Wayne Coyne, mad scientist: “If the Flaming Lips make a wrong move, so what?”

The Flaming Lips frontman goes wide and deep on music, life, a new album and the band's mix of whimsy and realism

By Stephen Deusner

Published January 21, 2017 12:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Kevin Winter)
(Getty/Kevin Winter)

The title of the Flaming Lips’ 14th album, “Oczy Mlody,” was somewhat of a happy accident. Frontman Wayne Coyne encountered the bizarre conglomeration of consonants in a Polish translation of an Erskine Caldwell novel that he had found in a used bookstore. Things like plot and character and setting were inconsequential because Coyne couldn’t read the language. Instead, he was fascinated by the alien clusters of letters, the exotic diacritics, the general indecipherability of the words. Skimming the pages at random, he would underline phrases that suggested some mysterious idea or sparked a set of lyrics. He explained the creative strategy in the following:

Later Coyne discovered that the phrase “Oczy Mlody” can be roughly translated into “Eyes of the Young,” which is serendipitous for an album about age and youth, energy and wisdom. Of all the words in the translation of Caldwell’s novel, what are the chances that he would have chosen the two that have such a profound resonance? Astronomical, it would seem.

But this is the way the band operates: It makes music with enough room for inspiring accidents, for revelatory mistakes, for some force in the universe to exert its will upon the band. Or, as Coyne put it: “You don’t know what to do and you want any little hint out of the darkness, something that says, let’s do it this way or let’s do it that way.” Sometimes those hints take the band through a creative obstacle or to the next point in the process; other times they reveal some unknown truth about the music the group is creating.

That may be the secret to the band's unlikely longevity: The Flaming Lips are still experimenting, still tinkering, still trying to figure out what a Flaming Lips album can be. Nothing is ever settled, nothing ever concrete. When the musicians released their debut album, “Hear It Is,” in 1986, who could have predicted that this band of Okie misfits would not only survive 30 years but actually thrive?

Even when “She Don’t Use Jelly” became a hit in the early 1990s, the Lips seemed more like hapless one-hit wonders than lifers. Somehow they even managed to convince Warner Bros. to release 1997’s “Zaireeka,” an experimental album and mad scientist experiment that demanded that a listener play four CDs at once.

The departure of founding guitarist Ronald Jones in 1996 might have spelled the end of the band, but instead this turned out to be another happy accident, forcing the three remaining members — Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd — to dramatically reimagine the group's sound. That process resulted in the fantastical pop symphonies of 1999’s breakthrough “The Soft Bulletin” and 2001’s “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” endlessly imaginative albums that made the group one of the most popular indie rock bands of the new century (despite the fact that it hadn’t been on an indie label in more than a decade). It didn’t hurt that Flaming Lips' live shows became legendary for resembling trippy cult gatherings that played well on the summer festival circuit, dousing listeners in sweat and glitter and imbuing a sense of community onto the crowd.

Following two of the band's best and most inventive albums — 2009’s rambunctious “Embryonic” and 2013’s gorgeously bleak “The Terror” — the Flaming Lips' latest might be the most cryptic and challenging. “Oczy Mlody” toggles between extreme whimsy and extreme gravity. There are songs about wizards and demon frogs mixed in with meditations on suicide and death. There are carefully crafted lyrics about a world full of purple-eyed unicorns and there are tossed-off lines about police brutality. It can be almost defiantly off-putting, yet there’s a sparkly melancholy suffusing all of those tinny synths, distressed guitars and unruly hip-hop beats, as though whimsy is the truest defense we have against the persistent tragedies of life.

This album seems to inhabit a very specific world. Is that something you develop at the outset or does that come to you later?

Usually in the beginning we’re working on leftover concepts that we had from our previous record or our previous concept, so it always feels like OK, here we are making another record. We have a feeling like we really know what we’re doing. We’re moving along. We’re figuring out what the next thing needs to be because it has to have its own flavor, its own trip.

Sometimes the album cover itself will tell us where to go. If we like an image, then it’s almost like the music has to look like that. That’s the way I work a lot of the time. With the “Soft Bulletin” cover, I had that image before we even started to make it, and there would be times when I wouldn’t know what to do with the music, and I would ask myself, does it look like it would go on this album?

You look for any stupid, panicked reason you can hold onto to push you further along this subliminal path. If you get five or six of those going at once, then these little accidents can happen that lead you down that path a little bit. I’d say for me that’s where part of the confidence and the satisfaction comes from because in my mind, of course this character would say this. Of course they would sing about unicorns. Of course this is what the song is going to be about. That helps you barrel through a lot of insecurities that would usually come along.

