The New Alternative? The Flaming Lips and They Might Be Giants at moe.down
The performances by The Flaming Lips and They Might Be Giants at this year's moe.down, are the latest in an encouraging trend of influential Alternative bands gaining acceptance in the jamband scene. Jamband and alternative have become two of the most misunderstood words when discussing popular music. People seem to hold onto preconceived notions of both genres, which do not reflect what either genre sounds like, or represents. Most people think the genres are polar opposites when in fact they retain some parallels, in particular that both are trying to provide an outlet for free minded music fans looking for more than what is found in mainstream music. Furthermore as the moe.down helped prove these two genres can be intertwined.
The term alternative was coined to describe a genre of music that was designed to provide an alternative to mainstream radio. It gained popularity through college radio. When most music fans hear the term alternative, they believe you are speaking of grunge music. While grunge, personified by bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Sound Garden, has its roots in the alternative genre, it should not be considered so. It revolutionized mainstream music, and a watered down variation of it predominates today's radio waves. Ironically, while grunge was gaining popularity in the late 80's and early 90's, the alternative scene was going through a renaissance of its own. Bands like The Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants, Ween, The Violent Femmes, Cracker, Primus, Pavement, The Pixies and Sonic Youth, were putting out critically acclaimed albums, and starting to get curious looks from MTV and the mainstream public.
When most hear the term jamband, they envision someone in a tie-dye shirt, noodling endlessly on a guitar. While the scene is still plagued by that element, in reality what it has become is the most diverse arena for bands looking to operate outside mainstream music. After welcoming acts from diverse genres such as jazz, hip-hop, funk, bluegrass and electronic, it only makes sense that the jamband scene opens its doors to these other alternative bands. One example of how the jamband and alternative worlds have intersected in the past includes the involvement of Beck, Primus, Ween, Morphine, Kula Shaker and Soul Coughing at the 1997 HORDE tour. moe., who has also enjoyed success via college radio, has played a pivotal role in introducing alternative bands to jamband audiences through the moe.down.
When the moe.down started in 2000, one of moe.'s goals was to present as diverse a line up as possible. As percussionist Jim Loughlin explains; "We as individuals have a very diverse list of influences musically. We wanted that atmosphere at the festival". While they try to provide a line up that will appeal to their audience, Loughlin admits, "We make a list of bands we really want to hear. Bands that we don't get to see live, because we're always on tour, basically our favorite bands." Alternative has traditionally played a role at the moe.down., past years have seen Primus leader Les Claypool, and Cracker and will always have a place at the festival. "That was really the stuff we listened to when we were younger, and in college." Loughlin explains when discussing the role alternative had on moe. "As a musician you're always looking for different influences, and alternative is the place to go as far as I'm concerned. In the late 80's and early 90's that was what was alternative. Those were the bands pushing the forefront of music." I asked Loughlin if he thought that the influence of these alternative artists were part of the reason moe. has been able to record more cohesive and critically-respected albums than many of their Jamband peers; "I think a lot of that is us becoming more comfortable in the studio, and learning what goes on inside a studio. You look at bands like the Flaming Lips, and They Might Be Giants, they use the studio like it is another instrument."
Looking at The Flaming Lips and They Might Be Giants, you actually see many similarities. Both bands started in 1983, both have seen numerous lineup changes featuring two members that remain from the outset, both experienced moderate success on MTV, both employ theatrical stage shows, and both have used other mediums to get their music out. When looking at the two, you also notice both operate much the same way most jambands do, not only with their relentless touring, but also in their grassroots relationship with their fan base. Most importantly, both have been able to maintain a twenty-year career flying (mostly) under the mainstream radar.
They Might Be Giants (TMBG) were started by John Flansburgh and John Linnel, in Brooklyn, NY. They released their first album in 1986, and have sold over three million since. They are also known for their work on theme songs, including the Grammy award winning "Boss of Me" from Fox's Malcolm In The Middle (Best song written for a motion picture, TV, or other visual medium). They have also written and performed themes for Fox’s America’s Most Wanted, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I asked Flansburgh what has allowed TMBG to maintain their longevity. "Diminished expectations. We started this project very much as an experimental project for our own artistic satisfaction." Flansburgh further explains, "We were in our twenties when we started this, so it wasn't like we were a bunch of teenagers with lofty ambitions. We were a local band in New York City for four years before we made an independent record. We were a local band a lot longer than most bands are bands."
