An Interview with the Flaming Lips' Michael Ivins: Preview of St. Louis Pageant show
Even though we didn't have room in the paper this week to cover the way-sold-out Flaming Lips show, that doesn't mean we don't care about the band. Here's a long Q&A with Michael Ivins, bassist and founding member for the band.
RFT: This tour in support of the UFO’s at the Zoo DVD release right?
Michael Ivins: Well, not really. Sometimes it just seems like, ‘Hey, we’re out playing,’ and in some ways it still seems like we’re still touring on At War With the Mystics, just because for whatever reason we never did an actual real tour for that. But some of these shows we have coming up are an opportunity to play some songs we haven’t played in years or decades. I think it’s more even than ‘Hey, come buy this DVD,’ or this or that. But that’s not to say that I don’t think people should check out the UFO’s at the Zoo DVD.
Why’d you guys pick that show in Oklahoma City to feature on UFO’s at the Zoo out of some of the more famous ones of you’ve done? Lollapalooza, etc…
I think a lot of it was we’d be out playing and people would say ‘When are you going to play Oklahoma City?’ and we don’t really play there all that much even though most of us live there.
I think a lot of it was also that once this UFO thing came together and we figured out how we wanted to do this show and everything and we got access to that actual venue (the Oklahoma City zoo) to set up and see if it going to work it was just a natural progression to see if this thing is going to happen and how it’s going to happen. And we’d been starting to talk about a live album and I think is a cool to way to do a live album and live movie at the same time and opportunity to see the crowd and film the record.
That and it was really great to hear the people’s stories like that [in the DVD’s fan interviews], when they’re walking up to the show, it was more of ‘Hey, check these people out’ they’re kind of under a spotlight too. It was fun to see them as audience members, since I don’t really get to go out and see them, to see how cool and crazy and wonderful some of them are.
You’ve got Red Rocks coming up and you’ve played a ton of festivals: Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Reading. What, if anything, do you change from those performances to something small like you’re going to do in St. Louis where it’s a 2000-seat venue? Which do you prefer?
We don’t try to anything differently. Sometimes in the bigger festival it’s fun just because we’re part of an experience with a whole lot of other bands and it’s more of an event. But sometimes there are time constraints and we don’t get to play as long.
But I think we’re always trying to squish the big show into whatever container we’re trying to put it in. Sometimes the laws of physics just work differently outside. When you’re outside with the winds blowing, you don’t get as much smoke or the balloons blow away really quick. When it’s small, you can fill the whole place up with smoke and throw balloons and have it be a slightly different visual audio participation.
You’ve done some pretty crazy live stuff: the boom-box experiments, the headphone concerts, and even further back than that, having a motorcycle onstage with the exhaust pipe mic’d up. Do these ideas just come to you guys as you’re sitting around the house, or is it a sit-down brainstorm-type thing?
Probably all of the above really. Sometimes there will be a thought and we say, ‘Let’s try to do that.Will that be any good?’ But we definitely subscribe to the idea that if the audience doesn’t like it, we’ll stop doing it, because if they don’t like it, it’s no fun for anyone. We even think about how we present ourselves on stage, not visually but even the flow of the show. We look out in audience and say ‘Oh people are lagging a little bit here, what can we do to keep people excited and interested with the show at all times.’ But we know enough that you don’t keep everything on eleven at all times, you have to give people a little bit of a break to calm down and catch their breath.
We’re always sitting there going, ‘What are we going to do next?’ or ‘What are we doing to do this time?’ We’re just always sort of working on things. The show at any given point isn’t something that we woke up and said ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ You sort of go little by little and add things to the mix as you go along, and that way it stays a little more manageable.
You have anything new up your sleeve?
Not really, I think right now in we’re sort of in the tweaking phase where we’ve really refined the idea of having the videos with it. For a long time we did the screen and projector and then bigger and brighter projectors and then we started talking about LED screen and that sort of technology, moreso because we don’t need as much space behind the stage or have to set up a projector in the audience. We talked and talked about buying an LED screen, so we started renting one and said ‘Wow that’s pretty cool.’ And once we did the UFO-thing we tried to figure out how we could do the UFO and do the video and the same time, because before we’d have to move screen back and forth and it just seemed too cumbersome.
