The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd
Thinking Differently About Time
Story by Adam Budofsky
Photos by Rahav
Well, get real, apparently. On the surface, the group’s latest album, The Terror, might seem like yet another chapter in the Lips’ ongoing narrative of inner-space themes put to outer-space sounds. But from its title on down, The Terror is a remarkably human, earthbound album, featuring songs born from broken alliances, lapses into addiction, and loneliness. Supporting these themes are musical ideas that few modern pop bands have previously shown the guts to explore—namely the willingness to turn away from tried-and-true songwriting methods and allow pure sound to dictate direction. This is brave stuff, but, remarkably, the results are hugely musical.
As usual, when given the chance to pick the brain of Steven Drozd, who continues to compose and record the lion’s share of the Lips’ material, we’re all ears. And later we chat with band member Kliph Scurlock, who handles the live drumming duties, and who had no small part in capturing Drozd’s bold studio experiments.
MD: The seeds of The Terror can be heard on your last proper studio album, Embryonic, including the concept of allowing musical ideas to develop longer. Was that part of the plan?
Steven: The Terror is my favorite Lips record in quite a long time. We recorded so much stuff after Embryonic, so many extra projects and collaborations with other people, and it seemed like the period where we explored every idealistic thing we could think of had come to an end. So this time it was really just messing around in the studio with no real agenda, putting together some sounds that I thought were kind of cool.
[Singer] Wayne [Coyne] really responded to this one thing I was working on, which became the song “You Are Alone.” We were really excited, because it seemed like something different for us, and we decided that we wanted to make an entire record that existed in this one mood. If you’ve been making records for as long as we have, any time you find excitement about a new concept, it’s pure gold. I guess the word dark has been overused to describe it, but it is sort of bleak—more of a mood than a collection of pop songs. It felt like a good time to make a record that expresses whatever these moods and emotions are. I was definitely going through some struggles when I was first starting on this,
and now, when I hear a couple of these songs, I’m still able to connect to whatever that feeling was. And for me that’s pretty powerful.
The first song we did was “You Are Alone,” and that shaped the record. Once we decided to do that, we just were like, let’s not worry about writing pop songs or hooky choruses. There was really none of that. It was more like, let’s turn on that drum machine, run it through this reverb, see what it sounds like, and turn that into a song. So on “You Lust,” for example, we’d be like, yeah, this song could be nine minutes, and four of those minutes can be a choir sample running through a delay over and over again. [laughs] But that seemed right; the song seemed to lend itself to that kind of thing. We did struggle with that: Should we edit that down to two minutes? And after a couple days we were like, no, we have to let it play, because there’s this thing that you get from repetition that you can’t get any other way.
MD: This idea of exploring time in new ways is pretty deep.
Steven: Well, I know I think differently about time now, both in terms of our music and in my personal life. As far as the songs go, I don’t think we care if anything is a minute and a half or fifteen minutes. Now the agenda seems to be: Does it do something for us collectively as a group? Does it sound cool? Is it doing something?
A couple of the songs on The Terror have these little soundscapes that happen after the song. One was this five-minute piece of music that I had, and when we threw it at the end of “Be Free, a Way” it got whittled down to a minute or so. Ten years ago, we would have said, “This is a whole piece of music; we can’t use it as found sounds.” But now, because of the brevity of it, it has more mystery than if it had been the full length.
MD: One of the cool things about the album is that, though it’s meticulously put together, there are times where you’re clearly not precious about exactitude.
Steven: Oh, definitely—we do that as a sound technique. On “You Are Alone” there’s a bad Pro Tools edit where the loop got cut off, and we thought it sounded cool, so we just left it. There’s no other way we could have gotten that sound.
MD: There are only a few songs with acoustic drums on them.
Steven: Right, only three songs have acoustic drums—the first song, “Look…the Sun Is Rising”; “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die”; and the last song, “Always There…in Our Hearts.” A couple songs we tried to add drums to, but it just didn’t seem to fit. It took away from the emotional heaviness somehow.
