The Flaming Lips (Wayne Coyne): Interview
“Hey, get that weirdo out of here; he’s sucking his own dick.”
The Flaming Lips have been around since 1983, but they are much loved by fans of all ages. News of their tours and record releases are still top news on fickle blogs and music sites. What is it about Wayne Coyne and company that keeps them fresh and interesting for so many years?
First is a kick-ass live show. Second is the amount of care and love Coyne puts into being a Flaming Lips member. This is no ordinary rock star. Coyne is someone who interacts with fans, helps setup his stage, and, thankfully, agreed to sit down for almost an hour with Tiny Mix Tapes for a frank conversation about his muse, The Police, and crazy fans.
As Coyne munched on a handful of carrots before a headlining slot at Captain Morgan's Jam on the River in Philadelphia, he showed that perhaps kindness is the element that helps keep the Lips vital and popular for 25 years.
I've got like 25 carrots I have to eat.
No problem! So you're basically out doing festivals this summer?
We know a lot of promoters who are trying to get us to come and support their idea of what a festival could be. Sometimes we take a chance and do something where they're starting to do something and see if it's cool, and sometimes it doesn't work out. Sometimes it's guys who've been doing something like this for 20 years, who are trying to change the image of it. And sometimes it's like last night where we played the [Summer Camp] festival outside of Chicago. Cool, organic, hippie kind of stuff. But, we put out our last record in 2006, and we toured that summer and toured all last summer. A lot of times when you're doing those tours, you really got a big agenda: you're promoting records and you got stuff to do. Whereas this being the third summer we're touring, we're just kind of picking. Like, that's going to be fun or let's go try that or whatever. Some things will probably go great, and some things will probably be horrible. But you take chances and do different things.
But you're not doing the normal tour circuit. Aren't you playing Lawrence, Kansas and places like that?
Exactly, yeah. But with the way festivals have organized themselves in America, you could play every weekend if you wanted to. It's pretty cool. We'll also go to Europe and do some weird, little festivals over there. What people don't realize is that playing in big festivals all the time is just such a headache, because you're always dealing with 1,000 bands who all have a big agenda; there's a lot of press and it's just a bigger, sort of stressful machine. Sorry, I'm getting carrots all over you.
But with things we do like this today and yesterday, people are just here to hear music and other musicians and stuff. It's not such a machine, because that can really just be a beat down. Everything has to go exactly on schedule. There's too much money and too much power involved, and you don't want to be around that unless you have to.
I was there at Bonnaroo last year when you broke the set time and played "War Pigs" an hour before you were supposed to go on.
Well, I felt bad because we were going to do a sound check, but it turned into a set, in a sense. The reason I feel bad is because there's always some band that's playing somewhere at a big festival like that, and they're just glad they don't have to play against a band that's going to draw the crowd, and I felt like these kids should have been watching some other band.
The Police were on at that time.
No, I didn't think they had started yet.
They were on. I left them to come lineup for you guys.
Well, good for you. Was it boring?
Yeah, it's like they took everything good about The Police and added slow jams to it.
Sting is weird like that. He doesn't see that the way those songs were, that energy and that weird... He just tries to make it more sophisticated and stuff. It's silly.
You don't do that with your stuff?
We don't, no. If you like the song and you come and see The Flaming Lips, we try to play it exactly as the way you would think it would be played live. That doesn't mean it's exactly the way it is on the record, but there's elements of dynamic and stuff that you could do in front of people that you can't do on a record. But there's things you can do on a record that you can't really do in front of people, so we try to take that song and make it exactly like if I was in the audience [and] what I would want to see The Flaming Lips do. We're true to the song.
You mentioned the word "big," and that is something I wanted to touch on in the interview. I assume you have the spaceship with you tonight.
No, we don't. I think people may have thought we did because we weren't playing that many shows this summer, but the UFO doesn't really fit on these size stages. We're doing it tomorrow night in Sasquatch, south of Seattle.
You got a hike to get there.
