Wayne Coyne on covering the Beatles and hanging with Miley
In the three decades since Oklahoma psych-rock icons the Flaming Lips formed, they’ve made no secret of their love for twee, trippy antics. They’re particularly infamous for their over-the-top live shows, in which they perform in Martian or animal costumes and shower the audience with confetti while singer Wayne Coyne rolls over the crowd in a giant plastic bubble.
The Lips are fond of experimentation offstage as well, recording not just 13 studio albums but a slew of limited-edition releases and collaborations, including 2010’s song-for-song cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and a 2011 EP that was stored on a flash drive inside a gummy human skull. They’ve also dabbled in film, with projects like the bonkers 2008 holiday film Christmas on Mars and an inscrutable, NSFW five-minute short film, released earlier this year, called “Blonde SuperFreak Steals the Magic Brain.” In it, Miley Cyrus smokes a joint, a nude woman is sprayed with glitter, and Coyne sings from within a massive cardboard rainbow.
The Lips’ latest effort is With a Little Help From My Fwends, an all-star reworking of the 1967 Beatles masterwork Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it features guest appearances from pals like Moby, Tegan and Sara, My Morning Jacket, and, of course, Miley. It’s slated for an Oct. 28th release, and proceeds will go to an animal-rescue organization.
EW talked with Coyne, who was at home (with his six dogs and four cats) in Oklahoma City, about the origin of Fwends, rowdy nights in the studio, and more.
EW: How you first get started making With a Little Help From My Fwends?
Wayne Coyne: It was really an accident. I mean, it’s no surprise or anything that we love the Beatles, but we were doing a New Year’s Eve show last year, and we attempted to do five or six Beatles songs. The standout moment was “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” We rehearse in my studio, so sometimes if we’re doing something we think is kind of good, we’ll go ahead and record it at the same time. So we were playing “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” during our set, and people were liking it. And later, I had this afternoon/night in the studio with Miley Cyrus, and it was one of the things we talked about trying. It turned out really great, and we did a little bit of the part of the other Sgt. Pepper’s song “A Day in the Life.” And when people heard it, they were like, “This is stellar! We’ve gotta do something with this.” That made us think, “Well, are we gonna continue on and make this?” And we did “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on the Billboard Awards with Miley, which set it a little bit more in motion. In between those two things, we talked to a couple of people, like My Morning Jacket, who were like, “Yeah, this would be fun, let’s do it.” So it kind of got rolling accidentally, and once Miley Cyrus got involved, we said, “Let’s make it a whole thing.” So that’s the kind-of-accidental way we got into it.
So you started with “Lucy” and ended up covering the whole album, basically.
We do cover albums with our friends, and even though people know about them, they’re not things you can buy. We did The Dark Side of the Moon, the Pink Floyd record, in 2009. Doing the music is fun, but the boring part is dealing with all the managers, and the legal stuff, and the publishing, and all the stuff you have to deal with when you deal with other groups. Especially with a group as big as Pink Floyd. The same is true when you deal with the Beatles and their publishing people. You know, there’s an element of these records where we just do them, and we give them to our friends, and they’re not a “thing” that’s out there in the world. Whereas this one started off like something that was fun, and then jumped up to that next level. Everything’s been worked out, and it’s here, and it’s really going to happen.
How did you and Miley first meet?
Well, we had been aware that she was a Flaming Lips fan even when, as we say now, “she was just Hannah Montana.” When someone as popular as a Hannah Montana puts on her Twitter that she likes one of your songs, suddenly 50 people text you out of the blue, saying, “Did you see that she likes you?!” That happened four or five years ago. And then I think she was aware that we were liking her last year, the one that was probably the Year of Miley Cyrus. All the things that we would see and read about her, I always liked. I just thought she was f—ing absurd. I loved it. I could tell that she was in that zone where she doesn’t give a f—, which to me is the most powerful thing you can do—to not give a f—.
So she tweeted me on my birthday [this year], and said I was one of her favorite artists of all time. And again, you get 100 people in 20 minutes going, “Did you see that?!” And I tweeted her right back and said, “Cool, give me a text!” and she texted me, and I texted her, and now we’re here. It would be hard to think that we could be so much alike, but if you’re around her for five minutes, you’re like, “Oh, I totally get it.” I think that there are a lot of people out there that don’t want to think that she’s smart, and creative, and all that. They wanna think that she’s a fake. She’s just absolutely a blast to be around. So all the things we’ve done together, we’ve just done because it’s fun.
