Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips

Like all the masters of psychedelic pop, The Flaming Lips blow your mind with the most ordinary of devices. These seem-to-be eccentrics, who’ve recently won a Grammy for the instrumental “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia),” are really just a bunch of hard-working regular guys, using modest tools: a three- or four-piece drumkit, lots of good ol’ reverb, songs about giraffes and jelly and life and death’maybe a little digital manipulation for good measure.

After almost twenty years, the mainstream has just about caught up with the band. They’re regularly found in top-10 lists. The rock press is dotted with stories about this or that famous person being a fan. And recent shows have been rescheduled to larger venues due to ticket demand. Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Steven Drozd have even out-hipped the relentlessly chic Beck – who The Lips opened for and backed on a recent tour. Their latest album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, has continued the torrential flood of accolades that began in the late ’80s and crested with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin.

In addition to laying down some of the most awesome drumming in modern rock music, Steven Drozd plays the bulk of guitar and keyboard parts on their records. As far as those massive beats are concerned, Steven’s the first to note the John Bonham influence, and it’s definitely a good place to start the discussion. First of all, Drozd’s rock beats are deeply funky and wildly dynamic, almost always featuring a slithery hi-hat and a playful bass drum approach. Many of his best grooves are captured with a heavy room-mic approach, giving them a cavernous thunder. But – and this also applies to Bonzo, Steven’s most important trait is his decision-making ability. Whether you’re talking beats or fills, Steven Drozd simply plays cool parts, at the right times, and with the perfect attitude.

Modern Drummer caught up with Drozd at Manhattan’s venerable Roseland ballroom, where the Lips were on hand for a Rock The Vote concert also featuring Vanessa Carlton, Robbie Williams, and Public Enemy.

MD: You played drums in your dad’s band when you were quite young.

Steven: Yeah, he had a Czech polka & waltz band, and I started playing with them when I was about ten. I was just drum crazy.

MD: What do you think you learned from that experience?

Steven: I hated it at the time, but playing that kind of music – where it’s no fills, no frills – I think that worked to my advantage later. They drilled that into my head: Just play the beat!

My dad had a country band as well, so I also learned how to play standard four-on-the-floor country swing beats. And then on the side I was really into ’70s rock, like KISS and Aerosmith. So it was a nice education learning all those things at the same time.

MD: Who was your earliest drumming influence?

Steven: Oh, I was trying to be John Bonham. And then when I was thirteen or fourteen I went through a prog-rock phase and wanted to be Carl Palmer, Neil Peart, Bill Bruford”. And then I discovered U2, new wave, and all that stuff. That’s a whole different style of playing than prog-rock.

MD: Did you practice a lot back then?

Steven: I was obsessive about it. Sometimes even before I would go to the drumkit, I would sit with a drum pad in my bedroom. I had this boom box and I’d put on Rush’s Moving Pictures or whatever, and play along on the pad and with my feet. I’d get as close to the record as possible, trying to figure out the coordination. Then I would set up the drumset and work it out from there.

MD: How do you think your drumming has changed over the years?

Steven: I guess I never lost the John Bonham thing. I’ve always loved that. What people don’t realize is a lot of his stuff is so subtle. His fills are technically easy in some ways, but they are so tasteful at the same time. I really got into that. Even after I got into prog rock, then new wave, and then grunge, like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth – just real stripped down, straightforward kind of stuff – I still always liked the John Bonham, Bill Ward kind of drumming. Just heavy-duty.

MD: Do your listening habits find their way into the Lips records?

Steven: The first record I did with The Lips had heavy drums all the way through. But our last couple of records have drums on them that are really light as well. I like all kinds of stuff. I listen to Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, Air Supply. I love the art of soft drums as much as the art of heavy drums.

MD: Sometimes engineers and producers ask drummers to play consistently loud, because that’s how they can get “their sound.”

Steven: Right. But it really doesn’t work that way for us. Producer Dave Fridmann has been working with The Lips since 1989, and with him it’s not about you accommodating him, it’s about him accommodating you. If we have an idea to make the drums tiny, he’s never going to say, “You’ve got to play harder,” because he knows you are trying to create a sound by playing that lightly. So you never even have to play that game with him.

Same thing with over-the-top distorted drums. Dave never asks me to tone it down or anything. I’ll be like, “How can we make this heavier? Can you make it more distorted?” He’ll put up a couple of mic’s and make it sound great. On the other side, if I want to play as light as possible with towels and duct tape over all the drums, he’ll make that work.

MD: You’ve got a great sense of history in your playing. What songs do you hear and think, “Boy, I would love to have played on that song?”

Steven: Well, all the Led Zeppelin stuff, half the Motown stuff. I don’t know who played drums on the Gladys Knight & The Pips records, but it’s some of my favorite drumming of all time. And I wish I’d played drums on Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions record. That’s him playing drums on that.

