Flaming Lips: Wayne Coyne On Sad, Strange "Mr. Ambulance Driver"
The Flaming Lips' At War With The Mystics rolled in four years after the eclectic group's one-two commercial breakthrough of 1999's The Soft Bulletin and 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
By 2006 the band veered into a harder-edged direction, mashing up Pink Floyd-inflected prog psychedelia and Prince-influenced percolating funk into a curious hybrid that earned the Lips two of their three career GRAMMYs: The haunted, flute-based sounds of the mouthful "The Wizard Turns On…The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins" earned Best Rock Instrumental Performance and At War With The Mystics netted Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical honors.
While At War … sported no actual Top 40 hits, the first single, "The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)" hit No. 41 in the U.K. Meanwhile, the second single, "The Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)," climbed to No. 6 in England, fueled three separate ad campaigns, including spots for Intel, Kraft and Oklahoma Gas & Electric. A third track, the funky bass-laden turned dreamily ambient "It Overtakes Me …," was used in a U.K. TV spot for Beck's beer.
"Mr. Ambulance Driver," then, represents a true deep track on the album in the sense that you wouldn't expect the Flaming Lips to sound like this, though co-writer Wayne Coyne has decidedly mixed feelings about the track 11 years later.
Starting with what sounds like a 911 call combined with an actual siren that wails through the entire song, in some cases carrying its melody, "Mr. Ambulance Driver" offers what Wayne calls "a mellow, melancholy, slightly tragic, but not overly sad" tale sung over a combination of Todd Rundgren's blue-eyed R&B and Boz Scaggs' smooth pop-soul, tied together with co-writer Steve Drozd's gurgling Steely Dan-esque jazz riffs.
"That song was just me, sitting with an acoustic guitar and my four-track recorder, which is a wonderful way to write, especially if you're not a musician," says the self-effacing Coyne. "Some of it works, but some of it sounds like songwriter's disease. It doesn't necessarily jump into something that's unexpected. Whenever I hear it by accident, I always perk up and think it's cool until I realize it's us."
The Flaming Lips at the 49th GRAMMY Awards in 2007
Photo: Rick Diamond/WireImage.com
Coyne doesn't remember where the opening phone call came from, except to guess it might have been part of producer Dave Fridmann's sound library. But he does acknowledge the role of the siren as the hook in the song.
"That's the strange thing about sirens," he observes. "They work no matter what piece of music you place it in. There's this Doppler effect where it changes pitches as it moves away from you. It's all based on a tone that will get your attention. Using the siren there was a temptation we couldn't resist. When people listen to the CD in their cars, they think they're being pulled over. We were secretly overjoyed for that to happen.
"To this day, we've never played it live. If we would have embraced it and played it in front of an audience, we probably would have found more stuff about it. But that's our fault."
"If you listen to any album long enough, you tend to lose track of what's a hit and what's a deep track. They all seem to blend together."
Although Coyne claims he basically stumbled upon "Mr. Ambulance Driver," he acknowledges that it was written in part as a nod to his mother, who passed away shortly before recording it.
"I didn't want to write exactly about her, or merely turn it into a sad song," he says Coyne. "My mother wouldn't have wanted me to feel that way, so I was trying to sing about my life and her death in a way that wasn't 'woe is me.'"
And while Coyne isn't 100 percent satisfied with the final results, he realizes that the track is very true to the band's ethos.
"The song isn't one of our major achievements, but it could be. You never know," says Coyne. "It's the world that makes your songs what they are more than you do. It is a very Flaming Lips kind of song. There are not a lot of writers who would start off a song [like that]. But there is something in the Flaming Lips' universe that likes ambulances. I've had a couple of experiences with them that I sing about."
As for his own favorite deep track by another artist, Coyne refers to a Paul McCartney concert he recently attended.
"Not like there are any undiscovered gems in his catalog, but I did like 'Let Me Roll It' [B-side to the Paul McCartney And Wings' 1974 single "Jet"], which sort of gets overlooked on the Band On The Run album. I was surprised he performed it in concert. If you listen to any album long enough, you tend to lose track of what's a hit and what's a deep track. They all seem to blend together."
(Roy Trakin is a veteran music journalist whose work appears in Variety and Freedom Leaf, and still holds out hope for Suicide's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)