To say The Flaming Lips put on a show would be an understatement. It's not a typical "guys stand on stage, sing songs and leave" type of performance. What the band does is more of an event. It's usually a combination of balloons, video screens, noisemakers, laser pointers, a U.F.O., Martians, Captain America, scantily clad Santas and confetti. Lots of confetti. It's an orgy for the senses, really.
How did it get that way? Bassist Michael Ivins says the band would see something or get an idea and say, "Wouldn't it be great if we did that?" Instead of just wondering about it, the group would do it.
"It's not as though we just woke up one day and said, 'You know what would be great is to do this, this, this and this and this,'" Ivins says by phone during a day off in Kansas City. "I think we started off with a basic philosophy, even early on, in that we decided the studio and live experience are too different things. As we started touring more and seeing other bands, especially the Butthole Surfers or some of these bands of that nature, where they would put on a crazy show with strobe lights and have an attitude of a little punk rock ideal to say anything goes."
That idea has "created a monster," so to speak, where the band is almost working on their stage show nonstop. The days off aren't usually days "off." They'll show up early to gigs to make sure everything is working right. They'll improvise new methods and creations to get their show in order. "When we do a show and roll into town, it's about the show and what the audience is gonna see," Ivins, who's often dressed as a skeleton on stage, says. "We're not here to make the lighting guy's job easy. We're not here to make our lives easy in the sense that we're doing a tour of five-star hotels across the country. Don't get me wrong, a good night's sleep and all that is nice, but we don't spend all day at the hotel either."
People who have, or have not, attended a Flaming Lips show can now get a taste of the experience through their recently released concert DVD, U.F.O.s at the Zoo. The band released the movie after seeing a lot of concert footage online that, while creatively shot, didn't offer good sound quality. "Not to put anyone else down, but there is only so much you can do with a camera phone," Ivins says. "I think the cool thing especially is getting to see all the cool, freaky people that come to our shows. In a weird way, it kind of gave us a chance to be in the audience and experience that, as well."
With all that's going on during the show, you'd think the band would be distracted or simply entertained. However, Ivins says the band members are kind of in their own world and just hoping "the guitars don't get unplugged" or that "a big balloon doesn't come and knock a keyboard over." Or maybe how not to let things get clogged with confetti.
While the big productions may be easier at big events like Bonnaroo or the upcoming Echo Project in Atlanta, the band tries to do as much as they can regardless of the venue they're performing in.
"Sometimes there are some space constraints that we have to work out how we're going to get dancers up on stage and stuff like that," he says. "There might be two less one night. A lot of times, we might say it's pretty small so we won't have as many balloons and then, 'Oh my God, that's a lot of balloons.' We're not there for our actual convenience." He says their LED screen can be adjusted and other items can be downsized to fit the venue. He said fans go to the show for a big spectacle and "if not, what would be the point?"
He adds that they're still working on a way to make the U.F.O. easier to transport and use on a regular basis.
With nearly 25 years of material, The Flaming Lips haven't been known to change up their setlist too much, but they will mix it up. The band knows fans expect to hear a lot of songs they know. "On this tour, we've added a couple of old ones we haven't played in quite a while, especially with Zaireeka having its 10-year anniversary," he says. "We're still toying with the idea of playing shows where we pick a record and just play the whole record."
The band is also working on their movie, Christmas on Mars, which has been long-awaited by fans. Ivins gave no indication on when it would be released, only saying that they'll do more work on it around the holidays. They'll also try to work on a new album.
While some fans may also give the band heat for having their music used in commercials, Ivins sees it as a way for the non-mainstream band to seep into the mainstream. "By getting inside everything, we can just sort of go about our business of trying to blow people's minds."
The Flaming Lips will be at Amos' Southend on Oct. 3. Doors open at 8 p.m. for the 18 and over show. Tickets are $25.