INTERVIEW

Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd discuss The Flaming Lips’ new anxiety-filled album.

flaminglips2

2013 marks 30 years since a bunch of tripped-out kids from Norman, Oklahoma, got together and embarked on one of the most aberrant and exciting careers in modern music. It also sees them release their fifteenth studio album, ‘The Terror’. Speaking to Rolling Stone back in August 2012, Wayne Coyne proclaimed the upcoming album to be “possibly the best Flaming Lips record ever made.” Rumours then began to circulate that Steven Drozd, the band’s multi-instrumentalist and chief cohort, concurred, supposedly stating that it was his favourite album since 1999’s immortal ‘The Soft Bulletin’. All signs pointed to something special. The end results have the potential to split Lips fans with the brute force and precision of an industrial meat slicer. For those who view David Bowie to be at the height of his powers on B sides of ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ then ‘The Terror’ will likely submerge you within its hissing, experimental, tar-filled, black hole. The ’Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ enthusiasts – much like the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ ones – could be left dizzy and reeling by the drones, churns and howls of ‘The Terror’.

‘Look… the Sun is Rising’ is a typically named Flaming Lips song and would therefore, you’d think as the album opener, rise gloriously and euphorically. Yet if ‘Race for the Prize’ is a confetti cannon shooting into the sky, exploding into a glorious, surging, flutter of energy and colour while balloons bounce endlessly in a kaleidoscopic flurry, then ‘Look… the Sun is Rising’ is the hacksaw that tears into and bursts those balloons, spilling a sea of blackened blood and guts, all coated with a sour taste of bile. The synths and guitars stab and puncture with Gang of Four-like intensity fed through a wood chipper backwards. If the exultant, flowery vibes of the recent ‘Sun Blows Up Today’ led you to believe there might be an album of similar material to come, then think again.  ‘The Terror’ is truly upon us…

When trying to describe the end outcome, Drozd struggles to capture the tone of the record. “Bleak, lo-fi, synth kind of… dark sound of new wave, I’m not sure what you’d call it,” he says, while Coyne dives in to try and tackle it.

“‘The Terror’ is a retreat,” he says. “A retreat from structure and from lyrics and from trying to make sense, and if you’re lucky that [approach] is like a gateway to your subconscious world that you don’t normally have access to. You just have to hope your mind is not worried about what happens. And sometimes that’s when your most expressive bullshit music and art happens.”

Drozd tries to offer explanation via way of influence. “Anything that is based on repetition and drone, I mean Suicide, we were obviously listening to Suicide quite a bit, Silver Apples, you know, anything that was repeating drones.”

“It sounds like anxiety,” adds Coyne. “It sounds like religious music, it’s supposed to sound depressing and triumphant at the same time.”

‘The Terror’ began with Drozd working separately in a studio. “I was just messing with some sounds,” he says, “just kind of killing time. I didn’t have a musical agenda. Just doing stuff to see what happens and it ended up being this song called ‘You are Alone’. Wayne heard this thing I was working on and he really responded to it and he wanted to get involved immediately and whenever Wayne gets involved with his energy and his creativity, that just takes it to a whole other level.”

Likewise, Coyne wasn’t even sure if what they were working on was even an album; they were “just dicking around.” But once the flow began, it was a quick and easy process for the band.

“It’s a little bit like breathing air,” says Coyne in a process analogy. “You don’t really realise how great it is until your almost suffocated. I think being in the Flaming Lips for the most part, I’ve become so used to it, and it’s so much a part of me that I’m almost unaware of it.”

He explores the sub conscious relationship he has with the music on the new record as he tells me: “There is a really brutal line on ‘The Terror’ – ‘We don’t control the controls’. It just came out of me, but when I listened back and studied it, I thought that really is a truism of mine, my anxiety and my life, I don’t know. There is an illusion, even to myself that there is a control over what I do and the way I live. I do sometimes think that I am driven by an invisible force. I ask myself, why do I like what I like? Why do I lust after what I lust after? Why am I so driven to do this stuff, you know? Good for me, but also what is it? And how destructive is it? I don’t know. I don’t know if I follow things because of logic and because of experiences or am I just going after them because that’s just what I’m programmed to be. I don’t wake up to dread and fear but there is an underlying anxiety, I think that’s what this is, there is a sense of anxiety throughout all this music.”

This anxiety was particularly true for Drozd, who – despite false reports of the true nature of his relapse – fell back into drink and drugs briefly when making the record, having kicked serious addiction some years prior. He offers me a more truthful account of events. “I really don’t want to go too much into it because it was kind of a private thing, and then Wayne blurted the stuff out to the press and it became this whole story where instead of people asking me about music it was just about my drug addiction. Besides that, they mostly got it wrong – I had heard that I was addicted to heroin, which was not true. I had started drinking again and taking some pills and stuff but it wasn’t as devastating as Wayne made it seem because he likes to exaggerate to the press, but there was something there.

