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A Quietus Interview

"We Had To Remake Ourselves": Wayne Coyne Discusses The Soft Bulletin
Stewart Smith , June 22nd, 2011 09:24

Ahead of their Don't Look Back ATP show on July 1, Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne tells Stewart Smith all about the making of their classic LP The Soft Bulletin - including comparisons with Mercury Rev, the impact of his father's death and Steven Drozd's heroin addiction

"It's a great, explosive, strange time to be in the Flaming Lips for sure," says Wayne Coyne over the phone from Barcelona, where the band are gearing up to perform at the Primavera Sound festival. 2011 has seen a flurry of activity from the Lips camp, following their pledge to release a song a month. The first fruit of this was 'Two Blobs Fucking', a piece in twelve parts which seeks to do for the iPhone what 1997's Zaireeka did for boomboxes. Since then we have had a 12" collaborative EP with Neon Indian, and the Gummy Song Skull: a life-sized jelly skull containing a flash drive with new tracks on it. Clearly enamoured of the possibilities of shaped candy, Coyne has announced on his always entertaining Twitter feed that there will be two more gummy releases: a foetus and a vagina. An EP with Prefuse 73 is the latest transmission from the Lips' satellite heart, and tantalising collaborations with Nick Cave and Lighting Bolt are reportedly in the works. All this furthers the experiments of 2009's Embryonic, which saw the Lips adopt a looser, jam-based approach. The results so far have been rather splendid, ranging from heavy psychedelic freakouts to wah-wah laced cosmo-jazz. Seeing where these experiments take the band in the long term should be interesting.

All this visionary madness is paralleled with some more retrospective projects. And in our time-out-of-joint era, why not? Last year the band recorded their own surprisingly effective take on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and a new version, which incorporates elements of The Wizard Of Oz soundtrack, is being toured this summer. Befitting such a cosmically inclined show, the British leg takes place at Jodrell Bank Observatory. The Dark Side shows are alternated with performances of the Lips's 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, including an ATP Don't Look Back extravaganza at London's Alexandra Palace on July 1 that also sees Deerhoof and Dinosaur Jr performing two of their own classic albums.

At a time when the Lips are reinventing themselves, it makes sense to revisit The Soft Bulletin, which was itself the result of a radical shift in the way the band made records. With its symphonic sound, thunderous beats and aching melodies The Soft Bulletin was quite unlike anything this writer had heard back in 1999. I will never forget seeing the band supporting Mercury Rev in Aberdeen that year, as they unleashed this remarkable new material on an unsuspecting audience. Here was a handsomely bearded fellow dressed in a navy pea coat, fake blood dripping from his head, banging a gong while his two wingmen conjured a dizzying swirl of orchestration from guitars, keyboards and gadgets. The video screen spewed out a heady collage of home movies and found footage: queasy surgical footage would cut into shots of solar flares, while musical crescendos were accompanied by a clip of Leonard Bernstein feverishly conducting his orchestra. Later on, during Mercury Rev's set, the fire alarm went off and the building was evacuated, resulting in the band chatting to fans in the square outside. "I remember that, it was a great show!" says Wayne.

The Soft Bulletin has often been spoken of as the culmination of everything you'd you'd done up to that point. Do you see it that way?

Wayne Coyne: Not really. It seems that these things are very well worked out, but you can't know [how a record is going to turn out]. At the time it seemed that quite a bit of it was a hodgepodge. Here's a song, here's another song. Only towards the very end [did] we start to feel [that] we had a real cohesive thing. We started to understand the themes to our songs. There were a couple of songs that I think changed everything. Once we had 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate', and I think it was 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed', and 'What Is The Light/The Observer', it really seemed to signify for us: here's the theme, here's how we're gonna work this.

The biggest shift in direction was that we no longer had Ronald [Jones], our guitar player. Just trying to not make loud guitar music for a little while. It wasn't that we were sick of it, we just thought that there were a lot of other things we could do, so we just did that. That was the biggest reason we took such a radical change of sound.

The arrangements are very rich and detailed. Recording the album must have been a painstakingly arduous process...

WC: Yeah. Sometimes that's the kind of production that we would get into. We didn't necessary know where it was going, we just liked the idea of layering and that type of orchestration. We had done a couple of songs early on where we thought instead of trying to orchestrate a bunch of different noises - which we had done, even back on Clouds Taste Metallic, where it's not really orchestration it's just about different sounds – we thought, let's try and really orchestrate. And Steven [Drozd] is really great at that, he has a great sense of harmony and counterpoint - all these different things that really give it that giant Wagner kind of drama. We'd listen to big symphonic pieces and think, how can we get this type of giant arrangement?

