If do-it-yourself originality is an extraterrestrial trait, then the Flaming Lips may be some of our most famous alien friends, who just happen to be light-years ahead of the rest of us. When it comes to innovation, not many bands can touch leader Wayne Coyne and his group of merrymakers. Recently ranked #16 on SPIN magazine's “25 Greatest Live Bands Now,” and given a street named in their honor in downtown Oklahoma City, the group's latest touring effort is a UFO set piece that you have to see to believe, and it was entirely conceived by the band.
Known for their psychedelic music and more than a few experimental endeavors, which began in the 1990s after the trio (who tours with supporting drummer Kliph Scurlock) was signed to Warner Bros., it's no surprise to fans that they are pushing the envelope once again. Prior undertakings include the “Headphone Concerts,” in which the band set up low-powered FM transmitters at shows, and the music was broadcast through free headphones; the quadruple-CD album Zaireeka, recorded for listeners to play all four CDs on separate stereos simultaneously; and “Parking Lot” and “Boom Box” experiments, where volunteers were given cassettes created by the band to be played at a parking lot in their cars' stereo systems all at once, or given modified boom box tape players directed to vary the volume, speed, or tone of the tape they were playing by Coyne.
The turn of the 21st century saw the band catapult into critical acclaim that included the release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and a 2002 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, as well as incorporating different ways to make their live shows off the hook for their fans. This involves hundreds of balloons, confetti, laser pointers, nun puppets, and inviting dozens of audience members to dance on stage with the band every night, dressed in giant animal costumes. All this, and despite being named one of the “50 Bands to See Before You Die” by Q magazine, the band never toured with a lighting designer before this year.
“We didn't really have a light show,” Coyne explains. “I think it was at the beginning of the summer that was the first time we had a lighting designer with us in America. We had done some stuff in England with lighting designer Ian Turner but not here, and we do so much of it ourselves, and so many times we're playing at things like festivals where you just go and set up as fast as you can, and you're not really in control of the lights.”
The concept for the UFO came to Coyne in a matter of minutes during a phone interview with Rolling Stone magazine when he was asked what was in store for the band. “I hadn't even thought about it at all,” he says. “We had been so busy making records and videos and doing so much press that I really hadn't considered it. I knew that we'd be playing shows, and we'd be doing something, so I said, ‘I think we'll try to do some kind of update on the Parliament Funkadelic Mothership. We will arrive to the stage in this giant UFO; we'll come out of it, play the show, get back in it, and take off.’”
A few days later, the Rolling Stone reporter asked for some sketches, and Coyne drew his concept in a matter of minutes and faxed it over. After the piece appeared in the magazine, kids at shows started asking Coyne when the UFO would be on tour, and he went down to see lighting and rigging specialist and owner of Oklahoma City-based Toucan Productions, Robin Alvis.
Alvis recalls picking up the issue of Rolling Stone, expecting to see a light plot and CAD drawings, and instead, found himself looking at hand drawings. “Wayne is the kind of guy who could just go out and have a company build them a spaceship, but they like to put stuff together and do it in their own psychedelic way,” he says. “I brought them over to a set designer that was going to make them an entire façade of a UFO, and Wayne didn't want it. He wanted to make it all himself. I had a whole fireproof skin made for the UFO that even looked aluminum, like a flying saucer, and Wayne was like, ‘It's too perfect. I don't like it at all.’ It was expensive, too. And I went over to where they work, at Wayne's house, and it was lying on the grass, and they were standing on it. I said, ‘Well, that thing was like $4,000 or $5,000!’ and he said, ‘If it can't take the Flaming Lips standing on it, then we don't need it on tour.’ They just do wacky stuff.”
Made mostly of custom Thomas trussing, the UFO includes 30" of 12“ truss, two 9" circle trusses, and 40 soft rails that go from the inside to the outside. Lighting it up is a variety of gear including Vari-Lite VL2500s, Martin Professional Atomic 3000 strobes, James Thomas PixelLine 1044s, AC Lighting Chroma Q DB4s, and several colors of Rosco and Lee gels. Control is via two Avolites Pearl consoles, with 80 channels of Lightronics RD121 rack-mounted dimmers and a 72-channel Leprecon dimmer rack. Two High End Systems F-100 foggers and a Reel EFX DF50 hazer complete the extraterrestrial effect. Coyne is hoisted up into the structure and lands back on earth via four 1-ton Lodestar CM motors, 80" of chain, and two ½-ton CMs for pick points.
Alvis introduced Coyne to one of his lighting designers, John Paul “Pope” Allison, who took him into a dark office, put a Styrofoam cup on a light, and won him over with “a crazy chase thing” that Coyne thought was kooky and ambitious enough to earn him a place touring with the band. They then began working on the more homemade version of what is now constantly changing and evolving, even as the band prepares to tour in the spring. Says Allison, “The whole thing was a challenge from start to finish, and it took about four months to build it. Everyone on the crew contributed; it was a team effort. We set it up in Wayne's front yard, and we would work on it constantly, even the other band members — Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins. For somebody to come to you with a napkin that has a drawing on it, saying they just did an interview for Rolling Stone, and they have to make a UFO now, that was one of the weirdest things anybody has ever said to me, and as a lighting guy, you know that you are going to have to do weird stuff. It was also the greatest thing anybody has ever said — ‘I want a UFO.’ So it was tough, thinking, ‘Okay, how are we going to make this work?’”
Both Alvis and Allison emphasize how unique and involved the band is. “Working really closely with the guys was cool, and they are a band that really participates in everything, and that's not the norm. I don't know any bands that are like that. They are hiring you to do this job, and they want to get in there and do it with you, and they have their hands in everything. It was really amazing and genius and odd,” Allison says.
“It's uncanny how much this UFO does exactly what those drawings said, but I didn't do it from any grand piece of knowledge,” Coyne muses. “I always ask myself, ‘What would the audience want to see?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that would look cool.’ But literally, the way it looks in the drawing, and the way I get out of the space bubble is almost exactly the way I drew it. There's nothing deep in it, other than I know that there is an element that some people think, ‘The Flaming Lips have come from outer space.’ I think that sometimes people just really like the idea that they see this thing, and it looks like a UFO, and we call it a UFO, and I climb out the top, and it sort of feels like something, even though we all know it's just a bunch of lights. We come out the bottom, and I roll out the top of it in the space bubble. If you're in the audience, and you're kind of stoned or whatever, it's fucking awesome.”