To call The Flaming Lips unconventional would be a massive understatement.
For more than 30 years, the Oklahoma-based innovators have carved their own unique path, and the group’s latest record is no exception.
Released in January, the bizarrely titled Oczy Mlody is a psychedelic and moody affair, peppered with lyrical imagery involving unicorns and witches.
A rare upbeat moment occurs on closing track “We A Family,” which features a guest appearance from Miley Cyrus, who has served as a frequent collaborator and unlikely muse for the Lips in recent years.
While the Cyrus partnership might strike fans as strange, it’s just par for the course for The Flaming Lips, who have made a career out of experimental and improbable projects, such as the 1997 album Zaireeka, a four-CD release intended to be heard by playing all four discs at the same time, and the “parking lot experiments,” which featured 40 car stereos blasting the band’s music simultaneously.
In 2011, the band also recorded a 24-hour-long song, of which 13 copies were available for purchase on hard drives encased in a real human skull.
The group is also notorious for outlandish stage shows featuring confetti, animal costumes, puppets, and frontman Wayne Coyne crowdsurfing in a plastic bubble.
I recently caught up with Coyne by phone, as the head Lip discussed Oczy Mlody, the group’s Cyrus connections, and transcendent concert experiences.
Your new record seems a little more trippy-sounding, like some of your older releases, and a bit less poppy. What was your mindset in making the album?
A couple of the tracks date back to 2012. I can’t quite remember why the songs were so well-formed but didn’t make it on an album until now. But they were these weird story-songs, like “Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes” and “Galaxy I Think.” In between, we did this weird album with Miley Cyrus [Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz], and that had an impact on what we thought our sound could be. It started to sound like something new to us. It didn’t feel like a record we had made before. And then it was trying to take the quirky, eerie stuff that we like and mix it with something I feel is poppy, yet still kind of melancholy.
What is it about working with Miley that complements what The Flaming Lips are doing? What makes the connection work?
I think that on a cultural or musical level, people could have a very good, already-formed idea about what Miley Cyrus is. And you might have a well-formed idea about what we are, and think there is nothing that the two have in common. But if you are around her, and you see the way she works, you would end up thinking she’s kind of like The Flaming Lips, because she’s really just doing whatever the fuck she wants.
And I think she sees the way that I work—for better or worse, I’m the main entity, the main songwriter, the personality of The Flaming Lips. And I think she wants that same thing as well. She doesn’t want producers coming in and saying, “You’re going to sound this way or that.” She wants to be like, “I want to do my shit my way and I don’t want anybody to tell me I can’t.” So, you’d think there would be no common ground between us, but there is.
You talk about not having producers around telling you what to do. The Flaming Lips are on a major label, yet you’re still able to make this weird, experimental music. It seems like you don’t feel any pressure from outside forces to do things a certain way.
Right, but we’re also not expecting them to sell 10 million of our albums. We’re sort of charting our own destiny with what we’re going to do. We’ve been making our own records for a long, long time. Even when we first signed with Warner Brothers, that was one of the things that they liked about us. They said they weren’t signing us to fix us up, and they just wanted us to do our thing. And we were thinking, “OK, what’s the catch?” But I think over time that really proved to be true. But the other side of that is we’re not asking for a million dollars from them to make our records. I have a studio in my house, so these things don’t really cost all that much money.
You received a great deal of attention for your full-blown recording of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. How did that project come about?
The reason we even did Dark Side of the Moon in the first place, is it was just suggested by me in a panic, because we were trying to come up with a special download for iTunes back in 2009, and we just didn’t have any other material. I suggested doing Dark Side of the Moon, and I didn’t really think anybody would want that. We had already done one or two of the songs at Bonnaroo the previous summer, so I knew we already had two songs recorded. That was kind of why I suggested it. And then people started getting very excited about it. And because we were able to get Henry Rollins and Peaches, that made it more of a special project for us. We’ve done the Pink Floyd record, we’ve done the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, we’ve also done the Stone Roses first album, we did a King Crimson album. But a lot of those are very difficult to find. They were just things that we made in the studio for our friends, and even though they’re out there in the world, they’re very hard to find.
