Flaming Lips Frontman Wayne Coyne Talks Dark Side of the Moon

Wayne Coyne
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[Photo by Amber Roussel; homepage photo by Doug Seymour]

“You know, I always worry about Paste.” These are the first words out of Wayne Coyne’s mouth. Before a question has even been asked, he is already expressing concern about the future of magazines and hoping Paste can weather the economic storm. That’s part of what’s so damn endearing about the man. He just returned from a tour of Europe, which began after months of battling through the press gauntlet to promote the Flaming Lips’ latest album of original material, Embryonic, and he is currently in the middle of yet another round of interviews, but the first thing he does is empathize.

Coyne’s everyman tendencies have been widely celebrated, but there is another part of his persona that isn’t discussed as often. Namely, his ridiculous work ethic. For proof, look no further than the Lips’ recent re-envisioning of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which they released digitally last Tuesday and performed at their annual New Year’s Eve bash. It might seem crazy to begin remaking one of the most famous and beloved albums of all time literally days after finishing an 18-song mass of new material, and even crazier to perform it in its entirety.

Ah, but that is the Flaming Lips. Paste caught up with Coyne pre-Dark Side-release and got his thoughts on the project as well as Paste’s #18 album of 2009.

Paste: Let’s talk about the remake you’re doing of Dark Side of the Moon.
Wayne Coyne: We’ve already kind of done it. I think it hangs in the balance now. I believe the remaining living members of Pink Floyd and their publishing company have to decide whether we’re able to put it out or not. I think they will.

Paste: So you recorded it without knowing whether or not you could release it?
Coyne: Well, there are so many recordings of Dark Side of the Moon out there, I just assume they will. I don’t think they care that much. We’ve only been stopped twice, really. We were stopped by Prince for recording “Purple Rain” a couple years back, and we were warned by Michael Jackson’s publishing people way back in the late-’80s about recording any of his stuff.

Paste: What made you pick Dark Side of the Moon?
Coyne: Embryonic was getting ready to come out; this is back right at the very end of September. We were doing The Colbert Report, and I was driving in a car over to the studio, I think. iTunes always thinks that a group like the Flaming Lips must have like 50 tracks just lying around that we’re not going to do anything with. They said, “We need seven or eight B-sides for Embryonic. Could you guys make a little iTunes exclusive EP?” I said, “Well, we don’t really have anything left over. Embryonic, for whatever it’s worth, is everything that we have.” And, I swear to God, I said this as a joke, because they wanted us and my nephew’s band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, to do something together. I said, “Well, why don’t we just record Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and put that out?” And I said it without really giving it any thought, just sort of like, “Well, that’d be cool, wouldn’t it?” About a week later, our manager Scott and iTunes came back and said, “We checked into that. We think that would be really cool. Why don’t you do that?”

In the meantime, I had given it a little bit of thought, like, “What would we do?” And I know Steven had some ideas about, mostly, how we would do “Money.” I guess “Money” is the big song that everybody would say, “Fuck, what do you do with that?” Once we had a couple of ways we could manage and re-do “Money” and not feel embarrassed about it, we thought some of the other stuff should be easy. We had a couple of free days right before the record came out, and we just went into the studio here. We called Henry Rollins; he was up for doing the strange little observer voices that are on there. I’m not sure he was that familiar with Pink Floyd. I know he knows of the Flaming Lips, and he knows that I’ve spoken about how much I respect Henry, and how much he’s a hero of mine. Whenever I get a chance to give him a shout out, I do, and I think this was his way of paying me back.

Paste: Did you try to be true to the original, or did you put your own spin on it?
Coyne: We tried to do something as unique as we could. You know, we’ve played Pink Floyd songs our whole life. Some of them are very resilient, too. You can almost do anything you want with them, and they still retain the sentiment, the ideas and the inertia that Pink Floyd put into it. The songs are just so well written and so well arranged. I think some of them are complete overhauls, where you’d listen to it and say, “I think I’ve heard this song before,” and then halfway through it, you’d go, “Oh, that’s that fuckin’ Pink Floyd song.” And then, there are others where you’ll recognize it as the Pink Floyd song a little sooner. But I think most of them are pretty good re-workings. With my nephew’s group, sometimes they wouldn’t know how far they could push it. I was like, “Fuck, go as crazy as you want.”

Paste: Let’s talk Embryonic for a second. I feel like it is your darkest album ever. In songs like “If” and “Evil” and a few others, I actually hear some pessimism, which isn’t something I’m used to hearing from the Flaming Lips. Am I wrong?
Coyne: I don’t know if it’s pessimism. I try to be realistic. As much as anybody would say that we’re optimistic, I always say we’re not even optimistic. I think we’re realistic. “Realistic” meaning that, yeah, we’re aware that pain and suffering, in the end, will defeat us. We can’t just overcome that because we have a good attitude, and I know that. A lot of things in life, you can change it just by your perception of what it is. But we’re not ever going to pretend that it’s all that way.

I just know from seeing my own friends and relatives die, and even my own pain and suffering, I know as much as I’m lucky and I’m energetic and all that, that’s all pretty diminished when you’re struggling with physical pain and stuff. It wasn’t that we weren’t aware of that with previous recordings, but I don’t think we’re always channeling the dimensions of our life. I think sometimes you just write dumb songs, and you don’t really know what they mean. But, I would say with Embryonic, there were definitely a couple of powerful moods that we stumbled upon that we secretly were like, “I like this, and I know it speaks to an aspect of the Flaming Lips that we don’t delve into a lot.” Once we stumbled upon these, we kept exploring this new weird area that I don’t think is devoid of optimism, but it is definitely a bleaker mood. But, in a sense, I don’t want people to think that I’ve changed. I think my outlook, if anything, is broader—that I can even see how pain and suffering, without that, we don’t get a glimpse into life. So, it’s almost like we have to be overwhelmed by some of that before we can see the wonder in everyday life. Again, it’s just a motherfucker.

Paste: I read that you wrote a bunch of traditional songs and then got rid of them in favor of the more experimental jams that ended up on the album. Did you scrap them all, or did some make the album?
Coyne: A couple of Steven’s did. I don’t think that any of mine, in the form that I had first done them, made it. But for me, my creations don’t have to be one way. I can see all this stuff, all this songwriting and all these things that you feel are little shapes of your life, they can easily go into anything. I mean, I can say for certain there was one song that ended up being a pretty good B-side—a song called “Just Above Love”—that we tried to make five different times. And every time we failed, it turned into yet another song. And those songs on the record are “I Can Be a Frog” and “Watching the Planets.” To say that that song failed and these other ones succeeded, you know, it’s all the same to me. I think I learned a long time ago that sometimes the best songs that you write, they happen in two minutes, and this one that you’ve been dreaming about for five years is just a pretentious bunch of nothing.

Paste: What will happen to the songs that got cut? Will they be on a new album or an EP?
Coyne: Oh, I don’t know. I think these types of ideas can swim in somebody’s mind their whole life. Most songs that we have on our records, I can’t remember how most of them happened, but I can remember what I thought was going to happen—the thing that I conceived of and dreamed of in my mind. Sometimes even when I watch Christmas on Mars now, I can know the things I thought I was going to do, but most of the movie is made up of these great little accidents I had no idea were going to happen. And that’s most of everything that we do. We’re intending to make it, but we know we can’t really make it on purpose. I think all art and all music is really done the same way; I just don’t think most people realize it. They just want to tell you a bunch of bullshit about how creative they are.