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The Flaming Lips on covering Sgt. Pepper’s, Miley Cyrus, and never stopping

After 30 years spent making oddball rock music with a modicum of mainstream appeal, The Flaming Lips have built up quite the Rolodex of talented collaborators, friends, and contacts—most recently used on its star-studded The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends album. Now Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and company have set their sights on the Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, turning in a full cover album as performing artists, curators, and artistic directors. And if Sgt. Pepper’s was the sound of the Beatles on acid, then this collection—titled With A Little Help From My Fwends and benefiting Oklahoma City’s Bella Foundation—is the sound of Sgt. Pepper’s on acid.

Featuring guests that range from huge names (Miley Cyrus, Moby, Phantogram, Maynard James Keenan, My Morning Jacket, Tegan And Sara) to obscure art-rock musicians (Black Pus, Zorch, Def Rain, Birdflower, Fever The Ghost), the track-by-track remake wavers between being beautiful, harmonized, and structured, and weird, noisy, and off-key. Straightforward renditions such as “She’s Leaving Home,” led by Phantogram and Julianna Barwick, stand in sharp contrast to abrupt detours—like when J. Mascis appears at the end of the title track with a disproportionately loud, discordant guitar solo. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” features both Miley Cyrus and Moby, but you might never realize it without liner notes—Cyrus sings in a lower register, and Moby’s contribution is seemingly kept to a few echoing words. In short, it’s quintessential Lips—a band that also has recorded trippy full-album covers of Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and the Stone Roses.


The A.V. Club: As a band, you guys seem very invested in keeping up on music and art. How important is it for you to be tied into what other contemporaries are doing?

Wayne Coyne: Instagram is a great example of you just doing your thing. I don’t think there’d be any energy or any way of keeping up—you either like it or you don’t. And if you like it, you’re just part of it, taking it in—it’s all just stuff that’s happening. It’s absolutely wonderful, all of the people you get to meet and the artists and musicians. And then it’s another level when you get to work with them and have fun with them and do things together. All of that, I think, is just part of the way that we live.

And to me, it’s all art. I know that it seems like there’s music and art. I know that to some people, music is another sphere of the way that their mind works. But to me, it’s not—I’m either painting or drawing, doing a song, doing a video. I tell most people that I’m talking to that if you were around me today, you would be on one of the records. You couldn’t be around me and not get involved.

I think that I’m lucky—I think that I attract people who live and work the same way that I do. It’s not a big, serious, stressful thing; we just do it every day. Being around someone like a Moby or a Miley Cyrus—I think they’re already in the mindset of doing things the same way that I am. It’s just not that big of a deal. I’m sure there are some people out there who would need to have 12 managers and handlers and have it set up six months in advance. We just aren’t like that. We take it seriously, but we know that we’ll find a way to make it all work.


AVC: How many of these collaborations came about through relationships with other musicians, and how many were the result of cold calls?

WC: There’s not really anybody that I got to cold call. I know Jack White, but he doesn’t have a phone—you can’t just get him. I tried to get Die Antwoord, but they’re kind of in the same boat. “You’re not going to just get my phone number, dude.”


With most of the people, if I didn’t really know them, I think that they would be attracted to my way of doing things. Even the very first sounds that you hear on the Sgt. Pepper’s album, that band Fever The Ghost—I didn’t know them at all. They’re such a great, cool, creepy weirdo group. I’m so glad that I know them now. But I didn’t know them at all, and I didn’t know that they were going to do that song, per se. They sent it to me, and I was like, “What the fuck? This is fucking outrageous!” The band Treasure Mammal—I didn’t know them. A couple of others I didn’t really know, and they kind of approached me to be involved. A lot of them I did know, or they knew me and wanted to do it, and we worked it out.

But there were a few like Maynard [James Keenan, of Tool]—I texted him in the middle of the night. I was reminded that he did this Elton John cover of “Rocket Man” with Steven [Drozd], so I was reminded, “Oh yeah, he does stuff like that.” And he texted me right back, “Sounds like fun; I’ll get on it.” And he’s like me in that way, where if he says he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.


Most of the people that I’m dealing with have that about them, even like a Miley Cyrus. When I said we were going to do it, she’s like, “cool.” And you know you’re going to do it and not have 20 managers and handlers involved.

AVC: You’re probably tired of talking about Miley Cyrus by now.

WC: I love her to death, and of all of the people on this record, she to me is most like the Beatles, especially in that time of them doing Sgt. Pepper’s. When you think of the Beatles when they very first started, they were considered very poppy and maybe very temporary and gimmicky. And really, just a couple of years later, they’re doing some of the most absolutely radical music ever. And I think that Miley is in that same way. That image of her, that thing that she used to be—within a couple years, I think it will completely blow people’s minds. So I love talking about her because she’s great. She deserves to have people who know her talk about her, because she’s cool.


