A word heard frequently in the Flaming Lips' new live DVD, UFOs at the Zoo, is "Yeah!" which Lips frontman Wayne Coyne urges the audience to shout loud enough to combat the destructive power of a hand grenade. I like this kind of dreamy metaphysics, and I call Coyne the morning after watching UFOs at the Zoo to tell him so. The Lips' enormous spectacle certainly isn't the first rock show to go over the top, I say, but with them there's no sense of menace, no sense of being under attack from a monolithic entity on the stage. It's friendly, even warm.
"Well, thank you," he says. "Yeah, we're doing this giant, bombastic, overpowering thing, but I feel like it doesn't really have that effect on you. You feel like, 'They care about us, that's why they're destroying us.'" He laughs at the notion. "We never want to cross that line where we're simply saying, 'You're the insignificant audience, and we are the mega-gods—now shut up and do what we say.' Really, it's the other way around."
UFOs at the Zoo is as much about the band's surprised, delighted reaction to their fans as about the fans' ecstatic reaction to the Lips. When he started working on the DVD, Coyne says, "One thing I didn't count on was how utterly unpredictable and entertaining the fucking audience is!" The hordes gathered in Oklahoma City dressed as aliens, as Santa Claus, and as unidentifiable somethings with antennae. But their obsession, like their idols' bombast, never tilts into menace, and they never demand a flawless show, which is a good thing for a performance so elaborate it rivals Spinal Tap.
"Of course it does," Coyne says. "But the audience knows all these things. They know all the little calamities that can go on, and there have been times that it's gotten botched, but they don't care." He jokes about the "space bubble" in which he descends from the rafters to drift across the crowd's outstretched hands. "I'm looking for those moments where the audience can say, 'You know, that's really just a dumb plastic bubble. You say you've come down from outer space, but I can see you get in it!'"
Coyne isn't just shrugging off his showmanship as something light, though lightness is the key to his showmanship, a critical part of its imagery. The Flaming Lips have a habit of expressing terrible struggles in candy-colored comic books, and Coyne's white suits and confetti cannons are all part of the battle. I tell him I get the impression the show is a collection of little ideas, that the Lips seem to do the most beautiful thing they can think of from moment to moment. He agrees. "It builds from these little things like swinging a light around or pouring fake blood on my head. They're dumb ideas. But I think in a sense that's what all art is. Art is... well, the desire to do it causes a lot of pain, frustration, and anguish. Let's say that. But it doesn't cause as much pain or anguish as not doing it. There must be some measurement there that's just miniscule. But the difference is: To do it is better than not doing it. Know what I mean?"