Wayne Coyne talks The Flaming Lips' Sgt. Pepper remake track-by-track
The Flaming Lips are no strangers to the art of homage – over the years, they've released their own full-album covers of The Stone Roses' debut LP, King Crimson's In The Court Of the Crimson King and even Pink Floyd's masterpiece, The Dark Side of The Moon.
But when the Oklahoma-based ensemble invited a gaggle of musician pals to take part in a front-to-back remake of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band titled With A Little Help From My Fwends, they knew they were stepping on hallowed ground.
"People get very proprietary about this sort of thing," says Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. "When we did Floyd’s Dark Side, there were some people who had these violent, outraged reactions to us. It’s like we defiled a classic or something. I mean, sure, there’s only one Mona Lisa, so if you put a mustache on it, you really fucked it up. But music isn’t like that. Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd still exists, and Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles will still exist. We just did our homages to those records, because they inspired us."
Even so, in the pantheon of rock classics, Coyne admits that Sgt. Pepper is in a class of its own. “It was a special record – and still is," he says. "Back then, it was one of the first records that people would sit around and talk about. The drugs The Beatles took, the clothes they wore, they way they did their hair – all of those things were connected to the music, and they were talked about. Sgt. Pepper has amazing music, but it’s really about more than the music. It’s of a time, and now it evokes that time. And the amazing thing is, it lasts – there’s nothing retro about it. It's still very hip, fresh music."
The Flaming Lips don't perform on every track – in fact, the boatload of guests, everyone from Miley Cyrus to My Morning Jacket to J. Mascis to Maynard Keenan to a large group of lesser-known cult artists, comprise the bulk of the disc. But the band's appearances are memorable, especially on their duet with Cyrus on the Lennon gem A Day In the Life.
“Singing Lennon's parts was difficult and pretty revelatory," Coyne observes. "In my view, he was the greatest singer ever. He’s was so good that he makes you think he’s not even singing. Paul is great, too, but when you hear him, you think, ‘Oh, I could never sing like that.’ With John, he’ll trick you. You’ll think you can do him, and then you try it and you realize, ‘Hey, wait, this guy was really something.
"I'm actually amazed at people's reactions to The Beatles," he continues. "It’s kind of funny whenever somebody might say to me, ‘Oh, The Beatles – they weren’t that good.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? The Beatles were beyond good; they were stunningly good.’ “The Beatles took chances. There was nothing safe about Sgt. Pepper – and it probably could have been a huge disaster. But The Beatles wanted to follow their own path, and that’s something to be celebrated."
The Flaming Lips' With A Little Help From My Fwends will be released on October 28. The record can be pre-ordered at Amazon, on iTunes and via The Flaming Lips' official website. On the following pages, Coyne walks us through the album track-by-track.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
“The first recording we got was from My Morning Jacket, and they did their version of it, which was terrific. Then we got a version from a band called Fever The Ghost, and we liked that one, too. And then I ran into J. Mascis, who did his own guitar solos over The Beatles’ version. So you’ve got all three of them together on this track.
“The freedom, or the sort of sadomasochistic wish, to take these things and turn them into one cohesive track, that’s where the freakiness comes in. I love that. It’s everybody being themselves and doing their thing. In fact, I don’t even think My Morning Jacket were doing their version of The Beatles’ track; I think they were inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s take on Sgt. Pepper.
“I didn’t have an agenda for any of this, but I was thrilled and pleasantly surprised by it all. It’s a nice, glorious mix of things, and even by my standards, it’s pretty crazy.”
With A Little Help From My Friends
“A few people have done some interesting versions of this one over the years – Nina Simone, Joe Cocker, a couple of others. What Steven and I tried to do with this was go into the studio and come up with a very lush, orchestrated version of the song. I tried to sing it, he tried to sing it, and we tried blending our voices. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t.
“Luckily, we know Brian Chippendale – he’s in a group called Lightning Bolt, but he also has his own thing called Black Pus. He knows Beatles music, but he has no sense of playing it. He sent us a track with him playing drums and screaming something that goes like, ‘What would you do if I sang out of tune?’ Sometimes what you hear is him singing one part of it and the Flaming Lips doing another part.
“There’s also another group called the Autumn Defense that are a couple of the guys in Wilco. They claimed that they didn’t know Beatles music, so they said, ‘Well, we’ll listen to it and see what we can do.’ They did their own mellow version of the song, which turned out cool because it was them having just heard the song for the first time.
