In many ways, The Flaming Lips have been continuing and evolving for over 30 years the sounds of the groundbreaking psychedelic Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a record they most recently re-recorded in their own signature style; with some help from friends, of course.
The past year, The Flaming Lips struck an unexpected relationship with pop star Miley Cyrus that spurred performances together, collaborative covers of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life” on With A Little Help From My Fwends, a Flaming Lips curated re-imagining of the aforementioned Beatles record, and an upcoming seven-track EP.
The Flaming Lips have become synonymous with rock psychedelia through expansive sonic soundscapes, incorporating any types of music and spacey noises, tackling all kinds of ideas and space-opera concepts in their lyrics, jelling together in an incredible stage performance that aims to fascinate audiences with immersive light shows and over-the-top props.
I spoke on the phone with frontman Wayne Coyne about working with other musicians on covers and original material; specifically his recent relationship struck with pop star Miley Cyrus, and just how the band keeps their sound strange and fresh.
The Flaming Lips are a band that has recently worked on cover albums with a multitude of different artists, the most recent With A Little Help From My Fwends. What makes doing these collaborations so enjoyable?
I think we did the Dark Side Of The Moon album around 2009 or 2010, so quite a little bit ago. Now this was suggested when we were getting ready to put out the Embryonic album by some producers at iTunes. They were sort of urging us, talking to me about it saying, “It would be great if you guys could come up with some extra tracks that are exclusive to iTunes.”
I don’t know if they still do it, but they would organize the sessions where you could just go into their studio and they would help you direct it and produce it. We didn’t really need any help because we’ve had our own studio and others that we could go into.
I was explaining to them at the time that we didn’t have any extra material, and we weren’t that interested in doing different versions of the songs on record, so I said, almost as a joke, that we could do a cover version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.
At the time, I think we all laughed a little bit, but I could tell in his [iTunes exec] response, he was thinking, “I don’t know, maybe we could!” I think we looked into what legally, with Warner Brothers and all that, if we would be allowed to do it. We were, and when we agreed to do it, we only had a couple of days to finish the whole thing. The main reason that we have the collaborators is so they could do a lot of the legwork at the same time.
On the Dark Side Of The Moon one we had my nephews, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, Peaches and Henry Rollins, and maybe a couple other people are not known that were helping us as well. So it was The Flaming Lips doing three or four of the songs, my nephews worked on a couple other songs, but we had these other talents that we were recruiting to help us get through this it.
I think that kind of established the way we go about doing cover records since then. We’re not really that interested in it just being The Flaming Lips all the time, and it can go a lot faster and be a lot more interesting than just the Lips banging their heads, trying to come up with a solution.
Serving as both a curator and collaborator is a very unique approach to a cover record.
There are dilemmas that I think all artists have when you are trying to convince another artist to say, “Hey I want you to help on this song that we’re doing.” We’re always looking for excuses to do things with groups that we like, and it’s difficult to work on original material. Everybody is a little bit more insecure about the song’s quality and their lyrics and things like that, so I think you work on a song that everybody likes, knows and loves. Something like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”
Most musicians and artists that we know love that sort of stuff. They already love the music and having their own take on it. So yeah, working through all that has gone really well.
Speaking of your cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” featuring Miley Cyrus, I was curious to find out about your relationship with the pop star. What sorts of things musically does she bring to the studio, and what was it like working with her on your upcoming collaborative EP?
For as much as people would find it hard to believe, I think in the greatest sense that her and I are a lot alike. She has some musical ability, but she doesn’t really know how to play anything very well. She doesn’t know that many chords, scales and all that stuff, which is a lot like myself. We’re both very driven and creative in that sense, but we don’t know always the ways of how music really works.
I think she really doesn’t have any boundaries in what she would do. She just sits there and what she thinks of is what she sings and if she doesn’t like it she’ll change it. She just doesn’t have any hang-ups about trying things.
Since I have access to all this music that is The Flaming Lips; it’s not just me, there are the other guys, and we come up with things that we are creating essentially as Flaming Lips music. Everything we created, we would also get her to sing on it, and those were taken from initial stages of it not being all adrift but a little big organized and recorded. We don’t always know if we’re writing a 10-chapter novel. We got maybe six of the chapters, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen.
With Miley, we’ll take those unfinished things, have melodies and sort of concepts, and sometimes she’ll take it and make her own melodies and lyrics, and add to it, and other times we’ll take her melodies and lyrics and just use those, getting rid of ours. So on some of the songs, there will be, as far as we can tell right now, a Flaming Lips version where it’s my singing and Steven’s [Drozd] singing, doing our take of it. Then they’ll be Miley’s version, which has elements of that, but then it has her own lyrics and concepts and stuff. It’s very awesome.
I think if people could see how it works, everybody would want to work this way. You have people feeding off of each other, and not having any boundaries, saying, “Well she’s doing the first verse, let me write something for the second that gives it this meaning,” or something. As much as you could say it’s people writing songs together, it is absolutely that. Using each other’s abilities, the happy accidents that happen and using each other’s energy to say, “Let’s do this! Let’s do that!”
She’ll say or sing something and I’ll go, “That’s great!” We’ve had as much inspiration going on, encouragement and help as any songwriter or group of musicians could.
