Everyone loves an unlikely friendship. Wayne Coyne, frontman of The Flaming Lips, has been working for some time with newcomer Nell Smith, a singer-songwriter, vocalist, and longtime fan of the band. The two joined Consequence recently for an installment of our creator-to-creator interview series, Peer 2 Peer.
The two know each other quite well, as Smith has been working with the rock group both in a mentor-mentee capacity, as well as on a project of Nick Cave covers. The final result, Where the Viaduct Looms, will arrive this Friday, November 26th.
In this episode of Peer 2 Peer, the two chat about the origins of their creative partnership, their upcoming joint album, and navigating the recording process. Watch the video above; a transcription of their conversation follows.
Nell Smith: What’s up!
Wayne Coyne: Here we are, I know! It’s weird to know that someone is listening and watching…
Smith: Yeah, it’s kinda awkward, but it’s okay.
Coyne: So — how do you feel about it now? I haven’t looked at what the reaction to “The Ship Song” has been, we’ve just been doing stuff and all that. But what’s your feeling?
Smith: So I got a lot of positive feedback from it, I’ve heard lots and lots of people really like it, and I know that with the Bella Union thing, they’ve made a cassette and a digital release that you can buy on their website.
Coyne: Perfect, yeah! Those seem like the things that we wanted to be like… we can put some of these things in place, and then we’d know we’ve got some cool stuff happening. I guess for me I thought it was gonna take a little bit longer.
Smith: Yeah, it’s just kinda been like… right after, we talked about it on a Zoom call, so we were thinking we could make a cassette and a couple weeks later we were like oh, this is your whole website! And there’s a cassette on there! And people can buy it, they can pre-order!
Coyne: I’m the same way, I always think it’s gonna take like… you know it’s like the stuff with you and I, it takes a while to set it up. But we’ve got the music and the videos and everything done. Ya know? All the hard stuff is done.
Smith: Yeah, it already is, but it just needs to fall into place, sort of.
Coyne: And you know, we’ve done Bella Union forever, so I’m so glad we’re connected and doing stuff. They’re great, they know what they’re doing.
Smith: Yeah, I’ve been talking to some of the people that work on the social media side, so they’ve been helping me decide what my image on social media is gonna be more like, so they’re helping me with posts and stuff.
Coyne: Those sort of things are just… what do you do? I know, it’s like…
Smith: Yeah, you obviously wanna post if something cool happens, but it’s just like, if I’m not posting enough…
Coyne: It’s so awkward, I know, I hate those sort of things. It’s like you have to sit there all day and you’re monitoring your own stuff, which is…
Coyne: But you seem to be doing pretty good at that! I imagine there’s probably 10,000 people that are gonna say, “I think this is the best thing ever,” but there’s 10 people that say, “Oh I hate this.”
Smith: That’s sort of what it’s been like. I went on YouTube the other day looking through the comments and the views and stuff on The Ship Song video, and there was bunches and bunches of nice and comments and only two that were a little bit like “We don’t like this” but I think the people that comment bad things, it’s like… why don’t you just leave it? It’s such a waste of time.
Coyne: And those stick with you! They do. It’s like, you can hear a hundred, “Yay this is great,” and the one boo, it’s like, “Who was that?”
Smith: Yeah, let’s investigate, I need to check who this is. No…
Coyne: I think that’s a good thing, ya know, I think you’d have to be a very egotistical, crazy person to not wonder what negative things are being said. It does mess with you, it does stick in your mind and you wish it didn’t happen but it’s like, who cares?
Smith: They’re just sitting behind the keyboard. I don’t really mind what they think. It’s not my problem.
Coyne: When I hear the song and I watch the video, I’m completely blown away! You look like you really know what you’re doing!
Smith: Yeah! I think it’s amazing! It went out and loads of people love it. I know that a lot of people are commenting that they can’t wait for the whole album.
Coyne: I know! I forget that it’s not out there yet!
Smith: We can listen to it, we know it’s amazing, and people want to hear it! “We need to hear it!”
Coyne: So, yeah… I suppose eventually we’re gonna have to play some kind of a show together… but have you still been working with that group of guys up there, from Fernie [in British Columbia, Canada], where you’re from?
Smith: Yeah, so in Fernie there’s a couple people — I think my dad told you about that band, Shred Kelly?
