Psychedelic rockers the Flaming Lips have spent the better part of two decades embracing high concept gimmicks – car stereo symphonies! Four-CD sets designed to be played on four stereos simultaneously! – but their latest project, a six-hour composition intended to accompany a strobe light toy, may be their wildest project yet. Rolling Stone caught up with frontman Wayne Coyne just after he and the band wrapped up recording the song to discuss the ambitious undertaking, the band's other outrageous plans for the future and why the Flaming Lips may never make another album.
So, you've been working on this six-hour piece called "I Found This Star on the Ground."
It's a six-hour song. When you call it "a piece" it sounds like more than it should be. This is one song that goes on for six hours, yeah. Now I’ve realized, it’s insane. When we started doing it, it didn’t seem like it was that big of a deal. So we were like, "Yeah, we’ll do a song that is six hours long – it will be fun." But then you get in to it and your like ‘Fuck, what the fuck were we thinking?" We finished it last night, around two o’clock in the morning because we knew we were leaving today and we were gonna be gone for a little bit and we didn’t think we’d be able to get back to it. It’s taken us about three weeks. I think, in our usual overconfidence, I think we thought it would take a couple of days and it's taken a couple of weeks.
How do you compose a six-hour song? How much of it is continuously played?
It didn’t occur to me all at one time. Steven [Drozd] had made a song that he had called "I Found This Star on the Ground" that on its own went on for 25 minutes. We were already listening to this track, and he was like, "Oh man, that could have gone on for a couple of hours." The best way that we can describe the sound of it is, it's like the Velvet Underground meets Super Mario Brothers. And if you’ve ever played the Mario Brothers game or it you’ve had it on in he background, you could listen to a Mario Brothers type video game forever because its kind of just "do do do do do la ta da ta da." It's not real intense, and it's not going anywhere. Steven was already composing it to be kind of like a long John Coltrane thing.
This song is being released in conjunction with this weird little strobe light toy that we’re putting out. Part of my reasoning is that I wanted there to be some type of music that you could play while you played with this toy – you spin this little disc, and it has these little animations on it that kind of come to life when you put this strobe light on it. And you could play with it for hours. I mean, I don’t know if you could play with it for six hours, but it's kind of meant so that kids can like, take LSD and play with it. You know, that’s kind of our intention, so that people buy it at like a festival, and then go back to their parents' and take some acid and play with it all night. So it’s a song you can play while you're sitting at your computer, you plug it in and it plays all night.
How do you think the listening experience will be for people who are not using the strobe light toy and who are not on acid?
Well, I think a lot of people would probably do what I would do: They might go through it and listen to it a couple of minutes at a time and think, "Okay, that sounds cool." You could take a certain section of it every night if you wanted to, and you know, just listen to it. I don’t think you would find it easy to just have six hours where you’re completely listening to music, unless you were kind of doing it the way that it’s intended. It’s not intended for intense listening. It’s intended to be, while you’re fucking your girlfriend, this on in the background. I mean, you’re supposed to be doing something cool while this plays.
You were raising money for the Humane Society and the Academy of Contemporary Music by having people donate money to have their names sung in the song. How did the names become part of the music?
We would break it down in to like half-hour sections just so we would have some kind of gauge of what we were gonna work on. So, you know, for me and Steven, this became 12 different sections. In all these different half hours of this song, there are moments where you kind of feel like you could insert 10 names into a strange little mantra. We kind of look at the list as like, there’s like a couple of movies out there where they read the list of all the people who have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle. Over the past couple of nights we’ve had Sean Lennon, and he’s read this pretty big list. I’m not sure of the number, but it’s over a couple hundred by now – and he’s read this whole list over the phone in kind of this strange tone that I think sounds like his father. It’s meant to sound eerily like the ghost of John Lennon or something.
You’ve been doing a few projects like this recently where you’re either working with other artists, like Neon Indian and Lightning Bolt, or doing these small, non-album pieces. Are you deliberately moving away from the album format?
I think we are, in a sense. We like the idea of making music, playing shows, living that life, making art, doing a million things and having our music be part of the million things, as opposed to saying, stop doing what you’re doing and just go and do your music. I would say that, by maybe next April or March, we would collect this music, put it on iTunes and say that’s another collection of Flaming Lips songs. And we’ll probably always work this way now, where we’re constantly saying, "Hey, here’s what we’re doing this week."
How does Warner Bros. relate to this? This method is kind of outside their regular model.
Well, I think they are relieved that we can do it. Because for the last three or four years anyway, there has been desperate talk of "What do we do, as a record company? What is the way to make records now?" And I think when our contract ran out at the end of last year, a 20-year contract we’ve had with Warner Bros., they looked at us and we looked at them and they said "I think you guys are going to have to do a something because nobody else knows what to do." And we kind of stared and we’re like, "Well, we kind of thought you would know what to do." And I said, well, if I could do anything I want, here is the way I would do it. We’d just release stuff every month. And sometimes it would be a record, and sometimes it will be a strange Flaming Lips object. And they said, "What do you think those objects will be?" And I said, "Fuck, I don’t know."
I think things like the gummy skull, where you actually had to eat it to get the music out of it, really appealed to us, because it’s a little bit more of a contemporary art piece than it just being a big plastic toy that you stick in your closet forever. I’m in the position where I can do a lot of stuff, and I don’t really worry that I can’t do it.
How time-consuming is it having these objects developed and manufactured?
Well, it takes every bit that you have. And you know, I was lucky that I have a lot of people helping me – a lot of smart people, a lot of cool people. When we started to do those gummy skulls, it wasn’t a gummy skull. In the beginning it was plastic and we were working with rubber and stuff like that. And then it moved in to a new direction, where at one point it was going to be made of bubblegum, and that didn’t work. We ran in to this guy that does the giant gummy stuff, while we were looking for bubble gum. The people that I’m doing all this stuff with like creating, and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, and doing new, exciting things. And so, lucky for me.
What kind of stuff do you have coming up on the horizon after you finish the six-hour song?
We’re still working on this Flaming Lips stomp box – which in the beginning, there were like 10,000 things you wanted it to do. Some of those aren’t possible, but some other new things will be possible – but that’s even more so a a motherfucker to manufacture than what we thought it was in the beginning. We have another mega skull that I can’t tell you about yet. But I'll tell ya, everybody is gonna want that, and they're not gonna want anything else because it is so mega. I think we have a frog that – another candy product – that has like a powder, that you put on the frog. It’s kind of a play on those psychedelic South American frogs that you would lick and you would trip on. I think there was a watch, a watch that kind of has a strange back on it that, as you heat up your skin, it turns up the volume. They're all mechanisms by which you get to play Flaming Lips music.
Do you kind of have to think about what music would fit best for each object?
Well, on some of them, yes. But on a lot of it, no. On a lot of it, the music, sometimes, is the most easily done part of it. For some of it, I think, the product is made, and we make the music to fit the product. And other times it's kind of the music and the product are being made at the same time. I do think we are going to do one for Halloween, though. I can’t speak to that just yet, but that will be completely tied together, this idea of death and I’m singing as if I’m already dead. And I hoping I can make it happen by Halloween. We did this with the "Two Blobs Fucking" thing that came out on Valentine's Day. I want to hit these Flaming Lips-specific holidays. You know, we do Christmas, we do Halloween.