Stream “The W.A.N.D.” (mov, asx), the first track from The Flaming Lips’ new album At War With The Mystics, or buy it from iTunes.
[Embedded YouTube video, 1/26/2021.]
SONG NOTES FROM THE SORCERER’S ORPHAN
Understanding At War With The Mystics
THE YEAH YEAH YEAH SONG (WITH ALL YOUR POWER)
Steven had been recording in a separate vocal booth on his computer and I walked by and heard the crazy grouped vocals doing the “yeah yeah yeah” part and I was immediately hooked. This is one of those songs that points the finger at the pettiness of those in power but also points the finger back at ourselves – what would YOU do? Power in the hands of the inexperienced (which is what we would be) is very dangerous…
FREE RADICALS (A HALLUCINATION OF THE CHRISTMAS SKELETON PLEADING WITH A SUICIDE BOMBER)
I had a dream in which Devendra Banhart (the weird singer/songwriter) is pleading with a suicide bomber (who is about to go blow up something or somebody) to change his mind. And once he changes the deranged zealot’s point of view, he (Devendra) immediately sympathizes with the frustration (mostly aimed at George W. Bush) that could make someone long for such exaggerated revenge…(Keep in mind that this is just a funny dream – these suicide bombers are clearly brainwashed religious fanaticals that are insane with their own agenda…they are beyond any pleads of reason and are not worthy of any sympathy.)
THE SOUND OF FAILURE
We have some friends whose father was dying of cancer – I say “was” because it (the cancer and his death) dragged on agonizingly for over a year – and they (our friends) were becoming, understandably, weary of being forced to be upbeat…
And I remember hearing a comment once about how annoying it was, to them, to have to hear this gratingly jubilant fake enthusiasm (usually hokey hyped-up pop groups like Black Eyed Peas, Destiny’s Child, Ashlee Simpson, Hillary Duff, etc.) blasting out of the “Muzak” systems virtually everywhere they went. To them this cheerleader-type assault was really only effective if you didn’t actually have any real psychic stress…And they felt that it was, surprisingly, helpful to them to try to understand their fears and their sadness – as opposed to pretending that it’s “all good.”
And, you see, this is true insight… finally we know it’s okay to have a troubled mind, it’s okay to fail…
And so this song (which was written in the car on the way up to New York from Oklahoma while I drove and Steven played battery powered keyboard and computer) is about a young girl whose best friend has died, and everywhere she goes (like the friends I mentioned earlier) she must endure the empty optimism of the inexperienced. She wants to know, since it has arrived, what is despair, what is hope, what is failure…And what is in the darkness??
The line in the song, “so go tell Britney and go tell Gwen” is obviously a reference back to my friends and their Muzak incident…meaning, “Yeah, go tell Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani that their energy and their Prom Queen smiles only go to prove that they don’t empathize with my sadness.” I believe, in the song, that Britney and Gwen could be thought of as this grieving girl’s less mature friends…and that she’s not trying to go against them, she just doesn’t want to pretend that she understands what she doesn’t really understand – what death is…what despair is…what existential fear is… She doesn’t know, but she’s starting to find out…
IT’S DARK… IS IT ALWAYS THIS DARK?
A strange sort of afterword to the previous song. The voice and the strange blippy trail is actually my voice run through a computer plug-in effect called “Squirrel Parade”…Pretty cool… Anyway, it sounds like I’m saying “It’s Dark”, but I didn’t say “It’s Dark”. I don’t remember what it was exactly – just me talking before a song, but it gives the illusion of a young girl finding her way through a mystery…yes?
MY COSMIC AUTUMN REBELLION (THE INNER LIFE AS BLAZING SHIELD OF DEFIANCE AND OPTIMISM AS CELESTIAL SPEAR OF ACTION)
We had been using the musical elements of this song (it wasn’t a song then) as an intro for our live shows, as I rolled around on top of the crowd in the now famous “Space Bubble.” The power of the chord structure and arrangement kept inspiring me and I eventually pieced together this manifesto of defiance and optimism. It is my response to the naysaying know-it-alls who see life leading only to death and see nature as a cruel prankster designed to defeat the human spirit. And the truth (which I get to proclaim as if standing on the top of a holy mountain shooting lazer beams out of my hands – thanks to Steven’s epic orchestration) is that no circumstance can ever defeat us unless we let it… Resilience in the face of failure is a manifestation of the mind…
VEIN OF STARS
I picked up a guitar that Steven had tuned to an odd open chord (F 6/9) and, without thinking, strummed it a couple of times and immediately sang (off the top of my head) the first line into the tape recorder, “Who knows, maybe there isn’t a vein of stars calling out my name.” My intention was to sing something cosmic about how humans have (as science reveals more and more about the nature of time and space) been abandoned by the stars…But I believe, once we finished it (the song and its production), it seemed to convey just the opposite…That almost despite science we are connected to the stars…Because we love to look at them, we hope maybe they love to look at us…
THE WIZARD TURNS ON…THE GIANT SILVER FLASHLIGHT AND PUTS ON HIS WEREWOLF MOCCASINS
A kind of space jam where the initial performance had Michael playing the CD player (in it was a CD with a recording of the drums), Steven playing the Rhodes and me playing electric bass. Mr. Fridmann ran the whole thing through a series of space echoes. flangers, filters and distortion boxes… The entire mix lays in the bed of a program called Metaphysical Function…Neat, huh?
