Most of us have favourite bands; artists we love irrationally, inexplicably and would kill to get tickets for their shows. But there are very few fans out there with the commitment of George Salisbury, whose dedication to The Flaming Lips goes beyond simple fandom – it’s more like a life-long obsession. He met them age 16, harassed them into giving him a job and has been part of their entourage ever since, working on album covers, tour visuals, T-shirts, films and a whole range of weird objects that the band once produced on a whim.
“I met Wayne a long, long time ago in the 1980s. He was playing a show here in Oklahoma City at a place called The Blue Note and the band was under a different name then – I think it was The Chrome Leeches," says George. "They we opening for a guy name Eugene Chadbourne who would put a pickup on a rake and play the ceiling. He was crazy! Anyway, that show they had a motorcycle on stage in an enclosed room, and they were gunning it. It sounded awesome but everyone in the crowd was getting close to passing out from the carbon monoxide fumes.”
At the time George was working at a screen printing shop making T-shirts when he hatched a plan to get involved with the band. “I just loved them so much that I made some shirts that I thought made sense visually for them. I stole some of Wayne’s own artwork and kinda changed it up a bit. I showed up at a show with a box of them and I said ‘Hey man, can I sell these and split the profits with you?’ and he was just kinda like ‘Er, shit, we’re out of shirts so yeah.’
"I turned up one day and was like ‘So now I’ve made these CDs, can you help me sell them?’ and again they were like; ‘The balls on this kid!’“George Salisbury
“Later on that same sort of thing happened. I was doing shirts for them until She Don’t Use Jelly broke on the radio in the States and I just couldn’t keep up with the demand for them. But I still really wanted to work with the band. I had some live recordings of theirs and I was working at a place that made CDs so I just made a bootleg called The Day Annie Gibb Died – hopefully I can’t get into trouble for that now; I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I turned up one day and was like ‘So now I’ve made these CDs, can you help me sell them?’ and again they were like; ‘The balls on this kid!’"
From bootleg CDs George progressed to flyer design, to album covers and eventually took control of the band’s whole visual output, working closely with Wayne on every last detail. As with everything Flaming Lips-related their working relationship isn’t your average. The band has a compound/commune in Oklahoma city where many of their entourage live permanently. George spent seven years there in total, living and breathing the band. “Wayne would just come and knock on the door whenever and we’d work on stuff. There were times when it was pretty intense.”
In 2011 the band were between contracts with Warner Brothers, and used the opportunity to make work with complete creative freedom. George was still living in the compound at the time and was swept up in what sounds like an unprecedented period of experimentation. “Wayne thoroughly abused everyone in the organisation to kick out music that year. It was all, ‘Go go go balls to the wall! Do a six hour song, do a 24 hour song.’ It burned us out in one way but it invigorated us in another. We stopped thinking about stuff too much and just did it. It was reactionary."
"Wayne thoroughly abused everyone in the organisation to kick out music that year. It was all, ‘Go go go balls to the wall. Do a six hour song, do a 24 hour song.’ It burned us out in one way but it invigorated us in another."George Salisbury
“We did a release every month and all these different products. Wayne wanted to do a gummy foetus, so it’s like, ‘Shit how do we do this?’ Wayne had somehow met this gummy guy and told him what he wanted to do and the guy was up for it. It was kind of a miracle – I mean how do you just get lucky and meet someone who’s a candy manufacturer and is willing to make your weird plan real? Anyway when they did the foetus it offended some people in the factory – this idea that you were making a foetus for people to eat – so they had to keep it in a special room. In the next room in the factory they were making Disney gummies and of course you CANNOT let those two worlds collide!”
Working in this frantic way has been standard practice for as long as George can remember, but he takes it in his stride and seems to enjoy the flexibility it gives him to learn new skills. Case in point: “Videos were trial by fire for me. We’d been touring for a while after Zaireeka was out in about 1997 and decided to go ahead and do backing videos. But we only decided that maybe a week before the first show. We had 15 videos to do in about seven days and I’d only just started using DV video. We were ripping off material left and right. We’d go down to a video rental and I’d be recording stuff off laser disc and lifting footage. It was totally illegal but it got me into the editing process.”
For such a sprawling, DIY band it’s always struck me as strange that Wayne and his team signed with Warner Brothers, a label who have never seemed overly adventurous. But George suggests they were given massive flexibility in the early days to do whatever the hell they liked.
“Warner Brothers did change things. Going to a major is kind of incredible. When I was doing the artwork for Zaireeka it was nuts. I mean who could put out a four CD set that you’re supposed to play on different stereos simultaneously. That’s ridiculous! Having the ability to do something more than just a fairly straightforward single album was cool. I mean by the time we were doing stuff like that I think the label just accepted that we were going to be fucking insane.
“But there comes a time when a label don’t want to give you money to make weird shit that’s not going to sell any records.” And that time seems to be now.
“That’s kind of like my relationship with Wayne actually. I’m trying to do something, and he’ll help a little too, but he’ll be fucking with me the entire time.”George Salisbury
In the last four years their releases have been more mainstream, ‘classic’ records that lack that same experimental fervour. That said George is still concocting plans for unusual activities in the future. “I’ve got a big list of weird things I’d like to do. I’ve always wanted to do a store selling weird objects inspired by all these Flaming Lips references – like giant vagina heads from our Christmas On Mars movie or some marching band suits. I was talking for ages about doing a one-off custom pinball machine where the buttons would shock you if you did the wrong thing, or there’d be a pole that would come out and poke you in the nuts. I’d put a fan on top of the machine that blows in your face and dries out your eyes so you can’t see what you’re doing. Everything just to fuck with you while you’re trying to play pinball.
“That’s kind of like my relationship with Wayne actually. I’m trying to do something, and he’ll help a little too, but he’ll be fucking with me the entire time.”