Interview: Steven Drozd (The Flaming Lips)
Published on March 5th, 2014 | Jonny Abrams
Undoubtedly the main perk of running a site like this is that, every now and then, you get to interview someone who’s a genuine hero of yours – someone like Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips, for example.
They say never to meet your heroes, but that a) fails to factor in the medium of telephone, and b) is entirely unapplicable provided you choose your heroes wisely – someone like Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips, for example.
If front man Wayne Coyne is the public face of The Flaming Lips, Drozd offers the musical virtuosity to ensure that Coyne’s showpiece stunts are not mere distractions, rather the icing on the cake of arguably the world’s greatest functioning band. Arguably as in we’d argue it.
Drozd joined the Lips in time for 1994 ‘breakthrough’ album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, of which his brain-frazzingly vast-sounding drums are a key feature. By the time of 1997’s Zaireeka, a project so bold, brilliant and unhinged that someone wrote a book about it, he was as good as running the joint from a musical vantage point.
JDs and lentil men, it is our great honour and delight to reproduce for you our in-depth chat with Steven Drozd, in which he discusses Beatles covers, Flaming Lips side project Electric Worms, the various methods behind his musical techniques, appearing onstage with Miley Cyrus – yes, you read that correctly – and his forthcoming children’s album with Steve Burns, apparently a huge star Stateside for a Nickelodeon show by the name of Blue’s Clues…
I’d not heard of Steve Burns so I googled his name and the second result of the search was an article titled “Is Steve Burns (the Blue’s Clues guy) really dead?” from a website called Urban Legends. I take it rumours of his demise have been exaggerated?
Yeah. I guess in around 2001/2002, when he first ‘retired’ from Blue’s Clues, there was a big urban myth that he’d OD’d, that he was a heroin addict, all this crazy stuff that people like to get going. I think some people thought it was true, and it’s housewives and kids so it’s a weird group of people.
We met at the end of 2001 when I was actually kicking heroin. I was trying to change my whole life at that point when I met him and we couldn’t have been more opposite: I’d be curled up on the couch like a junkie, trying to get well, and then: “Here he is! He’s the guy from Blue’s Clues!”
So he went from being the host of this children’s show to hanging out with drug addict rock and rollers in no time. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve known in my whole life, he’s just a brilliant guy and a really good friend of mine now.
He was just coming out of the stardom of Blue’s Clues, which must have been weird. You know, it’s one thing to be in a rock band – I don’t get recognised that much, and when I do it’s just a rock and roll fan – but he’d be recognised by a mom in Walmart, which must be bizarre.
He is alive, he’s definitely alive!
“OK Toilet Bowl” is a solid gold hit in my book, solid being the operative word. Is there more to come?
We’ve got a whole record that’s been done since 2008. I think Steve thought that since I’m in The Flaming Lips and Scott Booker’s my manager and I have Grammies, I think he thought, “This will happen, Steven knows what he’s doing.” And at the same time I thought, “Steve Burns, he’s kind of a big star and knows a lot of people in all the industries. Surely he can get something going.” So I think both of us were waiting for the other to do something!
The problem is deciding what we want to do. If a record comes out and people start expecting a live show, we just don’t know how we’d do it because The Flaming Lips are so busy, I have so little time anyway and I don’t know if I want to spend the little bit of off-time I have touring with another project! So we’re still trying to figure out what’s going to happen.
Steve and I wrote all these songs and we wanted to make a kids’ record. I know a lot of people make kids’ records now, but we wanted to make a more adult-friendly, a more parent-friendly, kids’ psychedelic rock record. It’s got heavy rock on it, and you heard “OK Toilet Bowl”, which sounds like a commercial from the 1970s or something – all that kind of stuff.
The best kids’ songs and TV show are psychedelic.
I think so, yeah, but a lot of it’s just terrible, you never want to hear it again. We wanted to make a record where, if you’re stuck in the car with the kids and you’ve got to listen to some music, it’s something that the kids could enjoy and the parents could tolerate.
How did it all come about?