This was the first record on which we used Pro Tools. We hadn't even done Zaireeka on Pro Tools! At the beginning we weren't sure if we liked it, but by the end it was all we were doing. It was easy – well, I wouldn't say easy, but you wouldn't notice it as much. You could have easily done a couple of hundred tracks and not really thought about it much. It gets to be a headache for the engineers. But [Lips producer] Dave Fridmann is very encouraging, fucking trying anything he can. There are tracks like 'The Spark That Bled' that goes from this giant, strange orchestral thing, and then there's passages where we're just using synthesisers and drums, then there's these giant vocal tracks that Steven would layer up. On a single song there are endless amounts of tracks.

Then there's a couple of songs with big, elaborate, lush freakouts that we didn't even use, we just thought it was all too much. Some of them ended up being pretty simple. 'Sleeping On The Roof' – it's a piano and one synthesiser line. A lot of it was us trying to push towards this theme and this mood, and not make a record that just went all over the place. You could put it on in a certain mood and it would work every time. You're talking to me in Barcelona, Spain, and I remember we put on Miles Davis's Sketches Of Spain a lot back then, just so there would be a mood. I think we were trying to get a record of our own that had a particular emotional mood to it.

Some people have read The Soft Bulletin as a concept album, extrapolating a narrative from the songs. Maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but there are certainly the recurring themes of love and death, which are often connected to scientific exploration...

WC: I don't think there's any made up concept. I think the concept, mostly for me, is this idea that in people's lives, there's a certain point... I mean like sensitive people - not to be superior about it, I just mean for me being an artist and people I know who are into arts - there is a dilemma: how much of our world do we want to understand? You want to find out everything about your world and how it works, but you reach a point in your life where you discover a lot of pain, a lot of horrible things about the world. To me that's what The Soft Bulletin is about. We know the world is wonderful. We also know it's horrible. What can we do now?

Do you think that philosophical approach reflects events in your life at the time, such as the death of your father?

WC: Yeah, completely. It isn't solely about the idea that my father had died, but I had worried about what a death in the family would do to us. And I don't just mean to me, but to my whole family. I'd worried about that since I was probably 10 years old. And I think that once it happened it was devastating, but it wasn't devastating in the way that I thought it was gonna be when I was 10. There was all this stuff that I was not really trying to sing about, but it gets to this horrible centre of your subconscious mind and it seems that the only thing you can do is talk about it, think about it and look at it. So this stuff was in my mind. But it wasn't all bad, it opened up the door to another dimension of joy and pain and suffering and wondering.

It's still very optimistic, but in a different way. The childish glee is taken away and replaced by a resilience. We wanted to try to see that our lives could be epic. I don't mean overtly epic, but that we can see things with our lives that have this marvel about it. And in our music we try to sing about these things. 'The sound they made was love' [from 'A Spoonful Weighs a Ton'] - it sounds like it would just be an epic statement.

My favourite song on the album is 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate', which I've personally found to be very comforting at times of bereavement. It taps into universal themes of love and death, and puts our lives into a wider cosmic perspective. It's sad, but uplifting too, with Steven's guitar solo at the end pushing the track to an emotional peak.

WC: A lot of people have said the same thing. Even though it's [emotionally] heavy, The Soft Bulletin is gentle. It's not trying to force everything through loudness and power. So many songs have this mood, they build and they build and they finally take you over the edge of what you want to to know. I agree that 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate' is one of those songs. I don't even like to sing it that much sometimes, because it's too powerful, it's too much for me to think about. I'll remember what I was thinking at the the time I came up with it. But I would agree, there's a way that it works that's just wow.

But a lot of that is down to luck. You don't know how a song is going to work, and sometimes you mess with them and they lead you in another direction. So that's just very lucky. I don't think we were really any more skilled doing The Soft Bulletin than at any other time, we just got lucky three or four times in a row. So the sound in 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate', the sound of these voices in the background, they're run through a really long delay. And actually there was an accident with this delay, this random time, where it just lined up perfectly. And it would give the illusion that we really understood these magical arrangements. But we didn't. We were taking risks all the time, seeing what would happen... a magical development you can't control. As much as the things we were doing were about control, arranging, dictating, most of the great things that happened were things we didn't really have control over. They were accidents.

'The Spiderbite Song' tells of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd being bitten by a poisonous spider and bassist Michael Ivins being in a road accident, and your worries that these incidents might lead to the break up of the band. Steven's heroin addiction surely also loomed over the making of the album?

