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.
Oh My Gawd!!! (1987)
Though it carries the DNA of everything from Pink Floyd to The Replacements (and The Beatles, quite literally, using a couple of samples), the trio from the last album return and further embrace some more weirdness — evident immediately from the cover art. Their playful experimentation took classic rock roots and pushed their edges until everything was stretched into absurd new shapes. The balance of punk-indebted intensity and sweeter acoustic tones hints at the complexity to come.
[Laughs] At the time, this was one of the only records out there that had a Beatles sample on it. No one has ever called us out on it. At this point, we were literally just doing everything we wanted, and nobody cared. There wasn’t anybody to stop us, and that’s exactly how and why we put these records out. We were so under the radar that we didn’t need to care, and now that these records are out and have been for fucking 30 years that have these Beatles samples on them — it’s pretty ridiculous.
In terms of production, we were using piano and acoustic guitars, so I think a lot of people just didn’t know what the fuck we were trying to do. Most of the bands at the time were using loud guitars, but we didn’t have any idea what was cool and what wasn’t. The only way we made that record was not worrying at all about what music was being made outside The Flaming Lips. If we had to follow everyone’s lead, by the time we put it out, it just wouldn’t be current anymore. For Oh My Gawd!!!, we were just barreling ahead and starting to figure out more about how to make records. That’s the part of the process I remember the most, because it’s what we like to do. That started us on the path of really pursuing whatever it was that we had to do, just so that we can keep making more records. Whatever we had to do to keep making another record we did: playing shows, selling T-shirts, and that’s the way we still are today. While there are things in between that you have to do to prepare yourself so people want to buy your records, our main goal is that this album taught us that we like making records.
While the sound feels rooted in rock, you must remember I grew up in the late ‘70s for the most part. I mean, I was born in 1961, so I was meant to be a weirdo in a ‘70s rock group. Luckily, punk rock came along, and it was the loudest style out there and allowed us to be a group and make this record. We aren’t real musicians. We were nothing without punk rock giving us the kind of freedom to do anything without being so embarrassed about it. And then before you know it, we are making strange, arty records, pushing through what should have been a really awkward situation because we didn’t really know how to play and record music. We were just figuring it out as we went along, and I think we were just very lucky. During this time, we were starting to do more things that were studio-orientated and not so much about the way we were supposed to be playing in front of people.
Telepathic Surgery (1989)
The Lips were preparing for quite a departure on their third album: a massive sound collage, even more experimental than their newfound guitar exploration. Though that plan didn’t exactly pan out, the grittier, punkier album that resulted was still a fascinating escape from the traditions they’d been rooted in — even if there’s a lil’ Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” in there. The record mixes aggressive pop and some further experiments, thanks in part to Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue coming along for the ride.
In the beginning, we didn’t really have songs, per se. We didn’t really have a way to record even, like, demos. At this point, we were in between stuff, and we hadn’t figured out how to quite do anything. We were going to the studio and kind of playing a little bit, and then we would go back and forth a couple of times. With Telepathic Surgery, part of our concept was just that we were going to be free for a very long time. We had pre-recorded symphonic music, and we would change with it, move and flow however it was flowing. So, we threw together these songs, and some of it we didn’t really know what to do with, you know? Some of it was really just bursts running through some of the tracks. Some of that I like, and some of that I listen to, and I just don’t get it. It’s the type of record where it feels like there is just too much rock.
A song like “Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory” was going to be the entire record, and then I just don’t think we had the determination or the balls to do it. Once we did it, we got wishy-washy or something. You learn a lot from trying things, and I think even on that record I found a little bit of a way to sing. I think we were already starting to get tired of just the rock and the punk rock beats, the acid stuff. I don’t listen to this record at all, and I’m not around people that put it on. A lot of that was done really fast, over a weekend or something. But honestly, I don’t remember that much of the way it got made because a lot of it was centered around that big piece of music.
I think we definitely were influenced by the likes of Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth and other noise groups. We were finding our limits of our musicality. But at the same time we were thinking, “Well, we can be noisy too!” I don’t think we were very good at doing the noise stuff, though. I think Sonic Youth were coming around that time and were doing it really, really well. I think we will always just be too wimpy. We will always just want to go back to doing weird sounds and being emotional.
