“Their song, bad daysfrom batman forever soundtrack, was one of the first Flaming Lips tracks I heard when I was 11,” recalls Kevin Parker of Australian prog-psych explorers Tame Impala. “Then I saw them living in Japan a few years ago and they popped my boobs. I’ve been a slave ever since. Are they a modern prog band? Definitely yes. A 21st century Crimson, Floyd or Yes “I don’t think they’re something 21st century. They’re in a league of their own.”
The Tame Impala leader is probably right. In 2011 alone, the Flaming Lips – who are approaching the 30th year of their so-called “accidental career” – did something strange and different every month, including (deep breath): releasing a piece titled Two blobs fucking, comprising 12 separate tracks on YouTube that had to be played simultaneously to be heard as the band intended; releasing the Gummy song skull EP, a seven-pound skull made of gelatinous material containing a USB stick with four songs; featuring a six-hour song titled 6 o’clock song (Found a star on the floor) as part of a set called the Strobo Trip toy; providing a 24-hour track called 7 Skies H3 which plays live on an endless audio stream, one you could buy – for $5,000! – as a limited edition hard drive encased in a real human skull; and performing the entirety of Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon live at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, an album they covered in its entirety and released two years prior.
As if that weren’t enough, they recently broke rapper Jay-Z’s record for the most concerts played in 24 hours, and they collected vials of musicians’ blood (all from Ke$ha to Chris Martin, Nick Cave to Yoko Ono) for a 2012 collaborations album titled Heady Fwendsthen pressed a limited run of vinyl containing samples of the same.
If you take “prog” to mean maniacal ambition, wild adventure, and a no-holds-barred approach to putting seemingly unachievable ideas into practice, surely The Flaming Lips are one of the most progressive bands of all time?
“There are so many good terms,” enthuses Wayne Coyne, the leader of the Lips who, at 51, has the energy of a hyperactive child; despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that much of his work deals with mortality, dread and loss. “People sometimes call us psychedelics, but psychedelic means Syd Barrett and Jefferson Airplane, and we’re not. What we do is completely open. That’s why we like to call what we do ‘punk rock’ – it’s about doing what you want.
Since The Flaming Lips formed in Oklahoma in 1983, they’ve gone through many lineup and style changes, but Coyne, along with co-founder and bassist Michael Ivins and multi-instrumentalist genius (and renowned drug addict ) Steven Drozd, are the constants. The same goes for the band’s commitment to creepy music which, on the contrary, has become more distant over time. The success of the 1999s The sweet newsletter and 2002 Yoshimi fights the pink robots did not make the Lips more likely to bow to commercial pressures. But then Coyne learned to pursue a vision of the masters.
“I discovered Yes when Roundabout [from 1971’s Fragile] came out,” he recalls. “At that point, nobody really knew how badly they were going to get three or four weird or progressive records. I saw them live too. I liked the care they took to make the songs sound like the recorded versions. And I love the way Jon Anderson sings – I wish I could sing as well as he does.
While acknowledging why connections are made between Flaming Lips and progressive bands such as King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Queen (including Bohemian Rhapsody they covered for a tribute album), he also sees links with post-rock and krautrock bands, especially on 6 hours song.
“When you do something that is six hours long, it can go anywhere stylistically,” he reasons. “There could be elements that remind you of Genesis without us being aware of it. But to me, Genesis had no punk rock element about them. There has to be something “delayed” for it to attract me. That’s what I love about Yes – Chris Squire’s fucking distorted, weird bass. And Jon Anderson is a funny and unique singer. He has a quirk, giving the impression that he’s doing his own thing. It’s punk rock.
And the ELP? Their technoflash and pyrotechnic virtuosity is, in a perverse way, “punk rock”, isn’t it?
“You’re right!” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I liked ELP – they were brash. And the way [Keith Emerson] would stab his organ with knives in his leather jacket. I loved this shit because it was retarded! The same as Rick Wakeman with his crazy cape. These groups were fun and had personality. It wasn’t just about knowing where the good grades were.
The Flaming Lips’ increasingly elaborate packaging concepts, attention to detail, and statements they make with each release also have precedents. “We always thought Pink Floyd seemed involved in the packaging and the way things
were released,” he said. “Same [The Beatles’] Sergeant Pepper came out with buttons cut out [badges]and The white album came with posters.