I’d done some recording with him in the past on some of his other records and he’d done a couple of things with The Flaming Lips. Nickelodeon approached him in 2006 to write a song for Groundhog Day, and he called me and said, “Do you want to write a song for Groundhog Day?” So we wrote a song called “I Hog the Ground” – he wrote the lyrics, I wrote the music and we wrote the vocal melodies together in an hour over a bottle of wine at my house.
We recorded it the next day, sent it to Nickelodeon and they loved it. They shot a video a month later and it still pops up on Nickelodeon to this day. After we did that song, we thought, “Man, we should just make a whole record. I bet we could do this.” So over the course of a couple of years he would fly down to Oklahoma from New York to spend five days in the recording studio, and we came up with eleven or twelve songs.
Both of my kids have heard all of those songs at least fifty times, because I’d play them and be like, “Is this catchy to you? Does it make you want to dance?” or whatever. So I had a pretty good test market right in my own home!
Your kids must have been incredibly impressed to see you onstage with Miley Cyrus recently!
Just like a lot of other people, when I first heard about the Miley Cyrus stuff, I thought, “Who gives a shit? Whatever.” You know? But Wayne is interested in all areas of the absurd, he’s interested in things that people aren’t expecting – I have to give him credit once again for saying, “Let’s pursue this.”
He found out that she’s a Flaming Lips fan – I think her favourite record is “Yoshimi…” – and every once in a while for the last couple of years she would quote lyrics from one of our songs on Twitter, and I think on Wayne’s birthday she tweeted him happy birthday. Wayne was like, “Oh my god, Miley Cyrus is tweeting me.”
He started corresponding with her and she said, “Hey, why don’t you guys come and play a song with me during one of my concerts?” She had a show at the Staples Center last Saturday, I think, and Wayne and I got up onstage to play “Yoshimi…” with her and her band, and I don’t know what to say – all my expectations, everything I thought I knew, were shattered. I have a completely different opinion of her now.
You just never know. There was no “I’m a big rock star and you guys are old men” bullshit, which is actually the truth – she was just very open and friendly and there was no rock star attitude. You can always tell how people are by watching their backing band and their crew – you can always tell if someone sucks by the way the people who work for them act. You could just tell that everyone who works for her, down to the last person, just loves her.
Then she went to sing and she can actually really sing. I wasn’t sure if she even sang live, and there she was belting out this Dolly Parton cover. Everything that happened surprised me. It’s like we were sucked into a bubble – when we left LA and I came back home, I was like, “Oh my god, that was such a weird thing.”
I’m sitting talking to her dad in the dressing room and he was trying to get heavy on me, like “How’d you write that song, man?” and I’m like, “‘Yoshimi’? Well, it’s kind of like classic rock chord changes with a simple pop melody, and the twist is with the lyrics.” And he’s like, “Oh man, that’s it! The twist is the lyrics, man! It’s about the lyrics.”
If someone had told us twenty years ago that we’d be hanging out with the guy from Achy Breaky Heart, I’d’ve said, “Fuck you, no way. I quit.” I wanna see what happens with this Miley Cyrus thing because, I have to say, she’s pretty interesting. I was surprised. You get the feeling talking to her that she doesn’t have talking points or things she’s supposed to say, she’s just going to say whatever she wants and she doesn’t fucking care, you know?
You were going to do an album with Ke$ha but alas she fell unwell. Is that something you might resurrect in the future?
You know, I don’t know. That’s totally Wayne’s thing, I didn’t really get that involved with it. I would get involved to the extent where he would say, “Hey, come over and help me with something,” but that was about it.
As mindfucks go, sitting here discussing collaborations Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha collaborations with you/The Flaming Lips of all people/bands, is up there with the 24-hour song.
A lot of people are pissed off about it. People get so angry about something like this, we’ve sold out or whatever, but I don’t know what people expect from us. I would think that people would expect it to be absurd enough that we would do that, going back to Beverly Hills 90210 in 1995. That was as much of a sell-out cheeseball move as going onstage with Miley Cyrus, who it turns out is extremely talented.
I’ve seen some people on Twitter bummed out, so maybe in time they’ll come around to it, or maybe we’ve lost a fan!
