The Flaming Lips' Peace Sword EP is out now, and it shows a fresh side to the notoriously prolific psych heroes: In fact, it's a concept record based on the Ender's Game movie. The makers of the recently released sci-fi flick initially tabbed the Oklahoma band to do one song for the end credits, but as ideas flowed, the Lips found themselves spiraling into new areas, resulting in a six-track effort full of the moody psychodrama that fueled April full-length The Terror, but sprinkled with pop lushness and a dash of optimism.
Initially, Lips frontman Wayne Coyne had no idea what Ender's Game — a mega-hit 1985 novel — was. "People described it to me a bit like 'Harry Potter in outer space,'" he explains. But attracted by the "video game philosophy" and subject matter — fundamentally it's about a kid who saves his world by murdering an entire alien race, which is basically a Flaming Lips song anyway — the band was up for the challenge.
Surprisingly, for a group that's generated so many of its own wiggy ideas over the years, Coyne and Co. didn't have a problem working from source material. "Most of the time," he explains, "you're absolutely working in the darkest of the dark. There's nothing. You build every molecule as you go." So armed with a few clips from the film and a thematic sketch, the band was able to write the kaleidoscopic "Peace Sword (Open Your Heart)."
Coyne reports that at first, the filmmakers thought the song was "too sad." But the band kept plugging away, and after a couple more iterations, came up with the finished product: a track that interpolates the swooning sound of Soft Bulletin-era Lips with their more recent strain of psychedelic risk-taking. The filmmakers loved it, and indeed, you hear it at the end of the film. But, Coyne says, the band wasn't done. Each version of the song suggested new creative avenues.
"For us," Coyne says, "That was enough. Once we start working on something, if we like it, we just do it." Eventually, the Lips ended up with six tracks linked by lyrical and musical themes from the initial song.
"A lot of the classic music I like does this," he explains. "Themes are reinterpreted, tempos are changed, keys change."
Despite the explicit Ender's Game connection, Coyne is careful to distance himself from the novel's author, Orson Scott Card, who has drawn fire for his aggressively homophobic attitudes. (in fact, on the spine of the vinyl edition of the EP, the Lips inscribed, Hey Orson Scott Card You Are Wrong and Gay People Are Cool.) In diplomatic fashion, Coyne does not want to speak for the film itself — the EP wasn't created as an official Ender's Game soundtrack. "At the time we made the record, it wasn't attached to the movie then," he says. "I'm not trying to be sneaky about it."
The band is having an especially productive 30th year. They were in a Super Bowl ad, toured twice, released anatomically correct chocolate hearts containing a special mix, released a movie shot on iPhones at SXSW, organized a benefit gig for tornado victims, backed up Yoko Ono on Letterman, got a song on the True Blood soundtrack, published a comic book, and made a collaborative EP with Tame Impala on which the bands covered each other's songs. ("'Hey Wayne, we're this group Tame Impala, we just dropped some acid and we're going to be jamming in our dressing room — you should come over,'" recalls Coyne about meeting the Aussie psych-rockers. "I thought, 'Well, sounds like my kind of guys.'")
Despite that daunting slate, the band doesn't make plans — Coyne believes that the music business is as unknowable and terrifying as the universe he takes as his main subject. "Any time music is popular," he says when asked about the Lips' longevity, "it's so much coincidence and dumb luck. It's all just a motherfucker."