The Flaming Lips: The Under the Radar Cover Story

A Million Ways to Say Yes

Mar 17, 2017 Photography by George Salisbury Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
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January of 2016 officially marked 30 years since The Flaming Lips' first full-length album, a tripped-out set of woozy psychedelic sing-alongs titled Hear It Is. If you were to make a list of bands that would be active three decades laterlet alone ones that would eventually sign to a major label, sell millions of records, appear in TV commercials, and record with teen pop iconsthe Oklahoma trio with bad haircuts and a bizarre sense of humor would have been very low on that list. If you were told that they would accomplish all of that without changing their idiosyncrasies, that they would sell millions of records while getting weirder and more eccentric along the way, it would have been utterly unthinkable. There was simply no precedent for a band like The Flaming Lips.

If you listen to Hear It Is today it is a time capsule for the sort of buzzy, scuzzy mid-'80s indie rock that laid the groundwork for the movement's commercial breakthrough half a decade later, but it's also remarkable just how much the Lips' aesthetic is already in place at that early stage. There's a surprisingly sweet acoustic ballad that builds into a massive wall-of-sound of guitar feedback and drum rolls ("With You"). There's a go-nowhere hypnotic ballad titled "She Is Death," and a goofy riff-rock anthem called "Charles Manson Blues." There are moments of provocation, such as the epic psych-doom recasting of Biblical characters into a junkie drama in "Jesus Shootin' Heroin." A lot of the album is more or less unremarkable and overly simplistic, especially considering the series of classics that would come next, but its more reflective moments are already pointing forward to the band they'd become. The sense of longing, of reaching out into a confusing,   incomprehensible world to find other confusing, incomprehensible people, is already there. (Sample lyric: "When I walk with you, I feel weird/When I talk with you, I feel weird.") There's also a sense of absurdity, of celebrating the surreal. But there's always a sense of unspeakable melancholy underlying it all, a sense of tragedy and beauty always balancing each other. It's a feeling that turns up a lot on Oczy Mlody, their sixteenth full-length studio album.

Inspired by a phrase in Blisko Domu, an obscure Polish paperback from the 1970s that vocalist Wayne Coyne had lying around in his home studio in Oklahoma City, the album's title matches its otherworldly and inscrutable tone. Roughly translating to "eyes of the young" in Polish, the words captured Coyne and fellow Lips' multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd because of their resemblance to the English words "oxy" (as in "oxycodone") and "melody." ("Hey, that sounds like some kind of fun drug in the future or something," Coyne recalls thinking.) But Coyne mainly liked the words because they didn't seem to mean anythingat least nothing specific. They had made an album whose subdued melodies, manipulated vocals, and airy electronic textures defied easy categorization, and they wanted a title that didn't tell their listener how to think about it.

This is, of course, the opposite approach than the band took with their last album, 2013's The Terror. That album, a rumination on "unspeakable anxiety" (in Coyne's words) wrapped in hypnotic electronic gauze, was nearly proscriptive in its bleakness. Oczy Mlody, despite sharing some textural similarities with its predecessor, is far more subliminal in tone, even when it seems specific in content. "How?"a song seemingly built out of non-sequitursopens with images of "white trash rednecks," a call for across the board drug legalization, and then ominous portends of violence. "I tried to tell you, but I don't know how," Coyne intones over icy synths and buzzing bass lines. "When we were young/We killed everyone/if they fucked with us/with our baby guns," he continues, the song's melody rising and elongating. Like the rest of the album, the image it forms in the listener's head is one of pristine unease, of things sounding good but looking not quite right.

"In the beginning I was singing lyrics that I felt like were sort of emotionally longing, but it just seemed kind of boring," Coyne says of the song. "So I did a vocal take where I sang what I thought were absurd things to sing against this song. Lines like 'Legalize every drug right now'it's this radical shit to say against this very soothing, throbbing, relaxed but cosmic force. Some of that made it even better, so it would get to where I'd say utterly absurd statements as if they're true, just sing it as if I believe these things and see how it makes us feel. Some of that really works. Even the first line of 'There Should Be Unicorns,' it's just an absurd line to sing, but that's what the song is about. 'There should be unicorns/The ones with the purple eyes.' You're like, 'Oh, good.' Because you just don't know what to sing about."

