Psychedelic weirdos the Flaming Lips were born in 1983 in Oklahoma City, and grew up to be one of the most celebrated and unpredictable rock groups to enjoy international success long before and long after the new millennium – when indie rock towered in the charts and on stages. Helmed by flamboyant frontman Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips draw from the performance tropes of stadium rock and opera, the lush, the multi-layered song arrangements of funk and psych-rock and the themes of science fiction, space, place and romance to create an unabashedly joyful sound and aesthetic that’s earned them three Grammys, an exhausting touring schedule and a devoted army of super-fans worldwide. With a staggering 13 studio albums to their name – and their next one, Oczy Mlody, out January 2017 – this fantastical band show little sign of cooling their glittering heels. In a wide-ranging Fireside Chat with Harley Brown on RBMA Radio, Wayne Coyne discussed some of the key music, performances and collaborations that have defined the band’s inimitable career.
“Jesus Shootin’ Heroin”
The song “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” is on what I think a lot of people think is our first record, but to us, it was always our second record. We had made this sort of homemade little half-record a year and a half previous to making the record Hear It Is that the song “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” is on. We didn’t know what record companies were, we didn’t know what getting signed was, we really didn’t think about those things at all. We’d never talked to anybody about being signed or any of that sort of stuff, so we put out our very first little six song EP. Then we got these wonderful people asking us, “Hey, would you want to make another record and we’ll pay for it?” I think for Hear It Is we got a whole $2,500, but we had to go out to LA and record with the producer out there.
At the time, we had no reason to not go or to go. It just seemed like an insane, great thing that we would get to go to LA and spend about 48 hours in a studio. I think the guy that was producing us thought we’d record a little bit during the day and then we’d leave and go get drunk or something, and he’d mix the record the next day and that would be the way it went. But we didn’t want him to mix without us there, and we kept recording and redoing things and doing overdubs and all that. I remember not sleeping and not leaving the studio, and we just stayed there and stayed there. At the very end of it, he had another session coming and gave us a cassette tape to listen to on the way home.
We drove all the way from Los Angeles back to Oklahoma City listening to this record that he had mixed, and I remember we hated. “Oh my God, how could he make the songs that way?” We were all so brain-dead from not sleeping and being so scared and exhilarated all at the same time. I think that spurred us, probably more than anything, to wanting to make records ourselves after that.
The song “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” I think we wanted to appear to be menacing and deep and represent some dark, unspeakable version of life in the Bible Belt or something like that, even though us as the Flaming Lips, we never considered the Bible or the Bible Belt or being in a religious state like Oklahoma. We never really cared, we never really thought about it. But in “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin,” we thought it would make people think that we were crazy and menacing and drug addicts or whatever, even though we really weren’t. It’s a long song. I remember it being sort of dirge-y, and I think it’s in E minor or something like that. When I hear it now, it doesn’t sound anything like the Flaming Lips that I remember, and I really like it. It’s just such a strange, strange song and I could understand why people would think that something is going wrong and we’re weird and we’re pretentious all at the same time.
It’s utterly fascinating when I hear the younger version of ourselves, like, “What are they doing? Why are they doing that?”
Most of the time, when I hear Flaming Lips music that is older than about six or seven years – unless it’s something utterly popular like “Do You Realize” or something like that that we hear all the time anyway – at first, usually I’m like, “Oh, this is cool. What is this?” Then someone will say, “Dude, that’s you guys. Don’t you remember?” For a brief moment, it doesn’t click immediately that’s us, and then I go, “Oh yeah, I know.” Almost every time, especially with the really, really old stuff like Hear It Is and Oh My Gawd!!!, I don’t really have that much of a feeling or memory that I could even go to.
It’s a long, long time ago now, and I hear it and it’s like, “Oh my God, these guys,” referring to our younger selves. “Oh my God, this is insane. What are they doing? It’s like they start off in one tempo and they speed up and slow down, they’re playing in this key and then they go there.” It’s utterly fascinating when I hear the younger version of ourselves, like, “What are they doing? Why are they doing that?” Then, the way that we play in the production that we would try to attach to these songs and all that, to me, it’s always fascinating, funny, and I’m really rooting for those guys. I really am like, “Go for it,” and it’s wonderful.
