The scene is captured on grainy videotape: 30 cars in a dimly lit parking deck in Oklahoma, encircling an incongruous number of people — some drivers, some spectators — all clearly waiting for something to happen. It almost resembles some arcane, new-age ritual, all attention centered on a charismatic, shamanic figure in a yellow rain slicker who hands out cassette tapes to the drivers and shouts a countdown through his megaphone, directing each of the 30 participating car stereos to begin playing their respective cassettes simultaneously.
The resulting sound echoes through the concrete structure — “[it’s] a sort of man-made amplifier, the garage parking lot,” the man in the slicker will explain later — and it’s at once cacophonous and revelatory. Some tape decks produce a tribal drumbeat, while others emit tinkling piano melodies or distorted guitars. At least one features audio of a woman moaning in ecstasy. At times, the parking deck is plunged into an overwhelming dissonance; at others, the arrangement’s many moving parts fall into a cathartic harmony. The crowd — encouraged to move toward the center of the circle in order to receive the full experience — listens intently, enraptured.
The Parking Lot Experiments, as they were called, took place from late 1995 to late 1997. They were orchestrated by an Oklahoma City-based alt-rock band called the Flaming Lips — at the time, a moderately successful group signed to Warner Brothers Records and best known for a goofy single, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” from a few years earlier.
After 13 years and seven albums, the band — led by frontman Wayne Coyne, the man with the slicker and the megaphone — had become restless with what it meant to be defined as a guitar-driven rock band. The subsequent period of experimentation — with how music was made, how it was presented to the audience and how the audience interacted with it — proved to be a fundamental turning point in the band’s identity, beginning their transformation into the psychedelic oddballs and festival mainstays they are today. It was a shift that seems to have surprised the band as much as it did listeners.
“I don’t think we could have known how much [the Parking Lot Experiments] would connect when we did it in the beginning,” Coyne says, speaking 20 years later. “I really think that it changed us. People would think that it would be the other way around, that we changed and made it. But that whole process of discovering that within ourselves, it changed us. We just became a whole other version of ourselves.
“I think that’s the thing about art that people don’t realize,” he says. “It’s in charge of you. You’re not in charge of it. You do a little thing, and you get this reaction, and you react to it, and it’s amazing.”
“It’s Only Later That We Wake Up”
Wayne Coyne is a little out of breath. He’s just finished “a very long, exhausting, hot run” through a park in Edmond, Oklahoma, roughly 20 miles north of his home in Oklahoma City, and he’s still out in the sun — but he’s energetic regardless. “I’m good now,” he says. “I’m kind of in the recovery mode. I think I’m going to live.”
Coyne seems to exist in a state of perpetual enthusiasm, fueled by the wondrous weirdness of the world around him. He’s the kind of guy who frequently uses “freak” as a compliment; in one video from Fuse TV, he spends several minutes excitedly describing the smell of bat urine to an unsuspecting interviewer.
But there’s a sharp focus to his starry-eyed gaze that defines even the Flaming Lips’ zaniest output. Not only does the band doggedly follow its far-out creative whims — making a 24-hour-long song, for instance — but they’ll push them to even further extremes, like releasing 13 copies of that 24-hour-long song on USB drives encased in real human skulls (called, naturally, “24 Hour Song Skull”).
“When we’re doing something like a 24-hour song — if you were around us, you would be as absolutely convinced that this was the greatest thing we could ever do right now,” Coyne says. “We wouldn’t be looking at it as, ‘What the [expletive] are we doing?’ or ‘I can’t wait for this to be over.’ When we’re in it, it seems like we’re doing exactly with art and music and ideas [what] we should be doing. It’s only later that we kind of wake up and go, ‘What the [expletive]?’”
Even the band’s most challenging experiments, like 1997’s Zaireeka — their eighth studio album, a culmination of the Parking Lot Experiments that required listeners to play four CDs at once — don’t come from a conscious desire to provoke, Coyne says. (And provoke it did; NME gave the album a 10/10 and called it “a work of genius,” while Pitchfork gave it a 0/10, describing it as a “completely useless [thing] no one should have bothered with.”)
