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A Quietus Interview

A Battlefield Of Anxieties: The Flaming Lips Interviewed
Daniel Ross , March 25th, 2013 08:38

Daniel Ross catches up with Wayne Coyne to grill him about The Terror

"You sit right there, I'm going to the bathroom." Wayne Coyne is going to the bathroom. The first thing I can hear on my interview recording is Wayne Coyne urinating next door. Experiences don't really come less cosmic than this, but hey, you can't expect him to keep it up all the time. And with that in mind, The Flaming Lips' new album, The Terror, is more cosmic, involving and deeply affecting than they've ever done as a band. The sound is like walking across a rug piled with spikes, wading down a slope into a sea of white paint… one thing it is not, though, is glitter cannons, novelty prosthetics and balloons falling from the ceiling of the Hammersmith Apollo.

The Terror is an existential grab-bag of paranoia and worry. It's designed to be a test. Like Melville's Moby-Dick (Coyne has not read Moby-Dick but he reckons he could read 40 pages "in one shit"), the joy of the thing is in recognising its wormy, intricate difficulty and celebrating the indulgent folly of creating it in the first place. The crowd at Bestival this year are going to have a pretty tough time, by the sound of it. Coyne, suited and sitting in a mock-Elizabethan chair in his Farringdon hotel room, is more than happy to wring out every cosmic detail, and explain why the band that recorded The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is nothing like the band that recorded The Terror.

First things first - is there any hope on the record?

Wayne Coyne: Well… yeah. I don't think we actually sing about hope per se. I think the idea that you're even able to speak about hope means that you must be searching for an answer. Making music in and of itself is reaching out, music is saying: "hey, I think this is true! Do you think it's true?" To me music is always hopeful, regardless of what it's saying, even if it's saying "I have no hope", it's hopeful in that it's communicating that. Sometimes I hear Gustav Mahler and it just feels like I should go kill myself. But I don't, because I'm listening to music. That's what music is - sometimes the most personal, the most private, the most secret, intense things that you'll never tell anyone in the world; they come out in your fucking music. If you don't want anybody to know that, you don't want to make music.

You've talked about using synthesisers to try and find the notes between notes – what actual synths did you use on the album?

WC: The main one is one that we got from Sean Lennon when we were at his place a year ago in November. What's that thing called… [furrows brow to think] It's like a toy almost… Little plastic thing, the notes are within the plastic… oh fuck. I'll think of it. I haven't said the word in a couple of weeks, but it's fucking amazing. It compels you to record right then, like it's going to drift away, that's the nature of it, the way the electricity's going through it or something. The sound is a temporary moment and if you do it again it's not there. If you like the sound, it's not like a guitar effect or something, you won't get that again. What's it called?! I'll think of it as we talk.

I wanted to talk about your drug experiences while recording The Terror – were you sort-of inflicting brain damage on yourself?

WC: I only take MDMA and coke and stuff. I've only done acid a few times, but these drugs are like the recreational fun drugs. That's what I call them. I'm not doing them in any soul-searching way. Even mushrooms, I'm like [high voice] "ah, it's fun, we're awake and we're having fun!" Never "I need to go inside myself and discover". There are drugs that let you relax, there are drugs that let your mind not be whatever it is that's torturing you for a while, and sometimes when you wake up you have a different perspective. "Why did I worry about that so much?" That, for me, is the beauty of those sorts of drugs. Your mind that can't escape itself, drugs allow it to be not so intense.

When my father was dying… it tortures your mind but there's nothing you can do about it. You're powerless to have a solution. You can try to think that he's not suffering, you can try to think that he's dying and why does it have to affect you so badly, but you can't stop your mind from going in on itself. It's all you think about. To have a little bit of relief from these things and let your mind be free - 'cause even when you sleep you have nightmares and wake up and think even more intensely about it - to be relieved of this stuff once in a while, it's great. You can wake up and say "that's important" or "that's not, why was I so worried about it?" Or you find some other way of thinking that isn't so "everything's bad!"

I like them because they're fun, and you're around other people having fun, and it's energy and it's stuff. But not harder stuff like heroin. I'm sure those drugs do that a lot better, but they're also too powerful for me, I'm sure I'd be a drug addict.

