Band of Brothers: Meet the new Flaming Lips drumming duo
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC
What has two heads, four arms and is green all over?
If you’re a Flaming Lips fan, it’s not your favorite drummer: That’s Steven Drozd. But when the Lips experienced a dramatic lineup change in 2014, two mysterious, green-coiffed men stepped in on twin percussion duties without any real ceremony or introduction. The duo rounds out the Lips’ core trio of Wayne Coyne, Drozd and Michael Ivins, in addition to multi-instrumentalists Derek Brown and Jake Ingalls.
Two years later, we now know the Brothers Griiin are Matt Duckworth and Nicholas Ley, already familiar to many fans who follow the Lips collective. Duckworth, who lives in Norman, also is a member of Lips collaborators Stardeath and White Dwarfs, and Ley is the drummer for Stillwater-turned-OKC band Colourmusic, managed by Lips manager Scott Booker.
“I’d also been working with the band for eight years doing merch, and Nic knew everyone because of Colourmusic,” Duckworth said. “The idea was originally that Nic and I would split the gigs and play together when we could.”
Accordingly, the band worked out solo and double drummer arrangements for live shows, where it quickly became apparent that all preferred the versatility of two percussionists.
As Coyne told “Rolling Stone” in 2014, “There are two guys here who want to be part of this thing. I think it’ll be a great addition to this cool group of weirdos that we take around with us, and they’re guys that we know right from here. I think it will be really exciting and The Flaming Lips will be better than ever.”
In addition to Stardeath, Duckworth fronts a musical project called Brainwasher, in which he dresses in almost-drag, including a green wig, which hatched the initial aesthetic. The unaddressed mythology behind the pair is dual-purpose: It’s interesting to look at, sure, but it also created a necessary anonymity during the trial period.
“I could’ve been an asshole. None of these guys had ever traveled with me,” Ley said. “It just let the air out of the whole situation. There was no risk of, ‘Oh this guy’s our new drummer!’ and then, ‘Now he’s not anymore.’”
The wigs are undeniably a gimmick, but in the bizarrely honest way that is the trademark of The Flaming Lips’ many, many visual experiments: Think massive video walls, dancers, confetti cannons. Both Colourmusic and Stardeath also are bands that, even in the smallest club shows, take great pains to put on a good show, making the transition to a larger stage a natural one.
“It’s entertainment,” Ley said. “I’ve seen way too many bands phone it in, get up and want people to think they’re cool. I’d rather do more than do less.”
Doing more is an unofficial Flaming Lips motto, from the ground up. A scrappy, DIY work ethic is the modus operandi of everyone on the crew, whether in the band or not. A tight-knit crew of experienced roadies and techs can throw the show together on a dime.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Ley said. “You get taken down pretty quickly if you think there’s a job you’re above doing.”
“I still do merch. I get done playing, pack up, and go settle the merch after shows,” Duckworth said. “It’s allowed to be a big production because everyone works their asses off.”
Sample big productions since the Brothers Griiin came on board include performing the entirety of “Soft Bulletin” at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a David Bowie tribute at Radio Music Hall and a stint as the backing band for pop star Miley Cyrus, including an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around that,” Ley said. “You know exactly what it looks like, and it’s so familiar and completely alien at the same time.”
“When we went onstage, I couldn’t stop shaking. A song was starting, and I kept thinking, ‘What if a cymbal stand falls over?’ ” Duckworth said. “There have been lots of moments where it’s like, ‘Why am I here? How is this happening?’ ”
Ley and Duckworth also are lucky to have discovered a natural chemistry between the two of them, one that has carried them through the nerve-racking experience of hitting the ground running on Flaming Lips time.
According to Ley, “In other bands you rehearse for days, and sometimes it still doesn’t come off the way you wanted it, and you’re discouraged after. Here you just decide you’re going to do something and just do it. People rise to it.”
That inspired attitude may explain how, in April of this year, the Brothers Griiin found themselves on the bill to DJ during Guestroom Records’ Record Store Day celebration, despite neither of them knowing how.
“All these festivals we play have official after-parties with terrible DJs,” Duckworth said. He and Ley, thinking they could improve upon what they’d seen and maybe make a little money, booked themselves a gig. “We bought a controller and got a free version of the software we use now. That’s how everything happens with me, though. To get things done, I have to agree to do them.” (They have since spent considerable time practicing the art and performing at parties across the country.)
On Dec. 16, the Lips will perform at The Criterion, their first show in Oklahoma City in a few years, and in January, the band will release “Oczy Mlody,” currently available for pre-sale on www.PledgeMusic.com. Moving forward, the duo seems permanently entrenched in all things Flaming Lips — two of the pre-sale options include hiring the Brothers Griiin to DJ parties. Still, the purposeful obscurity raises fan questions, and at the speed of Lips, there’s not much time to assess your situation before packing up and moving onto the next thing.
Duckworth noted fans still ask him if he’s temporary, though he’s worked for and with the band for around a decade.
Ley agreed: “People always say, ‘Oh that’s cool you’re still with them.’ It’s a great gig if you can get it. I don’t know how these things usually work, but this is how it works right now.”