“When we were making it, we probably thought every group was going to make [an album like] Zaireeka, and we were just doing it now,” Coyne says. “I think at the time we thought that the Beastie Boys and Radiohead, they’d be making stuff like this, too. It just seemed like it was an idea that everybody would have. [Then] after we would put it out, we would start to come to our senses, like, ‘Why would anyone else do this?’
“So it’s not really an idea that we have, it’s more like the idea has us, and we become the willing slaves that get to do the work that this overseeing dictator of an idea has demanded of us,” he says. “That’s the way we want it to be. I don’t think we could successfully calculate, ‘If we do this, people will think we’re cool.’ For us, being completely immersed and obsessed with an idea is the only way. And that takes care of itself. I wouldn’t know of any other way to make music or art anyway.”
“These Weirdos That Were Us”
But outlandish mutations of the medium aren’t what give the Flaming Lips’ discography its power; wrapped inside those oddities are often heartfelt, often painful searches for truth and meaning.
Take, for instance, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, an album released by the band in 2002. As its title might indicate, the album is built upon a high-concept science fiction narrative, with the titular karate expert defending humanity against newly self-aware, “evil-natured robots.” But instead of embracing the outlandishness of its premise, the album instead focuses on Yoshimi’s existential journey, culminating in the bittersweet track “Do You Realize??”, which has become one of the band’s signature songs. (It’s also the official state rock song of the band’s native Oklahoma.)
“Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” Coyne sings on the track, which combines his signature sense of wonder with measured gravitas. “And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know / You realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last / You realize that the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the earth spinning around.”
Coyne says he’s touched by way listeners have reacted to the song — but like everything in the band’s discography, he calls its success “dumb luck.”
“I think every songwriter hopes that there’s something in their catalog or in a song that they’ve written that magically touches people who are both happy or people who are having some very profound sadness or something, and that it works,” he says. “If one person takes the song and has a genuine emotional experience with it, that changes what other people around them think of the song. And before you know it, other people hear something in the song, because it’s affecting this other person so much. I think it’s kind of set up, like that kind of song. I don’t think it’s something we set up on purpose, but I hear it now and it plays into that type of song. It’s vague enough that it could be used when your grandmother dies; it could also be used when your grandchildren are born. It’s a celebration and it’s sadness.”
In recent years, though, the band’s studio albums have grown steadily darker; 2009’s Embryonic is a dread-laden exploration of paranoia, while 2013’s The Terror is somehow even bleaker, focusing on the emptiness that follows the loss of love.
That darkness, Coyne says, was a deliberate effort not to repeat the moods of “Do You Realize??” and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. “We would be conscious that we were doing music that we thought would sound like [our old material], and Steven [Drozd, a longtime member of the band] and I would say, ‘Well, there’s that, but we don’t really want to do that,’” Coyne says. “There would be times where we would pick at a thread of something that we had accidentally created and take it on a tangent.”
The change in sound was compelling for the band, Coyne says: “It felt like something that didn’t seem like the Flaming Lips at all.”
But it’s just as important, Coyne says, to remember that the band’s music exists on a continuum with lighter material like that on Yoshimi or the group’s 1999 breakout The Soft Bulletin. “Almost every show that we’ve played since we made that record [has] included some of those songs,” he says. “I think as we make more and more records, the idea that your new record has to demolish your old image and your old record — I don’t think that’s true for us anymore. Which I think sometimes is what a group like Radiohead does; they very much stand with the idea that the new is great and the old is whatever. Not for good or bad — I think that’s for different personalities. [But] we never thought that.”
Coyne even expresses an enthusiasm for band’s older material, guitar-centric records from the 1980s and early ‘90s that are sonically far removed from the group’s recent output.