Smith: Yeah, so I haven’t played with them yet but they were totally open to the idea and wanted to play together, we could do a practice together so that I have a band to sing with. But I haven’t done an actual practice with them. But other than that, I’ve been learning the piano. I remember when I came down, Steven [Drodz] was trying to show me on the piano and I can actually play it now!
Coyne: But you did good! For you not knowing what it was, I thought you did really great! You did look hesitant, but convincing on the video, so I felt like all that worked really good! I could kinda tell you were gonna be able to get it. So you feel like you’re more accomplished now?
Smith: Yeah, I can actually play the full thing pretty well now, so I think CBC was supposed to be here tomorrow but there’s a bunch of mudslides in Vancouver…
Coyne: Oh man…
Smith: So no one can get out of Vancouver, really, so they’re just gonna zoom in I think. Yeah, there’s mudslides all around from all the rainfall. We have floods in our basement here but it’s not like crazy mudslides, which is kinda bad. They were gonna come and film me practicing and playing a couple of the songs and singing with my first music teacher, so they were gonna come here but they can’t make it so we have my friend’s dad that filmed the first video, Alex —
Coyne: — The “Girl in Amber” video?
Smith: Yeah, so he’s gonna film it and they’re gonna be on Zoom or something, kinda like, just another interview but I’ve been practicing on piano and can play the whole “No More Shall We Part” through.
Coyne: Oh yeah?
Smith: So, we have a friend staying with us at the moment that stayed with us four years back, and she has a lot of music courses… she’s good at vocals and stuff, so she knows the piano very well. So she actually taught me it, which is amazing.
Coyne: That helps so much. Yeah, to have someone actually there, something happens with your mind and curiosity and physically seeing stuff. You’re good enough that I’m sure you could pick it up from a video or even just looking at the chords, but having someone there, putting their hands on it and stuff, that really works great. And the timing on “No More Shall We Part” is just so bizarre…
Smith: Yeah, we tried to put the metronome to it so I could sing it better when I was down with you, but it was so strange.
Coyne: But you were so well-rehearsed to the way that you perform during the recording that it just was amazing. There were only a few of the takes that you were slightly off, so Blake and I put that together it was quite amazing.
Smith: Now, when I’m playing it on the piano, it makes it easier for me to sing it because I can follow my hands. If you have an instrument that you’re playing, it’s easier than listening to someone else’s. So it’s awesome! It’s like I’ve got the whole thing down!
Coyne: Yeah, that’s the way The Flaming Lips work, too. If I’m the one playing and singing, everyone has to follow me, even if I’m not in time or anything. But I think that it worked really great on the recording. It’s not so stiff. The recording is so weird, but it’s wonderful, because it’s just flowing around. But it’s so difficult to do when you have to mine that and mimic that for the video. But you did great!
So I think that muscle memory that you’re starting to get about singing it, rehearsing it, being scared that it’s not gonna work, it just works works works for you so well. There are so many times when I’m — even last night, we’re singing a song and I’m thinking about something else, and suddenly I’m like… I’m gonna sing these words. I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to sing and then as it comes up you just sing and it’s like oh, there’s the words.
Smith: Yeah! I can play it with my eyes closed now I’ve been practicing so much! And it’s like yeah there’s the verse. I remember how it goes. I’ve got it down, I can do it pretty well now.
Coyne: I always felt like the recording feels like you playing and singing yourself, so even though we know it wasn’t and we just constructed it to seem that way, I think as you go out and if you played that and play it and sing it that way, that’s just gonna be really great. It’s a great song and when Nick… I think it’s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, I’m not sure if it’s just Nick or not… but when you do it, really, the part where the harmony vocals come in…how did you come up with that?
Smith: So, my first music teacher, she does vocals on a bunch of different stuff with a couple bands, so she can easily listen to the main one, the one I sung, and then easily harmonize on it. So she’ll just go ahead and sing. She’ll be like, “Okay, sing this part, then we’ll do a low one…”
Coyne: So she was kind of instructing you, or guiding you?
Smith: Yeah, so I kinda got stuck at one point because I couldn’t really think, because Nick obviously sings it so low with his voice, so I was trying to find the right pitch that I could sing it in because I obviously have a much higher voice than Nick Cave, so she came to our house when we were recording and was like, “Oh, maybe if you sing this part higher it’ll make it easier to get the lower part.” So she would help figure it out. She was like, “Oh, this is easy to harmonize on, let’s make harmonies on it.” That’s kinda how it worked.
