"Speaking To A Deeper Element Of The Human Experience" The Flaming Lips Interviewed
When The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne answers Clash’s video call, he’s wearing a green frog headband — complete with two googly eyes that’s keeping his salt and pepper locks in place, — a colourful beaded necklace, and the hottest fashion accessory of the year: a cloth mask around his neck. It’s an eclectic ensemble, eye-catching yet playful, and exactly what you expect from the charming, whimsical maestro of the Oklahoma-based psychedelic rock band.
After nearly four decades of battling pink robots, celebrating ‘Christmas on Mars’ as aliens, and singing about UFOs, The Flaming Lips are boarding their mystical spaceship and are flying back to Earth on their latest album, ‘American Head’, out September 11th. “Everybody else knew that we were from Oklahoma and we always pretended like we were from outer space,” Coyne admits with a brief chuckle, highlighting the slight change in the influential band’s extraterrestrial image.
The first music video of the record, ‘Flowers of Neptune 6’ (featuring country-pop icon Kacey Musgraves), follows Coyne wandering in isolation in his iconic space bubble across a burning field. He wears an American flag as a cape, almost like a security blanket, to keep him safe from the wrath of 2020. ‘American Head’ is somewhat of a tribute to the band’s hometown of Oklahoma City, a definite nod to their American roots, and is being released on the anniversary of September 11th, but Coyne hesitates to say the record is politically-rooted. Instead, he prefers to say it’s deeply American.
“We probably have tried in the past to be political, I just don't think it really worked for our sentiment,” Coyne shares, referring to their 2006 album, ‘At War with the Mystics’ and the social commentary around President Bush that’s evident in the track ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’. “When the Flaming Lips' music, I think, is at its best and its deepest and its most powerful, I think it's more [like] it's speaking to a deeper element of the human experience. It wouldn't be American, it wouldn't be European, it would just be of Earth or whatever, you know? I guess we've always been, whether we would say it or not, we've always been like this quintessential American band.”
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On their sixteenth record (or “20[th] or 25[th]” notes Coyne when you add in their side projects like Electric Würms or collaborations like 2015’s ‘Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz’), The Flaming Lips are keeping their more bizarre and erratic tunes at bay and opt for a more emotional and sentimental lyrical soundscape that's backed by a delicate cinematic orchestration. Melting together some country twang with bittersweet crooners against acoustic guitars and piano ballads (thanks to the Musgraves collaborations), ‘American Head’ is drenched in feelings of nostalgia that offers a softer, more nuanced listen.
“‘American Head’ is stuff that [we experienced] when we were teenagers, when we were children, and when we were young adults or whatever, all sort of mixed together; but maybe put into like some sort of bizarre story that you don't really have to know what we're talking about for it to still be your story — or it's so unreliable that it can be your story,” Coyne shares, emphasising that listeners don’t always have to understand the meaning of the lyrics to enjoy the music.
Taking a page from their critically acclaimed 1999 record ‘The Soft Bulletin’ and 2002’s ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,’ the band’s latest album unfolds across 13 different stories in their most consistent album in over a decade, akin to their older albums. This time, instead of recalling near-fatal spider bites and singing about scientists attempting to find a cure for cancer, the band chooses to reminisce about attending the cinema while on quaaludes (à la Wolf of Wallstreet) or taking LSD for the first time. “Some of [the songs], I feel like, is just from such another time and place that it would be almost like singing about Dungeons and Dragons or something,” Coyne says amiably, referring to the use of the word “quaaludes” in a song.
Following a typical storytelling format, the tracks unfold as straightforward narratives, a complete U-turn from more trippy, ambient tunes or experimental songs like 2009’s ‘I Can Be A Frog.’ “These songs on ‘American Head,’ they kind of tell you, 'Look, this isn't gonna be like an hour-long, freaky dream,” Coyne states simply. “It's this-type-of-story. It's this type of song. It's this type of this thing; this situation that we're going to sing about in the song.”
