At Peace with the Flaming Lips: A Conversation with Michael Ivins
Prelude From a Demitasse to a Full Mug O’ Steaming Hot Coffee
“After that we started our journey, but although we had traveled from that morning till 4 o’clock in the evening, yet we did not see or meet anybody on this road, then we were quite sure that it was “Unreturnable-Heaven’s town” road” – The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola
Although no longer currently coifed like he was in the 80s and early 90s, there is a T-shirt on the Flaming Lips official web site with the phrase Church of Michael Ivins’ Hair’ or CoMIH’ for the acronomically inclined. This sort of childlike playfulness is strewn, littered and majestically exploded throughout the band’s work on their two decade and a half jaunt from Oklahoma to Mars and beyond. They’ve been called punk, alternative, indie, psychedelic and, oddly enough, the thinking man’s jamband. Don’t agree? Think againafter all, the Lips both inhabit within and dispense altogether with the definitions of multiple genres simultaneously while cosmically dwelling inside the holy improv moment_the_ jamband creed (as per our affable editor).
The Lips are touring behind their latest in a trilogy of sonically delicious and well-crafted albums, At War with the Mystics. Following on the clogged-heels of 1999’s _The Soft Bulletin_their breakthrough workand 2002’s platinum-plus Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the band continues to take their sweet time in the studiotwo years and change is their current standardand the reward is very pleasant ear candy, indeed. In a year where jambands are trying to return to the land of clarity with songs’ intermingled with glorious improvisatory work, the Lips continue to straddle the hallowed ground between renegade live performers where every show is one big circus ride and the detail-oriented, anal retentive studio ratness which has produced their mge a trios masterpiece. In the end, the band is equal parts Marx Brothers, Pink Floyd and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys with a huge heaping of good ole 1970s American AM Radio for grand measure. Watch the Lips film, Fearless Freaks and jot down the nostalgic references to that bygone era. One is hard pressed to find a more memorable muse for frontman Wayne Coyne.
If Coyne is well-known as the de facto leader of the Oklahoma collective, then Michael Ivins may be the quiet soul of the band. Ivins, the band’s bassist, also plays a much broader role as the band’s co-engineer, helping redefine that weird beast that continues to transfix the mind’s eye. Jambands.com caught up with Ivins during their recent run through the States before yet another trek to England and Ireland for two weeks of November dates. The band is also quite popular in Europe and Asia as their brand of American/aliengrown music continues to defy a simple brand; well, let’s just call it Flaming Lips music.
Part I At War with the Technocrats
“The entire school glanced shyly at Heilner, who stood there pale and stubborn and looked unblinking directly into the headmaster’s eyes. Many admired him in secret. Yet at the end of the lecture, as everyone was noisily filing out, Heilner was left by himself and avoided by a leper. It took courage to stand by him now.” – Beneath the Wheel, Hermann Hesse
RR: Your role as a co-engineer has increased quite a bit over the years. I feel this is a crucial issue because of the unique role that sound elements play on the studio albums. Would you like to describe your part in this process?
MI: (long pause) I suppose the right word would be daunting. Obviously, we basically started off as a band that really didn’t know what they were doing. It was like “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to be in a band?” We’ve gone through all of the usual things when bands first start out when you have various members being very protective of what they’re playing and their ideas and all of thatto the extent when you’re in the studio: “hey, I can’t hear me.” I think that happens. It certainly happened with us in the beginning. I won’t speak for the entire musical community (laughter) but there is an element of that. I think at some point by dint of doing it for a long time and getting more experienced, I think that after a while as you do something, you find aspects more interesting than other parts. Instead of just walking in, playing your part and saying, “Alright, I’m out of here.”
I think we’ve always done that. I think we’ve always been curious and interested in how things happen in the studio and why things are like this and what happens when you touch that button. Over the years, we’ve morphed into thisalmost more of a production team as we happen to work on our band. We’ve let go of the traditional ideas of setting like this person is the guitar player and he has to play all of the guitar parts. This person is the keyboard player and what have you. I’ve always been interested in the sound aspect of it. I think we’ve been very fortunate to make the acquaintance of Mr. Dave Fridmann [Lips producer, programmer and engineer] who I got the opportunity to help outdefinitely during the Zaireeka recordings just because it was such a big project with a lot of stuff to keep track. I really sort of stepped up and said that I’d take care of this and I got really involved with working with Dave. I think we make a very good team on some of the more technicalsome people would call the more boringstuff of recording. I also had the opportunity to move up to Fredonia [New York] for a few years and just work with him, not only on our stuff but also on other records that would come through.
