[20 January 2012]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
The Flaming Lips have achieved a rare sound: a psychedelic that’s as meaningful as it is spacey. While their music is undoubtedly referential of ‘60s hippie counter-culture, it tends to have more substance than a lot of the psychedelic freak-out bands they reference so liberally. The swirling patterns that serve as the backdrop to their music are no random tie-dyed vortex ... or they are, but they’re more than that, too. Rather than suggesting cheap, heal-the-world activism, or easy sentimentality, they speak simple, profound truths one could find in any seventh grade science textbook. The lyric from their classic “Do You Realize???” springs to mind: “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” There is a didactic purposefulness to their lyrics, a practicality to their formal experimentation, that is very un-hippie. They are ruthless in their search for new boundaries to break, and by no means navel-gazers. Delivering catharsis from the drug-hazy ether is not something their cohorts are known for, so it is strange that they would make it look so easy, while never straying far from the movement that spawned them.
Perhaps this sense of purpose emerges, because the Lips’ neo-psychedelia is willfully applied rather than the product of current cultural movements. As they look backward in time for inspiration, maybe the deliberateness of their disconnection from the music of today—much of which tends toward nihilism, crass materialism, or useless beauty—puts the ‘60s counter-cultural aesthetic to more practical use than was originally intended.
One thing is certain, whatever they’re doing works. They have produced soundscapes of great originality and beauty, both in single songs and at the album length (and beyond). Having just one album etched in the pop firmament would be more success than most bands would ask for. But the Lips have four full albums that are essential listening for students of pop music: 1990‘s The Soft Bulletin, 2002‘s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Embryonic, and their Dark Side of the Moon cover album (both 2009). Their famously inventive stage shows are as easily characterized by the use of visual gimmickry as meticulous musicality. They have pushed boundaries with art projects that both effectively package their music and enhance its meaning.
Lead singer and lyricist Wayne Coyne has been at the middle of the Flaming Lips’ magic since their inception in 1983. PopMatters talked with Coyne about everything from the Lips’ most recent experiment, a 24-hour long song, what he thinks about the recent break-ups of Sonic Youth and R.E.M., a possible upcoming collaboration on a cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever” with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, and so much more ...
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Where are you right now?
I’m sitting in my kitchen in Oklahoma City. We’re here just for another 48 hours, and we leave on Wednesday for Australia to play, I think, some festivals there. Summer begins there, when our winter begins here.
Because I was wondering if you felt the recent earthquake? [Just prior to this interview, Oklahoma had experienced a series of earthquakes, the strongest in the state’s history.]
Well, yeah, everybody did except us, because we were down in Austin, Texas. Of all the things that happen here in Oklahoma ... I’ve lived here for 50 years, and I’ve never seen a tornado. And now these earthquakes happen, the biggest earthquakes in Oklahoma’s history, and I’m down in Austin, Texas. I mean, I was having a good time out there. Don’t get me wrong ...
You wish you would’ve been home for the earthquakes?
Well, yeah, of course. It’s cool. I mean, the very first time we went out to Los Angeles, I think it was in 1984, we were lucky enough to be in just a little earthquake. And I ran outside, and I was like, “Wow, this is exciting!” It was the first time I realized how many people in Los Angeles had alarms on their cars. At least in the vicinity of the shaking, anyway. It was pretty great.
The car alarms made it kind of an auditory experience?
Yeah, it was just such a surprise that I hadn’t thought about in Oklahoma, because the car alarm craze hadn’t reached here. But yeah, I’m hearing about it today, and I’m like, “Dude we were doing this or that.” But yeah, I wished I was here.
Your band has been associated with a Neopsychedelic aesthetic. How comfortable are you with that association?
Well, I think it depends on what kind of psychedelia people mean. I think the term has really come to represent a big portion of music that I would say that I like. I mean, like I said, it depends on whose perspective. I think to a lot of people, it still is thought of as being a part of the ‘60s when we think of tie-dye shirts and things like that. But that’s not everybody. A lot of the people I talk to think about psychedelic music will include any kind of music that isn’t based in a traditional style. So that can be a lot of electronic music, a lot of rock music, a lot of freaky experimental music. All of it can jump into an area, where we can consider it to be psychedelic.
