Steven Drozd: Interview
“Man, I don’t know what to do. I’m one of those people who has trouble finishing a job.”
Prince. Brian Jones. Stevie Wonder. Steven Drozd?
It may sound far-fetched to some, but for anyone even half-familiar with the work of the multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and man behind psych-pop veterans The Flaming Lips’s sonic landscape, it’s not absurd to say Drozd fits in cozily with some of pop’s greatest multi-minded musicians.
While not every TMT-er happened to be super-stoked on Drozd’s latest — The Heart Is A Drum Machine (The Score) — which, Drozd explained, was actually completed for the film more than two years ago — I’d like to think the enjoyable soundtrack is as contemplative as it is playful. The movie addresses some heavy and basically unanswerable stuff, but when a rearrangement of music as whimsical as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” makes the final cut, Drozd seems to be handling things the only way a true Flaming Lip would. He’s not trying to give real answers to any of those universe-sized questions. He’s just helping to put more music into the universe.
To say I was merely looking forward to speaking with the musician who, when I was in high school, kicked in the door to a bizarre and enchanting world of music with the first snare hits of “Race For The Prize” (off now-classic The Soft Bulletin) is more than understatement. Still, it was pleasing to find the Lips genius remarkably laid back, direct, and generous with his time as he spoke with TMT on matters concerning aliens, Keith Richards, disliked Elton John songs, phase-shifters, Ariel Pink, and being a daddy.
I really enjoyed seeing The Lips play in Oakland a little while back. You guys played with Ariel Pink.
Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s one of my favorites right now.
Yeah, that was really cool. I brought my little brother who just started to get into you guys. I got him a birthday ticket to the show. He was super psyched. I remember you coming out and playing guitar on one of Ariel Pink’s tunes, and I was curious how you became aquatinted with his music, in particular.
I don’t know. I’ve liked him for a while. He’s been putting out records for a while. I didn’t really get it until that new record came out. I heard that song “Round And Round” — that’s probably the song I played with him that night in Oakland — and just flipped out. I was just like, “Man, this is beyond, y’know, weird-dude-in-his-basement. This is a guy that really took some time to put a record together.” Y’know what I mean? It’s just incredible. Once you get to talk to him, he’s weirder than you thought he would be, but he’s also more normal than you thought he’d be, all at the same time. If that makes any sense.
I think it does.
He met my expectations and exceeded my expectations. He’s just a really nice guy but he’s a fucking genuine weirdo. And his band is all great. All the musicians in his band are great players. I’ve known a couple of them from the past. That was a cool surprise. Yeah, everything about them I really, really love everything about it.
I’d heard some of the stuff before, but it was neat to see it live. I think it went well with what you guys were doing that night.
Yeah, that was my idea. I was trying to see if we could get them on tour with us. It wasn’t too difficult. Yeah, they agreed to. So, I think it helped them out and it definitely made it more fun for us. So, everybody won.
You just did the soundtrack for the documentary The Heart Is A Drum Machine. I’ve seen some trailers for it and it looks pretty cool. Who approached you for that? How did you get involved in scoring it?
The guys that made the movie, Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke, they’ve done a few things. They e-mailed The Lips’ manager and they contacted me and said, “Yeah, they wanna see if you would wanna do the music for this film, for this project.” It definitely sounded interesting to me. We just emailed back and forth. They sent me the rough ideas for the film, what they thought it was going to be about and all that. I said, “Yeah, I’m definitely interested.” This is like at the end of 2007, this is a while ago — like three years ago. So, I quickly, based on what they told me what the film’s going to do, I quickly did a couple tracks. That was November 2007, December 2007. I sent those to them and they loved them. They said, “Yeah, we’re gonna use these. This is a good starting point.”
So, I really just based everything I did, the rest of the songs, on the first song on the soundtrack called “Born.” I’ve based a lot of the sounds — I don’t know if you’ve listened to it — on some of the themes that reoccur in the film that are all kind of on that first song. That’s what I was trying to do, make it kind of uniform with continuity and all that stuff. So, they’d contacted our manager and I said I’d love to do it… I was like three or four songs in before I saw any film.
“I do have a drum kit at home that I play now and again, but it’s been so long since I’ve played in front of anybody. It’s been like 10 years! Well, maybe it hasn’t been that long, but it’s been long enough.”
Oh, yeah. I was curious about that.
Yeah, yeah. I saw what they’d filmed and I was like, “Yeah, this is really going to work.” Especially when I saw the footage of this story about how Carl Sagan and NASA sent out what’s called the Gold Record — maybe Golden Record? I can’t remember. I don’t know if you know anything about that.
