A self-described music junkie from California with a concert habit regularly fed by trips to large-scale festivals around the country, Steph Anderson knew little about The Flaming Lips as she glanced over a schedule of bands booked for Street Scene in the summer of 2005.
"I got caught up in it " just that energy," she said. "I'd never seen anything like it. Crazy people running around in furry costumes, all the confetti — it was different, but interesting."
Shortly after the concert, she picked up "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," the Lips' 2002 release and the band's 10th, for which it garnered a Grammy Award for the instrumental album-closer, "Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)."
When the Lips released "At War with the Mystics," Anderson instantly fell for the "The W.A.N.D," a politically charged track about power balance that resonated with her inner rebellion.
The "take nothing" attitude of "Mystics" propelled Anderson to attend seven or eight Lips concerts in the four years since her introduction to the band.
Her first taste of the Lips' latest came this summer. Taken in both live at a Seattle festival and as part of a teaser release promoting tracks from the then-upcoming album, Anderson said she "wasn't too sold" on the echoic pulse she heard on the new song "Silver Trembling Hands."
When she heard the rest of "Embryonic" months later, she was similarly uneasy.
"It was a little weird," Anderson said. "It's hard to get into, and I just didn't dig it at first."
Released mid-October, the Lips' 12th full-length album is fundamentally different than anything the band has ever recorded.
Compared to the polished sonic progeny spawned from the "Yoshimi" and "Mystics" sessions, "Embryonic" sounds like studio afterbirth — visceral and messy.
The new album debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 — higher than any Lips album to date — and while the result seems like immaculate conception, "Embryonic" — like much of the band's efforts — is both planned randomness and meticulous rearing.
Steven Drozd bought a new home in Northwest Oklahoma City last fall, relocating his growing family from a small, Belle Isle home to a much bigger spread in the Quail Creek neighborhood. The former home went unsold for months, and in February, Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and Kliph Scurlock moved in, christening the hardwood floors, low ceilings and a single microphone their Dull Roar Studio, and started recording before writing.
"Really, it was the first time ever, since I've been in the band at least, that we'd actually just jam," Drozd said while corralling his 4-year-old son, Daniel, and 21-month-old daughter, Charlotte, for a day trip to a Bricktown bowling alley. "That's how the record's really different from anything else we've done."
Gathering around the single microphone and a small Pro Tools studio setup Drozd assembled over the years to dictate his ideas to, the Lips hit "record" and captured everything. Over the weeks of late winter and early spring of 2009, he said the band regularly met at the impromptu studio, took turns on instruments, synthesizers and various noisemakers, and laid tape to hours of jamming, playing and meandering.
Later, the four musicians listened to what they recorded and culled the sessions down to sections they felt represented the most interesting rhythms, sounds and melodic ideas. The Dull Roar recordings were delivered to Tarbox Road Studios later that spring, and longtime Lips producer Dave Fridmann helped the band make sense of the sounds and edit the DIY sessions into 18 "Embryonic" songs.
"Any other self-respecting engineer or producer would say, 'You've gotta be kidding,'" Fridmann said from the Cassadaga, N.Y., studio. "But I knew going in that was going to be part of the fun."
Songs on previous Lips albums all started with a seed " lyrically, rhythmically or musically " planted by one of the musicians on their own, Drozd and Coyne both said. Even early albums, like "Hit to Death in the Future Head," "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" and "Clouds Taste Metallic," recorded with then-guitar player Ronald Jones, were largely filled with songs penned by the musicians working solo, Drozd said. Independent songwriting fills out most of the Lips discography, including the band's well-regarded 1999 release, "The Soft Bulletin," a 14-track album he and Coyne largely arranged on their own with four-track tape recorders.
After 2006's "Mystics," Drozd said the musicians told Fridmann — whom both Drozd and Coyne cite as a de facto band member — they were going to do something different.
"We did early on say, 'This would be a different way to do it.' Instead of crafting the songs at home and then bringing them to the studio, let's just play something and, even if it's boring, play something for a while," Drozd said.
Coyne is quick to diminish himself as a musician and songwriter, although Drozd claims the latter is the wild-haired front man's strongest suit. On previous albums, Coyne said the group was reluctant to follow its own lead.
"We thought, 'Well, we're not that good, why would we want to go where our music has taken us? Why don't we go where we feel like there's more skill and more discipline and all these sorts of things you can think of as reining in your kind of self-indulgent side or whatever?'" Coyne said from his Oklahoma City home. "As we approached this, there was a side of me that thought, 'I don't know what would happen if we let all that go. What if we just kind of played what we felt?'"
At Tarbox, "tens of hours" of those open-ended jams were distilled into snippets and overdubbed with extra instruments and vocals, Fridmann said, including guest cameos by Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden of Brooklyn duo and indie darling MGMT, and singing, screaming and animalistic howling added to three of the new songs by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
CHRISTENED BY LISTENING
"Embryonic" didn't find fertile ears with Anderson until she put the album on repeat. Playing the record over and over, she stopped searching for songs and was eventually absorbed by the noise.
"It's an exploration, an experiment. Knowing that changes your mind-set about listening to it," she said, as "Your Bats," track eight on the new album, hazily droned in the background. "There's not as much of a story as their other albums have, but it's haunting. There are sounds on here that are unlike anything I've ever heard."
Anderson is used to having her attention snagged by a catchy line or hook and said that stricter structures dominate her other rock 'n' roll favorites — bands like Tool, Queens of the Stone Age and the Red Hot Chili Peppers " acts that "grab and connect" her to a particular line, lyric or melody. "Embryonic" is something else entirely, Anderson said.
"Not all music needs to do that. A song takes you some place specific," she said, "but listening is an experience."