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Q&A: Wayne Coyne Talks Miley, Ke$ha, and Flaming Lips’ ‘Sgt. Peppers’ Tribute Album

Wayne Coyne at Outside Lands in San Francisco in August 2014

Over the course of their serpentine, three-decade career, proud Oklahomans the Flaming Lips have been an upstart punk rock act, one-hit-wonders (with their lone radio single “She Don’t Use Jelly”), wily experimentalists, an oddball cover band, a surrealist art-pop troupe, and perennial festival favorites. Add to that list celebrity whisperers, as evidenced by seemingly unlikely recent collaborations with big time pop stars like Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus. With their Sgt. Pepper’s recreation, With a Little Help From My Fwends, due in October, SPIN sat down with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne in front of an audience at their Toyota Soundwave stage at Outside Lands to discuss breakfast, weirdness, and why working with Miley makes total sense.

What’d you have for breakfast?
I didn’t really do any breakfast. I did some yoga, and some coffee and some water, and now I’m here.

So you’re running on empty.
No, I feel pretty good. Well, I’ll get some food or something eventually. I like the idea that you’re like the Charlie Rose.

The Flaming Lips back were a punk-rock band back in 1983. Wayne, how do you connect the band you started as, and the band you are now?
Well, when it’s you doing it, it doesn’t feel like anything, I suppose. We’ve done so many different incarnations of what we consider to be not just music we like, but our art and our ideas, all of those. I think occasionally previous to the early ’90s, we weren’t really that famous for anything. And so you could kind of evolve and do whatever the fuck you wanted, ’cause so is everybody else and your audience was too. Then, once we got this minor hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly,”…

You’re gonna play that tonight?
We always play that. I love that song. I think then we would realize that there would be some people that would come to the show and perhaps only know that song. And as we would go along, we’d feel like we’re not really that same band. Not all the time, but occasionally we would struggle with thinking we want to play this type of set, and do we include “She Don’t Use Jelly” in that? But that’s really just us feeling insecure or something. And the more that we would not have a choice, that we could play whatever we felt like was our mission statements artistically at the time, we could also play the songs that people knew, and it didn’t really matter. I think that’s the only thing we felt like we kinda had to struggle with or something.

You mentioned the ’90s when you guys had the good fortune of being swept up by the culture of the music going on at the time.
Very great, great fortune.

And that’s something not every band does. You kept it weird.
Well I think you give us too much credit as if we had a choice or something. I say this all the time because we get compared to other groups and sometimes a group like Radiohead comes up. I sort of feel like, in their case, they really maybe do or care or consider that they have a choice of what they would do. I can say to the best of what I now about the Flaming Lips, we simply have no choice. The thing that we want to do, the desire that we have, whatever it is that we feel like music and the art and whatever the creation is, that’s what we do.

I don’t think we’ve ever been in the position where I felt like, ‘If we did that, we’d sell 10 million records, but if we do this, everyone’s gonna think we’re weird.’ It’s never really been that. I think we’ve done some things that have occasionally been more popular than we thought it would be. I think for the most part, we were just doing our thing. I hope it works.

You guys have done some really crazy experiments: the headphones concert, the four-CD record [1997’s Zaireeka]. Were there any failures?
You know, I’m sure there are. We just don’t really remember them. Or they evolve. That’s a little bit of the freedom of being considered, we’re supposed to be a weird band. I don’t think if people show and don’t always understand what we’re doing because we’re weird, I think that’s one very lucky thing that’s happened to us. We’ve been able to do our thing, and it can evolve and you can try ideas and some of them work, and some of them you keep trying and then they work better and better. I think that’s a really lucky thing that we’ve got. Even with our music that we record—we’ve always, as much as our labels will allow us, produced our records, dictated what the songs were and what the sounds were, the dynamics. All the things about the music that are for better or worse our own design, our own creation, our own state—whatever it is you want to call it.

Let’s talk about the new record.
The new record? What’s the news?

With a Little Help From My Fwends.
Oh, right. The Sgt. Pepper’s cover.

You guys have had this adventurous career, but you’ve always stayed connected to a pop music sound in my mind.
I guess in a sense. We don’t have any rules, really. We have a song that lasts for 24 hours straight. If you know a lot about music, you could say that it has some elements of pop music in it. I don’t really know if that means…I don’t mean it in a bad way, but everybody has their own playlist now. You don’t have to wait for music to be popular before you can embrace it and like it. And even if it’s not popular rock now, you can listen to whatever the fuck you want. You don’t have to wait for anybody to find it for you. Of course it was never exactly not this growing up. We heard a lot of things on the radio, but mostly we heard my older brother and older sister had a lot of cool friends that did drugs and listened to music. That’s where you heard most of the cool music was from their record collection.

So it’s all out there.
Now it is. We were driving down the fucking road just the other day, and Steven and I were thinking of a song. We just went right to Google, and in a minute we’re hearing a song we hadn’t heard in 30 years.

