She hasn’t even dated anyone in the band, and yet Miley Cyrus has become the Yoko Ono of the Flaming Lips story.
The 21-year-old pop star and the 30-year-old psych-rock group have been chummy all year, sharing stages and studios and shooting trippy-ass videos, and while a very vocal faction of Lips fans see their friendship as some kind of a gimmick or distraction, frontman Wayne Coyne swears she’s a legit collaborator.
Now, there’s a Beatles connection to further the Miley-as-Yoko thing. Cyrus joins Moby, Tegan and Sara, Grace Potter, J. Mascis, Dr. Dog, My Morning Jacket, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, and numerous others on the Lips’ 14th studio album, With a Little Help from My Fwends, a track-for-track remake of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band due out on Oct. 28.
As Coyne tells Nylon, Cyrus isn’t just another voice on the record—she was the impetus for the entire project. Although the band had worked up a series of John Lennon-penned Beatles tunes for a 2013 New Year’s Eve show, it took Miley visiting Coyne’s home in Oklahoma City and singing on “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” to get the Lips spiraling full-on into the world of marshmallow pies, lovely meter maids, and of course, Henry the Horse, dancing the waltz.
“We were doing a few things with her in the studio, and that was one of them,” Coyne says. “Then we did ‘A Day In the Life’ with her, and those turned out stellar. I think that really started us thinking maybe we could do this whole record.”
Prior to the session, Coyne never stopped to consider whether the erstwhile Hannah Montana would be familiar with Sgt. Pepper’s, released in June 1967, when her daddy, Billy Ray, was just five years old. Coyne simply had a hunch it would work out.
“I knew she knows everything there is to know about cool music,” Coyne says. “There’s almost nothing you can mention that she [doesn’t know]. That’s why her and I love each other so much. We’re in the same mind. Her mind is open to all these old things she wants to know about, and my mind is open in the exact same way to all these new things I want to know about. We meet almost exactly in the middle because of that openness to the other.”
With a Little Help From My Fwends is the Lips’ fourth full-album covers set, following interpretations of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, the Stone Roses’ self-titled debut, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This latest is perhaps the strangest—completely obvious and then again not. If Sgt. Pepper’s is the first Beatles LP most people flip for, it’s also the one that most people are least likely to revisit. It marks the moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo crashed the ‘60s psychedelic circus and assumed the roles of ringmasters, and for as embedded as its cover image and 13 songs are in the public psyche, the music is dated, and the songs are very much of a piece.
You’ve got to be in a certain mood for “Fixing a Hole” or “Within You Without You,” and Coyne is the first to admit that the mood doesn’t often strike.
“I’ve probably thought the same thing five or six different times, and then I’ve liked it again, and then thought the same thing,” Coyne says. “You can go through phases where you love it again. The meaning of it and the time it was made and the clothes they wore and all that—to me, little by little, it would drift away, and it would just become evocative music.”
With Miley’s twin contributions in the can, Coyne and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Steven Drozd decided to keep the party going and enlist other musicians to flesh out the disc. Some were good friends and family (Coyne’s nephew Dennis’ band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, played on and helped to build some of these Frankenstein tracks), while others, like L.A. psych-pop comers Fever the Ghost—heard alongside Mascis and MMJ on the opening title song—were total strangers.
“They just did it, and after I got to know them, and I was like, ‘That’s just fucking insane!’” Coyne says of the Fever crew. “I think that happened a third of the time, and a third of the time, it was something I was pushing to happen. And the other third of the time, we’d have fucking no idea and just hope that something happens. That’s how you get Maynard to sing. I remembered he’s crazy like that, and that we’d known him a long time. I texted him at 3 a.m. one night, and he responded five minutes later and said, ‘Fuck yeah! I’ll do it!’”
The “fuck yeah” approach comes through in the music, especially “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the tune Keenan sings on. Whereas Lennon’s original is a sinister-sounding old-timey carnival scene, the Fwends update is filled with static and digital squeaks and screeches. Maynard’s voice booms like a dispatch from a loudspeaker in some dystopian world where the government has mandated a day at the fare after 28 straight in the factory.
It’s a perfect fit, though Coyne refuses to take too much credit. The Lips had already done up a few versions of “Mr. Kite,” unaware that Maynard was the missing ingredient.
“If you have too much time to contemplate and consider and be cool, it always ruins it,” says Coyne. “We got lucky. We needed someone desperately, and there it is: It’s Maynard. It seems very obvious.”
Try as they do to muck up these hyper-familiar songs with fuzz and reverb and other effects, the Lips and their buds render nothing unrecognizable. This was due to the ground rules—no changing the lyrics, melodies, or chord structures—and also the strength of the Beatles’ songwriting.
“With Paul McCartney’s songs—this isn’t across the board, but there are a few of them on this record—it’s almost like there’s no way you can screw them up,” Coyne says. “If you sing that melody and play those chords, it’s going to work.”
“The John Lennon tracks are tricky,” he says. “They sometimes make you think, ‘Oh, this is simple and easy,’ and then you go to do it, and it’s neither one. It’s tricky, and it’s not easy. And it’s not always in the song. A lot of it is in John Lennon… We said a lot making this record, ‘If you take John Lennon out of the record, I don’t think it’s worth doing.’ But then you get Maynard to sing, or Miley Cyrus, and it changes into something else.”
As for what qualifies freaky Ms. Wrecking Ball to fill in for the freakin’ Walrus, it probably has something to do with the poise and adventurousness Coyne sees in Cyrus. In interviews, he’s praised her for running her own career and refusing to be controlled like so many young artists. Asked how she’s managed to become the kind of anti-Britney, Coyne says he’s “shocked.”
“She’s probably had some really big successes that were not of her control, and she’s had some really big failures that were of her own control,” Coyne says. “And she’s probably learned the way everybody else has, through experience and through failure and saying, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d have done that, but I didn’t do that,’ or, ‘I did that, and it didn’t work. She’s open and she’s determined and she cares. She’s willing to try. It’s all the things about a mature mind.”
Were they to “around her for five minutes,” Coyne adds, all the haters and message-board trolls of the world would “fall in love with her, too.” Obviously, few will get this chance, so for now, Coyne and the Lips will have to deflect the buckets of nastiness being flung at them from critics and disillusioned former fans.
It’s kind of like when Dick Clark premiered the videos for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (both recorded for Sgt. Pepper’s) on the March 11, 1967, episode of American Bandstand. After the clips, Clark polled the teens in the audience to get their thoughts, and it was lucky for the Fab Four that none of these squares had Twitter accounts.
“It was different,” one deflated girl says. “Weird,” says another. “They just look different than they used to,” says another. And these kids hadn’t even met Yoko yet.
“We don’t give it very much energy,” Coyne says of the backlash he’s faced. “We’d always stand up for the things we love and the people we love—our friends—and nothing would ever deter us. We’re going to do our music and put ourselves into it and put our love into it, and if you don’t like it, that’s OK. It’s when people try to act like, ‘You can’t do that! Who the fuck are you?’ That’s where we go, ‘Well, we’re not like you. Sorry you think that way.’”
Words By: Kenneth Partridge
Photo By: George Salisbury