Wayne Coyne calls while driving around his lifelong hometown of Oklahoma City, where they’re braced for a “sloppy” tornado/flood situation in early May.
“Maybe it’ll happen while we talk,” he says. “I’ve seen the Northern Lights five times, and I’ve never seen a tornado. There’s some ridiculous contrary irony there or something.”
The one-of-a-kind Flaming Lips frontman knows all too much about contrary irony. Coyne’s fronted the band as far back as 1981, and they remained a hardly commercial neo-psychedelic force in American indie rock until some major-label wizardry in 1994 got them on Beverly Hills 90210 and a woozy fluke hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” on the radio. But 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (both recently anointed as two of our 300 favorite albums of the last 30 years) sparked a critical and commercial hot streak for the band that hasn’t slowed down even as Coyne turned 54 this year. Even stranger has been his unlikely alliances formed with pop stars like Kesha (who’d planned a collaborative record called Lip$ha before unknown powers-that-be brought the project to a screeching halt) and now the world-dominating Miley Cyrus, whom Coyne swears he talks to every single day. But he still hasn’t seen a tornado.
“I’ve lived here since 1961, my whole life, and I’ve never actually seen one,” he laments. “I’ve tried and tried and tried but it’s not as easy or as simple as it would seem, or people make it seem in movies and stuff like that.”
Which doesn’t mean he hasn’t suffered their effects: “My house is this great, great, old house in the great, old part of Oklahoma City, but it’s built at the lowest part of the surrounding neighborhood. And this rain will come at such a fury that the storm drains will get clogged by all kinds of s—t that’s just floating around, and if it keeps going, the storm drains completely fill up and that goes into my house, my studio. So that’s no fun.”
Provided that Coyne’s studio doesn’t lose everything in an untimely flood, the Flaming Lips are due to follow up 2013’s Krautrock-damaged The Terror — one of their most uncompromising records to date — with a new studio album. Considering Cyrus’ involvement in the making of the upcoming LP, Coyne hints that this path might be a complete 180. He spoke to SPIN about the status of the next album, collaborating heavily with Cyrus, and if those Kesha tracks are ever going to see the light of day.
How far along is the proper follow-up to The Terror?
We’re about to have a session with Dave Fridmann, and we’ve been doing quite a few songs that haven’t reached the end of their production. Quite a few things that start out as the beginning of a Flaming Lips song and then we consider that maybe Miley Cyrus is going to do the song. We have maybe six or seven that are both Flaming Lips songs and Miley Cyrus songs at the same time. There’s the version that we do with her in more of her style of singing and sometimes a good bit of her lyrics, and then we’ll do the same song as a Flaming Lips song with mine and Steven’s style and my lyrics.
My songs have never been this fun and this emotional, because I’m not the one singing them. I’m writing them and thinking about them like, “What would Miley Cyrus be singing about here?” It gets you from another area in your brain where you’re not singing about your own stupid self all the time. Some artists only want to do that, but I just never think of my life or anything that’s happening to me as that big of a deal or that interesting. You almost have to be thinking, “Oh, I’m just somebody else singing about yourself.” It somehow frees you up to tell a deeper truth about yourself.
Does Miley push you guys to be weirder, or is it the other way around?
I think I’ve definitely gotten a lot more out of it than she has, but she might disagree. I don’t think we’d want to continue too far into the world without each other. I talk to her almost every day and we’re always involved: “Hey, what are you doing?” “What are you doing?”
The Flaming Lips have always kind of done pop music in a sense. We don’t really write songs, but it sounds like songs in the end. And I think some of our music — not all the time, but some of the time — is very poppy. When I listen back to not just The Soft Bulletin, but quite a bit of the stuff off of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, it’s structured and so song-oriented. I’m like, “How did we do that?”
So this isn’t going to be another distorted, dark-sounding album in the vein of Embryonic or The Terror?
Embryonic, I don’t know if there’s any comparison in our catalog to something like that. That really was a break in the natural order of things, which we wanted. I don’t think it was anti-”Do You Realize??” but there was some element of it that was like, I don’t really want to sit here and do too many more songs that sound like “Do You Realize??”
