There's something familiar about the Flaming Lips. Bandleader Wayne Coyne could easily be an eccentric neighbor on Folly Beach, with pieces of makeshift spaceship stacked in his backyard for whenever he feels like filming a new scene for his film opus, "Christmas On Mars." In the 2005 documentary, The Fearless Freaks, directed by Bradley Beesley, Coyne gives viewers a tour of his backyard, before setting out into the neighborhood to introduce us to where he grew up and still lives, in a relatively downtrodden area of Oklahoma City.
On the other hand, Coyne is as absurd an entertainer as any. His performances are marked by fake blood on his face, a giant clear ball that he walks over the audience in, and general circus theatrics. But unlike David Bowie or Frank Zappa, Coyne seems normal, like a slightly off-keel uncle, when he gets off stage. The guy even worked at Long John Silver for the better part of a decade.
In the film, we meet Coyne's family of five brothers. They're working class guys. Guitarist/drummer Stephen Drozd's family is even more low-brow. Both Drozd and Coyne introduce us to personable brothers who have done hard prison time. The movie's pivotal, infamous scene comes as a strung out Drozd explains his addiction to heroin, pathetically (but frankly) justifying his need for the drug as he prepares a needle and then shoots up on camera. This isn't Pulp Fiction. It's painful and real.
Most of my generation discovered the Lips with "She Don't Use Jelly," unless an older sibling was already into obscure punk and indie-rock. Even still, they were largely forgotten from the mass public mind until 1999's The Soft Bulletin, before truly being taken seriously with the epic story album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
What's amazing about the band, now reaching their 30th year together, is the perseverance of Coyne, Drozd, and bassist Michael Ivins. They acknowledge (apart from Drozd, the musical genius of the group) a general lack of talent early on. But a desire simply to play kept them focused, even when that meant making $40 at an out-of-town show, just enough to gas up and get home for a shift cooking creek shrimp over a fast food flyer.
If the band decides to film a sequel to The Fearless Freaks, they might start with the impetus behind 2009's The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon. Perhaps the most creative spin on a Pink Floyd cover project ever recorded, the spoken-word additions from Rollins are priceless, as he rattles off mindless banter like, "There is no dark side of the moon. It's all dark." Released the same year, 2009's Embryonic didn't produce any radio hits, but took the band's studio tinkering to new heights, especially in the interplay of left and right stereo when listening with headphones. Or maybe they'd show how after a decade, the band finally finished filming Christmas on Mars and its orchestral soundtrack in 2008, thrilling diehards but without making much of a splash in the mainstream media.
Last week, the band went into the studio to record a 24-hour song (a 1,440-minute track). It's a follow-up to the just-released "Found a Star On the Ground," a 360-minute song recorded to benefit their Oklahoma City Humane Society and the music program at the University of Central Oklahoma.
You'd think that a band as esoteric as the Lips would be ambiguous interviews and try to maintain a mystique. Instead, there's no air of superiority or aloofness whatsoever. These guys are just like your friends, but with lots of confetti and fake blood.
For a look inside The Fearless Freaks, visit fearlessfreaks.com. Here's a scene from the film: