Their new album tells of a future drug and a fairy tale world where unicorn sex is encouraged and sleeping is the cure-all. A chat with Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips is rarely dull, this is a whole other level…
The Flaming Lips, those Oklahoman psychedelic outliers, have been on the radar (and you may want to put down your cup of tea at this point) for 33 years. Their first record was released in 1983, but the band we know and love today emerged in the 90s when Steven Drozd joined. In September, he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a Flaming Lip. He was recruited as a tour drummer, but went above and beyond expectations by weaponising The Lips’ loose freak-out indie hippy stylings into a vehicle for psychedelic (and electronic) experimentalia which, somehow, delivered hit singles, Grammy nominations and big-selling albums. He also, however, became a heroin addict, which was not quite such a positive contribution to the band’s well-being.
We’ll come back to that later, given that the band’s new record ‘Oczy Mlody’ is a concept album largely about a sci-fi drug Wayne Coyne has imagineered. A future society of mega-rich gated community dwellers pop Oczy Mlody. The drug allows them to have sex on unicorns and then puts them to sleep for three months, during which time they are cured of any ailments. And there are frogs and wizards and… oh, I don’t know. It’s off its head, like ‘Adventure Time’ (ask your kids), erm, on acid. Anyway, we’ll get Steven and Wayne to explain more in a bit.
The new album is something of a triumph. It has a beauty and a cohesion that many might feel was missing from 2013’s ‘The Terror’. It delivers both sonic and emotional depth with transcendent melody and window-trembling electronics, mostly driven by beats from ancient drum machines, reminiscent at times of early Cabaret Voltaire. It represents a return to full strength for the band.
A few years back, you could be forgiven for thinking a wheel had fallen off their psychedelic bus. There was a confusing rush of weird releases; ‘The Flaming Lips And Stardeath And White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins And Peaches Doing The Dark Side Of The Moon’, a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’ album with a cast of dozens including Wayne Coyne’s special new friend, Miley Cyrus, a series of ‘Heady Fwends’ releases, a bunch of tracks on flash drives buried in skulls and foetuses made of gummy bear goo, and even a limited edition of 13 flash drives inside real skulls. All of which rather swamped what was probably their last proper album, the dark and foreboding ‘The Terror’. Around the same time, Coyne’s marriage foundered, Drozd relapsed, and drummer Kliph Scurlock was booted out of the band in a bizarre and acrimonious row about the cultural appropriation of a Native American headdress.
And then there was Miley Cyrus and her dead dog. Read the next bit slowly, it might break your bonkers-o-meter. Miley claimed a Chinese healer placed her “in a state where my dog was lifted out of my lungs and placed on my shoulder”. The dog’s energy then went into Wayne, apparently. “What he [the dog] was to me, Wayne has become,” she explained. So Wayne is Miley Cyrus’ dog, right? Which is why they made the ‘Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz’ album. I think. You can get it for free off the internet, legit. They gave it away.
Talking to Steven Drozd and Wayne Coyne on the day of the US election finds them both happy with the new album. But they’re both pretty tense about who is going to be their next president. As we speak, none of us know what’s about to happen. A few days later, Steven emails me: “I’m still reeling…”.
The album opens with the title track’s haunting theme, and proceeds to mutate and twist on itself through some hefty sound manipulations, courtesy of some startling electronic interventions. ‘Do Glowy’, for example, relies on that old organ drum machine and some delicious naked analogue bass bursts to reinforce Wayne’s Nadsat-esque lyrics to create an enveloping atmosphere. It’s actually a strangely appropriate soundtrack for the times we find ourselves living through; in turns melancholy and beautiful, timidly hopeful and then like being in a flotation tank with just your own brain’s psychedelic wanderings for company. It’s satisfyingly rich and warm, full of glorious melody and bright colours.
Am I right to see the album’s theme through the prism of American life this last year or so, as some kind of wish fulfilment? Is it the sublimated desire to abandon this reality where a wave of illiberal ghastliness has been unleashed?
“I’ve never been so angry at a person in my whole life,” says Steven. He’s talking about Donald Trump. “In. My. Whole. Life. I can’t believe that people are so dumb. I think the album’s partly based on that notion that, yeah. If we could just go to sleep for three months, we could wake up and the election’s over and Hillary’s president and we’re moving forward and Donald Trump’s in jail down in South America somewhere, wouldn’t that be great if that could happen? It’s partly completely Wayne’s imagination, I think it’s partly his subconscious too, based on real life experience.”
