Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne is one of modern music’s most important purveyors of psychedelia. In 2014, the 56-year-old recruited Miley Cyrus, My Morning Jacket, Moby, and more for With a Little Help From My Fwends, a full album covering the Beatles’ beloved masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Naturally, EW wanted to connect with Coyne as the source material celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.
Coyne has a predictably eccentric story about how he fell in love with Sgt. Pepper’s. When EW reaches him by phone in his native Oklahoma City, he recounts how, like many kids born in the early ’60s, he was introduced to the band by his older siblings. “All the while I’m growing up, the Beatles are beginning to happen,” he explains. His brothers, who are five and eight years older than him, were “the prime age to be Beatles fanatics” and showed him the ropes.
But from there, things got weird — and that’s where Sgt. Pepper’s comes in.
Coyne says his family likely didn’t come into possession of the album until ’68 or ’69, and that even when they did, the listening experience was unusual. “For the longest time, the stereo system in one of my older brother’s bedrooms wasn’t working right,” Coyne recalls. “One side of the stereo didn’t actually work. Most of the things they would play, you couldn’t really tell. But Sgt. Pepper’s, what’s playing in the left side of the stereo and what’s playing in the right side of the stereo, this quite changes the feel of the song if you don’t hear both of them together!”
For “probably six months [that] seemed like forever,” Coyne obliviously listened to the stereo mix in this flawed fashion before he heard it properly at a friend’s house. “What record is this?!” he remembers thinking. “It was just an utterly different, bizarre experience. I had sort of fallen in love with the other version.”
And Coyne — who has embarked on aural experiments like the 1997 Flaming Lips album Zaireeka, meant to be played back on four separate speakers — took tremendous inspiration from the oddities he perceived in his skewed Sgt. Pepper’s listenings. “I fell in love with the strangeness,” he says, recalling how John Lennon’s voice would drift in and out as it panned to a nonfunctioning speaker. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, the voice can drift in and out of a song. If the Beatles do that, it must be something cool.’ Then realizing, later, ‘No, they didn’t really do that, they were just drifting from side-to-side and you’re supposed to have both sides going!'”
Coyne has since rectified his listening situation and continues to praise Sgt. Pepper’s and its cultural significance a half-century after its release. “[The Sgt. Pepper’s] identity can be reinterpreted every 10 years and it still works — there will probably never be a time where it doesn’t work,” he says. “I don’t think people even associate it now with the ’60s. Beatles music has become Beatles music. It’s all already done and made. That probably makes it even more appealing, that it’s not locked into a certain time or age group.”
But, like most Beatlesmaniacs, the allure of Sgt. Pepper’s comes back to the songs for Coyne. “They are really, really great songs,” he says. “You can just sing along with them. You can wonder at their meaning. There’s a lot to know about the way they did things. All those things make it better and better.”
For more about Sgt. Pepper’s, purchase PEOPLE’s new collector’s edition The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper at 50!