How a Bizarre Japanese Game Show Inspired the Flaming Lips’ Latest Album
The long path to the Flaming Lips’ 15th album began with some meat headbands and a curious lizard. Wayne Coyne remembers inspiration striking while watching a clip of an unknown Japanese game show. In it, contestants wearing meat on their foreheads poked their noggins through holes in a table, bait for a wily lizard.
This bizarre game mutated into an art exhibit at Coyne’s Oklahoma art space, the Womb, where visitors could lie down in a giant head and gaze upward for a synchronized experience of light and sound. And, after a years-long journey, that strange clip also led to the band’s most accessible batch of originals in more than a decade: King’s Mouth: Music and Songs.
Over the last few years, the Flaming Lips have operated more like an underground art collective than a festival-headlining, 35-year indie rock institution. Their output in the 13 years since their last collection of shiny rock tunes, 2006′s At War With the Mystics, has been a swirl of studio LPs that gurgle with dank psych-rock and space-rock, a handful of frolicsome cover albums, lo-fi filmmaking, whimsical and fwendly collabos and gummi art objects.
King’s Mouth: Music and Songs is somewhat of a return to dreamy weirdo rock. The story-song LP – part Dr. Seuss, part Beatles, part Daniel Johnston – is the bizarre tale of a giant king so deeply beloved by his people that they decapitate him and parade his head around their kingdom. The album, which features narration from Clash guitarist Mick Jones, was released as 4,000 pieces of gold vinyl for Record Store Day earlier this year, and is finally getting wider release on streaming services like TIDAL on July 19.
Lead singer Wayne Coyne spoke with TIDAL about how the King’s Mouth went from immersive party centerpiece to fanciful concept album.
The physical King’s Mouth was originally just a cylinder for people to lie in. Can you tell me about its earliest days?
We made a video for a  song called ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ and part of the inspiration for this video was this Japanese game show. There’s a big 10-foot-round table and everybody’s sticking their heads through this table with bologna strapped to their heads. And then they throw a very hungry, agitated giant iguana lizard on top of this table.
And this lizard, I suppose, is supposed to run over, and whoever the contestant is that can stand there long enough and let the lizard eat that bologna off their head or something, must be the winner. But we could never really tell what was going on. I’ve just seen little bits of it.
So we initially built this chamber. In the very beginning, people would sit in there and poke their heads through. We didn’t think it would be a very good idea to have a giant dragon or a monster or something in there, so, in the very beginning, we just had a dancer in there and we would pump really fast rap music. Six people could stick their heads through and there was a single, gyrating, sweaty dancer.
This wasn’t really very successful. It was something we did one time. It was kind of smelly and it was awkward. And then we quickly moved to the idea of a projection screen. You would lie below the screen, and we’d pump in loud stereo music. And a lot of this would be just mashups that we had done. Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ crossed with a Drake song.
We made two or three hours of these and they would just go over and over and over. And people would just lie in there. Really, it’s just so comfortable and cool. Literally 20 people would lie in there until you told them to get out. People would just stay in there all night.
It eventually started to look like a giant head. What possessed you to add a face to the cylinder?
I think it’s just what creative weirdos do. Probably, if given time, we would have turned it into something else. But luckily it was kind of rescued out of a good part in its evolution when the curator [Rebecca Alban Hoffberger] from the American Visionary Artists Museum in Baltimore [made suggestions]: ‘Can you take this and make it more like just a Flaming Lips thing – all original music, all original light show stuff, no mashups and no found footage videos?’
They were very encouraging and I didn’t have any idea of what the story was. It’s just this thing that we built and you went inside of it, you know? There was just about 10 minutes of music that was playing inside of it. But people always thought, ‘There must be an album with this.’
It does sound like a very natural progression, from immersive party installation to concept album.
I think this immersive quality … people [are] really interested in it. It’s not an art gallery. It’s not a movie. It’s not a concert. It’s just other types of experience.
How did you land on Mick Jones, of all the people in the world, to narrate the LP?
I mean, I ask myself that even now. I think at the time I was listening to some Clash music, I was just in one of those phases. I kept listening to that track off of Combat Rock; I think it’s called ‘Death is a Star.’ There’s something comforting about [his] voice to me. I didn’t really think it’d be comforting to everybody else in the same way.
And I know Don Letts, who was in Big Audio Dynamite with him. I think we talked about it like, ‘Hey, do you think Mick Jones would do this?’ And he said [raspy], ‘I can get him to do it.’
