Fear And Coping In Oklahoma: The Flaming Lips Unveil The Terror
With brilliant new Flaming Lips album The Terror taking what Embryonic started to bleak new extremes, Wayne Coyne explains why he’s packing away the confetti gun and focusing on survival
“People’s heads come into this place and they have these flesh-eating beetles [who] literally eat every molecule of flesh off of these things.”
That was Wayne Coyne in 2011, describing The Flaming Lips’ morbid Halloween plans for that year – putting out a 24-hour-long song encased within a human skull. They’re one of only a few bands on the planet who could describe that as a typical sort of gimmick – subsequently there’s been the video for The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, featuring Grammy-winning Erykah Badu and her sister sat in a bath of blood and semen, an EP release inside a gummy foetus and, this year, one inside an anatomically correct chocolate heart – but as knowingly shock-baiting as that stunt was, it nevertheless made a warped sort of sense, aligned with the current trajectory of the band’s increasingly bleak thought processes. It marked a further step along the desolate road that last full-length LP Embryonic had contemplated, as they looked at life’s vitality through the spectrum of death.
However not even Embryonic’s nocturnally evocative acid freak-outs indicated quite how far, as Coyne puts it, “all in” they were willing to go. The nine tracks on The Terror serve as the ’Lips’ own flesh-eating beetles; in this case it isn’t yellowing skin and rotting sinews being devoured, it’s the associations with what the group have been for the past 14 years.
The Throbbing Gristlisms of the LP’s synth transmissions are sickly tense in their unflinching repetition; they pull Coyne’s once fully-flushed vocal into tired, submissive mantra-like compliance; they feast on and tear apart memories of the singer in his giant bubble on stage, of the confetti and colour, the blister-packed progressive-psych of At War With The Mystics, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and the grandiosity of The Soft Bulletin. The Oklahomans have always maintained touching distance with mortality – The Soft Bulletin’s Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, Yoshimi…’s Do You Realize?? are just two examples – but with The Terror, humanity’s temporal state is in their central vision, the previous bombast that cloaked it discarded, in lieu of oscillating electronic death rattles and mechanised motifs.
“It was getting to the point where somewhere along the road we were going to have to ask ourselves ‘are we going to do even more music that relates to giant balloons and confetti and things?’” ponders Coyne’s familiarly husky voice over the phone, “and with Embryonic there were a series of songs that could be construed as an evolution from Do You Realize?? etcetera, but at some point I was forced to say ‘we’ve got to go all the way, and we have to do it now.’”
He’s just got home from SXSW when we talk (“I was wearing this fantastic chrome blue leather jacket, but the pants only arrived today. I’m stretching them out even as we speak,”) and gleefully relives his band’s set from the weekend, where they performed the new album in full. “It was a new version of The Flaming Lips,” he states proudly, “there’s nothing more thrilling than just going out there and going for it: a whole new look, a whole new set-up. We’ll never completely abandon the idea of playing versions of our past hits, but we had this weird record coming out and we thought ‘fuck it! This is what we want to do!’”
"We’ve got to go all the way, and we have to do it now" – Wayne Coyne
At its bleakest, The Terror is enough to make you believe that The Flaming Lips have given up on finding life’s light, a search that, even in their most hopeless moments, they seemed to be clinging onto. Where Coyne once sang “The doubters all were stunned, heard louder than a gun, the sound they made was love,” on The Soft Bulletin’s A Spoonful Weighs A Ton, new LP opener Look… The Sun Is Rising opens anxiously: “Love is always something you should hear, when you really listen, fear is all you hear.” It feels like a hands-up submission to the abandonment of the otherworldly hope he once pursued. “I think the nature of Soft Bulletin and then Yoshimi and stuff, it almost hinted that there is always hope, there is always a way, there is always a light,” he posits, “and I think that can be an absolutely true way to think! But at the same time you have to accept that there are some things that are hopeless, that cannot be won.”
However there’s some comfort in this defeat, he reasons. “I think we would all love to think that at the peak of our suffering and hopelessness that we would just disappear or there would be no next day. But the next day always happens – and that’s great news! It’s just not that dramatic.” Indeed, part of The Terror’s message lies in finding a personal emotional oneness from which you can face up to life’s coil: “It’s rare that we feel the intense emotions of something like Do You Realize??,” says Coyne. “Most of life is ambivalent and it’s only going in one direction anyway, but if you’ve ever been stuck somewhere for even a second without air, you still suddenly think ‘oh my God, I just realised how much I liked breathing!’ Sometimes just getting through the day’s enough.” Coyne is ever contradictory, though, and his own personality, he admits, dictates a permanently fluctuating state between extreme high and low. It’s from the oppressive latter that he approaches this search for emotional grounding, asking on Be Free, Away, for instance, “Did God make pain so we can know the high that nothing is?”
