Nine Songs: The Flaming Lips
My phone dances inside the cup holder of my car next to a comically oversized bottle of hand sanitizer and a drawing of a mermaid unicorn my daughter drew for me. I pull into my garage and read the text: “Hey, it’s Wayne. If you need me to send you a couple tracks I can doooooo it,” reads the first text.
A quick flurry of texts are sent after an afternoon FaceTime chat with Wayne Coyne speaking from his Oklahoma City backyard. The Flaming Lips frontman uploads the first song from his group’s upcoming 16th album American Head, "Will You Return / When You Come Down.” It’s a sad-yet-triumphant psychedelic rocker that touches on the death of friends and family and the battle through it. The spectre of death makes itself present on the record, a consistent theme for The Flaming Lips after Wayne Coyne’s formative brush with death during an armed robbery at a Long John Silver’s.
The next file is the new album’s penultimate song “God and the Policeman.” The accompanying text simply reads, “This one's with Kacey Musgraves.” Kacey Musgraves (a longtime Flaming Lips fan who covers "Do You Realize??" in her live set) is a guest on two other songs, “Watching the Lightbugs Glow” and "Flowers Of Neptune 6.”
Once you get Wayne Coyne talking about music, he starts connecting the personal and historical dots of being an experimental rock band that grew up in the early '80’s in Oklahoma City. “I didn't want to be around a bunch of cowboys that wanted to beat us up,” he remembers. “We wanted to be around punks and freaks.” In 2020, Coyne and the band have broadened their minds quite a bit since then. “You can easily separate music from rednecks now,” Coyne explains. “Back in the ‘80s, I would've stuck them together, where now I don't do that at all.”
The psychology of listening to a song and the meanings and people you assign to it are all topics that Coyne touches on during our conversation. We talk about our fondness for the warmth of lo-fi and the memories associated with it. I share memories of listening to Beatles songs in my dad’s truck with one blown-out right speaker or watching Star Wars and Disney movies taped off the TV. Coyne recalls a memory of playing a Tom Jones album on vinyl with his older sister and brothers until the vinyl record was grey. In 2004, his mother passed away and he wanted to play Jones’ “I Know” at her funeral, as she loved the song, but the CD didn’t contain the same resonance for his family as the old, scratched up vinyl did, so they ended up recording the family copy of the vinyl and played that instead.
Coyne mentions that a close member of his family recently passed away after committing suicide. “Part of you just thinks these things are just unspeakable. You don't really know how to communicate how heavy all that stuff can be. People would say that they just saw the person that committed suicide the day before and saying that she seemed great. She seemed fine.”
“That’s part of what I think Flaming Lips music is about,” Coyne reflects. “There is an element of it that a lot of people are hiding some really intense, fucked-up pain. They don't want you to know about it. They don't want to be that. They would rather be this nice, happy, anonymous person.”
Coyne explains that The Flaming Lips always “wanted to be emotional, but we don't want it to be hi-fi emotional.” Some of his Nine Songs touch on something he likens to an emotional “switch”, of focusing the personal to the community around you, but all of them share a love of music and the nuance of expression and feeling a song can bring to the listener.
“Obviously The Beatles have all these hits, and if you've been alive since 1960 there's no way you wouldn't know their hits anyway. As time would go on, I’d forget that The Beatles have hits, because you always listen to every song on every one of their records. It was almost like every record is a Greatest Hits, but “Tomorrow Never Knows” is such a fucking weird song. I think that's the thing that happened to me, my older brothers played Beatles music and lots of really strange music, but for The Beatles, some of it is very fucked up and strange.
“A lot of isn’t even pop music, but you don't know that when you're 10 years old or whatever, you just think, ‘Well, it's The Beatles. It's just that, that's what pop music must be. If the Beatles make it, that must be the definition of pop music.’ As The Flaming Lips started to make records, we started to examine ‘How did they make this? What's the stuff here? How are they recording these drums? How are they recording their bass, their singing, and all that?'
“This song is one of the great mysteries of recorded history. It's such a fucking great-sounding piece of music, and besides, it's The Beatles. A lot of times you think of The Beatles as being these great emotional songwriters, but this sounds great even before you know it's The Beatles. Even before they start singing, it's ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing.’
