At 43, Steven Drozd is the young Flaming Lip. In a band with a Grammy-winning, innovative psych-freak-reputation-gaining, 20-year-plus career, Drozd is a talented multi-instrumentalist widely known to be the musical backbone to the group, the person who can take wild and wonderful frontman Wayne Coyne’s wacky ideas and help structure them into beloved songs. Drozd grew up in Houston, his father a semi-professional polka musician. In his early 20s, already an accomplished drummer, he moved to Norman, Okla., where he met Coyne.
Ahead of the band’s two-night Liberty Hall hoopla in Lawrence, Drozd spoke with Lawrence.com about the massive amount of energy and creativity needed for the band’s output, the way things change and his love for Lawrence.
Alex Garrison: I know a lot of people are very excited about this concert. It’s Liberty Hall’s 100th birthday.
Steven Drozd: Yeah, that’s very cool. I can’t think of the last time we played there. It’s been a couple years, at least. We played Kansas City last year, but that doesn’t count. Lawrence is its own entity. You’ve got to give it its own respect.
AG: Yeah, I wanted to ask about your connection to Lawrence, given you’ve been here often and Kliph Scurlock, the Flaming Lips’ drummer, lives here.
SD: Obviously, there’s that. It’s a secondary-hometown kind of show. If we play Oklahoma City, that’s a hometown show; if we play in Houston, then I know my family will come out.
If we play Lawrence, we know that Kliph’s friends will all come out. But even before we had Kliph with us, we always had a special fondness for Lawrence.
Lawrence was seen as a cooler version of Norman, Okla. William Burroughs lived there and that’s great — this crazy, alien-life-force human who lived all around the world decided to live his last 10, 15 years in Lawrence, Kan. It’s just a cool town.
AG: The first time I heard about you, it was as someone was describing you as the musical genius behind the Flaming Lips. As a multi-instrumentalist, you’re well respected and often get that praise. How does that sit with you? Do you feel comfortable with that reputation?
SD: For me, I get to sort of do whatever kind of music I’d like to try under the umbrella of the Flaming Lips. Wayne is such a great mastermind and salesman to whatever we do that I feel like whatever musical ideas I ever want to try, I’ll always get to try them and use them in some way. So in that regard, it’s a satisfying feeling.
Whatever we want to do, we try, and if it fails, at least we tried. I like being considered the ‘musician-musician’ of the group, I guess that’s sort of one of my roles. I think a lot of people don’t investigate the Flaming Lips, don’t think of them as being a very musical group, but if you’re a musician or a muso or a music-theory nerd, if you start to dig into our music and analyze it, you’d be surprised that there’s really a lot going on there.
So I like that we’re this reckless and wild psychedelic band, but underneath that there’s this music going on. And we try to do well by it. If I’m considered responsible for that in any way, then, of course, I’ll take the credit. (Laughs.)
AG: So how do you guys work together as a band?
SD: There is this preconceived notion that I played all the instruments, but that’s just not true. On “The Soft Bulletin” record, I played most of the parts, but by no means all.
I like the way that we work together is that we build on each others’ strengths. We can have a song with a melody but no words and Wayne could craft the lyrics to give it its meaning.
Likewise, we might have a song that has its chord changes and melody and it’s in place, but it needs to go some other place and do some other thing. That’s where I would come in and help.
Sometimes, we’d write together from the very beginning. I like working all different ways. I like sitting at a piano and writing Elton John-kind-of pop songs or sitting at a drum kit and thinking, ‘Oh, it would be cool if we could base the song on this beat.’ For me, as a quote-unquote musician, it’s great for me to be able to do all these different kind of things.
AG: The Flaming Lips is known as much for music as for your visual extravaganza live shows and antics like releasing a six-hour song with names of people who donated to a humane society as lyrics. How do those ideas get generated? Do you focus more on the music itself and Wayne is the ‘packaging’?
SD: Wayne and this guy Wayne works with, George Salisbury, he does the videos and graphics, and anytime something’s released, they sit down and hatch the scheme on how it’s going to be released. So it’s really those guys and their team of people who make sure those things evolve, and mostly it comes from Wayne’s imagination.
Really, it’s just music with me. It’s not that I’m asked to and don’t help, or that I don’t want to; it’s that these things just happen so fast.
While you can be worried about the music in this corner, in the other corner, three video treatments are being plotted at the same time and this release that comes in this skull and so many things are happening all at once and we just never sit down and discuss — it’s just always being thrust forward.
The live shows, it seems that it changes with the years. I think next we’ll still have the videos, but there will be some different color schemes and some different looks on stage to fit this new mood of music we’re doing. It’s always mutating.
AG: And the stuff you’re doing includes breaking the world record for number of live shows in a 24-hour-period?
SD: That’s right. We’re doing that. I’m not sure why, but we’re doing it. It sounds great, but I know that at 3:30 in the morning, when we’re pulling up to whatever town that is, we’re going to be like, ‘[expletive], man! This is rough.’ (Laughs.) The way I look at it, this will be an opportunity to do some different kinds of shows — some of them, we’re going to try something new. You don’t want to give too much away, but it should be fun. We’ll get to play some songs we don’t normally get to play. And get to some different towns. What is it — Jackson, Mississippi at 3:30 in the morning, on the one hand, it sounds hellish. But on the other hand, it sounds like something out of a David Lynch movie. So, it could be cool.