Coyne: For me, I can never — I don’t know what to sing when harmonizing, so I just make something up. Which is fun, too, but it’s so many great layers. Do you feel like it’s something you could figure out if she wasn’t there? For me, having Steven and Derek figure out what the harmonies can be is just amazing.
Smith: Yeah, I’ve kind of latched onto what she does. I can understand if someone’s singing something I can always do it a bit higher and match it. I can still do that pretty well and it sounds amazing.
Coyne: Well, then let’s say when we venture into more recordings with you, we’ll just be messing with that.
Smith: Yeah, and I know on a lot of your songs, too, you just sing and say random little things but you add them in and it makes it all full. You can just be like [sings] and yeah, that works.
Coyne: Yeah, you just have to say I’m having fun and it doesn’t matter, and if it doesn’t work we’ll just try it again. You hear all that stuff in our music. I think the “Red Right Hand” has a lot of funny stuff in it…
Smith: Oh, yeah…
Coyne: Where Michael’s like, “Ooh, ahh,” and I remember us sitting there and being like I dunno, you gotta sing something! It’s fun that all that works, and hearing people laughing and in the background and all that, I think all that stuff really works for music. People forget… I grew up listening to The Beatles, and The Beatles have so many of those things happening in their songs, where people are talking in the background and laughing and singing. All that helps. But those harmonies on that are just so amazing, ya know? They break in and it’s like is it three of you, is it two of you, or four of you? I don’t know what it is.
Smith: On the recording it’s just two of us. I sung and layered over a couple different parts. Then my singing teacher Rachel would sing a couple parts to show me how, but we recorded it anyways and it sounded amazing, so we just added it on.
Coyne: Oh, I see, I got you.
Smith: Yeah, we went back over it and layered it.
Coyne: Yeah. So do you feel like you are starting to learn some of the hows, and whys, and fun things you can do in recording?
Smith: Yeah! So when we were recording I kinda saw how my dad did it, and sometimes I wouldn’t… I don’t know, it was sort of embarrassing when he was listening to me and try and sing it for the first time. Like, okay, show me how to press record and then leave!
Coyne: Totally, I’m the same way, I’m like oh well, what can you do.
Smith: Especially if it’s the first time you’re singing it.
Coyne: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the charm of it. It’s that you know you’re just kind of screaming into the void and hoping that you don’t sound too horrible. That’s part of it. But I think that’s what we want to hear, ya know? We want to hear that you’re not so confident, that you’re trying, that you’re listening to yourself. Listening to yourself is the worst part of it. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh…” ya know.
But I think that’s what makes it so wonderful. We all know that feeling, that feeling of, “I don’t know what I’m gonna say, I don’t know how I’m gonna sound,” but all that shows up with it. I’m trying to remember how we got together, I feel like I’ve known you forever now! But it’s really only been… has it been three years? Two years?
Smith: I think it’s been three or four years, maybe, I don’t know! But I kinda remember how we met sort of.
Coyne: Where were we playing, was it the show when you were dressed up in the red?
Smith: It was like a parrot thing. No, I think I had been to a couple shows in that costume, and then you were playing in Calgary, which is like two and a half hours away from us, like at the college or something, or the university. We went to watch that show, and I saw Steven running on the stage from the side and then you came out and I waved and you came over, as there was an opening band on for you guys at the moment. And you came over and had recognized me because I had worn that costume at a couple other shows.
You were like, “I think I know you, I see you at shows.” So then we started talking and I think that time I wrote a letter that I was gonna give you and we had tried to get it onto your tour bus so I think we had given it to someone and someone got it on the tour bus. And you said let me go check and you got my number and said I’ll message you if we got it. That’s what happened. So then you messaged us after the show and you were like, “Oh, we got the letter,” and messaged back and were saying like, “Oh, that was an awesome show, thank you,” and you were like “yeah, for sure,” and then messaged me, “If you’re doing music stuff” — because I was learning how to play guitar and we were talking about that.
Coyne: Yeah, and I was like send me the stuff you’re doing, and I personally wouldn’t have known this was going to go anywhere, and then we really just started to be like, well, and you’re still writing songs now, and then the Nick Cave sent things into overdrive, like, “Let’s do more of these.”
