The Flaming Lips are unique for a major label, chart-topping band. They don’t compromise on their artistic vision, and they’re not afraid to make flops, especially if they scratch the band’s collective creative itch, or lead to something greater in the future.
Along the way during the group’s 30-plus year career, core members Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd have developed a collaborative process that has delivered some remarkable highs — 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots from 2002 — as well as what at least casual fans would consider creative follies, like the Pink Floyd homage The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon from 2009 and the 2008 film Christmas On Mars.
Nowhere is the band’s bold vision more evident than on its recent Greatest Hits, Volume 1 – in both standard and expanded, deluxe editions – as well as Seeing The Unseeable: The Complete Studio Recordings Of The Flaming Lips 1986-1990, from the band’s DIY, psychedelic beginnings, and its most recent studio album, mischievously entitled Oczy Mlody, from last year. While each is wildly different, there’s no doubting that the fresh, artistically adventurous moments outweigh the misses. Oczy Mlody, especially, retains enough of a creative connection to the Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi-era Lips music to make it immediately familiar and engaging.
Wayne Coyne sat down with Rock Cellar to discuss the band’s legacy, its creative process, and why it pays to be creatively fearless.
Rock Cellar: You said before I started rolling that even while you’re reaching for something you haven’t done yet, or that is truly out there, that you do want to reach a lot of people. As any artist who’s been around as long as you guys have, you still have to want to reach the biggest possible audience. So where’s the balance for you and, with the music industry still relatively topsy-turvy in 2018, who are you trying to reach as the Flaming Lips? Is it your core audience, or do you still want to go beyond that?
Wayne Coyne: Well, I don’t mean it that way. I would just mean our audience. I don’t mean I’m trying to reach Beyonce’s audience or anything. It’s just that if I’m feeling like something we’re working on is a really powerful, emotional song, I would hope that our audience would say, “You’re right, it is.” To me, that’s what I mean. It wouldn’t be to reach more people.
I want to reach people who know what we think we’re saying, and what we think we’re evoking. But I think that’s where Steven and I really make the connection. We’re trying to create in a subconscious way, and to let the tone and the shape of the melody sort of be what we’re singing about. It’s hard to do, but if you try to find what you think a melody is saying, and sing something like that, but at the same time give it character, then melodies can be so powerful and so emotional that you could almost sing anything to it and the audience would still be crushed by it.
And a lot of it is just our personalities, I think. You feel the music, and you feel what you’re gonna say. But I do a lot of versions of lyrics. I’ll do what I think is one really good verse and then I’ll struggle to make the other two or three. Or you get one really great chorus and then you struggle… but everybody works like that. I don’t think I’d want to just write a song off the top of my head every time, but sometimes I do and they’re great. But sometimes something great happens.
That’s why, if you’re lucky like us, you can take a couple of years to put something together. And even to the last minute, to the very last song on the record, “We A Family” track that we did with Miley Cyrus. The song had been one way for a long time, but the very last thing we did for the record was to insert a new little bit into that song. And it was the oldest song we had, because her vocal that’s on it I think is from 2013. So it’s always a culmination.
You can just keep going back to things if you’re truly making them better. At the very end of the mix for the Soft Bulletin record there is this little slapback that we had put on one of the songs on some of the drum parts. And then we started thinking we should do it to a couple more songs. So the very last thing I remember was that we went back to virtually every song on the Soft Bulletin and slightly remixed them with this little slapback ricochet on almost all the snare drums. When you’re obsessed like we are, that’s allowable. We started working on computers around 1997, so we were using automation.
Rock Cellar: So not totally insane to go back and do it…
Wayne Coyne: Well, it wouldn’t have been even without the automation, but I’m not sure we would have noticed it if we weren’t able to have the automation. Having automation allows you to rethink all these details.
But sometimes you can get easily lost in all the details and not understand what the power of the music is doing. It’s always a slippery slope. Those little details allow it to really put across what I’m hoping to catch. I don’t know if it really matters to anybody, but someone’s gotta have the belief and the vision and the obsession. I definitely have that. I don’t always know if it’s necessarily for the better of mankind but I’m just doing my shit.
Even for this record, the oldest track also has the very last, newest part on it at the same time. It’s the oldest one, but we added something at the very end and it was the last thing that we mixed. And it’s the last thing you hear on the record. It was one of the first songs we thought was gonna be on the record, but then we were never satisfied with it. But now I fuckin’ love it. I think the new part has really changed the whole scope of it.
Rock Cellar: At this point in your career you have a relatively large and meaningful legacy to a huge portion of your audience. Does that come into play for you artistically when you’re in the studio? When you’re creating new music, do you worry about that and does the nostalgia factor ever play into your choices?
Wayne Coyne: Well, we always kind of balance what we really want to do and our desire against whether we think people are going to get it. You always have to doubt yourself and your wild adventures a little bit. But Steven and I both agree to the exact same recipe: If we are in love with it and we want to do it, then that’s what our audience would want us to do.
