Q&a Flaming Lips – “Music isn’t interesting when it’s done by rational people” Wayne Coyne on surviving The Terror

This article originally appeared on Qthemusic.com

All in in all, it’s been an eventful few years for The Flaming Lips. There’s been the collaborative Heady Fwends EPs – featuring the likes of Ke$ha, Yoko Ono and Erykah Badu, the latter even publicly fell out with the band – a radio play with influential US publishers McSweeney’s (below); USB releases encased in anatomically correct jelly body parts; TV ads for major brands and even the shutting down of a US airport earlier this year after frontman Wayne Coyne accidentally went through security with a decommissioned grenade in his luggage (he picked it up at a party, don’t ask…). Yet for all their activity there has been no Flaming Lips studio album since 2009… until now. Oklahoma‘s leading residents finally returned long player releasing The Terror next week (1 April), however the record is not the instant euphoria-rush that some of their more recent audiences might have grown to expect. Instead it occupies an altogether bleaker soundscape, inspired by The Flaming Lips’ more experimental tendencies. “Why would we make this music that is The Terror – this bleak, disturbing, hopeless record?” asked Coyne in an written introduction to the album. “I don’t really want to know the answer that I think is coming: that WE were hopeless WE were disturbed.”
Speaking from his home, the singer in fact remains as charming, eloquent and entertaining as ever, though he does admit a darkness surrounds his new album’s creation. So is it finally time for the bubble boy to face the real world? Fortunately it seems, not just yet…

How the devil are you?
“I’m good. We just did some stuff at South By Southwest. It was hectic and fun. We did a lot of rehearsing and playing – and a lot of hanging out, we saw Justin Timberlake. And then we were worn out, I didn’t realise how worn out you can get! There’s something to be said for the idea that you can almost go forever if you don’t stop; but the minute you stop you never wake up again! But I’m recovered now!”

Do you remember when Justin Timberlake played Top Of The Pops with you dressed as a dolphin?
“Exactly, yeah! That was fun. It bodes well for the way he is. He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.”

Recently The Flaming Lips you done everything but release an album, does it seems novel to now be doing that again?
“Well, I feel like everything is an extension of the fact we’re able to do music. In some ways it is difficult to speak about music which is why you need to have these things. Being interested in music means that you’re interested in everything anyway, especially the nature of the music we do. If you like, it you probably like a lot about the nature of life and love and trying things.”

Why such a long delay since 2009’s Embryonic and The Terror?
“We’d been doing all the stuff which led up to Heady Fwends’ release and I can say honestly we were the first people to say the album is dead. We were saying that the whole time: We don’t need albums! We’re just taking stuff from the records, we don’t care what order they come in! Then we started to make this record, we got three songs into it and said: Fuck it, it’s got to be an album! [laughs] I don’t know, I really do believe you can love both.”

The Terror doesn’t really feel like a record to be shuffled. Would you agree that it’s a bit different from what people might have come to expect from The Flaming Lips recently?
“I think so, but If we just had songs like Do You Realize and the occasional TV commercial I don’t think it would matter to people who we are. We do have this other side of us, which is for lack of better words kinda fucked up. We do go wherever we want to go and hope it works out. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to be played on the radio or do Super Bowl ads, it just means anything goes sometimes. So I wouldn’t think this album will strike people as, Oh my God! What are they doing now? The real hardcore fans, the real Flaming Lips Appreciation Society, are going: Oh yeah, that’s our fellas! Every third record they destroy themselves and come out the other side of their ass.”

The freakster DNA has risen to the surface again?
“If you’re a group and have urges to do something that seems different and you don’t do it, then you deserve whatever comes your way. That’s no way to be. The way that we work and the way our minds work has allowed us to do music like The Soft Bulletin and do music like Yoshimi… To be open-minded enough to say that’s possible within this group. So for ever ten good things that it might bring with it, occasionally it will bring something that’s awkward and disturbing. For me that’s the beauty of it. We’re not trying to be a group with one particular identity of something. Maybe that’s our biggest dilemma, we don’t really know who we are.”

