[MUSIC: Feature] The Flaming Lips
“It inevitably ends up looking like some woman’s vaginal parts… that’s what usually happens,” says Wayne Coyne, of the doodlings that are taking shape on his kitchen table in Oklahoma City. Chatting amiably ahead of The Flaming Lips’ upcoming appearance at Harvest Festival, their frontman’s thoughts on the creative process are revealing. “I usually just start with like, no idea,” he continues affably. “When our mind is not completely engaged it’s a little bit freer. It’s like these are not our thoughts, they’re just thoughts. If I dreamed that I killed my mother and fucked her corpse, [then] it’s a dream, get it over it. But if you think that in real life, you’re a horrible person. I think there’s probably something to that.”
Matricidal necrophilia aside (the picture he drew while we chat, later posted on his Twitter feed and pictured to the right, is a doozy), giving his right brain free reign has certainly served Coyne well. After two decades peddling off-the-wall, occasionally high-concept, psychedelic weirdness, the band reinvented themselves with the lushly orchestrated pop of 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, before erupting into the mainstream with the much-loved Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots in 2002. Acclaim and commercial success followed – Yoshimi’s ‘Do You Realize??’ was even voted in as the official Oklahoma state rock song in 2009 – which continued with 2006’s At War With The Mystics, though that record’s syrupy singles suggested a creative cul de sac had been reached.
“The worst thing that can happen to musicians is that they begin to believe that they’re songwriters,” Coyne says, of this impasse. “Then they suddenly get thrown into the untouchable realm of The Beatles or the Bob Dylans and then sit there and think, ‘I’ll just sit here and put together these little phrases and these little chords and they’ll become songs’… But a lot of times we’ll be working on a song… and quietly, while we’re doing this thing, something else starts to happen. If we’re smart or if we’re listening, we will drop what we were trying to do and go with what is actually happening.”
What actually happened was Embryonic (2009), a sprawling high-concept double album in the mould of Bitches Brew or The Wall. Veering from implacable, crunching rock to maudlin ballads to hallucinatory apocalyptic hysteria, with the music ripped apart by spasmodic day-glo eruptions and at times eerily unsettling recordings, the record brought the group’s earlier densely psychedelic experimentalism to bear on their pop sensibilities, with mesmerising results. “I’ll be the first to say that I’m not a very good musician,” admits Coyne, “but this way of being free to play [with] wherever the dynamic of the room takes you – we know that there’s a real value in that because you [come up with things you] can never think of… We gave ourselves this self-indulgent license to do these jams, and I think that once we started to work on the jamming sections [of Embryonic], we never went back to anything that would require us to have any discipline – we just thought ‘Fuck, why don’t we just let ourselves go?!’ We were just trying to avoid the predictableness of our own stupid nature – it was a way of tricking our nature into listening to the music as opposed to being the people who were making it.”
Of course, ‘avoiding discipline’ is not the same thing as ‘kicking back’. Since birthing Embryonic, Coyne & Co. have been busy, with their 2009 cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety with Stardeath and the White Dwarf, signalling a renewed focus on collaborations and the experimental possibilities of music as a physical product. These tendencies have found full expression this year with a series of endearingly bizarre monthly releases, from ‘Two Blobs Fucking’ (envisaged as a Valentine’s Day musical orgy, the single was designed to be simultaneously played on twelve iPhones), to collaborations with Neon Indian and Lightning Bolt, to the extremely limited release Gummy Song Skull EP and Gummy Song Fetus EP, in which several originals were released on USBs embedded within specially moulded gummy body parts.
For sheer ballsiness though, even these are topped by ‘I Found This Star On The Ground’, a six-hour song written to soundtrack a lysergic journey on a slow night, and packaged in the ‘Strobo Trip: A Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy’. Going to press, Coyne announced the release of an as-yet unnamed song with a 24-hour play time to be packaged within a real human skull… As you do. “I know some musicians who simply wanna play the music and don’t even want to mix their own songs, while others want to do everything; they want to play the music, they want to do the interviews, they want to mix the songs, they want to do the album covers, they want to make the videos – I think it was Frank Zappa that said, ‘I do everything but take the records to the store’. I can [even] do that.”
Contradictions between the absurdly expensive limited releases mentioned above and professed musical altruism aside, Coyne is eloquent about the potential of music to connect people. “[When] music becomes something that people don’t leave up to musicians, I think that music is better for it. It doesn’t belong to you or me; it’s here, enjoy it. Some people make a million dollars playing and some people don’t make any, that’s the way it is, but I think the idea that music is just sound and anything is possible – I love that.”
It’s an approach that the Lips have certainly brought to bear on their live shows; the extravaganzas involve animal-costumed back-up dancers, 50-foot-tall projections of naked dancing women and confetti cannons, not to mention Coyne’s penchant for surfing the crowd from the comfort of a giant bubble. Which begs the question: do The Flaming Lips feel some sort of ethical obligation to get people off? “For us it’s an opportunity to live in that other dimension which is just that thrill and enthusiasm,” says Coyne. “That can be very addictive, when you’re in front of the audience and you see the potential for this great thing to happen. I think our best music requires that the audience have some emotional connection to it. If we’re singing about love and death [and] the audience just wants to get drunk and scream, it’s not as powerful for us. We want, for lack of a better word, to communicate these things.
“I want the audience to know that I am this music; I mean, all the fellas are, but [I am] as much as anybody can be this thing. I wouldn’t have this life if they hadn’t let me do it and given me money and encouragement and all that, so I just fucking go for it. I really do not fear failing or looking like an idiot or drawing a stupid picture. I believe I have been given a license by our fans [who’ve] said, ‘Wayne, just fucking go for it. Better to screw up ten times and come back with one thing we haven’t heard before than play it safe.’ I think the reason why we’re worth listening to is because we’re kind of insane, y’know?”
With: Portishead, The National, Bright Eyes, TV On The Radio, Mogwai, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Holy Fuck, The Family Stone, Mercury Rev, The Walkmen, Dappled Cities, PVT, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and more
Where: Harvest Festival @ Parramatta Park
When: Sunday November 13