Folks on Twitter can be exceedingly angst-ridden.
People vent a lot of frustration on Twitter. I try not to, but I see a lot.
Do The Flaming Lips plan to do any more Beatles covers? Seems to me that you’d do a mind-blowing “Taxman” – kind of in the style of “Free Radicals” or “The W.A.N.D.”, led by the big riff…
Yeah, I could see us doing that. Right now though I think Wayne is hoping to put together a Sgt. Pepper tribute record and “Taxman” isn’t on that. I know we’ve got some people interested – I’ve been doing stuff with Foxygen, they’re my favourite band at the moment.
The Miley Cyrus thing was Saturday night, then on Sunday I went over to Jonathan from Foxygen’s home studio to play some drums. They played me a bunch of their new songs and, dude…I try not to say ‘dude’ too much, but dude… I keep calling it ‘freedom rock’ – they just don’t give a shit about anything, and it’s wonderful.
We’re trying to get them to do a Sgt. Pepper track, I think we’re talking to MGMT, trying to get a bunch of different bands. We’ve done a couple of these things but I think Wayne is trying to make this one a little more high-profile, more stuff going on, more things connected. It’s still in the very early stages though, so I can’t say too much about it.
I didn’t take to MGMT at first, but their last couple of albums have been superb.
Yeah, I love them. I think when they first came out I was like, “Yeah, it’s alright,” and then after a couple of records I was like, “Okay, these guys are still doing some weird shit, it wasn’t a fluke.” I love MGMT and I hope we can do more stuff with them in the future. They did some vocals on “Worm Mountain”, but I would like us to get together for a mega-jam.
Tame Impala would be a good one to throw in the Sgt. Pepper mix.
Oh wait, I forgot to mention Tame Impala – they would definitely be on the list. This might sound a little hokey or something, but it’s just a wonderful thing to me that I’m almost 45 years old, just this old dude who’s been playing music since he was a little kid – and four or five of my favourite bands on the planet right now, we’re friends with. How cool is that?
I’d imagine they’re all influenced by The Flaming Lips.
Well, they all say they’re influenced by us, so I don’t know if people will see that as wanting to hang around with people who adore me! I mean, sure I do (laughs), but it’s just that hanging around with these people is very easy because we share a lot of the same taste.
Jonathan from Foxygen is only 24 or 25, so he could be my son – I feel like he kind of is, in a weird way – but these kids, as I call them, know so much about music at such an early age. I guess ’cause of the internet and stuff. It’s like an injection of energy hanging out with these guys, it’s a lot of fun.
I don’t know if I want to get too involved with Foxygen because I don’t want to fuck up whatever vibe they have! I’m dead serious. The stuff they played me – and I hate to use these comparisons because it’s very cliched – it’s like Exile on Main Street with Velvet Underground’s Loaded and some Todd Rundgren…I mean, there are five or six different things I could mention to you.
It just sounds like they’re completely free and just having a good time, you know, and I feel like if I get too involved then I’m just going to normalise their music or something!
Well, you took The Flaming Lips to another level, so why not Foxygen too?
(Laughs) You know, I feel like The Flaming Lips could use a little normalising at some point! Otherwise some of that stuff wouldn’t have worked the way it did.
You’re on the new Phantogram album too…
Yeah, one track. I wanted to do more – I think they sent me a couple of things but I didn’t work fast enough. I did play keyboards on the song “Never Going Home” and I really, really like it. Phantogram’s another band that I really dig a lot and I hope we can do some more shows and stuff with them this year. We’ll have to see.
I forgot about that – I did it on our tour bus in the middle of Idaho or something last year. I’m sure Wayne will try to get Phantogram to do a track for the Beatles record.
Who decides on, or initially suggests, which albums you cover? So far you’ve done Pink Floyd, King Crimson, The Stone Roses and now The Beatles – are there any more you plan to tackle?
We’re always talking about it, trying to figure out which Led Zeppelin record we could do. We might branch into doing a Sonic Youth record – I would love to try Evol or something.
