Hear For Yourself: What Does a Gummy Skull Sound Like? – New Flaming Lips Songs

Hear all four songs from The Flaming Lips Gummy Skull, plus watch the band discuss their 2011 projects in the five videos below.  More videos coming soon – subscribe at youtube.com/psychexfutureheart and follow twitter.com/FutureHeartDay for the latest…  today’s gummy skull updates here

“If I get an idea, I will do whatever I gotta do to make it real. It doesn’t matter if it’s a song, a painting or a movie–I want to make it happen.  It’s great to make money, it’s great if people love you and it’s great to be famous, but at the core, when I get a cool idea, I just want to do it. I just want to create.”
-Wayne Coyne in the cover story of the current issue of Entrepreneur magazine


Say what you want about The Flaming Lips’ antics, like releasing music in a gummy skulland a very pricey one at that – the fact remains that not only are they pursuing their imagination to an enthusiastic audience (in other words, living up to their own easier-said-than-done motto, “do what you like“), they are also creating “events” through all this. I’ve read about a magical yester-year I’m too young to know where free-form disc jockeys would play the hippest new LPs front-to-back, the day they were released.  It wasn’t just a slab of wax up for sale, it was an event.

Sure, tons of albums stream online these days at NPR, Spinner and elsewhere, but by the time they actual come out it often feels, if anything, like a non-event (to this fan anyway). We are so bombarded with bits and bytes, it can all too easy just seem like more of them.  Actually, that is one of the reasons I buy physical music releases: the part of my brain that insists if it’s “real” I can hold it (even though I know, music can never be held – and that is its allure).  Music and its mystique is real irregardless if it comes from vinyl, a live band, an MP3 or, uh, a gummy skull.  Still, it seems more “substantial” when I play it on my stereo than when it comes from a computer, as if to say, “this isn’t just filler posted to get clicks for ad revenue from American Apparel – this is happening…”

There are only two music releases in my life that immediately come to my mind as events: Michael Jackson’s notorious “Black or White” simulcast (he even got The Simpsons involved) and the The White Stripes week-long residency on Conan in Spring 2003 to release Elephant

http://twitter.com/FutureHeartDay/status/60913471910453248

Wayne Coyne may be creating a feeling of “happening” through his work, but he’s not a Michael Jackson or Jack White.  The Lips are still too much of a “fringe” band for a central-culture moment; the closest they’ve probably come was circa Embryonic’s release, October 13, 2009 – visiting Conan, then hosting a pop-up store and free concert – resulting in the only week of their 28-year career they were in the Billboard album chart top 10.  Previous releases came with in-stores (Yoshimi) or late show appearances (Mystics), but as wonderful as those performances were, they were more promo-protocol than unique experience.  Then of course there’s Zaireeka: it created events, but its release wasn’t an event

The release of this new gummy thingy-ma-jiggy… it ain’t no Sgt Pepper listening party at the dawn of the summer of love.  It’s not like Michael Jackson’s simulcasts, over-crowded shops with a line-down-the-block-at-midnight to buy Guns n Roses’ Illusions – or even major record release gigs and over-hyped video premiers.  The Lips’ happenings are in some ways the exact opposite of pop-cultural moments like these – but that is why these new releases are special.  There is no business template for them, so how they get released is as utterly unique as the songs.  The Flaming Lips have keyed in on two concepts that make music more than just sounds:

1) the intangible social experiences that bring the compositions to life 

2) the tangible art and mixed-media that inspires and directs those experiences.  

These two ideas collide and are blurred in new ways in the “event” of The Flaming Lips’ releases.  The sense of a “happening” is and isn’t social (I’m sitting alone at a computer right now).  It’s tangible, even edible, but it’s not (most fans will experience the gummy without satisfying their tummy).

 

On Valentine’s Day – coincidentally, the same day Radiohead announced their newspaper album – The Flaming Lips posted twelve videos – designed to be played on twelve different computers or smart phones – about “two large jiggling things … doing some unspeakable act“.  The reaction was immediate: people came together to pool their iPhone resources, others posted remixes online, offices took a break together for Flaming Lips mini-listening-party, Jake Fogelnest discussed it all with Steven Drozd for Sirius Radio…

Then, with no formal preceding announcement, they released a collaborative Neon Indian 12″ vinyl.  They just tweeted they would appear at Guestroom and Good Records, and soon after it happened.

