The Flaming Lips - Wayne Coyne on “Heady Nuggs: 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic 1994-1997”
Lost in Transition
Dec 18, 2015 Web Exclusive
For a certain segment of Flaming Lips fans, the purest hallmark of nostalgia isn't Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or The Soft Bulletin, but the band's less experimental, but undeniably solid, mid-career '90s output, including 1996's Clouds Taste Metallic. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, The Flaming Lips have released a three-disc reissue via Warner Bros. (Heady Nuggs: 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic 1994-1997), complete with bonus EPs and a whole disc of live recordings.
I first encountered Clouds Taste Metallic back when I was in a band, and my bass player Christopher introduced me to The Flaming Lips as an indicator of the direction he hoped we could go musically. That moment sticks out, one of those unforgettable musical memories from a living soundtrack. It was late at night, in his converted garage bedroom, on an old stereo system with full-sized speakers that are so rare nowadays. Christopher played the track "Evil Will Prevail" and we agreed the last 90 seconds or so were everything we could hope to achieve as a band. We would never get close.
It was a weird piece, full of Midwest alt-rock '90s charm, otherworldly sounds, but grounded in a traditional voice/guitar/bass/drums format that dominated rock music for decades. The album as a whole is progressive, yet flourished with vintage sounds and structures, and complete with the mystique of being the final album to feature the enigmatic virtuoso Ronald Jones, who would leave the band—and the music industry altogether—following the album's release. When I later discovered more experimental and far out albums like The Soft Bulletin, they always seemed like great places to visit for a weekend, but it was Clouds Taste Metallic that felt familiar, like my own neighborhood, or a place I'd want to live.
Almost a whole decade after Christopher first played the record for me, I texted him about my conversation with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne about Clouds Taste Metallic. He responded, "Holy shit, that's like my dream conversation!" It goes to show how consistently some albums just stick; a perfect example of why fans still pine over this album 20 years later. Read on as Coyne discusses the album in this new interview.
Cody Ray Shafer (Under the Radar): The Flaming Lips went through a major transition right after Clouds Taste Metallic. It seems like the band had explored everything possible up until that point.
Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips): Yeah, up until then we were very much like that slightly long-haired punk rock, psychedelic rock group. We were still based in rock and punk rock. Remember, we were already around for a long time by then, we'd been around since 1982. When Ronald decided to leave there was this urge already to morph into another thing. I think him leaving just kind of accelerated that. We didn't know exactly what that was going to be, but as long as it wasn't a kind of rock band we felt like we were doing the right thing, and I think that became The Soft Bulletin. And it happened quite quickly, if you think that Clouds came out in 1996.
We were already starting to think that, as we were making Clouds Taste Metallic, that it would take us to the top of the mountain and we would have the thrust of our identity and we could change it or something. I think it was a combination of that idea and being attached to the grunge era, which by the time Clouds Taste Metallic came out we didn't even like most of what people thought was grunge. I don't know why we cared about it that much, but we were in the middle of all that.
Ronald leaving, you know, left us with the option to do something else without really worrying about it. If you saw us in 1996, you might have seen us six months later in the parking lot experiments. If we hadn't played all those shows in that variant of guitar-oriented, rock, punk rock, prog rock, group we probably would have kept a little bit of that—but I think we were just like, in one day, "We're gonna be different." I think we're like that now. Back then, we were urged by the circumstances, but now we really embrace it. I think we've done it a couple times, where suddenly we're just a different group.
Boredom destroys groups and art more than anything. Groups thrive on shit happening to them. But to sit there and safely go ahead with what you are doing, that destroys bands more than anything.
So is Clouds Taste Metallic an album by a band totally bored with what they've been doing?
No, I mean, because we were exploring deeper harmonies and stranger versions of guitar rock. We didn't know we could do it until we made Clouds Taste Metallic. We didn't know what levels Ronald Jones could go to. We were kind of still seeing what we could do. We definitely were a little bored when we were making it, but by the end of it we'd listen to it and think, "Hey that's kind of cool."
We were using more and more samples, and more keyboard things. We were starting to get away from what we thought of our identity. We started to think that The Flaming Lips could be anything, it could be whatever we want it to be. That's easy to say, but it's hard to do.
You know, that stuff we did immediately after that was like, "here we go," and we wanted to! But I don't think we were bored before that. That stuff we were doing on Transmissions of the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic, I think it's very inspiring. And it exploded our minds to new things. We thought, "Yeah, if we can do this, why can't we do that?"
You've been teasing a Ronald Jones-only version of Clouds Taste Metallic on Instagram. Is that a real project?
You know, I think we're going to see if it feels—entertaining isn't the word—this would be a record for someone like yourself who is familiar enough with the record and curious about what was Ronald and what was Steven [Drozd] and what was Michael [Ivins]. We're trying to distill that down to where everyone else is just a single little muted low-end blip, and the whole song is everything that Ronald played. That would be a lot of things that didn't even go into the mix. We'd leave all tracks on for that entire track.
I don't know, it sounds like something that I think would be amazing. Only we can do it, we have the master tracks here, we know what is played and what wasn't played, and who played what. It could only be done by us, we're the only ones that have this stuff. I wanted it to be part of this Clouds Taste Metallic reissue that's out now. But you have to have these things ready so long in advance, all the vinyl has to be pressed. I would say, if you wanted to say yes, I wouldn't be embarrassed. I'd stick up for you and say "We're going to do it!"
While preparing this reissue, was there anything you'd forgotten that you were really impressed with after revisiting?
Well, the live thing we never listened to that much because we didn't like the way it sounded. It wasn't until we were able to dig up these really badass mastering plugins now that we started to really like it. I mean, we never listen to our live stuff, even now. I don't know, we just don't think about it that much. We just never like it as much as we do the things we do in the studio.
But that live thing, I never thought about just how crazy of a dynamic group that we were. I mean we would go on passages that would go on for 10 minutes, and we'd just be jamming away. You know, we did get away from that after Ronald left, but there was a time when Steven was playing keys and was playing drums, and we played so much that we would just get into these grooves from one night to the next and expand on it and develop it, whatever. In that way, it really is a peak into a time of The Flaming Lips that I don't know if we'd ever have that happen to us again. Now we do structure out shows based on the songs. The songs are quite long, but they aren't undetermined jams, you know?
So yeah, in that way, it's fascinating. I love it. I never thought we were that good or that precise. It's uncanny. Like, "Whoa, where did that come from, these twists and turns on things?" Because I don't play very well. I always felt like everyone was pulling me and if they play good enough they'll be able to pull me, because I don't know what I'm doing. This really shows that. It really is very much a punk rock, prog rock, freakout.
Is there anything else we can look forward to from The Flaming Lips in 2016?
Well I hope we're able to do some more with Miley Cyrus. There's so many of those songs are just a whole different way of doing things, it's awesome. I think that we'll probably, I'm thinkin' like maybe May or something, we'll probably have something. It would probably be some crossover of some of the songs Miley sings on her record, and The Flaming Lips would sing on our record, and they'd have some similarities. That seems like a weird world we'll get into.
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