RR: What were some of the other records you worked on with Dave Fridmann?
MI: We did a Luna record, a band called Home and I did quite a bit of mixing or re-mixing of various groups because this would turn into recording projects or remixes on my own with friends of my wife and myself who are in bands. Of course, I’ve got my day job here [with the Lips] so there’s not a lot of time. Being in the studio is a commitment.
People like Dave Fridmann who decide to setup their own shop and do it exclusively are making a commitment. You’re basically working all day, every day to really get anything done. It’s a little difficult out on the road like I am now to do things like that. You should always be doing stuff and a lot of times being on the road is not very conducive to thateven though things are a lot more mobile these days, there is still an element where you have to set things up. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the gear you can actually put in your backpack is professional quality. There’s an element of more control over things in a studio setting that you really can’t get in a hotel room.
RR: It sounds like your evolution was a very organic creative process.
MI: When we were compiling our earliest recordings for CD compilations, I would be going through a lot of the master tapes and noticing that that’s actually my handwriting on a track sheet or a box. It seems like through the years since the very early 90sif not the late 80sI’ve always leaned towards that aspect of things. It’s almost been like a general philosophy. I like distortion and wacky sounds as much as the next guy but I know there’s a hi-fi sound. Hi-fi to mewhen I’m talking about hi-fi, I’m not really talking about an actual style of sound; it’s more of what it actually means: high fidelity’.
Let’s say you had a speaker with a hole in it. You want to record that sound so when you hear it back on a record or a CD, you’re actually listening to a speaker with a hole in it. I’ve always tried to push for that sort of stuff, especially with the advent of a lot of the high definition recordingsmore behind the scenes trying to get this fidelity even to the extent of our recent work. For example, there was a little bit of a mix-up with our Soft Bulletin Surround sound mix and I think the first run of 10,000 copies went out with the regular old version of the American release. There’s a thing where if you have one of these CDs, you can send it back and I’ll write a letter and we’ll send you the right CD. It actually has a different track order and at least another extra song so it’s different.
It’s also different in that when we did the actual record in ’99, we sent it off [complete]. A lot of timeswell, all of the timewhen we finish a song or a record, it’s done. Here’s the file, just replicate it as we’re done with it. I don’t think we’ve ever been in the area where we’ve said, “Alright, we’re done with the song; it’s going to sound great after we’ve mastered it.” We do all of that. When we’re walking out with stuff, we don’t want to be listening to something that isn’t actually what it is so we do all of our own mastering. A lot of this technology is more in the hands of people like us. You don’t have to spend 8 billion dollars; you still have to spend quite a lot of money on it but it’s not out of reach anymore to be able to build files and replicating houses so it isn’t corrupted along the way.
RR: How did this method progress after The Soft Bulletin?
MI: I don’t think it was until Yoshimi that we got it where we could say, “O.K. This is it. Make this into a CD.” So, we went back to The Soft Bulletin and went back to the original DAT [recording], reassembled everything and sent that back out and said, “Here it ishere’s the new guy, so to speak.”
I think if you’re into that kind of thingI’m sure a lot of people really don’t care (laughs) but it’s more like we heard it. They did some sort of strange HDCD process and it sort of mucked it up a little bit. I mean it sounds fine either way but, we feel if we can go the extra mile, not have it take up too much time then, why not? Let’s try to put out the best thing that we can so that even in things like that, I’m always sort of pushing for along with Dave’s help. He’s a pretty big fan of making sure things sound good and we’re using our technology to the best of our abilities.
Part II Desperation is the Mother of Invention
“Michael walked into the recording room, set up a microphone and a cymbal, and laid out two mallets. Ten minutes later, Wayne suggested that perhaps Steven should add a cymbal overdub. “Ivins can be kind of spooky that way,” producer Fridmann said.” – Staring at Sound: the True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips, Jim DeRogatis
RR: It’s amazing to me that the Flaming Lips traveled so far after many personnel changes and the lack of commercial success throughout much of your career. Somehow, the Lips stayed together and accomplished two goalsunique live performances and a complete album experience upon each release.
