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Steven Drozd at 80-35

Steven Drozd interview, part two: On “The Heart Is a Drum Machine”

written by: on April 21, 2011

Imagine one of the Flaming Lips composing a (largely) instrumental soundtrack to a documentary about music, and one might have an idea of what this sounds like. For the soundtrack to a documentary about music, “The Heart Is A Drum Machine” (released in 2009 and on DVD in 2010), the Lips’ Steven Drozd has assembled compositions combining organic sounds like piano, flute, guitar, hand claps and backing vocal oohs and aahs with synthesizers, electronic glitch pop bits and a drum machine heartbeat that recurs throughout. ”Born” provides a great introduction, especially with its Beach Boys’ style backing vocals and soaring melodies. “Quaalude Youth” features a sprawling but dry electric guitar riff that sounds like Black Sabbath channeled by Steve Albini’s Shellac, but at half-speed.

The soundtrack is at its most Pink Floyd on the leisurely “After The Mutiny” and the ominous “Bad Moon Rising/Dimensionless”—imagine the instrumental exercises of Dark Side Of The Moon and Obscured By Clouds, or Spinal Tap’s “Lick My Love Pump.” Drozd admits “The Floyd are always lurking around all of our brains.”

Reached via phone in the midst of shopping for his daughter Lottie’s third birthday party, and in a subsequent email exchange, Drozd discussed his recent soundtrack to the documentary “The Heart Is A Drum Machine”—which explores what music is and how it’s part of human nature. In addition, Drozd told Pop ’stache what it was like to come out from behind the drum set for The Flaming Lips, and to sit behind it again when he played a few songs live with Sebadoh in February, and what has changed for him personally in the 20 years since becoming a member of Oklahoma’s favorite sons of psychedelia.

When asked how he got involved with The Heart Is A Drum Machine project, Drozd indicates that filmmakers Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke (who also did the music documentary “Moog”), were longtime fans of The Flaming Lips, and contacted Lips manager Scott Booker. Drozd had previously told Booker he was interested in working on film soundtracks after he did a score for his friend, actor Adam Goldberg. Once he received an e-mail from the producers describing the documentary project in November 2007, Drozd said he was interested “from the get-go.” Drozd began composing the music “just based on their description of what the music was going to be.”

Steve Drozd conducting

Steven Drozd: I started putting together some little pieces of music and the very first one I did, “Born,” which is the first song on the collection, I sent to them and they were really into it. They said, “This is sort of exactly what we were looking for, a great starting point”. So I tried to vary the styles and stuff, because the movie itself is kind of a huge task to take on in an 80- to 90-minute documentary, describing what music is. I tried to keep it based on one sort of style but branch out a little bit, but everything is based on that first track. That was the first track I played for them—and they loved it—, and it really just went from there.

I would do a track every three or four weeks, in my home studio, just by myself in my spare time, when I was touring with the Lips or doing some other thing, and I would work on it at home and send them a track every three or four weeks, and every time I would send them something, they would say, “I think we can use this.” … I think I sent them more than they needed or wanted. The album has 12 tracks, and I don’t know if they needed that much, but I sort of had some moments of inspiration … really it was just fun to do, it was something I wanted to do, something I enjoyed doing the whole time, at no point was it stressful. I’m sure if I did that kind of work on a regular basis, I would find the stress points at some juncture, but working on it was a pleasure all the way around.

Pop ‘stache: When asked what it was like to start composing the music before he had seen the film, Drozd says:

SD: I had done three pieces before I had seen anything shot, so I was a little concerned [because] I had based it on what I had read, the description of the movie …. When I finally got to see what they were shooting, one of the first things I saw was the sequence where they explained the ear canal and how hearing works. There’s that scene where [that’s explained] and Eddie Kramer is talking about hearing and sound, and when I saw how they were going to use this piece of music of mine against that scene, I thought, “Oh, man, this is going to work perfectly.” So, I didn’t see it from the beginning, but I saw pretty early on what they were doing and that certainly helps a lot, because you don’t want to blindly being composing stuff and then having it just being thrown in without having any idea what the end result is going to be … from pretty early on I got to see what the film was going to look like, and that was a big help.

P’s: When asked why he was not interviewed for the documentary, but Lips’ front-man Wayne Coyne was, Drozd says it was merely a matter of logistics, that Coyne was in Los Angeles for some Lips-related press, however, he says he’s not at all disappointed.

SD: Really I’m glad because I didn’t know what I was going to say—“What is music?” and all that, that’s really a hard question to answer, especially in a little sound bite form, so I was relieved, I felt like I was kind of off the hook on that, to be honest.

