We speak to The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne about the difficulties of covering John Lennon and why no one can stop them being weird.

"There is evidence The Flaming Lips are weird."

Well, if you find riding unicorns on stage and filling vinyl records with blood to be weird, then sure, you could say that. But, more to the point, The Flaming Lips are supreme masters and explorers of the limits of recorded sound, endowed with a gargantuan genius we simply could not neglect when we recently concocted our list of 50 of the best hi-fi albums for audiophiles.

When offered the opportunity to speak with the band's weirdo-musician-in-chief Wayne Coyne, we resolved to cover as many bases as possible in what we anticipated to be a sprawling conversation. So from building a song to cutting it to a to-be-played-all-at-once four-CD album, via Erykah Badu's scheduling idiosyncrasies and blood-filled records, the gates to the realm of The Flaming Lips are open below.

Enjoy the interview with our favourite Flaming Lips tracks for testing

Writing for The Flaming Lips

What Hi-Fi?: How is a Flaming Lips track built?

Wayne Coyne: Well just as you called we were working on a track: I forget the name of the band but someone had sent me a track and we were putting some singing to it. It reminded me a bit of working with the Chemical Brothers, where they sent us a track and I’d do whatever came to my mind by having the music kind of give me a marker, and think: “Okay, well I’ll sing about this, and I’ll just be Wayne inside this song.” Sometimes that’s really easy and it works great, and sometimes that’s really easy and doesn’t work at all, but you kind of have to go with whatever the vibe, the feeling it has evoked in you.

And Steven [Drozd] and I work a lot off each other in that same way. Occasionally I’ll come up with a chord progression and a melody and lyrics, then I’ll get stuck and I’ll say, “well where else can this go?” And having a virtual master musician like Steven, he can say, “well it could go here, it could go there”. And he’ll play his little bit, then simply by him playing it’ll do that thing where it provokes me to go, “oh, I could say this, I could say that”.

So that’s definitely one way of doing it, where you’re just taking the feeling of whatever the music is doing, and if you’re lucky that sends you down a melodic road and a lyrical road – then you’ve got to pick and choose, you’ll repeat words or something won’t make any sense, and you’ll try to finish it up as best you can.

That’s mostly how I do it. I mean, I write a lot of songs myself, but they’re slightly vehicles to get Steven involved. Then once he gets involved I get to jump on it again. Then a lot of times Steven will have a really great chord progression, melody, mood already, and I think he knows simply by playing it for me I’ll start going, “oh, I could do this, I could do that”. I think I’m just really lucky that I gravitate towards people who already have something, then I’m just adding to it.

 

WHF: So do you end up with a base track, effectively, you can then add bits to, make it a song that’ll go on a Flaming Lips record?

WC: Well sometimes it works the other way, where it’s already kind of a track: it’s already got bass and drums and things that’re playing the chords and whatever. It’s already a great-sounding track. It can go a lot of ways, but a lot of times you’re working on a track and, because of what you’ve built from it, you hear another song in that.

We do quite a few songs that way, where the song we think we’re working on, we’ll quickly abandon that for the new song that seems to be appearing beneath the song we thought we were making – we’ll just abandon it and write the other song. Often times you’ll end up with two or three different versions of the song – different inflections, different melodies, different little bits – and I sort of welcome all that.

For me, I get pretty easily satisfied if anything works at all, and then I’m like, “oh great, look, it works”. Then I just try to fall out of love with it and then do it again.

 

WHF: From experience, a lot of songs tend to come from three or four songs you thought were finished - you take bits from each, put them in the same key and make one song from a load of others. Does that ring true for you as well?

WC: Absolutely, absolutely. There’s a song on our latest record, called How??, and it’s a just a really great, all-inclusive chord, melody, mood, lyric, then it gets to this thing songwriters will call a middle eight. I’ll have a memory of a piece of music that I have no logical reason as to why it’d work in this other song, a little piece of a song Steven had, say, a year ago that we hadn’t really messed with at all, then we have this new song we think is working marvellously, then I’ll say, “hey, remember that little bit”. And he’ll be like, “no”, and we’ll keep trying and the he’ll be like, “yeah, that thing”, and he’ll say, “that is in the same key and it’d work perfectly”. Then we’ll just grab it and it becomes this other thing in the song.

