We were lucky once again to get a chance to interview a true musical genius, Derek Brown, of the Flaming Lips. He really came through with a great interview!
Rob – Hey Derek, it is great to get a chance to link up and ask you some questions. The Flaming Lips have been around for quite some time now. How did you join up with the group back in 2009? Or was it before then?
Derek – I’ve lived in Oklahoma my entire life. I grew up in a small town, but as soon as I graduated high school I moved to Oklahoma City (where the Lips were formed and are still based out of). The year was 1999 and ‘The Soft Bulletin’ had just come out and it was my absolute favorite record of that first summer out of high school living in “the big city.” A couple years later, I started promoting shows in OKC. The first show was Stephen Malkmus on his first solo tour. Scott Booker, the band’s manager, came by the show in the afternoon and we started talking. He invited me to lunch soon after and we’ve been working together ever since. So, I started to know the guys in the band in 2001 and was hearing songs from the ‘Yoshimi’ record in real time as they brought them back from the studio.
In 2003, I joined an Oklahoma band called The Starlight Mints and the Lips took them out on tour as the support band. That tour was going to end at Bonnaroo and the Lips were going to cover Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and “Us & Them” in the encore. They found out I played alto saxophone, so they invited me to play the part on “Us & Them.” I was way out of practice and I’m sure it was horrible (on my part), but it was a cool experience. Later that year, I joined Steve Burns’ band (from ‘Blue’s Clues’) and again, the Lips took us on tour in Europe. This was when I started to really bond with the guys: drinking in the hotel bars after shows and other shenanigans.
Fast forward to 2009, I’d heard rumors they were going to add a musician to the live lineup, but I never expected to be the one they invited. At first it was like a trial/no commitment sort of thing. But I remember flying to Europe with Steven (Drozd) a couple months into it and him saying “Well, I think it’s working so if you wanna keep playing with us, let’s say that.”
Rob – We love to find out how bands got their names. Where in the heck did the name come from?
Derek – It’s so funny you ask because Wayne actually told us the origin of the band name a couple months ago and for the life of me, I can’t remember what he said!
Rob – Throughout the band’s career, you guys have recorded a BUNCH of covers to include the tribute to Nick Cave. If you had to pick three of your favorite covers, what would they be?
Derek – “The Rain Song”, Led Zeppelin. “Us & Them”, Pink Floyd. “A Day in the Life”, The Beatles.
Rob – So, I waited until now to ask about the Bubbles. Who came up with the idea of having a concert where the audience was all in a bubble?
Derek – That was Wayne (Coyne). There is a documentary on the Criterion Channel about it called ‘The Flaming Lips Space Bubble Film’ that explains the entire story. It started with a funny sketch that Wayne did soon after COVID lockdown and I remember thinking “Oh, funny idea, but absolutely impossible.” Fast forward a few months and the band has ordered 100 Space Bubbles from China and we’re starting to figure out the logistics of actually doing it. It was so incredibly stressful and time consuming, but it gave us something to do when no other concerts were really happening.
Rob – Following up, how was it for you actually playing in a bubble?
Derek – Very, very strange. Even though I was on stage and in front of hundreds of people, I often had to remind myself I was in the middle of a show because I just kinda felt alone up there and in my own world. After a couple shows, I thought “Surely this isn’t enjoyable for the audience” – keep in mind, it was impossible to hear their applause or reactions. So, I started reading people’s reviews of the shows on Instagram and other social media and I realized that I was wrong; that people were loving the shows and it was the kind of thing they really needed to bring them some joy, entertainment, relief. I don’t feel like I’ve fully processed that time (most of us probably haven’t), so I’m curious how I’ll look back on it in a few years when I’m more removed from the hard work and stress that it entailed.
Rob – Let’s talk about your work with The Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma. Can you tell me how that came about?
Derek – Like I said, I’ve worked with the band’s manager Scott since 2001 and in 2008 he was asked by the president of the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) to start this new contemporary music school. He needed a staff and asked me if I’d be interested. So, I’ve been doing this for 14 years now and it’s really become a wonderful place to work. I’ve met so many students here that truly inspire me.
Rob – We know that TFL started in Oklahoma City. Did you grow up in OKC? Go to UCO?
Derek – The town I grew up in was a very small town about 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City. As soon as I could, I moved to OKC because it was where stuff was happening (that’s all relative, I guess). I did attend UCO for a little while (along with four other universities). I never finished my degree which is somewhat ironic considering what I do now, but opportunities in life just kept coming up and I didn’t have the time or see the point in finishing a degree.
Rob – Besides covers, the Lips have played with a TON of artists in a bunch of genres and generations. Some of these artists have backing bands, I’m thinking of Miley Cyrus. When you have done work with her or other artists, are you working with their bands too? Or are you having them join you as a singer?
Derek – Every situation has been unique I suppose. When we played shows with Miley, we were the band. But you’re right, we’ve performed with dozens of other musicians and bands – usually in special circumstances (charity shows, TV shows, etc). Some of the “pinch me” moments were playing with Yoko Ono and Phillip Glass. I’ll never forget playing “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Yoko. That song almost always brings me to tears, but I kept it together for the performance!
Rob – Thanks Derek for doing this short interview with us. What can you let the fans know about what may be next for you and the band?
Derek – This year we were finally able to really tour again and promote the last record, ‘American Head’, and I think they were some of the best shows we’ve played since I joined the band. Next year, we’re going to be playing shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of ‘Yoshimi..’
As for me, I really want to make my own record, so in the next few months I’m going to try and hold my feet to the fire to make that a reality.