It almost sounds like making music becomes an act of faith that you can find your way to some place worthwhile and interesting.

You want to believe that, yeah. If you’re lucky and it does prove to be true, then maybe you acquire some help along the way, people who can help you decide when you’ve gone too far, when you should stop, when it’s working and when it isn’t. But initially you want to be immersed in it long enough that some little quirk or some little accident can happen and lead you through.

I hate analogies like this, but I think it’s true: It’s like when you do yoga everyday and there’s a sense that you’re trying to do something difficult, something you couldn’t previously do, some difficult headstand or something. You’re hoping you’re going to make this breakthrough, and you have to keep trying. The instructor tells you, just try. You can get there. But if you stop trying and stop trying new ways of getting there, you’ll never there. You just give up.

When you’re doing music, you want the excitement and the charge of knowing something you played was great. But you had to play something horrible first. The first thing was horrible and the thing you played after was horrible, but that other thing was great. You can feel it’s right because you don’t feel all the things you feel when something is wrong. Maybe none of that is really true, but when you’re in the middle of making something, those little ideas push you along.

So you have to be fearless in a way. You can’t be afraid to make those decisions and call something good or something else bad.

I think so, but it is just music, after all. All of it is just dumb music and art. It’s not like we’re trying to extract some bacteria from a dying infant’s brain in one long move. If the Flaming Lips make a wrong move, so what? We’ll move on and 10 seconds later we’ll be doing something else. If you can’t be fearless making music and art, then I would say get out of the way. This is easy compared to real jobs, hard jobs.

You mentioned imagining these songs as movies, and there definitely seems to be a visual element to what the Flaming Lips do. Are you taking a lot of inspiration from visual art?

Perhaps, but I would be the only one who would secretly know. I say this all the time when we’re doing artwork for album covers and videos and things like that. Somebody has to say, that little square there needs to be purple. It’s not a pink square. It’s not blue. It’s purple. And so it’s a purple square. It has no value, no merit, not truth, no falsehood; it’s simply that I want it to be purple. If it doesn’t matter, then I want it to be purple.

It’s the same way with the arrangements and the sounds. Everyone that I’m working with — they trust me, but they also don’t care as much as me. That’s not a bad thing. They say, You’re fucking obsessed with this thing. We love it, but no one is ever going to love it as much as you do. So I get to pick and choose all the insignificant little details. And unless they absolutely hate it, they’ll say, Sure, OK.

Someone has to say this song in these words instead of those words. Someone has to say it’s this texture, not that texture. That’s usually given up to someone like me who’s just so utterly obsessed and energetic and argumentative. I’m not complimenting myself. It’s all equally meaningless, but someone has to say, No it means something to me.

The Flaming Lips seem to inspire that same sort of obsessiveness in your fans.

I think all obsessive people want a little bit of permission to be like, Am I an asshole or am I OK? When you read or find out that other people are that way, you’re like, Yeah, see? I’m just doing my thing. You’re either driven to do that or you’re not. I don’t think you could just acquire it as a way to be.

I remember when I was in third grade, the teacher gave us these giant pieces of paper to draw on. We had a little bit of time in the afternoon to draw on it, and I remember asking if I could stay after school to keep drawing. It’s so big and I want to make this great giant picture. I didn’t have any pieces of paper that big at my house. So I stayed after school probably for a week or two finishing this drawing with crayons. It was a drawing of a building collapsing from the Chicago fire. Everybody else in class did theirs in three or four minutes: Fuck it, it’s good enough.

But I sat there and worked on it for weeks. I got a lot of reward out of it, too. There would be girls who would stay after school to watch me draw, and the teacher would talk about me in front of the class. I got a great boost to my young ego because I was into this thing. I would have done it anyway, but all those things help. It’s attracting other people and it seems like it’s working and you’re communicating your thing.

I’m always curious about the end of a big project, whether it’s a drawing or an album. How do you know when something is ever done?

Luckily we’re always working on a bunch of things at the same time, so it’s never fully one thing and nothing else. By working on other songs sometimes you can more clearly see what this one song might be missing. Painters do that. Anybody who is creative, they want to be working in a lot of different areas because you get a fresh perspective on things. You get stuck on this thing, so you go look at that thing.

I have paintings in my house that I’ve been working on for years that are still sitting there, and one day I’ll go make another mark and oh, I like it better now. You shouldn't try to force it because you don’t want to have to convince yourself that something is good. With “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” certain elements seemed very forced. I don’t know . . . really? But a couple of things happened that made me see it differently. Of course it would be like that. Of course the Flaming Lips would make this record. Suddenly it seemed very believable.