Real life experience?
“It’s about partying hard for a couple of days,” he says. “I think he was thinking of Miley Cyrus. He’s been hanging out with her a lot in the last couple of years, and he’s been in this world of younger people, younger people with lots and lots of money, who are very, very, very famous. So if you mix all those elements together, and you get to peer into that world, and you’re Wayne… maybe he does drugs with them, maybe he doesn’t, I DON’T KNOW… but I think he got this idea, ‘What if there was this drug?’, like in the song ‘There Should Be Unicorns’. If we could take this drug that made life so much, I don’t know, that made it like you’re floating above life, you’re floating above the rabble of the world, you could feel so much better, and then you could sleep for three months.”
A concept album about a cool new party drug, and sleeping away your addictions, or just painlessly recovering from being a bit fagged and bashed after a night on the synthemesc or Oczy Mlody: it kind of resonates with the idea of doing heroin, doesn’t it, Steven?
“We could talk for six hours about this,” he sighs. “First of all, people misunderstand what heroin is. If you’ve ever been to the dentist and you have a cavity and they give you oxycodone, that warm feeling that gives you, that fuzzy feeling, most people like that; and that’s heroin.
“My feeling with taking drugs is that at the beginning of my addiction it felt like it freed me up to do whatever I thought I wanted to do. It frees you from worry, and if you’re free from worry it releases your mind and you’re free to go wherever you want to go. But once you become addicted it flips around, then you’re in thrall to the drug, and you’re constantly making sure you have it, or you can get it. At the same time, it doesn’t guarantee you’re going to make good music. Every addict eventually has to quit, or they OD, or they die. There has to be change at some point. Even Burroughs would go 10 years, then he’d sober up for five and get hooked again. You can’t survive 50 years being an addict, it just doesn’t work that way.”
So when you made this album were you trying to create the sense of being on a drug, this sci-fi drug you’ve made up?
“It’s not like I’m drawing from a feeling, maybe subconsciously because I’ve had so many years of doing that, but I’m just making music, whether it’s a song I have or Wayne has, I’m not sitting there thinking, ‘Oh I’m trying to recreate what it was like doing heroin’. But I guess it must be in there somewhere. I’m just trying to play what is the right part for whatever the song is, you know?”
There’s no doubt that The Flaming Lips is the result of the combustible combination of the intense creative energies of Drozd and Coyne. Steven provides the musical muscle while Wayne Coyne is, as Steven puts it, “Wayne Coyne”. He can be attracted to a book with a cool cover, in this instance a Polish translation of ‘Close To Home’ by the American author Erskine Caldwell (though I’m fairly sure neither of them know or care what the book actually is) and create a whole direction of travel for the band from the way a few words look on the page: ‘Nigdy Nie’ and ‘Blisko Domu’ for example, and then hang a concept album off those ideas.
“I can come up with music,” says Steven, “but it’s only when he craps out these lyrics and says these things that are poetry in a way, that it gives the music this whole other weight and dimension that it would not otherwise have. I mean, he can shit out lyrics in 30 minutes that I would kill to write in 10 years, but it’s just not part of my make up. I do envy that part of his artistry, so hey, he’s still Wayne Coyne.”
Wayne is outside the polling station when I call him. He’s just cast his vote. He’s as baffled and angry as Steven about the rise of Trump, and at this point he still thinks that Trump is going to “get creamed”. I ask him if the new album has an element of denial about it, a desire to absent yourself from a distasteful reality by partying with some crazy sex unicorn/frog/wizard and then sleep for as long as it takes to get over it.
“I love being involved,” he says. “Like, when I was called for jury duty, in the beginning I dreaded it, but then I loved it. I loved idea that you get to be involved.”
And I imagine, the accused might have been quite pleased to see Wayne Coyne on the jury if the rap was drug-related.
“I vote a lot,” Wayne continues. “I vote for the local guys and especially the guys that are going to be helping or hurting my neighbourhood, you know. I would say I imagine a lot of people would like to go to sleep and wake up and it’s all fixed and better, but the album’s more about sleeping to escape things you dread, like being addicted to drugs or losing weight.”
Would you take this drug you’ve dreamed up if it existed?