Yeah, I’ve heard about it. It was like a bunch of music from all over the earth and they broadcasted it on this satellite.
Yeah, basically, that’s it. They took all the musics of the world and put them all into one source and flew it out to space with the theory that if aliens from some other planet or system find this, they can learn how to play it, they’ll see what’s going on on planet Earth. Basically, that’s the story.
When I saw that footage of that and the interviews about that, that’s when I really realized that the stuff I’d done — which is a lot of spacey, lot of bleeps and blops, soundtrackey space-age sounding stuff — I thought it was really gonna work, y’know? Yeah, it was really easy to do. It was easy and it was fun. No problem.
So, that’s certainly a possibility. That’s one of the things about our own evolution that’s unique, is that there’s sound involved, y’know? So, I don’t know man… Yeah, hard to say. That’s the thing about the film, they try to answer “What Is Music?” Well, I can’t imagine that anybody in the film is going to be able to nail that down. In my mind, the thing I say is that there’s definitely a connection between evolution and our planet and how it’s formed, and vibration and sound and all that. It goes back billions of years. I mean, it has to. So, that’s why we get such a deep connection, there’s such a deep connection between us and sounds and music.
I really like some of the themes that you mentioned on the soundtrack — the heartbeat and others. You also have a “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” medley with this kind of spacey sound. But there’s also a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with Maynard James Keenan from Tool.
At first, when I heard about that, I was like, “Well, that’s gotta be kind of weird.” But when I listened to it, there’s so many little Elton John-esque things he does with his voice that are just a natural part of what he does, that I was surprised how well it worked.
I thought that was pretty cool. How did you approach doing that tune? Did you send him some music and he laid down vocals?
Yeah, it was so easy. Yeah, I like to tell this story because we, literally, never got together once. We never talked on the phone. We never met. It was all emails and iChat and iDisk. So, what happened was the guys that made the film were interviewing him out at his ranch in Arizona. And he mentioned to them that, years ago, The Flaming Lips opened for Tool.
Whenever we’d play a place that had a piano in the hall or something, I would always sit down and start playing the piano. That’s what I like to do, y’know? And Maynard would always come over and we’d always like sing songs from the 70s or 80s, whatever. Whether it was like an Air Supply, Elton John, or Journey. I don’t know, we just did different stuff. Just for fun. He mentioned [to] those guys, he and I should do an Elton John cover for the soundtrack. So, it was his idea. But he said “Border Song” by Elton John. And I was like, “Man, we never did that one. I love Elton John but I’ve never liked that song, never liked it.”
And so I wrote him in an email that was like, “What if we do ‘Rocket Man’?” And he said, “Yeah, that sounds cool.” So, I did the track and I sent it to him. He got together at his studio, imported my track into (I’m pretty sure he used) Pro Tools. [He] recorded his vocals, he did like three or four vocal things, shipped all the tracks back to me on iDisk, individually, and I imported them back into my session and mixed them in. I sent a couple mixes back and forth a couple times before we got it.
I think that fits with what goes on in the album, for sure.
Oh, yeah, yeah! All the bleeps and the blops, the big space and the choir vocals, and the delays and stuff on them. I definitely was trying to tie that in with a few songs. So, it worked out pretty good.
Yeah, some of the interlude stuff, obviously, reminds me of the interludes on some of the Lips’s stuff. Do you play drums on all the songs on the soundtrack, too?
I was just relistening to a bunch of old Led Zeppelin songs and in complete awe of John Bonham. I know live you have Kliph Scurlock — who’s a great musician, obviously — but do you also ever miss playing drums with the Lips live at all?
I do, yeah. I was talking to Wayne [Coyne] about that recently. Because we just performed The Soft Bulletin in its entirety on New Year’s Eve.
“I got my little boy a drum kit for Christmas and he’s been banging on it everyday.”
That must have been awesome.
Yeah, and we we’re gonna do that again I think in London in May. And I kinda miss it. I’d like to play drums again. I don’t know what the setup would be. I might even see if I can find some other band that wants a drummer or something. So, I do have a drum kit at home that I play now and again, but it’s been so long since I’ve played in front of anybody. It’s been like 10 years! Well, maybe it hasn’t been that long, but it’s been long enough. Yeah, so, I really can’t answer your question; that’s really something I’d like to do in the future.
Well, I know live you’ve been sharing guitar duties with Derek Brown. How’s that been working out for you? Has it allowed you to focus more on keyboards and vocals? Has it opened things up at all, playing with him?