In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares) (1990)
Wayne Coyne’s songs had already been hinting at his keen interest in religion and its societal effects, but In a Priest Driven Ambulance explores iconography and faith with a freaky tenderness. They take on “What a Wonderful World” and adapt a Can tune, showing the true versatility of their odd approach and transformative arrangements. It’s also the first Lips record produced by Dave Fridmann, a foundational element to scores of essential Lips recordings to come.
This was the first record where we had Dave Fridmann join us. This is the man that ended up being the producer that made most of our records. We also had Jonathan Donahue, who was performing with his group Mercury Rev. I think both of them together really gave us another sound, a great sound that came with a boost of confidence, more of an ability to make music and write songs that would eventually be based in an emotional world. Jonathan was and is still a great guitar player and songwriter. Dave is just really a master: a master musician, a master listener, and a master producer. They were there to coax us along and say, “Well, this part’s good enough, this part isn’t.” And I think this approach really showed. I was willing to keep writing different types of songs in different registers to my singing, and some of that I think is probably our best stuff. We were really reaching to do something different, and I think some of it worked.
Some of it was very experimental. Like the song “God Walks Among Us Now: Jesus Song No. 6”, some of these tracks that were just purely studio songs where you can only do it in the studio. You can speed up tapes, then slow them down. I think that started to lead the way more towards The Flaming Lips sound and the band that we became. There is something childlike here, and there is something still kind of punk rock. There was something that feels more like a family of people doing something together. If we hadn’t found Jonathan and Dave at that time, we probably wouldn’t have carried on. Joining forces was a real great leap forward. I think they liked that I’m determined. I don’t give up on anything.
For example, the second song on that record, “Unconsciously Screamin”, I know that we mixed that over 200 times. It was the first time that we could spend weeks in a studio if we wanted to. We learned so much about how to get mixes to be loud, distorted, big, fat, and all these dynamics. These dynamics are boring to most people, but they are important when you are making records like we were. Now you can make them so dynamically with technology, but back then it was revolutionary. I know for sure that Jonathan and Dave were like, “Jesus Christ, why does it matter so much?!” People still say that to me. “Why does it matter so much?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just want to keep on trying!” You keep trying, and if you’re lucky, you get some relief.
When we were making this record, we would work for a couple of weeks, then we’d have to leave for two weeks, and then come back. So, I think that helps a lot to step away and sometimes not think about it, or not listen to it for a little while. That lets you have a perspective. So, I do that all the time now because of this record. But on the other side of it, I think it helps a lot if you don’t have a choice. I will just keep working on things all the time if it were up to me, and then it will just get boring for everyone. So, I think the studio helps in that you don’t get to stay with it — it should propel you on to try other things.
In terms of how religious the titles are, I mean, none of us are religious. None of us would actually want to be doing songs that are talking about Jesus. I think it allowed us to be characters for the first time. I was thinking of myself as, I’m just Wayne singing songs, and then I started to make up a character that I could be whilst I was singing for The Flaming Lips. I think that’s what everyone has to do. You either have an ego that says, “Fuck you, I’m a singer, listen to me!” or you make up a character that you think is interesting. I think I sang about Jesus because it was what everybody thought we were about anyway. They thought we were these weird Americans from the South, even though nobody that we knew were really characters like that. It started to seem like we could be these characters from Oklahoma, and we can sing about religion, and we can sing about drugs, and we can sing about violence and heaven and all that. That really helped us get outside of ourselves. Singing about Jesus was a made-up persona, and that’s why I think it works. I think everybody has to make up a character. You can’t just stand there and be you. It’s just too normal.
Music has to have that. Music has to be more immediate. You can listen to a song, and within just a couple of minutes you can be overwhelmed emotionally. It can connect two things in your mind that have an effect on you. Real life doesn’t have that kind of effect. Hardly anything can affect you that quickly. I’m just not a forceful personality like that on my own. But I think the music really needs that. Music has to stand up there and say, “I’ve got three minutes, now fuck off, here we go!” You’ve got to have a lot of color. I’ve never wanted to just be a normal person; I wanted to be a little bit of an exaggeration.