“I have a hard time figuring out who’s who on this track; only when I hear Brian screaming do I know, ‘OK, that’s him there.’ It’s a radical mindfuck, this one – it’s so different from the original.”
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
“A year ago on my birthday, Miley wrote a thing on Twitter, wishing me a happy birthday and saying that I was one of her favorite artists of all time. You have to remember – back then, everybody was talking about her and the twerking and all that. You couldn’t go anywhere without people talking about her.
“I got in contact with her, we exchanged phone numbers, and before you knew it we became friends. She invited me to her show in LA to do a song together, but I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really know your songs.’ And she said, ‘No, no, we’re gonna do one of your songs.’ I said, ‘Oh, cool – well, I know those!’ [Laughs]
“That’s kind of how it went with us. I just love her to death. She’s a crazy, creative, wonderful person. You have to disregard all the stupid shit that’s in the tabloids.
“On one of her off–days on tour, we went into a studio in Tulsa and did some things – some were our own songs, and then we did Lucy In The Sky and A Day In The Life. It’s a great version. This one gave us the momentum and the idea that we could do this record, because it was the first one we did.”
“We’ve played with the Dr. Dog group at festivals – they’re the main band on this track. One day, when we were at this really weird festival, they approached us and said, ‘Why didn’t you guys ask us to do one of the songs on the Sgt. Pepper album?’ They had heard about it and really wanted to be on it.
“I was honest with them and told said, ‘I don’t know if it’ll work – you guys sort of sound like The Beatles.’ They understood, but then we just decided, ‘Fuck it. Let’s see what happens.’ I think, by that point, we needed somebody to do Getting Better, so I asked them to try it. Theirs might have been the quickest track to get done. They knocked it out on a day off and sent it to me.
“It was good, but we thought it was too close to what The Beatles did. I asked Chuck Inglish from The Cool Kids to do a rap to it, and he did a great job. He didn’t really know the song, so that worked in a charming way. He wasn’t married to the whole ‘Well, I’ve gotta do it this way.’
“Then we asked a friend of ours, Morgan Delt, to do a third verse. Actually, there was some confusion for a second whether the second and third verses were the same, so when we figured out what we needed, I texted him at midnight and said, ‘Hey, could you do this?’ His wife was having a baby, so he said, ‘I’m gonna be up all night.’ A few hours later, he sent me his stuff.”
Fixing A Hole
“It reminds me of Nick Drake – somebody you’d listen to at three in the morning when you’re being introspective. This is mostly Steven in his home studio, playing with an Echoplex and reverb thing that he connected into his vocoder.
“You hear these slight electronic, robotic versions of himself. I don’t think he’s really singing the song as much as he’s listening to himself through the reverb. He played it for me and I loved it. I thought, ‘Maybe we should get somebody else on this,’ but I don’t think we ever did. We loved it so much on its own. So the track is basically Steven in his home playing with reverb.”
She's Leaving Home
“The group Phantogram are just killer. The first time you hear one of their songs, you know the song. It’s from another world, but it’s familiar to you. Sarah is the singer, and I just lover her. There’s nothing she can’t sing well.
“They’re joined by a really great ‘saddish’ singer named Julianna Barwick. She and Sarah are almost identical in their vocal ranges – sometimes they switch off on who’s singing the John and Paul parts. I can’t even tell who’s who myself.
There’s also a group called Spaceface . They did an instrumental version of the song using their own synth plugins. It’s all sprinkled in and faded in together. I think Spaceface and Phantogram are playing together tonight, so they can fight about who did what on the song.”
Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
“That’s a difficult song. If you take John Lennon and The Beatles out of it, it’s a very strange, unmusical, clunky song. We had several groups try it, but they didn’t really get anywhere.
“Then I remembered that Maynard from Tool and Steven had done a version of Rocket Man, and I thought, ‘Let’s see if Maynard will do this.’ I texted him in the middle of the night, and he was another one who said, ‘My wife’s having a baby…’ So that didn’t look like it was going to happen. But lo and behold, his wife had the baby, and he recorded the track on the very same day.
“Maynard’s singing takes it to a whole new realm, and I think his performance really shows you what a vocalist can do to a song. Like some other people here, he didn’t know the song beforehand, and I think that worked out well. He listened to the track, and then he gave me a version that was very much him. We got pretty lucky with this one.”
