Interview: The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd on Crazy Guitar Sounds and Vintage Gear
The Flaming Lips'' Steven Drozd is a man of many hats - keyboard, guitar and drums. Luckily for us, funky vintage gear nut is one of them.
Everyone knows that guy. You know, that guy that learns anything pretty much on the fly. Whether it’s playing an instrument, painting a portrait or even riding a unicycle, that guy can do it all. And the killer is the fact that he does it with seemingly little exertion. It can be easy to resent the guy, but that’s not the case if the guy happens to be multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips. Not only does he act, teach and play several instruments in his zany, critically acclaimed band, but he’s also an all-around good guy—which makes it hard to hate him.
Drozd joined the Lips as a drummer, but shortly after he was called upon to record additional guitar tracks on Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic in the early ’90s. Once long-time guitarist Ronald Jones left the band in the mid ’90s, Drozd became the guy that helped balance the spinning plates. After nearly 20 years of rocking with the Lips, he’s played live and recorded drums, guitars, keyboards and vocals. He even found time to be the lead character—Major Syrtis—in the Flaming Lips’ 2008 film Christmas on Mars. Most recently, the Lips released their 14th studio album, Embryonic, in late 2009 and are currently on tour with Stardeath and White White Dwarfs and playing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. All the while, Drozd and Lips frontman Wayne Coyne have been helping teach courses for music performance and production at the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Premier Guitar caught up with Drozd during some unheard-of downtime and we talked about transitioning from drums to guitar, collecting vintage stompboxes, and trolling eBay for quirky guitars.
What are your first memories when it comes to music?
Since my dad was a musician in both country-western and polka bands, the house always had some type of music being played. It was nice, because my dad gave me the country-western and polka stuff, my older brothers rocked to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and other stoner rock bands, and my sister was always buying the Top 40 albums. So I had a pretty healthy variety of music in my childhood. My first personal taste of music was probably finding out what the AM radio had to offer, like the song “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and other ’70s pop/rock hits.
While you’ve been the Lips’ full-time guitarist for nearly 15 years, you joined as a drummer. How did you get introduced to the drums?
When I was a bout 6 years old, my dad bought me this little toy drum kit because I was always watching him practice and play, so I wanted to join in on the fun. That following Christmas, my dad bought me a real bass drum, snare and cymbal and said to me, “Play these things and if you’re still doing this in six months and getting better, I’ll keep buying you pieces as you progress.” With these three pieces I’d just wail away for hours, and within two years I had a full drum kit. It was great, because even at, like, 11 or 12 years old, I had a pretty steady gig rotating around with all the garage bands in the neighborhood [laughs]. I guess it’s true, drummers always have a gig. I even jammed with my dad’s country-western band and learned the basics and 4/4 time. Drums were my first love and, in some basic ways, the easiest for me to sit down and play.
How did you make your way to the guitar?
After playing drums with my dad’s band, I started to hate it when I was about 13 years old because it seemed boring when I was listening to the Police and Rush—I just wanted to rock! We always had this old Gibson SG in the house. Dad didn’t play, it just sat there. And when I was about 16, I finally just picked it up and tried learning some basic chords. Drums were such a physical thing—you could just use and abuse the kit and sticks—but guitar just appealed to me because it seemed like you could really concentrate on things. And it was more of a cool sound thing. He also had an Ibanez AD9 Analog Delay and a Peavey combo lying around, and so it just clicked because I was into those spacey prog sounds. I remember the first solo I learned to play because of that AD9 was U2’s “New Year’s Day.”
What struck me about playing guitar was that you could really make it about the sounds and there were no boundaries. With drums, you have the kit and everything was pretty standard. It just depended on how fast and hard you’d play, whereas with the guitar and effects, you could just finagle with sounds and tones for hours. I just liked that freedom and still do.
You joined the Flaming Lips in 1991 as a drummer, but you transitioned to guitar in the mid ’90s. How did that unfold?
When we were recording both Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic, I was drumming but I also laid down as much guitar as Wayne and Ronald. The only thing with those records is you can pretty much name Ronald’s parts because of his out-of-this-world guitar playing and crazy tones. I ended up playing a lot of rhythm stuff, but for the songs I wrote and created with Wayne I’d lay down the track as we came up with it, and then Ronald would come along and sprinkle his magical guitar tones and insanity on it. So by the time he left the band, I was drumming and also recording guitar parts as the band’s unofficial second guitarist. It was more of a question on a performance level. We had to decide if I was going to stay drumming or move over to guitars and keyboards and get a new drummer.
For a couple years, as a conscious decision, we shifted our musical persuasion in a new direction. We started using backing tracks, noise and other stuff we could create in the studio, and synched it up with these movies that Wayne was making for our live shows. During those three years, we weren’t really playing as a rock band so we all evolved with our musical direction. We never really sat down and pondered how we would fill Ronald’s spot on guitar or my seat on drums—we just kept our creative juices flowing and worked with what we had. We got away from our rock mentality and created some totally different stuff. If we tried that now, we might fall flat on our faces, but back then, in the mid to late ’90s, it seemed really exciting and bold, considering the trends of the time. So for us to be up there with no live drummer and playing with backing tracks, orchestral stuff and movies seemed like a crazy thing and it just worked out for us. And since then we’ve slowly come back full circle to being a full-on, intense rock band again.