Um, like I said it depends on what you’re thinking of as psychedelic. But I like it. I use the term “psychedelic” myself a lot. But I don’t think the people that I’m saying it to ... I think they understand that I don’t mean, “This reminds me of 1966” or something.
It’s just a term for saying, “This thing that we’re looking at is full of experiences and full of meaning and full of, um ...” It doesn’t have to be full of a lot of color. A lot of the time I’ll see things that I think are psychedelic that are not at all full of color ... it’s got an expansive depth about it that it evokes other things. And that’s what it is. It evokes this explosion in your mind, where you gotta think, “Well, yeah, that’s what drugs do,” you know?
How do you think you would’ve gotten along in the original Psychedelic movement?
Well, I mean, I was born in 1961, so my older brothers were sort of ... I would say they were a part of it, though of course they weren’t in their early 20s or ... I think ...
I think, judging from when I was in my late teens and early 20s, the way that I was able to embrace the the things that were happening in the culture of the time, I think I would have been a very good, radical hippie. For a little while, anyway. [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I mean, I don’t know what “good” means, but I would’ve probably gone for it. Yeah.
You would’ve been an effective hippie, maybe.
Well, I don’t know about that. I like this idea of standing in line and doing the thing that everybody else is doing. I think that can be cool. It can also be stupid and wrong. I don’t know. I think if I was in my early 20s, and it was 1967, it would’ve been hard to resist all those cool things that were going on in the culture. It’s especially hard to resist, when the music is so great, you know, and politics are so intense.
And I think that things are just as great and just as intense now. It’s just that there’s a billion things to pick from, so everybody is not focused on the exact same thing at the same time. And who knows? Maybe it’s better, maybe it’s worse.
But I think my brothers and I, we got caught up in it as much as we could. I was only eight years old in 1969, so it was kind of hard to, you know, you know ... what kind of life you could’ve lived. But I would say those things, they affect me even today. I mean, one of the most powerful songs that is still with me is “Strawberry Fields Forever”. And I think about that song almost every time that we’re recording. And there’s still a lot of mystery to that, so um ... you know, but I think I would’ve been a hippie, sure. I think I am, probably ... maybe I am a hippie! [laughs]
Your band has a compilation disc called, Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid ...
I’ve always thought that’s a pretty apt description of the band’s aesthetic. Do you think that’s true?
Well, I mean I didn’t really make it up. There was a guy who had a radio station that I would listen to real late on Friday nights and Saturday nights. This was a time when a lot of the music he was playing, and lot of the music I was interested in, you know, had a real zeitgeist of interest in things. And I was always a little bit older than the crowd that was there.
The crowd was probably a group of people that were 16 or 17 years old. And I was 20 or 21 years old. And I always had long hair—and especially back then it was never really very short—and I was always viewed as an enemy of some of these punk rock shows that we would go to. But secretly I would have conversations with some of the more open-minded guys who were putting on the shows. And they would say things like that, like, “Dude, when more of these kids start to take acid, man, the music is gonna be really intense, and really interesting.”
And he was talking about people like Hüsker Dü and, you know ... it wasn’t just thrash punk rock. They were starting to infuse, oh, you know, just more psychic ideas into their lyrics and more emotional things into their songs, and a bigger, more freakier dimension to the sounds that they were using.
And I don’t know if it held true for everybody who was around then. But to me, that was a great explosion. In a sense that was where groups like the Butthole Surfers and even Sonic Youth came from. It’s based in punk rock, but it’s still expanding.
And it’s silliness to compare it to acid and stuff like that. It’s the idea that people were willing to use themselves as the experiment. To say, I’m gonna take this and see what happens. I think it’s a really cool marker of a sense of curiosity. Not just curiosity about the world, but internal experience.
Speaking of Sonic Youth, are you sad that they’re breaking up? Either them or R.E.M.? These are two sort of huge bands that have broken up in just the past little while.
Well, I don’t know if we really know the extent of Sonic Youth ... I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything other than Thurston and Kim were not together at the moment or whatever. But I didn’t know if it was totally decided that they would end the group.
I think that would be sad. I mean, I think they’re one of the groups that, though they have been around even longer than we have ... you know, not many groups have been around longer than we have. But they have. And I’ve always thought they are very true to themselves, and they have not stopped being curious and never stopped being interesting. And there is something really valuable about having people making music right now, who have opinions and are saying things and have their own way of doing things.