“In a sense it's just a drone, it's like one note and we've kind of figured out how to play it in a live context. I could see in 1966 that it would simply be something you made in a studio. Once we discovered that, I thought, ‘You can just make music that you're recording and creating. It doesn't have to be something that you can perform.’ That changed everything for us. There's a time when all bands think of themselves as being a performer, then you perform in the studio and someone puts a microphone in front of you and they turn that into a record.
“I think at some point we probably felt ‘We're just not any good, if that's the way we have to make records. That's just all we do.’ Then you discover these types of records, even those made by The Beatles, who could just stand there in front of microphones and be magnificent. Yet, they still do this other thing that's just a studio-made, weird-ass creation. That's all good news. You just go, ‘Oh, my God.’ And then to know that, to realise that, and to examine it, I think that was a big breaking for us.
“There was the rumor for a little bit of time - and maybe it's still true now, or maybe people still think it's true - that Paul McCartney was dead and they got an imposter to fill in for him. People think nowadays, ‘How can people believe that COVID is a hoax?’ I'm like, ‘Well, people thought Paul McCartney died and they got someone that looked and sounded exactly like him and wrote songs exactly like him.’
"People love to believe the unbelievable, they don't like to believe boring stuff that's really just true. They want to believe some fucking magic is always possible.”
“I picked this Tom Jones song because for The Flaming Lips I sometimes do try to wonder ‘How did we get the way we got?’ My mother absolutely loved Tom Jones and he was quite popular in the late ‘60s. He had his own television show [This Is Tom Jones] and quite a few hits that were on the radio.
“He really had that dramatic, emotional thing in his best records. As he went along, the songs probably got more hokey or jokey, but on those early records it was the only emotional music that I've ever really heard like that. I'm sure there are a lot of singers doing that sort of over-the-top production, but at the time he was the only one that I really knew of. My mother would play his records all the time and we only had a few records at the house. A couple of them would be Tom Jones records and the rest were Beatles records, and 45’s that my older brothers and older sister would buy of songs they heard on the radio.
“I remember playing the Tom Jones album [13 Smash Hits]. “I Know” is a Perry Como cover and not a popular song of his, but it's popular enough that you can Google it and download it easily. It's one of his gospel type songs, and he's got four or five songs written by the same songwriters [Carl Stutz and Edith Lindeman] that have the same kind of hooks and arrangement.
“It was on the A-Side of the record, and back then we were just little kids and we would literally play an album a hundred times a day on the shittiest little record player you could get. It was from the TG&Y store and it was just the speaker, everything else was right inside the enclosed plastic. It started off as a black, shiny record and we played it until it was so scratched up that it went grey.
“When my mother died in 2004, I took charge of the music we’d play at her funeral. I knew this one Tom Jones song and my brothers and sisters all zoned in like, ‘I remember her loving that song.’ I went to search for the song and I found it on CD, but part of me was ‘This doesn't seem like the same song.’ You get used to there being a lot of different versions and mixes of songs out there, but I was slightly perplexed and then I realised that without all the scratches and all this distorted murk of us playing this record 10,000 times, the song was there, but it didn't have all this stuff that is embedded in the memory that I have of the song.
“I dug out the record my mother had, we played it on a turntable and recorded it. When it played in the ceremony, you started to hear the crackles and this ghostly, otherworldly version of this really emotional Tom Jones song. I thought, ‘That's the way I know it.’ When I hear it now, even searching for it getting ready to talk to you, I heard it again. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, nice song, but it's missing something." All these little nuances and ‘Listening is just a motherfucker!’ It doesn't discern what's a drum, what's a voice, what's the wind, what's a car door. It just becomes part of you trying to understand this thing. I still love that song, and when I hear it I think ‘I’ve gotta put some distortion on’ and we've done that with some of our records. We wanted to be emotional, but we don't want it to be hi-fi emotional.
