The Flaming Lips – Album By Album
Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips answers your questions in An Audience With… in this month's new issue of Uncut, out now. In this week's archive feature we head back to our June 2008 issue (Take 133), to find the band's frontman looking back over their back catalogue, taking in Vaseline, drug addiction, union picket lines, the religious right and nothing short of the collapse of civilisation. “My agenda is to go somewhere where we’ve never been before…" Interview: Jaan Uhelszki
The tasty starter…
THE FLAMING LIPS
(1985, re-released on Restless Records, 1994)
Produced by The Flaming Lips
The Lips recorded their debut, five-song mini-album with Wayne Coyne’s reluctant rock star brother, Mark, as lead singer. He was fired as soon as the record was released…
Wayne Coyne: "I hear this now and it sounds so demented. It’s kind of druggy, kind of punk rock and it’s kind of psychedelic. We don’t even play in the right key sometimes and we’re out of tune. But we do it with such a 'Who cares…' attitude, and it’s wonderful. We felt like that would be the only record we made. We’d run into musicians and we thought, 'Wow, they’re really musicians. They know what they’re playing.' They would talk about chord structures and what key things are in on our own record and we’d be like, 'We have no idea what you’re talking about.' But at the same time, that worried us. We were pretending that we were musicians and we knew what we were doing, but really we were just dorks that liked music. It’s like suddenly being thrown on Top Chef and saying, 'Well, I just like eating in a restaurant, I don’t like fucking cooking the food.' We felt like there’s no way that this hoax could perpetuate itself much further than that. My brother Mark was in the band and at this time we were discovering that he didn’t really like music and didn’t like to sing, so we said, 'Why don’t we get rid of this guy?' I think it surprised him that we asked him to quit, since it was his band."
Death becomes them…
IN A PRIEST DRIVEN AMBULANCE
(1990, Restless Records)
Produced by The Flaming Lips and Dave Fridmann
The first flash of real brilliance from the Lips, In A Priest Driven Ambulance also features Mercury Rev guitarist Jonathan Donahue alongside Wayne Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins…
"I definitely use the ambulance driver as a metaphor, it stands for the kind of the panic that seems to always motivate us at the eleventh hour. I’ve said that The Flaming Lips never arrive by limousine, we always arrive by ambulance. It’s like, there we are at the last fucking possible minute. I like that idea of, 'Get out of the fucking way, here we are!' This idea being, if we don’t get there right now, it’s going to die. That’s how a lot of Flaming Lips ideas come into being, because they have a force of panic that gets us through the wall of whatever it is that art has to get through, whether it’s good, great, shitty or whatever… It has to get into the world. And this idea of the ambulance, I’ve always liked that. A lot of what we sing about, even when I go back to our very first records, is death. This thing that happens to you when you’re confronted with the idea that you’re going to die and the people around you are going to die, and how it helps you live for right now."
The major label debut…
HIT TO DEATH IN THE FUTURE HEAD
(1992, Warner Bros Records)
Produced by The Flaming Lips and Dave Fridmann
Hit To Death In The Future Head found The Flaming Lips refining their pop savvy. That said, the “hidden track”, a 40-second loop repeated for nearly half an hour, was as art-weirdo as you can get…
"One song, 'Halloween At The Barbary Coast', summed up where we were at during this record. Back in the late ’80s, we would go to Vegas a lot. We never had any money, but as we were driving through we would stop and gamble away 20 bucks. If we were lucky, we’d win 100 bucks and we’d spend it all just having a kind of experience. We walked into this one casino called the Barbary Coast. There was a strike going on and there was a picket line. At the time we were dyeing our hair and clothes black. You’ve got to remember, we wouldn’t wash the clothes. They’d be dyed black the day that we left for a tour, and we’d wear them for three months. The dye would get all over you, little by little, and we’d all look slightly greyish. We walked up to this picket line, this guy said, “Look at this, it’s Halloween at the Barbary Coast.” We never realised what a strange, ghoulish-looking gang we were until someone said that. Here’s the middle of summer and we’re dressed in black. Everybody does that now. Back then, we were trying to look like weirdos, and so we probably did to this group of union fucking workers on strike. Plus it sounded like one of our song-titles."
The sexual conquest…
TRANSMISSIONS FROM THE SATELLITE HEART
(1994, Warner Bros Records)
Produced by The Flaming Lips and Keith Cleversley
Transmissions… marked a new phase for the band with the addition of drummer Steven Drozd and guitarist Ronald Jones (Donahue leaving to concentrate on Mercury Rev). The success of single “She Don’t Use Jelly” put the Lips on, erm, everyone’s lips when they became a staple on Beavis & Butt-head and appeared on Beverly Hills 90210…
"When we recorded 'She Don’t Use Jelly', we knew we were making something special. Whatever the absurdness of it, you could understand that I’m talking about toast and Vaseline, and it had some kind of innocent little sexual thing that ran through the whole song. That was kind of cool for us because up until then all of our songs were so asexual. I think we felt that there was this sort of the Guns N’ Roses mentality to rock’n’roll, and we were something different. We really had a lot of area to explore that didn’t include a bunch of naked women – but here we felt like, 'Oh, what the fuck, let’s go for it.' When we would play it in front of a very hostile commercial audience that could not give a shit about us, they still responded to that song. People would come up later and say, 'I hated every song you did except when you sang about that Vaseline. I liked that one.'"
Mental machine music…
(1997, Warner Bros Records) Produced by The Flaming Lips, Dave Fridmann, Scott Booker
The Flaming Lips’ equivalent to Metal Machine Music, this was released on four CDs that are all intended to be played simultaneously. The title is a synthesis of the words “Zaire” and “Eureka” that tumbled out of Wayne Coyne’s mouth while on tour in Germany...
