The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on 20 years of The Soft Bulletin and Why This Year’s Desert Daze is Essential
by BRIAN CONEY
“Even though I walk in the space bubble in our shows, I really don’t want to be in a bubble in my life. I want to be with you all.”
When it was released back in the summer of 1999, The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic-noise-pop masterpiece The Soft Bulletin doubled up as one of the most curveballing records of a generation. Across thirteen tracks, each as Technicolour as the next, it found Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins outgrowing fuzzed-out alt-rock in favour of wonderfully widescreen pop. Twenty years on, the album’s seminal status is watertight. Though it confronts sadness and harsh truths, at its core, The Soft Bulletin is a beatific exploration that places naiveté, curiosity and hope centre-stage. Marrying swirling textures with orchestral melancholia, songs like ‘Race For the Prize’ and ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ didn’t simply hit home: they were vital, lysergic-dappled odes that burrowed deep.
Ahead of performing the album at this year’s festival, Wayne Coyne delves deep with Brian Coney to discuss the album’s towering legacy, how it helped him on a personal level, the power of giving up control and why he reckons this year’s Desert Daze “is one of the greatest lineups there has been for any festival – ever.”
‘I mean, thank God it didn’t get any bigger than it did at the time. We wouldn’t have known how to be.’
(Brian Coney) More than most bands, I tend to view The Flaming Lips’ output in terms of eras. The Soft Bulletin was obviously a game-changing record in many ways but for you personally, did it feel more like an ending or a new beginning?
(Wayne Coyne) In 1999, our whole world started again at zero. But in the studio, it just felt like we were making another weird record. It wasn’t really in step with anything else that was out there, but we were very lucky that Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs had come out maybe six months beforehand. They were getting played on BBC Radio and stuff like that, and people were quite liking it. So, I think they took the sharpest edges off whatever swords were going to be trying to penetrate us with The Soft Bulletin. It coming right after Deserter Songs was like a double-punch that sort of signalled that something was happening. Without them, it may have just seemed like, “The Flaming Lips are just weird. This is just another weird record.”
But as it kept going, the album seemed to affect people who really were in need of its kind of mysterious and gentle encouragement. I believe that it reached the people who really wanted it. That’s what changed us.
By the end of the year, before people started talking about it being an album of the year – that is, people we listened to, not the Grammys or whatever – I think that’s what started us again. But even when we were finishing up the album, it just felt like this “recorded” thing. It was just about writing songs and being in the recording studio. We had already moved on to write the next record, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and we weren’t prepared to be these spokespeople for this album.
I mean, thank God it didn’t get any bigger than it did at the time. We wouldn’t have known how to be.
(WC) Nowadays, I can understand that, because of what it’s about and what it gets at why it feels like an important record. I like that and I’m so relieved and honored for all of that.
I think that everybody who would say that about this album, they need it. It’s affected them. They’re not saying it because it’s a cool record and they feel they should tell everyone about it, like, “I’m going to tell everyone about the first Pixies record, even if I don’t know it.” The people that were saying that about The Soft Bulletin, they would know the album. So, I think in that way, we were very standoffish at first when anybody tried to say it was an important record or anything like that. We were like, “Ah, c’mon. It’s just a silly record. Get on with it, you know?” Even in terms of the title, if you had asked me about it at the time, I would have just been like, “I don’t fucking know. It sounds cool. It sounds like it should be the title of the record.”
But we would hear stories, back then. People would come up and say, “When my father was dying of cancer last year, this record got me through that” or “When my sister recovered from her car crash, it really helped”. Stuff like that. Gradually, we started to go, “Yeah, you’re right. It is about that. It does touch this little thing.” But it took us a long time to accept that. To say, “Yep, we made that.”
We were guided by some special thing and I think it’s because Steven (Drozd) desired to have this particular mood, I desired to have this particular mood and Dave Fridmann desired to have this particular mood. That’s a situation that’s rare. Think of Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys, how he fought his way to get this sound that he did and how he struggled to make it known, whereas we were really very much in agreeance about, “Ok, this is what we’re trying to do.” In fact, we didn’t know what to do. We knew what not to do, you know? We would come to this sort of silent agreement when something wasn’t right and when it did work, it just wouldn’t get that sort of pushback.
But if you had told us that we were making this type of record, we probably would have been contrary and been like, “No, we’re not making that. We’re just making another freaky, psychedelic record. Who cares?”
‘The Flaming Lips were just starting to figure out how to make our records. It takes a lot of time, sometimes, to figure out what you’re doing.’