How did your experience with those recreational drugs colour the record?

WC: It just allows you to think different things. The thing that I sing about part of the time is this idea of being in control, and do I want control? Or when I have control I fear losing control, or what part of me deserves to have control? This dilemma we have with knowing ourselves. When we're young, I mean… how old are you?


WC: Yeah. I'm not dismissing that, I'm saying when you're young you really do attack your life as if you're like, "I'm smart, I know what I want, I'm gonna go do this, I'm seeking experiences and experiences will tell me what to do." But as you get older this horrible trick gets played on you, and you're not sure you're the master of the things you want to happen in your life.

You must feel like the master of your own destiny by this point, though, surely?

WC: When it makes you happy and it works and it makes you feel like the world agrees with you… But I don't know. I'm lucky that the things I've wanted to do, I've been able to do them, and the things that I've failed at didn't seem to deter me from still doing the things I like. The more you become the master of your own destiny the bigger the dilemma is. What do I want to do? What am I able to do? If I want to do this, should I do it? That's where The Terror comes in. That's the dilemma of control. There are parts in people's lives where I would envy them not having control.

There's this girl that's one of our weirdo follower fans and I talk to her often enough to know what's going on. Her house burned down. Everything she had, everything she thought was important, everything that she loved, except for her dog, got destroyed in the fire. Her crazy boyfriend set the house on fire and went to jail for it. In the immediate aftermath of that, it was the worst thing that ever happened to her. But little by little she discovered that it was the best thing that ever happened to her, because she wasn't sure she wanted to live in that house… something happened and it was all taken away from her and she was like, "I'm the luckiest person alive, because now I know I didn't want to live there." I think that's what The Terror keeps gnawing at. That's why the subtle machine behind all the music, zhing-zhing-zhing-zhing-zhing, it's because we felt that was the sound of the anxiety. Is my life true, is this what I want?

So why is that anxiety characterised by a machine sound?

WC: When we got that synthesiser - and we've had a lot of synthesisers - I think it did that sound to us. You'd hit it and there's a couple of knobs on there where you change the frequencies, and at first they appear to be notes from a keyboard. But when we would go to play the note from the synthesiser on another instrument that didn't have this subliminal noise-ish stuff attached to it, it didn't evoke anything to us. Steven [Drozd] and I would both hover toward this thing because it's just such an unpredictable instrument. We didn't want to hear any pure notes. There was no longer a pure emotion. The joy had some sadness, the despair had some hope. It's not a middle ground of grey, it's a battlefield of anxieties and you can't resolve it.

Am I right in thinking that Steven wasn't in the best of health when you were recording this record?

WC: Yeah, but we're not allowed… we don't want to talk about it in that way. I want to be able to get you things that you can say, but where he lives in Oklahoma City, it's a struggle for that to be too public, you know? So let's say yes, that's true, but find a way to say it…

Of course, of course, I'm not angling for anything.

WC: I know, I know, but sometimes when people are too casual it feels… we've done plenty of things, in the Fearless Freaks movie he's shooting up heroin and all that, he's perfectly happy with that past. That's a while ago. But none of this stuff is that long ago, and we're trying to be "let's give this some room." That's the dilemma sometimes with making records, I mean, we just made this, here we are. I'd say it's true, but try to… be creative about it.

The reason I brought it up is I thought maybe that was something else that had an effect on the record, and the reason it sounds so bleak.

WC: Well the reason I'm able to talk about it, and I don't want to talk that specifically about it, is that in the aftermath of this… stuff… Steven exploded with creativity and energy and time and regret and all these things. His life used to be spent in a little bit of both, "I'm kind of creative here, and I'm kind of in a haze there", and in the aftermath of this he's insane with being expressive. So that's why we don't want to focus on the stuff before, because he's in this state now where's he like: "Why does everybody have to know?" And that's the dilemma. Because everybody wants to know, because it tells us a lot about what the music means. So, I think that's why The Terror is so powerful, because it's him screaming to himself about what he was. When he screams, and I love his music probably more than anyone in his life will ever love his music, when he plays music it affects me and it makes me think things and say things. We probably do absorb each other's ways. It's not the way he was that made The Terror, it's the way he is now. The both of us together, if we were left to our own devices we'd probably make five records a year and they'd all sound just like this.