If you read just about any interview with Coyne from the past 20 years, you'll see variations of the idea that he has no grand design in his songwriting, that he has no real idea where his ideas come from, that it's all just dumb luck that it comes together at all, etc. He's just a man perpetually standing in a river of strange ideas saying "yes." But when it all comes together, it sure sounds deliberate. Just as evocative as "How?" but far more subtle is "The Castle," an elegiac ballad that sounds like it could have fit on 1999's The Soft Bulletin. Over tumbling, digital beats and skittering synth patterns, Coyne sings about a girl who has a "face like a fairytale" and a brain "like a castle," protected by the moat of her skull. Along the way, she rides a dragon and falls in lovestandard nursery rhyme fare. But being a Flaming Lips song, the story does not end there. She is lost "in the invisible war," her love buried in a castle never to be built again. What sounds like a pleasant little lullaby turns almost unbearably tragic, and the effect is felt if not completely understood.

"A friend of ours' sister had committed suicide, and these are all people that we know pretty well," Coyne explains. "We knew that she was struggling with it, and we knew how devastated it was going to be. Some music is like that. You're feeling something, and you play something that has a sense of how you feel, and the lyrics and melody sort of have that. I think when we came up with the vibe of 'The Castle' and me singing about the fairytale that goes sad, I think that helped us a lot. It was something that we had never really sung about in that way before. We never really thought about singing about butterflies and rainbows but attaching it to this really, really sad element that lightened it up a little bit. It wasn't until the end that you're feeling how sad it is."

That could be said of the album, as a whole. Though the album isn't menacing throughout, there is a sinister undercurrent running through most of it. "Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)"-a radically reworked version of "The Floyd Song (Sunrise)" from their full-length 2015 collaboration with Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petzsounds like a more-or-less wistful ballad until you realize that it's about the death of a relationship. "Listening to the Frogs" features a pleasantly skipping melody that gets tangled up in morbid lines such as "Have you ever seen someone die in the summertime?" Even album closer "We a Family"easily the most upbeat song on the albumhas an undercurrent of quiet longing, of missing the person who is most important to you. Oczy Mlody occupies a different place in their now overflowing catalog. This is not the sprawling experimentation of 2009's Embryonic, nor does it have much in common with the giddy pop tracks of 2006's At War with the Mystics. It's not nearly as straightforwardly catchy as 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots nor as sweepingly dramatic as The Soft Bulletin. It's not much like any of those albums, though it has moments that could have turned up on any of them.

"I made this record, mostly because I like this type of music, where it's kind of mid-tempo, kind of optimistic," Coyne says. "But it's not in your face brash and happy. It's not being mean and sarcastic. It's very easy to like. A lot of it flows along without you realizing what weird shit it is until it's too late," he laughs. "I think occasionally we're very much in a world with a bunch of weirdoes, when we do a 24-hour song or something like that," he says, referencing "7 Skies H3," a 1440-minute song that was released in a limited edition of 13 flash drives encased in actual human skulls.

"A lot of times we hope that we're unique, but sometimes we are just making music that's slightly familiar to everybody," Coyne says with a self-effacing laugh. "But it's better to make ridiculous music than to make boring music, so we'll always pick anything that lets us be more ridiculous and more different."

The Machine That Brings Me Joy

Though it doesn't mean much in the era of all music being celebrated by everyone, there was a time not too terribly long ago when there were fairly clear lines drawn between what it means to be an entertainer versus being an artist. Entertainers were essentially performers, the types of people who made music as a way to make money and have a career. Whether they wrote their own music or had it provided to them by a staff of writers was largely inconsequential. They were primarily in the business of selling music to consumers, not self-expression, and they would do whatever was necessary to keep their fans happy and those checks rolling in.  

An artist, however—that was someone who made art because he or she couldn't do anything else. Consequences be damned, if they wanted to make an album that would alienate their listeners and cripple their commercial viability, they'd do it. Good art was challenging and, by definition, limited in its appeal. If everyone enjoys your music—from 12-year-old girls to middle-aged suburban dads—what does that say about your music? This is the world The Flaming Lips was living in when Warner Bros. offered them a record contract.

"I think we were kind of standoffish to the whole idea of being entertainers, and we were very much about being a slightly confrontational weirdo guitar group," Coyne recalls. "We probably wouldn't have wanted to be around for 30 years. We liked what we were doing, but we didn't really want to be in the mainstream. But I think little by little, we would not worry about it so much. These opportunities would come up, and we would struggle with, 'Is that cool or is that not cool?' and I think we reached a point of 'Who cares what's cool? Why don't we just try things and see if we like them or not?' And I think that changed everything for us."

