“Playing live with an orchestra is a really big undertaking,” says Wayne Coyne, with a hint of understatement. “All this stuff has to be done in advance—people have to make charts and everything—and when you get to the rehearsal hall, you don’t have that much time or that many opportunities to listen and go over all of it. So for The Flaming Lips, that’s a stressful situation. Because we want us to be good, but we want everyone in the orchestra and choir to feel good about it, as well. And then, of course, we’re recording this for, as they say, posterity, and we’re going to have to listen to this forever. So that adds another element of ‘Oh, my gosh!’”
In May 2016, Coyne and The Flaming Lips performed their classic 1999 album The Soft Bulletin in its entirety at Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a concert in which they were backed by the sixty-eight-piece Colorado Symphony Orchestra and a fifty-seven-member choir, all conducted by André de Ridder. However stressful it may have been to pull together, to perform and record, the combination of band, orchestra and choir made for an absolutely stunning evening of music. Released this past week, The Soft Bulletin Recorded Live at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is more than just an aural souvenir of that evening—it’s an object lesson in how such collaborations can, when done right, add entirely new dimensions to already-brilliant works.
“It definitely takes on another layer, a layer that isn’t there on The Soft Bulletin,” Coyne agrees. “And I welcomed that, because we don’t need an exact replica of the record. But I didn’t know until the show that night just how amazing it was going to be. It’s almost like you have a dream of what something could sound like, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh my god—it’s really happening!’”
What follows here is Coyne’s track-by-track breakdown of the live album, in which he recalls the show’s joyous high points, as well as the hair-raising moments where it seemed like everything was about to run off the rails.
1. “Race for the Prize”
We’re always nervous before a show, like, “Is this thing going to work?” So you kind of want to kick it off like, “Hey, we’re in charge, here!” But the very beginning of “Race for the Prize,” especially with a big ensemble like this, you can’t really hear everybody; you kind of have to pick and choose what you’re following and what you’re honed-in on. And I’m kind of looking at the audience like, “Is this working? Is this working for you?” I know we always look very confident, or whatever, but I think that’s probably our greatest achievement: Being scared shitless in the middle of this chaos, worrying that something is going wrong, but looking like we know what we’re doing [laughs].
2. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”
I kind of remember standing there, thinking, “OK, ‘Race for the Prize’ is over, and nothing has fallen over—I think this is going to work!” And I really like singing “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton.” It’s a unique sort of Flaming Lips moment, anyway; to me, it’s always kind of felt like Walt Disney meets Led Zeppelin, even back when we recorded it in 1997. In my world, that’s a great combination! [Laughs] And then to have the orchestra playing all that ornate stuff at the beginning… I remember Steven [Drozd] and I looking at each other when the orchestra came in, like, “Now they’re really doing it!”
3. “The Spark That Bled”
“The Spark That Bled” was kind of inspired by “Good Vibrations,” by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys; it’s a bit of a construct, in that it goes from one part to the next. And when you’re in a recording studio, you just keep messing with it until the parts mesh and they’re all in the right tempo. But in a live context, it’s a very challenging piece of music for everybody to play. It changes keys, it changes tempos, and sometimes you’re just standing there holding on, hoping we’re all together; I’m counting in my head here and there to make sure we’re in the right spot, so worried about everything happening the way it should. But it’s really a case of, “Whatever happens, it’s going to sound cool!” I think for the audience, it’s really great—they don’t have to do any of the work, they just get to sit there and have fun! [Laughs]
4. “The Spiderbite Song”
That’s a song that we’ve really never played live, except for when we do these Soft Bulletin shows. But it’s great; it’s such a fun, ridiculous, but really heartfelt and melodic song. When The Soft Bulletin first came out in 1999, we really didn’t know what to do [live] with the big sampling of the drums and stuff; it was a long time ago, and we weren’t very good at figuring all that out. But nowadays, it’s easy to work with samples and real people, and have everybody stay in time. And I think this is one of those songs where people are focused on my singing, and it’s not really about the absurdness of the arrangement or whatever, so I wasn’t really worried about it going well.
In the rehearsals, I was urging all the players to just “be silly for a minute” on this song—and most of them, I think, were having fun with it, though there were some of them that were sort of grunting, like, “Why don’t we just play what’s on the charts?” [Laughs] But I think on that night, they lightened up a bit when they saw how much the audience was loving it. Sometimes, you just have to take a chance and say, “I think this is going to be an entertaining moment,” and I never feel like we’re sacrificing the music for that. I think it makes the music better; I think it’s more fun, I think it gives everything a jolt of excitement, and the audience gets to play along.
