“I’m sitting in my manager’s air-conditioned office in downtown Oklahoma City, looking at a picture of Pink Floyd on one side, with David Bowie right behind me,” Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips explains at the beginning of our interview.
Could there be a pair of more fitting legendary bookends for avant-rock pioneers Coyne to be nestled between — the mind-expanding aural masters that are the mighty Floyd and the always adventurous chameleon once (and probably forever) known as Ziggy Stardust?
“Audio stardust” is certainly an apropos phrase to describe the ever-trippy music made by Coyne and his band The Flaming Lips, and they’ve once again reached for the sonic stars by covering the entirety of The Beatles’ benchmark 1967 LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, naturally embedded with their own patented Oklahoma-infused twists. With a Little Help From My Fwends, out now through Warner Bros., finds Coyne and the gang enlisting a number of their fwends, er, friends to assist in turning Sgt. Pepper on its collective ear: My Morning Jacket, Fever The Ghost, and J. Mascis drop the opening title track into a swirling cauldron of fuzz, distortion, and spaced-out vocals, while (yes) Miley Cyrus and Moby take Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds into another galaxy altogether and Tegan & Sara & Stardeath and White Dwarfs do a totally cosmic makeover of Lovely Rita. (Paging Mr. Kite to top the bill….)
“Look, you’re going to hear this, so go out there and make your own music, draw pictures, take drugs, dye your hair green, and fucking have fun with your life!”
Coyne, 53, gave Digital Trends the scoop on the recording of Fwends, how Miley Cyrus came to do what she does oh so well, y’all, and which album his band might cover next. All in all, it’s just another day in the life of The Lips.
Digital Trends: Before we get into the hi-res stuff, I have to say I’m really looking forward to spinning this album on vinyl. You guys must have made some tough mixing and mastering decisions since it’s only coming out on one disc.
Wayne Coyne: We tried to have some guidelines for how we went about doing that. Some of our songs are longer than The Beatles’ versions, so it was a bit hard to squish onto a single disc. I don’t think it’s going to be the loudest record that The Flaming Lips have done. [Longtime Lips producer] David Fridmann and Michael [Ivins, Flaming Lips bassist who also serves as the band’s co-producer and engineer] have gotten pretty good at saying, “If the level goes up on this song, then it comes down a little bit on that one.” But Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was so fucking loud that they had to recut it.
I’m not surprised, especially considering the “gone gone gone” section in that song, which gets pretty distorted.
Oh yeah. Dave Fridmann knows what has to be done. But with digital nowadays, there are almost no limits. We could destroy your speakers if we wanted to. (Both laugh)
What do you mean if? You’ve already done that with my speakers a few times already.
Oh, I know. I’ve blown out my own speakers, too. But with vinyl, you still have limits. A record can only bounce around so much. It’s fascinating. I think this album sounds great in all of the formats we have today. And if you absolutely appreciate vinyl, you’ll appreciate the efforts everyone has gone through with it.
Since you mentioned having almost no limits with digital, 96/24 has to be the optimal listening platform for this album.
“We could destroy your speakers if we wanted to.”
There is definitely a difference — but for me, that starts messing around in a realm where maybe you stop paying attention to the music. I remember getting into Neil Young’s car, that pretty strange convertible of his that we all got to sit in when he played us Pono. I sat in the back of Neil Young’s car with Neil Young in it, and we were all listening to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir at pretty high volumes. Secretly, in my mind, I’m thinking, “I’m sitting in a car with Neil Young, listening to Kashmir — it’s great!” He was playing us a few different things and said, “Well, what do you think of this?” “It’s all really great, Neil!” I’m easily satisfied; I didn’t go that far into it. I just liked it.
I’ve interviewed Neil about Pono myself, and have also been able to listen to it firsthand. On certain tracks, you really do get that sense of separation between instruments, and you can also get the vibe of people recording together in the same room. It’s that intimate.