The Flaming Cymbal Show
Part of the folklore attached to the Flaming Lips is our brief stint of playing shows with the Butthole Surfers around several different cities in Texas. Those shows that we played with them – I think it was in 1986 or 1987 – they would do this very scary, confrontational thing where Gibby [Haynes] would get a cymbal, the cymbal that’s on a drum kit, and they would turn it upside-down and screw it up there. It would be sort of acting like a big salad bowl, and they would get rubbing alcohol or lighter fluid and fill it up the best it could, even though it would be running all down the stand and all the stuff. They’d light it on fire and they’d bash the hell out of it and flames would shoot [out].
If done in the right way, the flame will shoot 20, 30 feet in the air, this great plume of exploding fire that looks something like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, and when you’re standing there and they’re playing their music and they’re doing all this stuff with such anarchy and confidence, you don’t remember that it’s fire, and that anybody is going to get hurt or anything is going to burn up, because it’s part of this fantastical show. When we were thinking of doing this show, the A&R people from Warner Bros. were going to come to Oklahoma City and watch us play and we thought, “Well, we’re going to put on such an insane performance that they’re going to absolutely think we’re the greatest thing ever.”
One of the things that we did is this upside-down fire cymbal trick that Gibby would do while we’re playing some of our music. We didn’t rehearse it or anything. No one would legally allow you to do it if we’d ask people. If we had rehearsed it, they wouldn’t have let us play. So we just simply did it at the beginning of the set and he kept bashing away, and the fire was jumping everywhere. We’re playing in a reasonably small place and it held about 90 people, but it had small ceilings. Fire is hitting the ceiling and the lighter fluid that we were using was running off onto the stage, which had really old carpeting on it, and all that was catching on fire.
There is a sort of fearlessness with that kind of adrenaline that you don’t really consider all the really bad things that are about to happen in the next 45 seconds. But we’re playing for a little while and the fire is getting bigger and the audience doesn’t care. The audience was smashed right up against us at the front of the stage and rocking along with all the feedback, and we’d play as loud as we could possibly play, and it was a great surge of everybody kind of loving everything that was happening.
I asked the woman, “That night when we played, what made you sign us?” Remembering that we put on this very intense, freaky show. She said, “You know what I really liked about you? I really liked your teeth.”
Luckily, one of my older brothers was off to the side of the stage. I think he was not as hypnotized as everybody else and saw a fire extinguisher and thought, “I think this is getting slightly out of hand.” He just started to spray the fire extinguisher and put the whole thing out, and the audience and ourselves included thought that the fire extinguisher haze, this horrible chemical that gets sprayed everywhere, was great as well. Everything was just charged – anything could happen. We’re all trying to sing and breathing in these fire extinguisher chemicals, and then we only play three or four songs and the show was over, and it seemed to be reasonably successful. We went out with the A&R person after that and she seemed to be really happy and loved us and all that.
A couple of years after we’d been signed to Warner Bros., we’d already put out a couple of records. I asked the woman, “That night when we played, what made you sign us?” Remembering that we put on this very intense, freaky show. She said, “You know what I really liked about you? I really liked your teeth.”
Part of you is like, “What?” I think she had signed Van Halen, she had signed Devo, she had signed k.d. lang. She had signed a lot of great, intense, original groups, and I don’t think she really cared about all this stuff... I think she was seeing through that and saying, “There's a charm to what you guys do. It’s not the fire and all this other stuff, but there’s some charm.”
I think if we hadn’t been signed to Warner Bros. then and meet her and have all that encouragement, I don’t think we would’ve become the Flaming Lips that we became after that. But her saying that, it did make me think, “Oh, you’re kind of right,” because all those things really weren’t about the music, they really weren’t about us. It was us stumbling to be cooler than we thought we were, or more intense than we thought we were. I think we’re very lucky that that little element of charm, through the fire extinguisher chemicals and all that stuff, still was able to be appropriated, so she’s absolutely right. You can’t see my teeth on the radio, but I think they are good, yeah.
The way that we made the Zaireeka album – to people who don’t know what it is – when we put it out in the mid-’90s, the format that you put music out was a CD. People still made some vinyl records, there was a lot of cassettes, but the biggest format was a CD.
