1999’s The Soft Bulletin saw the band take the leap from quirky to important, while 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots signalled the band’s long-awaited arrival as musical heroes. Now, in 2006, Ivins has had enough. Not of music, but of the ‘mystics’ his band so cleverly devour in their new album, At War With The Mystics. If the band’s self-created universe unfolds as it should, this will be heralded as their masterpiece.
The band had stated that they wanted to make more of a rock-oriented record, after the fun, cartoonish electronica which defined much of Yoshimi. Ivins explains how this all came about:
“I think it started when we were doing these shows last year and we started playing Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, and it was just a hoot to play. I think we took that mentality back with us into the studio, thinking, ‘yeah, we should rock!’. I tried to definitely carry that into this record. We’ve never been people, or a band, to just sit still and, you know, after The Soft Bulletin make ‘The Soft Bulletin 2’ or after Yoshimi make ‘Yoshimi: The Sequel’. I think we owe it to ourselves to try new things, to experiment and just move forward. Somebody’s always got a four track or a computer file of some kind that’s got some weird sound or new thing that could be added to the general mixing pot. As the past couple of years went transitioning into ‘hey it’s time to make a record again’, I think we were moving in that direction.”
What’s more, At War With The Mystics is a far more personal release. It is a distillation of the band’s collective headspace during the turbulent four years which preceded its release.
During virtually every day of recording, Ivins explains, Donald Rumsfeld would say something ridiculous on the television. The band had to got a point where they would record these ‘things’ and pass them around the control room. What sort of ‘things’ were they? “They were just things,” Ivins explains, “unbelievable things, and you just can’t believe these people are running my country.”
There was a time, Ivins explains – despite catching himself out for sounding like an old man, reminiscing and whatnot – where people got on with more of a ‘live and let live’ ethos. “It was an idea that you could have your own beliefs and people would just leave you alone,” he explains. “It seems that over the last twenty years a bunch of people, who have a very particular way of looking at the world, and the world after this one – whatever that may be – these people have really consolidated a lot of power and are really influencing the way the whole world thinks. All the stuff happening in the Middle East is no accident, it’s all just because of people’s strange religious beliefs. It’s one side thinking they’re right and being very intolerant of the other side, all boiling down in seems to people arguing over what happens after you die. People who call themselves liberal, or progressive, or things like that, are like ‘hey, I just wanna do my thing and you can do your thing over there’, have been too tolerant to the point where it seems like, well, you just can’t be tolerant of intolerance. It just seems like a lot of ideas here, that could be seen as moving forward, are being chipped away, whether it’s women’s rights, abortion rights, the war on drugs… Back in the Reagan days, people would go on about politics and this and that, and talk about 1984 and George Orwell. That seems a lot more true right now, what with the spying … this phone conversation is probably being recorded right now…”
So, who are the mystics? Looking at the front cover art, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an album about unicorns, wizards and magic spells. Things that are fun, that we know are not real. For The Flaming Lips, the ‘mystics’ are far more insidious. They are people who indulge in their own version of fantasy, ascribe the word ‘belief’ to it, and proceed to wield inordinate control over the lives of others.
“There are many kinds of mystics,” Ivins says. “ They are people on the far right, or fundamentalists, people who are willing to kill each other over whether women are allowed to have abortions, because you’re going to go somewhere after you die. Or people who are going to kill each other over a cartoon. It just doesn’t make any sense. On the other side too, there are people on the left, if you will, that are mystics as well. These people are like, ‘hey, peace, if we just think hard enough everything will be good, if we think good thoughts…’. Well, that’s not really real either. It’s gonna take some action on somebody’s part to actually get things changed. If you want to take a literal approach to the title, At War With The Mystics, we’ve just had enough with people who are holding irrational, unprovable beliefs, and actually making life and death decisions based upon them, decisions that are going to affect my life, your life, my friends’ lives, your family’s lives, and so on, all around the world. We have to move on, something has to be done.”
There’s a part of me that still wants to believe that, even if music can’t change anything, it could at least act as a catalyst toward change. Hopefully, At War With The Mystics is another stone in the path toward a more enlightened humanity. The Flaming Lips aren’t the first to say that we should evolve beyond our faith, beyond the pettiness of our own subjective realities. They surely won’t be the last. But if anyone else can put it to a better soundtrack, then I’ll jump right off this crazy boat.