But the technology kind of caught up to us…now we can build a screen in less than two hours and not have a crew of people and if something breaks it’s easy to swap stuff out.
With all that stuff going on on-stage, how do balance the spectacle and sound? Which is more important?
It’s obviously the whole package. Someone should walk away from the concert and say ‘That was a great show.’ Not just ‘That was a great light show.’
But Wayne’s running around doing all kinds of stuff and we take a lot of time to rehearse and hope that everything is working. Obviously you can’t take everything into account. But we try and play the songs that people like and know and want to hear and all that sort of stuff and obviously play them with some gusto.
But I think it’s all a part of each other, like in the way when you watch a movie, it all works together everything is all there because of a visual on screen and the sound coming out of the speakers.
You said ‘rehearse.' Do you rehearse with everything going on, the smoke and confetti and video and al that?
Actually we didn’t even do that this time. We sort of do it separate. When we rehearse we have some of that stuff but we don’t do it so much anymore. Some things you do have to rehearse though, I think it might be in the concert DVD, where I put the big hands on -- and then when it’s time for me to play I take the hands off and play. That sort of stuff you do rehearse because you think it sounds easy enough to stand up on a chair, sit down and pick up instrument and play, then put down and stand back up. But you don’t want to get up there and find out that the chair is kind of wobbly.
What’s the progress of the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots stage production? How involved have you guys been with that?
Right now, just because it is such a big production, a lot of what’s going on is behind-the-scenes work and trying to find actors and do readings and things like that. Obviously we’re not so much involved in the production of that. But once an actual script gets written and they have drafts we’ll get some input on that. Then, depending on how things are written, they’ll probably need more music, so at some point we’ll need to do some more music. I’m sure when that’s done we’ll have some ideas of what kind of staging is going to happen and find out what’s possible and what’s not possible in terms of that.
What about your other project, the Christmas on Mars film?
Well of course, we have everything to do with that one. But at the same time, we’re also working on things like concert videos and albums and touring. We’re slated to get in the studio at the end of November and probably put in at least a couple of weeks in on it. I think we’ll probably do that and then see how things are going or what else is going on and that will probably dictate how that will progress, whether we’ll keep working on that full steam ahead or do it in blocks, a little bit at a time. Right now the plan is to get something happening next year that people can actually look at say, ‘Is this any good.’
You guys have done some pretty sweet covers, “War Pigs” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” to name a couple. How do you pick which song you’re going to cover? Have you been trying out anything new?
The latest cover we’ve been doing is a cover of “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones. You know, I don’t know what it is though. We were never a cover band, but there was always something to the idea that no matter how bad things get, you can always play a song that people know and they’ll at least like that one. And we’ve always had fun playing different songs here and there down through the years. Oddly enough, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘War Pigs,’ directly influenced how we did At War With the Mystics, just really delving into "Bohemian Rhapsody" gave us a lot of ideas about how we do could different things on different songs on At War With The Mystics.
A lot of the vocal layering that they do, even the idea that for one of the guitar solos [on “Bohemian Rhapsody”] we literally recorded 100 tracks of pedal steel and layered that all up just because it seemed like we should do that.
And doing ‘War Pigs,’ pointed us in a direction on how we could, not alter, it wasn’t like we had a particular sound in mind, but it shaped direction and what kind of sounds we had and how things were played on At War With the Mystics.
Did that song contribute to the political tint on a lot of the songs on the album?
I think it may have. I think we were actually paying more attention to what was actually happening. Every single day you could get on Internet and hear Rumsfeld or somebody saying the most ridiculous things and you wonder ‘How? How could you take any of that seriously.’ It was just baffling, especially to wake up November 9 and think that maybe things had actually changed and then find out that, well, nothing had changed.
Is that something that you see continuing on your next record, as long as the political environment stays the way it is?
I don’t know that we set out do anything in particular. If it happens, it happens. Even the songs that have some semblance of a political idea are still trying to point to the idea that it’s still up to you in a lot of ways. I think even the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” is saying it’s easy to complain about people, but then we throw the questions, not even to audience but to ourselves, that it’s easy to say things but if you had the power, if you were in charge, what would you do if you had the power? I think more often than not it would be a disaster.