The day that we recorded up in Tulsa, about 100 miles away from where I live, we spent the night—we were all up until about 6 o’clock in the morning, and I think [bandmate] Steven [Drozd] and I got up around 10 to go to the studio and get some stuff ready. She showed up a couple of hours later, and it was just another day of doing things. We sort of kept partying. The engineers and everyone worked really hard. But she didn’t show up with handlers and managers and stuff—it was just her and a friend. And we got some tattoos together. She got very stoned a couple of times. I don’t really get stoned. But it was fun, and we got down to biz and did the music, and worked hard on it, and it was very easy. It was like, we’re not pretending that we’re doing something. We’re doing exactly what we wanna do.
Well that makes sense, given that Paul McCartney said Sgt. Pepper’s was partially inspired by he and the Beatles getting into smoking pot.
I never really liked pot that much. I keep thinking as I get older that it’s going to work for me. But when people say that [Sgt. Pepper’s] was the record where they got into acid or smoking pot, what we mean is that people were willing to try s—. They were willing to try out different clothes, different haircuts, different foods, different drugs, different women, different ideas. So I think that’s what we learned. It isn’t just, “Oh, they took a bunch of drugs.” Their minds were open to try things, and they used themselves to experiment on, and go, “Let’s see what happens.”
Is Sgt. Pepper’s your personal favorite Beatles album?
You know, I’m going to be 54 years old, and when we were growing up, my brothers and my older sister absolutely loved the Beatles. So in my life, it’s probably been my favorite a couple of times already. And now I don’t really think in those terms—it’s music that’s so embedded in my subconscious and in my life. It’s not my ultimate favorite, but after doing this, it might be my favorite for a little while. There are some things we would discover, little nuances about the lyrics and the songs that things you, just casually listening, never notice. But once you go in there, and analyze songs, and try to understand how the album got the way it got, it’s really fascinating. It’s like being able to see how a painter did a painting. That’s the same thing with music. You think it’s one way, but once you get in there, you can see these implied or impressionistic things, and you realize it’s completely different from what you think it’d be. It’s fascinating. It’s so rich.
It’s definitely the most “whimsical” Beatles album, but hearing your interpretations made me see the lyrics through a different lens—they have more depth than I remembered.
Yeah, these songs are not for everybody. And you know, Miley Cyrus is only 21, so it’s not like she’s saying, “Wow, this is my favorite record of all time.” It’s a cool record, but it’s not something that’s ingrained in her DNA, like it is for me. For me, even singing the lyrics made me realize, “Oh, I was thinking the phrasing was one way, but it’s something different.” I mean, really, that song, “A Day in the Life,” that has the Paul McCartney thing in the middle—it’s always been a fascinating song anyway, and there were things that we discovered about it that made it more fascinating, and more creative, and more of a mystery, and more genius. We’ve always made our own recordings; we have producers with us, but we’re making the recordings. And the Beatles are one of the most documented groups out there. So for people that are interested in recording, there’s a lot of stuff you can find out about how they recorded as well. But that wasn’t why we did it. Like I said, it kind of happened by accident. You get in there, and it’s like, “Wow, this s— is even cooler than we first thought!”
Which Sgt. Pepper’s songs were the most in the demand—the ones all the bands wanted to cover?
“She’s Leaving Home”—the bands gave us two or three versions of that. We ended up using everything that people had given us, even if it was just a little bit. Really to me, that’s where the real joy of being the [scary voice] dictator who gets to do exactly what he wants is—getting to play with all this great music. And I think most of [the bands] are probably like, “Ah, do whatever you want. It’ll be fun.” Artists can be so precious about their stuff—I know I can be—so that’s a big deal to say, “Give this to me and I’ll play with it and hope it turns out good for you.” And I think most of them were satisfied.
It’s tough—any time you go into territory like Pink Floyd or the Beatles, there’s a certain fan out there who’ll say, “How dare you? How dare you touch this sacred music?” like you’ve gone over and killed their grandmother or something. I try to remind them, for a group like the Beatles, they’d probably say, “Listen to this music. It’s going to make you want to have fun and do drugs and create things.” I think most people would feel the way we do, that you can’t help but want to do something. For most musicians, to use all of today’s technology and say, “Hey, do you want to re-do Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?” most musicians I know would say, “F—, that sounds like a lot of fun!”
Why did you choose an animal charity, the Bella Foundation, to receive the proceeds from this album?
