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The Flaming Lips’ Unicorn Aspirations

With a creative wanderlust, it’s a given to expect the unexpected from the Flaming Lips. Despite using a standard rock ‘n’ roll format – a frontman in Wayne Coyne who sings, the use of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards and songs that include verses and choruses — the psych rock veterans normally stray into a realm that is identifiably and truly their own.

Despite brief moments when the band crossed over into the mainstream – “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “90120” appearance, “Do You Realize?” covered in the Transformers: The Last Knight trailer – those are supplanted by wildly inventive endeavors such as the Zaireeka performance, giving concertgoers headphones to listen to a live concert or breaking the Guinness World Record for most live shows performed in different cities in 24 hours (eight shows across stops along the Mississippi Delta).

On record the Lips’ songs run the spectrum from lysergic workouts to beatific pop tunes. Each sonic twist and turn would make early psych practitioners such as Syd Barrett proud.

After a couple of intense endeavors – Embryonic and The Terror – and a number of interpretive projects based on material by the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Yes, the Flaming Lips, once again, follow a path of their own design on their 14th studio effort, the hallucinatory and luminous Oczy Mlody.

In my conversation with Coyne he described the musical ideas behind the new album. “I was always searching for a record that I could put on as I was going to sleep and it would be mellow enough that I could drift off to sleep and not be jarred.”

The album title and tales that encompass its 12 tracks are a figment of Coyne’s fantastical imagination based on a Polish translation of the novel Close To Home Erskine Caldwell. Unknowing to the words and their English translation, he highlighted passages that caught his fancy and through them came up with the lyrics and concepts that ended up on such songs as “The Castle,” “There Should Be Unicorns” and “Nigdy Nie (Never No).”

We discuss the new album compared to the band’s last two full-length efforts, his working life as an artist creating music and visual presentations on stages and in museums, finding a “way through the sadness,” working with producer David Fridmann and more.

JPG: There’s that saying that if you choose a job that you love you never work a day of your life. So, does it ever feel like work for you because it always seems as if you’re having a good time and excited about moving from one project to another?

WC: Well, yeah. That’s part of the job is to make it look like you’re having fun. (laughs) Well…doing…I call it art and I’m not proud of that but it is just that in a way. It’s because there is no real limit to how long something should take and how much effort and all that you’re going to put in to it. So, it’s definitely a lot of work, especially when it’s not going well and you still have to make it work with the same amount of money and time you started out with. Every deadline is like you need it right now, always right now. It’s never casual. It’s always go go go.

But I think that’s suits me. My intensity. I’m glad to always be confronting the next creation — “Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go” — but I wouldn’t say work compared to what I did before just being in the Flaming Lips all the time. It’s not the same. I’m always aware that the Flaming Lips someday could end. Then, I think, “What would I do?” (slight laugh) I’ve no other skills other than just being me and doing my thing. I’ve become more aware of that when I think, “Gee, this is tough.” Then, i think, “Yeah, but it’d be a lot tougher if you were….”

I definitely worked hard jobs. Even after we got signed to Warner Brothers there were two summers or so that I worked with a friend of my younger brother’s and all summer we installed sprinkler systems in lawns. That meant digging deep, deep trenches in the middle of the summer, all day, starting at six o’clock in the morning and go until the sun went down at seven o’clock at night. Man, I would say I loved it as it went because I was in very good shape but I was very glad not having to do it. I didn’t like getting up early, just tough, tough thing to do.

JPG: I had a summer job like that, doing construction. A job like that reminds you how badly you want to do what you want to do in life.

WC: Yeah, and it doesn’t mean that those jobs suck. Most of the guys that I worked with, they were great at it and they had the mind for it and the foresight and experience. I was simply doing the job because I needed the money. That always doesn’t work. You end up grinding away. It’s not the job’s fault but definitely more my fault.

Even doing this today, I was working on stuff down at the warehouse, working on a t-shirt designs and a couple of things, and now I’m doing interviews; even doing interviews I’m just talking. It’s the easiest job in the world.

JPG: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see you play recently. Are you still putting your equipment together before you perform that night?

WC: Well, in a sense. Most of the really bad stuff has been put together earlier in the day to make sure it’s going to work. There’s a little bit of an element. We got out there. We all take our stations and do a little bit of last-minute checking. There’s always a lot of things that can go wrong, especially when you’re using a lot of samplers and computers and things like that.

I don’t know if you would be that aware of it. If you’re in a band or something like that and you’ve done some set up, you might be aware of what we’re doing but a lot of times I don’t think the audience quite knows what we’re doing. Sometimes, I explain it to them what we’re doing (slight laugh). They’re used to people walking out there and da-da-da-daaaa. We kinda walk out there and…but that’s kind of our punk rock leftover thing. It’s our show. It’s our stuff. It’s our duty. It’s our responsibility.

JPG: The reason I bring it up is because I think how great it is that after all these years you’re still grounded and still have that attitude and that approach. You’re still doing things DIY; even looking at your equipment, which is held together by lots and lots of duct tape.

WC: Yeah. Plus, it helps us not be as nervous and all that. You’re getting ready to do something. To not be involved would just drive you crazy. So, we like to be onstage and we know what it’s going to sound like. We know where to stand and things like that.

It may be different for groups that are on a giant stadium tour where every place that you play regardless of where it is your staging and everything is exactly the same. But for us, it’s not like that. A lot of it is we try to set it up the same but every day is like, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to do that?” I think it’s good. I like that it’s — up to the very last second — you’re trying to make this particular show work the best you can and suddenly you turn around and it’s like, “Oh! Everybody’s here! So, now we’ll do that part of the show.” Definitely for me, it would drive me crazy not to be involved.

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