changing. You just turn a corner, you know? Wayne writes all of the lyrics. I dont even play the lyric writing game anymore. I quit after the first couple of songs. Id play a song for him and hed call me the next day and say, Heres what I got, Drozd. Hed sing it and itd be like, Fuck! There you go, man. Theres no way I wouldve thought of the things that he thinks of. Even if I did, I wouldnt be able to see it through for a whole song. So yeah, ten years ago Wayne was more like, I dont want to play this game. Im cool. Im going to turn my back on the audience. Im going to try to kill you with volume because I dont want to talk to you. People change I guess. Just look back at Michael Stipe. Hes the perfect example. He used to stand at the mic stand muttering and now Im surprised he doesnt do Divas Las Vegas!
CM: The Flaming Lips have the kind of music that inspires an almost literally cult-like following. Do the fans that read too much into what youre doing ever freak you out a little?
SD: I understand, you know. Ive been pretty fanatical about certain bands at times. I really have.
CM: Yeah, but when its you, you know its harmless. Its got to be different coming back at you. Its got to be jarring at least.
SD: Yeah, sometimes well see people at like six shows in a row and they hang on like its their whole life, you know. I worry a little bit. Its creepy sometimes. At first, youre like, Cool! Weve got some hard core fans. Then youll see them outside saying, We drove a thousand miles and the shows sold out. If you dont get us in, I dont know whats going to happen! Okay, well you get them in and you feel bad for them, but Ive been there so many times. Ill meet some cool fans and hang out and a year later theyre in your dressing room all the time. There was a kid from the Chicago area who started to show up at a lot of shows. I guess his parents were really rich. At first it was cool. Then he started showing up at all these shows in England and Europe. Wherever we were playing, he would be there. It was really bizarre. It got to the point where hed help us a little. Hes help us do this and that. Then he was in our dressing rooms all day eating our food and not doing anything except laying on the couch. We had to cut him loose, you know?
CM: How do you do that? Do you try to do it gently or do you just send some security guy to get rid of him?
SD: Thats the tough part. I didnt do it personally, but Wayne was like, Look, Buddy. Youve got to give us more space. This isnt working out.
CM: So you had to break up with him?
SD: Basically. Thats true. Its just weird. People after a while are just clueless to their own mistakes when they get so obsessed.
CM: On the other side of that, especially with the content of the last few records is the healing effect you can have on people.
SD: I think thats fucking awesome. Not to sound hokey I keep saying that, but I know weve all been through times where music is the one fucking thing that gets you through the day. I know its saved my life many, many times. So Im glad we can give that back to the people (laughs). You cant just take it, youve got to give it back. Im starting to sound like Neil Diamond there.
CM: To remain in the hokey realm the worlds in a delicate situation right now. Do you feel that your music is a release to your audience? Do you feel like some of them get a human connection at a show that they might not feel otherwise?
SD: Fucking A, right. Thats true, but when were making this music were not really thinking that. I think were just trying to entertain ourselves and get an emotional response from ourselves. Its very rare that Im going to go in the studio and play a piano track and come back and go, Oh God, thats amazing, but youre trying to get that. You really are. Youre trying to entertain the rest of the world but you want to fucking feel it, you know? The fact is that people hear those songs years later and really respond to them like its for these times and whats going on right now.
CM: Yes, but if youre writing for yourselves instead of a major demographic, that tends to make it more universal by default.
SD: Which is tricky.
CM: Do the politics of the day affect you in your writing or even in your mood on the road and the direction that the live shows take?
SD: You know, I dont know if it was just my own imagination or what, but it seemed like in France this last go round that people were pretty rude to us when they realized that we were American (laughs), but it might have just been my imagination. So that was pretty weird, and Im a nervous flyer anyway, but I got really schized out flying from Rome to Athens. That just seemed like the kind of flight that some terrorist bullshit would happen on.
CM: Im with you.
SD: Did you hear about the Dixie Chicks when they were in London?
CM: I did.
SD: I couldnt imagine that was going to have any backlash on the Dixie Chicks. I really think they were just kissing the ass of the audience.
CM: So heres the typical wrap up question whats up next for The Flaming Lips after this tour?
SD: Tour, tour, tour. Were touring here, then we go to England to do a couple of festivals. Then we come back here to the States and the word on the streets is that were either going to tour with Radiohead in the U.S. or maybe do the tour opening for R.E.M. When were done touring, well take a couple of months to rest and well see what happens after that.
CM: Is Christmas On Mars happening?
SD: Probably not until Christmas of 2004.
CM: Cool. Maybe when you get to the 40 Watt, Ill be crashed out on the couch in your dressing room.
SD: (laughs) Come up and say Hello. Well have a beer or something.