The Flaming Lips have practice taking on classic albums, as shown in their interpretations of the Stone Roses' debut, The Dark Side of the Moon and In the Court of the Crimson King, but once you start approaching the Beatles catalog, especially a record often in the "best albums of all time" conversation, eyebrows tend to rise. But for Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips, it's not something they approach with somber reverence and gentle consideration for the source material. As far as Coyne is concerned, the band isn't doing anything to the original songs, they still exist, so there's no fear over concerns of any sort of musical blasphemy. The resulting album, With a Little Help from My Fwends, is still recognizable as Sgt. Pepper, albeit with a cavalcade of guest performances from names like Maynard Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer), Tegan and Sara, Phantogram and Coyne's best pal, Miley Cyrus, who features on two tracks.
We called up Coyne to talk about tackling such well-known source material, bringing together the disparate lineup that made the album, and the one iconic moment they left out of the album.
AllMusic: Covering an album all the way through and releasing it seems like the kind of thing a band might only get to do once in a career, if ever, but you've been able to do it a few times now.
Wayne Coyne: The way record contracts, making records and putting out records used to be, that’s absolutely true, but nowadays, anybody can record at their house and upload it to the internet really within moments, and so that restriction, that difficulty has disappeared now. If we went back to 2003, I don’t think we would have even considered it; it would have been so much trouble, so much money, so much effort, just to get something recorded and out there. Around 2005, that all started to change, we were making records that were part of the bigger Warner Bros. machine that have a lot of people involved and a lot of moving parts, and there’s other records we would make. With the freedom Warner Bros. has given us, we sometimes just put out records for our friends, like the King Crimson cover record and the Stone Roses cover album that we did, and it’s just something we do because they’re around and you can do these things. The Dark Side of the Moon one that we did, that was never really intended to be a record, that was meant to be some extra tracks for iTunes if you downloaded our record that came out in 2009, but because it’s Pink Floyd it became a bit of a popular thing, and we made a record from it, but it wasn't intended at the beginning to be one.
With this, we were doing a New Year’s Eve show and added five or six John Lennon Beatles songs in the set, and because we were rehearsing in our studio, we recorded them, like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and that turned out quite good. It’s what you hear now, it's basically a rehearsal of ours with Miley Cyrus on it. I think because that turned out so good, we kept playing it after the New Year’s Eve show, and then we did the David Letterman show with that song. Then we got into the studio with Miley Cyrus, where we did quite a few things, but one of the things we did was we tried the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” track. Some people didn't know it was Miley Cyrus, which is fantastic, and we figured that we had this, and we had the “A Day in the Life” track with her, and we started to think that maybe we could do the whole thing. It wasn't something we considered, it just happened. We get going pretty quick, we just say, “Let’s do this or that,” and we got our friends involved, and they help you do something like a 13-song record. If we did it all ourselves, I don’t think we’d want to do a record this long, but since we had a bunch of people help us, that made it so much more fun, so much more entertaining and so much more interesting.
AllMusic: King Crimson and the Stone Roses are one thing, but going for the Beatles is a pretty bold project to take on, just because so many people know the material so well.
Coyne: We don’t think of it that way. A lot of people might, but because these things aren't happening in a serious way, even though we do make them and put them out, we’re always doing two or three things at the same time. Anyone who thinks that by the Flaming Lips or Miley Cyrus or Kesha or anybody doing a version of a Beatles song is in some way diminishing the Beatles song, I’d say that we’re not doing anything to the Beatles song, the Beatles song still exists, it’s out there forever the way it is. We’re doing our version of the song, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn't listen to it, but it doesn't diminish the greatness or the standing or the meaning of the Beatles music at all, and we already know that. They made great, inspiring music, and I think it would be a great compliment to the Beatles, I think that’s what they’re saying with Sgt. Pepper's, they’re saying, “Listen to this, this is going to blow your mind, this should make you want to go out and make a record,” and it does. Listen to some of their recordings, you can’t help but think, “We have to make music, we have to do this.”
AllMusic: While recording did you ever suddenly discover that you didn't know the words to one of these songs and had to look them up?
Coyne: That happens to most people once in front of like 20,000 people, and then it never happens to you again. If someone says, “Do you want to do a song,” unless you've really done it without the music playing, you don’t do it, but we've all done that, when you say, “I must know this song,” and you get up there and realize, “Fuck, I don’t really know this song, it’s always been playing when I've sung it.” That’s a really hard lesson to learn, and we've definitely done that.
When you’re recording, you can fuck up and go back and do it again, but when you’re in front of people, that’s a big deal. Even when you’re in front of them singing, they probably think they know all the words—and they don’t, either—but if you fuck up the words, they’re very aware of it. We've challenged ourselves with that a lot, even doing the John Lennon songs over New Year’s Eve, they’re songs that you’re sure you know, but you don’t really know them. We tried to do “Come Together,” and there’s a lot of cool lyrics in that song, and you think you know them, but I couldn't remember them for shit.
AllMusic: Did you have to be in the same room with everyone who appears on the album or were people recording remotely?