The band songs contain an offbeat sense of humor, while displaying musical styles that range from punk to 1940's swing. When discussing the band's musical philosophy Flansburgh says; "We're very ambitious about what we do, we really want to do something totally original all the time". Striving for originality is a constant challenge that does not always bear successful results, and Flansburgh admits; "We've been very lucky with the type of success we've had, just because it's a strange balance of humor and musicality, with a wide array of musical styles. A lot of times that shakes audiences and critics, but I think that for whatever reason people seem to get what we do." He notes the juxtaposition that, "on one level we're very difficult to get as a band, but I think because we present it in a friendly way, people feel that there's a place for them in this strange music." It also helps that, like many jamband audiences, their core audience "loves the strangest aspects of what we do".
From the beginning, TMBG have applied a strong grassroots approach to building and sustaining a solid fan base. In 1984 Flansburgh decided to leave songs on his answering machine so their fans could dial up and hear new material. Since then the 718-387-6932, Dial-A-Song service has allowed fans to hear the latest TMBG tunes. At a time when the record industry is suing 12 year-olds and grandparents for piracy, the band is quick to point out that the service is "still free, when you call from work." They have also maintained a strong presence on the Internet where their internet-only album Long Tall Weekend was the bestselling download of 1999.
These fan friendly tactics helped keep the band going after MTV's interest (MTV awarded the band a Breakthrough Award for their video, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," diminished. Of their flirtation with the mainstream, Flansburgh Says, "there's a tremendous emphasis in rock music on new bands and superstar bands, and there is no real room in the middle. Our ambition was to be in the middle. We essentially became a new band for an exceptionally long time." That ambition is loftier than it sounds, as Flansburgh continues. "The promotion of a band runs out of steam. People run out of things to say about you. So you have to get creative not only in self promoting, but in coming up with new and interesting ideas"
This grassroots approach is also what Flansburgh feels can endear them to the jamband scene. "A lot of the grassroots stuff we do keeps us very in touch with our audience, but it also keeps us in the mix." In talking about the moe.down (which was the band's introduction to the jamband scene), Flansburgh says; "an event like this is very exciting because we feel we can connect with this audience in a very direct way. There's a real healthy overlap between what goes on at these (jamband) concerts, and what we do in our show". When asked about TMBG future in the scene Flansburgh responded; "This (the moe.down) was really us kind of dipping our big toe in it. I really liked the vibe of the audience, it was really fun. I love the spontaneity of live shows, and festivals, so who knows really? Our career is really unpredictable."
While They Might Be Giants aimed for the middle, The Flaming Lips started in the middle, of America that is, Oklahoma to be exact. Their journey started when bassist Michael Ivins threw a party at his parent's house. The next day Wayne Coyne, (whose brother was at the previous evening's party) showed up to the Ivins' home with his guitar, and a drummer in tow, proclaiming to Ivins, "I heard you play bass" and with that The Flaming Lips were born. The band soon developed their signature sound, which has been described as "Punk Rock on acid." Over the last twenty years Ivins and Coyne have guided the band through many lineup changes and reinventions of their sound. I asked Ivins about the secret to the bands longevity. "I feel that in a lot of ways, we've been really lucky. I think its just this weird tenacity we have, because there have been plenty of times, where we could have just packed it in, but we really love music, and really love it as a forum to present ideas, and do weird and interesting things."
As for the band's musical philosophy, Ivins says, "I think, it's always what we started off with, the whole punk rock ethos, and oddly misinterpreting it of course, and going with the whole do-it-yourself attitude. We try to be different". Being different seems to come naturally for Ivins and Coyne, but their affection for oddness and originality has led to problems with other band members, and is probably the leading factor in the numerous lineup changes, but the band prefers to look at it as a constant evolution. Ivins says of the changes, "for an experience scenario, it did nothing but help us, because things happened right at the right time, it seemed. It's funny we'd become interested in other ideas and right at that point a minor catastrophe happened." The best example of one such catastrophe, according to Ivins, brought current member Steven Drozd into the fold in 1992. "When the whole Mercury Rev-Flaming Lips split happened and Steven joined the band, he brought a whole new musicality into the band. Especially in the last five or six years, he has pushed us in a direction that we never thought we could go before".
The Flaming Lips had been releasing albums since 1985, but it was their first with Drozd, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart that brought the band a crossover hit. The song "She Don’t Use Jelly," did well both on top 40 radio and on MTV in 1994. The song’s success led to television appearances, both conventional (David Letterman and Jon Stewart), and bizarre (Beverly Hills 90210). The band also garnered the headline spot on the second stage at Lollapalooza. It was there that the masses first caught the Lips' bizarre stage show. Their shows have expanded into multimedia extravaganzas, unparallel by any current touring band. Besides having a large screen that constantly projects images that range from funny to disturbing, the band also dons animal costumes, and uses anything from puppets, confetti, giant balloons, and bubbles to pull an audience in. Ivins says the band's shows are, "all about entertainment, and that's sort of an evil word, but people go to shows to have a good time, and that's what we try to do, put on a show. So if that means we do stuff like put on animal suits, and have big inflatable suns come out on stage, it's all in fun, and its trippy and its creepy, and all that sort of fun stuff."