I recall you once saying something along those lines with Yoshimi, how you felt like you were just writing a bunch of pop songs that were influenced by hip-hop and R&B in the charts. When you listen back to The Soft Bulletin today, do you recognize the Wayne Coyne singing back to you?
Yeah! I was already pretty old when we did that. I was born in 1961. By 2000, I was almost 40 years old. You know, in that dark, emptier part of your thirties. The Flaming Lips were just starting to figure out how to make our records. It takes a lot of time, sometimes, to figure out what you’re doing. By then, we had made a lot of records and I think part of what we were getting at it is that you go from being young to this other thing. In my case, I had a wonderful life and I was choosing to do this music and this art, but prior to The Soft Bulletin, we would be singing songs about a world that we really didn’t know anything about. We wanted to sound world-weary. We wanted to sound experienced, jaded, tough and that we had seen it all. But with The Soft Bulletin, once we really were world-weary, we were able to sing about something that’s above that – something that’s at the other side of it. I think that’s why it really works, you know? And sometimes, the audience wants to feel that same way, as well. They want to feel, “Even though I’m only twenty years old, I want the world to feel that I’ve been through hell and back. I’m just a hardened artist.” So, on The Soft Bulletin, we’re not really singing about what we’re going through. It’s in the bricks and the dirt and the cement.
I think it’s an impossible thing to put what you’re actually going through into music, because you wouldn’t know what it is. You’re only doing it because you’re feeling yourself through so much darkness. If you’re not honing on the particular nourishment of this feeling, you would just get lost. And you wouldn’t know what to do if you were pretending. I think that’s why, when I listen back to it, I applaud those younger guys. I’m like, “You really did it. You didn’t pretend to do this thing.”
The mere act of getting together making it a reality clearly doubled up as a very personal learning curve for you.
It really did. Up until then, I was very proud to be the weirdo in the room. You know the one: “No one knows what I know. No one thinks what I think. And no one is like me.” But when the brutal elements of life ascend on you, when they are part of normal life, like when your father dies or your mother dies and these painful things happen, you walk back into those same rooms and be like, “I want to be normal.” Because normal people get through these things. They find that life is beautiful, even though it is also brutal.
I had longed to be one of the hoi polloi and say, “How do you do it? Because I can’t do it.” So, at that time, I begged to come back to being a normal person. That’s what I mean by starting over and that’s the way I am now because I didn’t want to be this weirdo that was like, “I’m the only one that’s like me. I’m the only one that’s ever been through this.” I wanted to learn from and be nourished by people that had been through it as well and just say, “Gosh, life is beautiful. It doesn’t have to be this shiny, extraordinary, swashbucklin’ life. It’s just a normal life.”
I wanted to be a guy that can relate to you, and you can relate to me. I’m ashamed of the way I would have been previous to that. The Soft Bulletin changed me into a good, normal person.
‘Part of what I think I threw away, confronted and felt embarrassed about was thinking I was a genius, making some sort of genius art. That’s the worst thing you can do. You think you know this answer that no one else knows.’
It’s almost like the album was a raft for you to get across a particular river.
It absolutely was, you’re right. It’s all about overcoming that disconnect that you have that makes you think that you’re special. This thing is what destroys you. I came across this river, over towards people that are scarred, that hurt and live their lives despite how painful and brutal life can be. I felt like the same guy, it’s just that there was now this twist where I saw what I was in everything, as opposed to, “I only see what I am in myself.” That’s a great, great thing.
Part of what I think I threw away, confronted and felt embarrassed about was thinking I was a genius, making some sort of genius art. That’s the worst thing you can do. You think you know this answer that no one else knows. With The Soft Bulletin, I wanted to go to the other side and learn their answers. Like, “What do you fuckers know? You’re smiling and you’re getting on with your life despite how horrible and brutal it can be. What do you know? Because I don’t know it.” It was now like, “I don’t want to be a genius. I want to be a normal person that enjoys normal things and has a normal life. I want to be here with everybody.”
Even though I walk in the space bubble at our shows, I really don’t want to be in a bubble in my life. I want to be with you all. That’s a big thing for artists because they always want to think they’ve got their own special way of making music that no one knows of. I hope that I’ll never forget and go off to the other side again. I want to be here, in this life, with everybody else, and laughing at what they laugh at and crying at what they cry at. I don’t want to be some isolated wizard living up on the hill.