“It is frustrating because so much of it hasn’t been true,” he continues. “If it was the truth it wouldn’t bother me nearly as much as incorrect information, getting it wrong, everything from, ‘you know, he’s a heroin addict again’, to all kinds of stuff, ‘he tried to commit suicide’. That kind of stuff really get’s me down and I have a wife and two small children and that’s hard on them and it’s going to be hard on them when they get older, so it’s something I’m having to equip myself to deal with. But for the most part it doesn’t really bother me that much, it’s just when it’s not actually correct, that’s when it really bugs me. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, I’ve been through this a couple of times and there is a sensationalistic aspect to it, people just love that story, ‘oh he relapsed’, you know, that’s more interesting to anyone than say, what keyboards we use and that’s just the way it goes. I’m okay with it.”

Drozd has taken this relatively short period of relapse and turned the memory into a long-lasting positive, thinking back to first creating the track that lead to the album being made, ‘You are Alone’.

“So I was in this state of working on stuff by myself,” he remembers, “kind of killing time but also I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. I think it did kind of represent where I was emotionally at that time, though. So, over a year has passed and the reason I like it so much is because if I hear that song I really feel a connection to how I felt at that time. It’s almost like I can appreciate now that I am doing better – and it’s just such a strong memory connected to it. Whenever I hear it I am taken straight back: it’s winter time, I’m in Western New York, it’s snowing outside, I’m really depressed, it’s a grim situation and I’m really worried about everything in life. I can get that memory from the music, so to me that’s a great thing, I love that. Anytime that music can get you out of what your reality is at that moment, that’s just like the best thing ever. It’s a good thing, it’s not like I’m filled with regret, I’m just filled with, like, ‘wow things are so much better now!’ But I’m glad I have that memory, to have that contrast drawn.”

While Coyne told Rolling Stone back in August that, in regards to Drozd’s situation, “It was probably the worst time of his life”, he is a little more quiet on the subject today and turns my question into a long, free-flowing response that spirals gracefully out of responding to it at all and transmutes more into talk of the spirit and state of mind they were both in when making ‘The Terror’. He says: “You might make music like this by accident but the state of mind makes you say, ‘I’m going to make this song and we’re going to do a series of songs that sound like this’. You begin to see that this is the state of mind of a person, this is what they are thinking now, this is what they are living. I don’t think there is anyway you would want to make this kind of music, unless it’s therapeutic to you. The thing that is most bottled up, the fear that you have is something that you want to scream the most, and when you are free to do that, you might not think you’re doing that but you do, and that’s the terror that we sing about.”

Those that have seen the excellent 2005 documentary The Fearless Freaks will no doubt have various favourite moments from the film: maybe the scene in which Wayne Coyne goes back to the old fast-food diner he used to work in and recreates a gun-point robbery he went through; maybe the exhilarating live footage or the sad but gripping tales of family members and old friends lost to jail, drink and drugs. But there is one scene that hits home a musical point more fiercely than any other, in a scene in which Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes is asked what is Wayne Coyne’s greatest asset? His response, with a mischievous, wild grin on his face is “Steven”.

“I love that. He gives me mad props” Drozds tells me, before going on to discuss Haynes and the songwriting relationship between him and Wayne.

“He [Gibby] knew us well and we had toured with him a lot, so I think he had gotten to see the inner dynamics of the band that most people don’t get to see or know about. I think the hardcore Flaming Lips fans know it [about my contribution] but the man on the street just knows about Wayne and that’s it, and that is fine with me because I would not want to be bothered as much as he is for autographs and pictures – that would drive me crazy. But that is something I wish people knew more about: that there is a dynamic between Wayne and I, we write most of the songs together and we come up with most of the sounds together and there is a whole band involved but the beginning process of the songs is just Wayne and I working together. So, when I saw that in the movie I was like, ‘well, thank you Gibby’. I think the next time I saw him I said. ‘how much do I have to pay you for that quote?’.”

As Drozd mentions, the lifestyle and attention his frontman receives would drive him crazy, but simply trying to keep up with him and what being in the Flaming Lips entails nearly did just that. “Hell, it’s probably why I started using again,” he says. “There was a time in 2011…” He stops and pauses. “… Actually, I would say 2011 almost killed me – there was just too much going on. You know, we had ‘Heady Fwends’ (the group’s 2012 collaboration LP) and all these extra musical projects with bands and people, touring non-stop. We were always doing something. If we weren’t playing a show or flying from the U.S to Europe we were driving up to New York to record, or recording at my house in my bedroom upstairs or in Wayne’s house at his new studio. Just a constant barrage of stuff going on and for me 2011 was almost a breaking point.” Thankfully, Drozd made it through the year. “Then 2012 happened and we were able to take a deep breath,” he says. “And now that I’ve just gotten through the thing I’ve just gotten through, I think I’m in better physical shape now than I have been in my whole life and I’m serious when I say that. I do yoga everyday, I do cardiovascular exercise, I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs anymore.”

So, 2013, 30 years into the career of Flaming Lips and the band’s creative force are in the shape of their lives, not only physically, but creatively also. There is no formula, no plan or secret to their tale. The path that has led them to where they are now has been paved with just as many uncertainties as the one that will no doubt lead them snakingly and wildly into the future, as Coyne himself points out. “We’re still learning as we go. Even though we’ve made fifteen, sixteen records I kind of feel like we still don’t know what the fuck we’re doing”

« Previous Interview
Next Interview »