Interview: The Flaming Lips

Ryan Reed

By Ryan Reed

on 10.01.13 in Interviews

The Terror

The Flaming Lips

[To celebrate the release of his 11th studio album, Innocents, we invited Moby to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. You can read our exclusive interview with him here, and also see his 10 favorite albums on eMusic. Moby asked us to interview Cold Specks as part of his takeover — you can read that here — and we also resurrected this interview with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, who sings on Innocents. — Ed.]

The Flaming Lips have never shied away from life’s unavoidable existential dramas — Death, Love, Depression, The Afterlife (or lack thereof). But The Lips have never made “depressing” music: Steven Drozd, the band’s multi-instrumentalist and chief sonic architect, has a flair for melodic, rainbow-hued arrangements, and Wayne Coyne, their outsized frontman, plays the role of psychedelic jester, particularly on stage, where he crowd-surfs on inflatable bubbles, pours fake blood on his face, and preaches his deep ruminations to a cult-like fan-base in his cracked warble.

The Terror, the band’s 13th studio album, is a bleak — often morbid — change of pace, filled with repetitive synthesizer textures, ghostly choral voices, and dark lyrical mantras. Inspired by a dread of mortality and deep personal turmoil (Coyne’s recent divorce, Drozd’s brief heroin relapse), the duo recorded the album mostly alone, working quickly and spontaneously instead of layering the songs with overdubs. Ryan Reed spoke with Wayne Coyne about the album’s intimate recording process and complicated themes.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Steven Drozd said: “The Terror is this internal feeling you get that you and everyone you love is going to die. Everything in your life might be good, but there’s still this notion…that there’s more pain and suffering to come down the road.” It’s interesting to compare that quote to “Do You Realize,” which basically says the same thing but puts it in a beautiful, uplifting sense.

I think that’s what optimism is, in the end. You go, “We can’t bear this,” or you go, “We’ll find a way.” Sometimes music tells us so much about how we feel, and I think that’s why we like music so much — because it fills in. We utterly know what it means while it’s playing, but the minute it stops, it’s like, “I don’t know anymore.” I don’t think one way of thinking has to negate another way of thinking. I’m certainly not “Do You Realize.”

It’s a dramatic song, and I think it’s most powerful when it’s used at these dramatic moments. Most people I’ve talked to that have used it have done so at weddings and funerals, even the birth of their children. They see it as the sound of this big moment, where this other sound — this sound that we’re doing on The Terror — it’s this moment that’s with you all the time. It feels depressing and triumphant at the same time. A triumph isn’t “Hey, this is the greatest thing! We’re gonna live!” A triumph is saying, “We’ll just get through this.” We don’t have to make it any more sparkly than that.

When I read about the album’s dark themes, I expected the music to be depressing. And it is in a way, but there’s also a comfort in the sadness. There’s a bleakness to it, but it’s also really beautiful at the same time.

When we were making it, a lot of it reminded us of church music. We don’t go to church now, but when you were young, you’d sit there and try your best, not knowing what the fucking words were, to sing along with these simple mantras that people would sing in church. And it wouldn’t be about a singular singer. I think that’s what a lot of this music feels like as well. It’s not coming from a point of “I’m the singer.” I call it “the voices from beyond.” There are only a couple of songs in which you can hear me trying to sound like to sound like me. It’s just melody and words that are in the cloud of the sound of the song anyway. For me, it’s not meant to be this big statement by this big character.

So from what I’ve read in other interviews, Steven’s dark period was what really set the tone for the album. But I also know you were going through some heavy shit during that time. What was it for you that sparked this mood and the idea of The Terror?

We’ve always hinted at this type of music. But the main difference is: Even five or six years ago, if we were having a semi-big production going on, like some of these songs are, with drums and overdubs and a lot of voices being recorded — in the early stages of a lot of our records, we start early on with really primitive demos. But now we don’t do that anymore. A lot of times we’re just recording, and we’re not really doing a demo of a song. We’re just creating it right there. There isn’t gonna be a second version or a third version — it just is what we create.

And now we can do that without anybody being there. So you really are, in a sense, kind of a painter in a dark corner, painting whatever you want and not always thinking anybody has to see it. It used to be, no matter what we would do, we were surrounded by people who were helping us record — engineers, technicians and producers, and everybody is in there listening to everything you do, and sometimes openly judging us, sometimes not. But you’re not doing it in isolation of your own creation, and I think that’s the main difference.