IT OVERTAKES ME
I sometimes will do a silly songwriter’s trick – I’ll act like I’m writing a song for someone else and on this track I was imagining Gwen Stefani… I pictured her singing it and imagined what kind of production would happen. Initially I called the song, when it was intended for Ms. Stefani, “I Like To Masturbate and Think Of Outer Space”…and I still think that if she was doing the song it’s a great title….But to think of me, a 45 year old man with a graying beard, umm, masturbating….is… well…(I’m uncomfortable even typing this)…unpleasant…so anyway…The song ends up being more about my occasional bouts of panic when accidentally contemplating the “Cosmic Reality”, that is….that we (the Earth) are floating perilously adrift in a vast and endless sea of black infinity (outer space) and it is, when analyzed, a mindfuck…and yes I feel horribly insignificant….So anyway, what we ended up with, I believe, still sounds like a mashing of “Hollaback Girl” and “1969” by The Stooges…take some drugs and turn it up real loud…
THE STARS ARE SO BIG AND I AM SO SMALL…DO I STAND A CHANCE?
This section of the song captures, I think, the vulnerability and awe of this same scenario (the Cosmic Reality) within a cathedralesque womb-cloud of angelic voices… but instead of panic it is solemn and comforting…
MR. AMBULANCE DRIVER
The entire song, its key and chord structure, is built around the ambulance siren sample. When we first did it there was an eerie death coloring (probably due to the siren and the lyric about the girl being dead) that was very satisfying… But we found, with repeated listening, that the siren, somehow, subliminally disappeared and, to our surprise, it revealed a kind of Eddie Rabbitt (70’s pop-country singer-songwriter) at the roller rink, easy listening teenager car crash ballad.
HAVEN’T GOT A CLUE
A friend of ours, Greg Kurstin (he played with us on the Beck tour and was nicknamed “Firefingers” by Steven due to his sublime playing of the keyboard) is an accomplished musician and has a great ear for pop sounds and structure…He’s written songs with artists ranging from Enrique Iglesias to Karen O and he, upon my insistence, sent this unfinished track for us to build on. It was great fun and again (like the Gwen Stefani trick) it allowed us to create inside a different identity. The song is about a type of person that everybody knows and endures (we won’t mention names). They blame everyone but themselves for all of their problems which they seem to have in endless supply. If they suffer, you suffer more… You know what I’m talking about.
THE W.A.N.D. (THE WILL ALWAYS NEGATES DEFEAT)
I was playing electric guitar, Michael was on fuzzwah bass and Steven was on the drumkit and we stumbled upon this druggy prog-rock riff and stuttery, funky beat. It was like Black Sabbath getting mashed up with Sly and the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder, and it sent us off in a wonderful new direction. The idea of a magic wand and magic powers occurred to me while watching a homeless guy in Oklahoma City. He was, I believe, Vietnamese, and had a cool looking wizardly beard and mustache and he carried a long stick, which he used as a kind of cane-weapon. And one day I saw him fighting an “imagined” enemy and the long stick became (as best I could tell) a kind of magic wand that made his invisible foe retreat. I mean… it seemed to give him a confidence that allowed him to defeat his hallucinations…and at first I thought “how sad…he believes this old stick is saving him”… but the more I thought about it, the more I envied him in a way…for the evil manifestations of his mind he invented a sparkling sorcerer’s baton to lead his psychic revolution…yes!!…
And so we delved into a kind of radical protest rock mentality…We sing, “We got the power now, motherfuckers, that’s where it belongs”, but I believe it’s cosmically empowering – not actually empowering. In the song, we rail against the greedy, corrupt evil beings who are in control and trying to enslave us… But our rebellion is simply to fight back – we have no solutions.
POMPEII AM GÃ–TTERDÃ„MMERUNG
A galloping Godhead melody (reminiscent of the German National Anthem) telling a vague story of a young couple planning their suicide. They live in a place where there are volcanoes erupting and they are going to take the train up the mountain and jump into the flowing lava as a symbolic sacrifice of their restricted love.The triumphant quality of the arrangement suggests that, just before they obliterate themselves, they realize that to make such a decision, to destroy yourself, is really just a point of internal motivation leading to outward action. And, if they could do something as extreme as annihilating themselves, why couldn’t they just try to change the circumstances that have limited them?….Action is all we have….Worth mentioning is that this is Steven’s first lead vocal on a Flaming Lips track…
The core of the chorus melody has a melancholy resolution evoking, abstractly, sections of Mahler’s 9th Symphony…We are, subconsciously I guess, drawn to “the answer”… maybe that is why people have the urge to pray or sing or create…We long for this thing called “closure”, but I believe that “closure” is, maybe, an illusion. This song takes a long stare at coping and the secret healing powers of slipping through time and space…How suffering, somehow, is relieved by simple…acceptance…