Wayne Coyne Talks Miley Cyrus: "The More Outrageous She Is, the More Outrageous the World Becomes"

Music Features The Flaming Lips
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Wayne Coyne Talks Miley Cyrus: "The More Outrageous She Is, the More Outrageous the World Becomes"

Wayne Coyne is a sparkly person. No, really: Every corner of the Flaming Lips frontman actually shimmers, whether it’s the small blob of glitter polish on his thumbnail, the sequins dotting the corner of his eye or the multicolored plastic beads looped around his wrist. But the 56-year-old’s speaking voice is low-pitched—an unexpected step away from the piercing wail that has defined his ongoing career with the Lips, his 30-year-old psych-rock troupe with 13 albums to their name, including the latest, Oczy Mlody.

“It sounds like ‘oxi-m-lodi,’” he sounds out when we meet in person at the Warner Brothers office in New York. The phrase itself comes from Blisko domu, a Polish novel by Peter Robinson, which Coyne bought on a whim. Coyne’s phrase of choice roughly translates to “eyes of the young.”

Oczy Mlody, which follows The Flaming Lips’ weighty 2013 album The Terror, definitely exudes the sort of buoyant, wide-eyed mood one would expect from a fledgling gaze. “There should be unicorns,” Coyne asserts on the song of the same name (albeit ones with “purple eyes [that] shit everywhere”) before following up with tales of “frogs with demon eyes” and “fairies and witches and wizards [to kill].” (For all of their well-worn whimsy, The Flaming Lips’ happy little clouds can turn stormy in an instant.)

Coyne also welcomes back a familiar face on the Lips’ latest: good friend and collaborator Miley Cyrus, who co-wrote her 23-song experimental project Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz with Coyne and the Lips in 2015, and pops up on Oczy Mlody closer, “We a Famly.”

“It’s funny, as young as she is and as old as I am, there is a sort of crossover of tone that we both really like,” Coyne says. “She sings quite low for a 24-year-old woman, and I sing quite high for an older guy. “I’m like, “I want her to sing higher,” and she’ll be like [imitates Cyrus] “I don’t like singing so high!” But when she does I think she finds that more sort of piercing, emotional quality to it, and I know she likes it. It’s just one of those things we like in each other.”

Below, Coyne expands on his and Cyrus’ work (of which there might be more in the future), why he feels they connect more on a creative level than onetime muse Kesha and why he’d like the Lips to collaborate more with the hip-hop community in the future.

Paste: You got the title Oczy Mlody from a Polish book you picked up, correct?

Wayne Coyne: There was a paperback that I found just looking around in a record store or a thrift store or something for like a dollar, y’know? So I was looking at it and I liked the way the cover looked. The title of it is Blisko domu, and I think I just liked it and just carried it in my suitcase. Then when I got home it made its way to sitting in the studio. It would be like one of those little things when we were doing mixing or just sitting there in the studio – it’s an interesting thing because, I don’t know if you’ve ever analyzed this, but if you try to read a newspaper in your dreams—

Paste: You can’t read at all in your dreams.

Coyne: Yeah, it’s a strange phenomenon. I know because I’ve tried to do it probably a thousand times and it’s all working and yet it doesn’t work. There are moments in my dreams where I’ll be like, “This is that dilemma about reading in your dreams,” but then sometimes I’m completely unaware of it.

But anyway, I think that whenever you go to pick up something that looks as though it’s in charge and that mechanism kicks in, and you’re reading yet there’s nothing absorbed. These little phrases would stick out like, “Oh, that’s a funny word!” We would do that all the time. There’d be little markings in the book, and Steven [Drozd, Lips multi-instrumentalist] was looking through it one day and he discovered the word “Oczy Mlody.” I think we were working on the track that ended up being the title track. We had tried it maybe 20 different times and just kept fucking with it. We needed a title, so we immediately were like, “Let’s just call this that?” and went with it. We liked that it was kind of gibberish. For me, I liked that it felt like it could be one of the monster characters in Star Wars that’s driving a spaceship, y’know? They speak English and they’re doing things just like us, but they happen to be blobs and shit.

Paste: It feels like divine providence that the phrase sounds poetic when translated to English.

Coyne: Yeah, that’s where you just get absolutely lucky. It roughly translates to “eyes of the young.” Some people will say it needs a “-ch” on the end, but it didn’t in the book.

Paste: Why did you think it was time to do another new Flaming Lips record after working on number of other projects, like working with Miley Cyrus on Her Dead Petz and recording Sgt. Pepper cover album With a Little Help From My Fwends?

Coyne: At some point we just started to realize like, “Okay, we’re starting to make a record here.” We had gotten done with the Miley Cyrus record, and there were these little things that had been percolating through the making of that that were maybe going to be songs we worked on with her but they didn’t work out. I mean, we did like 20 songs with her and she used almost every one of them. We thought with her that there was going to be more time in the end where we were all going to whittle these things down to maybe five or six songs and then she just ended up using everything.

Then, we knew we were going to be playing shows with her, and it seemed like I could see into the future. We were making all this music, so I figured, “Why don’t we start working on what could be the next Flaming Lips record?”

Paste: What kind of mindset were you in when you were writing Oczy Mlody? To quote one lyric on “How??”: “White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground / Legalize it, every drug right now / Are you with with us or are you burnin’ out?” There’s a definite sense of hopelessness there.