We do. We have to get a lot of equipment across the country. So, we can only do it sporadically here and there. Frankly, I don't want these guys to get a bigger stage just for our ship. Sometimes people think, “Where's the spaceship?” and I'm like, “Well, it doesn't come with us just automatically.”
Well, as your popularity has gained momentum since The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi...
Even over the last couple of years.
Your show has gotten bigger and bigger. When do you stop being an actual band and start becoming a show?
Well, it's all the same really. If you're going to play to a big audience you have to do big things. Last carrot, I'm sorry.
It's all good. There's some jerky over there if you want that next.
I have to eat about 25. That's really a choice that we want to make. We don't want people to come to the show having seen clips on YouTube and then have us say, “Oh, we don't do that anymore.” At the very least, we do more than you're ready for. I don't think the band ever disappears amongst all that. When I hear Roger Waters talk about Pink Floyd or something, he's crazy. The first time I ever saw The Rolling Stones was in a stadium. It fucking blew my mind. I was a cynical 20-year-old who thought I'd seen everything. They didn't need to play to 500 people before I felt it. The other side of that, if we were playing to 500 people, there would be things that we could do there that would work tremendously that wouldn't work for 10,000 people, and there would be things we could do to 10,000 people that doesn't really work at all to a smaller crowd. I think we're lucky that we know where the energy level is at. If you got 10,000 people there it's your duty to involve all of them. Just because they are not in the front doesn't mean they don't count. We try to do a big enough show that, if I do something the person in the front row sees it, the person in the back row sees it, and we involve everybody.
But on the other side of that, if you get everybody involved, it's just a whole other trip. It's a beautiful thing. It has its own energy and enthusiasm about it, and you can't compete with that. I mean, 10,000 people going ape shit for an hour is better than music. Well, it is music. That's probably why music was made. People probably made music back in the day so they could get out of their heads and go fuck each other all night. That's our obligation. It's not about us; it's about this thing that we're going to play some music and the audience is going to respond to it. If we can gauge that and fluff that thing up right, it's going to be an awesome night.
"People probably made music back in the day so they could get out of their heads and go fuck each other all night."
I actually saw the Stones in the same place I saw you once, the Roseland Ballroom. It was the only time I've ever seen them. It was unbelievable. $50!
Wow! People think, “They're must be old and it's going to suck,” but when they come out they're ready to play. When you see them, you're like, “Fuck! That's Keith Richards” and he's here to play. It's impressive and they've got all those fucking songs. It's hard to go wrong.
Do you see yourself playing in a club ever again?
Yeah, we do it all the time. The end of the tour we did just in September there was a series of six or seven shows that would be in some places that would hold only 1,200 people. You just jam those full and it's beautiful. Like I said, you could do something like this today where it's a big, open thing -- there's a bunch of drunk secretaries here, whatever. I'm going to play to them. They're here, and that's the audience. I'm not going to say, “You don't count because you don't listen to the right Miles Davis records or whatever.” Then other times we play to an exclusive, music snob Flaming Lips audience, and it can be a slightly different experience. I don't worry about it too much.
Do you vary the setlist based who's there?
Not really. We sort of know that if you're a muso, you'll see things within the set that are going to please you, and if you're not, you'll just see laser beams and my giant hands and all this shit and you'll say, “That's cool.” We know it's about, in a sense, intense entertainment. That's what we're doing. It's about songs, it's about a band and it's about this community, but somewhere along the way, I would think you don't really have to know anything about The Flaming Lips. You could walk in and be like, “Whoah!”
I actually brought my dad tonight. He doesn't know any of your music.
Well, there you go. If you're up for an absurd, unexpected evening, it's going to work.
So, X-mas On Mars. Is it the next Chinese Democracy? I know it's supposed to come out soon.
No, no! Because it's playing. It's going to play tomorrow night at Sasquatch as well at this festival. We devised this giant circus tent that's been in my backyard for a couple of months, and we have a giant sound system in there and benches. We sort of organized this whole thing so kids can come in there. It's kind of like this weird, midnight movie. And they can have this drug flick experience.