We put Zaireeka out with instructions that you would play this record – there’s four of them – and each one was made to go into a different CD player that had its own system, meaning it’s a CD player that has an EQ system and speakers all on its own, and it was designed that you could play one or two or three or four. If you had four different CD players, you’d play them all at the same time, and there was little cues by which you could make sure that you all started the same time.
We’d always get frustrated that we would have to put out a record and it would just be that mix. We like the idea that there could be other mixes available and you could hear those different mixes. Or, you could combine them all to your own liking, but you had to have different CD players and your friends would have to come and help you experience this thing. I think, unknowingly, we’re creating things that the audience kind of has to mess with, which were things that we liked. We liked that idea that, “Oh, it’s up to me to make this work,” and I think if you have that as part of your sensibility that you like about art, I think those things would really appeal to you.
I don’t think it appeals to everybody. I think a lot of people just wanted to put in their CD back then. Nowadays, they just listen to it on their phone with their headphones and not be bothered by anything, and I’m like that a lot of the time. But I think there’s a part of us that likes this idea that we’re all in this together and yes, we’re creating the music, we’re creating what we think could be the atmosphere, but your excitement and your involvement and your presence in it makes it better and more worthwhile.
“She Don’t Use Jelly”
When we started to make Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, this is the first record where Steven [Drozd] and I were writing songs together. He’s doing a lot of playing, but we also have this great other freak, genius, eccentric guitar player Ronald Jones, who though I loved his playing didn’t always understand what he was doing. But Steven and Ronald had a very musical language together, and Steven would encourage Ronald to be even weirder than Ronald would even think to be. Them together really accelerated the musical weirdness of what the Flaming Lips were capable of, and at the same time heightened what I feel is the emotional part. So though it’s getting weirder, you’d have to know a lot about how music works to really know why it’s weird.
At the time when we were doing the series of songs, I had this little song. Back then, I would do the crudest of demos, just with an acoustic guitar, sometimes an unplugged electric guitar, and I would sing it into a tape player or something, whatever we had. Before I’d even made a demo of it, I played this little thing, probably in the exact same chords that’s still there. “I know a girl who...” It did this little twist at the end and says she uses Vaseline, and I remember playing that for Steven. It felt like, “Oh yeah, that’s absolutely going to work.” Then we were doing a lot of recording and just barreling through a lot of great big arrangements and all that. “She Don’t Use Jelly” was catchy and quirky and all those things, but all the songs on that record we felt were already. “She Don’t Use Jelly” didn’t stand out as being one way and other songs were another way, but then it started to gain a momentum of its own.
We’d play it, and even audiences that didn’t know anything about us would have a reaction to that. It started to get played on video programs back then; Beavis and Butt-head made fun of the song a lot, which we thought was absolutely hilarious. Then we were asked by the producers of Beverly Hills 90210 to be the band that was featured in The Peach Pit on one of the episodes. I think we were really lucky that we had done enough things that we were already slightly bored with the idea of being a loud guitar-indie group or whatever that was, and we were sort of slightly bored with having to be “authentic” and all these things. We’d already made a couple of records with Warner Bros., we’ve been around already for about ten years, and we were embracing the absurd things that can come along with being a dorky, weirdo rock band.
When they called us initially, part of us was like, “We don’t even watch Beverly Hills 90210, why would we want to be on the show?” Then another part of us said, “I know, but maybe we should watch it, and if we only watch the one that we’re on, who cares?” We did think it would be very absurd and fun and we would have a great story to tell for the rest of our lives, and it proved to be absolutely true.
We had fun, but we had to lipsync the song quite a few times to get all these different angles, and then there would be times when there would be absolutely no music playing and they’d be shooting some dialogue in the corner, and yet we were supposed to act like we’re playing. The producers and the directors would say, “No, I want you to act like you’re playing the song, but we can’t play the music,” and we would all have difficulty getting into the fake rhythm of it all. We see it all clearly when we watch it now, but that is what makes it a lot of fun for us, because it is so absurd and so bad. When you watch TV, part of it is meant to be not that important.