“It's not unique to me, but I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way about hearing music through a different filter and it has a different effect on you. I remember a time when I was pumping gas, right when these convenience stores were starting to install speakers out there when you're pumping gas. I think it was Bobby Goldsboro song that I knew from way back in the day and it was through one of these really battered, tinny gas station speakers. I stood there pumping the gas and I was lost. I just drifted into this other world.
"Then the ‘BAM’ of the pump shutting off when it gets full goes and I remember thinking ‘Wow, here I am.’ Is it the song doing that, is it this mood or what was it? Or maybe it was the gas fumes and all that combined. I don't know, but certainly there is magic in that otherworldly context. In the way that I've heard the Tom Jones song, but I don't know if it has the same power without all the other stuff attached to it.”
“When I was thinking of these songs, I thought of children's songs. “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary is still one of my favorite songs. It's hard for me to listen to because it's so sad. It's so crushing when the little boy leaves the dragon behind, the dragon is left in the cave and the dragon misses his friend.
“Their harmonies and the way that they build it is a simple, simple arrangement, but the way they build that emotion is uncanny. A lot of people would put the association of “Puff the Magic Dragon” as a song about marijuana or whatever, but I never did. I wouldn't even care for that little connection to it.
“I remember hearing it probably on the children's show Captain Kangaroo. You’d put it on at eight o'clock in the morning and sit there with your cereal and your brothers and my mother and we'd watch this stuff. Even then I thought it was crushing, even when I was three years old I was, ‘God, this is devastating. What's happened to the dragon? Why did he leave the dragon behind?’ Which is something I felt I would never do. I would never leave the dragon in the cave.”
“I don't know why we had this fuckin’ Steppenwolf album, but it was the Steppenwolf Live album. We had The Beatles, Tom Jones, and this one weird ass live Steppenwolf record. It had the song, “The Pusher” on it and it's a live version, completely distorted and completely fucked up
“We weren't allowed to play it and sing it while our parents weren't home, but when they’d go to the grocery store, we would put on “The Pusher” and play it a hundred times before they got home, because we could sing the lyric, "God damn the pusher man." It was just this elation of being able to say, ‘God damn,’ even though my Dad said every cuss word you could learn. But if we said it, especially before we were 10 years old, he would get pretty mad at you. So there was some freedom in finally being able to sing this. It was ‘Hey, well, they're a group. We're just singing what they're saying.’
“At the time we wouldn't have been aware that it was an anti-drug song or not. It's a very confusing song. It sounds so fucked up, especially that live version, you wouldn't even want to listen to it if you weren't on drugs. Then part of it was ‘What's a pusher man?’ Even though we're growing up in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when this term was around, I never heard anybody use it. Part of it was it was just a cool-sounding song, and it got into my vocabulary of The Beatles with a little bit of Tom Jones, and this little bit of fucking Steppenwolf.
“I see now that if I was to break down some elements of The Flaming Lips music, it's really just a couple of these elements that are left over from some deep, deep part of my mind, when I was becoming aware of music. I don't have access to it as a memory, it's only there in the background.
"Music has a way of opening up these chemicals in your brain and one will flow into the other. Only when music is playing though, if you were to be hypnotised by a therapist, I don't think anybody could retrieve these types of memories the way that music can. When music plays, suddenly you're flooded. You don't know what you're flooded with, but you can feel what you're flooded with and something is familiar about this flood of emotion.
“I actually saw Steppenwolf. It probably wasn't the original guys, but I think the main singer was still there. It wasn't in their heyday, it was the ‘70s. I quite liked it, but I hadn't seen that many concerts by then. They didn't do “The Pusher”, I remember standing on the chair at the end saying, "Well, you got to do The fuckin’ Pusher. You're going to come all the way to Oklahoma and not do “The Pusher?!’”
“This is starting to get into the early ‘70s, and it's such a devastatingly beautiful song. It’s also a hit that's on the radio, and just such delicate, perfect song. It’s a song that I would still reference as a way to make a song where it's powerful but it's really just like a whisper. The things that they're playing, it's like there's not a wrong note. Even the intensity of it, it doesn't overwhelm you. It's just these gentle waves of emotion.
