Wayne Coyne on Miley Cyrus: ‘She sends me pictures of herself peeing’

It’s almost a surprise that Wayne Coyne doesn’t roll up to our interview in his giant hamster ball. The Flaming Lips frontman is so defined in his Wayne Coyne-ness that, waiting around, it’s hard not to picture him as he appears onstage: an intergalactic pirate smothered with fake blood and confetti, flanked by dancing pandas, his boulder-sized fists raised aloft to shoot green lasers into the sky. This is a man whose life is such a carnival of oddness that he’ll sometimes forget he’s carrying a solid gold hand grenade, which didn’t go over well when he took it through customs at Oklahoma City’s airport back in 2012. When he wanders into the lounge of his Clerkenwell hotel engulfed in a baggy hoodie, he can’t help but seem down to earth measured against his reputation. Despite the glitter in his snowy ringlets and the glue-on plastic diamonds studded around his right eye, he’s human after all.

The Flaming Lips’ last full album, 2013’s The Terror, was an exploration of doom and despair with a very human backstory. The previous year, Coyne had separated from his wife Michelle, bringing a 25-year relationship to an end. Looking back, he agrees the record, filled with buzzsaw synths and jarring beats, was a reflection of where his head was at. “We were chasing a specific sound, but who can say what it is that makes you like all that agitation and discord?” he asks. “It definitely has to do with your state of mind. I see that now, for sure, but at the time I probably would have said: ‘Nah man, it’s just cool-sounding shit.’”

He was lifted out of his funk by a wrecking ball. In January 2014, former Disney child star Miley Cyrus was about to begin her world-straddling Bangerz tour when she tweeted birthday wishes to Coyne: “one of my favorite artists OF alllllll time.”

“I tweeted her back my phone number and said: ‘Text me,’” he says, still sounding bemused by this turn of events. “Since then, we’ve texted each other every day. I’ll say: ‘What are you doing?’ and she’ll send me pictures of herself peeing. Sometimes it’s 1,000 times a day, sometimes it’s a couple of times a day, but we’re in each other’s lives.”

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Even by the Flaming Lips’ standards, it was a surreal twist of fate. Having started out in Oklahoma City in 1983 as druggy punk upstarts with no greater ambition than to sound like the Butthole Surfers, by the end of the century they’d transmogrified into the psychedelic shamans of 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. They became adept at smuggling existential truths into euphoric pop songs such as Waitin’ For A Superman and Do You Realize??, and it was this era of the band that earned them Cyrus’s adoration. A month after exchanging those first texts, Cyrus invited Coyne and musical polymath bandmate Steven Drozd onstage with her in LA to perform Yoshimi’s title track.

That was just the start. On the band’s next project, With A Little Help From My Fwends, a track-by-track cover album of Sgt Pepper, Cyrus’s guest spots stole the show. Coyne and Drozd then found themselves co-writing her next album, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, which she released for free and sounded as far removed from her teen pop career as you’d expect. Coyne was part of her world now, ending up at charity dinners where she’d introduce him to the likes of A$AP Rocky.

Wayne Coyne performs with Miley Cyrus at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. Photograph: John Shearer/Getty Images

“He’d just got a new set of gold teeth, braces things, and he was talking about taking acid,” says Coyne. “In between, Miley was whispering: ‘He’s never really taken acid. He’s just saying that because he wants to write music about taking acid.’ He would keep talking and she would go: ‘He doesn’t know anything about acid.’ She’d know. Cyrus has done acid plenty.”

Whether or not Rocky really does know his LSD from his DMT, Coyne found something on his wavelength in the rapper’s music. He has described the new Flaming Lips album Oczy Mlody as “Syd Barrett meets A$AP Rocky trapped in a fairytale from the future”. Lyrically populated with unicorns, witches and “frogs with demon eyes”, it features a spoken-word appearance from US comic Reggie Watts; Cyrus, of course, pops up on its closer, We A Famly, lending the song her ebullient vocals.

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It’s a more optimistic, melodic and playful record than The Terror, but what keeps the Flaming Lips interesting this far into their career is that they’re still dismantling pop songwriting. Third track There Should Be Unicorns messes around with form and structure before eventually dissolving into a long spoken-word section where Watts simply reels off his to-do list for organising a party in a magical kingdom.

Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips. Photograph: George Salisbury/PR

While, fortunately, he hasn’t been tempted to start rapping, Coyne does say the band were inspired by listening to Rocky and watching videos of rappers in the studio, such as the YouTube footage of Timbaland playing Jay Z the Dirt Off Your Shoulder beat for the first time. He and Drozd found themselves envying their way of working.

“To me, the great revelation about rap music is that rappers don’t look at it like: ‘We’re a band, and there’s a drummer and a bass part and a guitar part and somebody sings,’” he says. “Rappers are like: ‘There’s a track, I don’t give a fuck how it got there but I’m going to do something cool on top of it.’ We liked the idea that we’d be both sides of it. On this record, we’d go in as the Flaming Lips and make a track, then we’d hand it to the other part of the Flaming Lips to sing on top of it.”

It’s a method they’ll also apply to their next project, another Miley Cyrus album, which they’re planning to fit around her current day job. “She’s going to keep being a judge on The Voice, but I know she wants to make music at the same time,” says Coyne. “I’m thinking of a way we can make a record without her having to sit there for months and months. I think she likes it when it’s like: ‘You guys do some of the work, and then I get to come in and do something really cool.’”

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Wayne Coyne performs in Aspen, Colorado, in December 2016. Photograph: Riccardo S Savi/Getty

Along with Cyrus, a generation of psych bands such as Tame Impala cite the Flaming Lips as an influence. Coyne, though, dismisses the idea that he’s become some sort of elder statesman. Despite turning 56 this week, he has no interest in fronting a heritage act. “We all listen to the same records,” he says. “Without the Flaming Lips even existing, Tame Impala could sound exactly like Tame Impala. Once they came along, we were influenced by what they were doing, and then they would be influenced by something we did that was actually influenced by them. Everybody’s covered in each other’s shit.”

What drives him isn’t the idea of being a psychedelic icon, but being an explorer. “We get tired of everything always being so musical,” says Coyne. “Steven and I would say that about music we heard, as a putdown: ‘It just sounds like music to me.’ It could be anything, including things we were working on. We’d say: ‘Who cares? It’s just music.’ That doesn’t interest us. There would be no element in there which would be a mystery.”

Even after 30 years of his band, Wayne Coyne still wants to surprise you. More than the hamster ball, or singing about unicorns with Miley Cyrus, the most surprising thing about the Flaming Lips is that they still can.

Oczy Mlody is out on Friday on Bella Union. They play Brixton Academy, London, on 21 January and Manchester Academy on 22 January

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