Nowadays, indie and alternative rock bands think nothing of promoting their music via TV, commercial, and film placements. But back in the ’90s, when Oklahoma eccentrics the Flaming Lips (who just released their 14th album, Oczy Mlody) hit the stage at the Peach Pit After Dark — aka the hottest fictional nightclub on Beverly Hills, 90210 — to rock out in front of David Silver, Valerie Malone, and Dylan McKay, it was a real eyebrow-raiser and head-scratcher.
“Popularity is a funny thing,” chuckles the Lips’ charismatic frontman, Wayne Coyne, reflecting on “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which took more than a year after its 1993 release to become the band’s only major radio hit. “Once something is kind of popular, it has the potential to grow and grow and grow. When Beverly Hills, 90210 called us, if this would have been a year earlier, or six months earlier, we probably would have thought, ‘No, we’re too cool; we don’t do those sorts of things.’ But we had done a lot of stuff by then” — the song had already received a promotional boost from its mocking on Beavis & Butt-head, which Coyne had found “endearing and clever” — “and it occurred to us that [going on 90210] would be ridiculous and absurd and funny. It didn’t really matter if it was artistically good or bad or whatever.”
Coyne remembers thinking the 90210 shoot went so badly that the 1995 episode, titled “Love Hurts,” would never see the light of day. “We did kind of talk amongst ourselves [on the set that day], like, ‘It seems weird that the one episode that we’re on is such a disaster that there’s no way it will air.’ It just didn’t seem possible it could work! We saw them saying lines, and they would do them five or six times, and everybody at the end of the badly done — from our perception, anyway — takes, everybody’d kinda be like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ Yay. No big celebration. It just kind of felt like yet another grueling day on the set. And we thought, ‘That probably won’t air, and nobody will see us.’ And three weeks later, it’s on TV and it looks wonderful! All the things we thought seemed like a disaster were just business as usual.”
Remembering the band’s time on the set, Coyne says one unnamed female cast member made it obvious that she liked the Flaming Lips even less than Beavis or Butt-head did. (“It was at the end of a long week, and she probably didn’t like the episode anyway,” he says of her bad attitude.) But he recalls that another 90210 actor was a bit friendlier. “For good reason, they had a lot of restrictions about what could be backstage [at the Peach Pit] — there could be no pot, no drugs, no alcohol, or any of that. But some of the people involved in the Flaming Lips are pretty determined and imaginative in how they want to spend their day, so there was some ruckus about that. Some of the cast members were really fans, and really fun, and some could kind of care less and just wanted the day to be over with. … There was a blond dude who talked to us all day. But I think mostly he wanted to get wasted with [band member] Steven [Drozd]. I think he was like, ‘Where’d you get the booze?’ I think that bonded their friendship even more.”
That “blond guy” just may have been Ian Ziering, whose Steve Sanders character uttered arguably the most infamous and immortal line in the “Love Hurts” episode: “You know, I’ve never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!” Coyne laughs, still incredulous that the episode actually made it onto Fox. “These were really lines! Even when you say it now, it feels like this is not a finished phrase for a real actor in a real show to put into the world,” Wayne exclaims. “And yet, when he says it, I kind of believe him.”
Even before 90210 came along, the Lips had a hunch that “She Don’t Use Jelly” might be their breakthrough single, after playing it night after night to uninitiated audiences on an unlikely tour with third-tier grunge band Candlebox. “We’re out there playing our noisy little songs, and we would, most nights, start to play … and the audience there would absolutely hate us,” Coyne recalls. “There’s a certain energy you get from that kind of hatred, and it can be quite fun to play to people who want to kill you; it gives you a kind of a power. But we would play ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ even to that audience, and they would, even in the flow of their hatred, say, ‘Oh, we like that one!’ And then we’d play the next song, and they’d go back to being outwardly hateful.”
But despite their radio success — and success converting a few Candlebox fans here and there — the Flaming Lips were determined to keep experimenting, moving away from typical alt-rock. Just two years after appearing on 90210, they riskily released Zaireeka, a recording experiment that required the listener to play four CDs, on four separate stereo systems, at the same time. (The project sold about 12,000 copies.) The Lips then took another bold turn with the lush, orchestral, and not-at-all-guitar-oriented The Soft Bulletin in 1999, and while at the time they thought, “We’re going to make this record, and if it’s the last record we make, and the world doesn’t need any more Flaming Lips records, we would know that we did the thing that we wanted to do,” it turned out to be their true artistic breakthrough.