But I don’t think it’s ever absolutely right, and sometimes the more people like it, the more it encourages other people to like it. Popularity has a force of its own. I remember hearing Coldplay’s first big megahit, that song “Yellow.” Their manager played it for us and said it was the single they were going with. I was like, It just seems boring to me. And then I heard it again after it was No. 1 on the charts in the U.K. and, Man, this is a fucking great song. Why didn’t Coldplay pick this song? And they did. So my dumb state of mind had absolutely changed and I was free to hear it and think it was a great song.

So you can’t always be trusted. You have to keep trying and looking and looking. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but say, I like this and I’m going to put it out. Other things you get an easy vibe from and you can tell they’re having an effect on people. There’s no map of how to get there.

Does that every happen with your own songs? Do you revisit a song from 10 or 20 or 30 years ago and find that your opinion has changed?

You mean like listening to our first record that came out in 1984 or something like that? Almost everything of ours that’s that old — I hear it and I’ll forget it’s even us. Who is this crew? I’m going to download them. They sound cool. And someone will say, "It’s you guys. Don’t you fucking remember?" But I really don’t remember. It always strikes me as fresh and unexplainable. Why would they do that? Why would they put these songs together?

There are a few things we’re all collectively embarrassed about, but we’d rather be embarrassed about doing something like the 24-hour song than feel regret that we didn’t have the balls to do it. When we get on a roll, we can barrel through any creative roadblock that might get in our way. But that doesn’t mean they should always be barreled through. We know we can go too far.

I’m always curious how artists live with their songs. As a listener I go back to something from “The Soft Bulletin” or “Clouds Taste Metallic” and I hear it differently now. I pick up on things my younger self never understood.

That’s a great thing you said there. I don’t think people realize that their lives go on. I’ve done that not just with music, but books and movies and everything. I always say I’m going to read it with my new mind or watch it with my new mind. I want this movie to have an effect on the things that I know now. That’s absolutely vital. You may think you know what a song or an album is about, but you’re always growing and hopefully having new experiences that make you wiser.

I think Radiohead might be a good example. There was a time when they were clearly trying to move on in an artistic direction, which led to “OK Computer” and all that great stuff they did. So they didn’t want to play the “Creep” song. I remember going to see them when “OK Computer” came out, and they didn’t play it. Oh, come on. We’ve come all this way and we all know this song. What would it hurt? I think a couple of years later they probably started to feel the same way. It’s a song that we wrote, so what does it matter? Sometimes I think artists should relax and say, Yeah, it’s all cool. Or it’s stupid but let’s not worry about that.

But I think there are times when artists need to be saying, This is what we are doing right now and it negates everything we’ve ever done. Nothing matters except this one thing. They have the right to say that. When we made “The Soft Bulletin,” it was a mission statement: Now that we’ve made this, none of the other music we had previously made matters. But after about six months or so, I don’t think we really believed that anymore. It gets you through all the self-doubt and all the insecurity of doing something new. And, of course, what we used to be doesn’t have to have any bearing on what we are now. Those things help you become something different.

As far as living with songs and singing them every night, I wasn’t very young when that scenario was playing out for us. By the time “She Don’t Use Jelly” was being played on the radio and on MTV, I was already in my 30s. I loved playing the song because people liked it and responded to it. We always liked that. Half the audience would know every word and the other half would be enthused and empowered by the people standing next to them. But I wasn’t in my early 20s when we had to play “Jelly” every night all the time. Maybe I would have acted differently then, but I was older and thought, Hey this is cool. Most of the things we play, people hate them, but they like this song!

I remember we were touring with a group called Candlebox, which was not meant to be a band with much longevity but they were hitting at the time. It was grunge and all that. We played about 80 shows with them, which was insane, and the arenas kept getting bigger and bigger as the year went on. I remember playing to their audience every night. We’d come out and the place would only be about half full, which was still a thousand people.

They’d be indifferent to a lot of stuff we played. They didn’t seem to hate it or like it. They were more like, Whatever. But when we played “Jelly,” we’d notice a lift in their appreciation: Oh, that was nice. Do more like that. At that age I could appreciate that. It’s when you’re younger that you feel like you’re deeper and smarter and cooler than everybody thinks you are. I don’t give a shit about that — none of us really because none of us are that young anymore.

Tell me about “We a Family.” That’s one of the songs that stands out to me.

It’s an absolutely fucking catchy song. It was the very first track, so we had bits of that all along. Miley Cyrus was touring down in South American when we sent it to her. She was going to spend an afternoon in a studio down there, and we were already starting to supply her with tracks. We sent her this track that sounded pretty radically different from the way it does now, but we all thought it had something. Back then it was a lot slower, and we didn’t have the lift of the chorus in there. For the longest time, we couldn’t find a good solution for it. We’d always say it nearly works, but it’s good enough that it feels like it should have something else. Why can’t we make it work?

