The Flaming Lips Conjure Love, Unicorns and Fat Beats on ‘Oczy Mlody’

Wayne Coyne exits the elevators of Warner Brothers’ New York offices and wants to play with everything in sight.

There’s a visibly empty cinnamon whiskey dispenser in the artist lounge, but that doesn’t stop Coyne from putting a neon shot glass under the spigot by the cartoon demon, curious to see if a residual sip is still in there. Then his eyes dart around the room to an egg-shaped coffee table and giant custom speakers that look like they’re from space.

Coyne’s playfulness comes as no surprise to those familiar with his trip, and today, on his 56th birthday, he’s just as much of a kid as ever. The Flaming Lips released 15th LP Oczy Mlody today, too, which translates from Polish to mean “eyes of the young.” It’s one of many phrases Coyne found in a book called Blisko Domu that he couldn’t read, but nonetheless found transfixing. Blisko domu” translates to “almost home,” which also became a song title.

Coyne’s back in Los Angeles now, likely recharging his batteries after an album release birthday party that featured nude photo booths, unicorn rides, indoor fireworks fights, edible butterflies, golden swan cupcakes, slave wrestling in an inflatable party castle and drug testing for good measure. It’s a fitting celebration for a record wherein a woman’s brain becomes a castle and unicorns with purple eyes are included on a giant, free-associative list of party supplies. At 56, Coyne’s dreams are still coming true.

“It reminds me of what one of the monster Star Wars characters would be called. It’s Blisko Domu’s spaceship, you know what I mean?”—Wayne Coyne

Flaming Lips fans will remember that on 2013’s The Terror, dissonant ambience gave way to dark beauty, songs the Lips wrote around Coyne’s separation from his common-law wife in 2012. Then his touring drummer, Kliph Scurlock, ranted about Christina Fallin, daughter of Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin, after she wore a Native American headdress while promoting and performing with her band. Wayne’s defense of his friend Fallin was suddenly politicized, which made the band look bad as they had already told Scurlock he was out before the fuss. Coyne told a reporter around the time that The Flaming Lips aren’t used to hate. 

Then Coyne’s 180 from that dark patch, arguably the first in the Lips’ 30-plus years of hurling neon prankster sunbeams, came in the form of an unlikely pairing with Miley Cyrus. Already a Fearless Freak in her own right, Cyrus soon linked up with Wayne for the buddy comedy no one saw coming. He contributed to her work, she collaborated with The Lips on several projects, and eventually they bore a record, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, with the Lips serving as her backing band.

Coyne and Cyrus are still tight—just yesterday the tabloids picked up a casual quip of Coyne’s when said he and Cyrus so close that when he texts her to ask what she’s up to, she’ll send him pictures of her peeing.

Cyrus’ influence is all over Oczy Mlody, too, in only slightly less voyeuristic ways. The English translation of that polish title, “Eyes of the Young” became the subtitle to “Sunrise,” a reworking of their “Floyd Song (Sunrise)” off the Dead Petz record. Stay with us. Cyrus also joins in at the album’s wide-eyed lysergic climax, “We a Famly.” 

Coyne’s previously described that tune, and most on the record, as “A$AP Rocky meets Syd Barrett,” and it’s hard to argue with him. Fortifying the lush Lips sonics this time around are traces of modern production that might sound opportunistic or out of place coming from any other band—fat hip-hop beats and booty-tickling low-end. These sounds supplement the psychedelic spaceman’s hero’s quest, and it’s in their vastness that you’ll hear the influence of Cyrus supporting her friend’s playful willingness to continue experimenting.

As I spoke with Coyne about love, creativity and the blissfully dissociative Oczy Mlody, it fast became apparent that the birthday boy isn’t aging one bit.

Wayne Coyne.

Wayne Coyne. Emily Assiran for Observer

I asked if you were coming from L.A. or Oklahoma because it’s cold as shit outside, and he said, “Don’t worry about the cold with Wayne.”

Yeah, you know. I’d have some clothes either way. I like your shirt!

Thanks, man, wore this for you because you’re a big Butthole Surfers fan. Gibby and you are both spiritually savvy American-made weirdos.

Well, Gibby lives right over in Brooklyn. Might even see him tonight. There’s a studio over there and he’s friends with the guy who runs it.

Happy early birthday, by the way!

Thanks, it’s Friday! We’re doing the record release party and all that.

That feels significant from where I’m standing because I read up a bit about how you all see this record as looking back at a sort of idealized childhood in a lot of ways.

Well, not on purpose, no. I mean, I think sometimes that’s just…when we use our powers to dissolve back into our subconscious, there’s part of you that must be like that, you know? Just growing up with my brothers listening to the Beatles and my mother listening to Tom Jones, there just has to be something of that in there. It’s magic.

Wayne Coyne

Wayne Coyne. Emily Assiran for Observer

Traces kind of stay with you?

