Flaming Lips Drummer in Olivia Newton-John Shocker!: Steven Drozd Speaks
or Sometimes a Spiderbite Isn’t Really a Spiderbite
Steven Drozd has had a pretty wild time of things in the last eight years. He became the drummer for The Flaming Lips and hung on for dear life as they had a huge pop single smash (“She Don’t Use Jelly”) and played the Peach Pit on 90210, and then became critical favorites for their challenging psychedelic pop albums. His medical troubles were well-documented on “The Spiderbite Song” and in every single interview for The Soft Bulletin, which quoted singer/lyricist Wayne Coyne as saying that Drozd had been bit by a poisonous spider and almost lost his arm. (More on that in a second.)
But Drozd is better now, famous as the multi-instrumental secret weapon in The Lips’ approach. We caught up with him and asked him some questions — and were a little surprised at the answers we found.
So: are you sick of spiderbite questions?
Actually, y’know, I haven’t had any for a while. I had kind of a lot of questions about that for a while, but not so much lately.
Oh, so I shouldn’t ask.
No, it’s cool. What really happened is, I got an abcess from an intravenous drug injection and it turned into an infection. My hand swelled up like a fuckin’ tennis ball; it was really bad. I was embarrassed about it and I didn’t want to tell anyone about my drug habit, so I said that I got bit by a spider.
And then Wayne wrote “The Spiderbite Song,” and so the story just grew. I felt guilty about it and we talked and I told him about it.
I had no idea; I had just read that you had a heroin problem, but I didn’t know about the song. Is this something that a lot of people know?
Not a lot. I’ve talked a little bit about it.
Are you okay talking about it in an interview like this?
Yeah, it’s cool. I’ve been clean for almost a year, eleven months in September.
Good for you, man. That’s really great. How’d you do that?
I didn’t do NA. That’s okay for some people, but not for me. For me, it was just movin’ out of town, getting away from that whole scene, and just going cold turkey.
Amazing. [Pause. What the hell do you say next?] Okay, so, where are you now?
We’re in Columbus, Ohio.
On tour, right?
Yeah, we’re on the “Unlimited Sunshine” tour.
How’d that get started?
Well, the guy from Cake started it, he just decided to put a tour together, got Modest Mouse involved, and it sounded like fun.
Had you met any of the other bands before?
Not really. But they’re all great. There’s Kinky, Modest Mouse like I said, De La Soul — we’re having a great time. It’s great getting to play live drums again. We’ve got a lot of extra visual stuff, a lot more going on.
That’s what I was going to ask, if you ever missed playing drums in concert.
Oh, I’m playin’, man. “Race for the Prize,” “[A] Spoonful [Weighs a Ton],” I get to rock out.
I’ve heard that Wayne’s still pouring blood on his head, and that it’s very much like the Soft Bulletin shows.
No, we’re doing quite a few songs from Yoshimi.
Let’s talk history. You started playing drums in your father’s band when you were a kid, right?
I was ten when I started playing with him. He led a polka and waltz band, did for years and years. He’s kind of a celebrity down in Austin.
Yeah, there’s a Web site out there celebrating Czech Texan musicians, and he’s all over that thing.
Really? That’s awesome! I’m going to have to tell him about that.
And then you were in Janis 18.
Yeah, that was this second-rate Nirvana/Pixies/Jesus Lizard wannabe band I was in for a while. Those guys were all from Oklahoma, and they wanted to move back to Norman, and I was getting sick of Austin anyway, so I went with ’em, and then we broke up. That’s how I met Wayne, actually, because he was there and we ended up hanging out.
Have you heard anything from Ronald [Jones, ex-guitarist] lately?
The last I spoke with Ronald was about five years ago. He was still living with his parents, keeping to himself. I don’t think he talks much to anyone.
I think the general assumption about The Flaming Lips is that Wayne is the concept guy and writes the lyrics, you do all the music, and Mike plays bass. True or false?
That’s oversimplifying it. We all have ideas: I’ll have one, Wayne will have another, we work on them together. Mike does a lot of the ProTools and loops and samples we use, he’s really great with that. And Dave Fridmann is the overseer and does a lot of arranging. It’s definitely hard to define, because we don’t really work like a “rock band.”
