WAYNE COYNE has always been a kind of mad scientist, using his band the Flaming Lips as a guinea pig for his experiments in sonic density. So it makes sense that when he created his own package tour, the International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue, the title would sound like a benefit for Alzheimer's patients. "People have asked me if we're giving the money to brain research," Coyne says,"And I say `No, we're keeping it for our own research!' "
Tonight, Coyne guides the Lips into town to head up his procession of '80s alterna-rock survivors, including Sebadoh and Robyn Hitchcock. He's not sure how to define the revue's theme, however. "All the people we picked to tour with are lovely human beings to begin with, and they make -- to our ears anyway -- marvelous music," he says. "There would probably be a thousand people that I could ask and hope that they could do it. I'd ask people like David Bowie to come along, and he'd say `No!' "
Coyne had been familiar with Sebadoh's Lou Barlow for a decade from gigs shared with Barlow's old band, Dinosaur Jr., and from the time "they stayed at my house." Hitchcock he met more recently when the songwriter introduced himself at a Lips show. Even though he booked the songwriter right away, Coyne denies unreserved fandom of Hitchcock's music.
"I like what Robyn does, but what he does, I feel he does every record. I don't feel like he's necessarily evolved or changed his sound," Coyne explains. "But I must admit, he's almost a genius with his wordplay. Robyn's amazing storytelling comes across in the way he presents his show. He talks about the songs and he's funny, he's charming, and his songs are funny and charming."
While earlier tour dates opened with electronic experimentalist Sonic Boom, the Washington show includes Japanese pop mixmaster Cornelius. The newcomer will represent '90s trends of sampling, house beats and arch pop references. "I really like his record and the whole way he goes about doing his show incorporating samples and video and stuff," Coyne says. "It's not that far removed from some of the ideas that we do."
The "ideas that we do" have only grown more numerous as the Lips age, and the chances they take have gotten more daring. If the Flaming Lips' four earlier Warner Brothers albums showed the influence of hard '60s psychedelia like Pink Floyd or Cream, the band's ninth and newest album, "The Soft Bulletin," leans toward that era's lounge music -- the fluid and densely packed arrangements of Les Baxter or Esquivel. "Bulletin" demonstrates how far the Lips have come musically -- and how much they've stayed the same.
In 1984, the band formed Lovely Sorts of Death Records in their college town of Norman, Okla., to release their eponymous album of raw, distorted psychedelia. The anger that kicked out of "My Own Planet" at the close of the record clearly linked them with the American hardcore scene then sweeping coastal cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington. But even on that debut, there was a drive toward unexpected sounds and arrangements. Back in the day, there could be resistance to certain experiments, Coyne remembers. "When we put out `Oh My Gawd' and we had that piano track `Love Your Brain' at the end of that, people wanted to beat us up. They thought `what kind of wussies are you? You guys listening to Elton John or something?' " It turns out they were listening to Elton John -- and plotting a course to "explore all aspects of music and see what it can do for us and what we can do for it."
The Flaming Lips has run through its share of musicians over the years. The band's first vocalist was Wayne's brother Mark, and the only member other than Coyne remaining from the original lineup is bassist Mike Ivins. For the last couple of records, Steven Drozd has been resident multi-instrumentalist; while Coyne directs and invents, Drozd executes. Coyne himself doesn't like to be called a survivor, however. "I don't think it was by design. I think we just get lucky," he says. "When we make records, we always think this is the last one they'll let us get away with."
It's funny he'd say that after somehow convincing Warner Brothers to release "Zaireeka," his four CD "experiment," in 1997. While the individual discs could be played separately, listeners wanting the full effect of the album had to gather a few friends to cue up and play all the discs simultaneously on different players. The record came out in the middle of a post-Nirvana alternative backlash, making it seem audacious more than ambitious, the white elephant of '90s rock albums. Coyne is quick to point out that the record made money and that the label did not have to be coerced to back it.
"It wasn't as if they were on vacation and then they came back and we'd put it out," Coyne patiently explains. "In the big picture, they're not fools, and they know what we do. And they obviously can hear our music a long time before they put it out. So if it came down to having to con them, I don't think they could be conned. I honestly think they believe in us."
Coyne admits he presented the label with an elaborate cost analysis for making "Zaireeka." It helped his case that during the years following the Lips' college rock hit "She Don't Use Jelly" he'd been working on the idea of multiple sound sources with his Parking Lot and the Boom Box Experiments. For these, he gathered several hundred people who played different tapes in car stereos or portable tape recorders. "I could literally have hundreds of sounds going at one time if I wanted to, just seeing how much impact just two things or two hundred things would have," Coyne says. "I could see how sometimes more of the same thing doesn't add up to sounding like more of the same thing. Sound is not cumulative like you think it is. It actually has to be placed so you can hear it in the sound field."
Despite its experimentation, "Zaireeka" was still a guitar record like the ones the Lips were known for, which makes the softer sound of "The Soft Bulletin" another departure for them -- this time heading deeper into the realms of arrangement and production. Coyne confesses that the band's laboratory procedures involve learning from mistakes. "I think `The Soft Bulletin' is more an accumulation of the things that we tried to do and our successes and failures of the `Zaireeka' record, honestly," he says. "I think we're more influenced by the process of recording and the recording studio and the events in our own lives."
The irony is that by lowering the volume on the guitars, Coyne was able to orchestrate a greater variety and number of sounds in the mix, a tactic that may make listening less easy for some. The sound is smooth, but the juxtapositions are so complicated and often so bizarre -- as when Coyne's human beatbox rhythm is overlapped by drums on "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" -- that the album challenges attention spans and accessibility.
"Bulletin's" lyrics are also more difficult. Earlier material reveled in surrealism, but the new songs are more pessimistic. The attitude change could be read as maturity -- or just the result of a few personal tragedies. In 1996, Drozd was bitten by a spider and almost lost his hand -- an event that would have destroyed the band's ability to create music -- and a year later, Coyne's father died of cancer. While he clearly documented the impact of the first event in "The Spiderbite Song," Coyne only admits a continuing preoccupation with the fragility of reality. "Sanity seems to be the most tenuous part of your thoughts, and you don't actually know if you're right or not," he says. But he notes, "It seems like to go through life and become an adult and mature and not lose your perspective seems to be the biggest challenge after a while."
Coyne credits a recent exercise regimen for the new burst of energy and ideas that have seen him through the rough spots. "Unless you have a lot of persistence and energy, sometimes you don't get down to doing something new," he says. He adds with a laugh, "I think sometimes we're lucky that I really can beat everybody down. At the end of the day I'm still standing, and I just say `My ideas better win, dammit!' I can go longer without food or sleep than anyone around me."
THE FLAMING LIPS -- Appearing Friday with Sebadoh, Robyn Hitchcock, Cornelius and Iqu as part of the International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "The Soft Bulletin," call 202/334-9000 and press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110).