But that’s the the part of it that is so fucked up. In having a character, you get to be more honest and more true than if you’re singing as just you. That’s why people are so drawn to novels and movies, because they get to really believe things are possible. Real life is not like that. In real life, you have to use the bathroom, you have to sleep, and all these things that are just boring. Your characters don’t have to do that.
Hit to Death in the Future Head (1992)
The Flaming Lips’ Warner Bros. debut, Hit To Death in the Future Head, ends with a 35-minute secret track, a loop of washing noise — so no, a move to the label didn’t curb their experimental interests. The noise rock leanings continue to peek through, though increasingly covered over by psychedelia and more pop-friendly, though decidedly still eclectic, tunes.
So, that turn that we took with Dave and Jonathan led us to these next couple of records. Jonathan went off to do his own thing; I mean, he already had his own group, even though he was in The Flaming Lips, too. Nathan [Roberts] was not set up to be a very professional person. In his way, he wanted to have a 9-5 job, so he could be off work and get drunk and not worry about it. And being in The Flaming Lips at that time was just too much of a full-time commitment. We would play all the time, and he was just not built for that. He liked the idea of going to work, and then when he got off work, he could lay around and watch movies and get drunk, and he would have weekends free. In fact, it was just not in his personality to be “the road warrior creative person.” I think the way that we were making our music and making records, people like Steven [Drozd] saw we were playing shows, and he was like, “Man, I want to be in a group like The Flaming Lips.” So when we needed somebody, he was already there. Ronald [Jones] was the same way. Ronald had seen us play, and he was like, “Man, I wish I could be in a group like this!” So when those guys left me, we didn’t know it, but the new group were spectacularly suited and very skilled at making music.
Steven and Ronald, as such, were master musicians compared to what we were doing previous to that. Steven and Ronald could play with Miles Davis. They could write music with Igor Stravinsky; they are at such a high level. By being with them, we immediately jumped into a different category; there would be this rich, childlike sound that I would be able to bring to the group, but then there was this emotional, beautiful, and delicate stuff that Ronald and Steven started bringing to the group. We started to do the stuff that we were only previously able to dream about.
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart (1993)
In the time between Hit To Death and its follow-up, Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, Nathan Roberts and Jonathan Donahue left The Flaming Lips, and Ronald Jones and Steven Drozd stepped in. The magnetic “She Don’t Use Jelly” garnered the major attention, though the record drips with plenty of astral, burning, guitar-driven material to wonder about the meaning of life to.
The group that started off with the Transmissions From the Satellite Heart album really opened us all up where anything felt possible. They all wanted me to be the guy in charge, but The Flaming Lips wouldn’t have been able to do what they are doing today without these guys’ ability and their taste in music. I mean, Steven’s taste and mine is a lot of the same thing. I think it’s a good combination. Almost anything that I like, he likes, and everything he hates, I hate. We are on the same wavelength all the time. It wouldn’t be true for Ronald; I mean, Ronald was very much on his own trip, which we loved. Steven and I would very much encourage him to be on his own trip, but I think it would be frustrating for him because he would want music to go in a completely other way.
I remember after this album had been out for over a year, Ronald came up to me with an idea of doing an overdub on one of the songs from the album. I was like, “Ronald, we’ve already made that record! We can’t go back and redo that song.” But anyway, that’s what we liked about him. He would have his own way, and reality didn’t matter to him. I wish that we could have at the time gone back and redone it. We probably would now, if given the chance, but we didn’t at the time. I absolutely love him, even though he is a difficult person.
Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
The last dregs of The Flaming Lips’ straight guitar-driven alt rock ring out on Clouds Taste Metallic — likely due to it also being the last record featuring Ronald Jones. The tension leading to that exit results in some rough-shod, fiery rock clashing up against some skronking experimentation.
