ONE OF the surefire musical highlights of GIAF 2018 is The Flaming Lips’ gig in the Heineken Big Top on Thursday July 26. Freewheeling, prolific, and endlessly inventive, the band remain as full of zip and ideas today as when they started out more than 30 years ago.
The past few months have seen the Lips revisit their extensive back catalogue, with the release of Greatest Hits, Volume 1, as well as two releases that remaster their earliest recordings; Scratching the Door and Seeing the Unseeable. Ahead of their Galway visit, band leader Wayne Coyne chatted with me about their music and I began by asking whether these recent albums have led him to reconsider those formative songs.
“Some of the music, when it is so old, you can have a hard time fitting it in to the person you are now; I’d be thinking ‘Who is this? Oh yeah, that’s us!’” he replies. “And then some of it, like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, has always been with us. Sometimes these songs are so popular you’re never really away from them. Also, a lot of our music, like The Soft Bulletin, we made when we were in our late thirties and anything that happens to you after you’re 35 just feels like a couple of years ago. I was listening through Greatest Hits last night and I definitely see the thread going through it of our enthusiasm just to embrace a million ideas at one time and fit them all in.”
The group’s last studio set was 2017’s Oczy Mlody which fused childlike, fairytale magic with adult anxieties. “I like that description,” he states. “When the music is too whimsical or ‘fairytale-ish’ it doesn’t really have a connection to you and I like it to be connected. If you are an adult and have responsibilities then it is perfectly acceptable to have some anxiety here and there. With The Flaming Lips, even when we get ‘fantastical’, it's still rooted in something we are really feeling or struggling with, but that whimsical flavour is definitely a fun, imaginative, freak element that makes for great evocative storylines.
"It’s part of what The Flaming Lips are; if we’re singing about UFOs and wizards, it’s like from a fairytale but also from the future. It has nothing to do with our actual reality other than, as you say, the internal optimism or anxiety. That is a good description; with Oczy Mlody there were definitely moments we hit upon, like ‘Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes’ and ‘One Night While Hunting for Fairies...’ that felt really great and ‘The Castle’ has fairytale imagery but it’s also a sad song.”
The Lips’ colourful CV includes full-set reworkings of Dark Side Of The Moon and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the latter disc titled With A Little Help From My Fwends ). Coyne explains how these came about; “We have our own studio and when groups come through we’re always like ‘Let’s go down to the studio’. It’s a lot easier and more casual to play a Beatles or Pink Floyd track while we’re all sitting around. The Pink Floyd record was only intended to be like a B-side when our Embryonic album was released. Then it became popular so Warner Brothers issued it.
'We have a record we’re putting together for an art installation. The installation is shaped like a big head and you fall inside its giant mouth, you’re crawling inside it and you lay inside this insane 3D light show and accompanying it is Flaming Lips' music'
"It was the same with Sergeant Pepper; that was another convenient thing to do while we were working with other artists. We’d done ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ with Sean Lennon on The David Letterman Show. Not long afterwards we ran into Miley Cyrus and we had that track and got her to sing it, and when everyone heard her take they were blown away. To give her credit, it’s no easy feat to do a John Lennon song and make it your own. Paul McCartney’s songs are like anybody can do them and it’s still a great song, but John’s songs are kind of tricky; when you take John out of the song you’re missing not just his great singing, but something in his character that is difficult to replace. When we did ‘Lucy’ with Miley we all liked it and that’s what prompted us to do the other Pepper tracks with other people and we released it as a charity record.”
The Miley Cyrus connection led to The Flaming Lips working with her on Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, appearing on over half of that 2015 album’s tracks. “We just hit Miley at the right time where she was thinking ‘I’m itching to make another weird record’ and we were in that same sort of zone,” Coyne explains. “We were open, as we always are, to see where this experience could take us. We may do another album together sometime. We see Miley all the time and she’s great friends with my girlfriend Katie so there are those deeper connections that keep her in my world as opposed to just music.”
'We try to play music that we know the audience is expecting to hear. Occasionally we throw in something obscure or weird'
What other projects do the band have cooking at the moment? “We always have two or three things going; it’s like if you went into a painter’s studio there’d be a lot of things going on,” Coyne tells me. “We have a record we’re putting together for an art installation called The King’s Mouth we’ve been working on for about four years now. The installation is shaped like a big head and you fall inside its giant mouth, you’re crawling inside it and you lay inside this insane 3D light show and accompanying it is Flaming Lips' music in big bombastic stereo. That record is almost finished; we have Mick Jones from The Clash doing the narration and it is just stunning.
"There’s a lot of great stuff on it but I don’t know yet in what capacity it is going to be released. I think it’ll be connected to the installation which will be travelling around the world so we’re just starting negotiations as to how this will get out to the public, so you can hear the songs without having to visit the installation. We’ve started work on another Flaming Lips' album as well and that’s going along great.”
Finally, Coyne, who has been a warmly engaging interviewee, wraps up with a preview of what Galway audiences can expect from The Flaming Lips’ Big Top gig; “We try to play music that we know the audience is expecting to hear. Occasionally we throw in something obscure or weird but only if we feel like it’s got good entertainment value; like last night was the first time we had played ‘The Captain’ which is a track we originally intended for Zaireeka and it was spectacular. It’s very dynamic and not overly long and it fit in well with the flow of all the other stuff we were playing. If you come to the show we want to give you what you’ve come for and we’ll fit in a little weird thing here and there. We pick the songs we know will connect and try not to screw them up!”