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Wayne Coyne on the Flaming Lips’ Turning Point, Sad Songs and the Importance of Being Charming: Exclusive Interview

Wayne Coyne Flaming Lips
George Salisbury / Warner Bros.

A few hours before hitting the stage, Wayne Coyne is talking about how the Flaming Lips’ concert spectacles have escalated.

What began with hand puppets, fake blood and handfuls of glitter in the late ’90s have blown up to include alien-Santa kick lines, UFOs and Coyne-sized space bubbles. On their current tour, Coyne sings a song atop a giant unicorn amidst a smorgasbord of inflatable monsters, cotton candy coats, balloons and confetti that has become de rigueur at Lips shows.

The frontman affably describes the experience as “trying to escape catastrophe every couple of seconds,” and compares it to other lavish tours – although there’s certainly nothing quite like the Lips’ homespun productions. Then again, there’s nothing quite like the Lips – a band that grew from a punky trio in the ’80s to alternative hitmakers in the ’90s to one of the most experimental, and original, recording artists in music.

“To be original, and all that, it’s just an impossible thing,” Coyne says. “You have to be in situations where your personality is just that you’d do something that no one else would do.”

The Flaming Lips’ latest album, Oczy Mlody, might be something no one else would do – a record, titled after a Polish phrase, which conjures a dreamworld in which the sadness, frustration and anger of reality merge with a Candy Land of castles, wizards and mind-altering soundscapes. The band has been incorporating some of the new material into the tour, which is wrapping up a European leg before beginning a run of North American dates in the spring.

Before the Lips’ show in Zürich, Switzerland, Diffuser.fm sat down with the 56-year-old Coyne for a long chat about the new album, and also the long road that led the “Fearless Freaks” to this point. The Flaming Lips’ founder discussed how the four-disc experiment Zaireeka forever changed the band, why “gobbledy-goop” can be a lyricist’s best friend and how he’s not a control freak, just “a freak that has control.”

The Flaming Lips are well-known as a live act and an album band. How do those separate sides of the Lips intermingle? Do they influence each other?

The idea that what you play in front of people – maybe this is the way it came to be, recording in the first place – whatever it is you do, well you just go into the studio, we put a microphone in front of you and that’s what your record sounds like. Probably in the early ’60s, with the Beatles and stuff, we started to get the idea that there’s things you can do in the studio that you really can’t do live. This notion of recording really being its own thing; recording isn’t just capturing your talent of singing and playing, it’s a different type of talent.

And I think, when we started to get into it, we had a very narrow idea of what it was. Part of us would be like, “We got these cool songs, let’s record them.” But then, the minute we got into the studio, I think things we’d heard on records made sense to us, like, “Oh, well they’re doing like, overdubs to make that sound, and they’re doing different vocal takes and different effects and all that.” It’s hard to know until you really do it yourself. It’d be like trying to figure out how a painting is made if you’re not a painter. It’s all a little bit like, “I don’t know. They’re cool or they’re good.”

I think we discovered that we really liked the idea that you could make something in the studio, which could appear to be or is different than being able to play it. And we would struggle with that a lot. Because we would have things that we really liked the way they sounded on our records and we’d go to play them and it would just be a couple of us and we can’t play that well and couldn’t  control the sound that well… But I think we kept trying.

They’re really two different things. The records, that’s a whole skill set, that’s a whole world. And then playing live is a whole ’nother world. It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who really like making records don’t want to play live and the people who really like playing live really aren’t interested in making records.

But you do get a lot of artists that sort of cross over. They make great records, but they’re not particularly made by them, you know? I think of someone like a Beyoncé or something, where it’s like she is a great singer, and she’s a great performer and she’s a great… you know, controller of her own artistic ideas. But she’s not necessarily the producer and playing around and creating all the music. Which is fine. And the same with her live show. She’s the focus, but there’s all this other stuff that’s she’s kind of overseeing. It’s her style, but there’s a lot of other skills going on. Whereas, I think, we naively want to do every bit of those things and be the people standing in front of you saying, “Hey, here we are.” So that’s why it’s probably taken us 40 years to figure it all out [laughs].