If we want to go off and fuckin’ make the weirdest most unlistenable record ever, I’d like to think our audience would love for us to do that.
So I think with the Flaming Lips, the diversions that we take that people see as taking us away from the core emotional sound of the Flaming Lips, we don’t see that way. To us, everything is a mystery. We don’t really know what our core sound is. Besides, my voice is pretty limited. I sound like me. It’d be pretty difficult for me to change that. And I think that probably has some resonance in almost everything that we do. Like you said before, or anyone might say, something new we’ve done reminds me of this or that; I think that’s a really great thing. It allows us utter freedom with this great handicap that we have at the same time.
It gives us a signature, Steven’s emotional melodies and my voice. There’s not very many groups that I’ve ever listened to that have that. He allows me the freedom to be utterly expressive in what I wanna say and sing and I want him to be very expressive in the way he builds these very emotional melodies. I think that’s just probably something in our personalities that we just like.
And if you like the Flaming Lips, you probably like that. Cause that’s what we are. And eventually, if you’re a band in our position, with everything that our audience likes about us, and they don’t go along for the ride, then oh well. Because if you’re not gonna follow your own thing, I don’t think you’re worth following.
Rock Cellar: Oczy Mlody had a relatively long gestation period and I’m curious about the way you work. A lot of bands will say, “We’ve got six weeks booked between a tour and other commitments and family stuff.” But it sounds as though this record grew organically over along period of time, from ideas that you started in the studio in 2015, around the time of your Miley Cyrus collaboration.
Wayne Coyne: I think we compartmentalized what stuff we thought would be for our next record. When I’m working on stuff, I always think, “Oh, it’s great, let’s put it out right now!” And then we’ll keep working on it, and two weeks later I’ll be like, “No, it’s great now! Let’s put it out.” I’m always feeling that if something is really working we should put it right out. Luckily we were working on a bunch of things at the same time, always with 5 or 6 songs that we were kind of piecing together, all going in different directions, with one having gone well in one direction and another one sorta stalled out over there, and we’re always playing shows, of course, and the Miley Cyrus record happened in between, so that allowed for some time and space to figure out where we wanted to really go.
You know, I wasn’t forgetting, or putting things on the backburner, but you can only work on the things in the time that you have. But I think that really helps. I paint a lot and do videos and all kinds of stuff. And I’ll have paintings around the house that I kind of feel at some point finished with. They’ll sit there. And a year later I’ll go, “Oh, fuck!” And I’ll add something to it and I’ll think, “Without that it wouldn’t have worked.” And I think we work the same way with our music. We don’t have a specific, absolute time when it has to be out when we begin a project anyway.
Rock Cellar: And yet, even though it did take a while to make and you did make it in pieces and in and amongst other projects and other commitments and so forth, it does feel thematically of a piece. It does feel as though it has got an overarching message, and that holds true for Greatest Hits, Volume 1, too. There’s a vibe and mindset to it that is consistent. So if you’re making these pieces in fits and starts and fitting them together later, does that cohesiveness come from the mixing, or does that come from the gestation and they all kind of eventually find a home together? How does it come together for you to make it so… Flaming Lips-sounding?
Wayne Coyne: Well, people might think we recorded all at the same time at the same place with the same people. But that’s not true. You know that; most musicians know that. And I think sometimes having a lot of time and too many options can ruin music as well. But right from the very first track on the record, called the “Oczy Mlody,” which was just a little jam that we did, but right from the beginning we thought, “This could be a cool song.” But we couldn’t really turn it into a song, or we weren’t satisfied or whatever, so it remained there as a couple minutes of this vibe. And then we’d be coming up with another song, and we’d think maybe we could make the song kinda like that song, cause it’s got a cool vibe to it, too.
And it works that way a lot. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes that one creation is kind of opening the door to the next one, and that’s really a great thing. When that starts to happen on a record you kinda feel like it’s beyond songwriting and production, because it’s got its own personality. When we got to the end of making the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots record at the end of 2001 I remember there was a feeling of, “Shit, what are we gonna do? We’ve got a lot of material here.” And maybe it didn’t feel like it was coming together, I guess. Then the last two or three things that we did started to really make it all feel as though we knew what to do. It guided the process. Sometimes it’s just a subtle tweak on a mix that had been sitting around for a year or two years, almost three years. One little tweak can make it all fit together. Now that’s just dumb luck. I wouldn’t say that’s something that you can predict. It’s just lucky. And then you follow the luck. Cause there’s plenty of bad, boring, nothing music that you make all the time, and you just go, “Oh well. Are we really bad and boring or are we just not really inspired in this moment?”
So this record tries to make it look like we are inspired moments all the time!
Rock Cellar: When you say that you guys are sitting around jamming, I don’t imagine you guys like the Heartbreakers, sitting around playing ’60s covers. I imagine it’s a little more free form, and not like a band situation. What does jamming entail to you?
