Confetti canons. Dancing Teletubbies. Man-sized plastic bubble balls. "Do You Realize." Slap-happy homemade films about Christmas on Mars. Wayne Coyne's gospel-like preaching about love and togetherness. Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips have become synonymous for communal psychedelic positivity. But 30 years and 12 albums into their careers, the band are ready to change their tune with The Terror.
The album, out April 2, has been described as "bleak," "disturbing" and "dark," and for good reason: it was recorded and inspired by multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd's relapse and by a sort of "crisis of life confidence" with both Drozd and singer Wayne Coyne. This resulted in moody tracks with names like "You Are Alone" an "Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die." Hear the first leak from the LP, "Look... The Sun Is Rising," now via NPR (and check out the band's spring tour dates, kicking off at SXSW).
The wisecracking Drozd discussed The Terror from his Oklahoma City home. He was particularly excited to chat with Fuse, too: “Usually the publicist gives me the Atheist Vegetarian Yogi Bass Player Weekly-type interviews… [laughs]”
"What we're saying is that everything’s not going to be alright. There’s not some happy ending."
The new album has been described as “bleak” and “disturbing.” I suppose it doesn’t sound anything like the Lips’ Super Bowl song, “Sun Blows Up Today,” then…
I wish that the Super Bowl song wasn’t connected to the new record at all, because it has so little to do with what the record sounds like. I’ve had friends be like, "I love that ‘Sun Blows Up Today’ song. I can’t wait for the new record.” But they sound nothing alike. They couldn’t be more opposite. It’s the same band, the same humans singing and playing, but it ends there. The Terror is just one sustained bummer, and I mean that in the best possible way. There isn’t one song that’s in a major key. Lyrically, it’s really heavy. I hate to use "dark," because that’s a cheap adjective, but it is. If people are expecting "Sun Blows Up Today," well, they’re going to be like, "F-ck this."
How was the mood of The Terror inspired by your relapse?
First of all, I was upset by what Wayne said in the press. It was so exaggerated. He said I was suicidal and all this stuff; that it was the worst time in my life. I was really upset for a while because it just wasn’t true. I had a relapse, yes, and for two or three days I was in a bad spot; I was trying to get out of a hole. But it’s not like I was suicidal.
But was Wayne somehow channeling your experience in his lyrics?
If Wayne says he used my personal experience for fodder for his lyrics, that doesn’t bother me. A lot of the lyrics on the record sum up how I was feeling at the time and still feel, and certainly the way Wayne was feeling. We were both going through something; not a mid-life crisis but some crisis of life confidence. If you listen to the record you’ll get that. It’s the opposite of “Do You Realize,” and the whole record feels that way.
Is there an upside? Any redemption at all?
The upside is that we made something that 20 years from now I’ll be able to listen to and still get that feeling, that connection. It’s the first record we’ve done in a long time that I’m still listening to on a regular basis. Usually we do a record and I don’t want to listen to it for a year. But I’m really enjoying it. There are certain records that I like to put on when I’m in a bummed out mood. Even though they’re depressing the sound makes me feel connected to something. I get some emotional lift from it. I hope this is one of those records. You can put it on and be like, "Oh, someone else feels this way too."
"I hope fans are jarred by 'The Terror' and say, ‘Wow, these guys are really bummed out.’"
There’s definitely some level of comfort in sadness.
Definitely. If you haven’t had that feeling, then you’re either insane or have lived some sheltered life.
Fans associate the Lips with a sort of psychedelic positivity, which is driven by the confetti canons, Wayne’s gospel-like speeches of togetherness and songs like “Do You Realize??” Will fans be jarred by such a downer record?
I hope so. People forget, or didn’t know in the first place, that before “Do You Realize” and confetti canons and animals dancing onstage, the Lips were a serious and dark band with an attitude of, like, “We’re all fucked.” The Lips I came to know and love in 1990 were that band. The Terror has been the undercurrent of Wayne’s psyche this whole time. There’s one certain message he’s been sharing with people, but now he wants to relay this other message.
How did you achieve that sustained downer mood? Different songwriting styles?
Instead of writing songs and then figuring out sounds, we’d write the other way around: create sounds then make songs out of those sounds. It’s new for us. So it was like, "Don’t worry about chords. Let’s just try to get an instant mood from a sound." We used a Korg iPad app, apps on my iPhone, this old synth called a Wasp that we thought was just going to gather dust in the studio, but was used on every track. I bought an old Yamaha organ with a drum machine in it. Every day we’d go into the studio and record a sound, and then try putting stuff on top of it to see where it got us. It was exciting. It was so much fun.
Is this a product of writing and recording music for some 30 years?
You get to a point where you’ve tried every chord progression, every harmony you can think of. We’ve explored so many different kinds of music for all these years. We won’t go back to the old [songwriting] way ever again. It changed us. It’s like Miles Davis and the jazz guys, who got to the end of every chord progression they could ever think of and were finally like, "F-ck it, let’s go modal and stay in D for 30 minutes and solo."
When did you guys start recording for The Terror?
Almost a year ago. We did a couple of things at [producer] Dave Friddman’s studio [in upstate New York], where we were working on Heady Fwends. I did this one piece of music, tripping out on my own in one of the other studios. Wayne really responded to it. He was taken with the song. He listened to that for a few days, then wrote lyrics. Then we decided that if we could sustain the mood of that song over a whole record, and exist in that sound, that’d be our objective.
Wayne has called this the best Lips album to date…
I don’t know if I’d call it the best Lips album, but it is my favorite in a long time. I hate to soft pedal, like, you know, that old English rocker who peaked 40 years before and is all, "This is my finest work to date!" But we succeeded with what we attempted to do with this record. So if I were to judge it on the fact that there’s nothing I want to change, then yeah, it’s the best Lips album. With every other record I always want to go back and change something.
Do you have a favorite song?
“You Are Alone,” which was the jumping-off point, the song I started alone in Dave’s studio when I was, say… marginalized and not doing very well. Then there’s “The Terror,” the title track. When Wayne and I first started on it, we couldn’t get anywhere. We had two or three cool sounds, but we couldn’t figure out the melody or where to take it. We struggled for two days. On the third day, just out of nowhere, the whole thing came together. I muted one track, unmuted another on accident, and it all appeared. Those two sum up the vibe of the whole record.
Will the Lips change the live show, considering the vibe of the new album?
Yeah. We’re starting on that next week, actually. We really want to start a new live show for The Terror so when we tour we don’t come out and do, like, the “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” song and shoot confetti [laughs]. We’ll come out and do four or five songs from new record in the new mood and look and scare people.