THE FLAMING LIPS, WAYNE COYNE – Evening Standard, 22 March 2013

Their mind-frazzling live shows regularly have them listed as one of the top 10 bands to see before you die. Now an increasing preoccupation with death and insanity has prompted The Flaming Lips’ gregarious ringmaster, Wayne Coyne, to pack away his space bubble and record an album he calls The Terror. But even if this lifelong merry prankster has started to prize the music above the stunts, it’s worth sticking with his band on their most out-there journey yet.

“We haven’t yet done rehearsals with all the stuff,” he tells me. By “stuff” he means smoke machines, glove puppets, fake blood and a giant hamster ball into which he climbs and rolls over the audience. “But I think the show will be different now. I think it probably will be a radical shift into something else.”

Does this mean that the giant Flaming Lips 30th birthday party, complete with furry animal costumes and snow storms, will finally be giving the audience a farewell slice of cake in a going-home bag? “I think I would probably not do the ball,” Coyne suggests. “I know that’s the image people have of us. It is a great, totally absurd, fantastical way to say, ‘Here’s The Flaming Lips! Here we go! Anything is possible! I’m walking on your head!’ But now we’re going to do something else that we think is really great.”

It’s true that the new album does not necessarily fit with the famed silliness of a long-running Oklahoma band who have previously used song titles including This Here Giraffe and I’m Working at Nasa on Acid. The Terror features the echoing deep space doom of You Are Alone, while another hypnotic, unsettling number features the line: “Always there in our hearts, there is evil that wants out.”

The title does give a little bit of a false impression. I was not terrified — I found a lot of beauty and some peaceful sounds in there as well, especially on the gently drifting Try to Explain. “This isn’t a monster movie. This isn’t an attack,” explains Coyne. “The terror that we’re talking about is a subtle crack in your nature that in time builds to an insanity or something. It’s not something out there, it’s something in you.”

Always fascinating company, with his increasingly wild, greying hair, colourful painted fingernails and a relatively new obsession with yoga, the 52-year-old seems like the kind of cult leader who would preach peace and free love rather than death and destruction. Yet he’s very interested in the potential for all of us to do bad things right now.

“How easy would it be for me to grab this pencil and stab you?” he says, as I remind myself of the location of his hotel’s various exits as subtly as I can. “It’s right there. It’s impulsive. It’s such a weird mechanism in our minds. I’ve stood in subway stations and thought, ‘I could just push that guy’.”

These emotions emerged late at night while the band worked on another album, last year’s guest star-heavy The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends. A disjointed collection featuring the likes of Ke$ha, Nick Cave, Erykah Badu and Yoko Ono, its evil twin emerged as the core band jammed in the next door studio in the small hours.

“This was what I call masturbation music,” he says, which doesn’t do much to sell the glacial, 13-minute wonder of The Terror’s centrepiece track, You Lust. “We thought it’s gotta be long — that’s just part of its nature. We don’t always make music like this, so intuitive and impressionistic. You sometimes want to focus it, but when it stays drifting, it’s cool.”

Coyne’s expectations for the album seem to be fairly low. He is no longer making songs as accessible as those that briefly lifted the band from cult favourites towards being household names, around the time of 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. “I don’t care if anyone’s going to play it on the radio,” he says. “We’re making our 16th record and we don’t have any real desire to make more of the ones we made before. It would always feel less good. We want to do something that’s at the tip of the mystery of who you are.”

However, this time it does seem as though the focus is on the music. The band have recently sold their songs on clear vinyl containing the actual blood of the band and friends, and also on $150 USB sticks contained within skulls made of gummy sweets. They have long been notorious for their 1997 album Zaireeka, which could only be heard by playing four different discs on four separate stereos simultaneously. Coyne likes the idea of finding ways to make buying music more of an event, but also approves of pop’s current internet ubiquity.

“To me, music is like water. If suddenly there was no water, you would completely freak out. Because it’s so important, it’s everywhere and it’s virtually free. We love it so much we’ve made it omnipresent and you never have to think about it. All these wonderful things that music does, it still does that. You just don’t have to wait in line for it any more. This should be good news.”

So it should be easier to take the plunge on an album that is as strange and disturbing as anything this never normal band have previously come up with. As they enter their third decade together, they must be doing something right, though Coyne is unnecessarily modest about their occasional brushes with fame.

“It was like we were walking down the street, a giant parade turned the corner, and suddenly we were at the front of it. It was just a circumstance, an accident, that we ended up successful,” he says. He’s grateful even so, for the more commercial moments of the past have freed up the band to push boundaries today. Even if they’re no longer leading the parade, I wouldn’t stop following them yet.

The Terror is out on April 1 on Bella Union.

The Flaming Lips play the Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846, on May 20 and 21.