The overpopulated inner city where I live is in such horrible shape—there are so many dogs and cats destroyed every day that there are probably 10 organizations that are working just as hard as [the Bella Foundation]. The vet that I’ve gone to for the past 15 years recommended them. I said, “Which one do you think has the best ideas, and which one do you think I could help the most?” And she suggested them—they’re all volunteers, and they’re all about adoption. They’re at the shelters every day, trying to get the dogs that are in there into homes.
A lot of lazy and ignorant people who have dogs just don’t know how to take care of them. I don’t know why, but Oklahoma City, of all the places I’ve visited, is absolutely the worst place I’ve ever seen. Probably about 10 years ago, Coldplay came into town to play a show, and I went and visited. And Chris Martin and I took a ride around Oklahoma City, because he’s always interested in [British accent] “How did the Flaming Lips become the Flaming Lips?” We passed the first bar where I played, and some of the places where I shot our movie and stuff. And it was the end of the summer, and as we drove around, there would be a dead dog in the street. He’d never seen one, and he was like, “What happened there?” I said, “Well, there’s a lot of stray animals here and people will hit them and they’ll just die in the street.” And we went on, and saw yet another one. And he was like, “What’s going on here?” I guess it never occurred to me that this is not acceptable. And then we saw a third one.
I think during the summer, there’s more people driving around fast, and the animals are getting run over. Since then, I’ve been aware of the fact that, “Wow, this is weird.” It’s not just abuse—it’s neglect and overpopulation. It’s people don’t f—in’ care. But I think if we dedicate some brains and some money, we’ll find a way, maybe in five years, to fix it. I think I have six dogs right now, and a couple of stray cats. And they’re all just animals we found on the street.
The powers that be would probably have liked to see Miley perform one of her hits at this year’s Billboard Awards. But instead, she performed “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” with you, surrounded by confetti cannons. Was there any pressure to go a different direction?
I know what the “powers that be” are—it’s Miley. So when they approached her, she was like, “You know, I don’t really want to do your show. I don’t like it, and I don’t need it. But I’ll do it, if I can do it my way.” And they’re like, “Anything you want to do, you can do.” And she called me and said, “I don’t really want to do this show, but I think if you guys do it with me, we could have a lot of fun.” So I go, “Um, okay, sure!”
The powers that be are her. It’s not anybody else. And if they said, “Well, we don’t want you, because you’re not going to do a hit,” It would be their loss anyway. And when you’re around her, that power… you don’t even think about that. She could be whatever way she wanted to be, and to do something as cool as that…. We’ve done quite a few of these types of TV shows, and there’s a lot of artists involved who want to be like, “My s—‘s more important than yours,” but when you’re there with her, she’s just wonderful.
We did that show in Manchester at one of her big concerts, and it was awesome. People absolutely loved it and they love her. And if you’ve ever been to one of her shows, you’ll know—it’s not fake. When people get to see her, and touch her, and know that she’s paying attention to them, it changes their lives. I can’t even tell you—you just have to see it. It’s real:
Seeing you on stage together, everything made sense. After all, both of you are boundary-pushing weirdos with an affinity for nudity.
I think the nudity goes into one of those categories again where we just don’t give a f—. Miley will be the first one to be naked, and say, “Oh sorry, my butt was out.” When you have to change clothes at photoshoots, you either care or you don’t, and after a while, you’re like, “I don’t really care.” A lot of it is just that. It’s like, we want people to know we’re doing what we want, and no one is restricting us. If someone’s running around naked, it’s because we don’t care.
What are some of the potential hazards of performing in a tinsel cape?
I think in the beginning, I would flail around, and the tinsel would get caught in the microphone and the cables. I’d be thinking, “I’ve got it under control!” And then it would slap the microphone to the ground, or something like that. Little by little, I’ve gotten around that, after 20 or 30 shows. I think the benefits far outweigh the hazards.
What are your Halloween plans?
I think we’re doing a big weirdo show at our psychedelic gallery in downtown Oklahoma City, with Steven’s group that I’m part of, called the Electric Würms. It should be a pretty crazy party for about 400 people crammed into our gallery. We’re advising that everybody should either dress as a “drug-crazed demon from space,” or a “butterfly that has come down from a UFO.” You can pick.
Well, it’s nice that you’re giving people options.
It’s great to have a theme, because otherwise you’re running around going, “Well, should I be a devil or a Snickers bar?” And it’s like, “No, you’ve got to be a demon from space.” We’re focusing their creative urges.
The Flaming Lips