And so The Flaming Lips pulled off the first and probably most impressive miracle of their career. They signed to Warner Bros., became entertainers, and retained every bit of their weird energy. This was 1990, when signing to a major label meant that whoever was investing money in you was going to expect a return. For most bands, this meant making hundreds of little compromiseswriting singles for radio, making videos for MTV, focusing on your clothes and haircutand most bands just ended up getting dropped at the end of the day anyway, left mortally wounded and creatively adrift. You could have hardly found a worse fit for the major label system than The Flaming Lips.

"By the mid-'90s we'd already been a group for 13, 14 years and you're either drawn to new experiences or you're not," Coyne continues. "So the idea of us being entertainers started to appeal to us. We could be introverts that make our music and do things our way, and when we go out and play and meet people and have to be on the Stephen Colbert show, we would try to be extroverted entertainers. Most of the best art-music, anyway-is probably done like that."

And so the Lips went on, year after year, album after album, making extroverted art for introverts. Band members came and went, leaving only Coyne, Drozd, and founding member Michael Ivins remaining from that era. No matter what they did, whether issuing a set of four CDs that were meant to be played on four stereos simultaneously or releasing a limited edition EP packaged in a human skull, their label supported them and their fans followed. There has been some griping from some corners due to their willingness to spread their brand far and wide-a fairly freaky Virgin Mobile commercial starring Coyne, in particular. Most fans, however, seem willing to see even their most outlandish decisions as part of the fun. But when the Lips made The Terror, a record that had little fun to be found, some listeners had reached their limit. Legendary music journalist and Lips superfan Jim DeRogatis, panned the album, calling it a "dire, dismal, and depressing dud." Their live performances, usually a celebratory spectacle of balloons, confetti, and inflatable human hamster balls, turned dour as the band did a series of shows primarily built around material from those songs. There were those that loved the album—the reviews were only marginally worse than most Lips releases—but four years later the band feels like it  didn't quite connect.

"I have to say, I feel like it really didn't get its due," Drozd says. "I feel like it came out and it didn't really make much of an impact. That's fine. It is one of my favorite records.... I'm hoping it's something like that, one of those lost classics. But I think it was just one of those records that every band has to have, where it comes out and it's like, 'Yeah, I don't know about that one. Let's move on.' I'm okay with The Terror being that record that people were like, 'Eh, I wish they'd go back to what they were doing before,'" he says. "And that's our new record now."

But if The Terror tested the resolve of even the most-devoted Lips listeners, their next move would push the limits of their fans' open-mindedness. After trading a series of friendly tweets that expressed mutual admiration for each other's work, Coyne and pop star Miley Cyrus began kicking around the idea of recording together. In 2013 they would do just that, with Cyrus being entrusted with the vocals on "A Day in the Life" for the Lips' song-by-song remake of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before long, the Lips were all-in, writing, recording, and serving as the backing band for Cyrus' next full-length release, the 93-minute Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. And as much heartburn as the decision caused some of the band's lifelong fans, the project was more or less in keeping with the kinds of decisions The Flaming Lips have been making since they decided to stay open to any and all opportunities, no matter how unconventional.

"There's a certain part of you that says, 'Fuck! This is insane! Let's fucking do it! Let's have fun. It will be absurd,'" Coyne says. "I can see where 20 years ago we might have said, 'But she's Hannah Montana.' But we know she was fucking 16 and now she's not, and the music we make with her we absolutely love. It's uncanny how much we're alike.... She goes to the stuff she loves to do and spends her energy and love on that," he says excitedly. "And that's what I do."

The Thought Soon Becomes the Word

Coyne tells a story from years ago, back when The Flaming Lips were recording The Soft Bulletin. Producer Dave Friddman's sons were just little kids at the time, and when not working in the studio Coyne would sit with them in the kitchen and color. "And they would always say, 'I don't know what to draw. What are we going to draw?' And I would just scribble something on this piece of paper, and I'd say, 'Okay, you've got to draw. You've got to make something out of that.' And you could see immediately that they'd be like, 'Oh, I see what that is! It's a car running over a purple pizza!' And it's like, 'Yeah, that's what it is!' And it's just a scribble. But I could see how having to think about something to draw isn't nearly as exciting as 'Oh, there's already something there. You have to make it work.' And that works for music and everything. You start to do something, and if you have ideas and you have imagination and stuff, it will get triggered."

