The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips fall down the rabbit hole for their 15th album and find meaning in something they couldn’t at first understand. Five or six years ago, Wayne Coyne was browsing a used bookstore and found a little paperback that piqued his interest. It had a beautiful painting of a woman he thought looked like Erykah Badu on the cover, and he couldn’t understand a word of it. The Flaming Lips frontman didn’t think about Blisko Domu much beyond a nonsense phrase to his eyes and ears. He bought it for a dollar.
“Something about it was intriguing,” Coyne says. The book found its way into the studio, where people thumbing through the books and magazines there would often pick it up and ask him about it. “You start to read it like its words are going to unfold some meaning to you, but they don’t. You just don’t know what any of it means.”
Unhappy in their search for the title track of their forthcoming 15th studio album, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd stumbled upon the phrase 'oczy mlody' in Blisko Domu’s pages, and they’d found it.
“We kept looking for something that evoked this unspeakable thing,” Coyne explains. “He thought oczy mlody sounded like a fun drug they would make in the future.”
Oczy Mlody: Coyne pronounces it “oxy m’lody,” rhyming with “roadie,” but no one in this conversation speaks enough Polish to know for sure. If you thought it could be short for Oxycodone Melody, which would be remarkably apt for an ever-experimenting psych-rock band, so did Coyne. The idea tugged his imagination down a rabbit hole.
In the materials accompanying the album, Coyne writes that his early description of the sound is Pink Floyd’s late Syd Barrett meets rapper A$AP Rocky, if the two were trapped in a bizarre fairy tale from the future.
“It all takes place inside a gated community that has been made into a replicant fantasy fairy tale city where the mega-mega rich folks live and have self-indulgent psycho-parties (maybe I’ve been spending too much time around Miley Cyrus),” he writes about Syd and A$AP’s accidental world, going on to detail its unicorns, frogs, wizards, primal emotional therapy sessions and the cool party drug of the moment, Oczy Mlody, which “uses your own sub-conscious memories and transports you to your perfect childhood happy mind.” On the album track ‘There Should Be Unicorns’, entertainer Reggie Watts delivers a spoken word like Tame Impala’s ‘Nangs’, except about the kind of unicorns that should be in Coyne’s dreamscape (the ones with purple eyes, not the ones with green eyes, in case you were wondering).
And that’s mild on the Wayne Coyne Scale of Delightful Weirdness. This is a group that once released a 24-hour song on hard drives inside actual human skulls, so fans are not only accustomed to this, but they know the through-the-looking-glass nature of Coyne’s imagination is part of the joy of The Flaming Lips, a chance to revisit a version of the unfettered, no-rules creativity that usually belongs to the young.
In a translation coincidence almost too perfect, oczy mlody translates from Polish to “eyes of the young.” In fact, a handful of track titles are phrases that simply caught their attention, and they worked out surprisingly well — ‘Nigdy Nie’ translates to ‘Never No’, ‘Do Glowy’ means ‘To the Head’, and Blisko Domu itself became ‘Almost Home’. They loved the concept but it still wasn’t right, at least not in English.
“I don’t think we would ever title something Eyes of the Young, but we would title it the Polish version. That’s just how our minds work,” Coyne says with a laugh. It’s true; nothing about their entire career trajectory has been what’s expected, from their roots in Oklahoma to their unlikely break into the mainstream with 1993’s ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ to the enduring brilliance of 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. “You find your own meaning in these things, and it really pushes you along. Steven and I both know that mystery, that funniness: Nothing ruins music like trying to be too serious.”
With titles in their back catalogue like ‘My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion (The Inner Life as Blazing Shield of Defiance and Optimism as Celestial Spear of Action)’ and ‘Psychiatric Exploration of The Fetus With Needles’, getting too caught up in self-serious songwriting has never been a problem. Even their cover albums, like 2013’s Sgt. Pepper’s tribute, With a Little Help from My Fwends, are so madly interpretive (read: acid-fueled) they almost feel original — you know you’ve created an outrageous piece of music when the presence of Miley Cyrus on ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ brings it back down to Earth.
Continuous reinvention isn’t easy for any band, let alone a band that’s been making music for more than 30 years. Oczy’s mellow moodiness is certainly a change of pace from their last studio album, for reasons that need little explanation when that album was called The Terror. But the things that make them who they are — the lush, layered psychedelia; the spacey lyrics inspired by our place in the cosmos; the bright, flamboyant stage costumes; the colorful art; the human skulls — they’re just what pops into to Coyne’s mind anyway, and it’s the prospect of doing something completely new that makes the band tick.
Most bands define creative progress as something other than what they’ve done before, while staying in their wheelhouse. The beauty of The Flaming Lips, though, is that there is no wheelhouse.
“We liked the idea that it would seem like a new type of title for The Flaming Lips. Even our album cover didn’t look like a Flaming Lips cover; it looked like something I’d never seen. That all appealed to us,” Coyne says. “It was something we’d never heard, it would look like something we’d never heard, and maybe that’d help the music seem like something you’ve never heard.”
Coyne’s imaginative strengths collide with and what he calls Drozd’s “masterful” musicianship in the studio, along with bassist Michael Ivins and guitarist Derek Brown. Music is at its best, he says, when it’s open and collaborative, because music is meant to be played together by humans. “Music can do a lot of things by accident, and there’s a lot of music you can make by touching a computer — and it can fucking make music for you — but to make really emotional music, that’s really difficult to do.”
Indeed, Oczy Mlody is most compelling when it embraces emotion: the instrumental swell in ‘The Galaxy I Sink’, the melancholy sweetness of ‘The Castle’ and the moments Coyne’s voice pleads with us most.
“I tried to tell you / but I don’t know how,” Coyne sings through the phone, drawing out the title word of the melodic track ‘How??’ His voice cracks a bit, a simple and fitting expression of all our most well-intentioned but ineffectual communication.
But even as Coyne sings in that moment — without the flamboyant costumes, the plastic bubble he uses to hamster-wheel across audiences, the trip of swirling light and sound — there’s something about the reach and the yearning of a strained falsetto voice that packs an emotional wallop, from Neil Young to Conor Oberst.
Coyne tells a story about the Army bugler who played ‘Taps’ at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. An exceptional, experienced musician, the bugle player had only 24 notes to play that morning, and under the pressure of the moment, he flubbed the sixth one. It almost sounded like someone crying, like all the anguish of a mourning nation seeping from one broken note. He went on to play the rest of the song perfectly.
“If he played the right note, there would be no story,” Coyne says. If humanity is just an anagram for imperfection, then imperfection may be the secret weapon of The Flaming Lips. “Steven knows that about the way I sing — ‘You went to that weird note there. It’s not the right note, but it holds more power because it’s not what we were expecting.’”
Photography by George Salisbury
Written by Sonya Singh