Crowds come out to meet Wayne and buy the newest Lips’ art, but even those who don’t live near the Oklahoma and Texas record stores that debut the Flaming Lips’ recent releases can – in some way – be a part of it, via the internet.  The latest Lips tracks are heard by thousands within a day of dropping at just one or two shops, despite actually being owned by only a handful of people.  For some fans, part of the fun of the release is following the sale announcements online (irregardless of if they live near the outlets) and trying to guess where it will retail next…

“Kent State happened on a Friday and by the next week Neil Young had released his song about it”
-Wayne Coyne yesterday at Guestroom, via maclahoma

One key to all of this is twitter.  Fans can literally follow the progression of The Flaming Lips’ projects as they are created.  Fact is, Wayne had tweeted about the gummy skulls weeks before it became a buzzed “media story” (with the same picture and quotes cut-and-pasted all over the net).  The gummy skull tracklist was only released a few hours before the first gummy skulls were sold (via a tweet, of course) – but within a few hours of that, those songs could be heard by anyone in the world plugged into the web.  Likewise, we can hear demos of songs being worked on, see the lyrics being drafted, be surprised by the details as they are thought up, get excited about the art and packaging as Wayne works on the logistics… and shortly thereafter, witness it take form as the finished product

So, maybe that magical yester-year –  while certainly special in its time – was no more so than right now

“In hindsight, the industry was lucky people were ever willing to buy music. What we’re doing now is more realistic. It means listeners can be more a part of the experience. Music is about more than just listening to it.”
-Wayne Coyne in the cover story of the current issue of Entrepreneur magazine

As details about the gummy release were revealed little-by-little on April 20th, I observed – and was swept up by – a unique reaction to it all.  For one thing, everything I posted was getting a response way beyond normal and I felt a strong enthusiasm from fellow Lips fans.  People sent me messages all day – remarkable considering the release hasn’t even gotten much media attention yet – outside of the (typically ahead of the curve) music site Consequence of Sound that is, who I’ve also messaged back and forth with through-out the day.

On the other hand, I’m surprised by how little has been tweeted about the release of the gummy skull (as of the early morning of April 21st), compared to how much was tweeted after the mere “announcement” of the project by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Mashable and others in the first week of March. The overwhelming enthusiasm among fans for the gummy skull release happened on April 20th under the radar of mainstream sites like those, and that is part of what distinguishes it as genuine fan “happening”.

There’s many more tweets about the Hopscotch Festival than the gummy skull release (as of the day of its release and morning after), because the fest, not the new songs, is what was written up as the “Flaming Lips news item of the day” by most sites.  This isn’t to knock or mock these blogs – I rely on them as much as anyone – but simply to point out that what I’m referring to as the gummy skull release happening” isn’t the common case of some trendy source posting appointed buzz and their followers adopting it as flavor-of-the-day (that will predictably happen in the near future, perhaps a few hours from nowUPDATE, it happened; the sad thing is the sites seemingly getting the most hits out of this have their facts jumbled. Meanwhile Consequence of Sound doesn’t seem to be getting quite as many views despite being diligent enough to fact check with those closely following the developments, reporting on the release and streaming the songs before anyone besides Psych Explorations, crediting their sources, and staying-up late for updates). 

The “event” of the gummy skull isn’t about what’s deemed “newsworthy” by the sites that make the “news”, “top tweets” or trending.  The “event” is not the buisness-as-usual hype machine but the individuals following their own curiosities to simultaneously/ collectively discover – both together (at Guest Room, with Wayne, and camera crew), and virtually-together (via the web) – what’s happening up above that daily hum of RSS and twitter blog feeds.

Maybe I’m just sleepy from all this and even more prone to babbling than usual (it’s nearing 4AM, I’ve been up for 22 hours) …
…but it really does seem like there’s more to all this than just new tunes streaming online. It’s about a new era of fandom and a band using advancing technology and idiosyncratic techniques to explore what’s on the horizon.  It’s about a collective response amongst Lips followers that, somehow, despite the gummy songs reaching almost all of us fans through computer speakers, a magical moment has occurred.  It’s about trying to understand what is occurring, and thinking, “yes, this is happening…”

As for the music – “Drug Chart” is like the tunes on the Neon Indian 12″ were for me in that I didn’t quite know what to think at first, other than it had cool sounds on the surface. I only really began to understand the appeal on a deeper level as it sunk in with repeated listens. For some songs, if I listen too closely I miss it, and for that reason I hope The Flaming Lips make an arty minimalist video (ala “Powerless”) for “Drug Chart”. I imagine the visuals can distract from the music just enough to enhance how it sounds.
And is that Drozd on drums? Whoever it is, I salute you!

