In an infamous Monty Python sketch, the world was full of normal, mild-mannered citizens wearing the blue tights and red cape of Superman, but when one perfectly ordinary Superman’s bicycle broke down … that was a job for bicycle repairman! Suddenly from out of nowhere would come a man in overalls and a cap, wearing glasses. It was bicycle repairman to the rescue!
The bit was funny because it reversed the preconceptions of the audience; it made the extraordinary mundane and elevated the mundane to the extraordinary.
In the same way, on Feb. 22, 1983, a musical act played its first show in Oklahoma City and has since proceeded to make the mundane extraordinary for more than 28 years. In the summer of 1999, the band released their ninth full-length record, and to put it in the words of lead singer and chief lyricist Wayne Coyne, while “putting all the vegetables away/That you bought at the grocery store today … Suddenly everything has changed.” The Soft Bulletin was a true game-changer for The Flaming Lips, but more than 10 years later the world and the band are still “Waiting For Superman.”
The Flaming Lips seemed to pucker their psychedelic vision from out of nowhere, a musical wasteland that was better known for music of both kinds: “country and western.”
In truth though, the south central midwest/southwest has had a history of introducing odd musical perspectives. Consider Texans Roky Erikson and The 13th Floor Elevators, Mayo Thompson of The Red Krayola and Butthole Surfers, not to mention Arizona’s The Meat Puppets.
But the band that has now put the Sooner State on the modern musical map is without question The Flaming Lips. After all, not just any “Okie from Muskogee” can claim to have composed and performed the official Oklahoma state rock song (“Do You Realize?,” from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots), and still call Oklahoma home.
At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2011, the record they chose to perform live in Oklahoma City was The Soft Bulletin, and it’s the same album they will perform at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in England, as well as for two sold out shows in July at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, the city where they had their biggest initial success.
Upon its release in June 1999, the critics were almost unanimous in hailing it a classic, and it made many top 10 lists as the bogeyman of Y2K loomed on the horizon. Pitchfork gave it an exceedingly rare 10 out of 10 and ranked it third in their list of the Best 100 Records of the 1990s, and Robert Dimery included it (and Yoshimi) in his 2006 book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
In May 2009, The Record Review included in its “Ten Years Later” feature, noting that “10 years removed, The Soft Bulletin is still an undeniably essential listen that belongs in every record collection.”
In many ways, The Soft Bulletin was a game changer for The Flaming Lips. The preceding records, Clouds Taste Metallic (1995), and Zaireeka (1997), a psychedelic symphony comprising four CDs to be played on CD players at once, had hinted at the potential for grandiose anthems to spring forth, but this record, recorded in the summer of 1998, really fulfilled the promise that had been expressed in fits and starts on their earlier work.
Their early chaotic trips were released on indie label Restless and the first few mind-bending excursions with Warner Brothers included Hit To Death With The Future Head and Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, which ultimately spawned a novelty hit once “She Don’t Use Jelly” made heavy rotation on Chicago’s Q101 and the Coyne directed video (which cost all of $12,000) made it into MTV’s Buzz Bin.
But The Soft Bulletin was the record that matched the ambition of the best of the Beatles with the sound of the best of The Beach Boys (some critics have called it the Pet Sounds of the 1990s). Not only was there not a clunker in the bunch, the songs took the patented Lips approach of transforming the mundane into the extraordinary over a bed of rollicking orchestral pop.
But why is The Soft Bulletin getting a reprise now, more than 10 years after its original release? And why is it still important?
Houston transplant Steven Drozd, who had played drums starting at age 10 in his father’s polka and country bands and will be celebrating his 20th year as a Flaming Lip this October, supplied his perspective on the album to Pop ‘stache in the first part of an exclusive interview. Interviewed via phone, Drozd was asked why he thought the record was an important part of their history, and why it’s the focus of renewed interest.
Drozd acknowledges the band does “consider it sort of a milestone for us … when we were working on it, we didn’t think it would be one of our defining albums, for lack of a better term, but it is, it’s one of our defining records. I think it’s just one of those things where over time things get built up into legend … [and] people just have a lot of regard for that record.”
In terms of why the record has such staying power, he says the band “got lucky” and that, hopefully, there are “songs on there that in any time period will sound kind of fresh and new.” Drozd is happy it doesn’t sound dated, at least not yet; “it’s only been 12 years, but to me it seems longer than that,” he says.
Pop ‘stache: And why has the group chosen now to bring it back?
Steven Drozd: “It just felt like—and this is going to sound like I’m being flippant about it—a lot of bands are doing that now where a lot of bands are doing that now, where they’re performing whole records … like Dinosaur [Jr.] goes out and they play Bug or something or whatever record, you know what I mean? It just feels like, since that idea is very popular and bands are doing that, that’s the record for us to do, because people have been asking us to do it for a while anyway. “
P’s: Do you feel like his musical imprint was important to the sound of The Soft Bulletin?
SD: “I had done a song for a compilation of songs by drummers called Flyin’ Traps [Hollywood, 1997], and it had a bunch of drum solos, and I just remember thinking I didn’t want to do a drum solo and I didn’t really have any ideas for a drum solo and I thought, well here’s the chance to do a cool instrumental thing. That was at the beginning of my obsession of using bigger chords, denser harmonic structures, more complicated music to try to bring that in to what I was doing, but not have it be prog-y or something but using elements of [progressive rock]. This is a discussion that I could go on for five hours, easily [laughs].
It was just something that I was really getting into and I did this track and it had the mellotron, strings and it had some Rhodes [keyboards] and stuff. I finished working on it and I played it for Wayne [Coyne] and he was really knocked out by it and he really loved it. I think that burned into his brain a little bit, and over that next summer when we started working on demos for what was going to be The Soft Bulletin, we started using that palette of sound, [and] instead of using those skronky guitars we were using mellotrons and flutes and symphonic progressive rock kind of elements, and that’s sort of how it evolved.”
The song “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” was subtitled “Death Anxiety Caused by Moments of Boredom,” and although it begins by “putting all the vegetables away,” not a minute later the narrator is “driving home the sky accelerates/And the clouds all form of geometric shapes/And it goes fast/You think of the past/And suddenly everything has changed.”
While oppressed people the world over are waiting for their Superman, The Flaming Lips and their fans found their hero in the form of The Soft Bulletin, and everything about modern rock music had suddenly changed—for the better.
In part two of Pop ‘stache’s exclusive interview with Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips, he discusses how he came to be involved in composing and recording the soundtrack to the documentary The Heart Is A Drum Machine from the makers of Moog, his philosophy behind the project, why he’s relieved he wasn’t interviewed for the film, and why you won’t find the CD in any stores—yet. Also, his priorities as he enters his 20th year as a Flaming Lip, and how he believes drugs and rock music are powerfully intertwined, at least metaphorically speaking. Oh, and what it was like to drum with Sebadoh when they recently passed through Norman, and is Lips’ bassist Michael Ivins a robot?
The Soft Bulletin Tracklisting:
- “Race for the Prize”
- “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”
- “The Spark That Bled”
- “The Spiderbite Song”
- “What Is the Light?”
- “The Observer”
- “Waitin’ for a Superman”
- “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”
- “The Gash”
- “Slow Motion”
- “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”
- “Sleeping on the Roof”