Interview: Wayne Coyne on the Flaming Lips’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’

We’ve all heard “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a million times. We’ve also heard every artist under the sun cover the Beatles, so when the Flaming Lips announced the release of “With a Little Help From My Fwends,” a track by track cover of the classic 1967 album, the choice and timing in their own career seemed a but curious. But then again, this is the Flaming Lips, and anyone who’s listened to their previous commercial release of “Dark Side of the Moon,” or their looney collaborative record “The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends,” knows that this is not some straightforward Beatles love-fest.

With a guest list that includes Miley Cyrus, Dr. Dog, Tegan and Sara, Grace Potter, Foxygen, and Maynard James Keenan’s band Puscifer just to name a few, the album is party of artists getting in touch with their inner freaky side while having fun playing a record they know by heart (not Tegan & Sara though; they apparently weren’t familiar with “Lovely Rita” when they were pulled in for the cover).

Talking with Flaming Lips ringleader Wayne Coyne, it’s interesting to see how he’s the same wide-eyed kid that started the group over 30(!) years ago. His enthusiasm for going with projects from their natural progression is refreshing, and his unawareness can be fairly adorable; when talking about other full-album covers they’ve done or want to do, he prefaces mentions of bands like King Crimson and Suicide with “this band called…” Maybe King Crimson aren’t as well known as I think they are, who knows?

We discussed the new “Fwends” record and its curation process, Coyne’s friendship with Miley Cyrus, and about the band’s unruly beginnings and how their “just go for it” attitude is what got them here (and still keeps them going).

Hi Wayne. What are you doing today?
I’m at this gallery that’s connected to our big work space here in Oklahoma City where we do a lot of our videos and our computer stuff. And we have our big warehouse and do light shows here. Our studio’s not here but there’s a lot of that stuff, so I’m sitting in the middle of that, and we have a show we’re doing here tomorrow.

Cool! I’m calling you from Brooklyn right now. You and I actually met briefly out here earlier this year the at the Greenpoint bar, The Diamond. I think you had just shot something nearby.
Oh, let me see now…When was it? Was that in January?

January or February. It was cold!
It was! We had just done that thing for Amnesty International. I was in Brooklyn, it was fucking freezing. I hadn’t really been to the new Brooklyn. I really loved it. We had some fucking good drinks. Yeah, we were shooting something for Bonnaroo and we had a couple of good nights.

So for this new record: Why Sgt. Pepper? It’s an album everyone knows, and its been covered in its entirety before by other artists. What prompted that choice?
Along with “Dark Side of the Moon,” we had done a couple of other [albums]. We did one by a group called King Crimson. Theirs is only six songs so that was a bit easier. Then we did the Stone Roses, the first album, the same way, where we invited a bunch of our friends to do a bunch of different things. That was mostly things we just did among our friends, even when we made them into records. They were never meant to go out there as records, as we consider them. They were just fun things we did. And it was mostly because I wanted to do it, and I would have it for myself, and I was the only who would listen to it, mostly. And I think when we were doing New Year’s Eve, inserted in the middle of our big show was five or six John Lennon Beatles tracks. We did “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and “She’s So Heavy,” and “I Am the Walrus,” and the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” track.

That’s the one we all thought was the standout. We rehearsed it in my studio and had done a recording of it, so what you hear now is pretty much just that. And when we had this day in the studio with Miley Cyrus after she did her show here. It was just one of the tracks where we were like, “Well let’s see what happens with that.” We had done some other tracks of our own, and then later in the day, we did the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” track and then “A Day in the Life,” and it happened very quickly. But we hadn’t really decided that were going to do “Sgt. Pepper’s” until we got the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” track with Miley on it. Some people didn’t even know it was Miley Cyrus. And I think we just built on it from there. Then we did this Billboard Awards show where we sang “Lucy in the Sky” together. I think there was a time when we were going to do it as a single song, and I think iTunes was going to host it and then we thought, “We should just make a record.”

Which King Crimson did you do? Was it “In the Court of the Crimson King”?
It was. It’s really the only record I know by them. I mean I love the record and that’s a record that’s been in my house since I was ten years old. And my brothers probably smoked a pound of pot listening to [it]. It’s been embedded in my subconscious.

The album covers thing seems like something new to you guys, but did you attempt anything like this in an earlier incarnation of the band? I know you guys used to play a lot of covers in the 80s.
Yeah, I mean we always… The very first record we did, the “Hear It Is” record, came out in 1986, and it was delayed. And before the tour was set up where the record wasn’t going to quite be out yet, we decided we would play this collection of songs from the Who’s “Tommy”record. We would play our own songs and we’d play it in between. I think the way we would play them…even the people who knew the Who songs didn’t recognize them by the way we played them. So I think it’s something that’s part of our way of doing things anyway. We just love fuckin’ music man!

Yeah, I’ve been listening to “Hear It Is” a lot lately. I feel it’s a very October record. It’s very goth.
[Laughs] Well thank you! I hear it now and I just go “Wow!” These dudes are fucking freaks! It really is this onslaught. We didn’t know what the fuck we’re doing but it just didn’t stop us. I think at the time we thought we knew what we were doing but I hear it now and I’m like, “Whoa.” Anybody who could be wondering about,“Should we become a band?” I think if you listen to what the Flaming Lips did [in the 80s, it] should encourage you to just go for it! I know people who formed a band and they didn’t know what to do and they thought, “Well, we don’t want to make a bad record.” And you know what? They never made any record. It’s like, don’t be afraid of making something bad, you know?