MI: Well, I mean, sure. I mean that’s what I mean. At some point, we got thick-skinned or lost our egos, to a large degree. Obviously, you have to have some sort of ego to stand up in front of people and present these ideas to people. Especially in the studio, we don’t take things personally. It comes down to “Hey that idea’s not good” or “you’re not playing that quite right. How about somebody else play it?” or “hey, you’re not quick enough doing this editing. How about this person doing it?”
I think little by little, people are able to do what they need to do for the process, creation and the crafting of the songs as they happenwhether it’s agreeing with general consensus like “it would be better if the intro was shorter” or “maybe it’s great if this part’s faster but it seems too fast.” Little by little, things sort of come together in this wayeverybody is basically doing not what is expected of them but what they’ve taken on so that people can turn around and things are already done. You’re not waiting for even something as trivial as somebody talking about an idea and as soon as they’re done talking about it, a situation is made possible where they can walk out right now and actually do that idea. There’s nothing worse than sitting around and talking and then actually have to prepare for that ideaas a small example of the sorts of things that you don’t really think about like “a cymbal right here would be great.”
RR: I was going to ask you about that. You seem to have the ability to anticipate.
MI: The joke with Steven [Drozd] is that he’s still the new guy. (laughter) He’s been with the band coming up on seventeen years now. I think we’ve been working together for so long and know each other so well. We’ve all lived in sometimes practically the same rooms for great swabs of our lives, at this point. I love my parents and everything but in some waysespecially Wayne, I’ve known him as a human more and longer on a whole different level than just being a friend or a colleague or a family person. It’s all of those things and it’s more and it’s different. I think after a while it sort of does get a little ridiculous at times. Sometimes, he’ll just grunt, moan and groan and I’ll say, “Hey, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” (laughter) There are no actual words. I don’t think it’s a mystical telepathy. It’s just that after a whilethere’s surprises every now and then but, there’s nothing like “I didn’t know that about you.”
RR: I enjoy the material on Acid and Egg because of how much the Lips could get out of the studio with so little back in the 80s. How does the band keep ideas flowing after two decades and how are you able to musically communicate them?
MI: By being able to very quickly execute ideas, we’ve actually helped them flow. There’s always comments and jokes like “What about ideas?” and nobody’s got one. (laughter) It’s funny but it’s not actually truethere’s always something floating around. Our thing is desperation is the mother of invention. I think that’s usually been a mantra of the Flaming Lips: “By God, we have to come up with something.”
RR: You guys are broke and your best albums came out when you were broke.
MI: Exactly. Even now with the way we put shows on or how we’ve actually continued on as a band. I mean I don’t think there’s ever been any real thought that whatever entity that is the Flaming Lips wouldn’t continue even after, say, 1996, 1997. We were able to use the circumstances of the timesoutside and insideto move forward very quickly with Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin. I know it seemed like a long time between making records but, in some ways, we were making five records in a two-year span. I’m kind of cheating with Zaireeka but it wasn’t the simple process where we thought, “Hey, you just come in, record a song and split it up into different speakers.” I can’t remember which song we tried to do that but it just didn’t work. It ended up on The Soft Bulletin.
I think Zaireeka, in a lot of ways, helped pave our way because it was even bigger than Surround Sound 5.1. We were able to take a lot of those ideas and make songs that didn’t work in the Zaireeka contextsatisfactorily to us at the timework in Surround Sound. I think all of this stuff that we end up doing builds a body of knowledge that, (laughs) hopefully, we can use in the future. Having been said, a lot times we’d do a record and say, “O.K. we have this set of rules established,” and then come in to make the next record and not have a clue of how we had done the last record. (laughter) I think we like the idea that each record is a new exploration of new sounds but there was a point where we were just trying to get to the basicsis it loud enough? Is it bright enough? Does it have enough low end? Is there enough definition? (laughs) We’ve sort of struggled with that for a time. I think it ended up that we made some interesting sounding records but a lot of times not on purpose. (laughter)
Part III Onwards through the Fields of Imagination
“first made me aware of the infinite mercifulness, and tenderness, and beautifulness of humanness; and this beautiful infant first filled me with the dim thought of Beauty” – Pierre or, the Ambiguities, Herman Melville
RR: Is it sweeter to have critical and commercial success so much later in your career? Do you think things would have been different if success had hit in the 80s?
