If you only know The Flaming Lips as electric-hued purveyors of highly-polished psychedelic pop and hosts of the world’s most euphoric live shows, their new album might be a jolt. Aptly titled ‘The Terror’, it’s a dark and abrasive record that stares into the abyss and yet, somehow, still manages to find some beauty amid the fear and dread. Truth is, this band have always been more comfortable than most dealing with the big existential questions, from when they started out as a mind-bending punk band recording songs about ‘Jesus Shootin’ Heroin’ right through to smuggling a blunt and jarring reminder of humanity’s fragile mortality into their most universally adored anthem. Over glasses of single malt at a well-appointed hotel in London’s Clerkenwell, Wayne Coyne gets heavy on everything from the mysteries of free will, reinventing The Flaming Lips and the importance of getting fucked up now and again.
The Flaming Lips are a hard band to pin down. I first discovered you when ‘Yoshimi…’ came out, but then for Christmas my dad bought me your early box-set ‘Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid’.
Hahaha! Well, he’s ruined it for you then! You thought we were those people who made ‘Yoshimi…’, and then that record ruined it for you!
I was like: ‘What the fuck is this shit?’ It blew my mind.
‘Yoshimi…’ is so refined. We made it on purpose to use commercial music as an experiment. We were listening to fucking Nelly Furtado and shit like Madonna. I mean we loved it but we were using it as a palette. It’s so well made. It’s a trick because we sound like we really know what we’re doing and the truth is we don’t know what we’re doing.
The abrasiveness of ‘The Terror’ seems to hark back to The Flaming Lips’ earlier, more experimental material: songs like ‘Jesus Shooting Heroin’.
Bizarre songs like that, yeah. When we were young we had no guide. You kind of just make what you can. Sometimes you wish that you knew more about production, but it is what it is. We’ve made 16 records now and it does lead you into this world which helps you understand about sound and how you can use it to evoke certain things. The main thing you learn about music is that if something’s good, don’t fuck it up. The really good things that happen in music are collisions. In the beginning, we took punk rock in the same sense as John Lydon said it: anarchy. In music and art, do whatever the fuck you want, just fucking do it. It quickly turned into punk rock being a particular look and sound. That isn’t what we thought of it. We thought it was just: “You’re fucking free.” When we proclaimed ourselves The Flaming Lips we asked ourselves: “How long will this last?” We thought it would last six months and then we’d be back at our restaurant jobs. We thought that would be the end of the story but the fucking story never ended. You keep thinking that someone is gonna knock on the door: “Flaming Lips, we know it’s all bullshit, it’s over”. “Okay you caught me, I surrender” but nobody has yet. We’re the living, breathing, somewhat successful embodiment of this retarded belief that you can do whatever you want and we really do live by that.
How did writing ‘The Terror’ compare to previous albums?
Sometimes you feel compelled to follow a sound. When we were making ‘The Soft Bulletin’ we didn’t think about making it, we just followed a sound. That really means rejecting all these other sounds. You might not know what you like, but you know what you hate. I think ‘The Terror’, in a sense, is the same thing. I don’t think people will look at like ‘The Soft Bulletin’, with whatever that means to people, but I think for us it feels like we’ve self-destructed again, not in the same way but with the same intensity. The minute we said: ‘This is how we’re gonna be as a band forever’, absolutely the next second we were completely different and utterly changed. I think we’re onto probably the third phase, the third version, of The Flaming Lips.
What gives you ‘The Terror’?
