How The Flaming Lips have survived and prospered thanks to 'dumb luck' 

Still Fearless After All These Years

Still Fearless After All These Years

"You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!" That's how freshly un-mulleted fictional schoolboy Steve Sanders famously immortalized The Flaming Lips in their 1995 Beverly Hills 90210 cameo. It's now a laughably legendary moment in the annals of alternative rock (sigh), but at the time, the appearance threatened to cement the band as one-hit wonders.

"A certain part of our audience has no idea we're this experimental, underground group. They just know us from playing at The Peach Pit," singer Wayne Coyne tells the Scene. "But I think as we've gone along, we see how you don't really get to pick and choose what you are."

Well, the middle-aged, costume-clad, balloon-wielding harbingers of psychedelic joy you'll see rallying fearless freaks like holy rollers at The Ryman on Wednesday probably won't much resemble the scruffy alt-rockers Steve Sanders saw in 1995. But they will rock the house. And with Coyne promising a "greatest hits"-style set list — unless by surprise, the band won't perform The Soft Bulletin in its entirety, as they are doing in some select cities this year — 90210 holdovers can still count on getting their fill of magazines and tangerines. But "She Don't Use Jelly" — the band's lone bona fide "hit" — is probably the only song of its era or before that fans should expect to hear.

But even back in the age of fluke hits, The Flaming Lips — then already more than 10 years into their career — were smiled on by God (or shined on by sweet Jesus, if you will) to achieve a post-grunge anthem of the airwaves. Even more astounding: Everything The Lips have done in the 18 years since the release of "She Don't Use Jelly" is what fans of rock — alternative or otherwise — are really going to remember them for.

For most bands, punk-rock beginnings, a chance Top 40 hit, its critically lauded but commercially defeated follow-up Clouds Taste Metallic and offbeat, shoot-self-in-foot undertakings like The Parking Lot Experiment and the audaciously harebrained quadruple-disc release Zaireeka would spell death definitively. But 1999's The Soft Bulletin made the aforementioned foibles seem like adventurous footnotes. That album, Coyne says, is when the band truly found their voice.

"It takes a long time for groups to say, 'This is what I want to do' and actually be able to go towards [it]," says Coyne. "So when we made these records like Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, we know that we were saying, 'This is our music.' "

With The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips built upon a blueprint of lush, psychedelic, studio-orchestrated pop that took Brian Wilson's headphone harmonies into the next millennium, colorizing them outside the lines with an acid-soaked brush all their own. It wasn't a record typical of a band 16 years into their career, but a record only a band so well seasoned could make — infusing wide-eyed, animated soundscapes with an uncanny balance of childlike enthusiasm and acute emotional maturity. Rectifying warring themes of boundless, mystical possibilities with the harsh realities of moralism and mortality, and transcending the struggle with a sound bigger than both: That's been the band's bag ever since. Each of their modern classics — "Race for the Prize," "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," "Do You Realize?," "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" — follows The Soft Bulletin's template. And these are the songs Coyne is talking about when he says "greatest hits."

"When we decided to not worry about what we did, the world said, 'Oh good, we love that,' " Coyne says, crediting a combination of intuition, disregard for cool and "dumb luck" for the series of upward successes that has given the band an unprecedented, seemingly unstoppable twilight relevance. The Lips' latter-day triumphs culminated with 2009's brain-bending, four-sided psych-out Embryonic, which debuted in the Billboard Top 10 — their first release to do so.

"I think a lot of people my age would get to this [point] where they start losing their energy," says Coyne, age 50. "They're burned out, and it shows in whatever they're doing. Pursuing your ideas is all about energy. ... I'm very lucky that, as I've gone into my second leg of my life, I've kinda become younger."

Perhaps for Coyne & Co., the Fountain of Youth is found in their mythical live extravaganzas as much as it is in their creative vitality. For diehard fans, casual observers and even straight-up haters of the band's creative output, most kids of this concert-going generation consider The Flaming Lips a bucket-list live band. Onstage, they take The Soft Bulletin's world of sonic wonderment into the third dimension for fans mostly half their age. Says Coyne, "That's when rock groups like The Flaming Lips have their most power — when people are young and they don't know what's possible."

Beyond the dizzying haze of raining confetti, fog, blinding neon images, strobing laser lights, manimals dancing in the wings and balloons bouncing overhead in their live mission to blow your mind, The Flaming Lips work to cultivate an air of fantasy.

"We don't need to make the world any more normal and boring than it already is," says Coyne. "This enhancement that we do by saying, 'Yes, there is magic out there, but we have to create the magic' — the world is full of Osama bin Ladens that want to kill us, but we have to remember that we make it special and magical and absurd."

And when Wayne Coyne — who is to his fans what Raffi is to mesmerized children and Cat Stevens was to their parents — enters the auditorium from a prop UFO in a transparent hamster bubble, he wants those fans to believe they're having a close encounter. "I went to a show and a weird guy from Oklahoma somehow descended from outer space and landed on our fucking heads," he wants you to boast at the water cooler.

"I'm here for you," says Coyne. "And if you guys wanna rock, we're gonna fuckin' rock."

Email music@nashvillescene.com

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