It’s kind of bad and kind of good at the same time, and it’s not meant to be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s meant to be a little bit of throwaway, and I think we were lucky that we went with that flow and learned a lot about how to not take it all so serious and take a chance and have fun. It doesn’t always matter if things turn out good or bad. It’s the experience we have that is all that would matter to us, and I think that served us well after that.
We’re very lucky that we ran into Dave Fridmann in 1987 – maybe 1988, but late 1987. We were going to open for a group called Jane’s Addiction and they were playing a series of shows at one of the big outdoor theaters in Los Angeles. Every night that they were going to play, they would have a different one of their favorite groups open up for them. We were going to open up for them, and we loved them a lot at the time, as well, but we didn’t have a live front-of-house sound engineer guy. Jonathan Donahue went on to be in a band Mercury Rev, and he had this friend that they’d recorded with, and that would end up being Dave Fridmann.
I think [Dave Fridmann’s] senior sound project was producing the Flaming Lips.
[Donahue] said, “Well, let’s see if Dave Fridmann will come out and he’ll run live sound for us.” We played the Jane’s Addiction show and it was reasonably successful. Then we played a series of three or four other shows working our way back to New York, where Dave and Jonathan were living just south of Buffalo, New York. Getting to know him and feeling like we liked each other and could work together urged us to start recording with him. He was still going to one of the universities there. I think his senior sound project was producing the Flaming Lips.
We got to spend a good portion of the summer in the studio that was part of the college studio there. It was the first time that we ever got to spend a lot of time recording with someone who was trying to accommodate what we wanted to do and wouldn’t just tell us. It was the first time we really got to embrace our own way of recording, and I remember him being sort of frustrated, but also endlessly patient about remixing and remixing. There was one track called “Unconsciously Screamin’” that I know for sure, just the ones that we marked, we remixed it 200 times. We just got it back out and did it again and again.
I think Dave was pushing little by little, not to sound “great,” but to sound like ourselves. I think that was the thing I would never realize was possible before Dave. He’s a producer, but he wants you to do your thing. He wants you to take the chances, he wants you to not just be musicians and not just be on time… Do the magic, and I think we want that.
He’s one of the only people within the context of the way the Flaming Lips work that does a lot of other things. Even though we’re always aware of what he’s doing, he’s working on a lot of other groups. When we meet up, I’ll bring him a lot of things I’ve been working on, but he also brings me the knowledge and the experiences that he’s been working on. We get together, and he has new things and I have new things, and we don’t spend very much time getting to them. He’s very intense that way, and we don’t like to just talk about it for weeks. We’ll just get right to it. I like that about it. It’s very intense, but he wants it to be more than just good – he wants it to be magic, and it’s hard to do.
I oftentimes go in there with a song that I think is beautiful and perfect or whatever, and he’ll immediately make it five times faster and say, “Well, now at least it’s listenable.” He can see Steven and I crying in the background. “Oh my God, you’ve ruined our songs!” But we’re thick-skinned, and we bounce back and we trust that he’s right. He’s almost always right.
Steven was in a group in Norman, Oklahoma, so we were all living in Norman, Oklahoma. Now we live in Oklahoma City, but we all lived close to each other at the time, and he was aware of the Flaming Lips and he’d seen us play a couple of times. I think he actually liked some of our music, but I think he mostly liked the scope of what we could do. We could be very noisy and very loud and we could be very heartfelt and emotional, and we didn’t really have a set thing that we could do. I think he saw in us, “Hey, if I got in there, I could help them be a little more emotional, a little bit more rock, a little bit more experimental.” I think all the things that were happening, he saw he could step in and make all that work better. In the beginning, I don’t think I could’ve been aware of that. I thought he was a really, really great drummer, and we needed a drummer, and so he joined. Then we needed a guitar player at the same time and Ronald Jones, who had been one of our friends, we knew he played guitar, but we didn’t know what level of musician he was. He came in to audition, if you can call it that.
Little by little, we discovered what an insane musician Steven was and is, his endless abilities, and that his taste and my taste would be very similar.