When you’re young, you feel that it’s you that’s saying: “I want this”, “I don’t want that” or “I’m rejecting that”. It feels as though it’s something that we decide from the front of our minds. For me, when it comes to ‘The Terror’ the shocker line is: “We don’t control the controls.” The intense way that we love is not something that we have a say over. It’s a part of our subconscious life that probably comes from our parents or from whatever our bullshit DNA has made us. It’s like the reason you’re tall and have hair and the reason the other guy is short and doesn’t. We don’t decide, dude! Something in us gets to decide. When you’re young you can say: “My eyes were decided by my DNA but the music I listen to isn’t.” As you get older, it starts to seem like you don’t really know how much of anything you get to decide. That’s ‘The Terror’. ‘The Terror’ is that it appears everything is normal and alright but inside you is a fear that says: ‘I don’t know.’ That’s why this music is full of anxiety and feels stressful. It feels depressing but it’s kind of triumphant. You know something now, but the thing you know is disturbing.
‘The Terror’ also seems to speak about mortality and the existential terror that comes from our knowledge of it. That’s the ultimate thing you can’t control. It reminds me of ‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin, do you know it?
Yeah, I’ve read it, it’s cool. As far as control goes, well, you can kill yourself. That would give you some control, although even that is probably something that is innate in you. It’s probably part of your personality, that’s the twist on all of it. You don’t know, of everything you reach for, how much is you wanting it and how much you’ve been pre-ordained to want it, but loving something helps us not feel so alone. That’s part of it too, we’re trapped in the isolation of our own minds. Fear can make part of you say that you’ll live in the middle. “I won’t lust for this and I won’t care about that.” That’s another form of ‘The Terror’. Who wants to fucking live like that? You can’t live in this fucking nothing grey zone where nothing is gained and nothing is lost. You have to surrender. All the great things require that you give in. You can’t even have an orgasm if you’re too fucking scared and hold back. It’s the same in the moment where you’re conscious that you’re falling asleep. It’s God. It’s everything. That’s the most beautiful thing that happens to you, but you have to surrender.
Even a song like ‘Do You Realize??’ contains seeds of terror within it.
It does. I mean, it’s a very optimistic world with some terrible seeds in the middle, whereas ‘The Terror’ is the just the seeds themselves. I don’t think the success of ‘Do You Realize??’ is because we’re clever or because we’re such good songwriters. There are almost a million songs that play that exact same thing. That chord change is used so often because it works. Whatever kind of mind it is listening to it, if you like The Beatles you like these chord changes. It plays on you in a way that is optimistic and it appears to be telling a story that you already know which is a good story. Then I start singing these words and then right at the time when you’re at your most comforted in the song, I tell you this horrible line, that “Everyone you know, someday, will die,” and it’s almost as if you go: “It’s okay,” and you take it in because that’s what the music and everything has done. That isn’t because we’re smart or anything, that’s just dumb fucking luck that that momentum or whatever allowed that to happen. I understand that’s how it is for most really great artists. It’s just a dumb luck combination and I see that now. At the time I didn’t see that. I remember asking Steven: “What do you think of this?” and when I went to that line he said: “Dude, that’s a Wayne classic right there, man. You got it!” But even then you don’t have any idea that people are gonna play it at funerals or that it’s gonna take on this other meaning.
When you look back at your life, what advice would you have given your younger self?
I was very serious back then about making myself be an artist. All my brothers and older sister, they’re great people but they’ve all been on some level or another a drug addict. I was very serious. I didn’t want to indulge in everything because I’d be as vulnerable as them and end up addicted to the same drugs. It’s very difficult to keep pursuing music and art when life become too much of a calamity. However, if I could I would probably tell myself: “Wayne, for two weeks you get to be as serious and work as hard as you fucking can, but on this night, get fucked up.” I think it would’ve served me well because I would’ve had some relief. I think that’s the reason I do drugs and stuff now. I understand that I’m broken in the way that I will take things very seriously and I will work too hard and be too intense, but then I’ll get fucked up and not care that much. When I come back to myself, some of the things I was so serious about won’t worry me. It allows you, if you’re lucky, some perspective.
Sometimes you need to take a holiday from your own head, don’t you?
Yeah, and back then I didn’t value that, I thought these lazy assholes, all they wanna do is get drunk. I wanna make music I wanna make art but, you know, I’d tell myself to have fun.