Why Flaming Lips Shows Feel Like Family Reunions

The alt-rock band has weathered a lot in the last few decades, but their fans have never abandoned them.

Though they produced some of the most iconic songs and albums of the past 25 years, the Flaming Lips might be most famous for their ridiculously transcendent live performances. During their shows, lead singer Lip Wayne Coyne has doused himself in fake blood, fired confetti out of cannons, and traveled atop the crowd inside of a giant hamster ball. It is all part of a specially crafted experience, Coyne says, but he admits that some of the band’s most memorable moments have been the results of unscripted accidents.

He mentions a show in San Francisco at the Fillmore in 1999, when the Flaming Lips were on tour with Sebadoh and Robyn Hitchcock. An accident at a nearby construction site knocked power out in the venue just as the show started, creating anxiety in the crowd. Sensing the unease, Coyne grabbed his megaphone — now a trademark of Flaming Lips shows — and, with Lou Barlow of Sebadoh playing acoustic guitar, serenaded the room with an impromptu 20-minute performance. The audience roared in approval, and the lights came on soon after, leading to a dynamic, connective experience.

“It was one of those moments where the audience was stuck with this uncertainty and kind of looked to me to tell them what was going on,” says the 56-year-old, whose band will perform at the Fox on Wednesday, May 10. “We were able to reassure them, and I think they really loved that. Even now, every time I come back to San Francisco, someone comes up to me and mentions how special that night was.”

Improvised segments aside, Flaming Lips’ shows often feel like homecomings; there’s a closeness between the fans and the band that gives the event a family reunion vibe. Perhaps that’s because the Lips and its acolytes have weathered through some tough times together.

The band managed to overcome its status as a one-hit wonder (bestowed upon them for their wonderfully quirky 1993 single, “She Don’t Use Jelly”), stuck together through the departure of virtuoso guitarist (Ronald Jones, who left the group acrimoniously in 1996), and survived multi-instrumentalist maestro Steven Drozd’s battle with heroin (which was captured in the 2005 documentary, The Fearless Freaks.)

A fanbase that has weathered that many ups-and-downs is bound to have a greater appreciation for their beloved band, especially one like the Flaming Lips, which has emerged stronger throughout all these ordeals.

“I come from a big, chaotic family, and I’m lucky because part of my personality attracts people like that,” Coyne says. “If you didn’t like being in this big, crazy family, you wouldn’t like the Flaming Lips. But fortunately for us — and it might just be dumb luck — we’ve had these people gravitate to us over the years.”

Such devotion has allowed the group to endlessly and fearlessly explore their sonic and artistic capabilities. The band’s sound has evolved from tinny noise-rock to ambient dream-pop to challenging, avant-garde material, and their fans have been lockstep in support throughout.

The Flaming Lips could have easily used the template of their 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin for every one of their follow-up albums, but instead, they have explored dark, atonal releases like The Terror and Embryonic. Their latest album, Oczy Mlody, falls between the atmospheric, triumphant air of The Soft Bulletin and the foreboding, claustrophobic energy of The Terror.

“Our success definitely gives us freedom of sorts,” Coyne says. “We only make music that we are in love with.There is nothing else we are capable of. And I think our fans have always understood that and embraced that.”

The Flaming Lips play with Klangstof on Wednesday, May 10, at the Fox Theater. More info here

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