This way of doing it, where, if we want to, we can take a couple of years to make records, then come out here, with the group that we have now, and with technology and all this stuff – you can pretty well represent whatever it is you’re doing. And it takes a lot of effort and time and big gadgets and all that, but you can pretty well represent it.

You are playing three new songs from Oczy Mlody on tour. Where does that process to integrate the new stuff start? Are you trying to replicate the recording? Are you looking for how you can achieve a live version of this?

I don’t think you know. When we go to make the song, you’re just reacting to what’s coming out of the speakers in a studio and sitting there. I think when you go to play it, the song – all songs have a flow or an urgency or an energy. Like sometimes we play very intense songs, and they’re great, but at some point they wear you out. You’re kind of just beat up by it. And we would try to gauge, “Well, that’s great for a little while,” but then it’s annoying. And this slow, mellow song is cool, but after a while, it’s boring.

So you’re always battling this intensity and the entertainment value, and if they really like the song, that helps you too. I mean, some songs we’ll play that we know the audience doesn’t really know. But if we give it this f—ing insane spectacle while we’re doing it, they’re still blown away and they can say, “F—, that was a cool song! What was that?” And still have it. Where other times, if they really know the song, the song is the spectacle, and you can sort of just stand there and do the song, and they’re pretty happy.

But that wouldn’t be for the whole night. You’d try to gauge, “This song will work as a song, but this one won’t really work as a song but it’ll work if we throw dynamite at the same time.” You know, whatever it takes. And so when we go to do them, even when we’re rehearsing, I try to be in the state of mind of like, when I’m at a concert, I’m like, “Let’s go, let’s party, let’s get this thing going!” And sometimes it gets boring and we’ll change the dynamic of it, change where the flow and how heavy it is and how soft it is.

When you’re making records, that doesn’t matter that much. When you’re playing, you can go very loud and you can go very quiet and that intensity of being there with people… You can’t underestimate how much that matters. We’ll go out there today and we’ll do a soundcheck. And it’ll sound amazing and the lights will all work and all that stuff, but you can look at each other and say, “It doesn’t seem like it’s going to work. It seems like some old dudes up here playing some instruments. Why would anybody care?” But then, three hours later, it absolutely works, because of all that stuff.

And, I don’t know, that really is the thing. That intensity and paying attention and them wanting to hear it and you wanting to play it and the love and everything that happens in that interaction. That’s a big deal. And there’s nothing you can do about that, you just have to be in there and see where it goes.

But our [setlists] don’t change every night. We get it to a point where we think, “This has the most impact.” I mean, there are so many things going wrong every day anyway. So you try to keep on working at it, so we know that this can absolutely work. If five things are going wrong, it would still appear that this is working pretty good.” And everybody’s doing that. Beyoncé’s doing that, Coldplay is doing that. Anyone who has a production is trying to escape catastrophe every couple of seconds.

As the tour continues, do you take stock of what worked and what didn’t?

Well, if you’re lucky, you get to do enough shows and settle into the things that are working and fix the things that don’t seem to be working. And you have to remember that the audience doesn’t care that much. They’re really there just to have fun. They’re not really noticing all these little things that you might think, “Oh, this didn’t go right.”

So I try to take the attitude that I’m not a control freak. I’m a freak that has control. And try to be like, “You know, if I was in the audience, these little things that are going wrong, I wouldn’t care. I’d be having fun with my friends.”

I always say that the thing that works the most, no matter what you’re doing, is charm. No matter what’s going on, you can be there with people. “Well, that went wrong, but we’re still in it and that can change everything.” But the first thing to go is charm as well. You’ve got all this stuff and you’re this grumpy old dude out there and it doesn’t work. So it’s always a little bit of… I mean, I’ve seen some really great groups handle catastrophe and it makes you just love them.

It changes the dynamic, the “usual.”

Yeah, we did a show in San Francisco… maybe the year 2000. And we’re playing with Sebadoh and Robyn Hitchcock and a bunch of groups where we were doing this big thing. And show’s going pretty well and the power goes out. And you don’t know if it’s gonna be fixed in five minutes or it’s gonna be an hour or weeks, you don’t really know.