Are you happy with the way it came out?
Um... yeah. But that doesn't mean that it's going to work. I know playing a movie at a rock ‘n' roll festival is kind of like serving watermelon at a wedding: It can get kind of messy. I don't know what's going to happen. We'll see. I think it's beautiful. I'm just so relieved that I've actually been able to finish the movie, because all these people that have worked on it with me for so long. That's why I knew it would never be this Chinese Democracy forgotten thing. But I like the comparison. [Laughs] We'll see if Mr. PiBB wants to get behind our campaign.
Wasn't it Dr. Pepper?
Dr. Pepper? Yeah.
Will you make a soundtrack available for it?
What we'll probably do is by next Christmas is have it out on DVD, with a soundtrack that comes with it, and there'll be some behind-the-scenes extras and stuff like that. But my promise was, back when we began to make it, that it would be a rock ‘n' roll movie for The Flaming Lips fans. Now, we'll play it for them, and if I'm lucky, I'll be able to take it to film festivals and things later. I really want The Flaming Lips fans to shape its meaning and what it's all about before anyone else does. In the way they do us. When we put out records and go and do shows, their feedback really tells us if what we're doing is hitting the mark or if it's not extreme enough or if it's too freaky or whatever. That's good to know. That doesn't mean we would change it, but it's good to know are we doing what we intended.
Would you say as your popularity increased a lot of your money is going to toys and whatnot?
Well, I don't know if it's toys. It goes towards doing what we're able to do but a more organized show. Even shows like we're playing today. A lot of groups, they get to a certain level and they just simply have to say, “We're going to take over. We need all day to setup. We dictate the whole show.” We plays shows with groups that do that all the time. Red Hot Chili Peppers. These big groups that go in, and a whole corner of the city is theirs for a week just to get ready. It isn't that we don't want to do that; it's just not as interesting for us. We really like this way of being part of all these strange, little festivals, but you still have to be able to come in and set it up in 20 minutes. That's always been our philosophy. We might look like a big band, but we still want to play like a freaky, independent band. But that usually means you throw your shit up there, and 20 minutes later you're playing. So a lot of our effort is in this way of saying, “Can you get it off the truck, get it on stage, get it plugged in and make it all work like you're Pink Floyd, but do it in 20 minutes.”
One thing that's impressed me about the times I've seen is, you go to a rock show and you don't see anyone but the roadies, but you're out there interacting with the crowd, setting up the lights...
Yeah, yeah. That's kind of my thing. I want the audience to know I'm here for the whole thing. I'm not just going to come out and play and say, “See you later.” I really believe in the whole idea of what this show is. The show isn't just when we're playing; it's you being there with your friends. The whole evening is worth your time. It's just by accident that I know I want to be up there making sure our stuff works, and when I see the crowd, instead of hiding from them in some mustache-and-hat disguise, I want them to see me. That interaction sometimes is more potent than even when they see us play. I'll run into kids in a parking lot somewhere.
I was driving back from New York after being in the studio with Dave Friddman, and I stopped in Terre Haute, Indiana. We found a Starbucks right off the highway there. We can do that on your computer driving down the road. We live in good times. But anyway, we pulled off into this Starbucks and there were two Flaming Lips fans there, and they hadn't seen us play, but they really loved our music. Three months later, they drove 600 miles to come see us, because I met them at Starbucks. Sometimes those things just feel more of their own experience than playing a show where there's 10,000 people and everybody is the same thing. So, I take it all. I don't care. I'm so relieved and so glad that people like what we do, because I'm just really doing what I like. I'm not really making this for anybody but myself. But in being utterly true to ourselves, I think it becomes true to everybody, because we're all so much alike. People really do love the same sorts of things. Lots of times I think when people are young, they want to make a stance on how they're unique and different. I can't blame anybody for that, but I found as I get older, there's elements of our lives that are so much the same that I'm saying, “Look how much we're alike.” That, I think, is the real power of The Flaming Lips.
