The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne Unravels the Fantastical Creation of ‘King’s Mouth’
American rock band The Flaming Lips have steadily channeled their restless, creative energy into cryptic, colorful projects for over three decades. With a penchant for the outlandish, and an ability to realize elaborate conceits in a way that always bears their signature stamp, the Lips have developed an unmistakable aesthetic that seeps into their every undertaking. Their latest creation began as an immersive installation at visionary frontman Wayne Coyne’s Oklahoma City art space, The Womb. Over time, a structure, a story, and an album took shape around the initial concept and “King’s Mouth” was born.
The musical component of the grand, multidisciplinary work finds its release in “King’s Mouth: Music and Songs,” previously only available as a Record Store Day limited vinyl release. For the album, the Lips spun a fanciful narrative that falls somewhere between children’s stories and revelatory musings. They teamed up with the Clash’s Mick Jones and, around his quaint narration, fleshed out a set of songs that capture all their distinctive quirks and sensibilities, while constituting something altogether new. With heavy orchestration, oblique sonic trajectories, and whimsical lyrical underpinnings, it’s the type of record sure to leave listeners awestruck.
Wayne Coyne spoke with Entertainment Voice to demystify and expand on his latest wonderful enigma. He outlined the evolution of the project, delved into the inspirations behind the sounds, shed light on the processes by which the songs came together, and gave a glimpse into the overall mentality and approach of The Flaming Lips.
A round chamber became a giant metallic head with an entrance, the “King’s Mouth,” which in turn inspired the new album. What do you think about the ability of structure to influence sonics, and what are some of the ways that the qualities of this particular structure made their way into the sound of the music?
In the very beginning, before it was the “King’s Mouth,” it was simple this weird little chamber that people would crawl into, with a rear projection screen. So you’re looking up at a screen, and we have a pretty bombastic, loud stereo system blasting you in there. So it’s a confined space with a really loud stereo system, big subwoofers and all that, meant to be — not meditative, I wouldn’t say the word meditative — but more trippy. We were making this to be part of our parties that we were having at the Womb. This would have been 2012, 2013 when this started, and it would be yet another little cove that you could disappear into. All throughout the Womb, we would have different little spots, knowing that our parties wouldn’t start until like 11:00 at night, And then they’re going to go until 8:00 the next morning, whatever. And there would be, sometimes, fifteen people piled into this thing. They’re literally just laying on each other in there for hours. They’re on drugs, listening to music, and watching movies or whatever. That was the initial cool thing about what the chamber was. But because it kept going, it eventually got a face, and started to get more specifically this thing.
By the time it was called the “King’s Mouth,” he already is a king. I don’t know why. He ends up looking like a king. It’s got this pomp to it, this royal epicness to it. Steven and I kind of like that anyway. And then knowing that you’re in there, I think that, sort of, is the part that made us think — we really don’t want it to be an onslaught, you know? At some point, we knew that people were going to go in there that aren’t on molly and acid. They’re just going to be regular people, and we want it to be inviting. We didn’t want to jar you. We wanted it to be like a communication, like this big god from Mars is speaking to you, and you just lay there and listen to him. There was a sense of it being something relaxing — intense but still relaxing. I think all of that played into it, which I think absolutely helps creative people. Anything that gives you a little bit of like, “Oh, it could be this, it doesn’t have to be that,” anything that points you in a direction, is always welcome.
You designed “King’s Mouth” to appeal to all ages. There’s generally a youthful sense of wonder in psychedelic music. How natural did it seem to take this a bit further and create the storybook narrative of the album?
Well, I think with me, I don’t always know when is too far. The idea that the king in the story gets buried in the snow, and that kind of preserves him even though he’s dead, and then they cut off his head. Probably, I’m the only one that would think, “Oh, this is a story for kids.” I remember when I was very young, we weren’t religious or anything, but my parents definitely had some cool bibles that had paintings in them, and I remember the paintings where whoever it is was getting his head cut off, and I loved those paintings. I never thought of it as being necessarily like a monster movie or something, but it’s gory, and it’s beautiful, and it’s epic. So to me, it was a little bit like making a children’s bible sort of thing, in a way. There’s an entity that everyone believes in and love, and he dies, and they’re preserving his life and legacy and ideas and beliefs by keeping his head around.
Of course, his head is a story that’s connected to the universe, so it’s all a little bit more cosmic, or whatever. I wouldn’t really know where it goes too far, so I would be nudging the story along, and seeing if people thought this is just too stupid or too simple or too weird. That part of it, I think it just got lucky. And the music, I think just soothes that over. You know, there’s a lot of ways the story can be slanted based on the tone of the music or whatever. And I think a lot of the music being playful and childlike, and there’s a sense of wonder and all that. I think it’s a little bit more Tim Burton or something — which I think is good.