“I wanted to create more of an art world storyline,” he explains of his latest projects, adding that he considers Radiohead like peers as they look for new ways to present their work. But these are not just ideas for themselves, he argues. It’s about respecting unconditional devotees.
“Radiohead never seems to run out of ideas, and if you’re a fan of them, you get the feeling that they love you. It’s the same with us – we love you, and I really mean it! It’s like with human skulls: “Oh my God, the Flaming Lips really love us!”
Yeah, about those skulls, Wayne… “The 24 hour song is about death and went into the skull of a real dead person,” he laughs. “It’s pretty crazy. I didn’t realize I’d lived my whole life in Oklahoma where there’s a store [Skull City] who sells human skulls. Every month the owner gets a new bunch of people who donate their bodies to science or whatever. It smells damn good in there. Put it this way: If it was in a David Lynch movie, you’d swear it was an exaggeration. He puts flesh-eating beetles with the skulls and they go to work for a few weeks. Then they are washed and they are ready. Like I say, it’s crazy.
“People walk around the studio when we’re working on this stuff and they’re like, ‘What drugs are you on? What would make you want to do this? But you want your ideas to be like a drug that you take as much as you can, so much that you overdose on it. The worst thing in the world would be to be in a band that’s been making music for 30 years and it all sounds the same. That would make me mad.
There were a few occasions – after their success on MTV She doesn’t use jelly in the mid-1990s and their sweet newsletter/Yoshimi climax – when The Flaming Lips could have ended. But they always take the path of greatest resistance, no matter the cost.
“I stopped caring about money a long time ago,” admits Coyne. “We did a lot of things for the money and, there is so much psychological pain, we don’t do that anymore. We want a reason to live. We’re not gonna make another one Yoshimi. “
Coyne doesn’t fear burnout, but he admits that his relentless creativity “could easily burn others out.” He also admits that he is increasingly “attracted to black shit”.
What he’s been able to do recently, he says, is “learn to listen.” “The sweet newsletter and Yoshimi were made during the shock of the discovery that things die,” he explains of a time when he lost his mother to cancer and Steven Drozd became increasingly addicted to ‘heroin. As a result, these albums were almost ecstatic. Now, however, Coyne wants to go “even deeper into the internal world.”
“I want to challenge myself,” he says, “precisely because we succeeded. We have become free, even if it means free to fail. And I think I’ve become a person who really listens.
Specifically, he listened to Drozd. “Steven was addicted to drugs three times, and the last period was last February,” he reveals. “It was really awful, but I got used to it; this is how he lives. It’s a different kind of desperation than I felt when we were doing Yoshimi and Bulletin, where I was like, “My friend is going to die, let’s find a solution.
“So I’ll be in a studio with Bon Iver or Ke$ha [working on Heady Fwends] and Steven would be in the other, making music to soothe a tortured thread in his mind. I was walking around there and saying, ‘This is the scariest, darkest, most suicidal music you’ve ever made.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ So I listened, and I thought, ‘Let’s make music like this.’ »
The result is The Flaming Lips’ 15th album, Terror, slated for release early next year. It’s, Coyne decides, “My favorite of all the records we’ve ever made.” Especially for Lips fans, it will be a big moment. I’m not sure many people will understand this, but they will in time.
After recent attempts to rewrite the rules on check-in and out, packaging and promotion, Coyne says “[The Terror] contradicts everything we thought we were doing. This is the power of listening.
It will be a testament to Drozd – who is “clean” now, and hopefully for good – and his weird and unorthodox instrumental skills, which Coyne likens to Miles Davis towards Bitches Brew, and the enduring ability of The Flaming Lips find new things to say, and new ways to say them.
“We’re like fucking kids still figuring out what to do next, and that’s amazing to me,” Coyne recalled. “Steven could so easily have said, ‘Life just doesn’t have the same zing for me if I’m not able to get stoned,’ and he’s the complete opposite now. He’s able to see the world in a way he didn’t see when he was on drugs. And I get it. Drugs are interesting. But the world is also interesting. You just have to be aware of it and listen. I know it sounds hokey, but it’s true.
Coyne understands that it’s the Lips’ refusal to toe the obvious line that makes them so appealing, not just to fans, but to other bands or artists as well. And Kevin Parker is a Lips fan through and through. “There’s no stopping Wayne,” says the Tame Impala frontman. “He will do this until the day he dies. Are we taking over from Lips? They haven’t let it go yet!
This article originally appeared in issue 30 of Program Magazine.