The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on stereo vs. surround, and working with Miley Cyrus

“You want access to your music to be as convenient and as easy as you can make it and you also want it to sound good, so you’re always struggling with quality versus convenience.”

When it comes to creating music that pushes the sonic envelope, visionary frontman Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips have been on the cutting edge of aural adventurousness from their very beginnings as post-punk-apocalypse alt-rockers from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They continue to explore those outer limits on their new album, the evocatively titled Oczy Mlody — out now in various formats from Warner Bros. — with 57-plus minutes of music that tests the very boundaries of the stereo sound field.

From the space-station crackle and buzz of There Should Be Unicorns to the rippling stereo ping-pong of Nidgy Nie (Never No) to the twisted new-frontier harmonies of We a Famly — the latter track featuring vocals from longtime favored Lips collaborator Miley Cyrus — Oczy Mlody is as meta as any album could hope to be in 2017.

The Lips sure have come a long way from their lo-fi origins to their current mastery of using innovative plug-ins alongside live instrumentation in order to create clearly out-of-this-world sounds that have been known to fool even the most discerning of ears.

“You still have to play 200 tracks and overdub them a lot, and that’s something we’ve really embraced,” Coyne admitted to Digital Trends. “We play with real orchestras all of the time, and they’ll congratulate us on recording a really good live orchestra. Sometimes we feel sort of embarrassed to tell them it’s not a real orchestra. We’ve regretted that we’ve kind of tricked them into thinking it’s real, but even I think some of it absolutely sounds like a real orchestra! That’s part of our vibe, you know?”

Coyne spoke with Digital Trends by phone from Los Angeles to discuss composing in stereo vs. composing in surround sound, the potential of hi-res streaming, and what Whitney Houston track the Lips might like to cover with Miley Cyrus.

Digital Trends: With a record as expansive as Oczy Mlody, it seems almost criminal to contain it to a low-grade, MP3 presentation. I actually wound up syncing your official Oczy videos on YouTube with the hi-res downloads so I could get the better audio quality while I watched them.

Wayne Coyne: (laughs) You know, I guess I’ve never thought of YouTube as being that lo-fi. Usually, since I travel a lot, I’m listening to things out of my phone speaker anyway. I’m always just glad it seems like it works! But your take is, there is a difference.

I think so. And since there is such a wide dynamic range on this album, it almost seems like stereo is holding it back a bit.

“I think people always respond to good sound, whether they think it’s “good” or not.”

Well, we do believe that it works because we have just two ears! (chuckles) We’ve always experimented with surround sound, and we believe we made breakthroughs with sound coming from below and above you. It’s very particular to where you’re standing, or your state of mind, or whether you care about any of that.

But I do think people always respond to good sound, whether they think it’s “good” or not. Most records nowadays — it’s not hard to get great sound for them. A long time ago, it was difficult to get it, but there are plenty of gadgets and gear out there now to help you do that now.

Considering what happens in Dolby Atmos theaters, you could even do a 360-degree presentation, if you were so inclined.

Even at the height of the things that Pink Floyd would do, I also remember people talking about some things that would happen at Rush concerts — but they would really just be moments throughout the concerts. They wouldn’t run all the way through it.

The one thing is, you don’t want people to turn around. You want their attention looking at you. You don’t want them to turn around and go, “Oh, I wonder what’s happening back there.” But I think they like it as a moment, and going, “Oh, this is filling in all around me.”

It’s a strange perception thing. What you’re looking at is usually what you want to be listening to. Sometimes, it’s alarming to people to say, “Hey, what was that behind me?” (laughs)

Yeah, it’s like a drive-by, or something like that.

It is, in a way. I just got through driving for an hour in L.A. traffic, listening to music and listening to the rain, and, you know — you have to be hyper-aware sometimes. And I don’t like to listen to loud music when I’m driving, because you have all of these signals going on in front of you and behind you, and that can be a distraction.

In terms of another listening arena, we now live in a streaming universe, and you guys are huge in that world. How do you feel about people streaming this record? 

I think people struggle with this all of the time. You want access to your music to be as convenient and as easy as you can make it and you also want it to sound good, so you’re always struggling with quality versus convenience. But I think all of the streaming services sound remarkably great, and most of them work remarkably well — most of the time.

“I hope people are open to listening in many different ways, from streaming to downloading to vinyl.”

I mean, we travel so much and we’re often sitting on airplanes, so streaming isn’t something we can think about, because you can’t always listen to something the exact moment you want to when you have no Wi-Fi. But most people don’t have that dilemma — they’re sitting in their office or in their house, or are usually in the same type of listening environment.

