Livewire's Tony Bonyata recently caught up with Michael Ivins, bassist and one of the original cofounders of The Flaming Lips, where the musician discusses the band's longevity, their live shows, the current state of U.S. music festivals as well as The Flaming Lips' own weird little moments.
Livewire: You guys have been doing this for, what, like twenty-three years now?
Michael: Yeah, something like that. It's coming up on twenty-five.
Livewire: Is there some kind of big quarter-century blow-out planned?
Michael: Well, we didn't do a ten or a fifteen. I think it's just that, hey, were still here doing what we like.
Livewire: Did you have any clue when you started out that you'd still be doing it twenty- five years later?
Michael: I think we made jokes when we first started like "Hey, what are you doing for the next twenty years?" I think we've always felt like this is what we wanted to do, no matter what happened. Well, mostly me, Wayne, and Steven. And Steven has been in the band for like fifteen years now.
Livewire: What was Steven's first record with the band? Was that Zaireeka?
Michael: No, he actually was on Transmissions [from the Satellite Heart]. But that was when he was mostly just the drummer.
Livewire: And he kind of shifted into electronics and things later...
Michael: Yeah, and playing the guitar and piano. Especially when Ronald [Jones] left the band. There was sort of a gaping void at that time. We thought briefly that we could get another guitar player, but I think we were actually glad of the excuse to not have to get into this grind of being sort of on the fringes of being a grunge band. We we're kind of part of that movement. I think it's really just a lot of luck that we got out of it. There were things that were happening in the industry especially with Warner Brothers, a lot of re-shuffling going on with people at the top of the company. I think we managed by not just being a band who people had to look at and say that we needed to meet the quota for the year. I think we were really able to stay under... we were calling it "hiding under the desk," and we were able to get away with doing stuff like Zaireeka. We had no idea that "She Don't Use Jelly" would be such a hit. I mean it wasn't a big hit...
Livewire: Well, it made the modern rock charts and Billboard.
Michael: It was big, but it wasn't big enough to get us into trouble. Looking back, if you're young and somebody hands you a million dollars people are going to get hurt. And now that you're older you say that youth is wasted on the young, but sometimes you just don't know what to do with what you're presented with. Don't get me wrong, some people actually are, but I don't know if we would have come out of that unscathed. But it sort of set this thing up where we had this hit and we thought we had an audience. We had worked a couple of years to get "Jelly" where it was. Looking back now, we would have toured more. But right at the height, we thought, "lets make a record!" We thought we were going to capitalize on this new audience we had and we put the record out. And it turned out that the audience that we thought we had was just a "She Don't Use Jelly" audience. We were still doing pretty well touring and stuff like that, but that's right when Ronald had enough for whatever reason. So we were stuck in late '96 early '97 going, "well, what do we do?" But I think that it was almost immediate that the whole parking lot experiment idea started up, and that moved up to the boom box experiment, which became basically Zaireeka. And, of course, we were able to do Zaireeka under the umbrella of The Soft Bulletin.
Livewire: So you recorded them at the same time?
Michael: Sort of, kind of. When I say umbrella I mean the same budget, so that Warner wasn't actually going out on that much of a limb. I mean we were actually taking more of a chance. And I think it worked.
Livewire: Not to change the subject too far, but how much have you listened to Zaireeka since it's release? You know, the way that it's supposed to be heard. I've listened to it twice and it's always a blast, but it's also that chore of always having to get four players at the same time.
Michael: I think it sort of harkens back to a time when people actually sat down together in small groups and pulled out the latest Rolling Stones album or Bob Dylan album and that just doesn't happen anymore. And I'm not going to be presumptuous enough to say that that's actually what we were shooting for. But I've listened to it plenty in the studio; you'd sit there and listen to it with all the speakers and stuff. But the first time I experienced it in a whole was when we played this cruise ship with all these jam bands. And at first you'd think that there are going to be differing crowds but something just clicked for both us and the audience. It was just weird to watch people enjoy it. It was actually kind of a moving experience. It's different that just putting a record on.
Livewire: Because you're one of the players. That's the beauty of it, when anybody does play Zaireeka, they become part of it. What started off as a three piece band has expanded into a seven piece with the four people at the stereos.
Michael: Yeah, I think that's a big thing with us. Cause we're not really doing the furry animal costumes on stage anymore. But we still have people on stage. Right now we're doing Santa Claus on one side and aliens on the other. It's just such a great way to get people up on stage involved with the show.
