The veteran cult popsters are undergoing a creative rebirth with their new album, Embryonic. John Doran talks to the frontman Wayne Coyne about life, death and the band's new experimental direction. They say he who laughs last laughs longest, and Wayne Coyne is guffawing, chortling and giggling all the way through this interview. Sitting in the plush surrounds of the Troxy, a restored art deco former cinema in London, he looks dapper in his trademark beige linen suit, with a tumble of curls and a beard that is designed to make him look like he has been away "doing something important, y'know, like being an astronaut or mountain climber". His band, The Flaming Lips, formed in Oklahoma City in 1983, have taken a very long and leisurely route to critical and commercial success. In fact, apart from a freak hit single in 1993 - helped by a bizarre appearance on the US teen soap Beverly Hills 90210 - they managed to pretty much stay a cult concern for 16 years.
Even their most obsessive fans will admit that they were lucky to last that long. Their love of outré performance and psychedelic stage shows saw them nearly burn down several venues with homemade pyrotechnics and, in one case, nearly gas their audience after having a revving motorbike on stage with them for an entire gig. But they slowly gained a reputation as a bunch of fearless innovators, performing in front of intense film shows and devising concertos for boom boxes and car stereos. They released one album, Zaireeka, on four separate CDs that needed to be played on four stereos simultaneously. However, they had two aces up their sleeve, which would finally see them infiltrate the mainstream. The first was the multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, who gave the band a massive psychedelic wall of pop sound, as if they were like Sonic Youth attempting to recreate Sgt Pepper's. The second was the fact that no matter how far-out they got, they couldn't help but write killer pop songs.
When they released The Soft Bulletin in 1999, most people weren't prepared for how sophisticated they had become. People either hadn't heard of them or thought of them as novelty, hippy one-hit wonders. This jaw-dropping concept album was ostensibly about scientists battling to find a cure for a global pandemic but really dealt with the transience of life as we know it. It was one of the best albums of the decade and finally broke the Lips out of the underground to an international audience with a spellbinding mix of ELO, The Beach Boys and Spiritualized.
With this album, Coyne cemented his ability to bring up the tricky subject of mortality in a pop context. On this album and songs such as Do You Realize??, he took the unlikely approach of counselling the listener not to ignore the briefness of life but to celebrate it. He attributes this to a brush with the grim reaper he had as a teenager: "I had a near-death experience, perhaps, when I was 17 and working in a fast-food restaurant called Long John Silver's in Oklahoma. And maybe that's what switched me so that I could speak about dying or talk about it or write about it or sing about it in some way. I don't know ... you're working at this dumb fast-food restaurant and you come in all the time and you don't think about it then one night these angry guys with giant guns just barge right into the back and yell: 'Get on the floor!' When you're 17 nothing prepares you for how it feels and you're like: 'Oh yeah. This is how it really happens then.' And they laid us on the floor. There had been a lot of robberies in Oklahoma in the previous years where the staff had all been walked through to the back of the freezer and all shot through the back of the head. There were three guys from my street at these all-night grocery stores who had been shot. So yeah, it was a pretty desperate time in Oklahoma City.
"In that state of mind, time slows down quite a bit and even though I was only on the floor for a couple of minutes, you just see - and it's not your life flashing before you - you're just sitting there thinking: 'This is it, I'm going to die now.' And then when I didn't die I just thought: 'I'm going to do the things that I want to do and that I like to do.' Not in some kind of selfish way. But I just felt no fear about pursuing my dumb life. Why not? But without that kick - who knows?"
The Soft Bulletin saw the start of a decade-long imperial phase, with the band scoring big hits with such singles as Fight Test and The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song and enjoying endorsements from the likes of Justin Timberlake and Jack White. Late last year, however, they released the album Embryonic, which, as the name suggests, marks a stage of rebirth as an experimental band. It is a double album of Krautrock, Black Sabbath and Miles Davis-inspired jams that assaults the listener with use of compression that lies somewhere between crisp, sparkling and being stabbed in the ears with silver blades. Some fans will be sorry to see the pop Flaming Lips disappearing, but this album was necessary and has effectively re-energised the band.
Talking about their latest LP, Coyne says: "We knew we were going to call it Embryonic before we wrote any of the music for it. Some of it is utterly weird. And I think that myself. 'Call that a song? That's not a song! That's just a weird, droney thing!' I mean, those things are hard. When you're sitting there faced with the idea of either writing songs, production and all these things - because we do everything ourselves - sometimes it can be weird thinking you're just going to do a song which is a bass line and some strange words. But some of it we just liked. The dilemma with a group like us is that when you start again, there's a danger of saying: 'Hey, do you know what we used to be like? Well, we're not about that any more. The only thing that matters is what we're doing now.' And that's not ever going to be true. I think that's what happens to groups who have made 12 records. You end up thinking: 'All this stuff is us.' And you can end up making the same record over and over. It's like when you mix colours together. You mix red, blue and yellow together and you always end up with brown."
He adds: "We were experimenting with stuff, but I don't think we ever thought: 'Oh, let's destroy ourselves and start again.' I wouldn't want the audience to think we were going to do that. We get people every night coming up to us and talking about how much the song Do You Realize?? means to them and how they played it at a family member's funeral." If there is one aspect of The Flaming Lips that hasn't changed, however, it is that their live show still resembles a party to end all parties. When the band members Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins take to the stage at the Troxy, the air is full of different sized balloons, cannons fire glitter into the air and dancers dressed as superheroes caper around the stage. Coyne himself is being held aloft by the crowd, inside a huge inflatable bubble.
After the astounding two-hour show, he acknowledges that there is a large disconnect between the circus-like live show and the band's new experimental direction: "When we started doing The Soft Bulletin live it was a weird thing because it's a group of songs about death. Not just your own death but the death of everything. Everything around you is dying and the older you get the more everything is falling down and dying. And you either love that or hate that or embrace that or run away from that, or whatever. I knew when we toured that album that we would be playing to 500 20-year-olds on a Saturday night who didn't want to watch some old man singing 'You're gonna die! You'd better accept it and love it!' So I just thought: 'Well, if we're going to do that then we need to make this into an outrageous party like it was someone's birthday.' So that was our essential idea going into it, that it would seem like a very joyous thing with an underlying current of some kind of despair, some kind of realisation of what this is all about. And we'll do that in the context of this extravagant, exploding circus you know ... But if all we did was confetti and balloons and stuff, I think after about five or six songs you'd be beat up. It's like birthday cake. It's great but you don't want it all the time."
In the Troxy, with the lights up, you can't actually see the colour of the carpet because of the amount of tinsel, ticker tape and burst balloons on the floor. And looking out over the celebratory wreckage that his band has wrought, Coyne lets out an approving laugh once more.