It’s difficult to imagine The Flaming Lips with a heavily styled, market researched persona.
“For us, if we didn’t go with what we believe there wouldn’t be any reason to exist. We’ve done that occasionally. We’ve said: Well, if we do this we’ll get these benefits, and it never is satisfying. Everything you do is a lot of work so you don’t want to give you time and energies to something you’re not insanely obsessed with? It’s the nature of art. You should be overtaken by it and we are. I freely admit that when we’re doing the six-hour song or the 24-hour song, if you were there with us you would believe as much as we do that this is the greatest thing we should be doing right now. It’s not some strange experiment where we’re going, What’s this? We truly believe in it… and then we sober up! After we did The Terror there was an element of: What the fuck were we thinking? We love this sense of the way we can get lost in ourselves. Music isn’t interesting when it’s done by rational, normal people. I wouldn’t want to be some slobbering idiot all the time, but I love that occasionally we get into a mind set where we are that. To be creative in those extremes is what art is.”

There’s a sense from your written introduction to The Terror, that there was a compulsion to make a record sound this way. Was it the only record you could have made at this time?
“I speak a lot about that with The Flaming Lips because we’re put in a category with a Wilco or a Radiohead or something like that. Part of me says that’s great but we’re not really like those groups. Those groups can do a lot of things and when they chose the weirdo music I applaud them because they could do anything they wanted. As opposed to competing with Coldplay they go and be weirdoes. I don’t think that’s true for us. I don’t think we can go What shall we do today? We’re so obsessed and so focused on this one thing that there aren’t any other options. I think that’s why we’ve made 16 records, because otherwise they wouldn’t be interesting. If we felt there was some other way we’d probably be bored of it by now. I like to admit that when the music is really great, but when the music isn’t that would be a horrible thing to admit to, that we’re powerless to it.”

You also talk a lot in the introduction about the horror of life after love and there being no mercy killings once it’s gone. It’s clichéd question but it seems apt in this case: was this record a catharsis to you? There’s some very strong emotions on the album, dark ones…
“There’s probably an element of that in all records to the people who make them. We made it quicker than any other record we’ve made recently. With this album when I pulled it out later I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it because I have to confront it so much and be that person who is singing those songs. I don’t want to make it sound like some kind of torture, but it’s different than other records because it’s so heavy and hopeless. It’s getting easier, but part of it is I don’t like being in that state of mind – and that’s the power music has over me. It won’t have it over me forever but at first it’s still potent to you. It’s like standing in a room with a dead body, at first it smells bad but when you’re there long enough it doesn’t smell at all.”

While you have to confront that hopelessness, conversely there does seem to be a sense that the record ends up feeling quite hopeful. You confront The Terror but you come back?
“That’s why I think this record will appeal to a lot of people. Not appeal in that it will sell billions of records, but when you hear it you’ll go, Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. It’s expressionistic in a sense, but it does seem to be hinting at this anxiety and unknowing of our selves. When Steven [Drozd, bandmate] and I stumbled upon this lyric of The Terror everything made sense to us. The last song on the record [Always There…In Our Hearts] is the last song we wrote for the record. We felt if we could sum-up this time in our lives, then we could move on. We had to do this so we had a permanent record of it. That way we could move on or retreat, kill ourselves… you don’t know! We felt if we don’t say it now someone is going to talk us out of it and we liked the idea of these statements that you’d make under this duress or in the certain state of mind. It’s the freedom to say whatever you want, like in a therapy session.”

How do you feel now?
“I think with all these types of things that fuck with you going through your life, you never really solve the dilemma of control. You don’t know you want control, you just say, I want to do this my way. What I was despairing about as this record was being made is that I don’t know how much of me is because of my experiences, or if it’s down to preordained stuff, part of my subconscious DNA that I don’t have any control over? We ask stuff all the time like, What’s your favourite food? And you can give an answer but how do you pick your favourite food? Are you picking it or is something that appeals to an unknowable part of yourself? You like it, but you don’t know why. So for other things like music or the people who you love, you don’t know how much of it is from your experiences or how much of it was already there. That to me was a bit of a scary thing.”

