Wayne Coyne’s freaky musical vision is always gazing forward. Three decades ago, The Flaming Lips were experimental noise-punks; these days, they’re psychedelic gods unafraid to indulge their weirdest whims—from EPs encased in gummy fetuses to recording an album with pop radio’s resident troublemaker, Miley Cyrus.
But even as Coyne and company continue their freewheeling trek into the unknown, they’ve paused—if briefly—to survey the past. The recently released Heady Nuggs: 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic, a reissue of that underrated 1995 classic, showcases The Lips at their peak as a full-blown psych-rock band: with Coyne’s druggy tales of morality (“Evil Will Prevail”), existential wonder (“Placebo Headwound”) and fruit-weapons (“Kim’s Watermelon Gun”) enriched by the thunder of Michael Ivan’s bass, the carnivalesque sweetness of Ronald Jones’ guitar and the drum kit assault/assorted sonic wizardry of Steven Drozd.
Coyne spoke with Paste about the Lips’ past and present—including his memories of that transitional Clouds line-up, his emotional growth as a songwriter and the surprising differences between touring with Cyrus and Beck.
: The Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz tour has been an epic spectacle. I’m curious what it’s been like functioning as a backing band, especially for you, since you’re used to being the sole frontman. Now you’ve been serving more of a supporting role on-stage. Has that been liberating?
Wayne Coyne: When you see The Flaming Lips perform, I imagine I do look like the guy who’s just singing. But everything else that’s going on—I’m not the director, but the band has allowed me and wants me to be the one pushing into dynamic stuff. What are the lights going to be, and what’s the dynamic of the songs and stuff? And what I remember when I’m up there is, “Oh, yeah, I’m the singer, too,” when I’m with The Flaming Lips.
It’s not like Miley doesn’t want to be the leader, but we’ve sort of set it up where I’m saying, “We can do this. We’ll make all this stuff work. I’ll be the guy who’s directing even the day-to-day way that we’re setting up the stage and stuff.” When you’re in the middle of the whole thing, it really isn’t very much different. And a lot of times I’m singing with Miley—not that the audience can hear, but we’re singing together. That’s a good question. I never think much about being the center of attention. Especially with The Flaming Lips—it’s very much about our songs, and I’m lucky to be “the guy” there in the middle of it all. In most ways, it’s not very different at all. Luckily, the audience isn’t there to see me—they’re there to see her. It’s all set up so that she’s the center of the attention. It’s all about her singing and her presence.
: The Flaming Lips served as Beck’s backing band during his 2002 tour, and you’ve made some interesting comments in the past about that being a strange experience. Have you noticed any similarities between touring with Beck and Miley?
Coyne: That’s a good question, too. I don’t think many people were able to be journalists back then, in 2002. That’s a long time ago. It’s strange. In the time we were with him, I got the feeling he was having a little personality adjustment. I think he was trying to be…I’m not sure how he was before we worked with him, but he was a bit estranged from the whole experience. He would show up and want all this Hollywood-ish treatment—the way you’d think Miley would do. Miley is like, in your mind, how you’d think of Beck. I’m speaking only about the time we were with him, so other people might have a different experience. But when we were with him, he was very much what you’d think Miley Cyrus would be, and Miley is very much what you’d think Beck would be. It is very funny because Miley’s there non-stop all the time, doing things, doing things, doing things.
A lot of these are our songs, too—the Dead Petz record is songs that we’ve written and done in a collaborative way. We’re not playing much from her back catalog. That’s a little bit different than playing with Beck [on tour], which was just Beck’s music. It’s a little bit of a strange, ironic [thing]. We did it with Beck, did it with Richard Davies. It’s something we’re about.
: Obviously the writing structure changed significantly when Steven joined the band for 1993’s Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, but can you recall what the overall process was like on Clouds? Were you and Steven both bringing in seeds of ideas and then fleshing them out together?
Coyne: I don’t think it’s changed that much from what it’s ever been. Transmissions From the Satellite Heart—it was mostly my writing, and a lot of those with Steven in the writing part and Ronald in the playing part. Maybe half the songs would have been ones that he started on and I finished off.