“Previous to us making The Soft Bulletin, we probably were wrongly overly concerned with seeming like we were a cool, weird rock group,” admits Coyne. But with The Soft Bulletin, the Lips were “working towards things that seemed more emotional,” and the result was song like “Waiting for a Superman,” inspired by Coyne’s father’s losing battle with cancer. “People will come up to me virtually every night that we play, and there’s this secret code that’s in the music — we don’t really have to speak about it,” muses Coyne. “People will point to that song, and that’s the song that, the person I’ll be talking to, him and his older brother talked about when their father was dying of cancer. That’s not in the music. You wouldn’t know that from looking at it. But if you’re in the right state of mind and you hear it, I think it communicates that.”
Later, on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Lips created another sentimental fan favorite with “Do You Realize,” with its devastating line, “Everyone you know someday will die.” It is now considered one of the greatest funeral songs of all time. Says Coyne of the classic track: “How that comes from all these whimsical romantic little visions, and at the end of that is this sort of punch to the face, a horrible reality, it still feels acceptable in the flow of the music? We felt, ‘Ah, that’s going to work.’ And so we just moved on to record it. … There could have been no way we’d known it would have this other power where people use it at the deaths of their grandmothers and the births of their sons and daughters and it has such powerful meaning to people. I think all songwriters think, ‘It would be great if we had a song that could do that.’ And we really do have a song that does that. And when we play it, I know in the audience that there are people that this is their song. This is their mother in this song. This is their sons and daughters. We always play it absolutely like this is the greatest thing that we get to do. … We love, love, love that we get to play this song, because it’s like a piece of magic.”
Despite these songs’ deep connections to the Lips’ diehard followers, the group remained largely on the fringes, releasing limited-edition music on USB sticks submerged in gummy-candy fetuses, brains, and skulls; covering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety with Peaches and Henry Rollins; filming an utterly bizarre sci-fi holiday movie, Christmas on Mars, whose cast included Fred Armisen and an army of giant marching vulvas; and recording their darkest and least accessible album to date, The Terror, in 2013. Shortly after that album’s release, it seemed that the Lips might return to the mainstream via the 56-year-old Coyne’s unlikely friendship with 24-year-old pop star Miley Cyrus. But that pairing instead led to some of the Lips’ most unexpected and out-there projects to date — like Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, which surprise-dropped as a free streaming release right after the Lips performed its pro-marijuana track “Dooo It!” with Cyrus and a troupe of RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni on the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. Later the two acts toured the album together with stage show wilder and freakier than anything the Lips had done before. As Coyne puts it, “When Miley walked out onstage for the first time with that giant unicorn penis thing, I can tell you for sure that it wasn’t something that had been discussed!”
“Working with Miley on what would end up becoming the Miley Cyrus/Dead Petz record, this kind of secret Soundcloud record, it would seem like the idea that someone like a Miley Cyrus would not want or would not have anything to do with a group like the Flaming Lips,” admits Coyne. “On the surface, that would appear true. People would probably think she’s this music-industry, Disney-corporation, manufactured persona, and the Flaming Lips are these self-made weirdos that have nothing to do with the music industry. What would we have in common? But because I’ve been around a long, long time, making music and doing our own thing, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some success here and there that’s allowed us to keep building and growing and doing all that — she, I think at the time that we started knowing each other, had a desire to do that in her own way. I think she probably had a desire to be the ‘Wayne’ in her own world. So I think it was just all those coincidences coming together, where I’m old enough not to give a f*** about all that stuff, and she’s young enough and brave enough and experienced enough not to give a f***. It’s kind of about the same level.”
The Lips recently released Oczy Mlody, which they say was inspired by Syd Barrett and A$AP Rocky as well as by their bond with Cyrus, who appears on “We a Family,” the album’s feel-good final track. “I think doing a lot of stuff with Miley Cyrus and being subjected to listening to a lot of her favorite music, being around her producer Mike Will, you become immersed in it,” says Coyne. “For us, having a new approach, it’s exciting. Because we don’t want to do the same thing over and over again — or be conscious of it, anyway. You feel like you’re doing new things, it’s exciting and thrilling, and when it works, you’re like, ‘Look at that!’”
Surely even Steve Sanders would think that rocks the house.