So you kind of fill in the gap with a little bit of, “Let’s see what we can do.” And Lou Barlow and Steven [Drozd, Lips’ multi-instrumentalist] and I did a couple of songs where I was singing on the megaphone and they had some acoustic guitars and everyone was being very quiet and listening. We’ve probably played San Francisco 50 times since then, and every time we’re there, people talk about that show. That moment.

Because they’d never seen that before.

Exactly. So your greatest show in the world, where you think, “Wow, we really got this…” [shrugs] You’ve got to have these little charming moments where people see something else, or is not the thing that happens every night.

Earlier, you were talking about the intense rocking stuff being too much sometimes. Did you feel that at the time of the Clouds Taste Metallic era?

Well, not so much as a group. When we’d go out there and play to that audience at that time, that would be satisfying. But Steven and I, especially, we were wanting to get to another version of ourselves. And not necessarily say, “Well, this rock band, is this thing gonna evolve?” I think we were starting to be like… Well, we had this guitar player named Ronald Jones, who was kind of a volatile – in a nice way – but a volatile guy and you didn’t know, from one day to the next, what he was going to be about. And he was a lot of maintenance, just on a daily basis. Making sure he’s happy. Making sure he’s liking what he’s doing and getting him to perform well and, especially in the studio, to join in and play. I mean, a really nice person, but a strange person.

And Steven and I, a lot of times, in the in-between of personal maintenance issues we had, we’d just do our music real quickly in between. And be very like, “Hey that’s cool, that’s cool.” And then we’d kind of step back into the role of producers, trying to make this all work.

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And I think when he left, which we didn’t know at the time… after Clouds Taste Metallic, he left and we didn’t really know if we was going to leave for good. He was always kind of fragile and strange and so, he said he wanted to leave and I think Steven and I were like, “Well, he’ll probably be back in a couple of months and we’ll keep working away and if he comes back, we’ll do what we always did. Figure out a way to get him in there and it’ll be great.”

And then he didn’t come back, we kept working, he didn’t come back, we kept working. And then, at some point, we were like, “I hope he doesn’t come back,” you know, ’cause we were glad to be moving at that pace and not having to do all the maintenance.

And we loved Ronald and we felt bad for him, being so lost in all the intensity. But creating to him was such a precious thing. With Steven and I, it’s like, “Well, we’ll do a song. If it doesn’t work, we’ll do another one.” I think he always looked at that like, “Oh, it doesn’t mean that much to you.” And, it does, but you know, it’s just our music. I’m not killing your mother here, man.

But I think at that time, we had been a rock band for a long time. We had played a lot of heavy rock – distorted, loud, freaky s—, especially with Ronald. He’d pushed that to the maximum level. You wouldn’t want to stand in the room too much longer with him at that volume playing that stuff. And when he left, it kind of gave us an opportunity to be like, “Good. We’re gonna do something else.”

And that pushed us to the parking lot experiments and Zaireeka, which really led to The Soft Bulletin. Which, you know, when we were making it, to us, we felt like that was the end of the road. We sort of felt like Warner Bros. was probably gonna be done with our contract. We were already making one album at a time for them. And if this one didn’t work well, there’d be a little period and we’d get dropped or something.

And we felt like, as much as we know about how the music industry and all that could work, we weren’t trying to be pop stars. We weren’t trying to be grunge stars. We’re not businessmen… And Steven and I, what we wanted to do became what the group would do.

And so I think it was tough because we wanted to make this music, and we were starting to get to the point where we could, at the same time. And I think I just made the decision to be like, “F— it, man, we’re gonna make this record and if it’s the last record we make, well then, good.” We’ll f—ing make this record and we can sit at home when we’re 70 and say, “Oh, that’s a cool record.” And I think all of us thought that we could figure out a way to make more records, but it was intense enough to feel like it’s better to do it our way, ’cause we didn’t know any other way to do it anyway.

And you had gotten pushback on the four-disc, highly experimental Zaireeka. Warner Bros. didn’t want to consider that part of your record deal, right?

Well that was the way we made it. We made it as a separate thing. We had budgets that we worked under then. And we sort of let them know that we we’re gonna make this record and The Soft Bulletin and it would be under the same budget so they weren’t gonna be out any money. And we were already starting to devise ways we were going to distribute it with all of the people we knew. They didn’t really have to work on it. And I think, at the time, they thought, “Well, that’s cool. We’ll put it out and you’ll do all the work.”