I think we’ve always been able to do expressionistic, internal music, but it’s very hard to do that sometimes. In the past, we’ve never been alone making it. When you get musicians together, they want to do music. They want to say, “You play that, and I’ll play this.” This wasn’t music like that. It’s simple, repetitive…a lot of it’s even out of tune and out of rhythm with itself — it just happens to be something we liked. If Steven liked it, and I liked it, that’s all that mattered. We don’t care if it’s good or bad. If we’re happy with it, let’s go. So I think that’s really powerful and great luck — this kind of music that we’re drawn to is this cold, distant, unsettled thing.

I’m really curious how you guys were able to sustain this mood throughout the album. Is it a situation where you guys started to capture this mood so you noticed that pattern and said, “Let’s shape the record in this way”? Or did a lot of it just happen subconsciously?

That’s a narrow path to walk. Part of it is you want to stay in this color palette. Not to simplify it, but you have Picasso’s Blue Period, or whatever, they’re all reaching for the same thing. But that can also be limiting because you can start cutting off possibilities, and we don’t like to do that either because sometimes you think, “Oh, it couldn’t possibly be this,” but then you hear it and you say, “Well, it’s absolutely that.”

We really struggled with the song, “Butterfly…How Long it Takes to Die.” We struggled with that one in the beginning, because it felt too snappy. It’s well played, but I think it’s the only song on the record that has this little moment of funk in it. With Embryonic, we were doing that all over the place — being very clumsy and funky and primitive. And this wasn’t doing that. For whatever reason, we were on another trip. And when we were confronted with that song, we thought, “What do we do?” And we just rejected it for the longest time. And I didn’t think about [the lyrics] very much, I just said cosmic shit that you think of with the music. Then we re-looked at it, and we thought, “Why don’t we make it more like what the lyrics are talking about and see if we can make another version of this bleak, un-chromatic landscape.” I think it works — over the last three or four songs, you really feel like you’re no longer looking for the answer. To me, it sort of feels like you’ve found the answer. And sometimes with really distinct rhythms, that’s kind of what it’s saying. You know which path you’re on. Earlier in the record, we begin with a rhythm that isn’t very solid, but kind of dissolves into almost-rhythmless rhythms. They’re rhythms, but they don’t really push forward with a lot of confidence, and none of it rushes ahead. And by the end of the album, we kind of get something back. We know something different. That’s how it feels to me — I don’t know if it really is true, but that’s how it feels to me as a piece of music.

“Try to Explain” is absolutely beautiful, and it epitomizes everything I love about the album. That could be one of my favorite Lips melodies.

It does that thing we talked about, almost being a “voice from beyond.” It never seemed as though it was a singular person singing it. Even though I’m singing it, it’s almost like music that’s always existed, and someone sang it somewhere in time. And I think when we do music like that, where there is no character involved, it allows you to be vulnerable and say things that you probably wouldn’t say if you were being you. You wouldn’t say something so crushing. When that big crescendo of all those harmony voices break into that line, “Try to explain why you’ve changed,” it’s unbearable. It’s as though nature has been split open or something — that’s why I sang that line. It just sounded like that to me. That crescendo really was an accident; we stumbled upon these harmonies just willy-nilly. Steven did one or two, and I did a third one or something, and it really became emotional. We added the lyrics — the music always carried the message, but we just added the lyrics like, “Of course, this is what the music was saying.”

The song is just enough sad, and it’s just enough powerful, but it doesn’t last very long. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do in music because you want to do it again and again and make it bigger — but if you leave just below the hottest temperature, it’s almost like you can have it forever, because you can handle it. The temptation with dumb artists and musicians like us is that you want to go all the way. If it’s big, make it bigger; if it’s loud, make it louder. But if you’re lucky, you don’t do that. When that happens, it can be pretty powerful.

I think the biggest anguish and pain people have is when they can’t find the answer. Your mind can’t stop searching, and it keeps you looking and keeps you wondering. And that’s really where your psychic pain is: Knowing the answer may be painful, but I think your imagination is something your worst enemy. Your mind sometimes goes to the worst possible place, and before you know it, you’re living in some unlivable hell. Most people I’ve talked to, without knowing it, have all pointed to that song and said, “I know what you’re talking about there. I can relate to that. There’s something about that piercing thing.” It’ s not demanding an answer — it’s longing for one. It’s crying out for something, saying, “I just wanna know!” It’s powerful, but I don’t know if I have any answers. Sometimes I know I’m singing something that’s trying to channel your subconscious. That’s a hokey thing to say, but for me, it’s not always, “There’s this thing happening in your life, so you sing about it.” Sometimes it’s just there.