In his 30-plus-year career, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has gone from a glassy-eyed twenty-something grinning through his first Letterman appearance to a technicolor-dreamcoated master of ceremonies in a near perpetual state of performance. Whether it's releasing an album meant to be played on four stereos simultaneously, or crowdsurfing in an inflatable bubble, or collaborating with the likes of Moby, Kesha, Henry Rollins, and plenty more, Coyne's career choices have been anything but conventional. He has also been incredibly prolific: With more than a dozen studio albums, a handful of cover albums, and a slew of collaborative EPs under his belt, Coyne is arguably one of the busiest frontmen in rock today.
This week sees the release of With A Little Help From My Fwends, The Lips' full-length cover of The Beatles' iconic 1967 record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album — which features a revolving cast of collaborators that includes Miley Cyrus, Tegan and Sara, and My Morning Jacket — is hardly the first time The Flaming Lips have dabbled in a full-length tribute. They've tackled Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, The Stone Roses' self-titled album, and King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King before. But this is perhaps the first time a band has dared to take on and — gasp! — re-imagine the legendary work of the Fab Four.
With A Little Help From My Fwends was born after the band rehearsed a cover of "Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds" for a gig. The Lips recorded it, and recruited Coyne's new pal Miley Cyrus (with whom he got matching tattoos) to sing on it. They put the song out as a one-off single.
"Then, I think all the reasonable minds around us were all like, 'Why don't you go ahead and make the whole record, it doesn't make any sense to make just one song,'" Coyne told The Week.
The Lips recruited high-profile friends to pitch in. Some songs, though, proved easier to cover than others. "When you listen to Paul McCartney songs — not all of them, but the ones on this record — they sound difficult," Coyne said.
"They sound like he's a great singer with great intuitive songwriting," he continued, "and you listen to those songs and you go, 'Wow, he really knows what he's doing.' But John Lennon tricks you because a lot of his [songs] seem like they're really simple and his personality makes it seem like anybody could do it. And then you go in to try to do them and they're just f--king impossible... with some of the John Lennon tracks we found that if you take John Lennon out of them, they're just not very compelling."
The Lips hit this troubling snag with the carnivalesque thump of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." The solution? Enlist protean prog-metal singer Maynard James Keenan.
"I was lucky that it occurred to me that our friend Maynard, he's the singer for the bands Tool and Puscifer, likes to do freaky s--t like this," Coyne said. "There are probably only two or three singers in the whole world that could do this song and be themselves but fill the gap that's left by John Lennon so perfectly. I don't want anybody to get the wrong impression that I'm so smart that I figured it out, I'm just lucky that I know him."
Aside from "Mr. Kite," the Lips used Coyne's home studio to take other challenging songs and rework them until they were just right. The project, says Coyne, is a fun way to honor The Beatles while also donating to charity. All the proceeds will go to Oklahoma City's Bella Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters pets and helps low-income pet owners afford veterinary care.
"If I didn't absolutely love the record, we wouldn't do it," Coyne said, adding that he and Miley Cyrus are animal lovers who both own many pets. "Miley and I, this is our thing. We want this, this is a part of the reason we wanted to make this record."
While the album will no doubt be anathema to some Beatles die-hards, Coyne stressed that The Beatles would have approved of its spirit. "I think what the Beatles would say to you, if they could say something through their music, is 'Take chances, be yourself. Be brave, be a freak.' You know, they almost encourage you to try things," Coyne said.
"The Beatles are telling you, 'You're gonna hear this, it's gonna blow your mind, it's gonna make you wanna make music, its gonna make you wanna be a painter, it's gonna make you wanna change your hairstyle, make you wanna take drugs, make you wanna have sex with your girlfriend, you know, everything except play it safe. I think that's the secret," said Coyne. "They already have the song for you, now just be yourself."
This interview has been condensed and edited from a longer conversation.
With A Little Help From My Fwends is out now on Warner Bros.