You keep flowing along in a song and you tend to do the same thing over and over, and you want there to be, “oh, we went through this door and we went in this room for a minute, and we came back”, and you want a change of scenery.

I think it’s like what you’re saying: if you already have two or three things that you know you like, then yeah, try jamming them together and if you have to change the key, do it and see if it evokes what Bruce Springsteen would call the third element. There’s you and there’s the song, and that’s all you can do, but you hope that through those two it makes three.

It’s the magic of whatever it is now, that it’s communicating, and that’s different from the flavours it’s made up from. And that’s a difficult, probably impossible thing to do [knowingly]. You don’t really know how that works, so you just keep trying and hope it happens.

Other people's songs

WHF: What about the covers albums you’ve made – Sgt. Pepper’s springs to mind – how do you approach those when the songs are already there?

WC: With Beatles music, it’s such a fun and relaxing little game to play, because you already have these great lyrics, these great melodies, this great thing, that you don’t have to worry about making it or “does it have meaning?” So that’s why we would really end up making these covers albums, it’d be things to do with our friends without us saying, “this is one of our songs, help us do it”, or “it’s one of your songs, lets do it”, or, “Let’s write one together”. All that is awkward, and it’s anxiety, and it’s stressful for weirdo, introverted artists.

So it’s such a luxury, it’s such an easy, fun thing to do, especially to attack things like Sgt. Pepper’s, where everyone I talked to, if they didn’t know all the songs, they’d know quite a few of the songs and love them and say, “sure, I’ll go for it”.

We found with the Paul McCartney tracks – She’s Leaving Home, Fixing a Hole, those really powerful tracks – his songs are pretty resilient. It’s almost like anybody can do them and they work, they’re pretty entertaining or whatever. It’s, “here’s the song, and it’s obviously someone else doing it, isn’t that fun?!” We found the rule for the most part was that Paul’s you could almost give them to anybody and it’s going to work, but the John Lennon ones, and I think it’s true of most of John’s stuff, if you take John out of the song it ain’t as good. It’s not in the notes and it’s not in the melody, it’s him.

So we would have a lot of trouble figuring out how to do his thing. It’s easy to just sing and play and not worry about it, but we wanted it to be a version of the song that we would actually get into. And I think we got very lucky with the people that we ran into that were willing to try it.

But yeah, especially with A Day In The Life, where it’s John for the most part then it goes to this Paul McCartney part in the middle. We were doing a session with Miley Cyrus, and we didn’t have very much time, but we had done the Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds track and she took to it without trying to be that self-aware of, “I’m going to do my style to a Beatles song”. Luckily we were just in such a hurry that everybody was drunk and stoned and thinking about other things, and she did it in literally one take, and Steven and I are sitting there with the engineer going, “I think this is already good”.

Then we quickly moved on to her doing the middle part of A Day In The Life, and we’d changed that one quite a bit. And I don’t think it works that well; I think it sounds like The Flaming Lips not doing a Beatles song very well. But there’s worse things to have failed at. I think the Miley part is worth waiting for, even if you have to get through us not navigating the John Lennon parts that well.

You’re always a little bit insecure about f**king it up. I think that’s where the Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds one, it wins, because there’s a whole other entity in there with Miley singing it as opposed to John. But A Day In The Life I don't feel is as successful, because we’re just too aware of the John-ness that we’re copying. That would be my critique of our own fumbling around.

 

WHF: These collaborative records, the people you’re collaborating with are perhaps not the artists you’d expect to see credited on a Flaming Lips album. Are these people you already know, or are you picking them because, “this would be really different, it’d be really interesting to work with this person”?