Well, for me, it’s just we have another human up there playing — creating energy. The icing on the cake is that it’s Derek. I mean, you don’t know Derek but he’s a really, really great musician. He’s such a fast learner. He has his own style but luckily his own style seems to mesh with what we’re doing. It’s not like we have to tell him, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” He comes from similar stock as us. So, it all works out really well.
It’s just nice to have someone else up there that plays good and plays with precision, and you know he’s not going to fuck up, and you know he’s going to be there. You know he’s going to be playing the part. It’s nice, for me. That way, I can decide “Well, do I wanna play guitar and add to that or do I wanna play keyboard or what really needs to happen here?” Since we have this person, he’s definitely gonna do that.
I remember reading something about the band The Paris Gun, is that something with him that you’ve done?
That was me and Kliph and — it’s been so long ago — this guy Corey Franklin who plays bass. Those tapes are sitting somewhere. Man, I don’t know what to do. I’m one of those people who has trouble finishing a job. The soundtrack thing I did and it was done. And then it was done for a couple years and now, finally, we’re doing interviews about it — it’s coming out. So, I’m like, “Oh, that’s cool.” It’s been left up to me. I don’t know if the whole thing was even finished because I’m just really bad about that stuff. The Paris Gun stuff, the master tapes are sitting in my closet. We did a session with Dave Fridmann, the whole thing just kinda fell apart. We haven’t talked to Corey in five years. It’s just very weird, so there’s not much of a story there. I don’t know if the stuff will ever be put out.
Yeah, I wasn’t familiar with that band at all, so I was just curious about what it sounded like. But everything has it’s time I guess.
Yeah, one of these days we might put this stuff out. But I don’t know if it’d even be under that name. It might just end up on some Steven Drozd B-sides or something. I don’t know. I have to put it out at some point but I haven’t thought about it in so long, it’s weird you brought it up. [Laughs]
Yeah, I was just curious and doing a little bit of research. For the Lips album Embryonic, everyone talks about it sounding very live and really immediate. How much of that was tracked live? Was Kliph playing drums on that, too?
The new record? The Lips record?
Yeah, it’s mostly live. I mean, there’s a few songs that were like programmed drums and programmed rhythm tracks. Yeah, but it’s like 90% just live. What we do is we just jam. Literally, we would we’d jam for 10 to 15 minutes and then listen and listen and listen and find two or three minutes and be like, “Oh, that’s really cool. We should use that.” And then we’d take that bit and we’d edit it and put stuff on top of it and make a song out of it. I’d say probably half the record is like that.
And Kliph played drums on most of the record, y’know? I ended up engineering. So, the step, to me, which I quickly discovered is the least favorite thing I’d ever want to do ever is recording someone else playing drums. I don’t want to do that ever again! [Laughs]
It’s just the last thing I want to do — listen to someone else play drums and then figure out how to record them. Yeah, so that’s most of the record. You just jam, so it really is live. It’s not all, literally, live, but the basic [tracks] — which your getting all the energy and the feel from — is definitely live. So, that was a different way for us to do it like that. I don’t think The Flaming Lips ever just jammed and then made songs out of it. We always went to the studio with songs written and then we’d just record what we had, whereas this really was the first time we really went into the studio and had nothing. We were just gonna jam and then make up something and then create something out of it. That was the first time, definitely, we’d ever done that.
You guys are known for doing epic things live and on record, but doing a double album and also covering Dark Side of the Moon is sort of increasingly epic ground. How long had covering Dark Side of the Moon, in particular, been an idea? Is it something you guys sort of talked about every once in a while and just decided to do it eventually?
No, it happened real quick. I think Wayne was talking to the iTunes people and they knew our record was coming out. And nowadays, for people to buy your stuff, you have to make it worth their time or otherwise they’re just gonna get shit for free. So, I think he was talking to the iTunes store about what our bonus tracks would be for Embryonic, and I think he just spit out the idea, “Yeah, we’ll fucking rerecord Dark Side of the Moon and make that iTunes available. That’ll be part of the gimmick for Embryonic.” That was the original idea for it.
And then, we just ended up doing it. [Laughs] Now, it’s just become this whole new cottage industry for us. We performed Dark Side of the Moon a couple years ago and now we performed The Soft Bulletin. I’m sure we’ll come up with something else to do. Yeah, that’s it, really. It’s not something we mulled over for years. It’s something that quickly came about and started happening. It seemed like it worked, so we did it. Yeah, that’s about it.
“There’s definitely a connection between evolution and our planet and how it’s formed, and vibration and sound…”
I read somewhere that you’re a big history buff. Have you read any good nonfiction recently that you’ve been digging?
