I haven’t always been interested in collaborating. It’s a bit stressful sitting down with someone and hoping you each like what the other creates. These sorts of things can bring out the best in people or the worst. But if I ask anyone to make something with me, and they’re willing to take the chance, the project automatically becomes more interesting. When I recorded with some of the artists on The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, I didn’t know what they were going to be like. The worst thing that could happen is it doesn’t go well, but then we can just try again.
Heady Fwends was born last February when we began putting out new recordings each month. We decided every other month was going to be a collaborative track with whomever I could find. The Flaming Lips have always had guest spots from friends who make interesting noises and have interesting voices. So I didn’t start out thinking of this necessarily as collaborations. For instance, when Karen O was on Embryonic in 2009, we would just send her tracks online and record her vocals over the phone. She liked doing it that way, so it wasn’t some sort of compromise, but it wasn’t as though she was sitting there writing the song with us. When you’re dealing with artists like her, though, anything that happens has the potential to be something cool.
A lot of it was simply timing. If these artists are living like me, they aren’t able to record just any time. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes are a big troupe, and they’re kind of like a glacier to get to move. When I heard they were in the studio, I just told them, "I’ll send you a track, and if you get a couple minutes here and there, do something on it." I like to make it as easy as can be. I prepare as much for them as they want, and leave it as open as they want too. I’m open to whatever they want to do.
Sometimes it was just whoever was touring through town. When Lightning Bolt was playing nearby, for instance, I met them at their sound check with a recording apparatus and asked if they’d just do an open-ended jam I could use. Some of the album came about from convenient moments like that, but we wouldn’t pursue anyone unless we really loved their music. They have to like us too, though. It doesn’t happen if it’s just me pursuing them and they’re not interested. I wouldn’t just call Ke$ha up and say, “Hey, I think you’re a weirdo, let’s record some stuff,” unless she was also interested. The both of us kind of pursuing each other makes it happen.
Some of the collaborations just came from finding the right opportunity—both in timing and the song itself. Biz Markie is on this arty, experimental kid’s show, Yo Gabba Gabba , which came to the studio to shoot a skit with The Flaming Lips. Since we were there working together anyway and I was in the middle of all these tracks, I asked Biz Markie if he wanted to do a couple things. We ended up using him on the Ke$ha track. I had originally done this vocal part, and I wasn’t really satisfied with how it sounded, but Biz really nailed it.
Some collaborations go great and some don’t, but almost anything can work, if people aren’t too precious about it. It’s not always easy, though. We were trying to do a track with one of our friends, Ariel Pink, and that wasn’t working. Then we tried to do the same track with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter , and that didn’t work either. Then, in kind of a last-minute panic, I got the phone numbers of one of the drummers from My Morning Jacket, and asked for the singer Jim James’s number so he could sing on it. Even though Jim was getting ready to go to the Grammys, he said he’d do it if I could send it over within the next hour. We all worked in different ways—ranging from Jim just singing the end part of a song, to Ke$ha writing and producing the whole song right there with me.
People probably wonder why I’d want to work with someone like Ke$ha. Maybe they think she’s just a big pop star and isn’t really interested in music, but that’s bullshit. Those people would be surprised how creative, smart, energetic, and easy to work with she is. She didn’t have agents or handlers or anything. It was just me and her and a couple of engineers and musicians who came with me. She was open to whatever I wanted to do. It was fun and spontaneous. We laughed and we partied and we made lots of music. Out of all the people I’m working with, Ke$ha and Bon Iver, some of the most crazy-busy and popular artists working today, were the ones who were the most into it.
Erykah Badu is someone I also saw with music already prepared and only three hours to work. We’d never met before or even talked on the phone—we just exchanged texts—but the song clicked right away.
I didn’t get to work with Yoko Ono in person—she just sent stuff online from Japan—but I did work with Sean Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. We’ve played concerts with Yoko before, though. She has a side of her that’s very guarded because she still walks around representing a big portion of the legacy and the kindness and the heart of John Lennon. But on the other side of that, once she feels that you understand that, she’s a very crazy artist to work with. Some of the things that we sent, I didn’t think she’d like, but she just loved and really embraced them. She has her crazy things she likes to do, but she’s very much aware and curious, as far as art and ideas and music goes.
I’ve always had this psyche of when I do something, I put all of myself into it, so last year, I started making posters with my actual blood. For the Heavy Fwends record, I decided to put some blood on the vinyl pressing. I’m there for every step of the album’s creation, so what would be a better way of having this be a part of me than putting my blood in there? I love our fans and I want them to get as much of the way I am, and the way we are as a group, and the way that we create—I want that to be part of what we do. After I put some of my blood in, though, I thought I’d try to get some blood from everybody else too.
They all agreed right away, but some of them were pretty timid when it came to being poked with a needle. I don’t want to mention any names, but it’s surprising how some dudes were deathly afraid of a little poke. Not everybody, though. Ke$ha was the very first one to do it. I told her about it in one evening, and by the next day I had her blood in the mail. Out of all the people I worked with, she’s the most like me because she’s just crazy and she loves all this shit. It’s not that everybody else was more hesitant, but they’re just not as crazy.
Another one of the collaborators I’m excited to continue working with is Des McAnuff. He’s the amazing Broadway director who’s making a musical based on our album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. This project started years ago when one of our agents gave the Yoshimi record to Des and he really fell in love with it. It was in 2004, a couple years after the album came out, that we first met with him about turning it into a musical. If I’d been pressured in that first year to do this, I would’ve been overwhelmed. Although it started with him pursuing us, knowing Des like I do now, it’s just beautiful. We always met a few times a year, and he’d consistently say what he wanted to do, where the ideas were, and how the story should go. I’m glad I’ve gotten to spend so much time with him, because I see more and more how great he is and how much he loves this music we made.
I’m intrigued to see how it will come together onstage. I think there will be actual robots, for sure. Or at least parts of them. We’ve talked about scenes where you see a giant arm and a leg onstage, and a video screen behind with these animated versions of things. Knowing Des, he’s so in command of all the different dimensions, there’ll probably be some robots flying around and others that are hinted at in video and holograms.
You never know how a project will turn out, though. Making the film, Christmas on Mars, showed me a lot about collaborating with people. Your initial set of ideas should just be a way to get going; you have to also be open to what happens, as opposed to being stuck with what you started with. It’s a big ordeal to have people waiting on you to know what to do next. You’ve got to be prepared. With Christmas on Mars, though, I was prepared, but also open to different things the actors would say, and whatever accidents happened on set. I then started incorporating those into the actual story.
Now I know it’s not just what you want the idea to be, but also being open to what other ideas are possible. That’s the way I work all the time now, whether collaborating or doing things myself. I pursue these internal, emotionally driven ideas, but I do so thinking I may hear or see something that can affect everything. It isn’t letting go of the idea—it’s letting the idea lead you into the unknown, and letting the unknown reveal itself. That’s a really hard thing for artists to do. But if you’re lucky, you’re not just making something; you’re listening at the same time. That’s really the secret.
As told to Joe Berkowitz