Cool. I’m glad there’s an audience that has that much perception about exactly what’s coming out of the speakers or headphones. But I remember sitting around the table with my grandmother when I was 4 years old. She had an AM radio sitting out by the sink that had one speaker, and I didn’t even think about how the music I heard was recorded or even played. It was more about what the music was. But I can understand why Neil likes it like that. He’s an icon.
Considering the kind of heady music you make, we listeners expect a certain quality to both the music and the sound. They just go hand in hand when it comes to Flaming Lips material.
Oh they do, they do. And people live Dave Fridmann could never step away from that quality level, ever. He is such a master of that. His ear never relaxes.
It’s also true that if the content of the music itself doesn’t move you and doesn’t have that magic elixir, it doesn’t matter how good it sounds.
Exactly. And if you do love it, like anything you’re passionate about, you get deeper into it and have a deeper appreciation for it. And if other people shine a light on its other qualities, then I think that’s wonderful. I could listen to Led Zeppelin songs all day. If I could sit in Neil Young’s car doing that while he plays remixes of all that music, it would be a great way to spend a day.
“I sat in the back of Neil Young’s car with Neil Young in it, and we were all listening to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir at pretty high volumes.”
Next time you do that with Neil, I’m going to be in the back seat. (Coyne laughs) Okay, back to Fwends. How did you decide who plays on what Sgt. Pepper track? Was it an organic process? How did you get Miley Cyrus to sing on both Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and A Day in the Life?
“Organic” is a good word for it. We became friends with Miley, and she was playing a show in Tulsa [on March 13], so we went up there and did the show with her. We did Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Pt. 1) twice, and hung out. We had a bunch of friends scheduled to go into a studio up there the next day. I think we had three other things we started with, but we knew we had a good working version of Lucy in the Sky. She’s a trooper and really fun to do stuff with, so we just did it.
Once she got on Lucy in the Sky, it was a whole different thing: “Man, that’s really fucking good.” Then she invited us to do the Billboard Awards with her [on May 18 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas], and we did Lucy in the Sky together, and that was a pretty great success. Right after that, we wanted to put out the Lucy in the Sky track and connect it to the Bella Foundation, the pet welfare non-profit in Oklahoma City that all of this album’s profits are going to. Then it started to make more sense that maybe we should do the whole record than just have this singular track out there.
And I just love those two Miley Cyrus tracks. A lot of people who hear them won’t even know who it is, which is great.
She does have talent. People tend to forget that because of her image.
She’s really badass. I mean, she does things with love. A Day in the Life was great too, and in the next couple of weeks after we did that, we got a great track with Jim James and My Morning Jacket [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] and a couple of other ones. Right off the bat that got us thinking, “Well, let’s try to do the whole thing.” Then you sort of go into the panic of, “Now we’ve got to do it!” But, you know, if the music is great, that gives you a lot of momentum, energy, and reason to go forward and say, “Let’s do this!” The thing that gives us the momentum is always the music.
I’ve played the end of A Day in the Life back a number of times, and I’m still trying to figure out what Miley is saying there. Is it something like, “I’m waking you up,” or…?
“I didn’t even think about how the music I heard was recorded or even played. It was more about what the music was.”
I almost forgot that was on there! When we were mastering, I was in and out of the room with Dave while he was doing some tweaking. One time I went in there and he said, “I really like this ending. It’s low in the mix, so I don’t think everybody will hear it.” That’s where she says, “Steven, am I making you nervous?” People are going to think she was sticking something up her ass or something like that (laughs), but I forget what was actually going on. She said something that was making Steven [Drozd, Lips multi-instrumentalist/composer/guitarist] anxious — it wasn’t something bad, but when Dave noticed it, he said, “I’m going to put this on at the very end.” Oh, cool! And then there’s a Dave Fridmann voice that comes at the end of that, too. His voice is on a lot of our records, as you know, and this one comes at the end of the big, final crescendo of the 12 pianos hitting the E chord. It’s just Miley and Dave, talking. (laughs)
I don’t know if people are aware of how great she sounds when she talks. That part of it is why I think I wanted it on there as well. It’s just her talking, and she has such a great sound to her voice, you know?