I hadn’t, at that time, even thought of anybody else or considered anybody else. I just thought, ‘Well, let’s see if he’ll do it.’ And then a month later, it came back finished. And I was like, ‘Well, this is going to make the record even better!’
I think we only had four or five of the tracks starting to be realized then, but that sort of kicked it into another gear.
Do you think the idea of a gentle British narrator might be subconsciously inspired by A Clockwork Orange?
I think probably my biggest influence or subconscious influence for the narrator is probably from the Dr. Seuss cartoon How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, where Boris Karloff is the narrator that gets you through the story. Harry Nilsson has that record called The Point! I know on some of these [songs] Ringo Starr from the Beatles narrates.
Why is The Grinch is so implanted on your subconscious?
Around [the mid-'90s], it got to where everything that’s ever been recorded was reissued on CD. All these cartoons and movie soundtracks were reissued on CD. I remember getting the Wizard of Oz soundtrack, an elaborate double CD thing, and just being amazed that I could just listen to the music without having to watch the movie.
When we were first listening to The Grinch, I was probably just thinking, ‘How did they make this?’ This music is very elaborate to go with this funny piece of the cartoon.
Cartoon music is amazing that in way because, you know, someone’s arm moves and it goes jrrrrk, you know, and they hit someone in the head with a hammer and it’s part of the music – pung, chrrr, kchhh.
I think we were always intrigued a little bit by that part of the connection to the visual. Subconsciously, listening to it over and over, trying to think, ‘How’d they do that and why would they do that?’ I’m sure it just got in there, a thousand different little corners of my mind.
Track 8 is called ‘Feedleloodum Beedle Dot.’ How did you land on the phrase?
Dennis [Coyne], the engineer and I, we had been struggling with putting a bassline to this really, really great drum beat that Steven [Drozd] had – he’s probably had the drum beat now for 10 or 11 years.
I put a bassline to this drum recording that we have, you know, and when I was referring to the part, I kept telling Dennis, ‘It’s the one that goes doodleoodle dooduh bup.’ I would just say that. I was literally saying ‘doodoodoodoo beedle,’ you know, like the bassline.
And then I just wrote it down one day: ‘feedleloodum beedle dot.’ And I thought, that sounds, again, like up a Dr. Seuss thing. You would just already have a name for something. You wouldn’t really need to explain it. It would already be in this world, this King’s Mouth world that I’m in. Of course, that’s an expression that they used.
It’s just a ridiculous, fun, romping-along little thing. But I think that’s part of what I like about that portion of what’s happening in the story. The king, he’s died and they found him buried in the snow, and this is the portion where they cut off his head.
I didn’t want this idea of them cutting off his head to be like a serious biblical, dramatic thing. I wanted it to be because they love him and then they want to preserve his head. It’s just something that their culture does.
The last line of the song [is], ‘Feedleloodum beedle dot/You think it’s heavy, but it’s not.’ Meaning that you think that cutting off the king’s head is like a heavy political thing – it’s not that. It’s just something that this culture does. Of course they’re gonna cut off his head and have a big parade.
The Soft Bulletin turns 20 this year. Critics at the time compared it to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds a lot. Was that record actually on your mind when you were making it, or was that something that came in retrospect?
People say that, and I take it as a great compliment now, but at the time we weren’t thinking that. We never thought of ourselves – and still don’t – as Brian Wilson. We were really working with new orchestral sounds that were new to us, ways that we could start to play with them. More like just punk rock do-it-yourself. It’s not even ambitious, we just doing lots of stuff.
We thought, ‘Well, let’s just make a punk rock orchestra.’ Like if we could tell an orchestra to play this way, this is how they would play. Part of it would sound like Walt Disney and part of it could sound like Wagner and part of it just sounded like a fucking, distorted, really loud, freaky orchestra.
And I think once we were able to get past that as like a gimmick or a dynamic, I think we really did touch on some emotional things that Steven and I, and I think [producer] Dave Fridmann as well, we all were sort of searching for
What an impossible dream to put these things together, little by little, little by little, and then to come out as this great, cohesive, wonderful optimistic sound. It’s like it has some kind of secret message in it.
I think it was a very painful time for Steven and Dave and myself, and I don’t think we’d want to be in that actual period making music anymore. Now I’m so glad that we kept making this music, searching for this thing that was sad, but also helped us.
(Photo credit: George Salisbury)
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