Frogs, wizards and lots of drugs: Welcome to the weird world of the Flaming Lips

Technicolour Dream: Wayne Coyne
Technicolour Dream: Wayne Coyne

Wayne Coyne is in a distinctly Wayne Coyne-ish mood. That is to say, playful and prone to mercurial flights of fancy that Lewis Carroll might consider far-fetched. A mood that might find him at any moment discussing the proximity of his band The Flaming Lips’ latest music, as featured on 15th album Oczy Mlody, to the sound of rapper A$AP Rocky and original psychedelicat Syd Barrett “getting trapped in a fairytale from the future”, or perhaps detailing the various possible meanings of the LP title. One suggestion is that it’s the name of “the current cool powerful party drug of choice”, designed to “send you into the deepest slumber during which you’re able to sleep off withdrawals and cravings and wake up sober”. And all these decadent shenanigans are meant to take place inside “a gated community that has been made into a replicant fantasy city where the mega-mega rich folks live and have self-indulgent psycho parties where everyone takes the drug and has sex followed by painful emotional therapy sessions where every primal desire is allowed and encouraged while riding unicorns”. And that’s not even mentioning the frogs and wizards…

Welcome to La La Land, Lips style. Actually, Oczy Mlody shares with Hollywood’s most highly acclaimed recent movie a sense of the fantastical, only this is escapism with an edge. Just perfect for a nation that has just voted into the White House a deranged fantasist with access to the nuclear codes. Speaking to him just after Trump’s election, Prog asks Coyne how depressed or scared he’s feeling, on a scale from 1 to WW3?

“Weeelll,” he replies in his inimitable Okie drawl, ever the fearless freak, “you know, if you’re on the side of Trump you’re not depressed or scared at all. You’re thinking, ‘Finally we’ve got a dude in the White House who’s not black or a woman – what’s wrong with that?’

“My feeling is,” he adds, “he’s a showman, not a politician, and he doesn’t want to be the least-liked President. So I think he’ll do everything he can to be liked. He’s smart in that way.”

The Flaming Lips have always, in their psych/prog-tronic meditations on mortality and dread, sought to combine the out-of-this-world with the down-to-earth. And there’s no change on Oczy Mlody. It turns out that there is a more sensible rationale for the album title, as well as some of the songtitles – among them, Nigdy Nie – and lyrics: Coyne found them in a second-hand book, a Polish translation of Erskine Caldwell’s Close To Home, titled Blisko Domu. Think the language – Nadsat – employed by the malchicks in A Clockwork Orange (new press shots of the Lips show them dressed as droogs – see over on the next page), only without the ultraviolence.

Coyne just liked the look of the words, and felt they captured the essence of what he was trying to say. Combined with the imagery – all butterfly eyes, smiles like rainbows and paeans to mythological creatures – they afforded the results (shot through with the Lips’ trademark euphoric melancholia) a conceptual unity they might have otherwise lacked. But what is the concept this time? Where did it come from? Turns out one of the starting points was Peter, Paul And Mary’s ancient stoners’ delight, Puff, The Magic Dragon.

The Odd Couple: Coyne and Steven Drozd (right)

The Odd Couple: Coyne and Steven Drozd (right)

“A lot of people would come to that song because they thought it was a reference to smoking pot, but I came to it when I was five years old because I thought it was about a dragon,” he explains. “I would never sing about a dragon and mean it to be marijuana – a lot of people would – but people like that [ambiguity of meaning] about music. So I thought, ‘I’m really gonna sing about unicorns and rainbows and yet I know it can be interpreted as something else and I’m just gonna do it.’ That was a great breakthrough.”

Is Oczy (with its intimations of opiates, via oxycodone) Mlody druggy music for kids, or a kids’ album for adult spliffheads? Coyne laughs.

“I struggle with that a lot,” he admits. “I guess druggy music for adults who still have the potential to be childlike and excited.”

He spent the evening recently at an art gallery with Damien Hirst and was particularly gratified by the artist’s childlike glee as he dashed around the exhibits, touching everything in sight.

“He was full of energy, like an excited child; you’re seeing how cool this stuff is through him,” he relates. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what we wanna do.’ I like the idea that if we’re excited about something, maybe you’ll be excited about it, too. That’s when I really woke up to the idea of this [album] as a fairytale from the future.”

On The Flaming Lips’ two commercial breakthroughs – The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002) – Coyne used songs about science, war and spider bites to inveigle messages about love and death. Is the “future fairytale” concept also a pathway to a deeper meaning? “It’s about the idea that indulgence is the saviour,” he offers.

Oczy Mlody is a relatively light affair, one speckled with optimism, even if there are undercurrents of menace. A track from the new album such as Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes blends the Disney-esque fantasias of Bulletin/Yoshimi with the bleaker atmospheres of predecessor The Terror (2013). Coyne is largely a non-partaker out of a family of known caners (his older brother is a long-term heroin addict), while Lips multi-instrumentalist and the musical brains of the operation Steven Drozd is shown in 2005’s The Fearless Freaks documentary shooting up. But Oczy Mlody really does seem quite druggy. Were any pharmaceuticals consumed in the making of this product?