AVC: Have you seen a tangible effect from her fandom? Have you noticed newer, younger fans at your shows?

WC: I don’t really know if many of her fans would come to a Flaming Lips show. You have to remember, they do love her. If you’re involved with her, there’s a sense of, “Well, if you’re with Miley, we like you too,” but I don’t think that they would come to a Lips show. If Miley was going to be there, they would.


I think that’s part of the appeal, that we became aware that there will probably be some 15-year-olds that will buy the record and listen to it and only know Miley Cyrus. And I love the idea that they’ll probably listen to other tracks as well as have it absolutely blow their minds. And they won’t think of it as weird; they’ll just think of it as music. That’s how I grew up—my brothers listened to some of the fucking weirdest music ever, but when I was young and around them, it was just music. It wasn’t weird music [versus] normal music. So I think it had a great effect on me not to have a judgment on what music was.

AVC: How did this process compare to covering The Dark Side Of The Moon or covering King Crimson and the Stone Roses?


WC: King Crimson and the Stones Roses, those were very casual and laid-back—there was no schedule. They were never really presented to the world; they’re mostly things that we made for our friends and family, little things that we would do.

The Dark Side Of The Moon was done kind of in the opposite—we were going to do just a couple of B-sides at the time for iTunes. In just the couple of days in pre-production, I got a hold of Peaches and Henry Rollins and some people that I know, getting it ready to make it all happen. With the Sgt. Pepper’s one, luckily we’ve got a lot of experience with production and how we can get somebody to record in L.A. and somebody to record in New York, and we can stick them all together in our studio.


I did some recording with Miley Cyrus the other night, and she was in Australia. It was 3 p.m. for her and 6 a.m. for me, and I sent her some files from Oklahoma to Australia, and an hour later she’s singing on our songs. So that’s the way the world goes now. But this one—having so many songs—I really did reach out to a lot of people. I wanted it to be a really great bunch of freaks. By the time we got to the end of July and August, it became pretty consuming. We had to get it all finished just to get to the next level of lawyers, record companies, and all of that—the boring part that you have to do at the end. And that’s quite fast for that many groups, especially in the summertime when everybody is out playing shows in different parts of the world. I think we’re lucky that those other records kind of gave us insight on how we could do something when we were forced to do it like this.

AVC: Did the guests get to decide how they contributed?

WC: At the very beginning, we all got to pick a little bit. But it quickly got to where everybody wanted to do “She’s Leaving Home,” and I’d say, “Well, you can’t do that.” And we’d get three or four versions of that and “A Day In The Life.” And there were some that nobody wanted to touch—“[Being] For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” nobody wanted to touch. In the beginning, it was great, but for some of them, I’d simply say, “You have to do this song.”


A lot of great things happen in that realm, though. Some of our best music has always been done when we didn’t want to do it. “We’ve already done it—I don’t have any ideas.” And then that’ll be the thing that has everything about it. So I never stop. Just because we’re tired and don’t have any ideas doesn’t mean that something great might not happen.

AVC: In a general sense, how have all of your collaborations affected The Flaming Lips, either as musicians, as a band, or as people?


WC: Almost every time that we work with somebody, we are reenergized and inspired, or we see a new way or have a new appreciation of something. It doesn’t always work, but it works most of the time. And I think that most of the people I’m dealing with, they’re a lot like me. So I’m not pushing people that don’t want to do something; most of the people have a billion things going on, and they love it. But occasionally there are people who are not like me, and I forget that they’re more introverted or shy, or just don’t want to make a decision so quickly.

That would be like the woman who sings in the group Def Rain; she does the song “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I love her to death, but I remembered that she is shy. She’ll do whatever I ask her, but she doesn’t want to make a million decisions just right now. She wants to sing and feel it and all that, and I [remember], “Oh yeah, that’s what artists do.” And that was a great collaboration. But I forget that not everybody is like a Maynard or a Miley Cyrus.


But I love [collaborating]. It would be hard to know what The Flaming Lips would be if we weren’t open to that or seeking out that thing. I think that’s why we work with [producer] Dave Fridmann, who really does influence us. We don’t go in there thinking, “We’re just going to do what we want.” I think that I’m doing what I want, and then something happens, and I’m like, “Now I want this!” I change my mind all the time. I think that’s what you have to do.

It’s like when you’re 10 years old, your favorite food is Cap’n Crunch, and then 10 years later you have some Thai food and change your mind. I always say that I do it with my “new mind”—meaning that whatever I thought a year ago, now I have my new mind, and I might think something different.


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