“This is a song I remember when Steven [Drozd] was first joining the group. We were driving around in our blue van, that had a cassette player and you could make cassette tapes, your own little compilations. I remember putting on a Led Zeppelin song, and the song after that was this Roberta Flack song. Steve said ‘You're the only person that would have that next to a Led Zeppelin song.’ There would be no barrier of is this cool or is this embarrassing? Is this hokey?
“It's been so long since we've considered that there would be music that's cool and isn't cool. I can't even imagine we would even say those terms anymore. Back in the early ‘90s, especially being around younger people, there would be ‘I'm cool because I listen to this music and if you listen to that music, you're not cool.’ I remember that being one of those moments where you confront this thing with ‘That is such bullshit that someone feels they can judge you on the music you listen to or music you don't listen to’, as a way of ‘I can tell your character from that.’
“We talk a lot about how live music informs you as to who the people are and the songs mean more. I mention to people all the time that there are tons of songs that I love and I never saw the people, I never met them, they're long gone. Maybe this is another one of those just perfect recordings. It's so delicate and the way she sings probably wouldn't even work nowadays, in the way that everything is so compressed and so pushed forward.
“I listened to it on Spotify the other night while our little boy was going to sleep, it’s a good, mellow song, and her singing sometimes is so quiet I couldn't really hear it. She jumps in at other times and it's loud, so if you turn it up to five, bits of it blast you, but if you turn it down too much, some of it's so gentle, you can't hear it. It really is a dynamic song. It's like the way people really are when they're really singing and playing. It's amazing.”
“I have a Psychedelic Furs song on here and I've got a Donovan song on here. This is the quagmire that’s hard to understand nowadays, because music is so easy and so available. It's virtually free to everybody, but back in the early ‘80s you really only listened to the records that you had or your friends owned. It wasn't like everybody had a thousand records like you do now. You have access to every album that was ever fucking made now.
“I had Donovan's Greatest Hits and The Psychedelic Furs’ first few albums. I remember not having any idea of what The Psychedelic Furs were about, now you can read anything you want about anybody at any time and can find out their whole history, but I didn’t know that much about them. I thought ‘What a weird name?’ and they seemed to come from some sort of punk rock British thing, but they called themselves The Psychedelic Furs. They had fucking cool lyrics and a cool mood. People thought it was cool that they were psychedelic because they were called The Psychedelic Furs
“Then I would listen to Donovan's Greatest Hits, I think I had that record left over from my older sister and I would play it all the time. I really connected this folky Donovan song with the idea of psychedelic and Psychedelic Furs and all that. I don't know why, I only had a few records. I remember playing those two together and people thinking, ‘What are you doing?’
““Love My Way” is not a simple or direct song. You don't know what the fuck he’s talking about. I know Richard Butler, the singer, now and I still ask him, ‘What are you talking about on that?’ It's so weird, but so simple. By the early ‘80s, The Flaming Lips are starting to become a band and by 1983 this is kind of helping us. We know we've got this ridiculous influence, because there's no one that we would ever run into that was our age who liked this kind of music.
“We would go to punk rock shows here in town and no one would play this type of music. The Psychedelic Furs were slightly popular, but you wouldn't listen to Donovan or The Beatles, or a lot of other hokey stuff that we would listen to. So, part of this was feeling like we may be from Oklahoma, but I don't think anything that we listened to came from Oklahoma. None of the people that my brothers knew, even though they were musicians, wanted to sound like they were from Oklahoma, they sounded like The Beatles or Black Sabbath, it was always something freaky like that.
“We became The Flaming Lips and everybody knew that we were from Oklahoma. We always felt slightly embarrassed that we really didn't know anything about Oklahoma music, we'd say ‘I don't know. We just like what we like.’
“Now I think it's probably a good thing that we know as much as we can about Oklahoma music. A lot of it's not very cool. Back then we were slightly embarrassed about it because people would ask us, ‘You're from Oklahoma, what's the music scene like there?’ We’d be like, ‘We like the punk rock bands, but we don't really go to bars to see country bands, maybe we should have and maybe that's part of what's fucked up about us.’
