Subject: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. Style: High-pitched yelp shaken by quivering quirks. Target audience: adventurous recreational substance abusers, rock critics. Genre: uniquely futuristic baroque pop.
She's peanut-butter smooth, and he don't use jelly, so until recently, Sade and Coyne have never shared a sentence. But on the Lips' latest disc, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Coyne's group crafts grooves that flow like liquid, and the singer's once-jarring vocals float over them without making a ripple. He's oiled away every squeak, perfected an upper-register glide and, on several songs, comes closer to replicating Sade's delivery than any 41-year-old white indie icon from Oklahoma should even be able to conceive, let alone execute. Then again, this is no ordinary band. Some fringe-friendly musicians consider chart-darling records to be a not-so-sweet taboo, but the Lips' members openly embrace everything from Madonna to Glenn Campbell.
"We listen to so many different types of music and try to pull them in," explains Stephen Drozd, a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums, keyboards and guitars and makes countless other contributions to the Lips' ornately layered material. "If you talk to Wayne, he'll say, 'Look, dude, I've been trying to be a good singer since day one,' but the character of his voice is just more appealing now. For this record, we thought, What if Wayne sang like Dusty Springfield or Sade? Wouldn't that be fucking kick-ass?"
The image of the Flaming Lips singing along with such sounds subverts some expectations, but the revelation that the trio's boldly psychedelic, mind-melting epics originate from a drug-free environment might freak out its addled following more than an enormous hallucinated insect.
"Those guys have never even smoked pot," reports Drozd. "Everyone just assumes they gravitate toward that. People will come up and tell Wayne all these wild drug stories, and he'll just say, 'You better be careful.'"
When Drozd joined the Lips eleven years ago, he was as surprised as anyone to learn that Coyne and his musical partner, Michael Ivins, were clean and sober. But he didn't dwell on this discovery for long, because he was obsessed with a far more substantial stunner: One of his favorite bands was asking him for song ideas. The group was already a well-established oddity by the time Drozd entered the fold, and until the shock wore off, he greeted most invitations for input with a meek "Are you sure? You guys were doing fine without me."
However, Drozd improved the group's efforts exponentially. "Wayne used to imagine big strings and crazy horns, but he didn't know how to get what he wanted," Drozd says. "I've helped them to realize anything in their imagination. I've always been into complicated chord progressions and harmonically weird stuff. I'm a big music dork."
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, his first full-length with the band, polished the hooks from its earlier work without dulling the jagged edges. A multifaceted masterpiece that's readily available in used CD bins thanks to one-hit-wonderers who played only "She Don't Use Jelly," this 1993 record briefly introduced the band to MTV, Beverly Hills 90210 (the Lips played the Peach Pit) and Candlebox fans (it opened for the grunge also-rans). The equally appealing Clouds Taste Metallic followed in 1995, earning the band enough of a critical and commercial cushion to convince its label, Warner Brothers, to green-light Zaireeka -- four discs designed to be played simultaneously. Recently rereleased, that set has sold more than 20,000 copies and spawned countless quadraphonic parties, including one hosted by the Brick just a few weeks ago.