The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on “King’s Mouth”

Emotional Crescendo

Apr 12, 2019 Photography by George Salisbury Web Exclusive
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A chronicle about the enshrined, severed head of a giant metallic Deity King feels apropos of no other band but The Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne, the group's tirelessly impulsive ringmaster, chats with Under the Radar about the group's latest bewildering project, King's Mouth. Spawned from an audiovisual art-installation Coyne started building in 2015, King's Mouth expanded into painted storyboards and eventually a record, one that enlists none other than The Clash's Mick Jones as its storybook narrator.

To those even remotely familiar with The Flaming Lips' unlikely 36-year journey, there is no reason to act surprised anymore about any of this. After all, we're talking about a band who once revved up a motorcycle on stage, wrote a 24-hour song, and engraved real human blood into a record. The word "implausible" was never part of the Lips' vocabulary. And in all fairness, there are plenty of bands who could say the same.

No one but Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Steven Drozd, however, could probably live to tell the fable of a bunch of bovine, mischief-making punk rockers from Oklahoma City who somehow achieved their artistic pinnacle after 16 years. Let alone doing so with an album that's pretty much the antithesis of loud, overdriven songs about zoo animals, UFOs, and drugs. Twenty years on, The Soft Bulletin's wholesome meditations on mortality, love, the universe, and human existence, embellished within its sonorous splendor, still resonate deeply.

Fittingly enough, King's Mouth-which comes out on Record Store Day this weekendcaptures an emotional unburdening for The Flaming Lips that parallels The Soft Bulletin. Tethered by newfound love and impending fatherhood, Coyne once again reflects on the more universal themes with a high-spirited clarity. And maybe it was about damn time. Between droney, Mt. Doom-downer The Terror and the pixelated unicorn-induced euphoria of Oczy Mlody, the Lips spent much of this decade mired in wayward experimentalism. To such extent, even, that you started to wonder if they were simply done putting out traditional albums anymore. Notwithstanding, The Flaming Lips have once again mediated their two strongest impulses on King's Mouth: embracing their manic inventiveness, yet still flirting with more "classic" album narratives. In short, your typical storybook stuff.

Jasper Willems (Under the Radar): The Flaming Lips have always been artisticfor lack of a better wordbut never in that high-brow "art rock" sort of way. The band is always fueled by a child-like innocence, a persistent curiosity. The imagery of spaceships, frogs, robots, and wizards, that's stuff even a small child understands. Now that you're becoming a father, are you excited, and maybe a little envious, how your kid will navigate this fantastical world you created with this band? 

Wayne Coyne: Well, I always thought that sooner or later, I would end up becoming a dad. But now that it's approachingmy wife Katy [Coyne, née Weaver] is due seven more weeks, and this recording coming out in this strange time... I think it's wonderful! But I don't think I could have conceived King's Mouth as a children's record that my own child and I would be listening to together. Not until just recently.

But yeah, I think the things you say about us on that levelthat innocent way of being curiousI think that's the greatest compliment any artist could ever have. There are probably impulses in any artist that rely on your subconscious to use all of your experiencesall the perceptions you've had about the world since the time you even had perceptions. I think the things you perceive when you're still youngbefore you fully know what's right or wrong-that shit is magic. And it can make things erupt in your mind. To be childlike, that's the greatest compliment an artist can get. Not childish, but childlike. To see the wonder in things.

Listening to King's Mouth several times, it conjures this notion of life as a cyclical process, instead of the linear time spent between birth and death. The king dies halfway through the record, but by contrast, the music seems to only mount in positivity. Not to be dour, but it kind of begs the question where you could see The Flaming Lips going after all the band members are dead. Could it maybe become like a legacy band, like Sun Ra?

I don't know. Obviously, I'll be gone before the rest of the band, because I'm older than all of them now. The Flaming Lips have become an increasingly "musical" band. For anybody who tries to sing it, you have to embody a certain state of mind to still like it. But I do like that idea. We have a huge catalog of music, and a lot of it is optimistic in nature, though not all of our music. I think, just by accident, this whole other side of us emerges. 

To me, even seeing someone like Brian Wilson now, it's never going to be like seeing him in 1968. But you do have the urge to be in the presence of the real thing. I think being interpreted by a different entity is the same thing. That's why Mick Jagger is in the news when he has heart surgery: you still want to see that living entity singing these songs. I would say that's the same for The Flaming Lips as well, I think that our music could exist in some other form, but witnessing the real people behind it performing in front of you is always going to be the most rewarding.