Within You Without You
“Morgan Delt is on this track, but most of it is this group called Birdflower, a sort of weirdo production guy and a weirdo singer gal. She’s literally crazy, but in a funny and charming way.
“Their version is very slow, which made sense to me, but when I took it to Dave Fridmann, he said, ‘I can’t stand this. It’s too long and it’s too slow.’ We thought about cutting some bits out, but then I said, ‘Well, let’s just speed it up. That way it’s, you know, shorter and faster.’ [Laughs]
“Birdflower play things kind of slow – they know they’re not the greatest musicians in the world, so that’s what they kind of have to do. They liked the track when they heard it sped up. It goes into these cool bits that could be played on a sitar, which they could never do, but it’s great to hear it as if they are playing it to that speed.”
When I'm Sixty-Four
“This kind of songwriting is extraordinary. You have to be a stellar musician to write those kinds of changes – that’s why people don’t write stuff like this. It’s very evocative ‘40s dance hall-type music, but in the hands of Paul McCartney, it’s almost futuristic to me. It comes from a land nobody else knows.
“That was part of inspiration, the way it seems to exist in two different worlds. The woman singing on it is called Def Rain, and I just love her voice. She’s got a really cool emotional thing she does to anything she touches. I think she did it in 10 minutes at her house, and she sent to to me, like, “’What do you think?’ I was blown away – ‘Fuck, that’s cool!’
“Steven had done a version with his reverb vocoder stuff, so it goes in and out from her and him. We looked at it like this woman with her robot lover growing old together.”
“Tegan and Sara have such a great thing that they do with their voices, and since they’re twins they kind of speak right on top of each other because they’re thinking the same things. I think they use that when they’re doing their harmonies.
“For me, I think I got one of the best harmonic Tegan and Sara performances ever. They didn’t know the song – a lot of people didn’t know the material, which is odd – so they asked me, ‘Are we singing it right?’ I was like, ‘Not only are you singing it right, but you’re singing it perfectly. You’re doing your thing to it.
“That’s the beauty again to this: If you don’t know what you’re up against, you’re just going to perform music the way you want. If you didn’t know this song, you’re think it was a Tegan and Sara song.
“My nephew’s group did a lot of the weirdo music underneath it, and they didn’t know what to do, either. I think they struggled with the singing aspect a bit, so they were happy when we got Tegan and Sara.”
Good Morning Good Morning
“This is another one where, when you take The Beatles out of it, you’re not sure what to do with it. Luckily, Zorch are a freaky band – they probably verge into operatic prog rock – and they did a 20-minute version of it with lots of extended solos and wild shit.
“We’ve known Grace Potter for a while. Some people might think she’s pop-country, but I know her, and even though her music might seem normal, she’s not normal – she’s a fucking freak. So I asked her to try it, and she went for it. I think she just got stoned in her room with her Pro Tools thing and went wild. It’s something like four tracks of herself. I knew she’d be a great choice.
“There’s also a group on it called Treasure Mammal. I know a lot of weirdos, and by my standards, these guys are weird. They’ll never be picked for jury duty. They throw crazy parties and do screwed-up things – a definite threat to society. So they took the song, but they didn’t really do a version of it; they kind of just did some strange stuff on their synthesizers. I threw that in the middle, and it really works. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t think up. You wouldn’t sit down and write these ideas down – they just happen.”
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
“We know Foxygen, and they’re just a great group. I knew they wanted to do this one, so I said, “Fine.” They did an extended jam at the end, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the original. They have Ben from MGMT jamming with them, so I’m sure it was a big stoner, drunken, wild-ass jam session, which is awesome.
“Ben did some freaky mixing on it, and there you go. I love the track. Foxygen sort of sounds like a big classic band that you already know and love, yet they’re this cool new thing.”
A Day In The Life
“This is basically The Flaming Lips doing the John Lennon beginning and end, and we made that middle section for Miley Cyrus. We knew we were going to record it with her, but we didn’t want her to do it like the original.
“I think it was one of the last things we recorded with her. She knew the song, and she said, ‘I wanna do it this way.’ Steven and I sat there and were like, ‘Fuck, this is good!’ It’s nothing like The Beatles, but it’s great.
“When the Lips do The Beatles, we kind of sound like our version of them. As for me singing John’s parts, it’s tough. If you take that stuff and don’t do it the way he did it, you sit there and say, ‘Is this good?’ So for me, it was hard. But Miley took it somewhere else. I think a lot of people won’t even think that it’s her.”