While the Lips' shows are all about fun, they take the process of recording albums very seriously. "With albums, a lot of bands go into the studio and say we're a three piece, so there will be three instruments on the record and we're capturing the essence of what we do.' I think that works fine for some bands and I think many great records have been recorded that way. But we decided early on that it didn't matter how many people were in the band, we would pretty much do all it took to get the idea across. Whether it be putting down 50 guitar tracks, or hiring an orchestra, we feel that with records we should get to toil, and without sounding pretentious, be artists".
The Lips most experimental album was 1997's Zaireeka. The album was sold as four discs, which had to be played simultaneously in four stereos, in order to experience the full album. Despite virtually zero promotion from their record label, the album went on to sell almost 25,000 copies, mostly through word of mouth.
When it came time to perform the album live, the band was presented with a unique challenge, as they realized the album would be impossible to perform by a rock band. They overcame this by utilizing another grassroots campaign. The band decided to get their audience involved in the act and started what became known as the Parking Lot Experiments.' Over thirty members of the audience were giving tape players, and were required to cue their tapes and control the volume, through directions given by Coyne and Drozd. The Parking Lot Experiment' went on for a year following Zaireeka’s release. Interestingly enough during the band’s set at the moe.down flyers were being distributed announcing a late night Zaireeka listening party in the woods. "Yeah, I heard about that", said Ivins referring to the party. "Its too bad we had to leave, because we would have loved to go. It's funny we've heard the album in the studio a couple of times, but it would have been cool to hear it in that sort of environment, the way you're supposed to hear it."
Since then the band has returned to doing more conventional albums, or as conventional as The Flaming Lips can get. Their latest 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, is a concept piece that has garnered excellent reviews. The video for the first single "Fight Test" has received play on the more progressive MTV2, and it seems like once again people are discovering and rediscovering the Flaming Lips. After playing Bonnaroo and the moe.down this year, jamband audiences are also discovering the band. Ivins feels their show is something that, the jamband audience can really appreciate. "Especially at the moe.down and Bonnaroo, where it is a lot like the English festivals, where people come out, and it's not just to see a band. It's part of a whole atmosphere. You go camping; hang out with your friends on a beautiful summer night. You can stay up all night and wake up and still be there, and its all fun. We like being a part of that. We like making it worth it to leave the house".
Al Schnier of moe., is mainly responsible for ushering the Lips into the scene. This past New Year's Eve, both bands were playing in Chicago, and Schnier went over to the Lips show, told them about moe.down and invited them to play. "We had heard of moe. and Phish, of course, and a few other bands of the genre. We always thought what was going on there was kind of weird, and noticed that the fans really like music, and are really interested in the musicality of it too. So, we were invited by Al, and it seemed like a cool, interesting idea, and we would get to play for a lot of people who hadn't seen us. It could have failed, or ended up like it did. It's been a lot of fun. A lot of these shows are really well produced and nice to play at."
According to Ivins the Flaming Lips really like what they have seen so far in the jamband scene. Ivins especially likes the openness of the audiences they have played for at the festivals, compared to mainstream listeners. He feels the jamband scene is a fresh alternative, to mainstream music. "That's the point. That here you have a lot of people that actually like music, and are curious about music. As opposed to the mainstream, where everything is so micromanaged. There its like, if you like Avril Lavigne, then you'll like this, this and this. People think that if you buy this CD, then you'll buy this CD, because it sounds like that CD. It doesn't give the audience very much credit. It's like the people who say, if you like the Grateful Dead, then there's no way you can like the Dead Kennedys.' When in fact I know plenty of people who love both the Grateful Dead and The Dead Kennedys. What's exciting in the jamband scene is that there is so much more for the taking. People can make their own decisions."
The Flaming Lips look like they might continue to explore the scene. They will be doing other shows with moe. in October, before touring Europe. It also looks like the walls that divide alternative world, and the jamband world are diminishing. Les Claypool was one of the first alternative artists to test out the jamband scene. He has become a significant voice, with both his solo projects, and Oysterhead. Phish and moe. both cover Ween songs on a regular basis ("Roses Are Free" and "Voodoo Lady," respectively). Finally over the last two years, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips, Ween and Liz Phair have all played the Bonnaroo festival. I wonder whether the scene will be brave enough to open itself to modern alternative acts such as Mars Volta and The Music. If the scene is able to push the envelope a little further and open those doors, it will truly become "The New Alternative.