Your song “How Many Times” employs the vocal pitch-shifted technique ubiquitous in contemporary hip-hop, and in context, the morphing of high and low voices gives a sense of childhood and adulthood blended, of universal youth. Was this intentional?
(Laughs) Well, in a sense, in an abstract version. He’s just being born, and he’s a little baby, and we quickly get to where he’s a teenager, so that counting was really sort of counting his age. Somewhere in there, he goes from being a very young baby to being eighteen or nineteen years old. But it’s all kind of abstract. When he’s really young, it’s really high, but in reality, his voice wouldn’t be that low when he’s fifteen. (Laughs) But there’s something in there, and it’s just fun to listen to those things. It’s absurd, but it’s normal, and it’s fucking weird, but it’s mainstream. We slowed down voices I think on our very first album that we did in 1983, but now it’s like something normal that everyone does. I’m like, “Good!” because we love doing that shit. We were listening to the Butthole Surfers and the Beatles. I think for a lot of people it seems weird, and now it seems like Ariana Grande has that in her songs, and it seems like, “Oh, that’s great, yeah!”
You’ve said before that your favorite instrument is the recording studio, and you have a rich history of experimenting, extending back to “parking lot experiments” and “boombox experiments.” What’s the weirdest, wildest recording method that you used for this album?
Well, I’m trying to think of all the things. Even that song “How Many Times,” the melody and the basis of that song, I’ve had that for over ten years. First I played it on my four track, just me sitting in a room, playing those two chords back and forth. There’s a recording that Dave Fridmann had, from when he was in college. This would have been late ‘80s. He did a recording of a quartet horn section, and it wasn’t very well played, and it wasn’t very well recorded, but I remember Dave going through a catalogue of things that he had digitized up at his studio, one of the times that we were up there last year. And he played it, and I said, “What is that?” and he said, “Oh, it’s a stupid recording I did,” and we probably said something like “We should use this for some sample or something,” and we immediately turned it backwards. That’s the very beginning of the song “The Mouth of the King,” so you hear these swells, and I think it stayed even in the key that he recorded it in, and then we changed our song to move up and back and forth out of the key and back in to the key. Not that that’s that weird, but it’s just the inspiration. That was almost the first song that we wrote specifically for the “King’s Mouth” thing, thinking, “Oh, this is going to be an album.” Sometimes, I’ll just do the most obvious thing — like the thing is called “King’s Mouth,” so I’ll just write a song “The Mouth of The King.” There you go, that’s going to work — not knowing that it’s going to work, but just going for the most obvious thing.
The instrumentation on the new album achieves a lot of its resonance from its unique balance between orchestration, electronics, and acoustics. How did you maintain this balance? Would you consider it more of a spontaneous process or an issue labored over?
I think it’s mostly that we had enough time to really make those components rich enough that they could work. I think a lot of times, we just go too far. A lot of bands would be happy with twenty things in their mix. Steven and I, along with Dennis and Dave Fridmann, we’ll just do a thousand things, and I think in time, we compartmentalize and hone it down a bit. It really is more simple, but it is more rich. With enough time, I think our music is always a little bit better. When we don’t have a lot of time, I think Steven and I always go for more than is going to work. I always sort of use the analogy: If you invited Steven and I to decorate your living room, and you said, “You only have one night to do it,” you’d come back in, the next day, and there’d be like twenty couches in there and a hundred TVs, and it’d be so full of fucking weird shit, and you’d be like, “Uh, how am I supposed to, like, relax in here?” But if you gave us a year, we could make a really great, simple, insane, but very workable room.
Steven and Dave Fridmann are just such masters. They really are making these dense, harmonic things that, in the wrong hands, does take a thousand sounds, but in the right hands, shaped the right way, it can really be three or four things making this very majestic thing. But it is difficult. We like messing around with stuff, and the idea of it being experimental, that’s always been it. I think that’s what makes it interesting for us. We don’t know exactly what we’re after. There’s not a format. There’s not a thing that we do all the time. We go in every time, and we’re like, “How do we get it through? I don’t know how the fuck this is going to work,” and I’m always amazed that it sounds like us, and it’s simple, and people can like it.
Artists usually add narration to music, and create physical art inspired by the music; you created music around narration, and inspired by physical art. Do you think there is a point at which challenging convention becomes a convention of its own?
