by Michael Dawson
Even though Steven Drozd originally joined the Flaming Lips in 1991 strictly to man the skins, it wasn’t long before the multi-talented musician’s “try anything” twist on songwriting and arranging became as crucial to the band’s successes as his bombastic drumbeats. In addition to the various topics we covered with Steven in the April 2010 issue of Modern Drummer, we also asked the drummer/guitarist/keyboardist a few questions about his approach to writing songs. Here’s that discussion.
MD: When did you first start writing music?
Steven: Even when I first started playing drums at seven, I would make up songs in my garage. I would make up imaginary bands, band names, albums, song titles…. Then I would play along to all of that stuff in my head. I started playing keyboard a few years later, so I could figure out chords that worked with these melodies I was hearing.
But it wasn’t until I joined the Flaming Lips that it became apparent to me that if I kept writing, I could create my own thing. I could never write lyrics, but I always had melodies flying around in my head. [Lips’ frontman] Wayne Coyne is an amazing lyricist. So I can play him a set of chord changes and a melody and he will come up with words to bring the song to life.
MD: Early on, were you writing songs in your head while you were playing drums?
Steven: I would play along to my favorite songs by Kiss, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin. Then I would make up guitar riffs in my head and play drumbeats to go with them. I would do that for hours.
MD: How has being a drummer affected your approach to songwriting?
Steven: Songs can be created just around drumbeats. Our song “Slow Nerve Action” [from Transmissions From The Satellite Heart] was like that. I recorded this extremely distorted part on a four-track machine. We wrote that song around that because we thought it sounded so cool. The song “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 2” was based around a shuffle drumbeat. We put that beat down first and then started piecing things on top.
MD: How has songwriting affected your drumming?
Steven: It’s forced me to be less of a showoff in some ways. But with the Flaming Lips, we get away with going for over-the-top production things. Some of the drums have been ridiculously distorted. And I like to go from heavy John Bonham beats to Don Henley/Eagles-style drumming, where it’s really quiet and subdued and the drums are really dead sounding. I like those extremes. But being a songwriter has made me play more for the song. Plus, when I was growing up, I played in country bands with my dad. In that environment, it was about playing the beat and keeping it simple. I think a bit of that has stayed with me.
MD: How do you determine what to do with the drums for each song?
Steven: One of the great things about being in the Flaming Lips is that everyone cares about the drums just as much as I do. The drums are just as important as the lead vocal, so we spend a lot of time figuring out what we’re going to do. We always have a drumkit setup, but I also like to program drums using Reason [computer software].
On “Are You A Hypnotist” [from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots], there are six different drum things going on. There are three drumkits, a programmed drum machine, and two electronic drum parts that I played on a keyboard. There was no rhyme or reason for that. We just kept piling stuff on until we thought it sounded awesome. Thankfully, we’re not one of those bands that go in to the studio and knock out all the drum parts and move on. Sometimes we’ll do all the tracking for the other instruments first and then do the drums.
MD: How do you come up with some of the weirder orchestration ideas?
Steven: We try to keep ourselves entertained and keep things interesting, even it’s something as simple as using handclaps on the backbeat instead of a snare drum. Plus, we are always using whatever weird pieces of gear we can find. We’ll try anything and everything. Sometimes things work, but sometimes they don’t.
MD: Do you consciously try things that you know shouldn’t work?
Steven: Yeah. A lot of our songs could sound like standard rock ’n’ roll if we didn’t put some twist on them to make them unique in some way. If we have to sing in weird falsetto voices or use a goofy synthesizer sound that you haven’t heard since the ’80s on a Grandmaster Flash record, we’ll try it.
MD: How important are computers and electronics in your process now?
Steven: They’re another element of the band at this point. A lot of our songs have been shaped during the editing process. We’ll record something, and then edit it like crazy. The song “The W.A.N.D.” [from At War With Mystics] is an editing wonder. Our producer Dave Fridmann spent two solid days editing and reprogramming that song to get it where it ended up. I have no problem with that. I’m glad we have those options.