“But what I do I do because I like to do”: Coyne and co channel A Clockwork Orange

“But what I do I do because I like to do”: Coyne and co channel A Clockwork Orange

“Ha ha, um, not any that would be intentionally trying to explode our creativity or take us to another realm,” he says. “I don’t think that works. There have been a lot of coincidences of people taking drugs and making great albums, but I bet if you went scientifically down the line and said, ‘Let’s take all the records made by people who have taken drugs while they were making records’, I think it would probably be 50 billion to three – most of them don’t work.”

Does he have a favourite instance where the drugs did work?

“Well, I think probably as much as we can know, the first Syd Barrett album, but I don’t know if that was when he was really taking drugs or whether it was what opened his mind up to be able to take drugs.

“I don’t really like taking drugs,” he admits. “I would never take drugs then sit down and try to mix a song or anything like that. I would absolutely never do that. I only take recreational drugs to have fun and escape from what I’m stressing out about.”

There are, as per many Flaming Lips albums now, shimmering intimations of death throughout Oczy Mlody. The track Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes was written after seeing a dead man, while first single The Castle is about a friend who took her own life.

“The dead guy in Listening To The Frogs…, I didn’t know him and it was in a sense fantastical,” he explains. “I’d seen him and he was so overweight it didn’t surprise me that he died in the heat of the summer.” It’s not entirely clear what the circumstances were of the man’s death; suffice to say that Coyne was able “to look into the room where the paramedics had stopped working on him and see lots of ambulance men there… You could smell him… It wasn’t sad so much as creepy and bizarre”.

The protagonist of The Castle actually died on the same day as the poor sap from Listening To The Frogs…. Coyne says he isn’t “proud that I was able to make a song about [someone’s suicide]”. It’s just a song, he says, that he happened to come up with. He does this a lot: demystifies the process of creation even as he produces work of mystical beauty. We have to ask, are the woman’s family aware that The Flamings Lips have written a song about her?

“They have an idea, but I don’t really want to make it any heavier for them, cos it’s recent and they’re struggling with it,” he says. “I don’t want to add to that. Sometimes songs are too much.”

The Lips’ prog credentials are a matter of record, having recorded King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in their entirety. They have been called modern psych but to what extent does Coyne consider what they do prog?

“If you know what prog rock is, I think it is that,” he states. “Some of it is prog in the way that Steven and I would like it to be. There are a lot of Yes songs that have really strange time signatures that are presented in such a simple way, you don’t really notice. Like Pink Floyd’s Money: it has that extra beat, and people will listen to it all day long with ease without realising it’s slightly odd. But you can only do that naturally, accidentally, without realising.”

How do the Lips (especially Drozd) compare in terms of virtuosic technoflash to the likes of Yes or Mahavishnu Orchestra?

“Well, in these days of computers and stuff you can really not be a musician at all and still do things that are precise and complicated,” he replies. “But there are some things Steven can do that, if the circumstances were there, he could have played with a Miles Davis or been conducted by Stravinsky. He’s of that level. Me, I’m just a brute artist, with no idea how to connect all that stuff and make it work. But my inability doesn’t stop me from doing anything. When we look at each other I’m like, ‘I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve no idea what I’m doing.’ But Steven is also like, ‘I’m so glad you’re here otherwise I’d ruin this by making it all too musical.’ We’re like Yes and The Sex Pistols, together in one band.”

Oczy Mlody is out now on Bella Union/Warner Bros. See www.flaminglips.com for more information.

Wayne and Miley perform onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, 2015

Wayne and Miley perform onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, 2015

POPPED IN – SOLD OUT?

What happened when Flaming Lips met Miley Cyrus…

How did a band who used to support Butthole Surfers live, once issued an experimental album designed to be played simultaneously on four stereos and contain in their ranks a hard drug addict get to make a record with pop princess Miley Cyrus? Easy. Because a couple of years ago, on Wayne Coyne’s birthday, she tweeted that they were her favourite band and they got in touch. And furthermore, because that pop princess is as twisted and capable of musical madness as Coyne and co. Check out the album they made together in 2015, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, for proof. It sounds like, well, Britney Spears if she joined Butthole Surfers, all crazed melodic fragments amid snatches of extreme electro noise-pop terror.

Do diehard Lips fans get angry at the band’s association with Cyrus?

“Well,” Coyne ponders, “most of the people that you would take seriously agree that we live in such cool times, The Flaming Lips should be making records with Miley Cyrus.

“But anyway,” he continues, “Miley isn’t just a typical pop star. She’s a lot more out-there, funny and creative than someone like Lady Gaga. She’s cool, she’s radical, and she doesn’t give a fuck. And as much as we’ve influenced her, she’s influenced us.”

Coyne compares the mutual creative benefit to the one enjoyed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

“When Yoko starts infiltrating The Beatles, I think it’s a great moment,” he decides. “John’s music gets so much freakier, more unpredictable and radical. Let’s say Yoko isn’t there: I think John would have become more like early rock’n’roll and wouldn’t have become such a beautiful, expressive songwriter. So yeah, I totally approve. I wish that what we did with Miley, everybody would do.”

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