(Laughs) Well, probably, if you recognize it. To me, I think most artists, no matter what you’re doing, are probably all working in the same type of panic that we openly admit to — that we don’t really know how we’re going to get there, and we don’t really know what to do. And to have these specific markers of knowing like “This is about this ‘King’s Mouth’ thing,” it starts to give you limitations. Really, when I talk to most artists, they love to have some coloring and some story to put their ideas into. Otherwise, your ideas just turn into anything that you want, you know? We were working on the “King’s Mouth” album while we were still doing some other things, and it would be quite a relief to go in and say, “Oh well, let’s do a song with this King’s Mouth.”
We did the same thing when we had this beer company that made a beer called “Dragons & YumYums,” and we talked about making a record that includes the name of the beer, and we would put a single out that has the beer in it So it’s a pink sort of pale, sour ale, and it goes in this record. But the idea that we were going to make a song about the beer, and it was called “Dragons & YumYums,” we really love that. That part of it, I think we really like — that it’s meant to be this thing. It doesn’t mean that it’s just meant to order, but it gives you a little bit of flavor, a little bit of atmosphere, a little bit of what you know it shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s more what it does — I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I know what it’s not going to be. I think that happens with really all of our albums. At some point, you find what you think it is that would serve these ten, eleven songs as an overall vibe. I don’t think it always works that well, but we usually, about halfway through out record, start going, “Oh man, I’d like to hear more of this sounding like this or this.” That usually happens with us. We’ll discover something that we think is really unique and wonderful, and start to sprinkle that into everything. It doesn’t always work with everything, but you start to sprinkle this vibe into it.
The narrative arc of the album suggests themes of transubstantiation, synergy, martyrdom, optimism, and awe of nature. Were there any particular literary precedents, philosophies, or ideas that, consciously or subconsciously, made their way in?
Well, I think most of my stories have a Dr. Seus meets the bible kind of vibe to them, but I think even in the context of Dr. Seus, it’s not violence and it’s not superheroes in a normal sense. It’s a human sense. And I think as the Flaming Lips, no matter what we think we’re trying to do, it almost always comes out, even if we don’t want it to, optimistic. I think that’s just the nature of Steven’s music and my take on what we’re singing about. We are very optimistic people. I’m kind of embarrassed about that, but I’m also glad about that — that we just cannot hide in our music. Our music is just exposing what we are. I don’t know if we could insert any philosophy that we knew we were inserting into it. I don’t think we’d be able to do that very well.
Just by the nature of the way that I sing, or the way that I like to sing, it always sounds a little bit hopeful, a little innocent. We’re making music, but once we start to make it, the sound of the music starts to really tell us what we’re about — that sort of innocent wisdom. I’m not really that aware of that, but I know when I start to sing, there’s just a sense of my uncertain voice that I think gets into that territory, which I think works really well. I don’t really like listening to my singing just as a singer, but once it gets mixed into all the stuff, with harmonies and all these things in there, I think it works really well as a communicating human. No one’s going to compare me to great singers of the world, but it’s just a human communicating something. I don’t want people to think of me as a singer. I’m more like just this guy that gets to sing Flaming Lips songs — more like a representative of that type of person, you know? I don’t want people to say, “Oh, you know, Wayne sounds like this or that. Wayne sounds like when birds are in a tree, and there’s a cat below, and then the wind is blowing. That’s what Wayne sounds like.” I just want to sound like, you know, “humanness” or something. (Laughs)
“King’s Mouth” is the fifteenth album of the Flaming Lips’ prolific, expansive career. How would you say it fits into your catalogue?
Well, I really like it. I think if you took an overview of what people would perceive the Flaming Lips were about, you could listen to this and go, “Oh, I get it.” Sometimes Steven and I know that we do go off on tangents where we really are making albums, songs, and productions that we know are just things that we like, and we’re not really trying to communicate that much, but with an album like “King’s Mouth,” if you know anything about the Flaming Lips, you could hear this and go, “Oh, that’s the Flaming Lips. They’re doing that thing.” Some of the stuff is just so simple, which is the hardest thing to do. Like with the analogy of me designing your living room, it’s easy to just do a lot of stuff, but sometimes it’s more difficult to work with just a few things. I think it really works as that quintessential Flaming Lips album. I think If you like this album, you could easily diverge into some of the other weird ones and like those as well, but we’re the first ones to know when we’ve made a weird album versus when we’ve made a normal album. I’d say this is more of a normal album, even though by normal standards it may seem weird. To us, this seems like a very normal album. It has people singing, and, you know, we’re playing chords and melodies — pretty normal, in a good way. You could play it for your kids. (Laughs)
“Kings Mouth: Music and Songs” is available July 19 on Apple Music.