Well that’s what’s fun about those early records is that I feel you guys had a lot of ambition, but nothing sounds too labored over. Some ideas work, some don’t, but that’s part of the charm of the pre-David Fridmann years.
Yeah! I mean we were making records and music like…I mean our heroes at the time were the Butthole Surfers, and the Meat Puppets. And we thought, “Yeah, we’re like them basically.” They make this stuff their life.And I think if those bands weren’t there, we wouldn’t have been brave enough to do that. But they were doing the same things and we’d run into them out in the world, and we felt like we were brothers. It’s still like that, but now we know a lot more about recording.

wayne coyne 2photo-credit-george-salisbury-extralarge_1367357996430EDIT

For “A Little Help From My Fwends,” how did you curate the list of collaborators?
Some of it is just people we know. We’d done other records like this, but we didn’t want to pick all the same people. I mean some of them are the same. We worked with Jim James before, from My Morning Jacket. [We worked with] Phantogram before, we have them again. My nephew’s group Stardeath and the White Dwarfs. But there’s no Henry Rollins, there’s no Kesha this time. But it’s not because we don’t love them.
Well, Juliana Barwick for instancee is an artist that’s new to the camp. How did you get her on this record?
She had played a show with us, I think it was in Boston. She played a show here again at our gallery and I’m a fan of what she does. And from knowing her, I figured if I asked her to do it, she’d say “Yeah, I’ll do that, fuck yeah!” Her music is not always indicative of the way she is. She’s really pretty crazy, and weird, and funny. So I think sometimes, you have to know where people are…I mean, know that there’s more besides just image. Like having Maynard [James Keenan] on there. I think his image is very much like, “He’s a fuckin’… freak… intense dude!” and I think that is true, but when you get to know him, he’s very funny and very smart.

How did you meet Miley Cyrus?
We knew she was a fan back even back when she was Hannah Montana. I think little by little we just got a little braver about getting to know each other. She tweeted me on my birthday and she said “happy birthday” to me and said we were one of her favorite artists of all time. And then about 100 people started texting me like, “Did you know that Miley Cyrus just wished you a happy birthday?” And I said “cool” and I tweeted her back and said, “Hey, give me a call,” and just from that initial thing we just became great friends, and started to be on each others’ stuff. And yeah I mean I just love her to death. If you were around her for five minutes, you would know she’s just badass, and she’s funny, and she’s crazy, and she’s just full of love!

How did you come about choosing who did what on the record?
There was a few, especially in the beginning, there was more, and I think Phantogram chose “She’s Leaving Home.” Steven [Drozd] had done a version of “Fixing a Hole.” There was a few of them that immediately got taken by the people who wanted them. Maynard — we had the track, it was a very difficult track for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and we did struggle with it. Several groups had done it, and they weren’t really happy with it. And I think I was reminded that Steven and Maynard had done a version of an Elton John song, “Rocket Man.” And I was like, “Yeah, I like shit like that, I mean I’ve known him forever.” So I texted him and he was like “Yeah, I’ll fuckin’ do that.”

I think it makes it seem like you know, “I’m the mastermind,” but I didn’t really put it together like, “He’ll do that song!” A lot of it – I mean My Morning Jacket did [the song] “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Fever the Ghost people did a version – I didn’t even know them. So we ended up sticking those together. So randomly people would pick the same song, and we would just jam them together.

How did J Mascis get on that track?
Well, I ran into him at a festival.They [Dinosaur Jr.] played earlier in the day, and we played later in the day. So we hung out and started talking about music and stuff so in the next couple days I thought maybe I could get him on a track.  He had a free day before they were going to Brazil. So I said, “Just play a bunch of guitar solos over the Beatles song and that way I could make it work over this other stuff.” There’s so many great things you can do with the computer.

Have you ever thought to do this sort of thing with a lesser known record?
Yeah, I mean to us…If I really like a record, I’ll just try to convince people to do it. There’s a band that’s called Suicide – I mean we’d love to do some of those songs, or we’d love to do a Psychedelic Furs record. There’s always a thing like that. I don’t think we’d really even do “Sgt. Pepper’s” if we didn’t accidentally have these great tracks with Miley Cyrus and My Morning Jacket. And I think because it’s such a popular record, it allows us to approach someone and be like, “You want to do this?” I don’t want people to think though that we do classic records just because they’re classic records. Even though the ones we’ve done are classic records. I don’t know if King Crimson would be considered classic.

Oh, that’s definitely a classic. I mean it’s certainly not in everyone’s collection the way “Sgt. Pepper” is, but it’s well-known.
I mean, I’d say a lot of people I know – if you’re not 40 years old, they have no idea what that is. Like “I don’t know the song, but I’ll do it.” As I get older and they get younger, and I’ll ask people to do songs and they won’t even know what they are. I think that is great. Because for a band like Tegan and Sara, they didn’t really know the song [“Lovely Rita’]. And I think them not bringing anything to it but themselves, made it sound like a Tegan and Sara song. I didn’t want it to sound like the Beatles. I think some of that really works better, that it’s not just a bunch of fans, it’s people that really love music.

‘With a Little Help From My Fwends’ is out October 28 on Warner Bros.