WC: When we were doing The Soft Bulletin I don't think we were aware of how deep into the heroin he was. By the end of it... I guess it just obliterated everything else out of your mind; you think this could be the last time you make music together because he could die of heroin. Sometimes that was all you could think about. But it wouldn't force us to sing only about that. You're really just trying to make music in the moment, you're not trying to make music that's going to last for the next 100 years. So you really just make the music that's at your fingertips. But there were times I remember where we wondered how we would ever make another record if it got worse than it did. And it did, it got as bad as it could be, and we made most of the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots record while Steven was on heroin. It went through those seven years. And not all of it was bad. But I don't know how much you can really say it plays into the music. Certainly there's a lot of stuff on Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots that reflected this desperation, 'cos [we'd think] Steven as our friend, as a musician, a person that we love: is he still gonna be around when we finish this record? But there a lot of groups that go through things like that, and I wouldn't say their music was improved by it at all. Luckily ours was.

Dave Fridmann was very much in demand as a producer at the time. There was Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs of course, as well as Mogwai's Come On Die Young. How aware were you of his other projects and did they influence you at all?

WC: We were all aware of that. As we were making Zaireeka and beginning Soft Bulletin, we'd listen to the Deserter's Songs stuff as well. We were all making the same kind of trip at the same time, especially Jonathan [Donahue, of Mercury Rev, and formerly Flaming Lips]. I think with Dave's involvement, you can't underestimate how much his intensity, his pushing along [mattered]. Those records, I don't think that we could have made them without him, technically, and on a psychological level we would have been afraid to do it. He would give you the sense that you could try anything. He's a wonderful person. He's very intense, but he's very caring. And I think by then we all knew that we'd already been together for 10 years. So I don't think we could have made the record if we didn't have someone like Dave Fridmann who would stick with us.

Deserter's Songs and The Soft Bulletin have often been compared. Sonically, it might be said that they both offer their own visions of cosmic Americana. And of course the Lips and the Rev have an interconnected history via Jonathan Donahue and Dave Fridmann. Would it be fair to say there was a sense of competition between the bands, a friendly rivalry?

WC: I wouldn't say competition. What happened with Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin was us just doing our own trip, and I think the same thing was happening with Mercury Rev. For us, we probably felt that, well, [The Soft Bulletin] is probably going to be the last record that we make. Our contract with Warner Brothers had already been going for a long time, and we weren't selling very many records. There were a lot of things that were signalling that this could be the end of the road for us. And I guess that was the way we'd been going. We'd found a way to make music, but I think at that time, we were making records that cost quite a bit of money, and we spent a lot of time making records. I mean, The Soft Bulletin took three years. And you can't do that without some money. I think for us, we weren't sure anybody was gonna care about this record, no matter what we do. So it gave us a freedom. And in the beginning I don't think anybody really liked it. I remember the very first things that we played for people... I think people heard 'Race For The Prize', and they thought, 'Oh it's kinda weird and it doesn't have any heavy guitars on it'. [And I said] 'I know, but it's what we want to do'.

We had heard some of Deserter's Songs, but not all of it while we were making The Soft Bulletin. It came out in '98 and our record came out in '99. It wasn't although they were a long time apart. We started to work on The Soft Bulletin in '97, so there were times when we would go in [to the studio] right after them, or they would come in right after us, and we were all exploring the same new gadgets together. They were starting to work in Protools at the same time we were. And whatever instruments, whatever new gadgets, between us, Mercury Rev and Dave... which ever band would get them, the next group into the studio would use them too. If Dave had just had some breakthrough moment he'd recorded with us, when Mercury Rev would come in he would say 'Hey motherfuckers, we've got to do this, this is cool'. And the same thing would happen with us. So I think the connection is Dave Fridmann, and also this lack of really believing there would be an audience for this record. I think Mercury Rev felt the same way. Their audience had gone away, and all they could do was make the music that was in their dreams. And I think that's the way music should be made anyway.

Why try to calculate what your audience want? We were free. To me it was exhilararating. There was a lot of gloom and doom, insecurity and anxiety, and all types of self doubt going into that record, [but] we were at last free, we really knew that we were doing some music for ourselves and no-one from the record company was going to come in and say 'do this and do that'. We made a giant stride in the way that we thought we could arrange songs. We could have these emotional crescendos, moods. We felt that we'd done something. But only because it was an accumulation of all these accidents and lucky moments. It wasn't because finally we were so great that we could make great records.

You toured with Mercury Rev in 1999, just as The Soft Bulletin was being released.

