15 Years Ago: Flaming Lips Reach New Heights with ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’
At the dawn of the 21st century, the Flaming Lips existed as two different bands in the minds of music fans. For many – including the vast majority of American listeners – they were a shrugged-off, one-hit wonder alt-rock artifact. They were the freaky, shrieky band that once played “She Don’t Use Jelly” at the Peach Pit.
But, for those paying closer attention, the Flaming Lips remained a strange and vital creative force in music. In the late ’90s, they shifted from a guitar-powered quartet to a keyboard-driven trio that blossomed with each challenging new endeavor – whether it was an album with four discs to be played simultaneously or a “parking lot experiment” with boomboxes. In 1999, the Oklahoma City outfit released The Soft Bulletin to rapturous reviews that praised it as a sort of Pet Sounds for the alternative era. The critics were tuned in, so was the U.K. (where “Race for the Prize” was a Top 40 hit), then the indie kids started to realize what the Flaming Lips were up to.
“After making The Soft Bulletin, which we thought was an experimental record, the next phase we were listening to a lot of Madonna and Nelly Furtado,” frontman Wayne Coyne tells Diffuser. “And there were a lot of wacky producers who would have a pop star come in and sing on their tracks, which was really intriguing to us – still is, with Miley Cyrus now. And that started to intrigue us. And to us, it felt like a very legitimate experiment again, that we would take elements of the really cool pop music that was going on, and we’d get Madonna off there and it’d be me.”
Although The Soft Bulletin certainly wasn’t short on memorable melodies or heady sonic investigations, the Flaming Lips seemed to push further in both directions in their sessions for the subsequent Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – which took place over the course of nearly two years at producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in western New York state. Working with their near-constant collaborator, Flaming Lips bassist Michael Ivins, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and Coyne conjured even weirder sounds, zip-tying them to more incandescent pop hooks.
“That was a very intense time, working with Dave Fridmann,” Coyne recalls. “He was exploding then. All of the things we were trying, he loved it in the same way – like we’re experimenting with these freaky sounds. And I think, in the end, for good or bad, it sounds like a slightly accessible, weird-ass pop record.”
Watch the Flaming Lips Perform 'Fight Test'
A weird-ass pop record that had the patina of a concept album – as implied by the title Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and a storyline suggested by the album’s first four tracks. Those elements were inspired by Boredoms vocalist/drummer Yoshimi P-We, as well as the futuristic scenes the band imagined while listening to her perform. The real Yoshimi even contributed a little guest-star howling to the album, which arrived on July 16, 2002.
In addition to the inspiration of modern pop music and Japanese noise rock, the Flaming Lips also drew from ’70s folk. Actually, on “Fight Test,” the band drew so closely from Cat Stevens' hit “Father and Son” that they wound up crediting him as a co-songwriter (after a relatively amicable lawsuit). The similarities were not in terms of the song’s lyrical content, but its chord progression and ambiance. The warm glow shines through a sonic cavalcade of synthesizers that blow raspberries and mind-melting effects.
While leadoff track “Fight Test” became a single (reaching the Top 40 in the U.K.), the album’s most notable song is inarguably “Do You Realize??” It has nothing to do with the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots concept and everything to do with – well, everything: love, death, beauty and human existence. The song is propelled by a simple grace, not just in its worldview, but in its shining aesthetic. But that wasn’t necessarily the Flaming Lips' plan for “Do You Realize??”
“It was a song where, we were at the end of a long session and we keep f---in’ with stuff and f---in’ with it. We’re at the end of this session and we knew we wanted to get started on ‘Do You Realize??’ and we started to work on it, but we had to take a break. We had to go do something or whatever,” Coyne says. “Probably a couple of months went by before we were able to go back and fix it up or change it. And in the time in between, everybody [involved with the Flaming Lips] just absolutely loved this, what we considered to be like, not a demo, but a beginning of a track.
Watch the Flaming Lips Perform 'Do You Realize??'
“People would talk about it all the time. ‘What’s gonna happen with that song?’" Coyne adds. "And in our minds, we were like, ‘Well we’re gonna make it really great. We’ll show you.’ But as we got back in there, it was like, what do we know? It seems like it’s already working and we thought we’d move on to another song and maybe we’d get back to it. And as we moved on, it was like, ‘Oh, there is some really nice stuff on there.’ And I think, in time, we probably would have mucked that up too. We would have changed keys two more times, and it would’ve ended up becoming more unwieldy or something – because we thought it was too simple. Luck happens and we’ve got this great, simple song that sounds like we really know what we’re doing. It’s harder to do than all the other stuff, to know that that works.”
Both “Do You Realize??” and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots “worked.” The Flaming Lips’ 10th album became their biggest success. It turned into the group’s highest-charting record to date in both the U.S. and U.K. (No. 50 and No. 13, respectively) and was their first to chart in Australia, New Zealand and Yoshimi P-We’s homeland of Japan.
While listeners were discovering or re-discovering the Flaming Lips, they were also being introduced to their homespun cartoon of a live show. It had begun with hand puppets, megaphones and fake blood in the Soft Bulletin era and quickly grown into a spectacle of blow-up figures, furry costumes and confetti bazookas for their latest live dates.
“By the time we were doing the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots stuff [in concert] we were just absolutely like, ‘I don’t give a f--'. We’re just gonna do whatever we want’,” Coyne recalls. “If we think about it, we’ll try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll think of something else. And that really set us up to be the Flaming Lips the way we should have been, the way we’ve become.”
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