But it’s really Wayne, you know – he’s always got to be working on something. Besides all this other stuff, we’re still working on Electric Würms stuff, which we’re actually making some headway with now. We call it a side project of Wayne’s and mine, but it’s a little more of a free-for-all than that.
So far, the cohesive thing is that I sing on it. Wayne’s playing different percussion instruments and noisemakers, and I’m doing the singing – I guess that’s kind of its defining thing.
We’re going to have a four-song EP done pretty soon, which will have a Yes cover on it that people might or might not like depending on which side of the punk rock/prog rock coin you exist on! I think it’s possible to exist in both plains, but some people feel like it has to be an either/or situation (laughs).
But we’ve really tripped out hard to “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes and we’ve done a couple of other songs. Then we’re going to try and do a whole record, so there’s a lot going on.
I must admit to not knowing about Electric Würms! Some fan, me.
We’ve been talking about it for a while but now it’s actually really happening. I think our initial idea was that I’d be a kind of band leader/guitar player guy, we’d get a crack team of some badass musicians and just make really freaky psych music, but now it’s turned a little bit – I’ll definitely be singing lead, but I think I’ll be more of a keyboard player, sitting down and singing.
We’ll have a band of three or four guys – we’re not sure who yet, but we’re working with a band called Linear Downfall at the moment – and then Wayne will play synth on one song, electric bass on another, and he’ll play percussion and stuff. The idea being that it’s not a Flaming Lips show, it’s going to be a different thing.
We’d like to try and do some shows this summer but we’ll have to see how busy the Lips schedule is before we do that.
I’ve just googled ‘electric worms’ and the top Wikipedia match is the “Mongolian death worm”, which apparently has an ability to kill at a distance by means of an electric discharge. That’s got to be worth a song.
I didn’t know that. The Mongolian death worm? I’ll keep that in mind.
(Postscript: there’s even a Mongolian Death Worm movie!)
Not that I want you to, but do you guys ever plan on taking a well-earned break?
Yeah, I’ve been begging Wayne for a break for a while! (laughs) I dunno, it seems like we never stop. Wayne certainly never stops – he has the energy of a 15-year-old, it’s pretty insane. I guess there’s a feeling of: while we’ve got the energy and we’re enjoying it, let’s just do as much as we can. What do you think? It’s hard to know how people perceive it.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s great. Fresh Lips activity all the time? I’ll take that.
Well, there you go. You know, I have a wife and two kids, so I need a whole other bundle of energy for that, because being a parent’s a whole other trip – but as soon as I get any free time, after three or four days I’m back on a guitar or a piano or doing something. There’s always something that I’m wanting to do.
I would say that at the end of the 24-hour song, I was pretty burnt. Everything I’d ever wanted to try had been thrown in the pile! But then you hear new things, meet new people and new ideas start coming about. There are so many things going on at the moment, I haven’t been this excited in a long time.
There were some lost gems amongst the series of 2011 EPs you put out, my favourite being “Squishy Glass”. Just what is that noise at the beginning that sounds like a robot choir singing “aaaiii aaaiii aaaiii”? It sounds incredible.
If I tell you what it is, you’re going to think it’s not as cool as what you might hear. It’s just a Propellerhead Reason patch on a Sample Workstation, a weird thing that I tweaked out. There are some weird chords there because I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis at the time. I forgot about “Squishy Glass” – that’s one of my favourite tracks from that time, for sure.
It figures that you were listening to a lot of Miles Davis at the time. Even a couple of years earlier on tracks like “Convinced of the Hex”, you were splaying all these otherworldly chords over Wayne’s two-note bass lines – I’ve wondered to what extent you have to work them out, if it’s just simple trial and error, or what…
For “Convinced of the Hex” we just recorded that jam with bass, drums and that scrunky guitar – then I’ve got this thing which is fun for me where you pick a note, let’s say A, and you try to figure out how many chords you can fit around the note A.
That’s all it was – I was just trying to come up with as many weird chords as possible that would be musical in the key of A. I still like to do that, so I’ve told Wayne that any time you wanna come up with a one-note jam, give it to me and I’ll see if I can put some stuff on top of that.