I think it’s amazing, and I hope more and more people are open to listening in many different ways, from streaming to downloading to vinyl. You can do all kinds of ways. There isn’t just one way to say you’re doing it “right” or “wrong.”

That’s the best way of putting it. You can access Flaming Lips music anywhere you want, and now that we have hi-res streaming, listeners can go that whole route if they choose to. There’s no compromise needed.

Yeah! I think what people don’t like about streaming is that it can use up all of your Wi-Fi or your data plan, but it is getting easier and cheaper, just like you were talking about. You can get it anywhere where it sounds great as well.

There’s room for a thousand different listening experiences. I remember hearing a Whitney Houston song on a sort of distorted — you know, when you’re out pumping gas on one of those big things where there’s music pumping in from those speakers above you? It wasn’t that long ago I was hearing a Whitney Houston song really distorted that way, and I thought it was a remix! But no, it was just that the speakers were distorted — and I really liked it, you know?

interview with the flaming lips wayne coyne theflaminglips fb 01
The Flaming Lips/Facebook
The Flaming Lips/Facebook

Was it The Greatest Love of All? That sounds like a cover you have to do. I think The Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus need to cover that one together. That’s gold, right there… 

(laughs heartily) It wasn’t that one. I think it was I Wanna Dance With Somebody. I really thought someone had done a strange remix of it.

Well, either way, you guys have to cover it for sure!

(laughs) Maybe we will!

Speaking of working with Miley Cyrus, I think you guys have done it again with We a Famly.

She’s got such a great voice, and it’s easy to get something with her that sounds like it’s full of love. The track, I have to say, was a little bit complicated for us when we started to do it. She was on tour when we recorded the very first thing we did with her — the Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds track we did for The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s tribute thing [2014’s With a Little Help From My Fwends]. It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she was on the one leg of that big tour of hers [the Bangerz Tour].

And when she was in Australia, she went into a studio there, and we sent her this song — which wasn’t called We a Famly then; it was called Jesus and the Spaceships Demo, or something like that. It was the very, very beginnings of trying to work out being the song that was at the end of our record.

I think the vocal take that’s on the track now, when she first comes in [circa 2:36], was even from that first take from Australia about three years ago. It’s something that’s pure and enthusiastic, and has a longing about it.

She and I and some of our engineer friends all listened to that to see if, in a sense, we could recapture what she did there, and we collectively thought, “Well, there’s something on that first take there that’s just perfect.”

The last thing we recorded for it was Miley singing the “we a famly” chorus, and the very first thing we recorded that ended up being on this Flaming Lips record was her singing the demo version of it three years ago. It’s pretty remarkable what you can do with technology now.

When Miley first comes in on the track, it sounds pure and innocent. Her voice is very girlish and tentative, and that just lends more character to the song overall.

Totally! You hit it right — that’s exactly the word. That judgment about what’s “character” and what’s a “mistake” — for me, I hear things like that and I go, “Oh, I like it!” I can’t say why or why not. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing we have to account for — that judgment about, “I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong; I just know that I like it.” And it’s nice when you hear from other people like you who like it the way you do — the way you like that authenticity.

That’s the perfect word for it, authenticity. And as you well know, you can play the feel right out of something, especially on a record like this one that’s so experimental and visceral in its vibe. It’s almost hard to sit still when I’m listening to Oczy Mlody, because I feel like I should be moving back and forth in some sort of a wave.

“With the technology we have now, it’s easy to take out the things that weren’t intended and keep in all the great things.”

Oh, thank you! And a vibe is what it is — it’s some kind of mysterious cotton candy thing. It’s like a lot of things — once you go and try to analyze it, you get lost in the tail of it and can’t find your way back unless you take an outsider’s point of view.

When The Flaming Lips are recording, we’ll often have five or six things we’re messing with at the same time, and you’ll come back to something to listen to after a little while, and you can hear that newness and that freshness — that vibe you’re talking about.

But oftentimes, you can get lost in it and forget where its charm is, trying to fix up all the things that are “wrong” with it. I think there’s so much great technology now that those are our dilemmas. Working with Miley, a lot of times, what she’s doing on her very first take is full of some excitement, and it’s also full of a little caution — it’s all these things you want in a song.

And now, with the technology we have, it’s easy to take out the things that are glaringly wrong or weren’t intended. Music has moved into a really great space where you can keep all the great expressive things, and get rid of the clunky things.

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