Well, maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing?

WC: It probably would after a while because we wouldn't want to do anything else. I don't think you'd make music this relentless if you didn't have it in you. This doesn't sound like music, this sounds like a state of mind. And people who know that state of mind know exactly what this is. But you're young, and hopefully you won't feel this way. Or you'll have enough options in what you're doing to go down some great or unpredictable or fucked-up road before it is unknown in your life. And that's not because I'm wise, it's because I'm curious.

Your live show is what it is, but I'm interested in how this record is going to sound as a part of it. I love the idea that people will come expecting balloons…

WC: Some of them will. I think some of them are like you, though, and could hear our music and say, "what are they going to do now? They can't throw balloons while they're singing this."

Exactly! I'm looking forward to people turning up and getting their heads fucked.

WC: I don't think it'll be a headfuck in that way, because there's just no way you can throw balloons and sing those songs. But there's no way you can't not sing that song. It'd be like when The Soft Bulletin came out and us saying there's no way we can sing 'Superman' because it's too much. That's exactly why we should do it. The struggle is to say, "this is us, and we're gonna sing 'Do You Realize??' later, but the guys who are gonna sing 'Do You Realize??' are gonna sing this song, and this is us." After you sing a song a thousand times you have muscle memory of it. I can stand there and be shot with a machine gun and still sing 'Do You Realize??' like it's the first time. I think the audience will let us do it. The audience wants us to reinvent ourselves, or destroy ourselves, or be whatever we want to be, because it's better than us playing it safe.

Do you feel bad about writing a song called 'Is David Bowie Dying?' now that it's clear that he isn't?

WC: No, I wasn't writing it in any kind of cynical way. We were doing a show in New York with Philip Glass, he does this thing every year where he raises money for this Tibetan house that he supports or whatever. He doesn't benefit and it raises a bunch of money, and he asked us to play. When we do these things that are prestigious, we always invite people to the show, and we always invite David Bowie when it feels like it's possible he might show up. His publicist didn't say "no", he said "David's not feeling well. David's not getting out now." Now that maybe means "he doesn't like you", but part of me thought it never occurred to me that David Bowie is a man and that his heart might be failing or he could simply be getting old. That's really why I wrote the song, because the song is about your abilities all failing, but it all stemmed from me realising that David Bowie is a man who will decay and die. He's not this guy in this music, the real guy is getting older. It's not sad, it's just bleak.

When was the last time you were terrified?

WC: I fly a lot and I used to be terrified the whole time, which was probably a great relief. It was something that started, made me scared, then ended and I wasn't scared.

So controlled bursts of fear, then?

WC: Yeah. I'm not in control and I don't like it. But now I don't even notice the plane. It's not that I'm used to it, it's that I've changed what I'm scared about. It's shifted from being afraid of not having control, like "give me control! If I'm in control and plane crashes, I don't care – I don't want you to crash it for me."

The last time I was truly terrified… um… I was in the hospital for this big cut on my leg. I fell and it damaged part of my leg and got infected, and that shit will get you. There was a brief moment where it was giant [MAKES COMICALLY HUGE GESTURE FROM THIGH AREA] and the doctor, who's got a lot of experience, is looking at it and says: "oh my GOD, this is bad!" And then he said "we have to stop the infection. We may have to cut off your leg." I never really thought that I would die, though.

But mostly it's for other people. My brother's son has cancer and there are stages of that where it goes from "oh my God" to "this seems to be under control" and at the moment it seems to be alright. I love it when I'm suddenly awakened to how petty most of your silly life is, you know? When I worked for Long John Silver's I rode my bicycle back home, and there was one night, it was fucking four o'clock in the morning, summer night and I'm really flying along, and my foot slips off the pedal. I have this argh [MIMES WILD PEDALLING] moment and in this clumsy "ah fuck", a car without any lights on, fucking "psssshow!", just misses me by a hair. If I hadn't slipped, he would've ploughed into me, he was just some drunk asshole. And I love it when that wakes you up, and you get to live!