I remember when we went up to Dave Fridmann’s studio. Sometimes he can be a good new ear listening to something, and he’s like, I’ll tell you why it doesn’t work: It’s too fucking slow. He sped it up about 10 times faster than it had been previously, and he was absolutely right.

Then I stumbled across this little version of a different type of melody that could also be part of the song along with a great title, “We a Family,” this funny ghetto little thing that we felt like the song was saying. We would have never made that up on our own. It’s not heavy-handed, but it’s a very fun, sentimental little song. I don’t know what the Jesus and spaceship stuff means, but I think it means something epic and big and druggy and religious. It all swims around in your mind. We struggled with it, though.

It’s the same vocal take Miley did going on three years ago, and there’s something special about it. I think she would say so, too: I really nailed that first bit. And she did. A lot of the stuff she does is first take, which is amazing. She knows what she’s going to sing and she sings it. And as long as she didn’t technically fuck something up, she always hits it. She and I like the same types of tones and longing in voices. I sing quite high for a weird, old guy, and she sings slightly low for a really young, energetic gal. We do sometimes meet in the middle where it’s not mega high or mega low. Most of the singers I like are women. If I had to make a list, I think I like more women singers than men. Who can say why?

Who are some of your favorites?

I like someone like Björk or Gladys Knight. They make it sound so effortless. I know I love them, but I wouldn’t be able to say why I love them, at least without going to therapy and having it dissected for me. Oftentimes when you realize something like that is inexplicable, it makes you go, Why is that? To me the mysteries are the things you’ve tried to penetrate and there’s not much of an answer to it. For sure that would have happened when we were younger and there wasn’t so much access to every piece of music that’s ever been made. I think that can bog you down because you’re thinking, It reminds me of this or it reminds me of that. And there are other times when you hear something and it’s like you’re listening to another world.

I remember hearing that Beach House record “Bloom.” I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t even know if it was new music or old music. It remained a little bit . . . I just let it be a mystery. The sound of it and what it was invoking in me at that moment was enough. It wasn’t too long that we actually played with them, and I knew I stood a chance of having this perfect thing messed up by meeting them and seeing them play. But that only made it better. I loved them even more after watching them play and hanging around with them and getting drunk with them. I loved them absolutely a thousand times more. I think they know that. I think they’re aware of the power that their music is having on people, probably because it has that effect on them as well.

And that’s why I wanted to ask about “We a Family” because it seems to express an idea about how the Flaming Lips make music. For a band that collaborates so much, you always seem to be reaching out and pulling musicians into this loose family, whether it’s Miley Cyrus or Beach House or whoever.

That’s because it’s so much easier nowadays to do collaborations. We can be making some music in the morning in my studio and email it off to some people sitting in their studio an hour later. They can mess it with it for a couple of hours and then send it back to us. All these things can just happen without people having to be in the same room at the same time. Being able to mess with something in your own time and space really frees artists and musicians up a lot. A lot of the stuff we’ve done with Cyrus, we would make the tracks, but she would think about it and fuck around with them on her own. She can engineers her own sessions, so she can do anything. We’re all pushing the song along. If you’re open to it, it gives you a new flavor, a new dynamic.

My life isn’t unique, but I do think it’s a lot like any artist who has been barreling along for as long as I have. You wouldn’t keep doing it if all you wanted was to just sit in a corner by yourself and not be fucked with. Some artists don’t like anybody else coming in and doing anything else. I was like that when I was younger, but as I’ve gotten older, less and less do I think like that. I like it when I’m doing it by myself and I like when I’m doing it with other people.

Sometimes we’ll be working on something very intensely and we don’t want someone to come in and tell us they don’t like it. Fuck you, we like it! Leave us alone. But most of the music you ever listen to is a collaboration. Even if you’re listening to a symphony by Mozart, even though he may be the chief creator of it, it does require the cooperation from a lot of musicians and conductors to play the music that he wrote down on paper.

Of course there are plenty of artists that you get the feeling are just barreling through and making music wholly for themselves. Like Kevin [Parker] from Tame Impala. He really is making and recording most of that music by himself. Steven [Drozd] and I are the same way. We don’t need a big group of people sitting there in front of us. We can easily make music by ourselves, but we also want there to be something else coming in and pushing us along and giving us these unexpected things. We love it when somebody fucks with us. Music can be a universal language, and when it’s unpredictable, when it’s got these little twists and turns, that makes it better. That makes it a bit more like real life.

Stephen Deusner

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Flaming Lips Music Oczy Mlody Playlists Wayne Coyne