In my opinion, I don’t think it would be very interesting if in the end Miley Cyrus came out sounding no different than expected by us, but the same can be said for The Flaming Lips. I think if we both sat there and said, “I’m not willing to change,” I don’t think we’d like each other. I think they’ll be people who will hate it no matter what; you don’t have a choice there.
But I think people that love music and love the ideas will enjoy the record, that a young person like Miley can be very determined to evolve and say what’s on the mind she has now, what she wants to sing about. And someone like myself, who still is evolving. That’s the part I think other musicians or anybody that loves music will see and go, “Cool! This is what music should be! From the heart of the mind!”
You mention you’re still evolving, a daunting task as a musician in a band for over 30 years. Is it difficult to find musical inspiration, and how do you continue pushing the band’s sonic boundaries?
I truly feel as though I’m free to do whatever I want to do. I wake up every day and I can’t wait to go do things and try things, and all the people that are able to be here and help me; we’re always pushing each other. I don’t think we’ve ever considered, “Well, what do we do now?” Usually it’s the other way around like, “Oh fuck, look what we’ve done. How are we going to explain this?”
We don’t have any boundaries to where the music would go and I think that the more that we do, the more open the world of ideas and expression in music is to us. For us, it’s never been the other way around where we’ve already done all these things. I think it’s like the great Zen teachers, who almost tell you the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, and it just opens up.
The more music we do and more chances we take, I think it reveals even more things to us. It lessens our fears and widens our imagination.
Building off of your expanding musical horizons, are there any sounds or genres you know you would like to explore or try performing?
Well, the thing about working with Miley Cyrus is that she is such an extraordinary singer. She really can sing. It’s almost like there’s never a bad take of what she does, and then you try and find within that what we feel like is something only she would do, something that is expressive of her own life.
For Steven and I, we’re both sitting there and listening to what she’s doing and we were just like, “Fuck.” Steven is a great singer, but he’s always not at ease with the way that he sounds, and when I sing, I’ve got limited range and I don’t sing very well in key, so we’re always a little bit finicky. But working with her, you could really do 100 takes that are all different and all extraordinary, or just one take that’s fucking great.
Musically, I just don’t think of it like what would be out there; I really am just pushing ahead in the things that I’m interested in. I’m not trying to be influenced by the billions of things that you could find in the world. Sometimes I’m trying just the opposite; I don’t want to be influenced because I don’t know how much of me is original and how much of me is someone else’s music. We try as much as we can to not hear something and go, “Well now we’re sounding like what we’ve been listening to.”
I think it’s very difficult to do that. If you love music, you’re always listening and being inspired. So we’re trying to be inspired, but not to have everything we hear leave its mark.
The Flaming Lips have always boasted an incredible array of stage props and lighting, enhancing and commanding your live music experience. This summer, what can fans expect to see as the band travels across the pond and back for a slew of festival shows?
Our stage show kind of evolves with our attitude about the type of music I guess we’re obsessed with at the time. I think at the beginning of last summer, we were doing probably about the most over-the-top show we’d ever done. We grabbed Miley Cyrus’ giant rainbow and mushrooms and took those around the world, we had a big slew of our giant blow-up costumes we took with us. We have these absolutely, never seen before, kind of like video LED tubes that can project images and video, which hang right with us. Those have kept evolving with us, getting more brighter, interactive and I guess just more of a mindfuck.
We’ve seen light shows since forever and we’ve worked with light shows forever, and these LEDs are so bright and fast, so easy to work with. One of our main lighting assistants is really great at playing video games, and the little controller for the lights is mapped like a video game, with these fast-reacting little buttons that trigger up and down. I think if you see our light show you’ll see that; it’s so nuanced but so freaky.
When you play big festivals late at night, when people are all on drugs and everything, you want to have a certain impact, and I think song-wise, sound-wise, you want the audience to be mesmerized by it. So we do everything we can to make the song work.
I don’t remember all the things we got rid of; I’m still doing the space ball thing, and I’ve incorporated where I’m singing inside this big inflatable sphere and I’ll go out into the crowd inside. That wasn’t possible 10 years ago with the way microphones worked that weren’t nearly as sophisticated. Back then I wouldn’t be able to sing in the crowd because there would have been a lot of feedback, whereas now, it doesn’t sound different.
I can’t imagine a group that all the things as technology moves along would work better for, because I’m so dumbed by it but it’s so easy. I think technology is getting that way, where anybody that wants to can make something of it.
This LED technology started to become available to weirdoes like us in the past six or seven years, and it’s just gone insane. It’s literally gone insane. One of the guys that works closely with us on our light shows is one of the guys that helped invent this lightweight, throw it up in 10 minutes version of video screens. It’s amazing. I mean, I stand there sometimes in awe, and I forget to sing.
The Flaming Lips will perform June 6 at the Gentlemen Of The Road music festival in Seaside Heights, NJ, June 7 at The Surf Lodge in Montauk, NY, and at Musikfest on Aug. 7 in Bethlehem, PA. With A Little Help From My Fwends is available now through Warner Bros. For more information, go to flaminglips.com.