One thing I love to do whenever I bring someone to see you for the first time is watch their expression when the show starts. It's just absolute happiness.
When the crowd gives that back to us, that really is the moment. It isn't necessarily what we're doing or what they're doing. It's the culmination of the two. Almost anything is possible. You feel that this is really what going to shows should be about. It's kind of like love. It's not love, like you love your dog or your wife, but it's love in a sense you feel sort of at one with this process, this thing that everybody's believing in at that moment. It's powerful. I don't think it fades away. I think it makes you believe.
I was talking to this girl who sang earlier in the day, and she was not disheartened, but she said, “We played first and there really wasn't anybody here.” Those kind of things can defeat you. You're out there giving your all and nobody cares. But she said, "Seeing you guys made me think, ‘It doesn't matter.'" It doesn't matter that it's embarrassing or humiliating; the idea that you get to give your all is already good. It doesn't matter if it's received. That's really kind of the answer of giving love. Everybody wants to give their love and make sure you got it. But if you give it, people will give it. You giving it is really where the reward is. People will get it. It doesn't have to be pointed or have to be an agenda. I would have never thought that of The Flaming Lips. I'm up there, and I'm doing what I like. Of course, I care what the audience thinks, but the idea is we just go for it. It just transcends. I hope.
"You kind of have to go your own way and hope that somewhere along the way your ideas will keep working, even if your reviews don't keep working."
It seems your sets recently favor The Soft Bulletin on.
Yeah, totally. We always play “She Don't Use Jelly” because I still run into kids who were five when that came that and they'll be like “Wow, I think you guys are great now.” It's just one of those things that when you have a song that so many people know that it's powerful. We'll get to Clouds Taste Metallic here and there. You know, some songs.
“Postman” mostly. We had worked up “Evil Will Prevail” here and there, but it's not a big audience sort of song. We'll do “Mountain Side” from In a Priest Driven Ambulance. We know there's a list of songs that The Flaming Lips fans will collectively say, “These are the ones we want to hear the most.” If it's something we can work up and please people who don't know the song, sure, we'll do it. You can easily do the math, we can do a song from 1988 and that song is 20 years old.
You also do covers.
We do. Tonight we're going to do “The Songs Remains the Same.” It should be fun.
The Soft Bulletin has been hailed as one of the top albums of the '90s in certain circles, and Yoshimi was very successful, but what are your feelings on At War With the Mystics? It wasn't as well-received, I don't believe.
Not in a sense, but I think we kind of knew. We had two records in a row that were like NME's record of the year. With these sorts of things, you get a four or five year burst where there's a group of writers and there's a group of people who are pushing this sort of thing, and almost inevitably at the end of that cycle you get the new writers coming in where, especially on an underground level, no one wants to be next in line and say, “The records you love, I think are great as well.” You kind of have to go your own way and hope that somewhere along the way your ideas will keep working, even if your reviews don't keep working. But I have to say, I think of all the records, we keep playing At War With the Mystics to more and more people, and it's been on 10 or 11 commercials everybody has seen now that play on TV, so I can see where we've gone from this critics' favorite to really being a fan favorite, and that's always a little bit strange. But, I don't worry about it too much. Don't get me wrong. I know a lot of writers who are very cool musician guys, and I read everything people write about us. But, I do take the good stuff and say, “That's just people going overboard” and I can read the bad stuff and say, “Ah, who cares about it?”
Do you have any favorite albums or songs?
I do think The Soft Bulletin of all the records we've done... There's two different phases to our career. There's the real indie stuff, and then there's the freaky rock outfit we became as the '90s went along. To come from that and not have an idea of “where do I go next” and be thrown into this, I think we were really trying to find the truth in what we sang about all the time. We sang about this idea that you are the creator of your own happiness. We sang about those things, but I don't know if we ever challenged them. I think with The Soft Bulletin, I know it sounds pretentious to say, but we wanted to find out the truth about ourselves. Like, do we really sing optimistic songs? Do we really know the difference between a life that you can't control and it overtakes you or are you really the one that's shaping your life?