Yeah, just nonfiction. I’m trying to think of the last time I read any fiction. Man, it’s been years. Right now I’m reading that David Bowie biography — I forget the author’s name. What’s the guy’s name? It just came out the last couple of years. It’s pretty interesting. I’ve been reading a lot of rock biography things lately. I just read… What is wrong with my brain? I’m completely blank. I read the Keith Richards autobiography.
I’ve actually heard some weird reactions to that book. I haven’t read it yet. I’ve been reading a couple different Dylan biographies and stuff. But I’ve heard that Keith Richards one is wild.
There’s a lot of great stories in it, for sure. It has a lot of good rock and roll stories but he just doesn’t seem as weird and cool as he used to before I read the book. And now it seems like he’s an old, rock-and-roller guy, y’know what I mean? It’s what he is, but I thought he seemed more like an alien or something before! [Laughs]
You’re a family guy now, though, right? You have a couple kids. Kind of an obvious question, but how is balancing that with tour lifestyle and being in a band still? Has that been a more recent challenge?
That’s a good question. Yeah, I think it’s harder than I thought it’d be having to leave home, y’know what I mean, when you have kids. I didn’t know it was going to be as difficult as it is. It’s really hard for me to leave home sometimes. I really struggle with it. Luckily, I’ll work to a point where I can take the family with me sometimes. Last year, I took my wife and two kids, we got a nanny and we all jumped on the bus and traveled for about a week and half with the band. I went up the East Coast and ended up in New York City for like four days. That was kinda fun. Just at least they’re with me. We might be tired and kind of miserable but at least we’re together. At least we’re not separated from each other.
Yeah, it’s something in the last couple years has gotten harder for me. My son is five. I guess he turned 5 in September, so… my daughter, she’ll be 3 next month. Y’know, as they get older, it gets harder because they’re more acutely aware of me being gone. They’re more aware of it. Now, my son knows when I say, “I’m gonna be gone for two weeks,” he knows it’s gonna be two weeks. It kinda kills him, y’know? It’s getting harder. I’m gonna have to figure out some stuff as I go along.
Right on. Do your son or daughter have any inclinations towards music at all? Would you ever encourage and support that kind of thing?
I’d totally support it, yeah. Like any parent would say, I’d support anything they’d want to do. I think my daughter might be the musician, we’ll see. She definitely seems to gravitate more towards [music]. She’ll grab things and start playing a rhythm and stuff. I mean, I got my little boy a drum kit for Christmas and he’s been banging on it everyday. So, I’m excited about that but no major breakthroughs have happened. He tries to get a beat going and gives up after about 10 minutes. But there’s a drum kit here and guitars all over the house. I’ve got a Baby Grande piano. I’ve got percussion instruments. I’ve got a ukulele for my daughter. There’s just so much stuff around the house. It’s almost like they’re spoiled, y’know what I mean?
They don’t know that every household is not like this. Y’know what I mean? [Laughs]. So, we’ll see if when they get a little bit older they’ll be like, “Oh, this is cool that this is like this.” I don’t know, they don’t seem to be too christened so far but we’ll see. But they’re only 5 and 3. I don’t think I really started getting jacked up about music until I was about 5, so.
I remember I read something about how your dad bought you a kit and said, “If you keep getting better, I’ll keep adding parts to it.” Then, eventually, you got a full kit.
Yeah, that’s it. He got me a bass drum and a snare drum and cymbal when I was 7. And he was like, “Y’know, if you’re still playing six months from now and you’re still trying, I’ll get you another drum.” By a year later, I had a couple of toms and a floor tom and a high hat. I just kept playing and then he got me a full drum kit after that. I just kind of went from there. My dad was very encouraging from very early on.
That’s an important thing.
Yeah, if my son is like that, if he takes to it, if he seems like he’s interested and stays interested, I definitely will be excited and curious and interested and all that, for sure. I guess I’m saying I don’t have any expectations right now. But if something were to happen, I would be over the moon about it.
To wrap things up where we started, you mentioned Ariel Pink being a really nice discovery. Anything you’ve been digging lately as far as new music goes? It doesn’t have to be “new” necessarily though.
I guess the last thing I heard — I guess they’ve been touring the states for a while — that band Tame Impala. Have you heard of them?
I haven’t, no.
Tame Impala. I’d liken them to somewhere between like 70s riffage Todd Rundgren meets… I don’t know. It’s very psychedelic. A lot of phase-shifters going, let’s just put it that way.
If you know anything about phase-shifters, that’s all you need to know, right?