"We were in Europe and doing this drudgey, winter tour where the sun is going down at 3:30pm. We had these series of shows that didn’t go that well, and we were on a long drive when a radio announcer starts talking about Zaire crumbling, saying: 'Civilisation as we know it is breaking down at a phenomenal rate at the moment.' I wondered what it’s like to be in a country where civilisation is breaking down at a phenomenal rate… I thought: of all the places where you can use this anarchy and this utter falling apart of everything, it’s in music and art. I was trying to destroy my own conceptions of what music could be and see what happened. What if the Lips broke down and they couldn’t quit? Somehow we’d have to scrape along, but it’d be invigorating. And that’s what we did. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do some freaky shit, if it’s the last thing I do.' At the beginning it was just for our own dumb entertainment. Now I think of Zaireeka as a bunch of unmanageable bullshit."
THE SOFT BULLETIN
(1999, Warner Bros Records)
Produced by The Flaming Lips, Dave Fridmann and Scott Booker
The Soft Bulletin finds the Lips changing the entire direction of their aesthetic, introducing lush harmonies and orchestration alongside big themes about love, loss and the future of the human race…
"Everyone thinks that The Soft Bulletin was about my dad’s death, but that was really Zaireeka or maybe even Yoshimi. Zaireeka came out in ’97, but we’d been working on Bulletin that whole time. There was this idea not to reinvent ourselves this time, but go down another path and become these other types of people who could be in The Flaming Lips. I think with Zaireeka you catch us halfway there, but we’re just so fucking weird that it doesn’t matter. By the time you catch us with The Soft Bulletin, we’ve gotten rid of some of the weirder things and we’ve started to find out how to shape the more emotional things. Even that title, it’s a lot like the Priest Driven Ambulance thing. It felt like we were announcing something to the world.
"This idea was that we weren’t talking about a revolution destroying the old regime. It was a revelation of this quiet little thing within us, which felt like a bigger revolution, to us. We wanted to do something more emotional and expressive. We didn’t have an idea of where we were going, but Steven had 'Race For The Prize' and the lyrics I put to it made it feel like we’d turned a corner. I had 'A Spoonful Weighs A Ton' and it was really something to see Steven dicking around with that, giving that a good musical shape and some drama. Between those two, we felt like, damn, the Lips could sing about this sort of epic-ness to life and not feel like just a bunch of hippies. Once again, we really thought of The Soft Bulletin as being the last thing that we would do. We’ve run into that three or four times in our life, where we sort of felt like it doesn’t matter what we do because no-one really cares. It gave us this great freedom to say, 'Fuck it.'
"Everyone wants to know on 'Spiderbite Song' whether I really knew that Steven had a drug problem. All I can say is, not as much as I knew later! Everybody was busy doing their own trip, and being around drug addicts, they’re not that much different than they were the previous week. I mean, it happens so slowly that you get used to it. It must be like those guys that have giant tumors on their faces. It grows a little every day. When I think of it now, I’m surprised at how precarious the whole thing was. That probably played into the song and the whole theme of the LP. In a way I probably thought that Steven may not even be here for another year. This music that we’re doing now, we have to do it now as I couldn’t do it with anybody else. All that gives you a different urgency and a different sense of energy in this album."
Big is better…
YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS
(2002, Warner Bros Records)
Produced by The Flaming Lips, Dave Fridmann, Scott Booker
The Lips’ most commercially successful album – due to be turned into a Broadway musical by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin!
"After Bulletin, we could have gone in and made every record sound like that. Bulletin was us finding what we’re good at; but we decided that we can’t make it over and over. We decided to do something more cartoon-like. We were already writing music that seemed more colorful, not so death-ish, and we had 'Do You Realize??' written, but it wasn’t until we wrote 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots' that we knew what the LP was about. In Flaming Lip-ian world, of course, the robots would be pink – and then kill themselves for love. But the key song for us is 'Do You Realize??' Writing that is like meeting [wife] Michelle, or one of these things that just happens to you where you say: 'How fucking lucky am I?' I can say that I created that song, but I wouldn’t have thought it had this otherworldliness. I run into people every time we play who’ve used it at funerals, weddings or when their kids are born. A kid came up to me in a restaurant, and he said, 'How long did it take you to make Yoshimi?' I said, 'It took my whole life.' Everything I’ve ever thought, in the end got put into this."
Dark side of the Coyne..
AT WAR WITH THE MYSTICS
(2006, Warner Bros Records)
Produced by The Flaming Lips, Dave Fridmann, Scott Booker
Coyne sets his sights on frothy pop icons, superficial thinkers and the abuse of power on the Lips’ most political album to date…
"In the beginning I had this song and I was talking in the magical sense about witches, warlocks, demons. But really I was writing about these naysayers who think, ‘Oh, the world is kind of just a boring place. Thank God there’s stuff like black magic and supernatural bullshit.’ That’s so wrong. They just don’t see the true beauty and excitement in what’s real and beautiful about human nature. The album title went right along with all this stuff about how insane the religious right has become and the whole mentality of the fanatical religious freaks, and how in a sense they all are self-proclaimed mystics. They seem to know some insight that us regular folk would never see. It sounds like something wicked and dark and opposed to, you know, the cartoony acid sunshine of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. I’m just looking to say, we already went down that road, now let’s go down this dark, scary road and see what that feels like. And so that was my main agenda, to go somewhere other than where we’d been before…"