MD: And the beats that you do play wouldn’t be called standard rock beats.
Steven: On “Look…the Sun Is Rising,” the hi-hat plays quarter notes and the left hand is on the snare playing 8th notes with random accents. It’s almost like a weird bossa nova. That’s really fun to play.
MD: So how are you approaching playing these songs live?
Steven: We have some more keyboards on stage, and Kliph is in this new area where he’s playing a sampler. He still plays drums, but he’s triggering some of the samples that we don’t have keyboards for. And I’m triggering samples and playing a couple more keyboards as well.
MD: The analog synths you used have so much character.
Steven: Oh, yeah, and on this record we used more analog synths than ever before. The Soft Bulletin has some synths and MIDI strings, but not really a lot of mono synths. We decided to make the whole record from a palette of sound that included four keyboards and the iPad apps Sylo Synth, Korg iMS-20, Animoog, and Argon.
A lot of the noisier things are a Wasp mono synth that was given to us by Sean Lennon and a beautiful old ARP 2600 that [longtime Lips producer] Dave Fridmann had sitting in the corner gathering dust. And he’s got a Yamaha CS-50, which is also a beautiful instrument. And then I bought this old Yamaha Electone home organ that’s modified with filters and oscillators. It turned out to be the same model I learned to play on when I was about twelve, so I was like, “I remember this old drum machine patch!” The drumbeat on the song “The Terror” is from that.
MD: Playing along to an analog synth arpeggio is a skill in itself.
Steven: I love playing to that stuff. If you have an arpeggio from an old synth, it’s in time—but not, like, digitally in time. And we used a lot of out-of-tune things, not in A440. I think it helps give the songs an extra level of eeriness or unsettledness.
On “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” the song starts off with just drumkit with some delays on it. Then you hear this weird arpeggio, which is the ARP, and we tried for several hours to line up the rhythm and tempo of that with the drumkit on the song. We never got it, so we said let’s go the other way, and we sped up the ARP just a little. So it’s now on its own rhythm that goes against the rhythm of the drums. At another time we would have gotten the digital plug-in and tried to tempo-sync it or something. But we were like, let’s not do that—let’s let it go on its own sinister new-wave rhythm.
Another example is in the beginning of the song “You Lust.” We were in the room playing, and Wayne recorded that with his iPhone. We tried to re-create it miked up but ended up giving the cell phone recording to Dave, who compressed and EQ’d it. It wouldn’t have sounded like that if we’d rerecorded it.
So yeah, we’ve definitely crossed some lines that we wouldn’t have in the past.
MD: The last time we spoke, you were working on your own project.
Kliph: That band you’re talking about, Pink Purple, sort of fell apart. But I did finish making a record with my friend Brodie Rush. The project is named Air Station, and the album is called Dix. We haven’t found a home for it yet. I’ve been so busy with the Lips, plus Brodie and I are in the middle of recording another album under the name Rohypnol Rangers—which sounds kind of like a band with the name Rohypnol Rangers should sound like. [laughs] We’ve had that band for fifteen years or so, and we’ve talked forever about recording those songs, but we could never get our schedules to match up, until late last fall. But then we started coming up with new stuff that didn’t really fit the Rohypnol Rangers framework, so we gave it the name Air Station and switched the focus to that. But now we’re working on the Rohypnol Rangers album whenever I’m at home. I’ve also been mixing the new album by the band Skating Polly.
Earlier this year I got to play some shows with Gruff Rhys from the band Super Furry Animals. That was amazing for me, because he’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time, and I love him as a human being. He’s working on a movie about this explorer named John Evans who’s sort of this weird footnote in American history, a Welsh guy who’s a distant relative of Gruff’s. Gruff wrote songs for the soundtrack, and we recorded a bunch of those.
MD: Of course you’ve spent most of the year touring behind The Terror. How have you been approaching the material live?
