The Flaming Lips: Phonetically Vivid Phrases
by Ryan Reed on February 28, 2017
The Flaming Lips have crafted unhinged psych-rock epics about giraffes, lush electro-pop anthems about robotic battles and jokey folk ditties about fiber-optic Jesuses. They’ve sculpted headphone majesty using technology, both vintage (traditional rock gear) and modern (Pro Tools, computer programming). And they’ve issued their work on formats like vinyl, gummy fetuses, multiple CDs intended to be played simultaneously and hard drives encased in human skulls. For Wayne Coyne, the Oklahoma City band’s co-founder, frontman and lyrical visionary, each project needs an artistic center—a predominant instrument or lyrical theme to spark their imagination and further their evolution.
“I can almost tell you, record by record, what new instrument we got and why it made us say, ‘We need to make music this way,’” he says. “Sean Lennon gave us this little, plastic vintage synthesizer. We kept making music on this thing, and that ended up becoming [2013’s] The Terror. For a little while, we couldn’t make a song without using this fucking thing. We were just addicted to it. The sound of it made us make music a certain way.”
With the Lips’ 15th official LP, the mind-altering Oczy Mlody, the band burrowed even deeper into the synthetic realm. While they’ve never operated as a “traditional” rock band in any sense, and though they’ve been experimenting with synths and electronics since the late-‘90s, their new songs are defined by these elements—from the autotuned, industrial grind of “Do Glowy” to the shimmering title-track, an instrumental that conjures Tangerine Dream producing Rihanna. With its pummeling sub-bass and eerie keyboard drones, Oczy Mlody feels as informed by hip-hop as classic prog. (Fittingly, in a press release, Coyne described the album as a hybrid of A$AP Rocky and Syd Barrett.)
The singer traces that beat-heavy vibe directly to an ear-blasting subwoofer that he had installed in his home recording studio. And though many hardcore fans are enraged by Coyne’s friendship with a former Disney child star, the band was coaxed further down that path by freak-pop collaborator Miley Cyrus, for whom they produced the 2015 LP Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.
“Being around Miley, you end up hearing a lot of music, and a lot of it was rap,” Coyne says, noting his fascination with hip-hop king (and fellow Dead Petz producer) Mike WiLL Made-It. “Little by little, we’d say, ‘Wow, let’s add more bassy shit in our songs!’ The subwoofer thing really affected us. A lot of times in our previous records, we would pile on a lot of frequencies, but they wouldn’t be so defined. But the more we played with it, the more we liked this dynamic, low, fat distortion with this very synthetic stuff on top of it. Then we’d hear hip-hop and go, ‘Ahh, fuck, that’s how they got that! That’s how we got that!’ It just opened up a whole new world to us.”
While the Cyrus/subwoofer tandem edged the Lips in a new direction, they found more crucial inspiration in an unlikely spot: a used bookstore. The day before a concert in Baltimore, Coyne stumbled on a trippy-looking, Danish-language paperback, Erskine Caldwell’s 1962 novel Blisko Domu. Compelled by its magnetic cover image— a woman’s tear-soaked face— and encouraged by its dollar price tag, he bought the book on a whim and kept it in his studio. Flipping through the pages between sessions, he discovered phonetically vivid Polish phrases that meant both nothing and everything at once: “Oczy Mlody,” which translates to “Eyes of the Young,” sounded like a variation of “Oxycodone Melody,” a druggy image that sparked a nerve in the musician.
(The hallucinogenic “There Should Be Unicorns” brings that image to life: Over pulsing drum machines and an Indian synth drone, Coyne sings of a decadent, futuristic party, full of “day-glo strippers” and ketchup-covered butterflie . “We’re way beyond Learjets and mansions. We have our own planet; we can create our own sunrises,” says multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, joking that the singer has been “hanging out with Miley Cyrus too much.”)
“When you’re searching for that thing, you don’t know what’s going to spark it,” Coyne says. “And you don’t know that when it sparks, if it’ll continue to work. But once you give something a title, it starts to become more set in a mood and tone and identity. When we discovered this phrase, ‘Oczy Mlody,’ it kind of became nonsensical and full of meaning all at the same time. It could be whatever you want it to be, and calling the song that [name] started us on a new way of looking at things. It just sort of spoke to us—it gave us a confidence and energy to say, ‘This is really working.’ Instead of just having music floating a sound, sometimes you stumble on a combination of things—a new way of seeing the world. It’s like a new mind. A lot of times, Steven and I will be watching a movie, and we’ll say, ‘I’m watching this with my new mind.’ Maybe it is a movie you’ve seen five other times, but it’s like, ‘Let’s see what it means to me now.’”
“Sometimes it’s the title of the project or some art that Wayne’s working on,” Drozd adds. “I remember with [2006’s] At War With the Mystics, I saw his painting that ended up becoming the cover of the album. The record wasn’t done, or even half-done. When I saw that painting, it was like, ‘I kinda get what this is gonna be now.’ When he came up with the title for [2002’s] Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, all those songs seemed to fit in this same space. Once we knew the album was called Oczy Mlody, and as I saw the images he was working on from the album cover, it all fell together. ‘What we’re doing now—this is the vibe of the record.’ It becomes easier in a weird way. It gives you this push over the cliff to finish it ”
With Oczy Mlody, the Lips are officially no longer “rock band” in the traditional sense—both in sound and their approach to songcraft. Only two of the album’s 12 tracks feature an acoustic drum kit, with guitars employed only for occasional texture. Coyne attributes much of this shift to working alongside Mike WiLL Made-It and Cyrus on the Dead Petz album, which altered his perspective on sound.