Well…or that it triggers these things. When you hit upon these melodies and these themes, they hit on certain emotional things in you. You know, that would be true of anybody’s life. I’m lucky that I’m not just creative, but I get to create. I think if I were creative and didn’t get to do as much…that’s a fuckin’ cool table!

[He looks at the glass coffee table shaped like an egg.]

You like egg shapes. They come up in your work a lot.

Well, that structure of the wood and everything, I’ve seen imitations of that. That’s pretty great.

This might be the O.G. based on the premises.

[Laughs] I know! Like these things [He looks at the fancy sci-fi-looking speakers, resting on a platform with wheels.]

We were going to move them around so you could play with them for your photo shoot but decided against it. It looks too nice and wood-paneled.

It looks like a suit that you could wear, yeah.

A suit that you could wear. I couldn’t pull it off.

We’d have to squish you in there.

“That’s always a good thing, that you try to tie in the momentum of your ideas and make them more cohesive.”

So you found this Polish book…

Right. I just liked the way it looked. It was only a dollar at a used book store, and it was just something that looked cool and I thought it was something I could carry in my suitcase. We were traveling around doing shows and stuff.

The title is Blisko Domu, which, when I first saw it, I just thought it was made-up, gibberish. It reminds me of what one of the monster Star Wars characters would be called. It’s Blisko Domu’s spaceship, you know what I mean? Even the “oczy mlody” phrase sounds like that, a little made-up word.

But that’s what a mantra is: We make up words that are inherently meaningless and then we ascribe meaning to them as people. So I get that vibe, this word may mean something entirely different to someone who speaks Polish, but to Wayne—

Or we were glad that it didn’t imply any meaning, and you could just like that it sounds silly, and just the simple physical-ness of your brain saying that would have another element to it. When we’re making songs and stuff we don’t always have titles, but you have to come up with so many titles when you’re working on the computer. Even if you change it a hundred times.

Wayne Coyne.

Wayne Coyne. Emily Assiran for Observer

Working titles, stem track names—

Yeah, yeah. And there’s always the title you put on there six months ago that you’re trying to remember, and then Dennis [Coyne, Wayne’s brother] or [producer] Dave [Friddman] will go through like, “was it this?” So Steven [Drozd] and I would always be looking for little phrases and things. He saw “oczy mlody,” we were working on the track that ends up being “Oczy Mlody,” and it stuck for the immediate time.

Then little by little, seeing that title and hearing this music created this. We like that, and I think we’ve done that before, where you just start to put things together and they together have another meaning. The title of the song can influence how you feel about the music that you’re listening to. We’re aware of all those elements and how they can help and hurt and express and all that.

Jokingly too, while you were annotating the record you said that Oczy Mlody was the name of this fictional drug that reverts you back to a state of idealized childhood.

I do that a lot, I just put together a story of what this should be about. There’s a lot of momentary space in between things you’re doing in the studio. Steven and I are sitting there, he would go off for a second and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, this is what it could be about!”

All those things are just your imagination not being stopped or restricted, and we could see that was happening as we would get towards what we thought was a concept about what the record was saying, or maybe there’s a little bit of connection between [what] otherwise would just be a collection of random songs, you know? That’s always a good thing, that you try to tie in the momentum of your ideas and make them more cohesive.

I think the first song that we would have had was “We a Famly,” which wasn’t called that when we first recorded it with Miley Cyrus three years ago.

During the Dead Petz sessions?

Well, she was in Australia and going in to do a track for a movie or something. She didn’t end up being the one that sang it, but they were trying it, and while she was in there I sent her this track that ended up being the beginning of it. I wrote the lyrics right as I sent it to her, “Hey, try this!” you know. She sang it and we all really liked it, but we said, “that’s not finished yet, but let’s keep working on it.”

We never got around to doing anything more with it, and then after the Dead Petz record came out we were still messing with it [when] I came up with the chorus, “WE A FAMLY!” It’s literally one part of the song reversed. Dennis turned one part around, a melody in the song that’s reversed. So the very first thing we worked on was also the last thing we worked on, and we just sort of jammed them together.

Isn’t it great when that happens?

Yeah! That’s the creative freedom to, for lack of a better word, just keep fuckin’ with it.

And a sign that you’re on the right track, too? If the end loops back to the beginning then your journey wasn’t in vain.

Well yeah, we’re always looking for any optimistic sign that makes you think, “hey, this is good” or “we were right all along!”

Well, when you and Miley got together the whole press narrative was that Wayne Coyne is going through some mid-life crisis. And I loved your response, it caused me pause. You said the idea that we’re all at different stages in our lives is not always true. That we eventually force ourselves to stop living with that purity. But you don’t seem to accept that slowing down. You must still feel like a kid to some degree, right?

Well, yeah! Compared to the way I see some people in their 30s that seem like they’re already defeated and bitter about the world and life. I’m just lucky that it’s my personality. There’s a lot of your personality that you have no say over, and as you get older it grows onto you more and more. I think what I’m saying is, she’s so young, and I’m so old, that it doesn’t really matter.