Smith: I do remember, the first couple of times I messaged you after the show, you told us since I was learning guitar and you liked my voice or whatever you said you should learn a couple of Flaming Lips songs, five or something, so I learned a bunch of Flaming Lips songs. The first song I ever learned on guitar was “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”
Smith: So, I remember we definitely sent you a couple clips of me playing guitar. A couple years ago, I guess it was. You gave me the task of learning a couple Flaming Lips songs.
Coyne: I would be interested to be like, “What does she sound like? Is this something she likes, or whatever?” And people don’t realize that it’s this great, great luck that you’re in Fernie, you’re up there, and we’re in Oklahoma, and you’re recording and you’re sending it to me…
Smith: And we can still make a huge track out of it! You guys can take it on your computer…
Coyne: Yeah, that’s the way of the world now. I bet there’s still probably people that think you’ve gotta be in the same room doing stuff and no, it’s almost easier that you go and work on it on your own and I work on it on my own, because then you’re a lot less self-conscious about it. You’re kinda listening and messing with it. If the person is sitting right next to you, sometimes it’s difficult to say, “I don’t like this, or let’s change this.” So I think it’s so great.
Smith: I think that’s definitely the coolest thing about the album is that we were in completely different parts of the world recording it and it still came together as a whole album! We never went into your studio with you and me at the same time and recorded a song. Never!
Coyne: That’s more and more normal now, all the time. And even Dave Fridmann, I’ve worked with him since 1988, so a long long time, so we sent this to him at his studio, so it’s you singing at your padded closet and then us working on it in Oklahoma City in our studio and then in the end sending it to Dave up in New York in his studio. But you know, we do communicate with each other a lot, you and I and you and your dad and I, and even Dave and I. More than we probably would if we just thought we had to see each other in person. And none of us sat there together doing it! But I think that makes it work better.
Smith: You can be honest. You can be like, “I don’t really like that.” I think it was awesome.
Coyne: Being diplomatic is a great quality, but music doesn’t always improve by being diplomatic. Sometimes it’s like no, let’s do this, let’s do that. And having someone listen to it, that’s just a big responsibility. A lot of times people are gonna listen and just go oh, it’s great, I don’t wanna tell you anything, they’re just gonna tell you it’s great. Being able to be in an environment where you can really say, “This is good but let’s make this shorter,” or let’s change this or whatever…”
Smith: I feel like you can make someone work on it with one person and you both think it’s great, but being able to hear that it’s good from someone else makes it easier to keep the momentum going. Just knowing that someone else enjoys it, too.
Coyne: That word, momentum, that’s a good word to use. You really can get bogged down in being like, “Is this any good? Am I any good? Do I even like this?” It all becomes such a weird thing in your mind. But when you feel like it’s going good, any little bit of encouragement and excitement that you get from the other entity, it helps you. That’s why I tell people you can’t hold back. I remember the first time… I still know the guys in Coldplay, but I remember when they put out their first single, “Yellow,” do you know that song?
Smith: I was actually singing that the other night. I love Coldplay, I had no idea you knew them!
Coyne: It’s a great song! But the first time they played it for me, they were like, “Wayne, what do you think?” And I was like, “I don’t know, I think it’s kinda boring!” They were like, “We think it’s gonna be our first single.” I was like, “I don’t know if that’s gonna work.” And then, ya know, they played it for me again… maybe it was already out, and I was like, “Oh man, this is a great song, I love this song!” Not knowing it was the same song I didn’t like a month earlier or whatever.
When I heard it the second time, I was like, “Oh, I love this song, I think this is really gonna work.” They were like, “You’re so weird, you’re so crazy, you don’t realize you didn’t like it a month ago.” But that’s how you have to be! Was there a difference the first time I heard it, or was I just wrong? My mind was different. So yeah, you really have to be open to listening to things but you also have to be honest with yourself, which is the hardest part.
But I think with your voice, and your personality, you really are a great vehicle of your own design. You really do represent your music, which is the hardest thing for people to do. Everybody can do music, everybody can kind of sing, but the idea that this is you and has your personality, that’s why I’m so drawn to it. Knowing you, and knowing your dad, and knowing the way you are, having that be in the music itself is just a great, powerful thing. Even the photo that’s now the cover. It’s so great when you get to see it on iTunes and stuff, isn’t it?