‘It’s a gentle thing, where the music tells you, “You’re going to get through this.” But it’s not you that’s going to get through it. Someone else comes out the other side.’
Despite being a deeply personal thing for you, it’s clear that making The Soft Bulletin was also this extremely liberating, non-personal thing, because you essentially jettisoned a persona that you self-identified with. Giving up the idea that you’re above the so-called real world can be very powerful.
It can, and when we would hear stories from people, it was that special little twist where I would see myself in you as opposed to just seeing myself. I even think that’s what the album cover is doing. This guy looking at a shadow of himself? It’s the distance between. It’s probably an unspeakable thing, though, and I think that’s why music is so wonderful. It does this thing that you could write a thousand-page novel about and it still wouldn’t penetrate it as good as music can, often in just a couple of moments. Music can go right in there and go, “I know that, I know that.”
But you kind of have to let it. That’s part of the beauty of it. You begin to surrender and the music says, “It’s okay.” If you surrender, you’re going to come out of it. If you don’t surrender, you’re going to fight forever and never win. If you surrender, you’ll win. It’s a gentle thing, where the music tells you, “You’re going to get through this.” But it’s not you that’s going to get through it. Someone else comes out the other side.
The Soft Bulletin brims with little moments that tap into that whole thing. Just off the top of my head, that little climb on ‘The Spark That Bled’ where you sing, “What was this, I thought, that struck me?” That’s just one small example where music shines a light on this super unknowable thing.
I think that mystery is part of the joy and part of the despair. You kind of have to lose control or let it work on you, and that’s hard. The real mystery is that you don’t really know if you’re going to like who you are after this, or if you are going to change, or if you’re willing to admit, “You know what? I am a fool. I want to learn.” Maybe what you’ve learned takes the rest of your life to learn it, I don’t know, but it’s to say all of that.
Take the lyrics to ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’. I don’t even like to say them as words without the music. To me, the music is like this great bulletproof shield and a blanket of warmth and love that lets you confront that. I think sometimes my lyrics aren’t meant to be brutal. I’m just saying something very simple within the context of this very loving, comforting music. I’m only saying it because I have that love and comfort of the music. They’re not words that I think should be said outside of the songs. The song is saying it. To me, it’s even saying it without the words. The words just let it be a little bit more in focus or something. So, I think a lot of The Soft Bulletin is like that. There’s already this kind of feeling with the music. The lyrics just have enough impact to say, “Ah! Fuck yeah. I get it.”
I think people want that. I know I want that. I think that’s why we’re always drawn to emotional music. If you’re willing to go out there and say, “Here’s how I really feel – this is what affected me” you could be embarrassed, or you could look like a fool, or you might be ashamed. You don’t really know. Letting go of control is the motherfucker.
Since The Soft Bulletin came out, we’ve been playing many of these songs live, but we’re now doing shows where we exclusively play the album. Seeing the reaction of the audience, when I’m standing up there, you’ll see someone and you’ll know which part is really resonating with them. I think that’s why we want it to be that thing. If you come to hear us do that song and embrace that song, you will get it. I think that’s why we go to so much effort. It’s like getting up at someone’s funeral and saying something. It’s a tough thing to stand there. You don’t know what’s funny or what’s important or you don’t know if it’s too long or too short. Luckily, The Soft Bulletin has already done that work for us.
When people say it’s an important record, I accept that now because I would say it was made by these other guys. It’s not really us, so it’s a little easier to not be contrary or whatever.
‘If you had been there while we were making the record, you would have been so thrilled that it came out the way it did. Plenty of times while making it we got completely lost.’
In a way, The Soft Bulletin almost sounds like it was a collaboration between yourselves and something completely beyond your senses and control. As you alluded to, it was not knowing that served you. If you had tried to exert control some control over it, it would have been something else.
That’s exactly it. And that really is the quagmire of any kind of art. The universe – or whatever we want to call it – is speaking through you. And part of it is you saying, “Oh, no. It’s this. And it’s this. I’m the artist and I’m doing what I think is important.” Somewhere in there is that great ease of knowing what to do, and yet not knowing what to do. It’s like sleepwalking, it’s hard to do it on purpose.
I don’t think we could have ever done it knowing what it meant. We could only have done it from the distance of, “I think we should do that” or “That didn’t seem to mess it up, so let’s do another one.”
That said, there were plenty of things that didn’t work. If you had been there while we were making the record, you would have been so thrilled that it came out the way it did. Plenty of times while making it we got completely lost. Luckily, those things didn’t make it onto the album.