And it’s such a weird behemoth of a record that you can’t … I think that, in time, and with luck on our side it can turn into something that’s something… into this great thing. I think now people view it that way, but I don’t think everyone did at the time. I mean, you didn’t know what to think.

It’s a version of ourselves that goes that far. And a lot of times, we don’t go that far. But if we get on a roll, we can get obsessive about it or whatever. But it helped us break through to this group that really is about recording, you know, and it’s about getting that emotional reaction to the music that you’re making.

That really was the big change – we’re not trying to be clever, we’re not trying to be funny, we’re not trying to be ironic. And in the face of the sort of music that was going on at the time, it was sort of like, “F—, man, are you serious?” And, not even serious, this was just what we wanted to do. It doesn’t have to be a joke or serious, you can just be you doing your thing.

It would be uncomfortable sometimes to think about it too much, so we were just doing it and doing it. Even after The Soft Bulletin came out, there was a little bit of time where it didn’t have a reaction at all. And as that first year went, it started to get some reactions. And, as the second year went, it really started to have reactions. With that kind of flow, it’s sometimes very hard for people to say they don’t like it, and they’re just like, “Well, maybe I should like it. I don’t f—in’ know what to like and what to hate so I’ll say I like it.”

But making The Soft Bulletin absolutely made us this other group. And Steven and I talked about the idea of wishing that we didn’t really have to play live. Because we hadn’t figured it out.

Steven wasn’t drumming in concert on that tour. It was just you, Steven and Michael Ivins singing and playing to a backing track that included drums. Were you trying to find the balance of how to play this music?

Right. Well, like the way we do it now would have been the way we could have done it back then. But I can say for sure that with recording and computers, and all this stuff that we’re doing now didn’t really exist then, and we wouldn’t have had the patience, or the money, to do it this way.

Even these musicians. These are musicians who we know from Oklahoma City, and back then they were in their own groups. Back then, all these things had a dilemma.

And part of us thought that it didn’t really matter what we did. I think that was the great freedom of not caring about playing live. It doesn’t really matter what we do; let’s just do what we want. I’d seen groups play to tracks and I thought it was great. I’d seen Bjork play in the late ’90s and simply stand there and be charming. [Laughs]

Part of me thought that I didn’t know what to do anyway. So that’s when we started to do the hand puppets and the blood and the balloons and I thought, “Well, we’ll try to be charming and we’ll play our tracks.” I mean, Steven is such a great musician and I think seeing him do anything is pretty great. Even if 12 things are on the track, he’s still playing three or four great things, and singing and all that.

But I have to say, people f—ing loved it. It was confusing at first. We’re just doing this ridiculous s—, but people started to love it. And the more ridiculous it would be, the more we started to be our own thing. By the time we were doing the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots stuff, we were just absolutely like, “I don’t give a f—. We’re just gonna do whatever we want.” If we think about it, we’ll try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll think of something else. And that really set us up to be the Flaming Lips the way we should have been, the way we’ve become.

Anything since Zaireeka, I’m already in my mid-30s by then, so none of that seems that old to me. When you’re in your 20s, something that’s five years old is in another world. It’s like, “That’s not me anymore.” The stuff since the late ’90s… I still feel like that person.

As we go into this other realm now, it feels like the Flaming Lips will always exist or whatever. It’s a different sort of vibe.

And yet, 2009’s Embryonic marked a significant switch in the band’s sound, too.

We were trying to make a more normal record. But we had, in the beginning of that, we knew we were going to make a double album. We knew part of the album was going to be, not normal, but emotional songs and structures and things.

And we were going to allow ourselves to be this weird, sort of self-indulgent… We always sort of thought if a kraut rock group and a prog rock group got together and had to work out their differences. But we would say that to each other, like, “You’ll be Sid Vicious and I’ll be Herbie Hancock.” We really loved that. The more we played around with it, the less we became inclined to do the other part of the record.

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“Your Bats” and “See the Leaves,” those were supposed to be the things we were doing on the side. And then the side became the thing. I think if we didn’t do those things, we wouldn’t be happy. That was probably the first time where we scrapped what we’d planned to do and went with what we’re starting to do. And that’s pretty radical.