At the time we probably felt we were auditioning people, but I don’t know why any of us would have any judgment about it. He came in, and immediately Ronald and Steven playing together, within the first five minutes it’s like, “Oh man, this is pretty fun,” mostly because I don’t play very well. I could play less and sing better, even though I don’t sing very well, and Michael [Ivins, the Flaming Lips’ bassist], who doesn’t play very well and doesn’t remember that well, would have to remember and play a little bit less as well. So we’re both in a good spot of being like, “I think I can handle this load if they can handle doing that other stuff.” That would be the way that we would start to work from then on. Little by little, we discovered what an insane musician Steven was and is, his endless abilities, and that his taste and my taste would be very similar.
The things I would really love, he would really love them, and the things that I would really hate, he’d really hate them, too. He would find the things in my songs that he thought were unique and really charming, and he would encourage me to get rid of the things that were boring. In the music that he would write, he would encourage me to be part of it and make it more humanistic and give it melodies and lyrics and all these things.
Steven a lot of times will come up with such a great, emotional melody and it will have chord changes and melodic changes and all these little intricate things, and I will immediately want to turn it into a song. I think sometimes he doesn’t have that great of a desire to turn it into a song. He’s like, “I like it the way that it is, and if you want to turn it into a song, then do it.” I think that’s the thing that we value the most about each other. He can take something that I make that can be quite simple and make it this very humanistic, expressive thing, and I want that to happen, and I can take something of his that’s already beautiful and expressive and give it this little bit of Flaming Lips-isms or humanistic touches or unexpected things, and he wants that as well.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is actually named from a gal whose real name is Yoshimi P. She is a Japanese artist/musician that we got to know because she was in the group, the Boredoms, and I think she still may be. I think the Boredoms are still active, and I think she’s still a part of it.
Back in the day, Lollapalooza was a traveling festival, and it would go to 15 different cities or something. We were connected to the very first part of one of the Lollapaloozas, playing six or seven shows, but traveling around so you’d be at festivals all day. You’d be unloading your equipment that you’d be playing and then hanging out and driving and sometimes staying in the same hotels and all that, so really great traveling camaraderie. We absolutely loved this band the Boredoms. They’re insane, still one of the most insane groups that you’ll ever, ever come across. Insane musicians with insane punk rock aesthetics, all kinds of fun stuff, and they would be the first group to play on this Lollapalooza. Lollapalooza would start at noon and you’d be in Detroit, and the Boredoms would be the first band to play on the main stage, even though there would sometimes be absolutely no audience there to see them.
Sometimes the only people that would be watching would be the Bad Seeds and us. What a great morning of your life, you know what I mean? Even though we don’t speak any Japanese, sadly, and they don’t speak very good English, we knew that we all liked each other. Yoshimi would come up on stage with us and play trumpet on a couple of songs, and we just always kept in touch after that. When she put out her first solo album – her group is called OOIOO and her first record is called Feather Float – we listened to this record all the time, all the time.
When she came to America for their first time to play a series of shows, we met her in Austin and we went into a studio there for just a couple of hours. We had what were going to become tracks that were going to be part of what wasn’t called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots then, versus tracks we’re working on. She played some trumpet and she sang, she did some screaming, and we only had a couple of hours together. We said, “That’s great,” and we took it off to the studio. Little by little, we would be mixing tracks and we would add some of her conversation in there – wouldn’t really know what she was saying, but it sounded interesting, and we would add her screams in there.
Little by little we were putting Yoshimi all through this record just by virtue of a couple of hours recording time that we had with her. Some of it was actually playing and actually singing, but some of it was stuff that we just inserted in. There’s a song called “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2.” Well, we didn’t have part one yet and we didn’t know what the title is going to be for this song. When I came back into the mixing room, Dave Fridmann sort of said, “You know, it sounds like Yoshimi is either being killed by or having sex with the robot.”
That’s the way that the track was sounding, and then I think I said something like, “Yeah, I think it would be a pink robot,” and all of us kind of went, “It could be. That really could be a title of this record that we’re making, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” because we knew Yoshimi was a real person. It wasn’t an abstract, made-up character, it’s just a person, and we knew this idea of the pink robots was a very Flaming Lips thing, that it’s a robot but it’s pink and it’s soft. It would have a lot of entities that the Flaming Lips would think are important but nobody else would. It spurred us into making the next three or four songs that we knew were intended to be on the record called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.