Your band is known for its over-the-top stage show. As an artist and songwriter, would you prefer to be remembered for the music or for the spectacle, or are they of equal importance to you?
Well, I think everything that we do, for better or worse, is an insight into what we want and like. I know I’ve been to concerts that were a spectacle in a visual sense, but if I didn’t like the music, I wouldn’t go, or I don’t end up staying very long. (Laughs) To me, you can’t really have this giant spectacle unless you have the music. I mean, music is the reason we’re there. I think the reason why groups do a big show is that you’re playing to pretty big audiences, and you want everybody to have the same trip all at the same time. So, you’re trying to reach everybody with this very intense thing. You want everybody to be paying attention and to be involved.
I think what makes a Flaming Lips show special is that it comes across as a big party. Everyone’s having a great time, and unlike a typical concert where you’re just watching a band play, it’s very communal and celebratory.
I think that energy and heightened sense of bonding is just one more of the elements that we like to use in our concerts. It’s sort of this great, unharnessed thing. I’ve certainly been to some concerts where the people who are playing don’t give a fuck—they’re playing, you’re listening, and that’s just the way it is.
I think we put out a vibe of openness at our shows. We want you to be involved. We want you to give. We’ll give too, and then we’ve given each other something. I think that’s what most really great concerts are doing. It’s not like, “You shut up and let me sing.” I’m singing, but I want it to affect you. And then you walk away thinking it’s a great experience.
An iconic part of the band’s stage show is the bubble that you use to go into the crowd. Have you ever had any mishaps or crazy malfunctions with that, or other props in your show?
With the space bubble, because I’ve done it so many times, I’m mostly trying to be aware that I’m walking on people’s hands and heads. Someone has a drink in their hands, and they’re not sure which way I’m going to go. It’s not dangerous, but I don’t want to catch anybody off guard. So, I’m always trying to be aware of that. There have been some mishaps, but the audience wouldn’t really know. A couple of times, I’ve gone off the front of the stage, and the space bubble will get caught on a sharp edge of a light or something, and get a tear. And by the time I get three steps into the audience, the whole thing will literally just rip open. We do have a spare space bubble, and I got back onto the stage and said, “Let’s try that again!” and the audience loved it even more.
One time, we were doing a show in Mexico City, and the crowd was aggressive. Not necessarily in a bad way, but they were pretty hyped up. And the promoter said, “I don’t think you should go out in the bubble, because they’ll cut it open with a knife and stab you.” And I’m like, “OK, let’s not do that tonight!” (Laughs)
You’ve done some out-there projects in your career, like the “parking lot experiments” and Zaireeka album. Is there any discussion of doing something else in that vein?
Not something that we’ve concretely put together. We’re talking about doing a remake of our film Christmas on Mars, and using our underground, black and white, freaky version and making it part of a more comprehensive film with Fred Armisen. So, I don’t know if that’s experimental, or if that’s only experimental to me, using a movie you made 20 years ago to make a new movie.
But I think that’s part of the spirit of everything that we do. There isn’t a particular way that we’re trying to do anything. It’s whatever approach it needs to take. Even when we were doing Zaireeka, we knew it was weird, but in the mindset that we were in at the time, it didn’t seem weird to us. It seemed like a logical idea for what we had been fucking with. We’re sometimes the last ones to know what level of weird things are. We might think working with working with Miley Cyrus is completely normal, but people tell me all the time that’s the weirdest fucking thing that you can do. So, there you go.
The Flaming Lips will perform at The Fillmore in Philadelphia on March 4, Terminal 5 in New York City on March 9, and The Space At Westbury Theater in Westbury, NY on March 11. Oczy Mlody is out now on Warner Brothers Records. For more info, go to flaminglips.com.