And [producer Dave Fridmann] encouraged it. That’s what people don’t know about him. He’s the worst one for it. “This f—in’ normal s—, I’m sick of it.” He would encourage it to keep going. When you don’t know what to do, sometimes you have these other people giving you the confidence to do the weird thing.

Where did you get the confidence to create “The Castle,” which is an emotionally naked song?

I think the song starts off, when we’re writing it, it’s a devastating, sad thing. It’s like two lines and it’s the chorus. And I had arrived at this idea of the castle being the metaphor for this life that had been built, that then has crumbled and the person has died and, you know, nothing good was going to come out of it.

Sometime you see this bad thing happen, but this great thing came of it. In the mood I was in that night, to me, it just didn’t have any good about it. This woman had killed herself and I knew her sister and we knew all of them and it was just gonna be a devastating thing. There was no way… And it was sad to us too.

So I had just this little bit, I wasn’t even that compelled to write this whole song about it, I was just doing my obsessive thing. “I’ll do something based on the way I feel here.” I don’t know that many chords anyway, so it’s all kind of limited to the same thing. But it did seem very powerfully sad the next day when I listened to it.

And then we started to work on, “Well, what would this be?” And then it seemed very boring at first, ’cause it was just sad. And this is the layers that I talk about. You think you’re gonna make a sad song, and if I give it to you, you could say, “Well that’s a song and it shouldn’t work.” But music doesn’t really work that way. A lot of things don’t work that way; they really have to be five or six different things.

I understood that even with that song. You want it to be a story that becomes sad. You can’t just open up the first page and say, “Everybody dies” and it’s bleak and the whole story is everybody’s dead. That’s not a compelling couple of minutes, you know?

And then I think I just got really lucky. The first line of “Her eyes were butterflies and her smile was a rainbow,” I thought well in this context, knowing it was going to turn horribly sad, this is helping it feel like, “Oh, tell me about this person.” Instead of singing about what happened to her, I was thinking I would just make the song about her. And in the music, and in what I’m saying, you would realize what happened to her as the song went.

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[Recording the song] was a complete pain in the ass. I think we tried thousands of different little interpretations of this little thing and the engineer, who is my nephew that we were working with in my studio, I think he pressed a couple of weird compression buttons on the drums at one point. And it shut everything else off and it left these horribly giant drums. We’re probably just sitting there for a minute going, “What the f— is that?” And as he went to fix it, I went, “Nope, hold on!” [Laughs] And I think he goes, “Oh yeah?” And you just have to hope something happens. And it did.

We have these rules sometimes, and we never stick to it, but rules like, “This song can only have four things in it,” because, you know, we’ll f—ing do 200 different tracks. We’ll always start like, “This will only be four.” So it had built up to the usual 90 or 100 tracks, but in the end it’s only just a couple of tracks.

And that’s allowing it to be a song for a little while. And then sending it to Dave and having him hear it and have a go at it and all the engineers. And all of us not being so precious about it. I mean, it’s got something there, but what does it do? It’s just impossible. There’s no way one person could do it and know. You just have to get lucky. I think it’s one of our great, emotional songs. For me to be able to stand out there every night and sing it, it’s like, “Here we go.” It’s really my song.

It’s great example of how album brings together the real world and this fantasy world. Did you have that concept in mind when you started making Oczy Mlody?

It doesn’t have that much identity until you get lucky. Then you start to decide it’s going to have this identity and it’s not just going to be songs. All of the records since, probably, Zaireeka – you know, going into Zaireeka, we had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be called and kind of, conceptually, what it was going to do. And it does give you a sense of what the songs can do, it gives you sort of a plot, a little bit of a character.

With The Soft Bulletin, we knew we were going to call it The Soft Bulletin before we even made it. We had the cover. I had messed with that image for a long time. I don’t think there are any versions of the cover that have any red in them. I remember we made the cover and there was this red line on it and I remember, at some point, I was like, “It can’t have any red on it.” I don’t know why. See, these are these obsessive things. Taking the red off, to me anyway, gave it this other vibe. It had another character. It wasn’t just colors. It was a palette.

