The Flaming Lips on Composing with Synthesizers


The Flaming Lips’ multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd often cites “futro”—future meets retro—meaning what people in the past thought the future would be like. Futro can be whimsical or campy, like The Jetsons or Lost In Space. Or, it can sound like the Lips’ latest album, The Terror: dark, rhythmic, sinister, and full of strange vibrations and distant voices.

“It sounds like the future that people thought was going to be, but a dystopian version of it,” Drozd says. “It sounds like bad news.” Creating tracks on The Terror, the Lips turned their songwriting approach on its head. Rather than develop songs, and then determine a sound or production approach, they chose sounds first—a synth patch or the hum of the refrigerator running or the buzz of an amp—and built songs around those sounds.

Many such sounds—and the layers of music they inspired—came from a handful of vintage keyboards: the band’s EDP Wasp mono synth, a Yamaha A55 Electoneorgan that Drozd scored on eBay, and producer/engineer Dave Fridmann’s Yamaha CS-60 and ARP 2600 synthesizers. This is hands-down the most keyboard-centric album the Lips have ever made, with the synths exemplifying the essence of “futro” often replacing what would traditionally be bass, drum, or guitar parts. Scroll past the pic for the full interview.

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At what point did you all decide that you would make this shift to focus on keyboards?

We’ve used keyboards a lot over the years, just not to this degree. When we started working on The Soft Bulletin in the mid-to-late ’90s, the keyboards were all sample stuff—like trying to recreate an orchestra with French horns, oboes, and a big violin section. We wanted to have some of those emotional elements without actually having to hire a full orchestra. I think we were leaning this way when we made Embryonic, and I ended up using [Propellerhead] Reason—this digital Rhodes sound that we mixed in with some of the tracks.

Go forward to late 2011, when Sean Lennon gave us his Wasp keyboard. We went to his studio in New York, and it was like a museum, with all of these precious, super-collectible, keyboards all in really good shape. And when he saw us fooling around with his Wasp, he decided to give it to us! We just fell in love with it. Then I had bought this junky old Yamaha organ that had been modified so you could actually use filters; it was like an organ that was trying to be a synthesizer. Dave Fridmann had a couple things around his studio [Tarbox Road in New York, where the Flaming Lips record and mix].

It’s not a new invention in music, but once we started to fool with these keyboards, it felt new to us to say, “We’re not going to put a bunch of chords on top of it with guitars. We’re not going to do a bunch of chord progressions. We’re just going to do this sound and see if we can make a song out of it.”

There’s a sonic consistency between the songs, with their synth rhythms and processed voices. What was the first song that made you feel like you knew what the album would sound like?

I think it was “You Are Alone.” That has the Wasp doing a couple of things, but it’s also a factor of when I started using this iPad app called Silo Synth, where you can quickly make your own samples. I made a sample of my voice, and if you play a full chord, it sounds like a creepy choir recorded in, like, Poland in 1940. It has this otherworldly sound to it.

So, “You Are Alone,” has a kind of messed-up-sounding loop that I made off the Wasp—just letting it oscillate on its own—and then a couple of those Silo Synth choir sounds, and then we also used the Wasp for these atonal noise blasts that sound like a broken machine.

Did specific sounds from specific keyboards tend to be used for certain parts in the arrangements?

We used the Wasp for a lot of things, because everything that comes out of the Wasp is great. With Dave’s ARP 2600—which was just gathering dust in the corner of the studio—I don’t think we ever played anything that was a melody or a pitch-based thing; that was all noises, and more “broken machine” sounding things. Dave’s Yamaha CS-60, we used for more chord stuff.

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An example of this would be the song “Turning Violent.” It starts out with a super-low repeating sound—that’s the Wasp. Wayne was trying to find a bass sound, and he hit the key and it just started oscillating. We didn’t even have an idea of what the song was going to be at that point. But we put down the sound of the keyboard doing that, and then we made that whole song, starting with that.

There are also tape-fluttering sounds on that track, which I think always sound kind of sinister. That’s actually from a Teenage Engineering OP-1. It’s a four-track recorder, it’s a modular synth, it’s a drum machine—all this stuff. It’s like the other end of the spectrum from the monophonic synths we used.

On the song “You Lust,” the loop at the beginning is the ARP 2600. Then you hear these almost jazzy-sounding organ chords; that’s the Yamaha CS-60. But the main riff is the Wasp. Then in the middle of that song, where it goes to that long, creepy voice—like a five-minute solo—that’s the Silo Synth, which is just the sample of a voice.

What sounds came from the Yamaha A55 Electone?

What's funny about that Yamaha was, I bought it on eBay and I had it shipped, and I didn’t realize at first that it’s the same model keyboard I taught myself to play on when I was 12! I was like, this is the same exact drum machine, same flute setting, clarinet setting. I couldn’t believe it. So, the drum machine on The Terror is the drum machine in that old Yamaha.

How much of the sound of this record comes from the keyboards themselves, and how much comes from manipulating those sounds in the mix?

In the recording, there was definitely weird miking on this album. That’s one of Dave Fridmann’s many fortés. He loves to say, “Let’s throw a mic in that corner of the room and see what it sounds like,” and that gives the sounds some weird atmosphere. Dave also has things like this old Motorola intercom mic, which we used on vocals on this record. It’s got a midrange-y “telephone voice” sound.

However, I’d say that sound manipulation was used less on this record than previously. Before, we’d go in with the idea that any sound can be altered at any time. But that’s almost overwhelming, especially if you’re working in the digital audio world, where you can always change something.

How did it change your process to commit to using a smaller pool of sounds, rather than saying, “The sky’s the limit” sonically?

I think “the sky’s the limit” can really bog you down. We’ve definitely been in situations where we’re all over the place, and there are such endless possibilities, to the point where you don’t even know where to start. So when it came time to make this record, it wasn’t that hard to say, “Let’s limit ourselves to these sounds.” It was never like, “Oh, how are we going to do that?” I think all of us collectively agreed that we loved the keyboards and that there would be very little guitar and very little electric bass. Any bass on the record is usually the Wasp synth. I think when you do this, you’re more able to focus in on something, which is really valuable, especially after you’ve been making records as long as we have.

Miking the Lips

Engineer/producer Dave Fridmann has been working with the Flaming Lips for 25 years, so by this point he’s used to not getting used to anything. The Lips have no interest in repeating themselves musically or sonically, which means no “go-to” miking schemes and no holds barred.
“We just have a bunch of mics set up, not in any particular order nor any particular room,” Fridmann says. “All the rooms in my studio are wired, so it doesn’t matter if you're in the bathroom, the kitchen, the shower—if something happens we can start recording.
“We’ll make a point of setting up mics that are highly unusual. Our tech and circuit specialist, Greg Snow, has modified lots of different mics—military ones and Motorola dispatch mics—and built in different circuitry. I don’t even know what’s in there, but they sound amazing! You can record something from across the room because there’s some kind of weird compressor already on there.
“We’ve also got one of the classic STC ball-and-biscuit mics. We use that quite a bit. You’ll notice that I already described two omnidirectional mics, because we don’t know where the sound’s going to be coming from. Also, because the Lips introduce so much character with their own sounds and don’t necessarily need microphones to create that character, I have a pair of DPA 4006s which we keep active at all times, just because they’re clean and clear and will depict the sound that’s happening in the room.
“It definitely keeps things interesting that we’re not after ‘good’ recording as much as we’re trying to capture an event, because there’s no going back. It’s like: The bass player and the drummer played at the time with one mic somewhere between the amp and the kick drum? That’s the drum sound, and that’s the bass sound. Get it and move on.”