The Flaming Lips have been to outer space and beyond and now they’re becoming grounded by taking a gentler approach to songwriting. “I think sometimes, we as the Flaming Lips, we have no sense of what is fucking normal,” Coyne chuckles. “Everything is normal to us, you know? Everything is exciting to us because we make music all the time. Sometimes we try to remember, 'Oh yeah, let's take it easy on the listener and let them know [and] make it easy for them to feel what we want them to feel as opposed to confusing them and fucking them up.'”
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Lyrically, the 13-track record is based on feelings and is their most intimate album to date, reflecting on bittersweet moments and childhood adolescence instead of presenting a series of whimsical and experimental soundscapes. “'I think we've always had songs here and there [that are intimate] but we'd quickly go to the next song [and] we would be more bizarre, more weird,'' Coyne says nonchalantly, although there are still nods to their more bizarre moments on the record.
For this album, the band leans into their emotions for a collection of vivid, melancholy-tinted songs that are laced with anxiety-ridden, harsh realities. On ‘Mother I’ve Taken LSD’ the tune seems like a fond memory of the first time taking the drug, but it quickly spirals down a dark path as Coyne notices all the misery around him, reflecting on friends who died in car accidents and were taken to hospital wards, singing “Now I see the sadness in the world / I'm sorry I didn't see it before” in the chorus. Even though the songs are about illicit drugs, they don't tend to glamorise the use, and instead present the side effects of anxieties or tragedies that occur when you're involved selling or taking drugs.
The songs included on ‘American Head’ are sometimes sobering, but always strung together with a bit of optimism brought out by confronting life’s tragedies, following a similar trajectory to their most popular tune, ‘Do You Realize??’ “I mean, a song like 'Do You Realize??', that is such a magical combination of things,” he recalls. “And even when we did it, part of me thought it was too blunt and too brutal, you know? And it was only because Steven [Drozd] and Dave Fridmann would say 'No, that's what makes it great! It is so gentle and so optimistic, but it does have this one slice of the horrible reality of being a human.'”
Arguably, the best of their discography is their more personal and raw tracks like ‘Waitin’ For Superman’, which are coated in layers of melancholy but evoke a feeling of hope. In therapy-like songwriting sessions, emotions poured out of Coyne and Drozd as the music unlocked untouched feelings. “Steven’s music is so often so expressive and so emotional and so kind of epic and sad at the same time that I kind of sing about really the first thing that it reminds me of in my own little life,” Coyne says, explaining their songwriting process. “...I think as we were making more and more of these songs where we would be connecting real stories about our mothers and our brothers doing drugs or our brothers killing themselves or whatever, you just kind of sit and go, 'Oh, OK, I like that. I think I could write a song about it.'”
Pulling from places of nostalgia and deeply human experiences, ‘American Head’ presents a coming-of-age story that touches on Coyne’s near-death experience working at Long John Sliver’s (‘Mother Please Don’t Be Sad’), drug-induced dreams (‘At The Movies on Quaaludes’), and of course, a sad tale about how dinosaurs became extinct (‘Dinosaurs on the Mountain’).
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What lightens some of the woeful tracks are Musgraves’ honeyed vocals, which appear across three tracks. “We didn't know her, but we would run into a lot of people that did know her. They would always say like, 'She loves The Flaming Lips! You can tell by her music or whatever.' We would say, 'Maybe so,’” Coyne says, not entirely convinced until Musgraves covered ‘Do You Realize??’ for her encore at the 2019 Bonnaroo Festival that the band noticed she was a proper fan. “That sort of told us, 'Well, maybe she likes us enough that we could bother her and maybe she would sing [or] do a song on our new album with us or something,’” he laughs. That one song turned into three — from her gentle falsetto on the piano ballad ‘Watching the Lightbugs Glow,’ to light harmonies on melodic ‘Flowers of Neptune 6’, and a duet with Coyne on ‘God and the Policeman.’
