“Being invited to the Grammys is already at a pretty high level of absurdity. And then to win it is just like… you know, you just think you’re being punked,” Wayne Coyne chucklingly tells Yahoo Entertainment, referring to when his band the Flaming Lips won their first Grammy Award, for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, surprisingly beating out mainstream classic rockers Slash, Joe Satriani, Gov’t Mule, and Tony Levin.
The Lips’ winning track, “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia),” appeared on the eccentric Oklahoma band’s most successful studio album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary with a deluxe boxed set reissue. The band has since won two other Grammys, but perhaps one day they will get closer to an EGOT and add a “T” to those three “G’s” — if their long-gestating Yoshimi musical ever makes it to the Broadway stage.
Back in 2007, five years after the album’s release, it was announced that Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots would be adapted as a musical by Tony-winning director Des McAnuff — known for his work on Big River, the Who’s Tommy, Jersey Boys, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, and many other productions — and Oscar/Emmy/Golden Globe-winning playwright, screenwriter, and West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Coyne tells Yahoo Entertainment that McAnuff came up with the concept for musical while listening to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots during his commute between Los Angeles and San Diego to visit his dying father-in-law.
“Back then, it would’ve been a CD that [McAnuff] was putting in his car [stereo],” says Coyne. “So, this album is playing through these months, and you know, music and driving and circumstances and all that can really make you hear things in the music. So, he had a great idea.” McAnuff envisioned the titular Japanese warrior character battling cancer cells, represented by the Pink Robots. But according to Coyne, Sorkin had other ideas — which led to a different sort of battle.
“The Aaron Sorkin part is… I mean, I don’t remember it all that precisely, but we did a meeting. We were in New York City — I think we were going to be on the David Letterman Show or something — and in the afternoon we were going to meet with some potential writers,” Coyne recalls. “And one of them was Aaron, which was like, ‘Oh, of course Des knows him!’ But at the same time, there was a strike on Broadway that day, which meant all their theaters were shut down. I think it was something in the union that didn’t let anything play on Broadway. And of course, that’s millions of dollars leaving; that’s people out of work. And in Aaron’s case, that’s a big deal. He had two or three [shows] that were shut down that day, and Des as well had two or three that were shutting down that day. So, they had a lot of stuff on their minds. And here’s my little record, and they’re talking about what it could be! We were only allowed to meet for probably 20 minutes or something.
“You’ve got to remember, this is… not that long after the World Trade Center planes, the 9/11 stuff, all happened, and we were still dealing with George Bush Jr., who was the president,” Coyne continues. “And Aaron wanted to make it about that. He saw the ‘Pink Robots’ as being the evil George Bush empire. And I really don’t know why I was so opinionated, but I just said, ‘Oh, I don’t really like that idea.’ Not that I had a better idea, but I just didn’t see this music as being connected to politics and stuff, you know? I mean, I felt like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is going to last forever, but George Bush will be gone in a couple of years, so who cares? But I think [Aaron] was like, ‘Oh, so you’re going to say no to my idea?’ I mean, he wasn’t mean, there was nothing bad said, but I just got the feeling that he was like, ‘Well, that’s the way I see it. And if you don’t see it that way, see you later!’”
McAnuff later publicly stated that Sorkin exited the project after finding out that the musical would be sung-through. But regardless, the Yoshimi musical, with the book written by McAnuff and Coyne, did eventually premiere at Southern California’s prestigious La Jolla Playhouse, 10 years after the Yoshimi album’s release, running from Nov. 6 to Dec. 16, 2012. The cyborg-puppet spectacle featured cancer-centric songs from the Yoshimi album as well as the Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and At War With the Mystics, and according to its playbill, it was “a dazzling multimedia experience that offers an allegory of our modern battle for progressive thought and individuality in the face of blind acceptance and conformity,” about “a young Japanese artist facing the battle of her life: the battle for her life. Adrift from her family and lover, Yoshimi journeys alone into a fantastical robot-world where she wages a war with fate. Will her will to survive be powerful enough to master the evil forces that threaten to destroy her?”
The ambitious stage production received positive reviews from publications like the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Tribune, and Coyne recalls the audience response when he went to see it in La Jolla: “It was emotional; people next to me were crying.” But the musical never made it to Broadway. Perhaps it was just too ahead of its time — in recent years, many pop/rock jukebox musicals, like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, the Go-Go’s’ Head Over Heels, and Pat Benatar’s Invincible have gotten the green light. So, Coyne doesn’t rule out the possibility that there still could be a Tony Award in the Flaming Lips’ future.
“I think Des is still working on it,” Coyne says. “And he doesn’t really need my approval. I love him, and whatever his vision can be, it’s going to be fine with me. … It’s not that uncommon [for musicals] to be, like, 20 years in the making, for these big projects that take lots of millions of dollars.”
The Lips were actually nominated for a Best Original Score Tony Award, and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score, for their work on 2018’s SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. But Coyne and company considered themselves winners long before that success, and even before they picked up their first above-mentioned Grammy.
