Skip to main content

Remaking the Beatles

An interview with Wayne Coyne about the Flaming Lips' With a Little Help From My Fwends—and his band’s obsession with Miley Cyrus.
The Flaming Lips performs at The Roundhouse in London. (Photo: ROY J BARON/Shutterstock)

The Flaming Lips performs at The Roundhouse in London. (Photo: ROY J BARON/Shutterstock)

The Flaming Lips have always exuded something of a 1967 vibe—the psilocybin, the sonic experimentation (ever outrageous and utterly earnest—remember Zaireeka?), the rhetoric and antics onstage that make every concert feel like some kind of be-in. Frontman Wayne Coyne maintains a sparkly demeanor toward his fans, who, to take Coyne at face value, are just The Grooviest.

The Lips, America's most committed psychedelic outfit still touring, have also been keen to retool the music of their prog-rock forebears and have released full-album covers (or perhaps embellishments) of such classics as King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. On those records, the Lips' approach was less gilding the lily than dousing the poor bloom in day-glo paint. The effect was occasionally revelation, more often a kind of aural overload.

The road to excess has led Coyne and co. to the palace of the Beatles, and to 1967. With a Little Help From My Fwends is the Lips' salute to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's also a guest-house of an album, including personnel you might expect (My Morning Jacket, Grace Potter, Dr. Dog) and some you might not—the latter bloc includes Phantogram, Moby, and (twice!) Miley Cyrus, who has more or less emerged as the band's new best friend.

"A tattoo is nothing; putting out a song that I may have to live with for 30 years, that has a lot more stress for me than getting some ink on your foot."

Fwends is full of second-hand joy: You can enjoy the Lips following their own peculiar bliss on “Fixing a Hole,” but the chief joy of the disc is sensing just how much fun the Lips had curating the thing. In Web-speak, Fwends is an exercise in aggregation. Often the guests recorded separately from the Lips, after which the band would take the un-mastered tracks and layer them blithely, one on top of another, until the listener realizes that MMJ and Fever the Ghost are actually playing the opening track in different keys. Here, as in so many other moments, concept and zeal outstrip the merits of the resulting track. Still, even at its most cacophonous, the music fizzes and pops with happy surprises—here a perfect drum-break, there a welcome Moog riff, plus brilliant vocal flips from Tegan and Sara on “Lovely Rita.”

I reached Coyne by phone (he was tooling around Oklahoma City in his car, “a private little mobile office, and really the only place my fucking iPhone 6 charger works”) to discuss John vs. Paul, the pleasures of slaying sacred cows, and the Flaming Lips' ongoing projects (and general obsession) with Miley Cyrus.

The last time I saw you guys was South by Southwest in 2013 when you were debuting The Terror, which you had never performed before ... and I think you were wearing a baby squid?

Yes! We had this new light show and we were trying to get it right—that light show is now on the ceiling—so I was holding this baby doll and these lights together, and I think it gave me kind of a character that I could be in, to sing the entirety of that new record. That's the first time we've done a new record all the way through, music we didn't really know as performed music. I think for a lot of groups it's the other way around—but we happen to be a group that records and then goes out and performs.

Like the Beatles.

Right. That was a pretty scary endeavor, but SXSW is like that. You can't just go to SXSW and just do your thing.

Do you remember the first time you heard Sgt. Pepper?

My older brothers and older sister knew absolutely everything the Beatles were doing. I was seven years old and they were young teenagers, and, for me, well, that was a good gap to be in. My siblings looked and talked the way [the Beatles] did, they took drugs, and the first thing I remember listening to is “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But Sgt. Pepper to me is an even more direct subconscious trigger. The first few months when I was first listening to it, there was one side of the speaker system that didn't work, and on most of our music my siblings couldn't tell because so many records were mono. And on a song like “A Day in the Life,” where Lennon's voice comes in and out of the mix, I could only hear the left speaker. It was amazing: How did he do that? That was part of the appeal for me, that mystery. Listening to it as an adult, it's funny, it almost doesn't measure up, because his voice isn't drifting in and out; it's drifting side to side. As a child I'd heard this supreme otherwordly sound—and it was all an accident.

You guys record constantly through rehearsals. What did you lay down today?

Today we're recording a cover of Donovan's “Atlantis”; it'll probably take about three or four days. And I know that sounds embarrassing.

Why embarrassing?

Because we're talking about doing Beatles music, and here we are doing Donovan! But it's just because you happen to be talking to me on a day when we're doing another old British song by another old British guy.

It's pretty clear that you really, really enjoy working with Miley Cyrus. What's going on there?

Well, we're thinking together about further projects, as much as we can—making music with her, whether it's our music or Miley Cyrus music or maybe something new for us both. We don't really have much of an idea of what it's supposed to be. When you're around her, she's such a fucking great singer, and she sings very much in the range I sing in—I can sing very high for a dude and she can sing very low for a young gal—so some songs we do almost together, we have a slightly different tone in different directions. She's very inspiring. When you get to do music, someone else's personality, it just frees you, you don't even think of being yourself any more, and it makes you more creative and crazy and more free. You totally see why actors want to have a character, and that's what it's like working with Miley. You can do things on someone else's music that you can't do on your own.

It was crazy how much we could open up to each other and try things with each other. And we spent a couple of days making videos but she was still out on her long tour which went on for a year and we were playing concerts all summer, and I've been to her house and she has a little studio set up and she can send us music from there and start recording —we're holding a party there pretty soon! What good artists need is fucking morale.

And you've also been, um, getting lots of tattoos lately with Kesha and Miley.

Well, Kesha has a tattoo set up at her house—we met at her house and got drunk and all got tattoos. Kesha is pretty forceful in that way. Miley is tattooed all over, and we went to her brother's house and we all got drunk and stayed overnight and got tattoos. And the last ones we got, it was the same thing: We met at someone's house after the Conan O'Brien show and the guy at the house was an artist and we said, fuck it, let's get some more tattoos. Never anything fucking huge, like a spider on your back or something. Just these little fun things: “I don't care if we regret this.”

You're given these friendships, these moments, your entire life. And I think it's in everything we do. In our music, and Miley's—your music says much more about you than anything on your body. A tattoo is nothing; putting out a song that I may have to live with for 30 years, that has a lot more stress for me than getting some ink on your foot.