The Flaming Lips
Hurts So Good
Jul 08, 2013
Issue #45 - Winter 2013 - Phoenix
Wayne Coyne tells a story about when his father died, years ago, and his mother wanted to remember him by playing their favorite Tony Bennett song at his funeral. For her, the song represented a treasured memory—being 17 years old and falling in love—and she wanted to experience that one more time with her husband before was laid to rest. Coyne remembers reacting badly to her request. "I thought, 'Why would you want to play that? My God, that's just going to devastate us. Why the fuck would you want to play that?' But you have to play it. You want to play it, because if you don't, you don't get to relive any of that."
Coyne says that memory came back to him after finishing The Terror, the 16th Flaming Lips release and the first to embrace pain, hopelessness, and loss for the duration of its running time. An outlier in their catalog, the album is a thematically sophisticated and sometimes contradictory release, one that acknowledges the inherent emptiness and hopelessness of life while also positing that love makes it all worthwhile and beautiful. The world presented in The Terror is not one where love doesn't exist, but a world caught in the moment where one realizes that love might not last or linger long, that a reality without it might be inevitable, and that life will drag on anyway. In every droning melody and dripping rhythm there is a palpable sense of dread, yet a strangely comforting resignation to the fact that love is all we have and that it ultimately might be insufficient. No optimistic slogans, no rousing choruses, no celebratory blasts of psychedelic noise—this is The Flaming Lips exploring a moment of despair, all because they want to. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview, quotes that didn't make it into our main print issue article on The Flaming Lips in the March/April 2013 issue.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): At what point in the writing process did you know this was going to be a different kind of record for The Flaming Lips?
Wayne Coyne: Part of our dilemma—and I didn't know it was a dilemma—is that a lot of groups kind of have an identity. And they make music, and it sounds like that identity, for better or worse. I think of a guy like Neil Young, who has had some moments where he veered off the path, but for the most part he sounds like Neil Young making Neil Young music. I don't know if this is good or bad, but with us, I don't know that we have a character. I think we make music, and we do these sounds and things that we just like, and then we try to figure out what characters and what the band will be—what humans will be destined to present this music to the world. A lot of times, we're not even doing things as a band. Sometimes it will just be Steven [Drozd] and I somewhere dicking around with sounds, and it's not as though there's a drummer and bass player and a guitar player there. We're just making sounds. And we've been doing that for a while now, where you just abandon the idea of there being any kind of structure. I think this is going to the far edges of that now, where it's like I don't know what kind of group we are. Maybe that's great, to just totally disregard whatever we have established over the last three or four years of our identity.
It almost seems like we'd love nothing more than to destroy that, and we've done that three or four times now. We stumbled upon the first song that hinted at that-it's a song called "You Are Alone"—and it's a pretty bleak little song. There's not much to it. It stays in the same key and modulates with some different melodies here and there. It was a stunning piece of sound collage for three or four weeks, and I was driving around listening to it, thinking what is this? Would we want to make more music in this vein? Then I took a picture that ended up being the picture that is on the cover of this kid who is sitting in this park. For whatever reason, it evoked something in me, this image of this kid. So I took this picture and later that night fucked with it with some of the apps on my phone and turned it into this graphic colored thing that is on the cover now. And that piece of music—the beginning stages of "You Are Alone" —and that photo, just continuously fed this idea of doing something in that vein. As long as we did music that sounded like that picture, I felt like we could make a record. We could hover in this zone of mood and sound. In the beginning, there was the idea that we'd do eight or nine songs and see if we could capture this whole time. I don't know if we set out and said, "Let's do it!" But we thought, let's fuck with that and see where it gets us. It didn't take that long, and a lot of times when you do things you're a little bit drunk on your own stupid idea, and hopefully you get the idea done before you sober up. That definitely happened with this one. You get caught up in it, and before you know it, you're done, and you wake up and you're like, "My God, what are we doing?"
Was it hard to sustain that mood throughout the whole recording?
Well, I think it would have been if it was something that we took a year to make. We started to make this even at the end of the manic panic recordings that we were doing to finish the Heady Fwends stuff. So we were doing a lot of recordings anyway, which had a big variety of moods and all of that. We started to do this as that was ending, so I think that probably helped, that we weren't constricted to make this kind of music, because we were making other kinds of music. But we were taking this flavor of stuff that we were doing and saying, "Well, let's keep these things together and not have it be this other stuff." We probably have that attention deficit disorder when it comes to music and stuff, and if we work on something for too long, we kind of want to do something else. I think it was that. We were so overwhelmed. People don't realize that a lot of that stuff on Heady Fwends, it came out in April [of 2012] but we didn't even start to have it until the end of January. That stuff with Ke$ha and Bon Iver and Erykah Badu and Chris Martin—a lot of these things, we didn't even know what they were until the last couple weeks of doing that thing, and then it had to come out in time for Record Store Day. Things wouldn't go right, and you still have to rework it and rework it until it worked. Some of that is that you're not thinking about it as music per se, or even as a creation. You're just trying to find solutions to problems. So we retreated to this other studio, and while I'm mixing some Jim James vocals up in the one studio, Steven would be down in the [other] studio making some utterly sad abstract track, and I would walk down there after being bombarded by this loud rock shit all day, and I'd say "Fuck! This sounds cool!" I'm sure that's how it began.
