Photo by Philip Cosores
Before sifting through each of The Flaming Lips’ albums with Wayne Coyne, I refer to his catalog of recorded material as a “vast discography” — which elicits a chortle from the legendary musician. He agrees with the assessment, though seems to be a little bit incredulous that he’s carved out such a career. “Fuck! I have a lot of energy, and I think the biggest part of it is that nobody has stopped me,” he laughs. “I’m just lucky.”
But there’s clearly something more than luck at play in his band’s success. Looking through The Flaming Lips’ catalog, despite their massive genre experimentation, eccentric collaborations, and wild ideas, the uniting factor is an unrelenting drive to keep on going. “I think you have to be intense, or it’s not going to be interesting,” Coyne admits. “I try to tell people that you can’t think your life up and then go live it. You really just have to live it. All of it. There is no path that you can light up and then walk on.”
Though there was no lighted path that led from Hear It Is to the brand-new Oczy Mlody, it’s a fascinating experiment to trace their journey in hindsight, to look back at each album and analyze its impact and origin. Some revealed a spirit that occupied a musical discussion, and others yielded a more emotional response. And there’s no better guide than the man himself, Coyne offering his thoughts and ideas, oftentimes wandering through long pauses and dusting off old anecdotes on the “vast discography” that he never expected to come to pass.
Take it away, Wayne!
Hear It Is (1986)
The Flaming Lips’ first official LP also marks the point at which Wayne Coyne took the frontman role, carrying the relatively straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll that they relied on upon their formation. There are certainly signs of the psychedelic haze to come, but Coyne, Michael Ivins, and Richard English took some time to find their oddball footing.
Well, weirdly enough the first record we actually made was in 1983, and it came out right at the beginning of 1984. It’s just a little six-song half-record. Back then, nobody that I knew personally made records. We were only a band for about six months or so, and then we decided we’re just going to make a record. Looking back, I think it was a really good thing for us. We didn’t know much. We kept going back into the studio, and at the time, we felt it was kind of amateur to have to redo songs. Now, I look back and don’t feel the same way. The fact that you get to rethink and try again and again is great. During that first album, we really discovered that we liked recording and messing around in the studio and not necessarily being just about a personal talent. You get to build things up like a painter would build up painting on a canvas.
In the beginning, all of us were kind of introverted, you know? None of us wanted to be the singer and none of us wanted to be the star. My brother wasn’t a very good singer; well, none of us thought we were very good singers at all. We would go out and play shows around America and stuff, and he didn’t really like doing that. He wasn’t having very much fun doing that, so he quit, and I just started to sing out of sheer, ‘Well, someone’s got to do it!’ Everybody thought I should be the singer anyway, but I was never … well, I’m not a very good singer even now. We are all not shy, but we thought we could do stuff and make it sound cool by messing with it. That’s been our biggest thing, to not fear that we can sound cool.
If you listen to Hear It Is, it’s radically different to who we are now. If you didn’t know it was the same group, you could easily like what we do now and really hate what we did then. Some people would see that it’s just an evolution of personalities. I loved those early records because they are just so far away from who I am now. I see them being done by a different person. They are just ridiculous, ridiculous records. The part of our past I really like was how it was always a little bit of a surprise. There was no particular style; it was just very freaky music. That first album forced me to find a way to sing more emotionally. Back then, it was a lot of screaming and out-of-tune guitar. We are always trying to be more emotional, and if we hadn’t been able to do that, we would have stopped and killed ourselves.
There’s a song on there called “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin”. I mean, we were just so ridiculous! I don’t think any of us had the confidence to think that we were interesting enough to sing about our own lives. Instead, we would make things up, never knowing what the hell we were singing about. I applaud any band that’s willing to make a fool of themselves and just go for it.
In terms of the album cover, the intention was a punk rock acid trip. We embrace that to a certain extent. A lot of the early punk rock stance would be against drugs, especially acid and the like. The people that we knew back then liked punk rock music and taking acid … we just simply didn’t have any rules. That was the essence of what we were embracing in sound and vision. We would run into more people like the Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets who would be more like us, freaky, without hangups about what they should or shouldn’t be.