When The Flaming Lips devoted most of 2011 and 2012 to a series of unconventional recording projects, many fans wondered if they’d ever return to the traditional album format again. As it turns out, psychedelic rock’s most uplifting ambassadors almost didn’t make it back from their creative ledge: burnt out from writing an a six-hour song and especially a 24-hour song, The Flaming Lips’ creative team were worried that they “had no ideas left” when they finished last year’s Heady Fwends record. Escaping for a few minutes in producer Dave Fridmann’s “b-studio,” Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd started work on a series, of dark, twisted and, at times, terrifying recordings. Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne took notice and the resulting album, The Terror, is both the band’s darkest and most experimental album to date. As The Flaming Lips continue to tweak their exuberant live show, Drozd explained why The Terror is what happens after the “wild, acid LSD freak-out party that goes through the night.”
Your new album, The Terror feels like a cool evolution for The Flaming Lips but at the same time feels right in the canon. So the first thing I want to talk about is a little bit about when you guys started working on this. I know last year was kind of devoted to a lot of different types of studio projects and then you came back to create an album which feels very much like an album. What were the original conversations that led to The Terror?
I guess the earliest stuff was [when] we were up at Dave Fridmann’s mixing Heady Fwends, which is just a big hodgepodge of all these different projects and recordings with different people. Dave’s got another studio set up so if you’ve got some free time or you’re bored with the proceedings in the main room, you can go off and just do your own thing. So I was off in another room just kind of recording sounds. I didn’t really have an agenda, I wasn’t thinking of a new record, I wasn’t thinking of any specific project. In fact, it was the opposite. It was like, for me personally, I was just fucking burnt out. We’d done the 24-hour song, we’d done the 6-hour song, we’d been touring like crazy, we’d done all these re-releases throughout 2011 and mixing Heady Fwends, and I just didn’t really have any musical ideas even. I was just kind of working in this void of just recording sounds that I thought sounded cool. But I guess there was something there because I kept going back to this one song called “You Are Alone” on the new record, and then Wayne [Coyne] heard I was working on it and he just really responded. If he likes something I’m doing, he’ll respond and want to work on it, but this was like a whole other thing. He kept asking me about what it was. He was just like, “What is this you’re doing? It just sounds so sad and terrifying,” or whatever, you know?
But he was really curious about it and he wanted to work on it with me, so then we started working on that and just kept listening to it just for enjoyment not thinking it was for any project or anything. It was almost just so much fun to do this just for… I mean, we get to make records we want to make anyway but a lot of times you have deadlines and there’s things you have to do at a certain time, and you need material for this or that, and not having any of those things to worry about, this song was just kind of floating there in its own little world.
Then we just talked about trying to do a few more songs kind of like that in the same realm where there wouldn’t be any rock guitars, there wouldn’t be necessarily a pop song or anything, it could just be some sounds and harboring that realm. So we did a few songs like that and after three or four, that’s when we started talking about it being a record. Like, what if we made a whole record that was of this ilk, of this kind of trip that stay focused or stayed in the same kind of sound, the same kind of whatever feeling or emotions this music is evoking? And after four or five songs it seemed like it was going to work, and I have to say it’s one of the easiest Lips records I’ve ever made. It’s funny this far down the line and the record sounds so bleak and stuff, but for me it was one of our easiest records we’ve ever made. So that’s kind of how it happened.
For the last year and a half before The Terror, you guys were working on all sorts of different songs and the collaborative “And Friends” album, as well as a variety of other little projects here and there. Was there a conscious decision not to work on a studio album? If so, do you feel that having a year where you can experiment and create these songs that aren’t conventional rock songs gives you guys the creative freedom to make The Terror, which as you said, is a very different album in that it’s not a straight-up rock record or straight-up pop record like some of your other stuff has been?
I guess all those things played a part. I think if we hadn’t made Embryonic and then done all these other projects like we did, we definitely wouldn’t have ended up with The Terror that we started working on. I was doing “You Are Alone” in January of 2012, I guess? I mean, there’s a couple, like the “Butterfly” song, that go back to the summer before that, but we ended up changing it enough and doing some things to it so it would sit with these other Terror songs. But everything else was pretty much recorded from January through April of 2012. It just couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done those other things first. For me personally, when we got done with the 24-hour song specifically, I just had no more musical ideas. I always have stuff that I record at home that I’ll bring in and we’ll work on together, [but] by the end of the 24-hour song, I just had nothing. There was nothing I wanted to do, there were no songs I had that I wished we would have done.
So when I started “You Are Alone,” it was really almost just starting from a blank canvas. And then when Wayne jumped in there with me and we started working together, it’s almost as if we were discovering music together for the first time or something. [Laughs.] We didn’t have to write songs for a record, and we had these old synthesizers that we would just record a sound on and start a song from instead of him bringing in a song or me bringing in a song.
So all these things kind of had to play a part in what The Terror became and, like I said before, we weren’t really talking about a new record even. We just did these few songs because we just really enjoyed them. We thought it was just a cool trip that we were doing, you know? As we started to think about it being our new record, we really loved the idea of this being our statement like, “Well, here’s where we are now.” After all the stuff that’s happened, we had the early 2000’s with Yoshimi and that got us to a next level of pop commercial success or whatever, and then Mystics seemed like the extreme end of pop commercial production and songwriting and all that, and then Embryonic felt almost like a left turn fuck you to that, like we wanted to just try some other trip, whatever you want to call that music.
Even though a lot got recorded between Embryonic and The Terror, The Terror to me is a perfect record after Embryonic. It’s like Embryonic is the wild, acid LSD freak-out party that goes through the night, and then The Terror is the next morning when the sun’s coming up and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” That to me is the sound of The Terror, which is a perfect sort of parallel to our career too. We had this big freak-out and now we’re coming down from the freak-out and what are we going to do? But back to your question, I don’t know what would have happened after Embryonic if we hadn’t had two years of just exhaustive recording and writing and stuff.