Correction: Due to a COVID contraction, The Flaming Lips has been forced to cancel its San Francisco appearances.
Throughout his triumphant music career, The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has perfected the art of onstage antics. Whether it’s dousing himself in fake blood, blasting out his trademark warble through a megaphone or gliding above the crowd in a hermetically sealed hamster ball, Coyne knows how to transform a show into a must-see show.
For all those eye-raising endeavors, however, Coyne insists that he and his bandmates are actually bashful and shy troubadours.
“We are all introverts — I am an introvert,” said Coyne, whose band will play at the sold-out Warfield on Friday and Saturday. “We enjoy playing and we know we must do this big show and production, because we aren’t Jimi Hendrix, where you just know it’s going to be great on skill alone. But truly, we aren’t like that in the rest of our lives. I would never be at a party and stand up on the table and tell jokes and sing, even if I was completely wasted on drugs and alcohol. I’d be so embarrassed.”
Coyne attributes that dichotomy in large part to a spectral feeling he’s been chasing for decades — an unwavering belief that when inspiration strikes, you have to relentlessly pursue the spark.
“Steven (Drozd) and I sort of put it that we are at the mercy of the god of songs,” said Coyne. “There is always some kind of magical process that happens, and you don’t know what it is. Once the god of songs points us in a direction, we need to follow it.”
Following through on divine inspiration has allowed the band to continually reinvent itself over a 40-year career that has defied convention and expectation, to thrilling results.
Starting out as a scrappy post-punk band from the hinterlands of Oklahoma, The Flaming Lips’ early work was defined by their experimental guitar work and psychedelic vibe. In 1993, they scored one of the more unlikely hits of the modern pop era with the irreverent and cheeky single “She Don’t Use Jelly,” from their album “Transmissions of the Satellite Heart.” In the aftermath of that track’s unexpected success, the band struggled to adapt to their newfound fame, wary of moving forward with a more polished sound that conflicted with their stranger inclinations. That conflict only grew with the acrimonious departure of guitar virtuoso Ronald Jones, whose signature scrawl helped define the band’s mid-90s sound.
Ultimately, though, Jones’ departure led to a wholly unexpected and utterly rousing second act. Without their anchor at guitar, The Flaming Lips transitioned into an ambient, symphonic dreampop group, highlighted by the growing influence of Drozd, a polyglot artist who started out as the band’s drummer but evolved into a multi-instrumental whiz.
No longer tethered to the restrictions of a formulaic band setup, The Flaming Lips crafted their enduring masterpiece, “The Soft Bulletin” — a heartbreaking exploration of addiction, weakness, friendship and loyalty, set to the backdrop of disorienting synths, processed noises and feedback-laden guitars. Despite the imagery of spiders, bugs and mad scientists, “The Soft Bulletin” remains a strangely optimistic endeavor — an ode to the power of collective resilience.
Building upon the critical success of that 1999 album, the band returned with another smash effort in “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” a record that mimicked the distorted lullaby template of “The Soft Bulletin.” Yet instead of xeroxing the playbook from those two acclaimed albums, the band continued to pay heed to the gods of music, abandoning easy payoffs to pursue challenging, adventurous new directions.
That kind of fearlessness was typified in the claustrophobic and atonal post-rock sounds of “Embryonic” and “The Terror,” releases from 2009 and 2013, respectively. The band’s latest output, 2020’s “American Head” — which chronicles Coyne and Drozd’s experiences growing up in Oklahoma — contains all the disparate elements of the group’s back catalog, vacillating between songs that feature harsh feedback and others that are airy and ethereal.
“I think we realized that we can be the band that makes ‘The Soft Bulletin,’ and the one that makes ‘The Terror,’ and one that makes ‘American Head,’” said Coyne. “It’s all about making something that is utterly of the now — of that present moment.”
In addition to their endless capability for adaptation and evolution, the band has survived for nearly 40 years in large part due to the preternatural bond between Coyne and Drozd, two outcasts from Oklahoma who share a deep appreciation for outsider art. It is a relationship built upon a mutual understanding — Drozd will continue to explore genre-defying soundscapes while Coyne will continue to steer the merry ship of fools that is The Flaming Lips.
“I think he is glad that I’m like this driven, motivated freak,” said Coyne. “And I’m very glad that he’s this master musician who wants to make music with me.”
That system has worked marvels so far, and there is no reason to assume it will change. Coyne and the rest of his band members will remain the most outrageous collection of shy guys in music, performing the contrarian world of The Flaming Lips.