MD: Getting back to your playing, “Slow Nerve Action” features a great combination of style and substance. Your part and the drum sound match up perfectly.

Steven: That’s part of the deal. You can have the best drummer in the world, and the coolest drumming, but if he doesn’t sound cool, you lose the game. I’m lucky, because Wayne and Michael and Dave Fridmann are as obsessive about the drum sound as I am.

MD: Is there any equipment you just can’t do without?

Steven: The great Ludwig chrome snares. Those are just the best I’ve ever played. But sometimes they’re not very durable for the road. For a while I was playing an Ayotte on tour. And I had a Gibraltar free-floating type of snare that’s tough. You can beat the crap out of it. For the road, you get whatever is going to last. But for the studio I like the Ludwig snare and old Gretsch drums. I’m not really that particular, though.

MD: You’ve spoken about making adjustments for certain songs. Are there any elements of your sound that remain fairly consistent?

Steven: Not really. On “Feel Yourself Disintegrate,” for instance, I was playing an old Ludwig snare, an old Gretsch bass drum, and old Zildjian A hi-hats. I put towels on the drums and used the lightest sticks I could find. In a situation like that we’d set up all this baffling and make it totally dead, and then put a bunch of mic’s really close to the drums. Dave is so good at that kind of stuff.

MD: How about tuning?

Steven: Often what we do is, I’ll play for five or ten minutes, Dave will record it, then I’ll come back in the control room and we’ll listen to it. At that point it’ll be, Okay, I should tune up the snare drum some more, or whatever. On the heavy stuff, you just crank the drums up and beat the crap out of them – end of story. That stuff is a lot easier than people think it is. It’s the light, soft-touch drums that are harder to do.

MD: On Yoshimi, you further explore electronic manipulation, digital editing, and the like, which you began to get into on The Soft Bulletin. Have you found that getting into electronics has affected the way you look at rhythm in general?

Steven: Totally. I’m getting into it even more. I’ve got this program called Reason, which is all electronic drum machines and things. I don’t plug a keyboard in and play it, I just type the music in manually, which is a completely new way of making music that I just love.

The thing about electronic stuff is you can be really subtle with it, and you can do so many great things. Any time I meet a drummer who’s like, “Oh, drum machines and electronics and computers, that’s bull,” I just can’t believe that anyone would say that. Here is this whole new realm of sound. You’d think drummers would embrace it. It’s like, how can you be a drummer and not like Aphex Twin. Some of the beats that he creates are just amazing. Then there’s The Chemical Brothers, some of that Bjork stuff.

MD: “Headphones Theme To Infinity,” from the Flyin’ Traps drummer album, was your first solo recording under your own name. What did you learn from that experience?

Steven: That was cool because there was no one else who was going to say, Well, we should do this and this – and I didn’t have to worry about lyrics. It was like, Let’s just make this weird sound-scape. I guess it was a reflection of what I was getting into at the time, with strings and orchestrated stuff. More than anything else it was just encouraging to me: “I can do stuff that can be interesting.” I think Wayne and Michael heard that and were like, Wow, we should try and go in this direction and see what happens. So that sort of led to that kind of stuff appearing on The Soft Bulletin.

MD: The band has worked in mediums outside of music – film, the boom box experiments?. Has any of that informed your music-making?

Steven: Oh, sure it has. When you start making music that’s meant to be played on forty boom boxes, it kind of frees you up. “Hey, let’s try twenty ambulance sirens mixed with car-crash sounds.” The music we’re making for this movie we’re working on, for instance, is specifically cinematic, sci-fi meets orchestral music. Working on that will somehow affect our next projects.

MD: So what is on the horizon?

Steven: We just did a couple of B-sides, because we’ve got some singles coming out and Warners needed some extra stuff. So Wayne and I went down to Oklahoma City to Trent Bell’s place, which is actually where I did “Headphones Theme.”
I’m also working on a few other things besides The Lips. My favorite of those is with the actor Adam Goldberg. He played the Jewish guy in Saving Private Ryan and the geeky guy in Dazed And Confused who gets beat up at the keg party. He’s a music freak and a big Flaming Lips fan, and he’s become a friend of mine over the last year. He’s directing a film he wrote the screenplay for called I Love Your Work. It’s got this great cast – Christina Ricci, Giovanni Ribisi – and the footage I saw looks great. He asked me if I would do some music for it.

Then Kliph Scurlock, our touring drummer, and I have another band called The Paris Gun. I’m going to play keyboards and guitar and sing lead, Kliph is going to be the drummer, and Greg Kurstin, who was the keyboard player on the Beck tour with us, is going to do keyboards. And Corey, The Lips’ “animal wrangler,” is going to be the bass player. We’re going to try to record a single for Sub Pop sometime in early April. Imagine Black Sabbath meets Aphex Twin meets Mahler or something. Then with The Lips we’ll just be busy for the next couple of years doing our thing.