That is, essentially, how Flaming Lips records get made. Even this far along, there is no set process. Contrary to popular belief, Drozd does not write the music and arrangements, leaving Coyne to write the melodies and lyrics. There are very few instances where the entire band will work together in the studio. They don't plan out their albums song-by-song or start with a concept and construct a sonic world to match. Instead, their process is one of constant searching, of trying to make a soundtrack to a movie that will never exist. This is where the visuals come in, something that Drozd says play as much a role in their creative process as any musical influence. For Oczy Mlody, the studio was strewn with Coyne's sketches, lyric sheets, and little slips of paper with ideas on them. (Drozd says Coyne will often come up to him with a drawing and ask, "Can you come up with a cool keyboard part for this?") But exactly who lives in the world created on Oczy Mlody and what that world looks like remains largely impressionistic.

"I think with our record, it's definitely meant to be looked at as fun, like 'What a great world! I'd like to live there,'" Coyne says. When I mention that much of the album consists of fairly somber textures, that the lyrics often point toward death and dissatisfaction, he seems somewhat taken aback. "I think just what the sounds are and the minor keys, it does hint that it's a complex life," he admits. "We're having fun but there's a cost and a sacrifice. But it's not overly sinister. I can think of a lot more sinister sounding music. It's probably the most dynamic record we've made. It's lower, fatter, bigger, crispier, and brighter. Some of it is very minimal, but it's noisy in that way. I don't think it's full of anxiety. It's melancholy. It's sadness that has optimism at the end. But, I agree, there are elements that seem kind of ominous, especially the deep low-end parts of the songs. That always feels a little good and bad, but it's never really in the middle of being normal."

Though Drozd is often credited as being the musical, if not the conceptual, genius behind the Lips' music, he gives Coyne the lion's share of the credit for driving the band forward. Now 55 years old, Coyne remains a tireless creative force, rarely taking a day off from working on one of his many projects, and his excitement for what comes next is unrelenting. (Drozd says he jokingly asked Coyne if he wanted to start working on another album under the Electric Wurms moniker, expecting him to say he'd have no time. "He said, 'Yeah, man! I'm already working on it.'") But that doesn't mean that it isn't getting harder to continue coming up with new ideas in their third decade.

"I can't speak for Wayne or anybody else, but for me it is becoming more difficult," Drozd admits. "Overall it's harder for me to get inspired by some new thing that I'm working on. That's the great thing about being in The Flaming Lips. You get these other people involved, and it becomes this other thing that they're into, which makes you more excited. If I was a solo artist, I think my life would be a lot more difficult."

Coyne, too, admits that he has to be intentional about avoiding making the same kinds of albums over and over, that much of the Lips' magic is due to them never standing in one place too long, jumping into the next project before the last one has been dissected. "Sometimes we talk about Radiohead, and we admire them a lot, because they decided to go with a kind of a fucked up thing," he says. "They could make music that would be a little easier for people to understand immediately. But they purposely go for strange chords and strange time signatures, and it's wonderful." But, Coyne says, the Lips aren't Radiohead, sophisticated musicians who can plan and execute their ideas with ruthless precision. The Lips are making music out of scribbles on stray pieces of paper.

Perhaps embracing those limitations is the secret to their longevity. How else to explain how The Flaming Lips have gone over 30 years without taking an extended hiatus of any sort and how they have aged so well, one of the only bands of their generation that still manages to keep their audience anticipating their new work? At an age when most acts have long ago become self-conscious parodies of themselves, The Flaming Lips have entered their second great experimental period, making psychedelic electronic albums that retain most of their aesthetic while pushing into more nuanced, less easily identifiable territory. But how much longer can they continue their reinvention act? How much longer will their fans follow them, especially as those reinventions pull them further away from the celebratory humanism of their most widely-embraced albums? How much longer can a new Flaming Lips album be an event?

"I think of a filmmaker like Werner Herzog," Coyne says. "Occasionally the world notices his movies, but a lot of times he's just making them because he likes them. Not everything is meant to be the big front-page news the next day. There's a lot of room for nuanced, interesting things. A group like Lightning Bolt—people say they have a limited audience. I don't think so. I think they're doing their thing, and that determination and focus on doing their shit, I think that appeals to people. I think that's what everybody would want in their own world and their own life. I'm living my life by my rules, the way I want to do it, hoping to get away with it."

So far, so good, Wayne.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online. The issue came out in late December 2016 and partially celebrated the 15th anniversary of Under the Radar's first issue, which came out in December 2001.The Flaming Lips appeared on the cover of our third issue, in 2002, and the cover of our current issue pays homage to the original cover photo.]

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