6.-7. “What Is the Light?” / “The Observer”
“It’s almost like you have a dream of what something could sound like, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh my god—it’s really happening!’”
“What Is the Light?” is kind of like “Race for the Prize,” in that it’s a song we’ve been playing live ever since the album came out. We were pretty used to trying different arrangements with it; it’s a simple enough song, and it’s got some really great orchestral moments in it, and some really great dramatic builds. And then I do my guitar solo for the “Observer” part of that. Now, because this is a record, you don’t see what actually happened there: We have an inflatable rainbow that is sort of strategically blown up during the little piece of the music before I start to play the guitar solo. In the Steven Spielberg version of the show, it airs up perfectly, and I stand underneath it, and it’s a great moment. But this was the first night that we had the rainbow out there, and we hadn’t really rehearsed it—and for whatever reason, the extension cord that ran the leaf blower that was supposed to blow up the rainbow didn’t work. And when you’re there in person, waiting for the rainbow to air up, it’s quite an elongated moment; it seemed like it was an hour long, but it was just three or four minutes longer than normal [laughs]. Again, you’re thrown into this world where it’s like, “This may not go how we think it’s going to go!” But I do remember feeling pretty triumphant at the end of “The Observer,” hearing the giant ensemble behind us and going, “Man! This is sounding great!”
8. “Waitin’ for a Superman”
This is really one of those things where the audience always helps us, where they’re allowing us to be emotional and just go for it. And that’s one of the great things that The Flaming Lips audience does—they can really pull it out of you, they allow you to really get into the song. And I think that really got captured that night. We do want to entertain everybody there, so we do big things like blow up inflatable rainbows, whatever you have to do to keep everybody’s attention. And then a song like “Waitin’ for Superman” is just a crushingly emotional song, and it’s so devastating in contrast to all these other things. It’s such a stunning moment whenever we play it, but I especially remember that night being, “Whoa—that’s a good, heavy moment!”
9. “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”
“Suddenly Everything Has Changed” is not as much of a rollercoaster ride as “The Spark That Bled,” but it’s definitely got some moments where you’re not quite sure where everybody is. The middle sections really breathe, especially with a good orchestra and good conducting, but it does sort of require that everybody can really see each other and hear each other. And we have a light show going, so half of the people up there can’t see the other half; and the people on one side of the stage can’t really hear what’s happening on the other side, because it’s a big, open, outdoor stage. So again, you’re kind of hanging on for dear life. But the audience, I think, really helped us on that—because when we got to that elongated abstract section at the beginning, they started to erupt, like they couldn’t believe they were hearing this. And that kind of helps you; because you remember that, even if it doesn’t go exactly right, they don’t care [laughs].
10. “The Gash”
“The Gash” is a ridiculously bombastic song. I’m playing the gong on that, even though there are other gongs being played in the orchestra—I’m mostly playing it for show. I think it went pretty well; by then, the choir was really cooking, and I could tell that the audience could hear them, so I knew it was going to be special.
11. “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”
We have elongated the guitar solo for this one over the years; we’ve kept adding a little bit more and a little bit more. Whenever we do it live, there’s a small choir that kind of helps build the emotion during the guitar solo. It’s kind of a secret; you can’t quite tell why the emotion is building so much—it seems like it’s the guitar solo, but it’s really the choir that’s making it lift, especially at Red Rocks. And by then, during the show at Red Rocks, it just felt like a party; like everybody’s in on it together, and we’re already planning on getting the tattoos later in the hotel room [laughs]. It’s like, “Let’s celebrate the things that did work tonight, and not worry about what didn’t work.”
12. “Sleeping on the Roof”
“Sleeping on the Roof” is just so…luxurious. There’s nothing to do except just flow with it; even now, when we play it, I just stand up there and swing a light in time. And the orchestra just had such a great arrangement for that. We probably rehearsed that one more than any of the other ones, as easy as it is; there were just some really great things they had put in there, which we wanted to make sure you could hear. And that was kind of what wound up happening with the whole concert and the recording—it’s funny the details that turn out to actually matter, as opposed to the details you’d think would matter. I think we just got really lucky, in that, with the things we sort of let escape from our control, something really amazing happened.