What brought that on?
“This year The Flaming Lips are 30 years-old. We’ve been together for 30 years and to some people that’s a great achievement, you’ve held it all together. But part of me thinks it’s down to my personality. I just like having a big family, so it’s not necessarily this great triumph if it’s just something that you like. So I don’t know, which path am I following. The path of my experience and wisdom? Or am I really a slave to this other path, this preordained thing that ends up when I’m 65 years-old and I go and shoot the president of the United States? [laughs] If you print that I’m going to go to jail! I don’t know, I joke about it, but on a deep level, when you’re doing music and things like that it frightens you!”

How does that fear become The Terror?
“The despair comes in on the other side of that. If you are truly following unavoidable desires, what if those are cut off? What if someone dies or leaves or something happens? It’s no wonder sometimes that people’s lives are utterly strange to them, they’re following this invisible path that’s disappeared to them. That’s why when we sing about The Terror we know that love can save us but it’s the most precarious thing that can happen to you. If you follow it deeply and deeply and deeply you run the risk of it dying or disappearing and that’s the terror, I suppose. To realise this is terrifying, but to not realise it leads to something much worse. You’re always on this line of life and there’s a car accident up ahead. For me if I don’t go look at it, I imagine it’s much worse, so I actually go and see someone’s head cut off, but at least I know what happens.”

The director Alejandro Jodorowsky once suggested that falling in love is a catastrophe, but a good catastrophe, you should embrace it.
“Yeah, it’s utterly true. It’s the best. It’s the only time you understand why the universe made you. Other times you’re just waiting to go to sleep, to eat, to fuck. But when you’re in love you forget you’re this physical entity and feel part of the universe or whatever. Of course that’s when it goes good, when it goes bad you don’t want to be part of the universe…”

On a more positive note, how will your tour The Terror? Will all the balloons and confetti fit these songs?
“I think this thing that we’ve been doing became this uncontrollable explosion of joy, in a way, and it wasn’t something we had much control over. It was more the way the audience embraced it. So it was very easy and seductive to say: Let’s see if we can do that every night. But when we started playing some of these new songs, the guys in the band just loved it. So the more we rehearsed it I thought let’s do something radical and play this music for a while. We didn’t say no to anything, we just said yes to something else. I still think it will be triumphant but the truth is if you take away confetti and balloons it won’t feel like a big party. But this new thing is powerful in a different way. It will be radical.”

Venue cleaners the world over must be breathing a sigh of relief.
[laughs] “Yeah! We always paid them well though…”

Also, is it true you’re making a covers version of The Stone Roses debut album?
“I have my own studio here in Oklahoma and a lot of groups come through. I don’t charge for them to use the studio, but I give them an assignment. So we did the King Crimson record before and this is a silly record I want to hear. I just love, love, love that first Stone Roses record. So when the bands come through I’d say: You’ve got to do something for me. Some of them knew of The Stone Roses, some of them didn’t so I’d just assign them a song and give them an hour to do it. Some of it is fucking amazing. You cannot fuck those songs up, they’re so simple and so great, it’s an untouchable realm. I like it so much I want to hear other versions of those songs. It’s not very Flaming Lips, it’s just a big collection of weirdoes. We’ll probably put it out in the next couple of months. We’re just doing it out of a sheer love of music, there’s nothing to be gained other than hearing some cool music by some weirdoes.”

Well we look forward to hearing it and having The Flaming Lips over here, though Wayne please check your hand luggage before you fly, we heard about the grenade…
[Laughs] “No shit!”
Paul Stokes @Stokesie

For more head to Flaminglips.com. Plus grab Q322 on sale now for an interview with Wayne Coyne on his love of The Beatles, plus a review of The Terror.

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