Smith: Yeah, there’s a Spotify thing, and I held my dad’s phone and it would just tick whenever someone listened to it. It would buzz whenever someone listened to it. You could feel it… it was like tick, tick, people are listening to it. That was something that was a moment in motivating me. It was so cool.
Coyne: That’s so cool. When you see a picture of yourself, you don’t even think it’s you! It’s just so cool. Then you’re like oh, hey, that’s me!
Smith: I have on my phone a playlist of a bunch of different artists that I listen to in my headphones all the time and I realized that when you are actually behind it you can see that you’re added to people’s playlists! So I was on Spotify and looked on my account and could see that I was added to people’s playlists. That’s just… I’m always adding songs to my playlist, and now I’m on people’s playlists?! Whoa.
Coyne: I know, it’s like suddenly you’re part of the magic of music and all that. But to me, I think all that just gets better and better. The more you understand it the more you realize how lucky we are, that we’ve interpreted music into this thing people love. We finally got this notice from the Nick Cave people that he really loved it. In the back of my mind, I’ll always love you and the music we did together, but if Nick Cave didn’t like it, it would just be a bit more of a struggle. You and I would be like, “We’ll keep fighting,” or whatever. Having him embrace it so much was like… didn’t that feel great?
Smith: Yeah! I know that we love it, but then he wrote on his website, the Red Hand Files, and then his wife also wrote…
Coyne: Susie, yeah!
Smith: She also wrote on it, and it was like oh they actually like it. That’s awesome. The momentum thing. I see how to keep going.
Coyne: It’s like, you’re so prepared to be like, well, if they don’t like it, we have to be tough and say I understand if you don’t like it. But to have him embrace it so much was just a great relief. We don’t know if he’ll love all the songs, but it seems like he loved it enough! And if you ask me, I think he’ll love all of it. You don’t sound like him. I think the power of his songs… a lot of artists, you take them outta the song and the songs aren’t that good! But you’re showing that his songs and his lyrics, you can take him completely out of it and it can be a completely different entity in there, and you see just how beautiful these songs and the lyrics and the working of it is. He’s gonna know that.
Smith: The thing with it going out, with the momentum thing, and with him liking it… if the whole album went out straightaway and there were no singles first, it would’ve been harder. It would go out and then we’d be like I don’t know if people are gonna like it. But now that we’ve put a couple singles out, and we know they like it, it makes you feel like if we put the album out they’re all gonna like it.
Coyne: We don’t really know what’s coming up with us. I think the coronavirus seems at the moment like the borders, and flying, is starting to get back to more normal. But I think at this moment right now, we have Thanksgiving in America, last year this was when the worst of these surges started to increase. We’re very glad to be going home and not to be on an airplane. Our next show isn’t until New Years Eve, and maybe you guys will come to one of those. We’re gonna….
Smith : It’s in Nashville. It’s in a cave.
Coyne: You mean the caverns! It’s an insane place to play a show. We were there a couple years ago, we had a night doing a new years show there. We’re doing two nights there. It’s the day before NYE, and then NYE itself. I know we’re gonna rehearse in December sometime, so this would be between Nell and I we’ll sort of see if there’s a way you can come down and we can rehearse then we would definitely do that if our schedules and travel and all that coronavirus allowed it to happen, we would maybe do a couple songs on one of the nights in the caverns.
Smith: Yeah, I think that would be awesome. If we just keep talking about it I know we both want to do some shows together, just to figure out the logistics.
Coyne: You’re getting ready to have more music coming out… is it the 26th?
Smith: Yeah, I’m pretty sure! It’s soon! The 16th, so ten days.
Coyne: That would be our plan, but you know there’s a lot of things we don’t get to control about that, so we’ll see what happens. But that would be the next chance we’d get to do something. Then perhaps making another video or two if we’re set up at our place there. But your videos are great, too! The videos you guys have been making! We’re always just working towards what can we show the world of this music and Nick’s music.
Smith: I think when the album comes out in ten days or whatever, I think if it gets a decent amount of attention, if it has the momentum, I feel like maybe playing a show or two with you and seeing how that goes would be awesome.
Coyne: Our dilemma is always if we play a show as the Flaming Lips — but if we play something as Nell and the Flaming Lips, people are like are we gonna hear a bunch of Flaming Lips and a little bit of Nell? And I’m like no you’re gonna hear all of Nell but we’re just gonna be the group.