Livewire: I agree, I think the entire room feeds off of any type of audience participation. I've noticed that the jam band fans have kind of embraced you, despite not fitting that format musically. Although, I guess you really don't fit any specific format.
Michael: Well, when you think of the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd they put on these big shows and it's about more than just the music. It's actually about audience participation and that we acknowledge our audience, and try and have it be like a big party. But when you're onstage you are in high panic mode because its like "my god, is the screen going to fall over?"
Livewire: Well, you guys certainly have the props that can go wrong.
Michael: Mostly everything goes perfectly fine every time. But we do show up early in the morning and leave late at night to make sure that when we get there it's not a disaster. And plus you're playing, so you don't really get to look at the audience, you know what I mean?
Livewire: Now you guys have done about like eleven full-length studio albums, correct?
Michael: We have... might be a couple more. It all becomes a blur after an entire career; you're talking a quarter of a century. I think we do what we like and that's first and foremost. The studio is basically the time to get in there and explore wacky ideas and be creative. And then when we play live, that's a different thing, because we have to figure out a way to present the songs. I mean, we're not thinking about that in the studio.
Livewire: Which is really good, because then you're forced into playing a certain way.
Michael: Right. And I think we've moved away from the idea of the studio as an instrument. It's not an instrument to capture a performance, but rather a way to figure out ideas and how far we can go with stuff. Musically, of course, we're not splitting atoms or anything like that.
Livewire: Do you have a personal favorite Lips album?
Michael: It's always the one that has just come out. But In A Priest Driven Ambulance sticks out for me, because on that one it all just came together. That's when we first worked with Dave Fridmann in the studio, which started that partnership basically. I don't know... we all just figured a bunch of stuff out on that record. There's just something about it... even the cover. That record made it seem like we'd never run out of ideas.
Livewire: Do you guys like playing the large festivals and big outdoor sheds or do you prefer more intimate audiences with the theaters and clubs?
Michael: I like them both really; it's wherever we can put on a show. We don't let whether we're playing inside or outside dictate the actual physical production of the show. It's a different experience each way. I think the festivals are great though, there's a lot of stuff that you can do and you're not just sort of stuck in one spot. Europe has had this tradition of large music festivals for, my gosh, probably forty years now and it's really a part of their culture. Everybody talks about it. You can get into a cab and people ho don't really know anything about music will know about the Reading Festival or Glastonbury, and they've even gone to one at some point. When Lollapalooza started back in the early '90s here in The States, Perry Farrell and the organizers decided to make it into a traveling circus and it would just show up in your town and it was like, "here's the festival." It's coming to you. And I think what has happened, for whatever reason, it started to not do so well, like in '95 or so. We were lucky enough to be on the 1994 Lollapalooza line-up with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and the Smashing Pumpkins. What seems to have happened as the traveling idea of traveling with a huge production through the summer, it seems that we're slowly catching up to the European way of doing it - which I think is pretty awesome. Not only do they have these types of festivals in England, but there's one in Holland, there might be a couple in Sweden.... Denmark's got one... France has a couple, I mean, they're all over the place. It's really kind of cool. I know that the distances are a lot shorter, but it seems to be getting more and more, say, if you lived somewhere in the area of Chicago and Milwaukee you could have gone to the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago and then there was Hedgpeth in Wisconsin.
Livewire: You guys are well-known for doing off-the-wall cover songs. Any plans on performing some of these for this summer tour?
Michael: It all depends on the festival really. We can run out of time, so we have to choose which songs will be the most fun to play. But I think songs like [Queen's] "Bohemian Rhapsody" really lend themselves to the outdoor crowds, just because they're a lot of fun. Hopefully for the audiences as well as us.
Livewire: Are you planning a big production for this tour, like are you going to bring out the big 'hamster ball' that Wayne walks over the crowd in?
Michael: Well, we call it the "space bubble" and we use it whenever we can. It's mostly all the time.
Livewire: Is there any one single strange incident that's happened on stage that sticks out among the rest?
Michael: Usually we try and keep it contained. But there was one weird thing that I can think of. It was in San Francisco and there was a lot of construction going on around the venue. This was around our Music Against Brain Degeneration tour. And while we were doing the show, the power went out on the whole block and we had no lights and no power. So we ended up using a megaphone on a guitar and a megaphone to sing through, and we had some flashlights that we were shining around too.
Livewire: The audience must have loved it.
Michael: Yeah, I mean we could have said "hey, we'll see you when the power comes back on." But we were pretty much able to continue on with the show. It was a weird little moment.
More Flaming Lips
Concert review - Lollapalooza 2006
Concert review - Hedgpeth