With Clouds, it was pretty much moving in that same way. I don’t have as much of a memory—Steven has a much better memory. But the beginning track, “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” was based on a riff we played together in the studio, just jamming, and we turned it into a song. I would play the riff, and he’d play drums, and he’d arrive at a series of chords that would work underneath this repetitive riff. Since then, we’ve done that on probably five or six songs where I play a simple, Wayne-ish line and he embellishes it underneath it. That instrumental thing on The Soft Bulletin [“Sleeping on the Roof”] has the same type of motif. I had this little figure, but I don’t have all the nuance of the chords. And that’s what I think really makes The Flaming Lips so unique and so special and so otherworldly—those little nuances. I think that’s Steven’s forte. He’s a great writer, but he’s able to take my simple things and add these other dimensions. And his stuff could need a bit more brute charm, so we offer each other this push.
: I know you’re an atheist or at least not religious in the traditional sense, but you often use a vague “god” in your lyrics, to represent this existential search for something bigger. On “Placebo Headwound,” you sing, “If God hears all my questions, how come there’s never an answer?” In that song, were you writing in character or was that idea of a god something you wrestled with at the time?
Coyne: Those are things that I’d say I’m not that proud of. We’d have a longing to try to have our own version of what we think we mean and what people in general mean by “god.” I think we’d all agree on the stupid rules that get attached to religion and all that: “God hates fags” and repulsive shit like that. But there’s something in there that we decided to call god that is real and is something we can’t explain. But in the way we make our music, it always shows that I’m really not as mean as I want to be. I always think I’m calling someone out, but in the end, I’m just asking a question.
I think that’s one of the great, great things about our older records. We would go into it and not have a certain way that we feel about something, but you’re singing the lyrics—some story about your mind and your life. That’s mostly what I would try to sing about—it’s really an abstraction that just happens to be words. After that, I felt I could be just more real and more emotional and more about me. On Clouds Taste Metallic, I was kind of singing from a viewpoint. even though I think it’s about me, I wasn’t willing to say, “This is just about me.” And after that, lyrically, I wouldn’t say it was better, but it changed into something that felt more about my real emotional life. And I think the music went that way as well, with The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
I do kind of regret [some of those early lyrics], but you have to make a fool of yourself. That’s all you can do, you know? Saying those things is a way of saying, “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I think that’s a great quality of music. None of us are overly confident, yet we go ahead with what we believe anyway. When I think of what The Flaming Lips are, it’s all about making art and pushing ahead in our lives when we don’t know really what we’re doing. I think that shows sometimes in the songs, and that’s a great thing. It’s a great, vulnerable thing.
: Obviously Steven and Ronald were still the new guys on the block on Clouds, and Ronald left the band after its release. These were two brilliant players with very unique styles: Did you sense that there was some competition between the two of them, that they were fighting for space in the songs?
Coyne: If anybody in the world, in the universe, was a fan of Ronald’s playing and understood it as a musician, it was Steven. Steven understood it more than I think even Ronald did. Ronald was utterly gifted and crazy, and Steven would be the one encouraging him to go the way it went. The things that Ronald would play, Steven would play something that would accompany it, as opposed to saying, “Let’s use my thing instead of his.” It was never a competition. Ronald would play a lot of stuff, and we wouldn’t use it all in the songs. Steven had a lot of stuff, as well, but we’d always be in amazement with the stuff Ronald would come up with. We’d sometimes say, “That’s amazing, but it doesn’t work in this song.”
Steven was and still is Ronald’s greatest fan and greatest encourager. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. Towards the end of Clouds Taste Metallic, we didn’t know he was going to leave the band, but there were definitely days where we’d do a lot of work when he wasn’t there. We would have a sense of, “He’s going to be leaving sometime soon. He’s not here.” It was a strange dynamic, but that wasn’t why he left. He was struggling with his own reasons of [figuring out] why he wanted to be in music and be out in public. He’s a pretty intensive, introverted guy, and he didn’t want to have to be an extroverted entertainer. Steven and I just accepted that as part of it—things you do that are ridiculous and you just laugh at it. But that part, Ronald didn’t like, and you could see it was a struggle for him.