“For us, success was really on our terms, even from the day one,” says Coyne. “Like, our mothers liked our records, and our brothers and our friends. And people always wrote great things about our music. Every step along the way, we didn’t need very much validation. … By the time we won the Grammy, we didn’t really care. And I don’t mean to say that in a bad way, it was just that we didn’t need the music industry to tell us we’re great, on television.”
Regardless, the Yoshimi album — the Lips’ 10th, released almost two decades after they formed — was their commercial breakthrough, even more so than their 1993 novelty hit “She Don’t Use Jelly.” And while the band did set out to make a “pop” album, they never expected it to be a pop hit.
“When we were going to make Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, to us, we were experimenting with pop music. We would listen to things like Nelly Furtado and Madonna, and we would say, ‘Why don’t we try to do that to our music? Like, wouldn’t it be funny?’ — not thinking that we’re making commercial-sounding music,” Coyne admits. “And we really thought when we put it out that people would not accept it at all, that they would think, ‘This is just a silly pop experiment.’ … I think for us it was just a big surprise: ‘Oh, people think it’s pop, and people think it’s normal! Yay!’ The way that we were making it was challenging for us, like a no record that we had ever made. It was experimental in its own way, for us. It just doesn’t sound that way.”
The Lips were especially surprised that Yoshimi’s elegiac centerpiece, “Do You Realize??,” resonated so deeply with grieving fans like McAnuff. “That line of like, ‘Everyone you know someday will die,’ in this type of poppy, slightly uplifting, slightly sad, slightly happy, slightly moving-along type of song — we thought, ‘No one is going embrace this.’ Because it really is a weird way to look at living and dying, you know? But we were wrong,” says Coyne.
“I remember playing that [song] for [Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist] Steven [Drozd] … and he would always point to that line — how it comes out of all these whimsical, romantic little visions, and then at the end of that is this sort of punch to the face, this horrible reality, that still feels acceptable or whatever in the flow of the music,” Coyne muses. “But there would’ve been no way that we could’ve known that it was going to have this other power, where people use it at the deaths of their grandmothers and the births of their sons and daughters — for it to have such, such powerful meaning to people.”
Many Lips diehards, no pun intended, have even requested that “Do You Realize??” be played at their own funerals, to which Coyne quips, “I think it just goes to show… I’m sure there’s some way we could figure out the algorithm, that people that want to plan their own funerals like the Flaming Lips. There must be some correlation there!” But he confesses that back in 2002, he was “frustrated” by fans’ response to “Do You Realize??” and even considered it an “embarrassment,” because he and his bandmates thought, “Oh no, we’re not that sort of group.’ I mean, you have identity crises all the time, and you never settle on who you are.”
Coyne elaborates, a bit sheepishly: “This song would be at funerals. It’d be [played] when kids are born. People would send us videos and say they’d use that song in there — you know, big, powerful, mainstream family occasions. And we would be like, ‘What are we doing there?’ But in time, we started to see that this is the power of music. They’re not playing it because it’s the Flaming Lips. They’re playing it because of what the song means— which, for a songwriter, that’s as great as it gets. That really is the peak of having communicated with people at such a powerful, emotional time in their life. So yeah, I could easily say we were stupid for [resisting] that, and we were wrong for thinking that. And in time, we were allowed to come to it in our own way and be like, ‘What were we thinking? This is amazing!’ So yes, I’d say we were completely stupid about it.
“If you would’ve said, ‘Write a song that does that,’ we would’ve never been able to do that. We’ve been like, ‘We can’t write a song like that!’ But to be free and write whatever is in your heart and whatever is coming to you as an artist, to have a song like that happen. … I think you just get lucky or whatever,” Coyne continues. “I couldn’t be more grateful and more surprised and more blown away that here is a song that is really is useful. I mean, I say it all the time, but it’s like, I wish we had written the song ‘Happy Birthday.’ How great and useful and simple and perfect is that song? … I think all songwriters think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a song that did that?’ And we really do have a song that does that.”
Looking ahead to the Flaming Lips’ early-2023 shows, when they will play Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in its entirely, Coyne now feels, and accepts, that sense of responsibility. “There’s people at our shows every night… where it’s like their mother just died or their brother was just in a car accident, something horrible has happened, but they’ve been able to come to a concert because they know we’re going to do this song that has connected to this healing and this grief,” he acknowledges. “And we’re going to try to make it as uplifting and as personal and as powerful, all that you can do when you’re kind of face-to-face with an audience like that. And that’s a tall order. That’s a big event for a dorky band like the Flaming Lips. But I think we’ve really learned to embrace that and love that
“So, we would never approach [“Do You Realize??”] like we are burned-out or sick of it, or that we have to play this song every night. We love, love, love that we get to play this song, because it’s like a piece of magic.”
Watch more of Wayne Coyne’s thoughts about Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in the two extended Yahoo Entertainment interviews above.
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