The comparison, I’d say—someone who’s 30 doesn’t really wanna hang around with someone who’s 20 because you feel, “I’m not really like that anymore.” Whereas almost everybody I meet, even here at Warner Brothers, is younger than me. And it could be five years or 20 years.

“Love is an abstraction. It’s a quality that you have to put into things. It’s not apparent, and it’s not there. It’s a perception of you doing things that way, but I think it’s a perception that humans know about each other, you know?”

But like the process of making the record, it loops around again for you.

Yeah, and for a little while I never would have considered that. But I think it’s because I’m not 30 and I’m not 40. I’m in the realm where I’ll make jokes to people sometimes and say, “You know, back when The Flaming Lips formed in the early ‘70s…” I’ll say it as a joke. Early ‘70s, early ‘80s, who cares? It’s a long time.

And immaterial to us now.

Yeah! So it’s that, but she’s badass, too. She’s full of love, she has tons of energy and she’s not afraid to speak her mind, to take chances. And she’s absolutely a lot of fun. Most things that we do are just to have fun, and then occasionally we…“oh yeah, let’s work.” But she’s so good.

A lot of things that we would do together, she would just go in and sing it. We would stand there like, “that was great!” It would take 10 minutes and she would have this amazing thing. But I think that works for her. When we have to consider too much dynamic or expression and all that, we all get a little bit tricked. And so when I’m doing stuff with her I just wanna hear it. I don’t care how we get there.

Intention seems relevant too, though. If you go into something with love then your end product is invariably coming from a place with some kernel of light or whatever you call it.

Well, if you do it with love, and that’s what you like, it’s always gonna work. And it would be difficult to know how you could do it any other way. But she’s such a great singer and we have such a middle meeting ground, where her tone with the way that I sing, there’s just something that we like about that.

I’m always trying to get her to sing a little bit higher because she likes singing low, so there’s a little bit of that slight humanistic struggle when she has to get higher than she’s comfortable with, which I really like. But I’m not ultimately the one who has the say, she does, and I do whatever she likes, mostly.

But it was an exchange, a dialogue. I want to go back to this idea of love in the abstract, too, because around the time that The Terror came out you said that the album was about learning to live without love, that life keeps going.

Or that love is ultimately the nourishment and the energy that life is all about, but it’s not true. Love is an abstraction. It’s a quality that you have to put into things. It’s not apparent, and it’s not there. It’s a perception of you doing things that way, but I think it’s a perception that humans know about each other, you know? But it’s very easy to be tricked by people, because you’re trusting and you’re saying yes. That’s part of it, but it doesn’t matter.

Wayne Coyne heeds the signal from space.

Wayne Coyne, beaming up. Emily Assiran for Observer

A lot of Flaming Lips records could be interpreted as a hero’s quest, a space opera, the astronaut on his ceaseless voyage. But looking at the track list of this record, the penultimate number is “Almost Home” (Blisko Domu) and then “We a Famly” closes the ceremonies. That idea of a journey seems especially conscious when we take this record as a whole.

Well, some of that would just be the sense of the way that the songs unfold. They’re all just tracks in the beginning, and you hope to find a reason for one to be the first one and one to be the fifth one or whatever. I think that order they ended up being in was Dave Friddman’s wife, who hadn’t been listening to our stuff that much.

But you’re on the Yellow Brick Road nonetheless.

[Laughs] When I was younger I probably would’ve thought it absolutely matters that “Stairway to Heaven” comes after “Going to California” or whatever, but as I got older I would realize it doesn’t really.

You’ve also said that this record is A$AP Rocky meets Syd Barrett.

I would say that only to people that would know what that would mean.

Well in a very literal example of agelessness, there’s a lot of very modern production choices on this record. The beats and the low end.

A lot of the time we’re just working on stuff, jumping back and forth between working on drums and working on singing. It’s just like doing a painting. You’re painting in that corner and you’re painting in this corner. Working with Mike Will and working with Miley and just being more exposed to stuff.

Opening yourself up more?

And getting to play with it! I didn’t think we’d ever analyze or fuck with that type of production until we were working with Miley and she would be like, “Man, you gotta make that fatter!” She’d play some track and I’d be like, “Man, you’re right!”

The low-end is crazy on this record. It tickles you in the muscle right above the butt.

Totally! It may be the most low-end on a record that I’ve ever heard.

So this is made for dudes with subwoofers and rims on their lowriders.

Totally. There are whole sections of this record that you wouldn’t even know were there if you listened to it on an iPhone. It was wonderful. We got bigger subwoofers in our studio and started to fuck with it. So it was mostly that. I wouldn’t really know if it was new or old, it’s just something that we did.

The Flaming Lips play Terminal 5 on March 9 and The Westbury Theater in Westbury, N.Y. on March 11.