If it wasn't so terrifyingly surreal, it would be funny. According to author John Robert Draper's fresh-off-the-presses Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, the shit currently going down at the White House almost makes Courtney Love look sane. You want crazy? How about the fact that the man currently running America is prone to job-related bawling jags, which he gets through with the conviction that he's got "God's shoulder to cry on". If that's not reason enough to have him committed, there's also the matter of his seeing dead people waltz out of the walls outside the White House's Lincoln bedroom.
That they've put an unabashed lunatic in charge of the free world should have every forward-thinking American ready to riot in the streets. Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne is as disheartened as anyone over Dubya's reign of error; that much is obvious from At War With the Mystics, the 11th album from the Oklahoma-based alt-rock oddballs that he cofounded in 1983. Coyne is not naive enough to think he can change the world by standing in front of an audience with a bullhorn and a bunch of cue-the-revolution slogans. He admits, however, that the idea is appealing.
"I don't know if there's a concept to At War With the Mystics, but there are definitely elements of us wanting to be something like a radical, antiwar, protest-rock band," says the insanely likable Coyne, on the line from his hometown of Oklahoma City. "There are parts of us wishing that kind of thing had some momentum, which I don't think it does. It always seemed silly to think that a group like the MC5–a bunch of freaks from Detroit on 20 hits of acid–could stand up there and tell Richard Nixon how to run the country.
"But I think that it's still wonderful to behold and to watch that happen," he continues. "So with some of these songs I thought 'Wouldn't it be great if we thought of ourselves as that kind of band–that zonked-out-on-LSD, trying-to-change-the-world-through-our-music sort of mentality?'"
While no one is going to confuse the Flaming Lips with Rage Against the Machine, the band does indeed have something to say on At War With the Mystics. The bass-buzzed acoustic alt-pop opener "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)" finds Coyne asking, "If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch would you do it?" while the faux-funk jam "Free Radicals" has him taking aim at money-fixated fanatics with: "You're going international/They're gonna call the cops." Because there's no cure-all for all that's wrong with the world today, the Lips eventually leave earth for space-cowboy frontiers on the album, mashing together seemingly disparate genres–sludge metal, electric Kool-Aid psychedelia, and kitsch classic lounge–with almost supernatural ease.
For all the front-page issues tackled on At War With the Mystics, the Flaming Lips never lose the sense of childlike wonder that's marked their career. Coyne is well aware that the world is an ugly place–just turn on Fox News to be reminded of that–but at the same time, he's convinced that the only way to fight the darkness is to refuse to give into it.
"Part of this record is–and this surprised me–about a sort of existential acceptance of things," he notes. "We have to accept that there are no easy solutions, whether we're talking the religious war going on down here, or the Bush administration, or the Iraq war. I'm making the case that, if you want to enjoy your life, you have to make that happen. The world doesn't have to be a great place to have a great time. We can't all go out there and stand on the ledge, waiting to commit suicide. Otherwise, we're making the world worse."
Making the planet worse is something that no one's accused the Flaming Lips of doing. Twenty years ago, the band was running with the same seminal punk pioneers who populate Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. When touring acts like Black Flag would pull into Oklahoma City, the Lips would end up opening by default because they'd supply the PA. Today Coyne, cofounding bassist Michael Ivins, and long-time drummer Steven Drozd fill soft-seaters. And if you've seen the Lips live then you've probably walked away convinced that life isn't nearly as hellish as it seems. Whether it's Coyne surfing the crowd in a giant clear hamster ball, confetti cannons being fired into audiences, or fans being hauled on-stage to dance in raccoon and rabbit suits, the Flaming Lips are as close as rock gets to a guaranteed magical time.
"It's a great honour to have an audience in front of you," Coyne offers. "To have any sort of acceptance at all is an impossible dream for people. I don't really have any sort of great skills to offer society, so luckily I get to be a musician and an artist."
That's his way of saying that what Flaming Lips fans are seeing when he steps on-stage is someone who realizes that he's been blessed, even if he's cursed to live in the kind of dark times that inspire albums like At War With the Mystics. Think, therefore, of Coyne as an inspiration for us all when things seems hopeless. That's something he doesn't take lightly.
"I talk to young bands who see the position that the Flaming Lips are in," he says, "and they go, 'My God, man–what does it feel like to do whatever you want?' I tell them they can never lose sight of the fact that it's awesome."
The Flaming Lips play the Orpheum on Tuesday (September 18).