Wayne Coyne: Well, jamming would probably be… I’m doing something rhythmically, either on a drum machine or keyboard, so that we have like rhythms already sort of attached to it, and Steven (Drozd) is playing along with me. The dilemma with being not a very good musician, but also being the leader of the group, is that the good musicians have to be good enough to follow your weird rhythms and your weird quirks. That’s Steven. I’ll start playing something — the bass or the drum track and just picking what sounds cool — and he would sort of be picking sounds on various little computer keyboards, and then we’d have a moment where one of would go, “Wait a minute, that’s something…”
But mostly it’d be Steven and me, because we can’t get too many people involved with everybody searching at the same time, because it quickly turns into muck. But with Steven I’ll lock onto something and that’ll give him a variety of time to figure out what could work. But we don’t jam very often. A lot of the time we’re making things. It’s not free-form. But I love the Heartbreakers; that’s a good example of what jamming really is.
Rock Cellar: Well, when they used to go in and jam, Tom (Petty) would play a song on his acoustic and then they would go in and play it for a while so everybody could find their parts. So maybe they each have more defined roles in that jam.
Wayne Coyne: Right, they’ve settled into a sound. Whereas I think for good or bad Steven and I would just be bored. I mean, we’re always hoping that some magical machine will do all the fucking work. And really, just the confrontation of people wanting to play together and deciding in that moment if something is good, doesn’t work for me. I’d rather just relax and you can be listening instead of playing, and thinking “That’s not my part, it’s your part.” We’re just making music. But obviously they’ve made some absolutely great records.
Rock Cellar: And yet I hear shades of earlier records in Oczy Mlody. Yoshimi, Clouds Taste Metallic, and especially Soft Bulletin are all there, and loom large on the Greatest Hits package. They were clearly career-defining records for you. Oczy Mlody is not a retro record in any way, but I do feel there are a lot of moments that hark back to earlier records. Was that in your mind? Or is it just kind of the music you make? Were you aware of it?
Wayne Coyne: Well, we just did the entire Soft Bulletin record with an orchestra in Denver at the beginning of the summer. There was a big concert and we were outside and it was a cool thing. So there was probably a sense of us revisiting those sounds. But a lot of the stuff on the Soft Bulletin record we’ve never gotten away from anyway.
It’s so connected to what we are and what we think everybody wants to hear and what people think we’re about. And there was so much rehearsing for it, anyway. Everybody had to know what everybody was playing at every moment. But I don’t know, I mean I was already 40 years old when we made the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots record. I wasn’t young. I think if I was a bit younger I’d probably want to get away from what I feel is my past. But something that came out in the year 2000 to me still feels like not very old. When you’re older, time doesn’t have the same meaning to you. So I never really think we need to get away from something we’ve done or not. In fact, I think we all feel very lucky that if we do have a sound and it is connected to various records and those songs, we would say that’s good news. And sometimes when I hear our older music now I don’t even remember how we wrote the songs or how we recorded them or anything. I just think, “Wow, that’s fucking amazing!” Even though it’s me!
Rock Cellar: I found the story of you reading the book written in Polish in between takes and during fallow periods in the sessions or moments you had during mixes fascinating. What did you get as a person, but also as an artist, from reading something that you truly have no understanding of? What did it fire in your creative mind?
Wayne Coyne: It probably acted like some of those tricks someone like a Brian Eno would suggest. It’s like his Oblique Strategies cards. You’re reading this stuff that really has no meaning to you, but little phrases would poke out and little things that you just wouldn’t put together otherwise.
Rock Cellar: Because of the rhythm of them? What would it spur in you?
Wayne Coyne: Well, it’s just these googly gloppy meaningless phrases, and they’re hard to think of, otherwise. Everything that you purposely think of is connected to meaning in your mind. To stumble upon them and to give them your own meaning, even though it means something in Polish, creates a kind of magic. Steven and I will simply take those sorts of things and say, “Yeah, well we think it means this.”
That would let us write a song, or let us think about what the characters in the song, or what the vibe of the song could do, because, again, we’re just making it up. It would send us into this unknown thing. And I think everybody wants that. For any artist, you have to work at it all the time. And you hope there’s those little breakthroughs that send you to another world, where it’s not just you doing the same old thing, which we fear all the time. After making almost 25 records or so I never worry about it, I’m just glad I get to do it. I’m obsessed with it and I have a lot of fun doing it, but I do want it to work. I want the songs to penetrate and I want the listener to get it. All that, that’s all hard to do.
And you can’t really be making it and listening to it at the same time. But you want those moments of unknown. And that’s where the Polish stuff comes through, because it just throws you into another world. And Steven and I will be on the same vibe, because it’s rare that we’re making a record and he’s off doing one thing and I’m doing another. We’re typically both feeding off of what each other are all about and honing in on some version of ourselves that we haven’t found yet.
That’s what I think we always try to do. We’re trying to find some version of ourselves.