What always astounds me about the Flaming Lips is how pioneering projects such as the Parking Lot Experiments informed The Soft Bulletin, how an audiovisual installation sparks a record like King's Mouth. But The Flaming Lips have always been performing classics like Dark Side Of The Moon and Sgt. Pepper's next to all this outlandish aural kamikaze. In what ways have these two sides proven mutually fruitful?

I've talked a lot about that with people when we were making King's Mouth. We were never really making this record, we were making another record. And because our minds were so collectively caught up making a record we thought we're making, it frees you up to not think about it too much. The Soft Bulletin tremendously benefitted from our minds being so fucked up during that Zaireeka record and the Parking Lot Experiments. In the process, that another part of you roams completely free. I feel that this is how you get to that perfectly emotional crescendo of music. You can't do it and be aware of it at the same time. It's just a motherfucker. You have to stumble onto it by accident, otherwise, you just don't see it. Carving out this creative path doesn't really work for us. It kind of has to happen out of the blue.

I always talk about songs being like orphans. You have to take care of them. They represent these little moments that need nurturing, you need to guide them through life. As I've gotten older, I've considered myself more and more as a family man, and The Flaming Lips as a whole are a family, all these people who have been invested in it. And I'm from a big family myself, so I always cherished this notion of loving each other like brothers and not just doing the music. I think that's part of what our music draws from emotionally. We're doing it with that intense love. That can torture some people as well, and I think we're lucky to have preserved that centered emotional love in what we do.

Like the installation, King's Mouth summons a sense of intimacy and containment. This despite being conceived from long improv-sessions in a pretty big orchestral space, as Steven Drozd highlighted in his Sorcerer's Orphan podcast. It's almost like Bizarro-Soft Bulletin, a record that masqueraded with orchestral splendor without an actual orchestra.

Well, we never picture it as orchestral music, we just think of it as an emotional cartoon. But I always present the music a little bit like an exaggeration, because music can work on you so powerfully like that. You really put in these accelerating emotions up to a crescendo in just a matter of moments. Music can make the strangest twists and turns. And I know my voice, whenever I'm singing, wants to reach this overriding, acceptable drama... not loud drama, but emotional drama.

And I think it stems from me listening to those Tom Jones records my mother would play with me when I was four years old. That's why you always go back to that stuff from childhood that you have locked away in your subconsciousness. You don't really purposely have access to it. Only when something like music gets in there and levels it up. You can't just hypnotize yourself and remember things from when you were four years old. But music can trigger these things. I think we'll someday have the means to figure it out, but for the time being, that's probably why we love music so much. It has this way of creeping into your subconsciousness, memories you don't have access to normally.

I've been to three Flaming Lips shows in my life, and it always feels like this whole different person living inside of me takes over, this supercharged version of myself. I reckon when you're up on that stage every single night, that feeling gets amplified tenfold. Was it at one point difficult to find the normal and grounded Wayne Coyne again, just a guy who mows his lawn, goes grocery-shopping, and dumps confetti-filled garbage bags on the pavement? 

Well, I think as we went on in the '90s, part of us didn't want to be just like a grunge rock band. As much of that was cool at the time, [it was] more the fact that we were able to make records. That's the part I try to remind myself of; we really loved making records. It's not just playing shows and all that. We just decided that we wanted to do it our own way. Even if our audience didn't fully understand it, we thought that was just better for our music. We started doing things many people would consider hokey, but we saw them as creatively beneficial. The things you talked about: the balloons, the lasers, the costumes. It's so exaggeratedly optimistic, it's like: "If you just let go and stop worrying about acting cool, this night is going to be a spectacular moment." Because we're all so caught up with trying to be "normal" or trying to be "cool."

We go out there and say, "Hey man, I don't know what cool is, but we are not going to worry about that right now." When we lead the charge and scream "We're going to do this together!" it's very hard to resist once the audience starts to react. So we just keep piling it on. There's always some cool guy who's not going to join in on this. But halfway through the show he usually gives up and joins in. Because it's too much, and I love that. We as a band are really feeling this stuff; it's not an attempt to be cool and listen to that. We're here to experience this show and experience each other. And I think that's a great surprise outcome of a Flaming Lips-concert. But I think it's that connection to the music that we talked about earlier. It can unleash some of these powerful emotions, and if we let them... well, it's just gonna be a beautiful moment!

www.flaminglips.com

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