MI: You know we talk about that sometimesI think if we hadI don’t know because looking back, of course, is 20/20 hindsight. I think we actually say sometimes amongst ourselves that if we had garnered the kind of success that is the mega successfinancial and no holds barredI don’t know if we’d actually be a band right now. There could have been some casualties in that situation. For things to have worked out the way they have definitely is better. I’m glad that we’re able to have a career at even this point in our lives now that we’re older. (laughs)
I think that whatever our attitude is somehow keeps us young. I know that I always subscribe to the idea that it’s an upward journeynot in an arduous sort of waybut that we haven’t hit this plateau and we’re just in this big, barren, flat field where this spot might as well be the same as the next spot. Every day is a progression from yesterday and being able to look at the future and still live in the moment and enjoy ourselves.
We try not to think that we’ve reached some wall and well, here we arewe’re just going to go about our business and, hey, that’s great. It’s all exciting and every day there are opportunities to eat new food or see new things or come up with new song ideas or just wonder at the ridiculousness of what the hell’s going on here in this country and around the world. People laugh sometimes because there is, perhaps, a child-like quality to what we do and how we are and stuff like that. I don’t think it’s a question of innocence or anything. It’s the natural wonder that kids actually have. At some point, people seem to give up and I’m not sure why that they do that.
RR: What is fascinating to me is that the Flaming Lips are one of those rare bandslike Pink Floydwhere their sound resembled shattered glass fragments at the beginning of their career and then all of the pieces miraculously came together after many years of experimentation. Most bands disintegrate after identifying their formula early on in their lifespan. Where do the Lips find the energy necessary to reinvigorate their sound album after album and on the stage?
MI: Well, I think with me, honestly, it’s a human gift. It should be in everyone. Hopefully, that’s what I think we can convey or share with our music and our lives. There is tragedy and sadness in the world which eventually ends in death but these concepts shouldn’t force people to retreat into superstition or into some blue funk that, well, it’s not worth living because it’s life and it is worth living. Really, it’s a joyful place and it should be a joyful place. It’s an awesome time to be alive; it could be a little better if some people would cooperate. It seems like it all goes back to the schoolyard.
RR: Leaders engaged in pissing contests on a global scale.
MI: I think a lot of times adults don’t give children enough credit, just in general. I don’t
know why it iseveryone’s been a kidbut as they grow up, they forget. They look at kids and say, “Ahhhwhat’s that like?” And wait a minuteyou were a kid.
RR: That’s a double-edged sword. Our eldest son practically runs our house because every time I look at him, I see myself as a kid and he just wins the battle. From your albums, live gigs and an appearance in the SpongeBob Squarepants video, I can see that child-like imagination is still a big part of the Flaming Lips.
MI: I know what you mean. My wife and I spend a lot of time with our niece. Of course, I’m not home very much but I’m getting a pretty good first hand look. I can be objective and subjective; it’s sort of a unique situation. I think that’s the thingI can see how if people were left to their own devices they would just squash the curiosity out of kidsfrom the word go’ almost as especially these days where you just plop the kid in front of a television and you can’t wait until they go to school.
We’ve turned whomever into a state-sponsored babysitter. It’s just so easy for people to fall into traps like “Well, that’s how we did it” or “Hey, we did it this way and we turned out alright.” I just don’t look at it like that. Here’s this new ball of potential and I can see it now even more clearly. Day by day as the child grows up, there are a thousands roads as they are walking along and they can go down any of them. They can go down one and say, “I don’t like that one so I’m going to cross over to the other one or I’m going to walk back and try this other way.”
We teach our children these dumb roles that I thought, as far as I’m concerned, that we’d kind of worked through in the 1970s: if a girl wants to be an architect and not be a fairy princess waiting to be rescued from I’m not sure what by Prince Charming who actually doesn’t exist because you’re certainly not going to find them at TGIFriday’s. All of these ideas about childlike imaginationI mean maybe we can go over these over three or five days over a few drinks. I’m sure we can arrange some more time and other writing. I’m trying to get into the blogging thing but I sort of have the same problem with taking pictureswhen you take a picture, you have to step out of the situation and record it and, of course, you’re taking the picture so you’re not actually in the picture. Short of hiring someone to follow me around and taking pictures of me in these situations, it’s kind of weird. Anyway, I’ve been slowly thinking of doing a blogsitting down and writing about these sorts of things. Unfortunately, I find it easier to actually talk about them then to actually sit down and write them.