Coyne: We worked a lot with Miley, all of that was together, and we worked with Birdflower. There were probably just three or four people we actually did it with, and the rest was done through them sending them in. I think that’s the only way you can make a record like this, there would be no way, unless you had a lot of time and a lot of fucking money, for everybody to be in the studio. I wouldn't want to do it in that way, it’s too much. It’s cool for people to be able to record in their own space and time and in their own way, that’s what I like about it. If I get involved, it becomes more me than them sometimes, and I don’t want that, so I say, “Do your thing, and I’ll work it into and make it work with whatever we’re trying to do.”
AllMusic: At the same time I can't imagine you ordering around someone like Maynard Keenan, though.
Coyne: I think anybody who gets to be the man in charge, I think most of the time when I work with someone like a Miley Cyrus, they’re usually the one who is the boss, they love it that I’m the boss and they don’t have to be the boss for a minute, and I do what I do want, and they know that I care about it and they don’t have to. That’s what happens mostly when you run into people who are used to doing it their way, they’re relieved, like I am. When someone says, “Wayne, I’ll direct you,” if you direct me, I’ll just do what you want, I won’t worry about it. That’s what I find, for the most part. Most people that are willing to do something know that they’re doing their own thing and they’re willing to do your thing, but I’m going to do it, they’re not going to do it.
AllMusic: In retrospect it seems obvious that he'd play a sort of deranged carnival barker character [for "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"].
Coyne: As much as it sounds like he’s perfect for it now, it didn't occur to me until we had a couple of versions of it. I didn't really tell everybody exactly which track to do, so in the beginning people would just pick tracks and we’d go from there, but we didn't really have a good version of it. Everybody who did one would say, “I don’t know, I don’t really like it,” and we’d go, “Yeah, it doesn't really work,” but we kept trying. I've known Maynard forever, so I just texted him and said, “I think you could really do this, I think this would be great,” and I sent it to him and 10 minutes later he sent back. "I’ll get right to it.” He’s like that, he’s unique and he’s crazy and he loves music and he loves to do different things. He had done a version of “Rocket Man” with Steven [Drozd], and I heard that and was like, “Oh yeah, Maynard does these cool takes on things,” and that was all it took, and I was lucky that he was home and he could do it.
We already had the track, and it seemed like a great musical-only version of it, and I said, “If he sings on this, this could be great,” and it only took a little bit before he did it, and it was exactly what you heard, I think we did just a few things to it. It’s a great take of it, but it’s a very difficult song to make interesting. John Lennon is tricky like that. You think that this is such a great song and you like it, but if you take John Lennon out of it, it ain't so great. That’s one of his many tricks, he’s making it look simple and easy, and you go to do it and say, “It’s not simple, it’s not easy, I don’t even know how he’s doing it, how is he making it so good when we’re doing something that’s not very good?” Those are all things you discover with bands like the Beatles when you try to do what they did. It’s like trying to do a difficult yoga pose, you see someone doing it and say, “OK, just put your legs behind your back,” but you can’t do it.
AllMusic: And Tegan & Sara show up [on "Lovely Rita"], who seem like pretty good sports.
Coyne: I would not have known that. I know of them and I've seen them play, but they’re not the biggest extroverts in the world, they keep to themselves. But because we had this ongoing project going, I felt that anyone I thought was cool, I’d approach them, and if I said, “Would you want to do this?” and they could just say “no” and that would be cool, no worries. I ran into them at a festival at the beginning of the summer and said, “I think you guys would be great on this track,” and within a couple of days, they returned a vocal track, and we had a great music track done by Stardeath and White Dwarfs, and they really took to that. They didn't know the song, it wasn't something they were familiar with, and so they texted me and said, “I don’t know if we’re doing this right,” and then what they sent to me was absolutely right. Them being them to the song was what made it so great—them not being infected by the Beatles was the best thing.
AllMusic: Most of these songs were tackled on the 'Sgt. Pepper' movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, which I consider a fascinating disaster. Did you look to those versions for things to avoid?
Coyne: I have to say, I never thought about it. I saw that movie when it came out but I never thought of it that much. I love the Bee Gees and I like Peter Frampton, but it never occurred to me, it wasn't something we thought of or hated or loved or anything. I only am reminded of it when I’m talking to someone like you. For us, it’s not something on our radar. We’re aware of other people doing Beatles songs. I would go back and…I don’t know if I’d want to watch the whole thing again, but I’d listen to some things. Some of them have to be pretty cool, I suppose, but I haven’t listened to it in a long, long time, if ever.
AllMusic: 'Sgt. Pepper' famously ends with the massive piano chord, followed by the locked groove with the backmasking. I kept waiting for it on your version, but it's not there. That seemed like something that would have been up your alley to play with.
Coyne: That probably is very indicative of the way we did it, we never thought, “This has to happen, then that has to happen.” I do hear it now and I think, “What happened, you didn't do the thing!” It wasn't that we decided not to, we just moved along and turned it into this other thing, and it didn't occur to us. It just goes down to nothing at the end, I think you hear a bit of Dave and Miley talking back and forth, that’s all there is.