“In Our Bodies Out of Our Heads” – Add a tambora and parts of this might be mistaken for an early ’70s Miles Davis recording! Yes!
I could easily imagine many Flaming Lips fans dismissing this, but all things considered a more conventional song – whether it’s a “Do You Realize??” or a “Worm Mountain” – wouldn’t fit right.
This is exactly what music released inside a gummy skull should sound like. Context
Speaking of which – take note of these two tracks’ psych sounds and their titles – it’s no accident they were released on April 20th (i.e. 4/20) at 4:20 PM.  Considering that “Two Blobs Fucking” was released on Valentine’s Day, it seems The Flaming Lips have morphed their “song-a-month” plan into a series of monthly holiday projects bearing gifts of drugs, sex and gummy skulls… I can only imagine what this will mean come Christmas time…
…and, oh, I love the drum (and hi-hat) sound again!

The final two tracks I could see even more fans dismissing, and frankly, I might agree if these were album tracks But they’re not.
The creators know full well that most listeners will not hear them as parts of a whole (the way songs on an LP ideally add up to something more) and that most who hear them are not spending a dime to do so (even those who are shelling out big bucks are doing more for the art of packaging than the art of music).  An album is a confined format by definition.  What The Flaming Lips are doing here is making music and art as part of a continual, seemingly limitless stream of creativity – music within multi-medium works – in a social media world.  This mandates hearing the songs differently: less like crafted chapters, and more like extensions of tweets. Sure enough, if you’ve been following Wayne Coyne’s twitter closely you’ll recognize both the riff and the lyrics from “Walk with Me.”
I have no idea what I’ll think of this a year from now, or even in a week – but as of right now, I sure am amused by its sense of immediacy (having heard it, over the last few weeks, develop from Wayne’s tweeted video demos to the finished track).  Usually the “making-of” is revealed after its made and the audience already has the end in mind.  The Flaming Lips have blurred the lines between creative process and product in a novel way – ‘Walk With Me’ is so far the best example of that. 

The Flaming Lips 2011 output represent new functions for music – made possible by social media – in an era redefining what it means to be “a fan”.  It’s as though they’re developing a new type of song born from these new musical functions, “Hillary’s Time Machine Machine” perhaps most of all.  Part of me thinks it sounds like someone struggling to play their first few guitar chords, over-and-over – for nine minutes!  Another part is taken away by the effect of its simplicity and repetition.  Most of me imagines I would’ve wasted my money if it was nine minutes of an album I purchased. And more of me reconsiders it as the sound of listening liberated from such concerns and engaged in new technological-social experiences.

Forget the whole song-a-month-for-a-year “album” idea: that only equals 12 songs.  The Flaming Lips have released more than that in the past nine weeks.  If we add up the track times they’ve already put out more than a full albums length.  On the other hand, if the Lips were making an album, surely some of these tracks would get left off and others would get edited down.  It’s the fact that it’s not an album that not only allows these songs to be created, it steers the creation.

Music is not just defined by forms, pitches and rhythms but also by its social context and function.  Music is the act of making it.  It’s who reacts to it, and why.  It’s living life in sound: all you touch, and all you see… 

Most of all, music is not a “format” (i.e. a CD is not music, it’s a piece of plastic that allows playback of a recording) – but the “format” can make the music, especially if it’s a seven pound, life-size gummy skull!  
The age of the freak is almost here!  This is the soundtrack.

Now it’s your turn, comments – as always – welcomed below!

12 responses to “Hear For Yourself: What Does a Gummy Skull Sound Like? – New Flaming Lips Songs

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  3. I got my gummy skull at Waterloo Records yesterday (drove up and back from Houston). Wayne was, as always, the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, taking tons of time with each of us that bought a skull.
    I heard someone describe the new songs as Embryonic on heroin. My girlfriend said, “Oh, you mean chopoed and screwed.” We are from H-town, after all.

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  8. Well put. You somehow expressed what I have been trying to put into words since the band started this back around Valentine’s Day. Yes, by combining the music process–from recording to finished product–the music now exists in a continuum, separate from time, somehow never permanent. Because all of it exists online (for now), we the listeners can navigate our way through these tracks any way we want, at any time, anywhere, today and (hopefully) forever.
    Thanks for the thoughtful writing, it’s better than anything I’ve seen anywhere.

  9. Ray – thanks for your thoughtful response and kind words. It’s wonderful how the Lips are creating not just new music but – as you say – a “continuum” within which they exist… and which invites fans like you and I to be a part of it…

  10. Wow. This whole thing is very disappointing. I wish I could just pay my 10 or 20 bucks for an album. I love the Lips, but am really sad they have resorted to this. $150 or whatever for a crappy gummy skull and pretty dull music. Feels like they just threw it together to sucker folks into paying lots of cash for little satisfaction. Very sad!!!!!! I saw them at Slims in SF years ago for Coulds Taste Metallic tour. Best show of my life!!! This whole experience is such a far cry. Guess I will just have to look forward to something more conventional.

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