This story originally appeared in SPIN’s February 2004 issue. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Flaming Lips’ 1999 album The Soft Bulletin, we’re republishing it here.
In January 2001, Steve Burns left Blue’s Clues, left those secure, highly lucrative two dimensions, and returned to anonymous real life. His departure was so surprising that it prompted rumors that he’d died in a car wreck or of a heroin overdoes.
The turning point was significant. Burns had walked into a New York party and heard a record for the first time—the Flaming Lips‘ 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. “[It rearranged] my head completely,” Burns intones like a ’60s acid casualty. “I mean, I haven’t had a response like that to a record since, oh, I don’t know. Just pssssshoo.”
Indeed, countless studies—mostly informal, many involving bongs—have isolated a potent quality in The Soft Bulletin, something that bypasses all critical faculties, sweeping listeners into a Spielbergian swoon of aching wonder. Maybe it’s the trembling vulnerability of Wayne Coyne‘s voice or the way the band’s tales of heroic scientist and atomic-age love bypass ’90s cynicism to hit us squarely in our inner kindergartner.
In any case, Burns was uniquely vulnerable. “Right before that, I was into Radiohead,” he says. “But it’s so dark. And right then, I needed something hopeful.” That night at the party, he got it. He stayed long enough to find the host and ask for the title of the CD. Soon, he got a Pro Tools audio program and started writing songs—a lot of songs.
“It was, ‘Wooooaaaaa,'” says Burns, mimicking a massive creative vomitus. “I had literally been doing nothing but talking to objects made of felt. For six years! There was this weird creative constipation going on.”