As a guitarist, what did you take away from collaborating with a guy who was so deep into crazy sounds and effects?
What people don’t know about Ron is that, technically speaking, he could sit down and plug straight into an amp and just blow your mind as a straight-ahead guitarist. It just so happened he was a master of effects as well. People looked down on him for using Eventide Harmonizers, but the fact of the matter is Ronald could simply play. In addition, he built his own effects, constructed his own pedalboard and tweaked the effects he bought.
What I pulled from him mainly boiled down to two areas: focusing on becoming a technically sound guitarist and using and manipulating effects in a manner to create sounds only the Flaming Lips could use [laughs]. Obviously, since I first picked up the guitar, I was really into making sounds, so the latter was something that really struck me. But after playing and being around Ronald all those years, I figured out that to effectively use and complement those tones completely, you still had to be a solid guitarist. Many players tend to use effects to cloak holes in their abilities, whereas Ron used them to take his playing abilities into another universe. The only person I can remember during that time that played like that was Kevin Shields [from My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream]. But even so, Ronald was using ring modulators in a way that nobody else was coming close to at the time. Besides the actual composition of guitar parts, you always have to focus on the outgoing sound of it. And to this day, I think of Ronald when I’m crafting songs.
Were you also influenced by Ronald’s DIY mentality with effects, or do you just stick to playing them?
I’m definitely just a collector and player. While my touring board is quite pathetic—a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeler and a Boss GT-8—I’ve been buying up vintage stompboxes like mad in the last two years. I’ve started to get quite a collection—about 120. As for the coolest or rare stuff, I’ve gotten my hands on some Systech stuff, including the Harmonic Energizer, Overdrive and Phase Shifter. I’d love to get my hands on a Ludwig Phase II Synthesizer or a Binson Echorec—the ones Pink Floyd used in the ’60s and ’70s—but that stuff has just gotten too expensive.
Who are some of the other guitarists that have influenced you?
[Laughs] Oh man, I’m sure you hear it all the time—it’s got to be Jimmy Page. For me it’s different, though, because I’m not really into the hard-rock Page. I’m more into the Houses of the Holy Page stuff, particularly “The Song Remains the Same.” It wasn’t heavy or rocking at all—it’s almost like country or bluegrass, just through an electric guitar. Also, I’m really into his weird tunings and overall guitar sounds on stuff like “The Rain Song.” That kind of stuff has really influenced me in my playing and dabbling in alternative tunings. Another one is Steve Howe, because he was such a technically proficient player, but he’s got tone. It’s just amazing and completely Steve, by way of his big ol’ ES-175. And more recent guys would be Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.
With your ever-growing collection of stompboxes, do you craft songs for specific boxes or do you just get spontaneous ideas while jamming on a random pedal?
On Embryonic, I would just get a signal chain brewed up on a whim or because it would create one hell of a commotion. At the beginning of the album, you hear these squawks from a Roland Funny Cat and then something that sounds like Godzilla. All that noise is my ’66 Fender XII through the Ampeg Scrambler and MuTron digital delay, which gives this crazy feedback-noise effect. We just had stuff out waiting to be toyed with.
Drozd (right) and Coyne put on one of their always animated stage shows. Photo: J. Michelle Martin-Coyne
Did you use that 12-string a lot for Embryonic?
I used it all over the record. I just love its natural tone, but it’s a lot of fun running it with all sorts of effects—killer results. I find the 12-strings can create a lot of crazy and mysterious overtones when overdriven or pushed through a fuzz box. And that goes back to my love for Page. About two years ago I bought the Fender Electric XII, and I recently found out that on all those recordings Page used a Fender XII and not the double-neck Gibson that’s always attached to him during concerts. As soon as I was told that, I plugged that Fender XII in again and I was like “That’s the same sound!”
Did you approach the writing or recording any differently for the new record?
This time—more than ever before—we just jammed as a band. When Ronald was in the band, we didn’t really do much jamming as a unit. We would construct the song from scratch with individual parts. This time, the jamming fostered a fresh breath of creativity and movement to make our minds think differently. Another part was crafting the bass through rhythm instead of basing it on chord progressions. The majority of Embryonic was crafted through full-band jams and fooling around with stompboxes, trying to make crazy noises and tones.
Which amps did you use?
We used an Airline 10″ combo a lot more than I thought we ever would. We actually recorded some of the vocals through that piece of shit Airline. It’s so crappy looking, but it just sounds so cool. We used a Fender Super Twin that Wayne has had since he was probably a teenager. Also, we used a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus combo.
What were some of the fuzz boxes you used while recording?