AG: What’s it like having so much activity in your life? Is it difficult to keep up and keep going, emotionally or creatively?
SD: The only thing that really beats me down is having to leave home and my family. So if it wasn’t for that, I would be able to handle all of it. We’re kept so busy, you don’t really get time to contemplate.
The touring schedule is sometimes too much for me, but I’m getting better at it. I think, ‘Wow, two years? In two years, we’ve put out this much material. That’s crazy.’ Where it used to be that you’d only put out an album every two years and that was it. I don’t know if it’s welcomed by the fans. I don’t know if people think we’re doing too much or if people are like, ‘do more stuff.’ But for us, it’s fun. We never get the chance to get bored.
AG: Talking of the kind of barrage of information out there and the speed at which things go out, how do you feel about putting yourself out there into the public sphere? That seems required by being in a band nowadays.
SD: I just put out as much as I want and I’m cool with it. If I want to be off Twitter, for a couple of days, I just don’t go on Twitter. But if I want to tell 10,000 strangers about my personal life and my kids that day, I’ll do it. And I can’t think later that I shouldn’t have done that. I just put myself out as I’m comfortable with on a daily basis. Wayne, obviously, does it a lot more than me. And he loves it. I think he welcomes it, it gives him energy. Me, I go through phases. I’ll have a week where I think, I just don’t feel like [expletive] with this.
AG: Well, on the subject of Twitter … I have to ask about the recent feud with Erykah Badu over the video for “The First Time that Ever I Saw Your Face.” It’s been hyped up a lot, but is there anything you’d like to add?
SD: If I told you the real truth, it might be the most shocking thing of all to print, and that’s that I don’t [expletive] care. I think it’s being played up a bit. At the end of the day, if Erykah Badu and Wayne sat down, I think they’d have laughs about the whole thing. It kind of got out of control for awhile and I think they both just realized, ‘You know what? This is kind of fun. Let’s just play with it for awhile.’ That’s just my perception. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s something deeper going on there, but I don’t think so. Maybe time will tell me that I’m wrong and Erykah and Wayne will have some showdown. I think they thought it was funny after it snowballed, after Pitchfork picked it up.
AG: Us journalists, we like conflict.
SD: Oh, of course. It’s like, every two hours, reporting on the minutiae of every tweet. Wayne and Erykah are smart enough to realize, ‘Yeah, let’s [expletive] with them. Why not?’ But you can print what you want on that. By all means, continue the farce.
AG: Getting back to your history, I know you come from a pretty musical family and were playing quite young. Did music look like a way out to some kind of better life for you as a kid?
SD: I never saw it as a ‘way out;’ it’s just what I’ve always wanted to do, since I was 8 years old. It was almost a practical thing. I could help bring in money for my mom and dad, help pay the bills. We were a poor family, so it helped, but I really, really loved it.
After a couple of years playing drums, I was interested in playing piano, so I taught myself.
I was rewarded pretty early on — I could pick things up pretty quickly, so I never got frustrated and kept on. But, you know, the rock star you imagine when you’re 8 years old is quite different from the person you end up being at the age of 43.
But when I was 8, I wanted to be in KISS or something. I started playing professionally when I was 10. In a couple years, I started to see the reality of how grim it can be. Playing American Legion dance halls at 2 o’clock in the morning, hanging out with old drunks, playing country music. It’s exciting for about a month. But when you’re an 11-, 12-year-old kid, it gets pretty [expletive] boring pretty quick. (Laughs.)
So on the flip side — there was KISS in my imagination and then there was the reality of guys who’ve been playing music for 30 years and this is just what they do. I got to see that at an early age.
By the time I got into my early 20s, I’d become, in some ways, an old hack. But I’d never been in a band who made their own music and that was my quest. Luckily, I found the Flaming Lips. We found each other. And the way it works now, it’s so far beyond even my 18-year-old imagination for what a rock band could be.
It’s a wild, imaginative dream when you’re 8 years old. When you’re 43, it’s an unreal reality. The things that I get to do are way better than I ever would have imagined.
AG: The Flaming Lips have had several serious shifts in sound and genre over the years. Is it that high pace of activity that pushes you to evolve?
SD: Fortunately, we get bored. And more to the point, by now, people expect us to change.
That’s great, because a lot of bands, they put three or four records out and everyone wants that same trip over and over again. Or they think they want that same trip, so the band does it.
I think it forces us to keep making left turns and evolving. I don’t think there’s ever been a shift that was so radical that people were like, ‘Oh my God, what have they done?’ Well, maybe the shift to “The Soft Bulletin.”
But we’ve never mutated so much it turned a corner. Even if we did, our fans would be fine with it.
If people were expecting the same thing, it’d be terrible. Here it is, 10 years since “Yoshimi” and if people were expecting us to do that record again, we probably would have killed ourselves by now because we don’t want to do the same thing. We’re lucky, we get to change.