“I knew she was going to do the one song, the 'Flowers of Neptune ' song,” starts Coyne as he thinks back on the collaboration process. “That was the first one that she liked and she said, 'Well, when we get together, let's do that one,’ and then in the meantime, we created the song 'Watching the Lightbugs Glow.’ We created that, really, for her, thinking, 'Well, if she did the one song, [if] we still had time, we'd do another song and just make best use of our time or whatever.’ [...] Before we met up with her, we came up with yet another song, the 'God and the Policeman' song and I thought, 'Man, this could just be a really great, classic duet.' Not that I think the Flaming Lips and her is classic, but we present it in a classic way…”
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The Flaming Lips are no strangers to collaboration (just look at 2012’s ‘The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends’) and have worked with everyone from Bon Iver to Yoko Ono. “The fun thing about collaborating is it's just so fucking nerve-racking,” admits Coyne, enthusiastic about the process. “It's so stressful and you get so nervous. Part of that is thrilling. You stand there on one side, you say, 'Wouldn't this be cool?' And then when it starts to happen you're just like, 'Oh, fuck! Why are we doing this?' It's so stressful but that's kind of the thrill of it. You don't really know what's gonna happen.”
While Coyne is keen to collaborate with Billie Eilish and fondly remembers working with Tame Impala and Nick Cave, he emphasises that the newest record isn’t made for too much collaboration, which is why they chose to keep it minimal by just working with Musgraves. “The music and songs that are on ‘American Head’, those are harder to do collaborations with because it's [a] very specific emotional range.”
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As with any conversation happening this year, the chat with Coyne can’t end until we discuss the ongoing pandemic and the future of live music. The Flaming Lips are known for their out of this world, entertaining circus-like performances and whimsical, technicolour wardrobes (complete with glitter and gemstones), which frequently present Coyne singing from inside a space bubble (which he did before the pandemic made it cool). But what’s surprising is that Coyne, always humble about the band and his talent (“the way that I sing, which isn't a professional singer, I'm just doing my singing”), emphasises that the band are “not born performers” and use the “stuff” as a crutch to feel less self-conscious playing to stadiums and festivals.
“We look at it like, ‘it's not really about us.’ We're singing these songs, so for us, it's about the music and it's about the songs, but we never really sit there and say, 'Our show is about you, watching us, looking at us perform!' That's why we have all this stuff, that's why it's always lasers or there are unicorns or I'm in a bubble or whatever. It's an event and things are happening, and it's entertaining, but it's not about us.”
What Coyne points out is interesting: that music is less about watching the artist and more about an experience or to build community. However, that has a pin it for the foreseeable future. As for the future of performances, Coyne remains slightly pessimistic about live music, but he’s trying to compromise and find a creative solution so that small venues can survive and the band can connect with fans.
“Instead of thinking, ‘When is it going to go back to the way it was?’ Part of you thinks, 'Well, maybe it's never going to go back to the way it was’ and we have to start to think there's another way. So that's what I'm doing,” Coyne insists. “I would love nothing more than for it to be over and I'm the only one in the space bubble like normal, but I do know that you can be in the space bubbles and we could do a show and it would be a version of a safe show. It would be absurd, that's OK with me, but it would be safe,” he says, referring to the socially distanced space bubble performance the band did on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in June, and noting that he has a hundred more arriving at his house any day now.
“I wish everyone was coming up with a solution,” he sighs, noting the number of artists who are just waiting for life to return to normal before performing again. “...How long can these venues and these arenas and these clubs go without anybody in them? So I’m saying, ‘I can sorta try to come up with some solutions and I can try to help and see if we can do something.’ That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to be a crazy opportunist, I’m just saying ‘Well, I’ll try something new,’ and maybe that will inspire other people to try something new as well.”
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'American Head' will be released on September 11th.
Words: Caroline Edwards
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