I definitely used that Systech Harmonic Energizer just because it has that tone from a lot of Frank Zappa’s trippy, psychedelic solos. It’s basically this overdrive fuzz with a super-duper-filter-tweaker kind of control that gives you all sorts of grit but also a wah-wah tone, too. Also, we used an Ampeg Scrambler and a Roland Funny Cat, which is like taking a compressor, an early fuzz box and an auto wah…well it’s just like its name, Funny Cat. We use it quite a bit on the record. When you think you hear a wah-wah, it’s really just the Funny Cat.
Drozd does keyboard duty while his '67 Jazzmaster waits in the wings. Photo: J. Michelle Martin-Coyne
The first time I really got a lot of money from the Lips, in ’93, I decided I needed to go out and buy a real guitar. There’s this place in Oklahoma City called Horn Trader that sold all this vintage gear and the moment I walked in the store that ’67 Jazzmaster just called to me. It’s weird to say, but there are times when you walk into a store and it just hits you—that urge or voice that says, “This is the one.” Just to make sure I wasn’t nuts, I picked it up and played it for a minute and all that did was confirm my subconscious urge. It is just one of those guitars that anyone who picked it up would comment on the neck and just how easy it is to play.
How did you get the idea to put a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup in it?
I was still the drummer when I bought that guitar, so I had left it over at Wayne’s for a few days and he tinkered with it. I think he got the idea he was going to use it for touring so he dropped a Hot Rails in it. I came over later and I was pissed because I had this idea of keeping it original and pristine. But the fact of the matter is that the Hot Rails was a saving grace. The original setup with P-90s would have just howled with all of our fuzz boxes.
What are some other vintage guitars you own?
I have a ’67 Gibson ES-330, which is just like an ES-335 but the neck goes farther into the body. It’s more of a true hollowbody than the ES-335 because of that construction. I bought that ’66 Fender Electric XII from Craigslist and it is one of my favorite guitars of all time. I also recently got a ’75 Telecaster Deluxe from eBay. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a new new guitar.
Can you tell me about your Supro guitar?
I love that beast! As far as plugging a guitar into an amp and just sounding good, that ’60s Supro has something special in the wood. It’s a really thick guitar with a chunky sound. I was just trolling eBay for some weird stuff—actually a Supro amp—and I found the guitar. I just had to do a little setup when I got it and put my usual .012-gauge strings on it. It just growls. It’s a workout playing that thing, but it is way too much fun.
Do you take your vintage stuff on tour or do you rely on newer equipment to get the job done?
For the most part, the stompboxes stay home. I use the Boss GT-8 and the guitar goes into that and then it goes stereo out, with one line going to a Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeler and the other going to a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. And then it just goes into two amps—two Roland KC-550 Stereo Mixing Keyboard amps—and then I also have a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus combo, which isn’t mic’d, for stage sound.
One thing I may bring on tour—because I used it on the record—is this pedal I got last year from SubDecay, the Noise Box. It is this crazy little box that works as a ring modulator, guitar synthesizer and distortion, all in one small box. It’s insane! Also, I have a friend that is going to try and rebuild an updated version of the Mosrite Fuzzrite pedal that I think was used on the Ramones stuff and early Alice Cooper tracks. But really, I think the Line 6 and Roland stuff do what I need for the tours.
What’s in your plans for 2010?
One thing I could see happening this year is rocking out with a larger ensemble. We’re a band that could really take on some extra stage members to create a truly crazy experience of rock. Whether it’s something like Hendrix’s band during Woodstock or just some people up there making cohesive noise and polyrhythms, I think it’d be something we could tackle and successfully.
[This interview was conducted before the Lips tour plans had been announced. Sure enough, they pulled off the ensemble approach—they’re currently sharing the stage with Stardeath and White White Dwarfs and playing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. We asked Steven a follow-up question about this tour.]
By taking on the task of reproducing Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon during some upcoming dates, how will you prepare you guitar tones and keyboard parts?
We decided early on in the process that we didn't want to just faithfully redo The Dark Side of the Moon ... and in most ways we probably couldn't it anyway! A few songs were completely reinvented—“Breathe” and “Money”—and was a relief not having to completely mimic Gilmour's guitar sounds. I think we just sort of did what we always do—use whatever is lying around like a Roland Funny Cat, Systech Harmonic Energizer, a plug-in Ring Modulator and a bunch of other random stuff. For keyboards we used a lot of plug-in soft synths and Reason keyboards. When we play this live I'll just be using my trusty set up of a Boss GT-8, Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeler and Line 6 DL4 Delay.
STEVEN DROZD'S GEARBOX
1967 Fender Jazzmaster (with Seymour Duncan Hot Rails bridge pickup)
1966 Fender XII
1967 Gibson ES-330
1975 Telecaster Deluxe
Roland KC-550 Stereo Mixing Keyboard Amplifier (two run in stereo)
Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus
Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
Line 6 FM4 Filter Modeler
Boss GT-8 Guitar Effects Processor
SubDecay Noise Box