I remember I was deciding how it was gonna sound. There’s a passage in the middle of “Suddenly Everything Has Changed,” and when you go to make these things you don’t really know what you’re gonna do. Is it going to have drums, synthesizers? You don’t really know. And I remember thinking of the album cover, and I was like, “It’s gotta sound like it goes on this record.” And that helped me, it helps all of us with the idea.

Sometimes, it’s just a decision. It’s not right or wrong, but somebody has to decide. It’s gonna be this; it’s not gonna be that. And I think that’s where, you know, I go, “I feel like this would sound like it would go on this record.” So that helps me.

So we had the cover for Oczy Mlody, we had a pretty good idea what it was gonna look like towards the end. And that helped us start to put it all in place. The very last song that we created would be “There Should Be Unicorns.”

So that’s the most absurd, in a way. It just comes at you, it has this confidence like, “Of course I’m gonna sing about unicorns. And Reggie Watts is gonna come in at the end and if you don’t like me, you’ll like him saying it.” It’s such confidence that what you’re saying is working, that it allows you to say these really absurd things, knowing it was going to be this futuristic drug and fairy tale.

I remember we had a melody. Steven had this really great emotional minor melody going with the cool drum vibe that we had created and again, I just thought, “If I can start the song with just this great opening line, everything will go.” And when I start with “There should be unicorns…,” everybody just going, “Oh, OK… what comes next?” That’s when you just get lucky and you get into a flow.

But I don’t think in the beginning, you know. I think you just keep hoping there’s something special that you’re drawn to. And it really is that sensitivity to… I hear something and it starts my imagination. And then before I know it, I’m gonna do what I’m thinking about. But that doesn’t mean I know what it’s gonna be in the end. That’s a really good way to know that you can be working with people and you absolutely have to take it serious, but you’re allowed to change your mind. It is just music and art.

You’ve talked about the importance not just of the meaning of the lyrics on this album, but how they sound. If you’re doing that, are you writing on a piece of paper, are you writing to music you’ve already created? If you’re going on sound, what are you playing off of?

I mean they’re all slightly different. But let’s say the first song with singing on it, the “How?” song – when we created it, we weren’t necessarily thinking about what the lyrics would be. And we already had this great, compelling, moody, emotional melody. Part of me is like, “I can sing anything over this and it would probably work.”

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When it breaks into [the chorus], that’s just a simple, emotional thing. But in the beginning, I did struggle with what do I sing previous to that? I had read a couple of absurd little passages online about something and I just thought, “I’m gonna go out there and sing these f—in’ bizarre words against what we’ve set up, what you might be expecting.” And to do those opening lines, “White trash, rednecks, earthworms eat the ground,” everyone’s going, “Wait, what are you saying?” Which is exactly what I thought, you know, that’s what we want. So that’s already got everything you want about the mood.

Sometimes I think about it like when you go to eat. It’s like I’ve got all the flavors, everything is fresh and what is there left to do? It’s like, “Well then I’ll make the table a different color.” And you’ll be like, “What a great experience.” And you’ll remember I had potatoes and steak, but the table was like, f—ing, green, and it blew your mind. It’s just these little details that let it be.

And then, other times, like the song “Do Glowy,” we were never satisfied with the lyrics. Every time I would make them simpler, I could tell people around the studio would walk around singing the little simple bits. They didn’t really know what the song was about. So I just kept trying again and it would just be more… There’s a song that was used in the musical Hair, this popular song: [sings] “Good morning, starshine…” Well, this song, when you sing along, in the middle of it, it just goes “Gleep, gleep, gleepy, gloopy, gloopy, gloppy…” And I f—in’ love that. And it’s the hardest thing for a lyric writer to do is just to go to gobbledy-goop.

I always remember that too late, you know? Gobbledy-goop works great! [Sings the “Hey Jude” coda] “Naa, naa, naa, na-na na naaaa!” You would have messed it up if you try to make that into an epic lyric. So I always have my panic solutions of, well, “I’ll turn it into gobbledy-goop and see what happens.” I had this little “Do glowy,” I remember it meant like, “your head” [in Polish] and it would be a funny thing to say. And I don’t think it’s the greatest song ever, but it’s a moment of silliness. I think when we have too many emotional things together, we start feeling Mariah Carey or something. And we like going in those more abstract directions.

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