The Flaming Lips: Found Sounds Become Musical Foundation for ‘The Terror’

Apr 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz

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The Flaming Lips

When The Flaming Lips need a little jolt, they simply turn things upside down, or inside out. It not always easy for an already out-there group to find somewhere to go, to keep the record-making process exciting for 30-plus years. But these guys keep raising the bar on radical reinvention, for listeners and for themselves. The latest stage in the band’s evolution is The Terror, an album of songs inspired by specific sounds.

“As songwriters, we’re always mutating and evolving,” explains multi-instrumentalist/composer Steven Drozd. “We got to a point where it felt like we had a lot of music that was based on chord progressions. Then we got into deeper harmonic structures, and on the last record [Embryonic], we were doing these jams; they weren’t songs that we wrote, they were jams that we shaped into songs.

“With The Terror, we’d gotten to a point where we were tired of writing songs and then figuring out what the sound would be for the songs. We decided to go the other way. We’d find a sound—whether it was a synthesizer or a refrigerator or whatever—record the sound, and then try to make a song from the sound.”

For 15 years, the Lips have found an enthusiastic collaborator in engineer/producer/studio owner Dave Fridmann (Neil Finn, MGMT, OK Go), who records and mixes in his studio, Tarbox Road Studios (tarboxroadstudios.com), in New York state. “A song could start with somebody saying, ‘I’m really happy right now and I don’t know why. Oh, it’s because of the sound of the refrigerator running,” says Fridmann. “Then, it would be, ‘Okay, let’s start building a song around that.’ We’d mike up the refrigerator and start to develop a rhythm based upon what that was doing. It would snowball from that.

“There are a bunch of different songs on the record where we were trying to do one thing, but it turned into something else,” he continues. “Like we were trying to create a guitar loop, and someone accidentally plugged into a keyboard instead, and the level was way too hot, and one of the guitar amps would start freaking out, and then it was a manic rush to get a microphone on that amp before it blows up. Sometimes it would be like, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do with that, but we’re going to do something with it, because that’s the weirdest sound we’ve heard in a while. And before you know it, we’re working on lyrics.”

“Sometimes the sound tells you what the song should be about,” says Drozd. “There’s so much in a WASP mono synth running through an old analog delay or a shitty old amp. That sound could be telling you something, without you having to write chords or anything. This was really fun for us. I felt like we were doing something new and different for us.”

It would seem that this “process” of song invention could result in a collection of random, disparate tracks, but that’s not the case. The Terror is out there, for sure, in a spacey, psychedelic way, but the songs coalesce rhythmically and sonically because the bandmembers made a conscious decision to repeat certain musical elements they loved, to unify the songs and to keep some great sounds going. One of the most central pieces during composition and recording was the creepy, retro-futuristic sounds of an Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) WASP monophonic analog synthesizer.






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