As difficult as it may be to believe, The Flaming Lips have been a going concern in the wooly, wild world of indie/psych rock for over 35 years at this point. That’s 17 official studio albums, over a dozen EPs, live records and compilations and literally hundreds of songs. That’s a lot of material for anybody to try and parse through, which is why it should come as no surprise that the Lips’ upcoming greatest hits album runs a jaw-dropping 53-songs long, spread over three separate CDs.
For Wayne Coyne, the band’s mercurial frontman, there was an admitted bit of hesitation about the idea of creating a greatest hits album at this point in the band’s career, but the more he thought about it, the more he got into the idea.
“I’m always relieved if someone goes to all the effort to say, ‘Here’s a running playlist,’ he said. “In that sort of way, I started to think, ‘Oh, this is gonna be great.’ Instead of it feeling like it’s this big important thing. It’s really just a way of putting a lot of your music together… curating it so that a casual listener, or someone that doesn’t want to spend too much time can just go from song to song and it flows along and they don’t have to think about it too much.”
One of the reasons it took so long for the Flaming Lips to roll out a greatest hits album, and one of the bigger concerns Coyne had to get over, was their own view of themselves as an “albums band.” Over the years, the band has gone to great lengths to create stunning, cohesive visions, designed to be heard at once in sequence, like their 2002 masterpiece Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots or the earlier effort Zaireeka, which was designed to be heard simultaneously on four separate audio systems. How would the songs work outside of their initial context?
“We get so entangled in the whole nuances of what makes one record thematically this way, or this other record is so drastically different and sometimes to the outside listener it’s not so entrenched in its meaning,” he admitted. “I think that stuff is forever attached to the reasons we made it and why you picked this thing instead of that thing and that coloring and that mood or whatever. But in time, I think we’ll learn to adjust to, ‘Race For The Prize’ being followed ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.’ In some world that’s going to work.”
Despite not thinking about creating a greatest hits album before, the band had something of a blueprint, thanks to a running list that had been put together and curated by their manager over the span of decades. “I mean, his philosophy was to say, ‘Look, you got to try to include at least one from every album, and if you did that, you’d already have too many songs already.’ I think he made a good calculated list that he thought well this isn’t gonna please everybody, but it’s gonna please most people.” Coyne added, “We don’t really have hits. We’re kind of picking and choosing what we think is a hit to somebody.”
One of the most interesting selections in the collection is a song called “The Captain,” a long-time fan-favorite that was left off the official version of The Soft Bulletin, but has popped up elsewhere through the years. “I think we would always go to the biggest most dramatic thing and say, ‘Let’s get to that because we want to get the big stuff, the big themes, and the big dramas and the big excitement,’ he explained. “I think ‘The Captain’ is a great example of that [as] too much. It’s like drama inside of a drama inside of drama. It’s just too many heightened things. I think it’s great. I think it’s fun, but I think by the end of it, you’re not quite sure you want to ever listen to it again because it’s just too epic, it’s too biblical, it’s too saturated with this one thing, which we absolutely loved… we’ve been able to look at it and say, maybe that’s not what the album of Soft Bulletin needs, but certainly it’s fun to hear outside that context like the way it is on the greatest hits album.”
When asked which of their songs most casual fans think of when they consider the Flaming Lips, Coyne’s answer isn’t too surprising. “I kind of think ‘Do You Realize??’ as far as popularity goes,” he said. “There’s that strange little nuance of meaning in that lyric, ‘Where everyone you know someday will die.’ That will pop up in little quotations that you see out there next to other cosmically hippie, philosophical lyrics… I think it has the other side of it that it can be sort of heavy. It feels like we’re talking about life and love and happiness and death and all the things. I think ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,’ has a little bit of that in it, but it’s a little bit more of a cartoon.”
As much as experience and inspiration feed into the act of creating a great song, sometimes it’s as much a serendipitous process as anything else. That was the case for “Do You Realize??” anyway, at least to an extent. “I think one of the reasons that it is so impactful is because we didn’t have time to mess with it. It sort of got made at the end of the session in slightly a hurry knowing that we kind of knew where it was gonna go and we had some ideas of what it was gonna do,” Coyne explained. “We wanted to get the beginning of the song going. And we did it quite quickly. I didn’t even have all the lyrics, but, I mean, enough of them, and you just make some up as you go and it is what it is.”
For a band like the Flaming Lips, however, the act of recording and writing music is only half the equation, and once again this summer, the band will hit the road for an extensive tour of the US and beyond. For Coyne, a born showman, the experience of performing and embracing the energy of the crowd has lost none of its luster.
“I think without being able to record as much as we do, we probably would feel quite embarrassed about performing,” he said. “But once we get into the flow of performing and it’s not really just the performing, it’s that the audience is there with you and that rush that you get. It’s not every night, but when you play often and often you get that rush and that love from the audience and that feels like an addictive kind of drug. And if you do it often enough, you don’t want to not do it.”
The Flaming Lips Greatest Hits Vol. 1 is set to drop on June 1 via Warner Bros. Pre-order it here.