WC: We were extremely lucky that Jonathan wanted us to go on tour with them then, because they were just starting to reach the peak of their Deserter's Songs time, playing these bigger venues and having this great audience. And they invited us to go with them. At the time we thought, playing Mercury Rev, yeah it'll be fun. But then I realised that their audience is going to hear us doing these songs, and because we were on tour with them we started to get all this attention. People were comparing The Soft Bulletin to Deserter's Songs and really, that year it became the next thing. I think without Deserter's Songs being so significant, The Soft Bulletin would probably have not been followed too much. But since it was put in the same vein, people became very interested in us. With that show, we were doing a really dramatic thing, we didn't have a drummer then, we were using video, showing you these images. And us standing there, trying to embrace this new character that we'd become, by doing The Soft Bulletin. I think in some ways just as The Who became different characters after they did Tommy, we definitely became these characters that do The Soft Bulletin. I think that's who we even are now. In the way that Roger Daltrey became Tommy, I became that guy who could sing The Soft Bulletin. Previous to The Soft Bulletin, I didn't ever feel comfortable just standing there singing songs about death. Previous to that we'd hold guitars and freakout. After The Soft Bulletin I could do this different thing. We would still do a bunch of crazy shit, but it's me singing these words and thinking that's where the power lies. The words that I was siging were leading every other thing that was happening.

At the beginning we thought of The Soft Bulletin as being one of those Beach Boys Smile records: we'd never have to play it live. But the minute we got invited to do these shows it was like, fuck, what do we do now? And I think that's where the real creation comes. I do think making records, album covers is being creative, but the real creation is you. We had to remake ourselves.

A big part of those original shows was your theatrical gong playing. Will the gong be making a come back on this tour?

WC: Yeah. It's not the same gong. You'd be surprised at how quickly gongs get bashed in half. I'm getting a new one. When you play that giant gong, it's this epic thing. Of all the things you can play, [I've chosen] this big round golden gong, and I've got to stand there and hit it with some majestic purpose as if lazer beams are going to shoot out of it.

Have you rearranged the songs or are you staying faithful to the album versions?

WC: I would say honestly, that I don't know how good they are. We play it in [the original] order. We don't just jump around. For people who know and love the record I think this way of doing it it comes as a great relief. I'm always looking for that very powerful dynamic that says this is a song, this is a performance. We want it to be intense. We don't just want to stand there and play the music and sing the words. For me, something like 'Buggin' which is a little bit difficult, we tried different versions to try and make it big and heavy or do it very light, and I don't know if it works that well. We've only done it twice now so let's see how it works out. I think 'The Spiderbite Song' is a really a fragile, nice little song. I feel compelled to tell the story [of that song], and that helps it along. I think something like 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed', we tried different arrangements, wondering whether to keep it this big thing. But some of it we feel like we're not the masters, the song is the master. When we came up with 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed' it wasn't even a song, it was bits of things that once we put them together, it had this great, simple powerful melancholy story. It wasn't even our doing. Sometimes we feel like it's us messing with the perfect chemistry. We're not really the ones [who are] allowed to mess with it, so we just simply do the song and don't question it. This is the way people have heard it, and this is the way they want to hear it, so a lot of the songs, we just defer to that. All we could do is ruin it if we try to make it better.

That said, we do a bigger arrangement on 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate' - we slow things down at the end, and we do a bigger guitar solo, where Steven really takes the song to a crushing emotional level. Here I am picking and choosing which songs we get to fuck with. Some of them we fuck with a lot, some of them we're scared to fuck with, how about I say that? [laughs]

Revisiting the album, how do you feel about it? Is it one of your favourites?

WC: Yeah. The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, those are the cornerstones of our identity. If we didn't have a song like 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate' people could come and see us play and go, 'Oh, it's that silly band who dress up and walk inside a space bubble, I've seen that'. I think because of these recordings – I'd pick Yoshimi..., I'd pick The Soft Bulletin, I'd pick Embryonic – we're able to be the band we are now. I feel like we have this powerful, humanistic, simple thing of our own creation. And that gives you the confidence to go out and play every show the way we do now, where we have balloons and confetti and 50ft tall naked women jumping around. It gives you a freedom to say everything you want to say. So I don't think we think about it very much, because we know how we could have fucked up The Soft Bulletin, but we also know how hard we worked, and we also know how lucky we got. You can only attach so much responsibility to why people are drawn to it. And those people that are drawn to it will stick on another meaning, like you said with 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate'. And you don't just go out and forget them. We don't think 'oh boy, we've played this song 300 times on this tour, I don't care about it anymore'. We care. These songs are so much a part of us that they affect us when we play them.