Another part of why I think it works is that it still has humor. It’s not just this bleak, existential storm or whatever. It touches on silly little things, like being friends with someone who is bitten by a spider or whatever. Just these very normal things. I think that was my desire to be like, “I’m normal!” I wasn’t saying it to the world, I was really just saying to myself, “Everybody, I feel what you feel.” I think that so much of my identity was trying to be this kind of untouchable, unique artist. That part of me led me to do The Soft Bulletin, but what made The Soft Bulletin was this other side.
From replicating orchestras on keyboards and largely abandoning guitars, the album was a real game-changer for you sonically. Has there ever been an impulse to change up the songs live or is it a case of “let’s stick to the script”?
I don’t like going to see a group and they play a song that I like and have heard a million times, but they change the melody or the tempo or whatever. I don’t like that. For me, that’s like going to your favorite restaurant and they’ve changed your favorite dish. It’s very much the same thing. I know what you’re going to do, yet it has this other dimension, because we, the crowd, are in front of you.
So, with The Flaming Lips, we don’t like to change it. I want it to be the best that it can be – this thing that you’re used to hearing. If you like that record, you’re going to like us playing it, because we’re going to play that as close to resembling it as much as we can. And feel good about it. It’s a difficult record to play, in a way.
We’ve even played it with a big orchestra and a choir and stuff. That’s even more difficult, since you are such a big ensemble, it’s hard to keep everyone in the same intensity without tons and tons of rehearsal. Even though we made it, there’s so many quirks and sound and concoctions and connections and color and effects on The Soft Bulletin that we literally have to sit down with the album, collectively, and work it out. But going back, in terms of us using orchestration and oboes and piccolos and instruments that people have used for as long as they have been around, it was like “We don’t have to use some futuristic, weird-ass effects that nobody has ever heard before. We want to use these things that sound like human beings, you know?”
‘Desert Daze is something truly cool and unique… I would probably be going even if we weren’t playing.’
Of course, you’re going to be performing The Soft Bulletin in full at this year’s Desert Daze. Everyone’s so stoked. How are you feeling about playing on this year’s bill?
Man, this year’s line-up has got to be one of the greatest line-ups there has been for any festival – ever. It just gets better and better. Each year, I keep track of what’s happening, because I always know groups that are playing. Especially in the climate that we’re in, where everybody wants to have their own festival in their own city, Desert Daze is something truly cool and unique. We joined in on it way at the beginning – I don’t even think that anyone else was on it. But as it’s grown, it’s always been like, “Oh my god, this line-up.”
Like you, I would probably be going even if we weren’t playing. It really is incredible. This year, they just kept adding bands as if they knew exactly what I wanted on the bill. This is a trend that we want. We want there to be more festivals that are curated with this attention to cool music. I wouldn’t have any idea how many people Surfbort or Wand or any of these groups would play to normally, but I love their music and I know they’re going to be there and we’re all going to be there together, doing this thing.
Again, I know we’re part of it, but even if we weren’t on the bill, it would be an incredible few days to see what I think are some of the coolest groups making records now. Desert Daze is not dissimilar to Woodstock or the first Lollapalooza. These are the people making the coolest fucking music right now. It’s just incredible. I would never have thought that a festival could get certain groups, you know? That final announcement, I was like, “Oh shit. Wow. This is jawdropping.” Even the artwork – all the little details. I usually say that’s where the love is. It’s proof that people care. It’s not just, “What’s the main picture?” I really love it.
We were recently on tour with Particle Kid, who’s also been added to the festival, and The Lennon Claypool Delirium, who are on there, too. That’s exciting. We’re probably going to be there for the whole festival, so that’ll be wonderful.
And we don’t really care if it rains or not. For us, that’s part of the whole chaotic, wonderful experience of it all. We’ve played plenty of festivals where it rained and it often makes it better, to tell you the truth. You remember it. You remember what you had to do because it wasn’t all air conditioning and doing what you wanted to. It’s like, “Oh fuck, what do we do now?” That little spark changes it for everybody.
Desert Daze is on its way. I think as soon as this one is over, they’ll start planning another one and it’ll become one of the really great festivals. For me, I don’t really want to have to compete with Lollapalooza and Coachella. I don’t really want to go to Coachella and see Ariana Grande. That’s not my vibe, you know? It’s a vibe for a lot of people but it’s not my vibe, so I’m glad that these sort of festivals are gaining some audience and power and getting more organized. So I say yeah, let this one happen and be great and let it spur on more.