We had endless fun doing that – you know, he would play one note, and I’d say, “How many chords can I play on the top of that simple riff?” Because if you have just those chords then it could sound like really horrible jazz! But that lo-fi, scrunchy and distorted bass kind of gives it some other trip, I think.
Did you ever make a complete song out of the Walrus Audio Janus tremolo/fuzz pedal that you demoed in this video? There’s some cool-sounding stuff in there.
Oh no, I should go back and check that out. Maybe I can steal something from the video! You see those demos all the time – you know, like “here’s Slash with the Blues Driver!” – so I don’t know if what I did was any good, but I definitely didn’t want to be the dude playing lead guitar through a fuzz pedal.
It was pretty fun doing that, I think, although I don’t remember everything I played.
How do you achieve your trademark massive drum sound, the likes of which we can hear on the albums Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, Zaireeka, The Soft Bulletin and Embryonic?
I guess there are a few factors, and now we’ve been doing it for so many years that it doesn’t seem as radical as it did at first. Although when I hear it now, I still love it.
It’s all about mic placement – I think people overthink the recording of drums, mic up every drum and everything has to be exactly this way or that. Then you hear some of the great Led Zeppelin recordings and it’s really just a couple of mics. So we just set up a couple of mics and, depending on how you hit the drum, it’ll make that sound. That’s pretty much it, really.
I remember on Transmissions hitting the drums as hard as I could, then on The Soft Bulletin I was still hitting pretty hard, but you don’t really have to do that. Going back to Led Zeppelin, John Bonham wasn’t actually hitting the drums that hard, it’s just kind of an open sound that they had that makes it work so well.
Is your falsetto something you’ve had to work at, or did it just come naturally?
Since I was a little kid I would just naturally go to this falsetto voice. I didn’t like the sound of my regular voice and I still don’t, so for me to sing falsetto was more pleasing to my ear than trying to sing normal.
The idea of me singing lead in Electric Worms was more Wayne’s idea – he wanted to explore more of that than even I wanted to do at any time. “Why don’t you sing on this?”
On The Terror, a lot of that is my vocal and his mixed together as one sound. I’m still kind of uncomfortable with the idea of singing lead, to be honest. It’s something I’m still really self-conscious about, but I guess if I’m going to be singing in Electric Worms then I’ll need to get over my self-consciousness.
Your lead vocals on The Terror, Embryonic (“If”) and At War With the Mystics (“Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung”) sound great.
Well, with that one [“Pompeii…”], I always felt like if I could mask my voice in an eight-part harmony or whatever then I wouldn’t feel as self-conscious about it!
Have you heard the song “Steven Drozd” by The Passionate and Objective Jokerfan on his album Good Songs About People Who Make Good Songs Always?
(Laughs) No, I’ve not heard this.
I found it by searching for ‘Steven Drozd’ on Spotify, but I can’t seem to find a link to it online.
I’ll have to check that out.
Have you heard any of the new Gruff Rhys album featuring Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock? Gruff ‘n’ Kliph, they should call themselves.
Yeah, I think it’s awesome. They’re a perfect match, I think Kliph is perfect for Gruff. I really like what I’ve heard – I think Kliph played me maybe two songs, I can’t remember, and it sounds to me like they’re really comfortable with each other, they enjoy each other’s company and it just happens very easily for them.
What’s Yoko Ono like?
Well, she’s a trip, as you might imagine. The thing about Yoko is that you’ll be sitting there talking to her, in some situation, and then it dawns on you that, oh my god, this is Yoko Ono – she was doing avant-garde music in the late ’50s, early ’60s, she was married to John Lennon… – and it overwhelms you. I just have to forget who she is to even speak to her or look her in the eye!
She’s wonderful, very friendly and laid-back, and when she asks how you’re doing it seems like she genuinely means it. On the other side, she’s this 80-year-old wizard, so it’s a trip!
It’s the same with Sean Lennon. I’ll be talking to Sean about music or something and I’ll remember, oh yeah, his father is John Lennon, how weird is this? They’re both great, so friendly and open, just good people and fun to be around.
Do you know if Wayne ever patched things up with Beck?