It feels like it became a concept album then.
Well, at that time, we never know that. We know that in the last 10 minutes when we're making a record.
Even with Yoshimi?
Oh, totally. Yoshimi probably even more than the others, because we purposely, at the very end, made that feel like a concept record by giving it the title Yoshimi, it has a song called “Yoshimi” and “Yoshimi Pt. 2,” and it has that picture on the cover that's obviously Yoshimi and a pink robot. So, we purposely said, “Let's just not make this as abstract.” Definitely on those records we dropped what we used to do and said, “We're just going to create ourselves, and we'll see if we're that band that's capable of this stuff.” That's just monumental.
I do think, even when we made At War With the Mystics, we were not searching that far. We had so many things going on that we wanted to make rock music in a sense, and we liked this idea of being a radical, drugged-out, political freak-out band. But we didn't have some agenda of reinventing the wheel again. What's the point? We didn't want everybody not to know what we're doing. Now, as time has gone on, I feel like this idea that, whatever the band was during The Soft Bulletin and during Yoshimi and during At War With the Mystics, will all be a thing. Whatever we move onto next could be any of those things and not feel like, “Hey! Where's the next phase?” and perhaps go into the unknown again or not. It's hard to say.
Will you be revisiting Zaireeka again? Like, putting out another version of that?
Not if we don't have to. Zaireeka is so much of itself and in of its own time that, if even to a 10 year update of it, which we did last year... technology and all this stuff has moved on. The charm of it is that it played on discs, and it was never meant to be thrown into a Pro Tools session and mixed precisely. Even in these times, even people who are involved with music on a real basic level think, “Why do you have to put it on all these discs? We don't you put it on 5.1 or something?” It's understandable. We used to play to an audience that demanded that, almost every time you play, you got to up the ante. You gotta be doing something new and something confrontational. That really does give bands a lot of energy and a lot inertia. It's like a competition of sorts. But, you get to where you're playing the same show for 2 or 3 years at a time, because the world is so big and you gotta do this thing, and I could see where that type of rock audience might not be interested in seeing The Flaming Lips every time they come through, because they don't want to see confetti and gadgets. I can see that. I see it with all bands. I could even see it with a group like Pink Floyd. If you liked them on their first record, you may not like them by the time they get to Dark Side of the Moon. It's just simply the way it goes.
Well, even if it's not, we're going to do what we want to do. I would never stop Steven's [Drozd] progression or mine or any of this stuff we want to do just to say, “Well, we owe it to everybody.” You can do both.
But you get tired of doing the same thing over and over again, don't you?
I don't know. It's tiring in both ways, to tell you the truth. It's tiring to think that you have to go up there every night and redo all of this. People don't realize what a hassle it is just to get from one place to the next. You play, you don't sleep, you don't eat, you get diarrhea, you've got problems at your house, and then people expect you to go up there and make up something incredible, right there on the spot. You do that for three or four weeks and you just go insane. There's a welcome kind of relief in the routine. I mean, that is why a guy can get up and do the same job for 30 years, because he goes and he can master his job as opposed to always being a novice. So, we do this show so much that almost anything can go wrong, and it wouldn't matter to us. We've seen everything. But on the other side of that, I think you get so deep into it that little things make it feel virtually spontaneous every night. Within the song, within the structure, you see yourself free and able to relax because you're mind is free to enjoy the moment. So maybe that's the other side of it. You break through to instead of performing for an audience; the performance actually happens to us.
Every time I've seen you, you appear to be enjoying yourself.
We totally do. I think that's the thing that works the best: the music still captures us. We're like, “Fuck! That was cool!” and it isn't just us trying to say, “Fuck, these people don't understand.” If we get it, we know you get it, because we're hearing this a million times a year.
Last question. Any hints for someone who wants to get up on the stage and dance?