“Yeah! I wish I could go to sleep and wake and all my physical ailments were gone. I can almost see that working for people. The idea that if you weigh 500 pounds you’ve gotta discipline yourself, that doesn’t seem very realistic. But what if there was some mechanism by which you could just go to sleep for three months and it’s all taken care of and all your addictions and cravings are taken care of and erased? There’s probably some horrible real life physical dilemma that you would have that I’m not seeing, but y’know, it’s my story!”
Steven mentioned that your partying with Miley Cyrus and her crew might have something do with your thinking on this album’s concept…
“When I started talking about the idea of the mega-rich, yeah,” he says, “but I don’t think I was doing it consciously. All the stuff, even the sound of the music, the record that ended up being her ‘Dead Petz’ record, a lot of that went back and forth, it could be a Flaming Lips song that we were going to do, or it could be a ‘Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz’ song that she was going to do. So all that was, still is, jumbled together.”
The teaming up of The Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus, and the apparent intensity of the friendship between her and Wayne in particular, knocked some Lips fans into touch. What seemed like a wilfully perverse decision to hook each other’s wagons to the same horses freaked out even diehard Lips fans. Perhaps especially the diehards. The rest of us could enjoy the disruptive cognitive dissonance it provoked.
“I think as time goes on it becomes less and less weird or unheard of,” says Wayne. “Lady Gaga’s new album does something similar, a pop star, who really is considered just a pop star, is working with groups like Tame Impala and Father John Misty. I don’t know… it was a thing that, it’s time was coming. We knew when she was still Hannah Montana that Miley was a Lips fan, and if you’re around her she’s always listening to all kinds of music, so it didn’t surprise us. I could see where a portion of our audience might go, ‘Oh jeez, why would they do this?’. But I think another portion was already thinking that anything goes.
“This is truly the punk rock that we dreamed of, there are simply no categories and there are no rules, do whatever you want to do. We were always pursuing making music together, it wasn’t just hanging out, even if it seems like that, and doing things together on an artistic level. We absolutely love hanging out and doing things, and that’s the great bonus of living, you get to have this great new world and a famous friend. But most of it is just based on doing music together, and we still are.”
Indeed they are. Miley crops up on ‘Oczy Mlody’. She sings with Wayne on the closing track, ‘We A Family’, and the silos of pop and indie and electronica and psychedelia collapse before your eyes, like the shining glass towers of finance exploding into flames at the end of the film ‘Fight Club’.
In the PR notes for ‘Oczy Mlody’, Wayne Coyne says the album “sounds like Syd Barrett meets A$AP Rocky…” knowing full well that if you know who Syd Barrett is you probably haven’t heard of A$AP Rocky, and if you know and like A$AP Rocky you probably don’t care about or wouldn’t like Syd Barrett.
If you do know both artists, that’s a pretty good call, particularly if we’re talking about A$AP Rocky’s mind bending ‘L$D’. All of them (Rocky, Syd, The Lips) are pretty untethered. Their songs don’t follow any well-trodden paths, they dance to the beat of a different drummer, and that there’s any bond between them at all, with Miley Cyrus somewhere in the mix, is a 2016/2017 upside for sure. As is the fact that The Flaming Lips are still here after all this time, still making records that matter, and still being on the outer reaches of making any sense whatsoever. It’s reassuring in this increasingly turbulent and odd era of horror politics and musician’s deaths. The certainties of the pop music landscape of the late 20th century have fallen away, and The Flaming Lips, typically, embrace it.
“I think it happens if you stay interested in music,” says Wayne. “You notice, ‘Oh, well, this old shit that used to seem so important suddenly doesn’t mean anything to anybody!’. Even though it still means something to you, but that’s because you’re interested in what it does mean these days. I remember thinking of Sonic Youth in that way, that they would never not be cool and important, they’d never not be here… and then they were gone.”
As we say our goodbyes, Wayne returns to the subject of the election. “As we speak, we don’t know who’s won the election, but we feel certain Hillary’s going to win… don’t we?”
Well, many people went to bed on 23 June and woke up to discover that against all expectations, we voted to leave the EU, so…
“Yeah, we should talk again and you can tell me why that happened.” Let’s do that, I say. And if Trump wins, maybe I’ll take some Oczy Mlody and everything will be OK.
“Well if you find some, I want some too.”
I think we all do, Wayne.
‘Oczy Mlody’ is released by Bella Union