Flaming Lips Talk Work Ethic, Taking Ayahuasca With Miley Cyrus

Wayne Coyne on 'Oczy Mlody' and the enduring appeal of "Puff, the Magic Dragon"

Flaming Lips' latest album is 'Oczy Mlody' Credit: George Salisbury

To promote the Flaming Lips' 14th album, Oczy Mlody, leader Wayne Coyne is taking guests in an unoccupied office at Warner Brothers' New York headquarters. "It's like a job interview," Coyne says, though few bosses probably interview prospective employees in a pom-pom scarf, green winter coat, frill-fringed pants and a faceful of encrusted sparkle jewelry. The Flaming Lips frontman and chief conceptualizer is a few days away from his combination 56th birthday soirée and album release extravaganza in Los Angeles, set to feature a wrestling pit, edible butterflies and a body tie-dye vat. 

With a title repurposed from a phrase in a Polish novel and transformed by Coyne into a drug in a surreal sci-fi dystopia, Oczy Mlody is the Lips' latest in a career that features pioneering noise-punk (1986's Hear It Is), psych-pop touchstones (1999's The Soft Bulletin), multi-disc environments (1997's Zaireeka), collaborative EPs, USB drives encased in gummy skulls and one 24-hour experiment (2011's 7 Skies H3). As dark, fun, and head-spinning as anything they've recorded, Oczy Mlody began life during a series of projects with Miley Cyrus, who appears on Oczy Mlody's closing "We A Famly." The Flaming Lips' 34-year trip keeps getting longer, stranger, and noisier.

With all these projects, are the Flaming Lips pretty much just constantly recording?
There are big conceptual things, but they don't take very long to do; but sometimes records are a long time. The Soft Bulletin we started working on at the end of 1996 and didn't come out until 1999, and we put out Zaireeka in that time, and Zaireeka was just a little stop. We were just continuing to work. I think this record benefitted from the same flow. Even while we were working on the covers album with the Sgt. Pepper's stuff [With a Little Help From My Fwends], and going right into working with Miley, [we'd have] little gems and not know where they were were going to go. This record was happening all through that. It's not a single flow. It's a lot of stuff and, in the end, you make it seem like it's a cohesive story, but a lot of times you struggle along collecting little bits of things that are expressive in the same sort of color.

How do you get from a stray phrase in a Polish novel to this fairytale sci-fi dystopia?
Once we knew that we were going to start "The Castle" with "Her eyes were butterflies, her smile was a rainbow," that was the leap forward. On one level, that was like my version – which I've done a million times – of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul and Mary. It's a song that, because I was so young when I heard it, it just penetrated so far into my emotional subconscious. Once we stumbled on that, I could sing about this sad childlike fairytale world and it could be full of adult drugs and freakiness at the same time. 

What was the connection you made with "Puff, the Magic Dragon"?
As I got older, I still liked it and I'd run into people who'd say, "Oh, that's them singing about marijuana," and even though I would outwardly laugh, it was never that to me; and I'd never want that, or purposely do music that did. To me, it is about a dragon and it's very sad and emotional. I knew those things existed, but our music doesn't do that. If it did, it'd be an accident. 

You've said this album is psychedelic music somewhere between Syd Barrett and A$AP Rocky. 

For me, being around Miley and [producer] Mike Will [Made It], a lot of times we'd be working on hip-hop/rap-ish sounding tracks, and for me they have no reference, like, "They sound like this or that." They're really right now, they're just sounds. I like that there's no reference to it being a group. There's no bass player playing bass. There's not a drummer playing drums. I really love that, to escape from Steven [Drozd] and I always considering, "What's the guitar player doing? What's the bass player doing? What's the kick drum doing?" It's just another sound. We wanted to get to a more pure. … Get rid of the rock band image, even to ourselves, and just let it be sounds. 

Despite being known as a psychedelic band, you've never been much of a psychedelic user. But you tried ayahuasca. What made you want to?
People have said that [ayahuasca is] not that intense, like acid. Whenever I would do acid, which was the late Seventies, it would just be too long for me. After a couple hours, I'd be like, "Ah, that was fun," and then the long, long … my mind just goes to too much worry. But [with ayahuasca] I thought, "Well, okay," I'd sort of let go some of fear of going insane or whatever. I thought, "Eh, I'm old, if I go insane, I'll probably get over it." This was two summers ago. We were doing stuff with Miley that ended up on her Dead Petz record.

Because it's in this absolutely controlled environment, and you put your trust in … they say 'shaman,' but that's a hokey word. He's aware of the levels that the drug is having. He's always going around. By singing the songs, he can judge your reaction to it and how much you're fighting and struggling. He lets you figure out on your own how much you can dissolve into it. I was thinking, "I'm not sure if I feel anything" and he was doing these little rhythmic things [snaps fingers] and it started to do the echo, and he could tell I was liking it. Everything about it just made absolute sense to me. Mushrooms have that effect, where it starts making absolute sense on such a deep level, and that's a good trip.

We were with Miley and with a couple of friends, and we all did this at her house. I think we'd do it again in the same sort of way, if we're with some cool people, and we're all in the same boat. I think we all collectively were like, "We're not leaving the house, we're locked in here for 12 hours with our animals and this guy and our friends."

What did you bring back from the experience?
In the next couple of days or weeks, I think it has an effect, and then something like Trump happens and you're just a miserable person again [laughs]. But I think it's still with me now, though I think it's more integrated into my attitude of accepting new things or being tolerant of things I don't understand, and being a little more mature … and not bitter. I see that as people get older, that trait of, "I know everything and you're young and stupid." I think it also really helped me have another level, "I'm not really smart or stupid, I'm just normal," and that's a great bliss to experience all these things.