You’re often celebrated for your unique drum sound — I hear influences from jazz drumming to John Bonham in your style. Who have been your big influences?
Oh, yeah, Bonham, definitely. The thing about his drums on some of those old Zeppelin albums is that he still sounds amazing today. I’m not a big fan of “jazz drumming”; I mean, I listen to jazz, and the guys who played with [John] Coltrane and [Miles] Davis were great. But as far as the softer elements of my drumming, it’s probably because when I was a kid I was listening to Bread, Olivia Newton-John, Teddy Pendergrass, people like that. And country/western stuff from when I was a kid. I’m also influenced by a lot of electronica: playing drums, cutting them up, looping them.
Yeah, what about the drumming on “Are You a Hypnotist?” — is that all samples?
Well, I played the original drums, but then we took those sounds and looped them, so it’s live mixed with samples. I love doing that.
Everyone talks about you as a drummer, but that deep synthesizer sound that goes with the drums is just as important to the band’s sound. Is that your thing, too?
Well, I kind of came up with that back in 1995, when I was listening to a lot of English prog music, all that bad-ass Rick Wakeman synthesizer stuff with fat fuckin’ drums. I mean, sure, I’ll take credit for it — it works to my advantage!
Do you have a favorite drummer joke?
Oh, I guess so. What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band?
I don’t know.
“Hey, guys, I got a new song.”
Good one. I love drummer jokes. What does Yoshimi mean to you?
You know, I don’t have anything I can put into any kind of little humorous statement or anything. In my mind, I associate records with what was going on at that time. I think about eating barbecue on the back porch with the band, and musical things that worked, rather than any kind of “meaning” to the album.
I guess you’d say the same about The Soft Bulletin, then.
Even more. It was an exciting time back then. We did a lot of The Soft Bulletin in the summer of ’97, and it was a really exciting time. We had so many new ideas then, trying a lot of stuff that worked — that’s what I remember.
Are you happy about the response to Yoshimi?
Surprised, actually. I wasn’t sure people were going to go for it, especially after the way The Soft Bulletin went over. I was paranoid and thought maybe there would be a curse, that there would be a backlash against us. But that hasn’t happened.
You’ve met the real Yoshimi [P-We, drummer for the Boredoms]?
Oh, yeah, I’ve met her. We played with The Boredoms on Lollapalooza, so we got to hear them every day. She has her own band, too, OOIOO. We’re all over that shit!
Feather Float is one of my favorite albums.
She’s a great drummer, and a really fuckin’ amazing guitar player too.
How does she feel about being turned into a karate-kicking anime character who has to save humanity?
Actually, I heard she was disappointed that her trumpet playing didn’t make it onto the track. We recorded a lot of her trumpet solos and a lot more screaming, and you can still hear some of the screams on the track. But I heard she was a little mad that she wasn’t on it more.
Okay, three more things. Tell me about the Steve Burns project. [In case you hadn’t heard, Steve Burns (a.k.a. “Steve,” the former green-rugby-shirt-clad host of the children’s show Blue’s Clues) is making an album with the assistance of Drozd and Fridmann.]
Steve just left me a message, like 15 minutes ago.
I listened to some of the songs you guys have been working on, on his Web site. I was really surprised by them; they were great!
What did you expect them to sound like?
I thought they’d be a little more twee.
No! Steve’s one of my really good friends. We met each other and within 30 minutes we were both playing acoustic guitars making up kids’ songs. He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, he loves music, and he wants to try new stuff.
Well, when you talk to him, tell him that my kids and wife agree with me that the new guy on Blue’s Clues, Joe, can’t hold a candle to him. He was the best.
I’ll do that.
Tell me about the character you play in Christmas On Mars.
I play one of the scientists on the ship. We’re all stressed out and going insane, and Wayne plays this Martian who can transform himself into Santa Claus.
Okay, last one: What is the best Spinal Tap moment that you’ve ever been involved in?
Um… wow, I can’t think of one, and I’m trying to do some stuff. I’ll think about it and get back to you. [We hang up, and he calls back twenty minutes later.] Well, it’s not much, but I guess this will do. We were in Spain, and you know how we always have a huge 36-inch gong? Well, we somehow didn’t have the gong, so we had to rent one. But the only one we could find was a little tiny 20-inch one, with this little tiny sound. It was kind of like “Stonehenge.”