So yeah, as an entity, if they break up, that would be truly a loss.
And I don’t mean anything bad by this, but for me personally, R.E.M. have not been interesting for a long time, anyway. So I hadn’t thought about how critical it would be if R.E.M. wasn’t around. But definitely, Sonic Youth, yeah.
Just personally, one of my favorite Flaming Lips songs is “The Spiderbite Song” from The Soft Bulletin.
I was just wondering how common it is for you to use real life events to inform the composition of songs.
Well, if you’re lucky, that’s really all you ever do. You know? It’s real life, but it can also be internal life. But I think it gives you a real sense of what you’re interested in. I mean, I think sometimes artists, musicians, or whatever ... you know, they make this mistake that they have to think of things, or use their imagination.
And you do. Everything about you is about your imagination. But it isn’t imagining scenarios. It’s inserting different views of real experience. So for me, when I do a song like “The Spiderbite Song”, I sometimes am very self-aware that it’s just a silly little thing that I think I’m interested in. And so I play it for other people, and I say, “What do you think?” And it doesn’t always work. But sometimes they’ll say, “That’s a very unique song, Wayne, that only you would care about.” And so then I think that’s the kind of song that we should do. And they don’t always work out, like magical little gems.
But that’s, you know, that’s what I always say to groups ... They ask me, “What should we sing about?” And I’m like, “Sing about what you’re interested in.” You know, if some other people are interested in the same things you are, people will listen to your music.
For me, that’s almost the catalyst for everything. Something has happened, or you’ve been contemplating a situation, and it’s in your mind. I think that’s what songs are. The things that are deepest in your mind are the things you want to dream out.
But I think the reason that “The Spiderbite Song” was so embedded in my mind was that it was about Steven. I had thought about it a lot, and ... Steven was a drug addict at the time. And it was a lot of lessons about, “Is this really a spider bite? Is this something caused by his being addicted to drugs?”—all these things were really heavy in our minds. It wasn’t simply like, “Oh, he got bit by a spider and then went swimming and then got in a car and drank a bottle of diet pop.” It was a significant event that started to reveal a lot of things what was going on with Steven.
And so that’s more why it became this song. It was an insignificant, sort of, physical thing. But it started to light a bigger dangerous thing that was happening to him. That’s definitely why, yeah.
So more than the song being about the spider bite, the song is about how it brought about a greater consciousness for you of Steven’s drug problem at the time?
It did. And I think, even when we made the song, there was still a little of ...we weren’t really sure of what was going on there. And I think “The Spiderbite Song” stays interesting, because it’s forever connected to this time in our life, and these things that were happening to him, because he was addicted to heroin.
And so, when I sing that line, “If it destroys you, it destroys me ...” You know, part of it is that we’re not just talking about the spider bite. We’re talking about this deeper thing. And I think that’s probably why there’s so much emotion in it and stuff. We’re really singing it to our friends and ourselves and our life.
It happened to us, you know? And I think that’s what you do in life. You scream at the things you can’t control. It’s like, “What are we gonna do? What can we do?” You know?
Your band is known for its elaborate, visually inventive stage productions. Why are visuals so important to the Flaming Lips?
Well, because everything is important, you know? When you’re in front of people, and you’re asking them to give you money and their time and their love and everything, I mean, everything is important. So we care about the way that we sound. We care about being on time. We care about, you know, how loud we are. We care about the way we look. We care about how bright the lights are. I mean, everything is part of the experience.
And I would say all groups do that. It never really is just about the sound. When you go to an auditorium, it’s about everything. And we just like that. And I’m sure that we are an exaggerated version of all that. We like things to be a little bit more intense. We like things to be a little bit brighter, a little bit louder. I don’t know? We just like that. And we don’t hold back. [laughs] You know, we’ve found that there’s a real dynamic in being to be very loud, because it allows you to be very quiet if you want to. And there’s a real dynamic in being able to be very, very bright, because it allows you to be very small, and dark.