Oh boy! Beck’s got that new record out, I need to check it out because people are saying it’s wonderful. The funny thing about it all is that, as brutal as that tour was for us, Sea Change is still my favourite record of his. It seemed like he just stripped away all the irony and the jokes, leaving this really heavy-handed record about having your heart broken. I still love that record.
In terms of Wayne and Beck, I don’t know if they patched it up – I know they don’t talk on a regular basis or anything – but if they saw each other somewhere then I don’t think there’d be a bad scene or anything, per se.
Do you know what Ronald Jones is up to these days?
No. The bummer about Ronald – and I don’t know how to say this, because people might see it in print and take it the wrong way – but you hear exaggerated stories about ‘sensitive artist’ musicians going insane and there seems to be a romanticism about it or something.
The last I heard of Ronald, though, he’s just at home. I don’t think he goes out and does anything, he’s not making any music that I know of… I feel like I shouldn’t say anything because I don’t know what the story is. All I know is that I haven’t spoken to him since 1998. I’m not sure if he talks to anybody anymore.
To end with, I have a Zaireeka-related confession to make: I’ve never actually listened to it fully as intended. I once listened to three of the four discs for a few tracks, which sounded amazing, and I downloaded a stereo mixdown that I’ve listened to quite a bit – but I’m still yet to hear all four discs playing together from start to finish. Does this disgust you?
It doesn’t disgust me, but if that’s all you’ve ever heard then you’re really not getting it the way it was intended. Even if you’re doing three, or even only two, the idea is that they’re coming from different sound sources. All together in one stereo field? Man, it’s just not the same!
When we were working on this in the summer of ’97, I rigged a system so I could play all four discs by myself – I had the remote for one CD player in one hand, the remote for another in my other hand, my toe on another and then my nose on another boombox.
I didn’t manage to do it every time, but on a few occasions I managed to get all four playing at the same time. That way I could listen to it by myself, which was really great. (laughs)
I’m definitely not disgusted because I know people are curious and not everyone has easy access to multiple CD players – especially nowadays, a lot of people don’t even own CD players anymore – but if you ever get a chance then I would definitely recommend getting a few people together.
There are things you’re gonna hear that you won’t hear any other way except for them playing from four different places. Another thing we were going off was that, even though it’s digital, somehow – and I’m not sure how – CD players wouldn’t play all in sync together…
I can see how that might work with Zaireeka, though, given how floaty and trippy it all is.
It works better on some songs than on others. Sometimes there are too many rhythmic elements going on at the same time and it becomes a big clash, which is fun in its own way – but on a song like “A Machine in India”, there’s a lot of ambient stuff going on, so when you’ve got all four CDs going you get rhythm from one of them and sound effects-y kind of stuff from the others.
“A Machine in India” was my favourite one to play by myself, because in the middle of that it just turns into…I can’t really describe it, it’s like a song from a different planet. It’s a lot of fun.
I pledge here and now that one day I shall listen to Zaireeka as it was intended. And the 24-hour song.
The 24-hour song, that was just…phew! That was a doozy. We had three different workstations all creating music at the same time, then we’d just bring them into the main assembly room where Dave Fridmann and Wayne were. You’d work on something for three or four hours, then bring it into where they were assembling the whole thing. It was like a music factory. That was quite insane. (laughs)
In mitigation for my incomplete fandom, I’m reasonably confident that mine is the most comprehensive review of the six-hour song out there.
I love the six-hour song. I’d forgotten about parts of it, then a couple of months ago I was going through stuff on my iTunes, like, “What was this? Oh yeah, this was one section of that…”
And I thought, man, maybe we should use that for something else, because there are a couple of bits in there that are really good but are destined to be lost in the mists of time because they’re in the middle of this six-hour song.
With the 24-hour song, I can honestly say that you could play me parts of that and I wouldn’t recognise it as being The Flaming Lips, or me, or whatever. You’d have to say, “This is the ninth hour of the 24-hour song,” and I’d be like, “Ah, okay, I forgot about that.”
It’s just so absurd, you know. Most bands don’t even have 24 hours of music in their whole career! (laughs)
Steven Drozd, thank you.