“For us country music, especially in Oklahoma back then, felt like a bunch of rednecks. I didn't really want to be around it. I wanted to be around freaks. I didn't want to be around a bunch of cowboys that wanted to beat us up.”
“The version of “Catch the Wind,” that I like is the one that's got the bigger arrangement. It's got the bigger drums and guitars. There are two versions of it. One is very much copying a Bob Dylan song, and there's a later version that seems to copy more what a Beatles production would be, something like “Hey Jude". That's the one that I really like.
“Even with Donovan back then, by the time I'm listening to that in the early ‘80s, he's already over with. He just seems like a dead guy from the ‘60s or something, even though he wasn't dead. I just never considered that he was a real person. This was just a recording from some mystical time, and I was entranced by it.
“It's that type of songwriting that's so simple and so emotional and so true. It probably isn't really true at all, he probably copied some other song that he heard or whatever. I still find it hard to write a song that's like that, that says something so cool and so pure and so romantic and so simple.”
“As great as Harry Nilsson is, you could hear this song and think he's going to have five records like that, but there's really only a few of his songs that have that quality. There's a lot of great music, but that particular song, man, it's short and it's dramatic and it's so emotional. I'm so glad when I read stories about him or you see documentaries and he's just a funny drunk guy. I like that, because I don't really want him to be this sappy guy crying at the piano that he seems like he is in that song. I'm glad he's doing it because it's music, not because he really is crying or whatever.
“The way he layers his voice and that pitch that he has is so amazing. If you're a singer like me, you hear someone like him and go, ‘Oh shit, I need to stop. I can't deal with that. that's really on a different level.’ Then when you find out more about him, you see that he was shy and he was awkward. He didn't even like playing live or anything. It's a great story. That song, and a lot of those types of songs, would be the only time that we would say things like that out loud. When we were growing up, we would never say something like that to anybody. You just feel like an idiot. You have a way to say those things because this music says it, and I love that about it.
“I have to say, even when I hear Mariah Carey do it, I can still go, ‘Oh, I still like it.’ There's something about it. It's probably a leftover from liking the Harry Nilsson version, but there's something in that, it’s a great song.”
“It probably seems generic and it's everywhere now, but there was a time when this was a song that you never heard. It would be one of these songs that you think, ‘Well, this should be like “Stairway to Heaven.” Everybody should know this song.’ It wasn't like that. It would be a song that you would hear once in a while.
“I think there's something in Louis Armstrong in that he's so fucking optimistic, and he's got such a weird voice. It's almost like it's a joke or something, but it's not. It's so over the top and so unique. From this song, and then examining Louis Armstrong's music and his life, it helped us to embrace the idea that a part of music is that it's just entertainment done by entertainers.
“I remember when my father was dying; my mother would go to the bank and do all kinds of stuff. She would really just be holding back how devastating it was, she would talk to people for an hour and listen to them tell their stupid stories when I know inside she was dying. There's an element about this entertainment that sometimes relieves people of this heavy, heavy internal thing. Because you can sit there and make the song. Sometimes I would be singing ‘It's a Wonderful World’ trying to remember it's a wonderful world, but not thinking it was a wonderful world. Music can do that. It can mean to you exactly what it means. Or can sometimes mean the exact opposite, and it helps you navigate your own, ‘How do I feel about this now?’
“I end up talking about the song “Do You Realize??” a lot because it's one of those songs that people connect to us. There's only a few of them that people would say, ‘Oh, I know that song.’ You always get the feeling like, if you talk to Kris Kristofferson, he'd be, ‘Oh yeah. I have 100 songs just like that.’ We don't. We would have “Do You Realize??” and be ‘I don't know why we have it and why it works, and why we're the ones that get to sing it.’ It seems like a song that Louis Armstrong would do, like it has this unexplainable element where everybody that hears it goes, ‘Oh, I know what you're talking about.’
“We always refer to these types of songs as like the gods of music, they're watching you. They know you've been working hard, so they give you one of these magic things that no human could really do. It speaks to some other unspeakable language. I think we, as The Flaming Lips, really do love writing songs. We love recording songs, and we love the whole idea of making records and all that. But you don't always get to pick and choose which way they're going to go.”