So you know, the expanse of the contrast is what’s available to us. If you don’t have very many lights or very many bright lights, then you can only do so much. But if can make it really bright sometimes ... or if you can use video screens or lasers, and all these little things that are just other little cool moments that happen, while you’re doing this variety of moods and songs and emotions and stuff ...
For me, I don’t like it when it’s just too much of the same. I like it for the song and the mood and the atmosphere all to be kind of be the thing ... And you know, we’ve been playing for a long time, and we’ve been messing with gadgets for a long time, so we do a lot of visuals, you know? But I think all groups do. You’re either looking at them, or looking at their videos or something.
How is your working philosophy between visuals and audio adding to the stage production of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots musical? Is that still happening?
Yeah, it’s still happening. I mean, I don’t really know if ... I mean part of the dilemma of why it’s taken so long is that I’m not really sure I should be involved. I mean, I really love and trust and believe in the director, Des McAnuff. And he’s been involved with hundreds of these things, which have already been hugely successful. He’s one of the greatest directors out there. And I think part of the dilemma is that sometimes we all feel like we’re making it together, to where it’s like, “I don’t really know how to do it.” I mean, I know he came to see a Flaming Lips show and decided that it would be great, as a production, so I don’t know.
When me and him talked about it, when we talked about what the productions could be, to me it’s like, “[Let’s do] giant video screens and lasers and, you know, things flying over the audience!” And he said that those things are great ... but to him it really is the emotion. Without the emotion in the songs getting across, all those big things don’t matter. And I would agree with him. I think that’s what’s happening even at a Flaming Lips show. I think that if we didn’t have these songs to sing, and this audience that is so absorbent to its power, I think a lot of those gadgets would be like, “Ah, who cares?” You know?
All that stuff, and when all these things are done, not in the “right” way, but when it’s pushing the emotion along we have this great, exaggerated experience of sadness and joys and triumphs and all that. And so to him, that’s not gonna be the Flaming Lips doing this music. He wants to get these people, these singers and performers, to do this music. And the story, because for him it’s all about the story. And he says, “If we have that right, we can shoot pink lasers out of women’s pussies all day long. And it’ll be great, Wayne. But if we don’t get that right, nothing will matter.”
Wouldn’t that be great, though? Pink lasers out of some women’s pussies ... that’d be pretty great.
That’d definitely be a spectacle, yes.
I’d go see that Broadway show. Yeah. [laughs]
You have a reputation as someone who cares about what individual Flaming Lips fans think. Why is that? Why do you care about the individual response to a Flaming Lips album or show?
Well, I think you can find space in your life and in your mind to care about a lot of things. And they are the people who have given me this fantastic life. They’re the ones who give me the confidence, the money, the freedom to take chances and do things.
I remember back in 1996 when we started to do these parking lots experiments that led to Zaireeka, that led to The Soft Bulletin, that led to Yoshimi ... [The “parking lot experiments” Coyne refers to are a musical project leading up to the release of the album Zaireeka, where fans were gathered to simultaneously play the different tracks of a given song on their car stereos in parking lots.] You know, this series of years I was constantly in awe of how much people believed in us, and believed in me. And it really has an effect in me. And so I’m always ... I want to know what they think, because I want to know if what we’re doing, if what we think is working, if it’s really working or if we’re just up our own asses and don’t know.
But I also ... I hold to this obligation that they want me to do my thing. They don’t want me to go out there and take a consensus and make the Flaming Lips record that I think everybody wants to hear. They want me to be completely my own design. And they want me to go to outer space ... fucking find some galaxies and asteroids and comets and say, “Look what I found, what do you think?” And so, in that, I think they’ve given us the freedom to fail. And it doesn’t all have to work. “Bring us back these things that you’re doing.” And so we do.
I want them to know I love them. And they want me to know, they say to me, “You’re free. Do whatever your mind can get you to do.” And so I do. That’s why it’s important. I’m not out there kissing ass. I want to do this, but I want you to understand. I want you to be a part of it. I want you to love it. It’s like when you cook Thanksgiving dinner for your family. You want them to like it. It’s about love.
Can you tell me a little bit about “Found a Star on the Ground”, in particular, the Strobo-Trip?