Coyne: With some songs you just get lucky. Whatever you spurt out of your mouth in the momentum of the creation is what the song starts to become. With some songs, like this “How??” song, it’s this floating, melancholy thing. Everything about it was already flowing like we already knew what the lyrics were going to be, but I didn’t have any lyrics. Steven and Michael [Ivins, Lips bassist] were messing around and Steven came up with this great chord progression and this great haunting, slightly optimistic and slightly sad melody, but nothing was set. This is just mumblings. And the song the whole time is becoming more finished even though there’s no real lyrics. I had the bit [sings “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how!”]. So it’s this great emotional crescendo of that thing, and I think a lot of people can relate to that.

Paste: I think especially now, in our present political climate.

Coyne: Yeah, although I didn’t intend it in that way. I felt like in the way that the melodies weren’t everything, that you already knew everything about the story. Sometimes I will shape [a song] like a movie: you know where it is, you know what the characters are doing, you know what they’re wearing you know who killed everybody, but sometimes in movies characters just say funny lines and you remember them even though they have nothing to do with the story. So with this song I felt like we already knew what the story was. It’s an unspeakable emotional story. I was just like, “I don’t fucking know what to say, so I’m just going to go out there and sing any fucking ridiculous thing that the character within this story could say,” and that’s just what I did.

Paste: Reggie Watts is on this record doing some spoken-word. How did you guys connect?

Coyne: We were at this festival that’s outside of Seattle. I’d heard about Reggie and luckily we were playing later in the day and he was doing a set earlier in a big tent, and we all went over there. I think we caught most of his set, which, y’know, was probably 30 minutes of comedy, spoken-word and music, and he’s just sort of rambling along telling stories and all this stuff. We loved it. I immediately went backstage as he was walking off and didn’t know if he knew me or anything and just talked about how much we liked it. I got his phone number and said, “Hey, let’s do something. We both agreed we’d try.

I would keep trying to include him in stuff, and if he was able to he would, so he ended up on the album because I was just doing that again. We were in the middle of what was an unknown track and I had him in mind. So I sent him this thing and he ended up doing this stream-of-consciousness little ramble that I’d put together in a text. The track was rolling along and we got his stuff, and that compelled us to make it a little bit more of a song.

Paste: I read that you’d like record more with Miley—in addition to her spot on “We a Famly.”

Coyne: Yeah, I think we just are in each other’s lives. The way The Flaming Lips work—I mean, we’re always always doing music, and even the way that the music sort of became Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, we’re very much working on music and can always be like, “This is shaping up to be something,” and maybe we’ll get together with Cyrus and see if she likes it. I already have three tracks that we’re gonna start to see about once she gets on it, or if she likes it, or how much more in this vein we could work on. There’s no pressure, there’s no expectations, that’s just the way we’re making music together. I think she really likes that about it. It’s not about your career, it’s not about selling records, it’s about this other outlet. And being collaborators that really care about each other and really don’t have an agenda for each other.

Paste: I appreciate that you keep her and other artists you’ve worked with in the past sort of in your orbit.

Coyne: Yeah, I would like to do more stuff with, say, Kesha, but she is just kind of a very volatile artist now.

Paste: Yeah, things are a bit precarious for her, legally speaking.

Coyne: It is, and that part comes and goes. Sometimes it seems important and sometimes it doesn’t. I think for her it’s a lot more stressful than for someone like Miley. Miley is a lot more in control and relaxed; she’s just more open to all of that and Kesha’s a little more introverted. She’s a freak when she’s doing her character, but she’s a little bit more introverted when it’s just her and a little more shy and regretful about things, and Miley’s not like that. She’s just like, “Fuck it, let’s go.”

Paste: Kesha and Miley do come from very different backgrounds.

Coyne: Well, yeah, I think with Miley it’s just in her blood and she just comes at it more relaxed. She’s also quite a bit younger, so she’s in the flow of just being herself and these things work out. They work out perfectly; the more outrageous she is the more outrageous the world becomes, it’s almost like that. I think Kesha sometimes struggles with it more being like “Should I be this way or that way?” or “Should I say these things in my music?” When I was around her we would have, not heated discussions, but we would go back and forth about what we could say in the lyrics and I was like “Who cares? It’s music.” She would be aware that some of her fans are eight years old and wonder if we can say this. Miley and I have never ever had a conversation like that, it would just never matter that much.

Paste: Are you tight enough with Kesha to have checked in with her about how she’s been doing over her whole last year?

Coyne: I do. I text with her and we send each other pictures and stuff like that, but I don’t always take it like that there is any reason I should know what’s going on with her just ‘cause you read something in some magazine or see something on some dumb entertainment website. Occasionally we’ll be playing in the same places and I’ll say, “Hey, come to this show” and she’ll come to the show. I think we’re still great friends, but I don’t know how comfortable she is with me trying to get her to do things that she’s not sure she’s able to do. That’s where I think I’m too intense.

Paste: Is there anybody that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to, or are still in conversation with?

Coyne: I would have liked to have worked with Amy Winehouse. Some of these people there’s no possible way you can do stuff now and I think, “Fuck, that would have been great.” A lot of times I don’t know why I go towards these women, but it’s probably just because I like their voices. There are a lot of dudes, too. I think for the most part The Flaming Lips have probably worked with more dudes than we have women, it’s just that some of the women we’ve worked with are very famous and some of the dudes we’ve worked with aren’t that famous.

There are so many freaks out there. Even sometimes working with rappers, because you can provide this sort of track or vibe and they can sort of go on top of that. So all of that stuff is sort of appealing. The stuff that we did with Big Sean, that was great! He didn’t just do it either; there was a lot considered about the tempo, even the volume of his voice within the track and stuff like that. It was cool, and we’re always open to all of that stuff, but it’s sort of like working with Reggie, y’know? You’ve gotta be ready when their schedule allows it to happen, and I’m accommodating in that way.