By Eric Renner Brown
November 27, 2015 at 05:00 PM EST
George Salisbury

In their prolific three-decade career, the members of Flaming Lips have put out more music than most bands ever do. Not that frontman Wayne Coyne remembers it all. It had been a while since he had heard the Lips’ 1984 self-titled debut EP, he tells EW. “Someone was playing it and I was like ‘Who is this? This is f—ing cool!’ He said, ‘It’s you’ and I thought he was joking.”

But Coyne’s foggy recollection doesn’t apply to Clouds Taste Metallic, the 1995 mid-career opus that marked the end of an era for the notoriously bizarre Oklahoma City indie-rock band. Released on the heels of the Lips’ surprise 1993 hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” Clouds Taste Metallic was the band’s first album with any real commercial expectations — and their expansive psychedelic response is documented in a new three-disc set, Heady Nuggs 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic 1994-1997, that compiles the original album, the Due to High Expectations… the Flaming Lips Are Providing Needles for Your Balloons EP from the year before, and a Seattle show from the year after.

Clouds is singular in the Flaming Lips discography because it chronicles a band in transition. After its release, guitarist Ronald Jones left the group and took his unique, distortion-drenched six-string sensibility with him — clearing the way for the more grandiose music on albums like 1999’s The Soft Bulletin.

“Ronald didn’t like having to play all the time, he didn’t like having to record all the time, and he didn’t like anybody liking him,” Coyne explains. “He was just shy, very introverted, introverted as you can be, probably introverted to a fault. By the time he left, [bandmate] Steven [Drozd] and I were already building another structure underneath this thing because we knew how fragile it was.”

While there’s a sense of finality surrounding the record and its mythology — try not to read too much into song titles like “Lightning Strikes The Postman” — there’s also a sense of promise that Heady Nuggs captures effectively. That’s most evident on the collection’s third disc, which is devoted to a long-circulated bootleg of the band’s May 1996 show at Moe’s Mo’ Rockin’ Cafe in Seattle.

“It really is a very insane punk-rock version of the Flaming Lips and a really sort of accelerated prog-rock version of the Lips playing at the same time,” Coyne says. “Steven and I both knew that we were starting to be done with that. Not done with it like we thought it was boring — we were just starting to move on to a different type of music.”

New remastering techniques — here Coyne cautions he doesn’t “want get too techy” — allowed the Lips to revisit the concert for Heady Nuggs. Wandering from a by-the-book rendition of “Jelly” to a nine-minute freakout on Clouds highlight “Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles,” it’s as diverse and historic as Lips bootlegs come. “We love putting out the other things and highlighting different things about them, but that recording was the real, ‘Oh, the world’s got to hear this now!’” Coyne says.

Despite the sonic detours the Flaming Lips have taken since, Clouds contains traces of their subsequent work, whether it’s the wild rave-ups on 2009’s Embryonic or the dayglo absurdism of their recent album with Miley Cyrus as the Dead Petz. It’s all just music to Coyne, though, who says Cyrus typically steers clear of specific Lips albums and listens to a hodgepodge of the band’s music from different eras. “It doesn’t feel like what we’re doing now destroys everything we’ve done in the past,” he says. “We’re not that concerned with, ‘Did that come out in 1995 or 2005?’ None of us are historians in that way. Luckily there’s Google and stuff. I Google my own record to see when it came out!”