The Strobo-Trip is kind of the modernized version of the Zoetrope. The Zoetrope is a spinning, little series of photographs. And back in the day before they had movies, you would just connect a bunch of photographs, and spin it at the right speed, and it would look like it’s in motion. The Strobo-Trip is like a modernized version of that. It has these little discs that you spin, and it has drawings and illustrations on there, and when you hit it with a strobe light at the right speed, they actually move like a little movie. And they’re like psychedelic, freaky little, colorful drawings and things.
Um, it’s a great toy. We didn’t invent it. We found it, um ... my wife found it almost about a year ago. And we thought it was great and wanted to make our own little version of it. And the people who make it and license it said that we could do this thing. And so we did.
And so the six-hour song initially was going to be something that accompanied you while you played with this toy. You could listen to any music, but we thought, “We’ll make a song that you can listen to this toy with.” And we thought, “Well, how long would you play with this toy?” And we thought it’d have to be at least a couple of hours. And so we sort of arbitrarily arrived at, sort of ridiculously, six hours.
And so we said, “Let’s play a song that lasts for six hours.” And we didn’t think about it that much, but Steven had this composition that he’d been fucking with, that went on for a half-hour anyway. And he was like, “I have this piece of music that really goes by pleasantly. You think it’s gone by for only ten minutes, and it’s gone for more like a half-hour.”
So we were both intrigued by that, and we thought, “Why don’t we see if we can make it go on for more than that, for four hours, or five hours, or six hours, and see if we could make it work.” So that’s kind of how that got started. It starts from a real pragmatic need for something. But one you get into it, you have to surrender to the demands of the music, and all that. And before you know it, you’re making a song that goes on for six hours, and you don’t think that you’re insane.
That’s the deal with all these things. You kind of have to kind of go insane before you can do it, otherwise they all just seem like ridiculous ideas. So when you’re doing this six-hour song, it opens your mind to do the 24-hour song. And it didn’t seem insane at the time. But now that you’re in it, you’ve gone insane, so it doesn’t really seem insane to you.
What do you think you can accomplish with a 24-hour song that you can’t in the more conventional three-minute pop song?
It’s kind of like all experiences. If you’re curious, and you want to find out things, not just about the world but about yourself. You know, some people would ask, “Well, why don’t you just drink one beer?” Well, I like one beer, but what if I want to drink 10? Or 500? You know, you just want to see what it does to you?
And perception with music is a very powerful thing. There is some music that is not the same if it doesn’t go on for a bit of time. There is an intensity at the amount of time that things play. It’s just a different experience. And I would say it’s like that with everything. You’re part of the experience, too.
Like, we fly a lot. And we’re on airplanes, and I like flying. And so I’m always kind of aware of how long the flight is. And last, I think it was September, we went to Japan. And so you’re sitting in a plane for fucking 13 hours. But when you know you’re going to be in a plane for 13 hours, three or four hours could go by, and you won’t really think about it. Because you know you’re in the plane for so long. And just yesterday, I flew up from Dallas to Oklahoma City, and that’s only a 40-minute flight. And the whole time, I’m completely aware of how much time is going by. It seems to fucking take forever. And that is all about perception about where you stand in this ever-moving thing that we call time.
A lot of people say this to me, since we’ve put out the six-hour song and the 24-hour song. They say they were only able to listen to the first five hours of the 24-hour song. ...which is insane! There are some groups, and their whole catalog doesn’t even amount to five hours. And here are some of our fans, who have so much immersed themselves in this, and to only listen to five hours doesn’t seem like they’ve got the full experience.
And I know this isn’t for casual music listeners. This is for people who are deep into music and art and ideas and experiences. I wish every group made a 24-hour song.
How married is this format to new technology?
Well, exactly. There’d be no possible way that this could be pleasant, or even worth doing, if you go back to the time of CDs. You’ve got 70 minutes on a CD, and what are you gonna do? Give people 25 of those? It’d just be impossible. So this way, most of our audience is gonna be able to listen to it through streaming. We have two streams going, of the 24-hour song. They start at midnight, and it goes to midnight the next day. And those are going to go for a year. So you can log on any time, and listen to it virtually for free.
And then there’s a handful of people that have bought these human skulls that have the hard drive embedded inside of it, that they can listen to. But that’s a pretty expensive, weird object to have.
Does the band have any plan in the future to perform either of these?
