"My wristbands are getting in the way of my guitar," griped a bemused Wayne Coyne at the Belmont's outdoor stage in front of a few hundred very lucky people.
"SXSW problems," bandmate Steven Drozd quipped back.
Coyne also snarked that the crowd was "cooler than anyone else who couldn't get into the show" — a sideways comment on a festival that has become as much about where you can get into as who you see there — but then the Flaming Lips proceeded to make us feel pretty damn cool by launching into a historic first-ever full-album performance "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots," including some songs that had never been played live before.
The air was crisp, the crowd ecstatic and the Flaming Lips notched another epic moment onto their 30-year-long career's belt.
(By the way, capacity caps mean that getting into these sorts of shows isn't much easier for press. I was actually shut out by the venue, but Coyne spotted me on the sidewalk as he was going in the back way and swept us into his crew. "It's called entourage," he crowed with a grin, whisking us backstage.)
The first time the Flaming Lips played Austin's SXSW music festival was a small show in mid-'90s. The first time I saw them in mid-2000s, they played a surprised parking lot set where Peaches came out for a joint-cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs."
This year, the iconic alt-rock band is also booked to play to 20,000 or so by the lakeshore. But they're up against Green Day and Depeche Mode with Justin Timberlake and Prince set to play the following night. And a friend of mine saw Usher on his flight in, so "Yeah" will be resounding from somewhere at some point as well. Times change.
"SXSW, it's become a spring break party place, you know what I mean?" noted Coyne a few hours earlier in the band's back alley "dressing room." "I don't know if that's for good or bad, but anytime there's a great thing happening, it seems to draw people who just like to party. They don't really care how or why."
Of course, plenty of people are here for the music even if festival's raison d'etre, an industry conference to get new bands noticed, has been subsumed. But Coyne says that's not really necessary in this day and age.
"I don't think people need to congregate anymore to find out about what is even considered an unsigned band now," he says. "I don't think bands are waiting to be signed. With the internet, you don't really have to wait for someone to give you a showcase, to say 'hey look at us.' There's so much access to music now, I don't know if SXSW or any place really needs that anymore.
"Obviously, it's changed into this thing," he adds. "It occurred to us, I don't remember what year it was, when Metallica was here. I mean, we are here! We've been signed since 1990, you know? We've played probably fricking five or six times. Maybe more than that, you know? But I still think it has the potential to do all that. Maybe we can see Justin Timberlake and Prince Saturday night, and maybe we're going to see 20 bands we've never heard of. It has all that going for it."
And while some may complain that SXSW has lost its purpose as it has expanded into an all-encompassing cultural free-for-all, Coyne is not one of those people.
"For this week, it's sort of like, if you're not at SXSW, you're not where shit's happening. And that kind of has its own gravity to it. You just want to be there. Why would Justin Timberlake wanna come to SXSW? If you're happening at all, this is where you want to be.
"I love it when things get to the level of like, 'this is just absurd!' It's awesome."