She does have a great accent, absolutely. And that’s a good call to have her on there at the end as a bonus, because The Beatles themselves added that high-pitched 15kHz tone and the infinite runout-groove studio chatter at the end of Side 2.
Exactly! That came to light after the reissues. (Coyne sings Paul McCartney’s high-pitched “Never could be any other way” part twice.) I love that stuff! That’s why we do so many outgroove things on our own vinyl. I think we just plain ran out of room on this one. Michael had three or four options of what we were going to do on each side: “Well, we can make this song a little shorter, or we can not do that.” It’s a weird area. If it’s editing our own music, I don’t have any qualms about it, but when it’s other people’s music, I don’t want to do it. A lot of the music was done and already mastered. I wish we could have added another layer of that sort of stuff on it, but that’s the way it goes. And most people I know like getting all of it — they’ll have a digital copy, but they also like being involved with the physical stuff, too.
It’s funny — sometimes I get introduced to people as, “He’s both a physical and a digital guy!” But it’s true. Sometimes I like putting on 180-gram vinyl, and other times I like listening to high-resolution 96/24 files. I get the benefits of both worlds, so why shouldn’t I?
Why not? Some people are more stationary, but you and I, we’re never always in the same place. I can’t take a record player with me, so I better have my music on my phone or some other device to go everywhere I go. What we all want is to be able to put the headphones on and listen to the music that we’ve created for ourselves, wherever we are.
“If the music is great, that gives you a lot of momentum, energy, and reason to go forward and say, ‘Let’s do this!’”
One of my other favorite tracks here is what you and Birdflower did with Within You Without You.
And they’re not even a known group, just some weirdo friends of mine! It’s a fun story. They don’t know that much about music, but they just do it themselves. Daniel [Huffman, also of New Fumes] is the main producer on that stuff, and he figured it out. I was glad he did. There are musicians who can figure it all out note for note and play it that way, but I like that. They’ll go, “Well, I think it’s this.” And I’ll say, “Well, it’s not that, but I like what you did better.”
A track like Within You Without You has such a distinctive feel to it, so I like hearing its iconic sound get morphed into a different form.
Yeah! There’s a version of Sgt. Pepper done in the ’80s that’s a great reference we used — I think it was called Sgt. Pepper Was My Dad [actually, it’s Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, a 1988 benefit covers compilation put together by the NME]. Sonic Youth did a really great version of Within You Without You, and it also has The Fall with Mark E. Smith singing A Day in the Life. That’s part of our inspiration as well. We’d heard other people do this material, and we loved it.
Any group of musicians who are able to do their own recording love doing things like this, because you don’t have to come up with your own lyrics, you don’t have to fight about it, and you can just have fun. I think that’s what The Beatles are saying with their music: “Look, you’re going to hear this, so go out there and make your own music, draw pictures, take drugs, dye your hair green, and fucking have fun with your life!” That’s what they’re telling us. There are some Beatles fans who are like, “Don’t touch our music!” I don’t think The Beatles are saying that. Instead, they’re saying, “This gives your life more experiences, more fun, and more insight.” It’s not to shut it down.
I totally agree: Turn on and tune in. Finally — you covered Pink Floyd in 2010 by doing all of The Dark Side of the Moon, and since you said you really loved listening to Kashmir in Neil Young’s car, I think your next covers project should be a Zeppelin album. So which one would you do?
Well, I think Steven and I learned our lesson, and we always want to go with albums that are short. So we would probably pick Led Zeppelin IV, because it doesn’t have that many songs on it [eight], and we know every song on there. But let’s not really start talking about it, because then it’ll actually happen.
Well, the only thing I’ll add is that Led Zeppelin III has a song on it called Friends, so it seems to me like you have to redo it as “Fwends.” Maybe that’s a bonus track. I’ll give you 9 months to get it all done.
Ahhh! (Chuckles heartily) See, now you’re making it seem like it could be possible. If you keep talking about it, then it sounds like something that’s going to happen. (Pauses) We may just have to start thinking about working on that Led Zeppelin record.
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