[Addresses audience] Have you guys been keeping track of who the band has been collaborating with? There’s some pretty big names…  
[Cheers] Really, we’ve been a band now for 31 years. And I think we’ve been just really lucky that the things we want to do, we’re allowed to do them. And this freedom to just do the stupidest things or the bravest things or the freakiest things, it never really occurred to us. We’re just doing what we like to do. Like when we first collaborate with someone like Ke$ha. I mean I didn’t know that much about her. I knew that she had a few radio hits—I don’t call them pop hits as much as a radio sound.

Hit singles.
Yes. But even when I met her, I realized there were a couple songs I thought weren’t her, and she would admit that there’s sometimes a generic-ness to the Dr. Luke production that I think really works. You can hear a song and kind of feel like, ‘I know this song!’ But I just really liked her because I think from meeting her and being around her, and that’s the spark that makes you think, “Let’s do some music together.” Because I don’t know the perception is of someone like a Ke$ha or even like a Miley Cyrus. I can tell you absolutely, as much as people think I’m into music, so are they.

Didn’t Ke$ha contact you first?
She did. All these things, there seems to be something in the air that you’re supposed to call Wayne on his birthday. I think that’s out there now, ’cause Ke$ha actually called me on my birthday in 2012, I think. And that record that we made with her came out in April, just a couple months after that. And so it gives you some idea of anybody who’s ever made records and recorded, it gives you some idea of how much shit you have to do in such a short time. And if people were not interested in music and recording and listening and trying and all that stuff, it would never happen.

What are the logistics of working with someone like Miley? 
I’m, like all creative people, I’m persistent and obsessed and a little bit crazy about the shit I want to do. And luckily when your run into someone like a Miley Cyrus or a Ke$ha or a Chris Martin—people that are in an echelon where everybody knows their life—they are too. So I think when I am around these people, it’s almost incidentally like, “This is music.” I’m lucky enough to know Damien Hirst. And the same is true of him. Exactly, if you were around me, if you were hanging around, we wouldn’t just do nothing. That really is the secret. If we really know each other, we’re gonna make music together, we’re gonna be in each other’s houses. We’re gonna do things. That’s really how it works.

Maybe with someone like Ke$ha, we don’t have very much time together. I’m doing my shit, and she’s doing shit. And in the time that we’re together, we just get down to biz. And it’s impressive. I was with Ke$ha really just one long day, start 2 or 3 in the afternoon till like 5 o’clock in the morning. We had a lot of things we had to do. We had a lot of ideas, and we had a lot of freedom of things we wanted to try. And it’s fucking fun! And I think that’s the secret. People think there’s gonna be like 20 handlers there and producers and everybody ordering their cocaine and all that.

Somebody is.
I think that’s the thing that people are surprised by, even with myself. We just show up. There doesn’t have to be that much fanfare about it. We already all know what we’re doing. When you work that way, you can almost do anything. So even when we recorded with Miley Cyrus, she did a show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is near Oklahoma City, where I live. The same was true of Ke$ha. We got tattoos, we got fucking drunk, we made a lot, a lot, a lot of music, and we absolutely had one of the best days of our lives. Fun and friends, it was great.

I do want to mention With a Little Help From My Fwends comes out on October 28.
We have begun to do this thing where we take really they’re just records I like. There’s no other agenda. If I think it’s a really great record, I’ll set to task anybody that I run into or in my studio: “Let’s try to do a song-by-song complete cover of this album.” I think we accidentally started doing that with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Then we secretly did that with King Crimson’s first record, In the Court of the Crimson King, which is one of my favorite records. We also did that slightly secretly with Stone Roses’ first record. They’re friends of ours. And when we played last New Year’s Eve, we did a John Lennon Beatles set, and we took eight or nine John Lennon Beatles songs, and during the middle of our big set, we did this stuff in the middle just to make it a different experience if you’ve already seen us a bunch. And one of the songs that really worked, our own version of it, was the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” And we continued to sort of play this in our sets after that. We would continue to play “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” And we rehearsed in our own studio at my house, so we’re always recording. If we rehearse something we like, we’ll record it. So we’re recording “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and we had already been playing it, and we played it on the David Letterman Show with Sean Lennon. It had become one of these things that we were doing.

So when I ran into Miley Cyrus, we were doing a couple of our own Flaming Lips production things that we’d gotten ready to do with her, and we’d done a couple things that she had ready. But we also said, “Let’s try this ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,’ and if we like it and it works, that’ll be the beginning of us doing the Sgt. Pepper’s like we’ve done with King Crimson and Pink Floyd. And so we did “Lucy in the Sky With Diamond,” and it’s just amazing, it’s beautiful. And then Moby showed up at my house a couple weeks ago. He just shows up once a week. He came by, and we had him sing on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” So again it’s that kind of thing: People not being afraid; people not being precious; people saying, “Sure, let’s do this. Let’s see what happens.”

Sounds like a rotating cast of talented people.
It is. I’m very lucky.