“Early in my life I thought I got to pick my own personality,” he muses. “But then I realised that I don’t really get to pick it, I am living the personality that my DNA and all this shit’s given me, and it doesn’t allow me to live in the middle.” That’s something you could never accuse him of – where to start? Releasing 1997’s Zaireka on four CDs so that it had to be played simultaneously on four different sound systems? Playing Soft Bulletin shows through headphones to his audiences? Spending seven years developing low-budget movie Christmas On Mars in his back yard? He’s a vessel unfulfilled unless pre-occupied by the wacky, the zany, and taking on as much of it as possible. “I’m not saying it to be cooler or braver than you,” he responds, “It’s saying ‘this joy of life that I need to overwhelm me is scary, because the pain of living this way may overwhelm me too,’ it’s the risk that you take by committing to this way of life.”
The Terror was borne out of one such artistically intense endeavour, but it didn’t initially stem from Coyne himself. Around January last year the final batch of Heady Fwendz collaborative sessions were being put together; the rotation of musicians through the studio brought all the competing egos with them you’d expect, from Nick Cave to Yoko Ono, all as stubbornly committed to their creative ideals as Coyne, who had no doubt approached them in anticipation of the inevitable ideological clashes ahead – conflicts that, as Erykah Badu will attest to, he duly got. It became too much for Steven Drozd; the front man’s creative lieutenant had suffered a heroin relapse around the same time and, as he told Pitchfork in February, struggled to cope with the number of disparate ideas he kept having to re-configure his mind to meet. He moved to a studio adjacent to the Heady Fwendz hub and unwittingly began to put together the elements that would ultimately form The Terror.
Coyne’s insistence that “we never hold our music in any kind of reverence” is just one of a handful of quotes he feeds to The Skinny during our conversation that part-obscures the fierce pride he has in everything he puts his name to, a trait that runs against his fatalistic view that what the ’Lips create isn’t of their own doing, but something that comes to them pre-ordained. “It’s like owning a three-headed dinosaur,” he says in typically abstract fashion, “it’s not really ours but if we didn’t take it around and show everybody we’d be idiots.” As overly-critical as he claims to be over his music, though, he’s more than happy to go into plenty of gushing detail about his Jurassic pet’s attributes.
So despite claiming the Heady Fwendz sessions were a “great thing,” the finished album bore the marks of a rushed finish when it emerged last year – tracks were still being put down in late January with the release date slated for April. A coherent LP was never likely, but some of it felt throwaway in its nature, with ideas stretched out too thinly to meet their purpose; even its overseer admits that a combination of the people involved, the intensity of the timescale and overriding need for everything to actually sound good was taking its toll, and so stumbling in on his band mate’s own escape was a relief. “I think it was maybe a reaction to the Heady Fwendz stuff,” he moots, “where that was that direction and this direction, commanded by the people we were working with. It was the sheer relief of not having to deal with anybody else; we would go to the studio and make this kind of… masturbation music!”
As always with Wayne Coyne, there’s a slightly evasive contrast between the infectious enthusiasm that crackles across the phone line when he talks about his group’s music, to the bleak personal lyrical content and sonic moods contained within. “We only made this music in the fatigue of doing the other stuff, but it really started speaking to us and we thought ‘well maybe we can make a record!’” He says, as though having this almighty eureka moment. “It was sort of an accident, which is the best part of it! It made it so real; it was something we just allowed to happen.” It’s these happy accidents that drive the group, and have produced some of their greatest material – UK breakthrough 1999 single Race For The Prize, for example. “To find a release away from these concentrated Soft Bulletin sessions, we mucked around and ended up with this song,” he explains. “Being tired doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make art, it just means you make this art that speaks from that dimension. It’s amazing how much of our ‘weaker stuff’ has gone on to overwhelm the stuff we were focusing on.”
But how long can they keep overwhelming themselves? 2013 marks their 30th year together and The Terror does, on occasion, have a tone of finality. “Oh, not at all!” Coyne scorns, “We’re making this music that makes us feel so at one with the universe, it’s exactly what I want to say, the way I feel, how I want to sound right now… and knowing that makes you want to live forever!”