P’s: The only track on the soundtrack that does feature vocals (aside from the occasional oohs and aahs) is a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” with guest vocals from Maynard James Keenan of Tool and A Perfect Circle fame. When asked about how that collaboration came to be and what it was like, Drozd says that it was actually Keenan’s idea. While being interviewed for the documentary, he had learned Drozd was doing the soundtrack, and remembered touring with them in 1994, and whenever a piano was in a concert hall or a venue, Drozd would “invariably sit down at the piano and play some ’70s soft-rock,” and they’d “sit around singing some old Bread songs or something like that.” Drozd explains how Elton John came to be chosen and how the collaboration was accomplished:

Elton John was always one [of the artists whose songs we’d do], so it was [Keenan’s] idea to do a cover but he wanted to do “Border Song” by Elton John. He e-mailed me about this and I remembered we always used to do “Rocket Man” but I never really liked “Border Song,” … I love Elton John but I don’t really care for that song, so I said “Why don’t we do ‘Rocket Man?’” I made the track and I sent it over—basically I mailed him a lo-res version of the track, he took it to a studio, recorded the vocals, then sent the tracks individually back to me and I put them back in the mix, and that was it. We never once talked on the phone, we never got together in person in the studio, we were never actually together in real life, it was like virtually recording together … I think that’s kind of a cool story in this day and age, that we did it all via sending tracks via iChat and e-mails …. It’s definitely a high point of the soundtrack; I think that’s one of the moments that kind of pulls the rest of the songs there together.

P’s: Drozd admits some of the compositions on the record are “just little soundscapes that last for a minute and they’re used in the film and whatnot,” but indicates a fondness for those elements of soundtracks.

Steve Drozd soundchecking at 80-35

SD: If I get a soundtrack, I like those kind of moments of the soundtrack where it’s a minute of some kind of texture or a mood that doesn’t really develop into a full song, it’s just a little moment; there’s a couple of those on the record as well.

P’s: When asked if his kids get a kick out of the version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” included within the track “Requiem for A Dying Star,” he admits:

SD: They certainly love that. That came about because early on [the producers] talked to me about doing a version of “Happy Birthday”—but there’s a copyright on that, whereas “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is just public domain, you can do whatever you want with it. But aside from that I was going to have a hard time just trying to figure out what I could do to that song that would be a) remotely interesting and b) fit in with the rest of what was going on.

P’s: Although he can’t recall the inspiration for including his version of “Twinkle,” he describes the recording process thusly:

SD: I had my guitar plugged into this fuzz pedal into this reverb, that’s the sound on that recording, and it’s the kind of sound where you’re just playing a single note and you think “Man, that just sounds wicked” … it makes you want to play something …. I just played that first part of the song, the part that sounds like Neil Young with a big psychedelic choir or something, I did that all in one take and put the choir bits underneath it and the rest of it just kind of came together …. That’s definitely one of the tracks my kids both like—when it kicks in with that hyper video game sounding thing—they jump around like maniacs and they certainly enjoy it.

P’s: If one had not listened to the record, or was not familiar with the documentary, judging by the song titles, there seems to be a lot of drug references—I ask Drozd if that is deliberate—are the drug references metaphorical, making the connection that music is a drug?

SD: I have a long and checkered history with drugs—myself and my family. It’s actually one long tragedy regarding drugs and alcohol, but I think there is [a comparison to be made between music and drugs]. I’m not against AA or anything, and I certainly have my problems, but to me I like the imagery of drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I think the two go hand-in-hand and they’re kind of meant to.  Obviously there are a lot of casualties and a lot of brutal things involved, but to me “Quaalude Youth” is just great imagery, and when I came up with that riff it sounded like something you’d hear blasting out of someone’s 8-track player in 1975. It sounded like something my older brothers would have listened to with their friends, completely zonked out in their bedroom on Quaaludes or Mandrax or smoking pot or whatever, so to me that title really suits that song.

And then on “Last Dose” I’m trying to take this as a further an idea I want to some writing about. To me the two words “last dose” (and this has nothing to do with the soundtrack at this point), but last dose is a brutal title, what it says is either [this is] your last dose, meaning that you’re gonna O.D. and die, or it’s your last dose and you’re gonna have to go through the bullshit of withdrawal to get back to a normal life, so either way, “Last Dose” is a bad thing. I came up with that piece of music which is six or seven years old. That music to me is just utterly depressing, I don’t know if anyone else gets that out of it—maybe there’s no emotional content to it at all—but for me there’s something about those chords and that sound …. That was the imagery of the last dose, either you’re gonna die or go through horrible withdrawals and then try to be a normal living human being again.

P’s: Drozd is careful to underscore that by referring to the intertwined nature of music and drugs, he is by no means minimizing the impact and significance that addiction has had in his own life (his stint in rehab in 2003 following heroin addiction has been well documented). When he was hospitalized last year, he tweeted: “Thank you, everyone, for your concern. I had to do this and I’m getting it together.” When asked about his experience last year, he offers this:

SD: I know that I will struggle with addiction for the rest of my life, that’s something I’ve come to accept in the last year. I used to have a flippant attitude about it but now that’s all changed. I’m doing very well right now and I’m learning some things that help me deal with my situation. I guess that’s all I’d say.

P’s: Although the soundtrack to the documentary “The Heart Is A Drum Machine” is available on iTunes, it’s currently not available in CD form. I ask Drozd if there is a plan to put it out in record stores.