“They never looked at their music as being drummers and guitar players and stuff,” he says. “We’re so used to working as a group: You’re the drummer; you’re the bass player; I’m the singer. That’s how a lot of groups like to work. We don’t really work like that, but we still find ourselves thinking like that sometimes. Making music with Miley finally helped us break free of that. It’s not drums and it’s not guitar—it’s not anything. It doesn’t matter. It’s just sounds. They can be anything you want them to be. It’s like colors in a painting: If you want the sky to be purple, it can be purple. If you want the grass to be blue, it can be blue. The world can be whatever you want to make it.”
Drozd echoes that point, emphasizing the band members’ equally amorphous roles. While he joined the Lips in 1991 as a drummer, beefing up albums like Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic with his syncopated, post-Bonham grooves, he quickly developed into their not-so-secret sonic weapon, adding a more refined, symphonic prog-rock touch with his keyboard and guitar work. Coyne has never been threatened by Drozd’s multi-faceted skills—he’s even encouraged his bandmate to sing more on their albums.
“Wayne doesn’t feel like he needs to be the singer or the guitar player or anything,” Drozd says. “He just wants it to be cool. On this new record, I’m doing a lot of the singing— probably even more than The Terror. The ego is never involved with us.”
Coyne and David Fridmann, the Lips’ longtime producer, took the reins on exploring hiphop influence , tweaking drum samples and programming beats with Ableton Live. It was an unexpected—but natural— shift for Drozd.
“The idea of just sitting and playing a regular drum beat nowadays just seems kinda dull,” he says. “If I sit down and play a regular rock beat, I’m bored within 30 seconds. I’m glad there are people who are good at doing that. On this album, we built the songs from the beats in some cases.”
They took the opposite approach with the dewy-eyed ballad “We a Family,” which features a guest vocal from Cyrus. Drozd originally composed the track at home, working on its candy-coated structure for six months before showing it to the band. While he envisioned the song as a more “traditional pop song,” Coyne and Fridmann added a gritty edge with skittering snares and rumbling synth-bass.
For Drozd, Oczy Mlody is the culmination of a “wild” trilogy, following The Terror— which worked through difficult themes such as Coyne’s divorce and Drozd’s brief drug relapse—and 2009 double-LP Embryonic, contrasting with the “pop songwriting” of their late-1990s/early 2000s work. But with its celestial melodies and dense, 3-D production, the album strikes the same cathartic nerve as classics like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi.
Throughout, Coyne blends fantastical, fairy tale imagery (“One Night While Wizard Hunting”) with poignant reflections on death an human nature. For melancholy centerpiece “Sunrise,” he tapped into the pain of a local Oklahoma family, whose mother died suddenly.
“Some of the kids are quite young,” he says. “It was very intense, and there was a lot of attention toward them—but after a couple weeks, life truly does go on. And I remember the youngest girl saying, ‘How can the world just keep turning now, like nothing ever happened?’ It was yet another version of that despair, like, ‘I can’t just go back to school like nothing ever happened. My whole world is different now.’ But it’s true: Life does go on, even if you don’t want it to. I think that’s what songs do. Songs say that little thing that words and all that can’t say. It’s such a deep level. I think that’s why Steven and I love those type of songs; they hint at something that nothing else in the world can do. Only music can speak about that. And if you feel things deeply, you want music to do that. It’s a great relief to know, ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’”
On “The Castle,” inspired by a friend’s suicide and the deceptively deep lyrics to Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” Coyne uses a decaying physical castle as a metaphor for heartbreak.
“I wasn’t even thinking I needed to write a song, to tell you the truth,” he says. “But the studio emptied out a bit early one night—around midnight, as opposed to around 2 a.m. I was thinking about this woman that we know and her sister. Sometimes with songs, something sad has happened but somehow, within the song, you say, ‘everything’s going to be alright.’ But this doesn’t do that. When I sing, ‘The castle can never be rebuilt again,’ that really works for me. I didn’t have any other lyrics at the time, but I knew the woman that ended up killing herself was all about dragons and fairy tales. That setting was very much in my mind. There was a painting I’d seen that a couple did down at the gallery, and part of it looked like a castle—kind of a drippy, fairy tale, desolate castle. Like it would crumble, this magic place, and it couldn’t be put back together. And that helped me say that to myself—to sort of confront the impossible sadness that this can’t be fi ed. I think part of this was the idea that it’s a very funny little song, but as you got closer and closer, the sadness would reveal itself. It wouldn’t be apparently sad but, somewhere along the way, it would reveal itself.”
Oczy Mlody, like The Flaming Lips’ most revered albums, combines all these qualities: It’s simultaneously funny and sad, deep and superficial, sophisticated and accessible. But it’s most essential asset, as Drozd notes, is its vitality: “If you hear this record, you don’t think, ‘This is a band who’s been around for 30 years doing the same thing over again.’”