Starting with Zaireeka in 1997, Wayne Coyne took to writing essays for the release of each Flaming Lips album. Perhaps the most famous of these was 1999’s I Am Not on Drugs… Yet – a title borrowed for a Flaming Lips bootleg DVD a few years later.
It’s essential reading for Flaming Lips fans and the perfect literary companion to The Soft Bulletin. On a personal note, this essay had a huge influence on my developing mind at the time, lead me to thinking about many ideas in ways I hadn’t before and even influenced how and why I write. It’s not a stretch to say without Wayne’s essays I might not have started this site years later (or my other wordy endeavors). For those of you reading it for the first time, I hope it inspires you like it did me.
“I Am Not on Drugs… Yet”
“I sometimes think about how quiet the world must have been, maybe a hundred years ago. I say that, having just come back from a walk outside (outside the recording studio which is in Cassadaga, a sparse farming community in western New York) and it was so dark I could not even see my own feet as I walked. But more startling was what I could hear…?? I could hear everything…but it made so little clatter that the mere volume of my breathing drowned out the entire world….I thought, “How torturous this soundlessness would be, a hundred or so years ago, when music and the noises that surround us today – like even just the whir of the refrigerator – could give no shelter from the dead silences that easily provoke anxiety in someone with a troubled mind…not to have the slightest distraction from your worries could prove to be unbearable.” My imagination stops in fear that if, for some reason, the molecular structure of our atmosphere shifted slightly and all sounds ceased – not hearing, but sounds – for even just twenty-four hours, the suicides could be in the millions, myself perhaps included.
Some of the melodrama of my story may be inherent in my circumstances. For years my mind has been filled with the pursuit of sounds. Some coming in from outside, some emanating from within. And I’ve struggled to reconcile the difference between the two – what has been imagined versus what is actually being heard. And sometimes I feel like I’ve taken this path so many times that, if it is done consciously, the logic and naturalness eludes me…kind of like when you say a word over and over, after about ten or fifteen times it starts to sound like gibberish and, if analyzed, loses its meaning. Reality is like that – the more you think about it the less real it seems….So maybe when I was suddenly submerged into this total, empty silence on that dreadful evening walk, it caused me to consider this mechanism of listening that I so much take for granted. And I hope to never be so scared again….It may sound like I am a trembling, drooling, freak who has gone mad….This is not madness; it is, I believe, the very opposite….
I say this only to make the point that I do not wish to be perceived as nuts, mad, drug-damaged or even eccentric….All of these cliches, if they were true, I would openly accept. But since they are wrong I feel the need to proclaim, with some authority, that this image be rejected. Knowing full well that there is a certain amount of insulation and sympathy that accompanies this persona. What I mean is that, when a person is considered “unstable,” he or she is able to do things that would otherwise be deemed “stupid” and get away with it….I have pursued questionable goals, I admit…but I have pursued them with sober determination towards, I feel, an appreciation of new possibilities….
So when we began work on The Soft Bulletin, we were aware of some new vistas that we had opened up for ourselves in the process of making Zaireeka (the 1997, 4-disc set, designed so all four CD’s can be played simultaneously). What started out as an exploration slowly changed to a realization. Let me explain…
The technical work load of Zaireeka was exhausting…having no real blueprint as to how we could make such a complicated recording left us having to, unwittingly, devise a new system of tracking and playback…kind of like having to make your own shovel before you can dig the hole. However, what once seemed impossible after a while became ordinary, and in the course of us “getting our heads around” such huge compositions we started accepting a wider range of sounds for more accurate expression. More precise and more complicated. We had no choice.
Early on we discovered one big pile of unsynchronized music sounds much like another and we didn’t want this. We wanted a variety of moods….We wanted to experiment with unexpected sounds but not sacrifice a song’s emotional impact. We were finding that we had to exaggerate all aspects of the things we liked about our songs. So in the past, we would simply record as many tracks as possible, hope for happy accidents and try to make sense of it at the end of the mix. Now, with the capability of having (if we wanted) hundreds of tracks, the luxury of following a “happy accident” to a more unique sound quickly became a frustrating routine of endless possibilities. The song itself would have to be the guide for the sound. But songs are not ideas – if you have ideas you should be able to hear them in your song. Songs are to a man what crying is to a baby – they communicate the unspeakable with sound. But I do not believe, like some, that the song and the sound can be separated. There is an old saying, “It’s the singer, not the song.” But I would change that to “It’s the sound, not the song.” Songs are vehicles for ideas of sound. And if you think about it, the song itself really is just sound. So anyway, as recording went on, inevitably, some songs were failures. Despite sometimes weeks of doing everything we could, they still would not work in the extended 4-CD form that Zaireeka commanded. These were the songs that began to make up The Soft Bulletin as far back as March of ’97. What happened was this: after weeks and weeks of willy-nilly reworking a song’s structure, pushing it to extremes in every direction, it would still come out sounding “normal” to us…?? But, and here’s where the evidence of what kind of damage can be done to one’s perspective is measurable, what now sounded “normal” to us sounded “strange” to everyone else. Our odyssey of experimentation had poisoned us and we hope, if we are lucky, to never fully detox from it.
You see, we had hoped that the sonic boundaries that were stretched to the limit on Zaireeka would not retract and continue to allow us a bigger palette to work with – hopefully with an earned confidence to conquer ambitious visions – to communicate “real” expressions, not just references, about the nature of existence, outer space, love, death, reality, melancholy, madness, self-doubt, the victory of optimism, the wonder of things, and whatever else the songs would be about.
So with the simple approach of just using our ears to guide us, not “music culture,” we were, for the first time, truly exploring all sounds and applying them. Any pretense of our past band structure was simply forgotten and, instead of being a singer who plays guitar, I began to take on the role of something like a movie director. I would plot and plan how sounds could enhance our songs and organize our daily undertakings. Often the hardest part of working on such big productions is not knowing if what you are doing is actually any good. To endlessly spend time, money and ideas on something, with no certainty of its outcome, can be very stressful.
But while this journey was worrisome it was also very liberating. It finally occurred to us that we are not performers, we are recording artists….I don’t mean this in a pompous way – what I mean is, if someone was to ask me what instrument do I play, I would say “the recording studio.” The difference being, most bands are made up of performers – you know, singers, musicians, entertainers – and they go into the recording studio and “perform.” Then usually the “producers” just make sure it’s properly recorded, and that would be the finished record….Well, maybe that’s over simplifying. But this isn’t what we do – and really have never done – though I believe, in the past, we thought we were doing conventional recording. Now it’s clear, we have neither the desire nor the ability to do so. I no longer view our exploration and experimentation as a temporary quest. It is the quest…and this, in my opinion, is both the joy and the curse of the curious explorer…the joy of the adventure and the discovery, and the curse of constantly seeking a new adventure and a new discovery….I pause again to say, I am not mad or on drugs…yet.
And now, upon its completion, I feel although The Soft Bulletin is not an experimental record, its identity and its reach are a direct product of experimentation. In a strange reversal of musical universes, the more indulgent and sonically perverse we got, the more commercial we sounded. We have accidentally made a record that is not a response to music that we love or a reaction against music that we hate. Finally, there are no more enemies, and there are no more heroes…just sound. +
Three months after this essay, Wayne did a brief Q&A for the band’s website in support of the UK release of The Soft Bulletin. It appears that in 1999 “I am not on drugs” was Wayne’s favorite expression:
Vince Guaraldi – Charlie Brown X-mas
Bjork – Debut
Film – Cool Hand Luke
TV – Life In The E.R. (Documentary – real life stuff)
Books – Philosophy stuff
To be sick
“I am not on drugs!”