There are two schools of psychedelia, which can be roughly mapped by reference to mind-expanding drugs. The “good trip” school of psychedelic music is playful, colourful, child-like, the world of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Sunshine Superman”.
Then there’s the “bad trip” flipside where heavy vibes press in on the listener and sinister shapes loom in the shadows. Mick Jagger’s lips swell immeasurably large as he sings “Paint It Black”. Pink Floyd orbit lunacy on the dark side of the moon.
Where do the Flaming Lips fit? Formed in Oklahoma City 30 years ago, they come from a later generation of psychonauts, channelling classic underground psychedelia into alt-rock. Carnivalesque shows and bubblegum tunes place them on the good trip side of the psychedelic fence. So does a delight in impracticable achievements – an album designed to be played on four stereos at once; the world record for most gigs played in 24 hours (eight). They’re the sort of band that once persuaded Justin Timberlake to play bass with them on Top of the Pops dressed as a dolphin.
Yet they have a bad trip side too. The love of melody is mirrored by an attraction to mayhem – dissonant guitar, disturbed rhythms, acid-rock meltdowns. Themes of death and violence recur, even in ostensibly uplifting songs. “Do You Realize??” is a lush orchestral ballad that was adopted as Oklahoma’s official state rock song. But listen closely and you hear singer Wayne Coyne asking whether we realise that “everyone you know someday will die”. That’s right, people of Oklahoma. Life’s a bummer.
Their new album advertises its bad trip credentials with its title: The Terror. Those familiar with the band’s fun side will be startled by the fog of distorted vocals and hypnotic drones. Negative sentiments emerge from the aether – “Lust to succeed”, “You are alone” – sung by Coyne in an eerie, fragile fashion. It’s not exactly enjoyable but it is striking – as I tell the Flaming Lips frontman when we meet.
“That’s even better,” Coyne says. His tone is one of utmost affability. Whatever terror went into the making of The Terror is conspicuously absent from the London hotel room in which he sits. The visitor looks in vain for signs of distress – torn and tangled bed sheets, hand marks on the walls, a frantically rifled copy of the Gideon Bible. But no; all is neat and tidy. Even Coyne’s wild corkscrews of greying hair look unusually coiffed.
The Terror owes its genesis to a series of nocturnal improvisations. They took place while Coyne and his bandmates were making another album, last year’s The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, a collaborative record featuring a diverse cast of guests, from Ke$ha and Coldplay’s Chris Martin to Yoko Ono and Erykah Badu, all drawn together by the Flaming Lips’ quirky magnetism.
During recording sessions for the collaborative album, the members of the band would relax in another part of the studio doing what psychedelic groups tend to do on their tea breaks, ie jam together purposelessly. “We’d have these little jam sessions and they’d meander around – but there’d be a moment when we’d go, ‘What was that? That’s cool,’ ” Coyne remembers.
The results (“a sort of music which wasn’t music that we intended to make”) are dark and enigmatic. The band’s guitarist Steven Drozd describes one track, with a degree of pride, as “disturbing and unrewarding”. In a career spent drifting between the margins and the mainstream – their two best-known albums, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, sold almost 2m copies between them – The Terror ranks as their most uncompromisingly “underground” statement.
Where does the terror of the title come from? Drugs would be an obvious answer, the reason behind many a downer album. But while the Flaming Lips have a justifiable reputation as a druggy band, they’re past that stage of life now. Drozd was a heroin addict until quitting a decade ago. Coyne, 52, claims to have always avoided the wilder shores of psychedelia’s pharmacopoeia. “It frightened me, it made me feel like I went insane, it made me feel like I didn’t understand even who I was,” he says.
LSD’s mind-altering properties have a comical, self-indulgent side – befuddled hippies nodding off to raga drones or staring transfixed at Dark Side of the Moon’s cover (the Flaming Lips once recorded a track-by-track reinterpretation of the Floyd album). Yet in the old days of the counter- culture freeing your mind had a political significance too, a way of thinking outside official power structures. The flower children who tried to levitate the Pentagon overlooked the laws of physics but their attempt wasn’t meaningless.
The Flaming Lips have dipped a toe into politics in the past, taking a swing at the Bush administration in 2006’s “The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah Song”. But these Generation X-ers belong to a different era of psychedelic music, a post-heroic era in which the idea of rock changing the world is unthinkable.
“We’re not peace-loving hippies,” he says. “I’d love to be a peace-loving hippie but part of peace to me is just boring.” He rejects any suggestion that The Terror’s affrighted mood might relate to the war on terror, or any variety of politics. “Not in this type of music. To me I’ve never really thought of it as a political statement or whatever, a way to say, ‘We think this.’ ”
The Flaming Lips have ploughed a lonely furrow for much of their history, with occasional fellow travellers such as Mercury Rev, whose leader Dave Fridmann is their regular producer. Now, however, they find themselves as elder statesmen of a newly energised psych-rock scene, joined by younger adepts such as Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
The resurgence comes at a time of grave economic and environmental crisis, comparable in its own way to the events roiling the western world in the late 1960s. Is there a link? Psychedelia is, after all, the music of discovery and altered states, a pointer to new ways of thinking and feeling. But Coyne disagrees.
“Bands like Tame Impala live in an oblivion like we do. It’s not dictated by trends, times, politics. Psychedelic music nowadays can mean whatever you want it to mean,” he says.
For him, The Terror’s bad trip atmospherics are entirely inward in focus. Activated by the improvised jams from which the album emerged, they’re to do with unlocking aspects of yourself that you might not wish to encounter. “If we can really say what we feel, are we sure we really want to know what it is?” Coyne says. “The type of terror that we speak of with this music isn’t that we’re going to die or the world’s horrible. It’s this internal fear that you’re not living the life that you want to live.”
Freedom, the dream of 1960s psychedelia, has changed meaning. In a society almost wholly defined by consumer choice, the pressure is on the individual to decide who they are and to act on it. The Terror doesn’t so much confront this precarious, atomised brand of freedom as emerge disoriented from within it. That’s the modern bad trip it evokes – the feeling of being lost in a maze of choices.
“In the 1960s you could be screaming, ‘We want revolution in the streets, because of the way you treat these black people, the way you treat these women, the way you treat young people, the way you treat gay people, I can’t stand for it, if I don’t go to the street right now I’m as bad as you.’ That’s cool, that motivates people,” says Coyne. “But nowadays you are absolutely, completely 1,000 per cent free. What do you want to be? I don’t know. I wish I knew.”
‘The Terror’ is out on Bella Union on April 1