WC: It would be a little bit of both. With someone like Miley Cyrus, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to do music with her unless I already knew her, and knew I could see how this could go and it could be fun. And I knew a little bit about Kesha [who appears on Heady Fwends]: I knew she’s a songwriter and I knew a little of her songs, and I knew she liked us.

Erykah Badu, I mean it was pretty much falling apart the whole time, but I felt like the music was worth it and her way of doing things was just really worth it. For her, it’s difficult to pin her down and say, “Look, we’re going to be here for a couple of hours” – that would be the hardest part of it. But whenever she would sing, or do anything else besides scheduling, it would be fun.

There are a lot of things that wouldn’t be face to face – you’re doing it over the internet, you’re sending stuff to them and they’re sending it back – and they’re giving us the sort of confidence and freedom to make it work or not work. Most people know about the way The Flaming Lips are going to make a record, and I think they’re relieved by that, they don’t really want to mess with it that much.

Collaborating with Chris Martin, I’m thinking about just because when I was at the hardware store this morning one of the great Coldplay songs was playing, and I remember standing there in the middle of the aisle and I was just listening to it. A dude came up to me and said, “do you need some help?” and I’m just like "oh, I forgot that I was just standing in the aisle listening to Chris Martin".

But in the beginning with Chris, I think he liked the idea he didn’t have to do any work. I think it was the year that he was doing his own collaboration with Rihanna, and they were already up for Grammys or something like that. But the minute we got the song going, I think he’s much in the same way I am, he starts thinking, “oh, well, now it’s going to be this, let’s do this or this”. And we went back and forth on some very minute things, you know, six or seven times back and forth. So they start off loads of different ways, they start off one way then they go another.

But I still think most of the collaborations we do are with just other weirdoes like us. If you look at it statistically, we’re working with mostly American freaks that nobody else really knows much about, other than underground enthusiasts. I think that’s mostly true, but I think these other elements are just as great and just as cool and just as fun as the weirder ones. And everybody we work with says the same thing: we never pick somebody and they say, “I don’t want to be on a f**king record with whoever-it-is”; everybody’s always, “oh, this is great, this is great”. You’d be surprised how many of the musicians themselves are very, very open to it – there’s not so much judging about categories or popularity and stuff like that.

 

WHF: A lot of the time you read through the track list on these albums and think it definitely shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does in a very Flaming Lips sort of way.

WC: Well thank you. I mean, even having done Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, which to some people that’s like sacred territory and you shouldn’t be allowed to do that, I try to remind people that we’re not taking their music, their music is still out there, we didn’t steal their music and say it’s ours. We’re just doing our thing: if you don’t like it I would say don’t listen to it, you don’t have to.

But if you have the ability to be able to work out things like Pink Floyd songs – which are complicated to dorky musicians like myself, I don't know how they work but luckily I have other musicians around me that do – if you’re able to figure them out it’s a real joy and it's a fun, fun thing to do to figure out, “well, how did they do that?” When you have your own recording studio it’s a step further: “well, how did they get those sounds? Why would they do that?” A lot of it is even in that realm of why would they do that?

And what’s even better is that I always find the deeper you try to get into something, the more mysteries you’ve solved about it, it gets even better. It never ruins the music - it always, always makes it better. It makes it more mysterious, more real, more emotional.

More after the break

The Flaming Lips are weird

Ben Blackwell and Wayne Coyne model 'sloshy' records

WHF: It was one of those collaborative records, Heady Fwends, where you released the vinyl full of the artists’ blood. What was the thinking behind that?

WC: It was a very limited run of that, but the albums themselves would be two sides of clear vinyl glued together. Inside of it would be hollow, not entirely unlike the way a picture disc is made where there’s a chamber in the middle that’s made just a little bit bigger and it’s holding a picture in there. We had seen Jack White had filled a record with blue liquid or something, and we thought, “why don’t we do that but fill it with everybody’s blood?” That would definitely be a Wayne-ism, where I just hound and hound, and try and try, and just keep going until I got virtually everybody’s blood. I didn’t ask Yoko [Ono] for hers, and I didn’t ask Nick Cave for his, but we got everybody’s we could get.