Was there anything going on in your life or anything you were thinking about at the time that pushed you in this direction to write about these themes?
Well, there must be. I don't know if it's more specifically now than it would have been the other times that we made records. By the time you get to be as old as I am—I'm 52 years old—a lot of people have died and a lot of relationships have changed. I don't want people to think, "Oh, Wayne has gone off the deep end." My world is beautiful, and it's as great a life as could be made. At the same time, there are horrible tragedies and things like that. But this is not specifically about that. The truth in that stuff is that you can write almost anything you want from your imagination. It doesn't really matter if it's from your life or some fantastical bullshit. But you listen to it a second time or you get the chance to change it, and you don't change it. Then you get the chance to change it the third time and you don't change it, and then you hear it the fourth time and you're like, "Oh, that's cool what that's saying"—I think that's when it turns into you getting a glimpse into something in you. A lot of times when we're working, we're not really sitting there consciously trying to extract something from our hearts and minds. We're just trying to make something that sounds cool and we don't really give a shit. It's that you accept it. I think that's what it's telling you. You can make 20 things in one day, and 19 of them, you go "Oh, I don't care about that." But then there's one you keep, and you made it in the same vein, but it's somehow speaking at some other level or dimension of yourself. I think it's probably that.
Do you see the themes on this record as representing a break from the themes on previous records or as being just another part of that continuum?
We've made 16 records, and there's a joy of making records that you don't know where they come from. Even after we made The Soft Bulletin, part of us could have done that 10 more times and just said, "Let's just make every record like that from now on." I don't think they would have been nearly as good. I don't think that we would have been nearly as satisfied or that anyone would have liked them, to tell you the truth, but it's easy to get into this thing where you have an identity and you understand what kind of music you should make as long as you have this identity. But even with The Soft Bulletin, Steven and I looked at each other and said, "Well, we can't do that again." If The Soft Bulletin is great, it's because it was us standing there in the moment making that music. And we said, "We have to always do that and accept whatever comes out of us standing there in that moment," instead of us saying, "We've stood in this moment 20 times and look at us!" I think that is our main manifest destiny.
Seeing that this album has little or no optimism, do you think this album articulates a different worldview than your other albums?
That's why I think optimism is so great. We're not just born that way, or at least I wasn't. I think it's a way to be because it works. But I don't think it makes all that other [less optimistic] stuff void. I think that's probably why we feel like this doesn't negate any of the truths of any of those other songs. Like "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," where the last line was "The sound they made was love"—that's still true. But it's not 10,000% true. The truth is just a little bit above everything else, and this is another version of the truth.
Do you hope that listeners experience this record differently than previous records?
Well, I think our audience is really a great audience to have. They really love and are affected by music, and not just ours but lots of music. But I think they're affected by all kinds of things all the time. That's why I think it's so great—they are like us. They don't want just this one thing all the time. I don't want some great song in the sky to tell me that everything is all right all the time. Sometimes I want to hear a song that lets me make up my own mind. That's the great thing about music. I think it will hit people, and depending on what's going on in their lives, I think it will hit some people with more power than others. Some people will listen to music their whole lives and never be that moved by it, but those of us that are sensitive to the world, it's a motherfucker. You have to have music to get through it. But for those people, this type of music is another drug that you can take on another day.
This record kind of reminds me of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band in that way, where you can listen to it and it's really bleak and depressing, but after listening to it, you feel better.
I love that! That's a great thing to say. I've often thought that. One minute you hear it, and you're going "Jesus! Lighten up a little bit." But then the next, you're thinking, "Fuckin' a, brother. Say it! Because once we say it, we're not as afraid of it anymore, and it can't defeat us if we say it and think it and breathe it." I feel the same way. I think all art is therapy in a way. It's probably only therapy to its makers, really, but it is therapy, because why else would you do it? You'd stumble upon something else and do it. Especially art where you're completely free to do whatever the fuck you want, which is the danger of the territory that we're in a lot. No one is coming in and saying "Fellas! You're losing your fucking minds here!" That's one of the great things about The Flaming Lips. If we're losing our minds, we get to do it.
[These bonus quotes originally appeared exclusively in the digital/iPad version of Under the Radar's March/April 2013 issue. The original main article appeared in the print edition of the March/April 2013 issue.]
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