Cover Stories: The Flaming Lips, ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’
Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne is a bit of an enigma wrapped inside a giant hamster ball. As one of the most recognizable faces in the alternative music universe, one might expect Coyne to identify himself as a frontman or bandleader. Nope.
“I’m mostly a visual artist, I think,” he told Hyperallergic back in 2013 while promoting Womb, his Oklahoma City arts center. “I think I’m a visual artist who is lucky enough to be in a crazy, almost absurdist art rock band that is endlessly in need of something visual.” In the case of the Flaming Lips' 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, that "something visual" was the album's cover painting.
Myriad musicians also work in visual media. For example, Kurt Cobain allegedly only agreed to the release the compilation Incesticide on the condition that he got to design the cover art. Even classic rockers like John Mellencamp andPaul Stanley of Kiss have hosted solo shows of their artwork.
But what's different about Coyne is that his visual style blends seamlessly with his band because the two are symbiotic in his world. "When I see things, I think, 'Man, how is that going to sound? That sounds cool.' Then when I hear things, I always think, 'What's that going to look like? That's going to look cool,'" Coyne told the Baltimore Sun. "One is always feeding the other. This is probably telling some subconscious truth about the way I am. I want to go in some place that has its own world, its own sound and its own interpretation."
Recently, he created such a place for an art installation entitled King's Mouth – a giant head that the viewer crawls inside then lies down on a plush tongue and listens to a Flaming Lips piece while staring at the images inside the king's head. The piece is part of the American Visionary Art Museum's "The Big Hope Show" through September 4, 2016.
And while we can't actually crawl inside Coyne's cover painting for Yoshimi, we almost feel like we can. It's a sparse but complete world in which little Yoshimi stands her ground against a massive robot that she's backed against the wall of an even larger building. Our heroine stands in shadow, too, suggesting that the battle is going down in an alley. Splatters of robot pink on the wall imply that this isn't the first time Yoshimi has seen action in this alley.
The details are what really draw us in: like the adversaries sharing similar headgear and a "High Noon" posture or the fact that Yoshimi casts the shadow of a bird rather than a girl. And why does the robot have four legs attached to each of his two legs? Perhaps the most curious detail is the number 25 painted on the alley wall behind the robot. Is it an arbitrary building number? Her 25th battle? Some suggest that it's an allusion to LSD-25 – another name for LSD. Given the Lips' hallucinogenic reputation, it's not an outrageous assertion but it remains an unsubstantiated one.
Art director George Salisbury finishes the presentation with a title strip that suggests an obi strip – the paper band wrapped around books, albums and movies imported from Japan. Salisbury has been the Lips' visual collaborator for 25 years and, in 2009, he launched his own company called Delo Creative that's been behind videos for Miley Cyrus and Amanda Palmer among others.
As for little Yoshimi, she took on a life of her own outside of the Flaming Lips, too. Back in 2012, the musical Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots premiered at L.A.'s La Jolla Playhouse to very positive reviews. Plans to bring the production to Broadway in 2014 didn't materialize, so until they do we'll have to make due with playing the record while staring at Coyne's evocative cover painting.