 

WHF: We spoke recently to Ben Blackwell at Third Man Records, and he told us their approach to things like that Jack White record is effectively as a vehicle to get more people listening to vinyl records. Was that any part of your motivation?

WC: Well mostly it would be just a ridiculous collectors item. I think they were like $3,000 a piece - they were quite expensive anyway. And we thought that if you were a fan of not just The Flaming Lips but maybe a few of these people, how cool would it be that you have a record that actually has some of their blood in it!? I mean, how insane is that?!

Some people would send us two vials, but at least one big vial from everybody, and it made a big bowl of blood. We didn’t know how many records it would make, so we just filled them up until we were out of blood. We would fill it up and I would think, “that’s a good sloshy amount of real blood inside there”, and that would be it.

But it was never to say, “you should put this on and listen to it”. You can listen to it if you want to: it doesn’t really change the way it sounds or the way it wobbles on your record player very much, but I’m not that kind of listener anyway. It would be more interesting to me to watch the blood swirling around while it’s turning than it would be to listen to it and say, “does it sound good even though it’s filled up with human blood?” So it’s only in that realm that we would do something like that, this over-the-top thing that nobody else would do.

WHF: You have experimented with sound a lot, though - playing different lines from a bunch of car stereos, or releasing Zaireeka on four CDs to play at the same time. Is doing that kind of thing just for the fun of doing it, or is it about finding new ways to listen to music?

WC: At the time you’re doing it, you always think that this thing you’re doing is right, and everybody will hear it and be amazed by it like we are, everybody who’s interested in music and recording music. But now I don’t think that. Now I think that is just one of those many things that we as The Flaming Lips would do and not be too questioning of ourselves. We were able to do it and we wanted to do it, and even though it was quite difficult we saw it as, “of course musicians should do this”.

We were doing The Soft Bulletin at the same time we were doing the Zaireeka record on four CDs, and we were convincing ourselves of the reasons we wanted to do each at the same time. So the four-CD record feels now like, “oh man, you guys have f**king lost your minds”; and the thinking that went into The Soft Bulletin seems very sound, you know, “you guys were very focussed and together”. And I can tell you we would be thinking of both of those on the exact same day, doing one mix for Zaireeka and another mix that would end up being on The Soft Bulletin.

So there’s evidence that The Flaming Lips are weird. And no-one has stopped us - I think that’s the best thing about us. We’re just not calculating what is going to work and what is cool or what’s going to sell and be important or whatever. This little grinding desire to do this thing, it takes over and then we try to do it. It’s not to change the world or anything, we just have a desire to do it and we know if we don’t do it we’ve not lived up to this second life we feel we’ve been given.

Playlists and a Prius

WHF: Let’s finish at home: how do you listen to music?

WC: Well I’ve got a turntable that was given to me by Mick Jagger. He sent these out to everybody who contributed a song for the HBO show Vinyl, so I’m proud to have that. But I rarely really listen to vinyl, even though we make lots of it. I don’t really listen to it in my house as entertainment. We’re mostly just listening to playlists on our phones, just through whatever is around: we have a lot of those portable speakers that we take everywhere.

I’m listening to things mostly in my car. I couldn’t actually tell you what kind of stereo system it is, but it’s one of the more high-end stereo systems you could get put in the Toyota Prius about eight years ago. It’s a great enclosed environment, with a really, really great fat, loud stereo.

 

WHF: And what are those special records you always come back to?

WC: I have four that I’m always listening to. I’m always listening to Björk’s first record; I’m always listening to Miles Davis Bitches Brew; the Planet Of The Apes soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith; I listen to a lot of King Crimson’s first album. Those four, nobody else plays them so I don’t ever get to hear them unless I play them, so I play them a lot. If I heard them more out there in the world I probably wouldn’t have to play them as much.

 

Listen to our The Flaming Lips playlist to test your system on Spotify and Tidal

Find The Flaming Lips albums on Amazon

Catch The Flaming Lips at Boardmasters this August