We don’t say that all the time, but I think we did when we were doing that record. It was just a relief not to be playing actual chords; I don’t think I played very many at all on that record. It was all just riff-based sort of things that happened quickly, and I think in time we probably would’ve wanted some variation. I think the same thing is true of The Terror. It was definitely a mood that was happening. Steven and I were like, “If we don’t hurry up and do this, we’re gonna be out of this mood and it’s going to start to turn into something else.” We don’t really have a plan.
How many songs do you currently have?
It wouldn’t be, like, a hundred. I just know that we’re always amending a song. The song that we were working on today— you look at the date and we put a beat on it a year ago last week. I’d say if we put together everything that we’ve worked on or touched up, it’s probably like 50 or 60 things. I wouldn’t say whole songs, but moments. We’ve got a couple songs that I feel like are getting to where they’re done. We like them, they’re starting to have titles. I don’t know if we’re absolutely done with every sonic section on them but pretty close, for sure.
Do you keep a running list of song titles that you’ve always wanted to use? Or do you just come up with them on the fly?
Some of them are very much Flaming Lips titles. There’s a song that’s almost done, the title that we’re working with right now is called “The Milky Milky Milk.” What do you call those things on your iPhone where you get a little five-second recording that you can text? Miley sent me a thing, I think she was trying to say “molly,” [but] it said “Milky.” And I replied back like, “Yeah, whatever, milky, I get what you’re saying.” Then she sent me a message that was like “Milky milky milk.” It was funny.
I wrote the song after that; it’s based on how Whole Foods was corrupting all these people that I used to know who hated the idea of health food and yoga and s—t like that. And now, the only place they could go to get food was Whole Foods, because now they cared about animals and health and eating right. It’s got this double meaning to it, where we know she means molly but the rest of the world will hear it and think we’re talking about being healthy and drinking milk.
Are there any other new songs that are ready enough to talk about?
There’s one that we played at [Miley’s] Adult Swim party in New York. It’s called “Tiger Dreams.” And I think she’s still confused about Katy Perry having a song called “Tiger,” because Katy Perry’s song is called “Roar” from what I remember. And she kept saying we can’t call it “Tiger,” and I’m like, she has a song that has a tiger in it, but I don’t think it’s called “Tiger.” And so there was some debate as to what we were going to call it. But I quite like the title “Tiger Dreams,” because the lyrics mention having a dream where you’re being eaten by a tiger. I think it has a good poetic resemblance to some of the ways that she sometimes feels about the public. There’s definitely a lot of people that love her and definitely a lot of people that hate her, and she has a bodyguard outside of her house 24/7 because there’s people that love her so much that they want to hurt her.
That’s a whole other kind of fame than you guys have gotten to experience.
She’s gotten very used to it since she’s been a pretty big star for a while. But we go and do things all the time and there’s absolutely no precaution taken to be like, “Oh yeah, everybody’s going to recognize you.” It wasn’t that long ago we were at her house and she decided to go to PetSmart to buy a turtle, and I don’t think she realized what an uproar the whole store got in.
Are you worried about a similar situation to the Kesha collaboration happening with Miley?
They’re similar in that they’re popular stars, and they’re both freaks, but I would say Miley is in as much control of her thing as anybody could be. If she wants to do something, it really is just her. And she’ll go and do it. I think Kesha will do that eventually, but I don’t think she’s able to do that now. I don’t think she has the control or the power or — I’m not sure she really wants it as much in this case as Cyrus does. Cyrus, when you go into her show, if the light is purple, it’s because she wants it to be purple. It’s no put-down on Kesha. I think Kesha — she’s in a spot that she doesn’t really like. But I never really felt that with her. I like her songwriting, I think she’s crazy and cool and the music that we did together is still there, but she’s just not free enough to do what she wanted. I still talk to her quite often.
Have you been following the legal trajectory of everything she’s going through right now?
Some of it — Kesha’s crazy, and so there’s always going to be something happening with her. The music that we did together, it’s fun. We only had a couple really solid nights together. I think it’ll probably eventually work out, but what can you do?