Clouds Tastes Metallic was made with Steven and Ronald, and even by the end of that album, Steven and I were already thinking that we had made a lot of rock music and were already wondering, “What are we going to do now?” I know Steven and I talked about him not just being the drummer; previous to Ronald leaving, Steven was the drummer. After this album, Steven and I just talked about it and discussed that he didn’t have to be the drummer anymore — that he should do what he wants, and we will figure it out. I think that was another great leap into doing something completely different for us. If you don’t want to do something, then why would you keep doing it? I think it was just a brief moment for us, because we didn’t really know what the fuck was going to happen, but we knew we didn’t like it, and we were just like: “Fuck, it’s our group. Let’s do whatever we want.” And then it ended up being that he really is a great, great guitar player. He is great at all these musical things, and he’s a great singer.
What path would we have taken had Ronald not left after this album? I think I probably would have then. Or Steven and I probably would have convinced him that he shouldn’t have been in a group with us. We thought about this a lot when we were making Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin; Ronald would absolutely have loved those albums if we weren’t going against the sort of trajectory that he put us on. I knew that if he was with us, he would have loved it even more than what we were doing before. But it was because of him leaving that really pushed us to make the next phase of music after this. So, it’s a funny sort of quagmire — the music we made was only made because he wasn’t there. It’s also music that he would have absolutely loved to be a part of. We always miss him. We will always be glad to have that influence on us. If he could have gotten his head around all the other trappings of being in a slightly successful weirdo group, I think he would’ve liked it. But it was just not in his personality, and what can you do?
The problem is that in The Flaming Lips, I know I can be a force, and it’s just not very fair all the time. You don’t know that at the time, and I didn’t. I do regret being too intense. But in that way, music helps you move forward; this album helped me move forward without even knowing it at the time. You can’t just stop for a couple of years and try to figure it all out. It’s just constantly moving. At the time when he left, though, we really thought that he might come back anyway, you know? He was always fragile and strange, and we always thought that if he came back after six months, we will just pick up where we left off. He didn’t. We didn’t really think about it that much, and then before we knew it, a couple of records had gone by, and we thought, “Well, I guess he’s not coming back!”
Truth is, Ronald didn’t like playing out as much as we had to back then. We were playing all the time, and he didn’t like people recognizing him. We would play a show, and then afterwards people would want to talk to him, and he didn’t like that. It all just made him very awkward and uncomfortable. So, the more people knew about him playing music with us, the more torture he was subjected to. You could see he just had to find a way on his own, inside of his own brain. I had already been performing for a long, long time by then, and I didn’t really have the same dilemmas, you know? He was young. It was a lot to take in at the time. It was a shame that it didn’t work out, but he was difficult, too, you know! When he left, it opened up a sort of freedom that we didn’t really have before.
The four-CD album Zaireeka is more than a sore thumb in the Lips’ catalog — it’s an anomaly in the music industry at large. To hear the composition as intended, all four CDs should be played at once, combining pieces of the whole in interesting combinations. The lineup had been trimmed down to Coyne, Ivins, and Drozd, and the tight-knit crew pushed forward even stranger.
Initially, we wanted this album to be at least 100 CDs, and then I think our manager decided we should maybe cut it down. So, we thought 20 CDs! From there, we went down to 10 and ended up having to cut it down to four. At the time, we felt like it was a great artistic compromise to do four CDs. Now that I think about it, even wanting our listeners to listen to four CDs at the same time is totally, ridiculously insane. Who would do that? That was our minds at the time. This is what we thought was important. It really was such a mindfuck. Once we got past one or two of the initial ideas, it was difficult to keep doing it, you know? I think in the middle of all that, we were really starting to make The Soft Bulletin, which is really I think our biggest leap forward, as we were going there from this album naturally. On this album, we stumbled upon arrangements that previously would have seemed impossible to us. But after doing a record like Zaireeka, it was impossible to keep going on the same path, even doing a big track that ended up being on The Soft Bulletin, like “Suddenly, Everything Has Changed”, which was really ambitious. Looking back now, it doesn’t seem very ambitious in comparison to the ridiculousness of Zaireeka.