When I reach Wayne Coyne in Oklahoma City for a phone interview, I'm half expecting the Flaming Lips singer/songwriter/guitarist to be relaxing by a pool in full spacesuit, one hand playing a xylophone, the other popping LSD tabs like Mentos. Instead, it sounds like just another day in the life of a veteran career musician.
"I'm sitting here at my house getting some stuff done," he says. "We're going to be doing some rehearsing today and just finished working on a video."
Since I'm accustomed to seeing him surrounded by dancing creatures and confetti, sermonizing like the leader of a non-religious psychedelic cult, the description strikes me as boring. But peeking behind the curtain via Coyne's hyperactive, over-sharey Twitter feed, I realize that the video he's working on, a clip for their version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, features glitter, a naked Erykah Badu covered in blood, and tubs full of homemade fake semen.
And his house? An unshowy four-unit compound in an unassuming neighbourhood of Oklahoma City, but one that's lately become a rock and roll mini-mecca in the heart of America, a Big Pink for the social media generation.
The Queen of Neo-Soul, Badu is just one of many far-ranging Flaming Lips collaborators who rolled through the compound to contribute to their most recent release, a Record Store Day vinyl compilation called The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends (set for official release June 26). Some, like kindred spirits Tame Impala and Nick Cave, are obvious fits, while others, like Coldplay's Chris Martin, are less so.
File Ke$ha in the latter category. The 25-year-old's commercial-minded sleaze-pop has little in common with the wide-eyed psych-rock of the Lips, but Coyne found a willing muse in the young pop singer.
"I had a feeling she was going to be a freak, but I didn't know if she was going to be a freak in freaky ways that are fun or freaky ways that are unpleasant," recalls Coyne.
Ke$ha guests on Heady Fwends' opening track, a taking-acid-while-the-world-ends-themed Stooges stomp called 2012 (You Must Be Upgraded). The singer had never tried LSD before, but for the sake of authenticity was ready to send her assistant to find some. (Coyne nixed the idea due to their time-limited recording window.)
He laughs when I bring up the anecdote.
"I'm actually not supposed to talk about it," he says, barely maintaining his uncharacteristic coyness. "Her people are afraid her audience won't like the idea that Ke$ha might want to do acid. She has young fans, and I can understand that, but I think it speaks well of her to think she'd say, ‘Let's just try it and see what happens.' That's why it's so easy to do stuff with her, because it's like anything goes - fuck it."
The Flaming Lips have embodied that "anything goes - fuck it" mentality since their beginnings as a noisy punk band in the early 80s, but have maximized it in the last few years.
Since 2009's Embryonic (itself a stylistic left turn from brightly orchestrated pop-rock into dark, loose psych jams), the band has abandoned the album format, instead producing a series of oddball releases, each more off-the-wall than the last: a 24-hour song encased in a human skull, a homemade sound-and-light toy called the Strobo Trip, a 12-iPhone synchronized symphony and the aforementioned collaborative album, packaged with vials of each musician's own blood.
Internet distribution and democratized technology should theoretically free young musicians from the tyranny of the traditional album cycle, but it seems it's the elder statesmen of the alternative era - Beck, Jack White and Coyne - who are taking advantage.
And they're being recognized for it. At press time, the Flaming Lips are up for the Digital Genius prize at the internet-focused O Awards, a nice little nod for a band that's been working for nearly three decades. (The award ceremony coincides with the Flaming Lips playing a Guinness World Record-breaking eight shows in 24 hours.)
"Having the freedom to fail is such a relief," says Coyne. "When bands are young, there's too much emphasis on getting things right the first time. If you get something right the first time, it's just fucking dumb luck. It's like having sex for the first time. You can fucking read about it and watch movies, but once you start to do it there's a lot of shit in the nuances that you can't know until you've done it enough times."
It helps that the Lips have about 16 albums of experience to draw from, at least two of which - The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots - are considered modern classics. But Coyne says he and his bandmates would rather follow their current impulses than dwell on past glories. Beyond the gimmicks, the Lips' recent non-album releases were born of a desire to put their ideas on wax (or flash drive or YouTube or gummy fetus) and release them before they lost interest.
That perpetual present caused a three-year gap after the last "proper" Flaming Lips LP, but they haven't abandoned the format entirely. In fact, Coyne reveals, they've got only one session left on their next album, tentatively due for release in October. The album, recorded between sessions for other projects, combines futuristic, distorted synths with harmonic gospel vocals and existential lyrics.
"It feels like some kind of religious music from the future," he says, in his casually hyperbolic Coyne-esque way. "Everything is a distorted process of some signal that's long been out in outer space. We've dialed one part in from one part of the universe and one sound from another part of the universe, and it's like they've all just magically, cosmically been able to speak to each other."
Thematically, the lyrics ruminate on life, death, isolation and the nature of the universe in ways that fans will be familiar with. Coyne is often mis-categorized as an eternal optimist, but the band's bittersweet ideas arise from a very real fear of death. (Drummer-turned-guitarist Stephen Drozd famously battled a crippling heroin addiction.)
As for their colourful live show, a psychedelic jamboree of balloons, puppets, lasers and LED vaginas, that, too, is born of an elegiac frame of mind in which life, death, sex, drugs and astronomy all spring from the same well. Expect to see that enlarged on the big, open stage of Yonge-Dundas Square at their NXNE headlining performance.
"There are times when music crescendos life to these big dramatic moments," preaches Coyne. "Sometimes they're so dramatic, you don't know if you can handle them. And so whenever we go to these peaks that force us to sing about sadness, which is really one of music's greatest gifts, we can embrace these unspeakable things and turn them into something we can deal with."
"When we're in front of people, I say, ‘This is our peak of life. If we don't make these peaks happen, then they don't happen.' I compare it a lot to people having orgasms. You have to let it happen, or it won't."
"I know life isn't built only on big, dramatic moments, but to combat the fear of isolation and death, I say let's embrace the ecstasy of life. Death is the only thing worth singing about, but I don't want it to be a bummer, so I embrace it by saying, ‘We are going to die, motherfuckers, so let's make sure we are alive.'"