A Lip Speaks: An interview with Michael Ivins

The Cynic recently spoke with bassist Michael Ivins of The Flaming Lips about their latest album, At War With the Mystics, among other things. The band is looking forward to coming to Burlington, a place they have never been but have heard about. Here’s what one third of the band had to say: The Cynic recently spoke with bassist Michael Ivins of The Flaming Lips about their latest album, “At War With the Mystics,” among other things. The band is looking forward to coming to Burlington, a place they have never been but have heard about. Here’s what Ivins had to say: Vermont Cynic: “At War with the Mystics” seems to yield a political tone in several songs. In “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” Wayne Coyne sings, “It’s a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want…” Who would you say you guys are directing that at and what does it mean? Are you guys being sarcastic?Michael Ivins: Well, not sarcastic, hopefully, in a silly way. If you have the back story — as we know — especially what happened in the election of 2004. And just how it seemed like a done deal. It’s stunning that when the results came in they didn’t seem to go the way that one would have thought it would have. But I don’t think that this song in particular is aimed, say, at the administration or anything like that. It’s sort of jumps out right at the beginning and questions us specifically, or people in general who say, ‘if I had it my way things would be a lot better.’ It’s sort of a cautionary tale in a way, to say, “Be careful of what you wish for.” And it’s not as easy as it seems; that maybe the temptation could be too much; that if you did have the power and your way at all times, that you have to tread carefully.VC: So in a perfect world, you would give all the answers to the masses?MI: Exactly. In a perfect world, you would say yes. But sometimes when huge amounts of power are involved, the answers are easy to get mixed up in everything, or, perhaps things aren’t as clear cut. These things might not seem as evident. And even the big question [in The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song]: “if you could take all the love without giving any of it back, would you do it?” You know, it really is our stance, and I know it’s been said before, but I think it’s true that if you give love, it’s obvious that you will be loved in return, and that’s the guage: How you get loved and how you are loved is by loving.VC: Fair enough. “It Overtakes Me” and “Vein of Stars” seem like classic struggles between big and small, life and death, the known and the unknown. You guys seem to be saying that every one is small when put against the backdrop of what is unknown in the world and maybe that should unite us?MI: I think that’s a great take on it, you know. It should unite us. But I think in the big picture you’re as big or as small as you would like to be. When your faced with the realization that yes, indeed, we are floating in space, or that in eight billion years the sun will go through its natural life cycle and basically engulf all the planets and moons and nothing will be left of us at all. I mean, it’s one thing to say 2000 years go by and we have pyramids and mummies and remnants of great civilizations and things like that, but to think that in eight billion years absolutely everything that any one thought was a good idea, a bad idea, a big idea, a little idea, are all gonna be turned to interstellar dust.VC: It makes divisions like religion and race trivial.MI: I think it’s those sorts of realizations that should make us, as thinking, conscious beings, more willing to find answers and look for answers. We believe, and think it is noble, that life right now is worth living. It’s all worth going through even if there is nothing at the end of it. The things you do, the people you influence…those sorts of things last longer than you do. Those sorts of things can transcend your time because it’s not testable and not knowable. The only thing we do know is that we’re here right now and we accept things like death being a part of the cycle. It should give you a release and a freedom to go about doing good things, hopefully. But people use these sorts of ideas to basically reek havoc in the world today, and almost for little or no political gain. I really don’t understand. On the religion thing, basically it comes down to what awaits people after they die. People are willing to basically die and kill other people for these ideas. I think we’re generally tolerable and respectful of the way people think, but I think this idea of religion, especially what happens to you after you die, is just not knowable.VC: So you’re saying live in the now?MI: Well definitely. Live in the now, but that’s not saying that there is no moral structure – I don’t think that’s true at all. Whether you have a father figure up in the sky or not, you still have to live morally. I think this idea of this religion versus that religion is, I think, just detrimental to the human race as a whole.VC: “The Wand” seems to ascribe power to any one that listens to it. Would you consider this song as meant to rouse people out of stagnancy and into action? Against what and who?MI: This is the interesting thing about records, and art even, that we’ve come to notice as a band: We’ll start doing a record and time will go by and we’ll have this collection of songs that seem to hang together. And then some more time will go by and we’re done with what we’re calling “the record.” And then we’ll put the record out and I think we find it takes about a year for this incubation period, so to speak, to happen and it actually takes on an identity because people will get it, listen to it, ascribe their own experiences to it. Then we’ll start thinking about it. I don’t think that we stand up and say that a song or a piece of art will actually change things – that rock and roll stopped Vietnam or anything like that. I think that we subscribe to the belief that every generation believes that they’re living in the end times, or these are the most important times, the greatest generation. For things to really change, and I think it’s getting to that point, we need to stop beating around the bush.VC: Pun intended?MI: No, no pun intended there. I think that all our songs should empower, on any of our records. There’s a more life affirming attitude and an optimistic, albeit a cautious optimistic attitude, through everything that we do. And if that would shine through more than anything else, I think that’s even more empowering than specifically ranting about things. VC: Your shows are always weird, theatrical and vibrant. How much do you guys think about your showmanship when you’re in the studio?MI: You know, not much. I think there will be a song here or there while we’re recording and every one will look around and say, “wow, this will be a lot of fun to play.” I don’t think we look at it at all in the writing or the creation of songs — not to say that it’s ever mutually exclusive. The shows are just a whole other experience.VC: I’ve read that you’re a science fiction buff?MI: Yes, absolutly.VC: I also read that you played “Miner #1” on an episode of Star Trek. What was that like for you?MI: It was quite the dream come true. Well you know, we’re actually making a movie and I’ve been on camera and in effect, playing myself with interviews and things like that. I mean, I would love to be on any other show that would have me or that I could sneak on, or wile my way onto. But I’m not an actor. They say when you’re acting you are supposed to be in the moment, absoloutely, as some character. But I think what has to happen is you have to lose your self consciousness. You have to literally step outside of yourself and become something else.