SD: We haven’t found anyone interested enough to put it out on a physical CD. The thing is, I don’t want to put it out myself, I don’t wanna fuck with that, there’s record companies, there’s people that’s what they do. I like making the music, I like recording it, I like writing it, all that, I don’t want to have to figure out how it’s going to be put out and this and that. I’m in the process of talking to a few different sources right now, for putting it out on an actual CD, but nothing is concrete yet, so that’s all I can tell you. It’s just not something I want to do. As soon as I find someone that can agree with me that this is what we’re gonna do and this is how we’re gonna do it, then it will definitely come out at that point. I’m just surprised it has garnered as much interest as it has, I really didn’t think anybody would care or listen to it …. I actually ran into some people last night at a restaurant that were saying that [the soundtrack]  is  like their favorite record of the year so far, and I was just shocked.

P’s: When asked about the mainly instrumental nature of the soundtrack and the creative process within The Flaming Lips, Drozd says he’s glad Wayne Coyne is their lyricist.

SD: [Writing lyrics] is just agonizing, it’s just not something I do. I believe that no matter how much talent you have at something you have to work at it, and I’ve never worked at trying to write lyrics, it’s just something that I don’t have patience for and I haven’t had a lot of success with it, so I don’t—that’s definitely Wayne’s deal, he’s definitely the lyric writer for the Lips. Musically I get to bring a lot of stuff in and he can listen to what I have and try to get something out of it or something like what I would say nine times out of 10 that does successfully work.

P’s: While Drozd agrees that as part of The Flaming Lips it was initially liberating to get out from behind the drum set and to assume the role of guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, he relates a recent experience that has made him revisit his love of drums.

SD: Oh, yeah, but now it’s kind of flipping around on me, I’m starting to kind of miss playing the drums. Sebadoh were in town last week, and I played drums with them on a couple of songs, and that was just the most fun I’ve had on a stage in a long time. I thought, well, maybe I should start playing some drums again on some level, it was just so much fun …. It’s just a physical release you don’t get from anything else. I’m thinking about that, maybe trying to play drum kit again in some capacity. We played “Brand New Love” and “Home Made,” and that was the killer for me … it was funny because they hadn’t played “Home Made” in a couple of years, and I could tell … I was trying to convince them right there on the spot, and they were really uneasy about it. But then they played it, and man, they didn’t miss a beat, Jason [Lowenstein] and Lou [Barlow]. It was just perfect, and it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time [laughs].

P’s: In October it will be 20 years since he joined The Flaming Lips, so I ask him how it feels to be a member of The Flaming Lips for almost half his life.

SD: It’s so weird when you think about it that way. I’m lucky it’s that, there are so many other ways it could have gone, I’m lucky I got in the band I wanted to. It sounds hokey, but one thing, everything I ever wanted to do, I get to try with this band. [In] a lot of bands you wouldn’t be able to do that, in a lot of bands I’d probably still be sitting behind the drum kit playing the same fucking songs we were playing 20 years ago or something. With the Lips I get to do everything from “Christmas on Mars” to “Okie Noodling” to just all kinds of cool stuff that you’d want to be a part of, and to me that’s the main thing, it’s just the means to get to do whatever I want to do. And I get to tour the world and get to make a good living at it, what more could you ask for, really?

P’s: The majority of people have not experienced the stress of touring and playing and the temptations that the road life brings. How would you describe it to the Average Joe?

SD: It’s always changing, and now that I have a wife and two children, it’s a completely different experience. As a single dude, it was like, “Alright we’re on the road, rock ’n’ roll!,” you didn’t have to worry about anybody but yourself, so that’s one experience. When you’re 25  it’s like you’re living this great adventure that you always wanted to live, that’s what touring is. Even if you’re playing smaller shows, even if you’re not playing big sold out places, you’re still living the dream of the rock ’n’ roll life, and that’s powerful. Fast forward to 45, it’s just a different story, even if you’re The Rolling Stones and you travel as comfortably as possible, being away from home is still being away from home, it’s just a different experience, and I can’t really explain that to people.  For me, the only way I look at touring now is in terms of how long I’m away from my family, that’s the only thing I consider, and that’s all that matters to me, because [of] how much strain it’s going to be on my two kids and my wife. That’s what it is for me, I still do enjoy playing on the stage, I still do enjoy making music, but to me, being away from home is the hardest part about being in a band, that’s the main thing that’s changed for me.

P’s: Given that Wayne Coyne is The Flaming Lips’ songwriter and seems to be their “unofficial” spokesman, I ask if he is as shy as his reputation might lead us to believe.  Are you the Quiet Lip, or is that Michael [Ivins, the bassist]?

SD: Michael’s the quiet Lip, I think he might be a robot.  I’ve known him for 20 years and I still don’t know him.

P’s: Upon seeing the piece on The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin as part of Old ‘stache, Drozd noted that it featured “Waiting for Superman” prominently, and that is one of his favorite songs:

SD: It’s one of my favorites, certainly from that time period. The reason being that I had the rewarding experience of hearing one of my little instrumental tunes evolve into a powerful statement, courtesy of Wayne’s lyrics. He really delved into the chords and melody I had created and rose to the occasion by being completely unguarded and expressing his heavy heart and mind at that time. When we were mixing the track I actually almost started crying a couple of times. I know that sounds pompous as hell, but it’s true.