Kliph: The songs have to change a little. When we record we never think about what we’re going to do live; we’re just creating interesting stuff to listen to, and then it’s, okay, how are we going to play it live? There’s a different dynamic live, so some of the stuff is pepped up a little bit. And I’m definitely playing more stuff on my sampler than on drums, which is cool with me, because it’s different. So these crazy rhythm beds and some of the programmed beats, I have them programmed into my sampler.
MD: Can you be specific about how you’re approaching some of the songs?
Kliph: I trigger the synth loop on “Look…the Sun Is Rising,” the thing that goes “jun-jun-jun-jun” throughout the whole song. Also, the synth loop on “Always There…in Our Hearts,” the one that goes “dun-nun-nun-nun-nun-nu.” But since that loop goes in and out of time, I trigger it each time, whereas on “Look…the Sun Is Rising” it goes throughout the whole song and dictates the time.
Most of the other sounds I trigger are random string swells or other sounds that occur a few times within a song that we don’t want to do without. The sampler sits to the left of me, so I have a couple of Roland PD-85 pads that are mounted within my drum setup so that they’re easier to hit during parts where I need to trigger something in the middle of a beat.
MD: All the songs on The Terror segue into one another, which you had a hand in.
Kliph: I, of course, am a big fan of stuff like Dark Side of the Moon, where you put on one side of the album and it runs together. I did this on Embryonic too. Sometimes Wayne would be like, “It gets a little confusing there,” but we’d work on the transitions, and eventually we were like, let’s try to tie all of it together and make one long piece of music.
I think one of the things that separates us from a lot of bands is that we get bored easily. But at the core of it, we’re just music nerds. We always come back to the classics—Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles—but we’re always trying to find new bands that we haven’t heard before that excite us. And that carries over to when we’re making music. On Embryonic we threw away a bunch of songs because they sounded like they could have been on At War With the Mystics or Yoshimi.
MD: The Terror has roots in your 2009 album, Embryonic. But you guys actually recorded a ton of material in between.
Kliph: We weren’t even trying to make an entire record when we started this one. We’d done all this other stuff in 2011—the gummy skull, the this and the that—but a lot of people didn’t know that stuff existed. I have friends who’d ask me, “So, when are you guys doing another album?” And I’d be like, “Dude, we put out like thirty hours of music last year.” “Really?” [laughs]
We knew it was time to do a record, so we booked a couple sessions at Tarbox [producer Dave Fridmann’s upstate New York studio] just to kind of get started, thinking it would be like last time, where the sessions span six months to a year. But Steven just started spitting out jams, like, where’s this coming from? I played some bits on it, but most of my role was engineering. Dave’s got this second room that he turned into a live room, and he put in an old desk and a Pro Tools system. Wayne and Dave would be in the main room mixing a song, and then Steven would be in the other room just working on stuff. So most of what I did was set up mics and hit record fast enough to capture all this stuff that Steven was doing. The whole thing was done in two ten-day sessions. So we kind of just suddenly had an album.
MD: There’s something very cohesive about the record.
Kliph: I think so too. A lot of times if Steven’s working on something, it’s left open-ended, for it to be a jumping-off point for a song to be written around it. And it might get chopped up. But this time it was like, this sounds great the way it is. I’ve known Steven forever, and there’s no end to his musical creativity and capabilities.
In the current Flaming Lips live shows, Scurlock uses a C&C drumset consisting of a 6.5×13 snare, an 8×12 rack tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 14×22 bass drum. In the studio he plays either an older C&C kit with a 6.5×13 snare, a 13″ rack tom, an 18″ floor tom, and a 24″ bass drum, or a 1957 Slingerland kit. His live Istanbul Agop cymbal setup includes 14″ Heavy hi-hats, a 22″ Medium ride or crash/ride, and a 24″ Heavy ride; in the studio he chooses from a variety of Istanbul Agops, with his favorites being a 20″ Dark crash and a 26″ Heavy ride.
Kliph’s drumheads are Remo, including a Controlled Sound dotted snare batter and Hazy Ambassador snare-side, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and a Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter. His electronics include Roland PD-85 pads and a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad. His accessories include a Snareweight muffler.