Showing enthusiasm, being willing to get naked and showing some kind of love for your fellow man. The worst thing that happens is we get people who think they're just going to go up there and fucking go crazy. No, you gotta stay there, but you have to be enthusiastic at the same time. It's a great metaphor for the way we should always be.
"You play, you don't sleep, you don't eat, you get diarrhea, you've got problems at your house, and then people expect you to go up there and make up something incredible, right there on the spot. "
Any horror stories about that?
Not horror, but funny. We did have a Russian woman, one time, pee in the costume which she wanted to do. [Pauses] Now, that's weird. After she did it, we said, “Why did you do that?” and she said, “It's just my dream. I wanted to pee in that costume while you guys played.” That's the kind of audience we want to attract, and when we do, we say, “Wow!” So, that's weird. Occasionally the guys get too drunk, and they simply will do whatever. They'll have sex with each other, do whatever, because they are in front of an audience. I want that, in a way. I want the audience to go crazy, and I want to receive that love. But I want to make it work for the presentation. Whereas those people, they're getting the wave of love and enthusiasm like this is the only time. I can see why it breaks out the most freaky behavior you could dream of, because you're bathed in this light and love.
Not bathed in urine.
Well, if that's what you like... I kind of like the stage to be utterly chaotic, because what we're doing needs that. It needs that fucking anything-can-happen atmosphere to make it seem just more powerful. But I don't mind it being dangerous. If it really got bad, I would just stop the show and say, “Hey, get that weirdo out of here; he's sucking his own dick.” But I kind of want it to get crazy, and I expect people to do drugs. I never fear that it's going to get out of control. We're in control. We want it to be a freak-out. For the most part, a Flaming Lips audience, they don't hurt each other. We can feel we can almost go as far as we wanted, and it never devolves into people trampling each other because it's a different sort of trip. I don't think our music is aggressive in that way. It's really all about understanding, love, freedom, and just living in the moment. It's not [growls]. I can see where even an audience ten years ago watching Pearl Jam or Metallica, you encourage them too much, and they just pummel the little guy in front of them to death. I don't fear that.
When I saw you in Bonnaroo, there was a guy in a Ghostbuster costume cuddling me, and he looked at my fiancée and said, “Don't worry, I'm a Ghostbuster.
[Laughs] See, that's a great experience! It doesn't have to be, “Oh, how fucking sad it is.” There is an element of our lives that can really be an absurd dream-esque and still be real. Part of what makes it powerful is there are real things in our lives like love and trust that really are just mystical and invisible. They're not really there. We tell each other these things exist, and we do things that prove they exist, but you'll never be able to take a picture of it or find it under some microscope. And this type of thing, it is real because we make it real. Now if some guy wants to be a Ghostbuster at a Flaming Lips show, he really is, in a sense. We accept it. We say, “Yeah, that's possible.” That doesn't make us insane or stupid. This is our life. We can either believe our life can be magic or we don't. If don't believe it can be magic, it never will be. But the minute we believe it can be magic, little things start to become that.
Yesterday we were playing in Peoria, Illinois, and it was fucking freezing cold the whole day. These kids are out there in their tents at this sort of hippie festival, and everybody's really having the time of their lives anyway. But right as the sun was starting to go down, the clouds lifted, and it became a reasonably nice, summer day. Now, it's just a dumb sunset. It happens everyday. But, suddenly on this day, people were watching the bands play and they just turned around and said, “All right!” They were bathed in this endless atmosphere of orange and purple. You see, how it is to be standing in this moment, right here, right now. Now, that's hokey and feel like some sort of drugged-out hippie or something, but at the same time it's true. This is your life and these are your moments.
We're always moving so fast that we don't stop and appreciate things like that.
Well, right. We want the next experience. Okay, what's next, what's next? And you can't. That's part of what I want to happen at a Flaming Lips show too. It's like, “Dude, we are here, this is our time together.” What happens after this, I don't know. You gotta be happy and you gotta enjoy it, because it doesn't just move to the next thing. It's like, fuck, there may not be a next thing. That's a great, real thing that, in a community, when everybody acknowledges that it's real, it does become real.