Well, I don’t think it would be very entertaining to stand in front of any group, regardless of who they are, for six hours, let alone 24 hours. But this isn’t performance music. We’re not playing this for 24 hours. This is a recording of a compilation of a lot of sounds and a lot of ideas to make this something compelling to listen to. I think sometimes people think that we were performing this for 24 hours, and we were performing some of it for hours and hours. But it’s an amalgamation of sounds. It’s not like we were just putting microphones in front of us and singing. It’s made of a billion different parts.
So no, I don’t think we would ever want to torture anybody with something like that. I can see us having experiences that, you know, tie a small group of people in a setting. We put people in a setting and use lights and volume and things to have an experience with a 24-hour song or a six-hour song, but I don’t think we’d want to perform it. I don’t think that would be very much fun.
What would you think of your fans listening to parts of this music and then coming back to the other parts later, like how someone might read parts of a book?
Exactly! That is exactly what I would say to them. That’s how you should look at it. Or you should put it on, while you’re doing something else, which you can’t really do with a book. I would say if you’re carrying his around with you, if you go to a hotel ... put it on one night while you guys are having dinner or doing some drugs or having sex or having a party, and just put it on. I mean, you don’t have to listen to it intensely. I think that’s the beauty of all music is that sometimes it’s just there with you, while you’re doing your thing.
And oftentimes, for intense listening, you really can’t be doing something else. But this music isn’t meant to be listened to like that. It’s meant as the air and the shadows in the room with you, and something is happening. But because it’s so intense, and some of it is so long, I mean there’s a segment of it that goes on for seven hours ... You can’t help but be changed by it. It’s just a strange experience. It’s rarely that you’re around music that does that that for that long.
And like I said, I don’t think it’s for everybody. But I definitely think it’s kind of for people who are like me. I’d want to listen to it and check it out.
Are there certain segments of it that you really want people to pay attention to, specifically, and not have anything going on in the background?
I don’t know. I think we know what triggers people, and a lot of times, especially with Flaming Lips music, it’s about singing. When we’re singing, it’s like, “Wait, hold on. They’re saying something.” It’s like when anybody’s talking. And when music has a lot of intricate changes, it makes you either listen to it or shut it off.
And so, you know ... I wouldn’t say we know a lot about music, but we know a lot about the way our audience listens to music, because they’re like us. So you know, when we want music to go on for an hour, we present it you as something you can handle for an hour. Because it’s hypnotic, and it’s not punishing, and it’s not disorienting, and it doesn’t require your full attention.
And there’s another part that goes on for seven hours ... but it’s very abstract. And it change, and it does this series of chord changes that are slightly predictable, but they’re also very fluid. It’s kind of like watching clouds. You know that clouds are moving, and you know that the sun is moving. So it’s kind of a little bit of a surprise, but a lot of it’s not a surprise. It’s just happening. So a lot of it depends on what you’re trying to do.
So there are segments during the 24-hour song, where we start to sing. And this would be the time where if you’re having sex with your girlfriend ... well, hold on a second, we’re gonna sing to you for a couple of minutes, then you can go back to it.
So that’s what we do. We don’t want to sing to you for 24 hours. We don’t want to demand that you pay attention to us for 24 hours. But we still want to be with you. We are like your friend. Anybody who demands too much attention from you, you want to kill them, you know?
Finally, my friend Allie wanted me to ask you about your peacocks ...
Well, we played a show at this old-fashioned cemetery in Hollywood over the summer. And when I went out there to see how we were gonna set up, and talk to the promoters and all this stuff ... we were walking around the grounds, and they had these peacocks there. And they know that I like exotic, cool animals. And we were walking and looking at them and all this stuff. And they said, “We need to get rid of some of these peacocks. Would you want to take them?” And I hadn’t thought about it much, but they said that when we came out to do this show, which was about six weeks later, they could present us with these peacocks, and it could be part of the show that we did out there. And I thought that was a good enough reason for us.
And so we got two of them. There was a male and a female. And lo and behold, now there’s three of them. Three at the moment, and they all came from this great cemetery in Hollywood.
Do you have names for them?
We don’t have a name for the little one yet, but I think Michelle named the two Freddy and Frida for Freddy Mercury and Frida Kahlo. [laughs] But I don’t think they know their names like our dogs and cats do.