“Some of our old records, when we listen to them, because we can’t quite remember the way we felt and all the stuff connected to making those records, they’re just phenomenal,” he says. “Steven and I were like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we were doing that, it’s so cool.’ And the older the records are, the more I think we feel detached enough to just be fans of these weirdos that were us. We’re standing here looking at ourselves, and we don’t recognize ourselves. But we like it.”
With a Little Help from Some Fwends
It’s been a little over three years since The Terror, which itself was released almost four years after Embryonic. In those intervening periods, though, the band keeps itself busy, both with bizarre experimental releases — A USB drive in a gummy fetus? Check. Two YouTube videos meant to be played simultaneously on two separate smartphones? Check. — and with numerous collaborations with contemporary musicians.
Some collaborators are logical choices: the group recorded an EP with synthpop musician Neon Indian in 2011; that year also saw the release of another EP, this one a collaboration with Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band. In 2012, they released The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, a compilation album featuring contributions from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Kesha, Bon Iver, Nick Cave and Tame Impala, among others.
And then, of course, there were full-length cover albums of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (with Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches) and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (titled With a Little Help from My Fwends, featuring collaborations with acts as disparate as Dr. Dog, Tegan and Sarah, Grace Potter and Miley Cyrus).
Perhaps garnering the most attention, though, has been the band’s frequent collaboration with Cyrus, herself a pop-cultural lightning rod. After Cyrus contributed vocals to two With a Little Help from My Fwends tracks — “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life” — Coyne and Drozd worked extensively with her on her album Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, which received a surprise release in 2015. (Coyne and Drozd are credited as writers on 10 of the album’s 23 tracks and receive production credits on 14.)
“I think she wanted that freedom that the Flaming Lips would have,” Coyne says. “‘I’m not this big star that’s told what to do.’ That’s her way of saying, ‘I’m like you guys. I want to be the one that’s in control.’ So I think it’s important that she did all that and did it her way, and felt good about it or bad about it or thought it worked or regretted it or [thought] it didn’t work, whatever. But until you do it yourself, you don’t get it.
“I didn’t really know what she was going to do until she would do it,” he adds. “Sometimes you’d be thinking you were going to work on a song for another couple of months, and she’d say, ‘No, we’re putting it out tomorrow!’ And we’d go, ‘[Expletive]!’”
The album received mixed reviews from critics and fans, who cited its excessive length (90 minutes) and what some perceived as an unfinished quality to the music. But Coyne maintains that the album is an important step in Cyrus’s career. “I think we were all very glad,” he says. “As time goes by, I think it seems like a braver and braver thing for her to do… I think that was just such a [departure] from what she had done just two years previous, to doing that record with us in that way. Just an insane artistic leap. I think if you were around her, it’s a leap that she’s making in her life, in the way that she is. It’s not just in her music, it’s in her life.
“And that’s why we love her so much,” he adds. “She’s the real deal. She’s a freak.”
In return, Cyrus has been a noticeable influence on the Flaming Lips’ upcoming record, which the band finished work on at the end of June.
“I think people that have heard it see how much we’ve been influenced by Miley Cyrus and Mike Will [Made It, a producer who also worked on Dead Petz], and some of those producers that we all got to do music with in the past couple of years,” he says. “I don’t think Steven and I were that aware of how much we were going into a new world. Because a lot of it seemed like it was all stuff that we already liked, but it wasn’t really [something] we had made that much. Some people have heard it and say it sounds like Brian Eno and ASAP Rocky have gotten together. And I thought, ‘Oh, good!’”
But even now, after 33 years and (soon-to-be) 15 studio albums, Coyne and the Flaming Lips maintain the same sense of restlessness they’ve always had. “This last week, we were at the studio, finishing this newest record,” he says. “We finished this, the very end of the very last thing we were doing on this record, and 10 minutes later we were working on another track. Like, ‘Well, here we go. We did that, now let’s do this.’”
The Flaming Lips will perform at SlossFest’s Steam Stage on Sunday, July 17 from 8:45 p.m. to 10 p.m.