by D. House
May 06, 2009
Wayne Coyne is the frontman for the always inventive Flaming Lips, a band that have been a mainstay of the indie and alternative music scenes for over 25 years. With over a dozen full length releases and 8 EPs, The Lips are one of the most enduring bands in rock today. Known for their stunning stage show marked by Wayne’s man-sized plastic bubble that carries him over the audience, Q magazine named The Flaming Lips one of the "50 Bands to See Before You Die". We agree wholeheartedly.
You guys have been a band for over 25 years, which is kind of unheard of in the world of music. How is it that you’ve been able to continue to maintain your creativity and grow and just be a band for so long?
It is. It’s a fucking quagmire, especially when you’ve got guys who all feel like they’re living their own version of the rock ‘n roll dream. What is that? Frankly, I think it’s just dumb luck that those sorts of tensions came up and we were lucky that we got famous for that week when it got bad. The next time it came up it was, ‘hey, we made enough money this week.’ And whatever it was, that could defuse it from becoming ‘I hate you, I never want to see you again.’ We just got lucky. I sometimes can’t really explain it that well myself.
During those years you’ve gone through a number of different band members who’ve come into and left the band. Other than you, are there other original members from back in the early or mid-80s?
It started off with me and my brother and Michael Ivins, who’s still in the group.
That’s pretty remarkable.
I think that’s just a culmination of him being so reserved and quiet and introverted and I’m so fucking outward and extroverted and just never shut up. I think if we were both more similar, we’d probably be sick of each other.
So you’re a good compliment to each other, personally and creatively?
Yeah. You get a lot of you because you’re stuck with you every day. When you’re around people who are like you, they have the same quirks and dislikes and all that, maybe it just gets on your nerves. If someone isn’t like you, they just do things differently enough that you can put up with it. It’s hard to say, dynamic is a weird thing.
You’ve been slapped with the moniker of being a “psychedelic” band. Do you like that classification? Do you think it’s fair? Ultimately, what does that term mean to you?
I could think that when we first started off there was a resurgence of psychedelic that you could say was associated with bands like the Dream Syndicate, something from the early 80s. Echo & the Bunnymen at the time were thought of as being English neo-psych. Then groups like the Meat Puppets and even the Butthole Surfers would come along and people would say, ‘oh, that’s psychedelic.’ There’s always three or four strands of what psychedelic music could be, and we always felt like we could relate to that. We never felt as though we had that much in common with groups like the Grateful Dead from the 60s, even though the way we are now I think is very much like that, kind of do-it-yourself. We have a very loyal following that travels all around and we all dress up and there’s drugs given out to everybody and all that. But early on we would have never thought that we could have been compared to the Grateful Dead, and now I think we are in a lot of ways like them and are compared to them.
I guess I think of you in the grand scheme of the Texas psychedelic, going back to Roky Erickson and through Butthole Surfers. And even now bands like The Black Angels are carrying on that torch to a certain degree.
Yeah, well, someone like you who knows a lot about music, I could see you drawing those cooler distinctions, but other people might think, ‘psychedelic? where’s the tie-dye shirt?’ I would also think there’s stuff like My Bloody Valentine, or even Radiohead is very psychedelic, so to me I see it being a blanket that’ll let you do anything you want under it. There was enough weirdness and enough drug damage in all those groups that we mentioned that I could think, yeah, we’re like that.
Speaking of drugs, where do you think the balance lies with taking psychedelics, from being something that can be creative fodder to where it can become a detriment to your creativity and even to your life in general?
Regardless of whether you’re in a band or not, those are good questions no matter what. I would only say that to me the idea that people are curious and want to explore and are willing to take chances with their own identity and health, those are cool things. That’s what makes someone want to be an artist and what makes people curious about the effects of drugs or any kind of intense behavior. Most good artists are curious about what will happen. What will happen if I fuck this girl? What will happen if I make a bunch of money? What will happen if I take a bunch of drugs? Being curious and not afraid, that all comes into it. I would say for anybody, art and drugs aren’t really connected, there are curiosities about the times you live in. For me, I never cared that much. I’ve always been around people who took drugs, and to me the times I took any I never liked it. I felt like, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ And I can see that sort of peer pressure being different for everybody, but that’s part of being an individual, being creative, speaking your mind. You have to do what you want, though it can be difficult.
I think a lot of people associate your band with psychedelics and make assumptions about it, in part because the Flaming Lips are known for having one of the most spectacular live shows and never knowing what to expect but having it be such a rich and spectacular visual exploration.
I’ve always sort of spoke of drugs this way. Even now, we’ll do shows and people will literally come up and say, ‘here’s some handfuls of LSD, do you want to take it?’ No, I don’t, but plenty of people around here will.
Where does a lot of the inspiration come from for all the really fantastical things you do with the live shows?
Luckily, some of it is just trial and error. Even the idea of doing that dumb space bubble thing that I do. I searched around on the internet, finally found this damn thing, and just tried it. Honestly, I did not think the audience would like it. I wanted to try it, but I thought the audience might think that’s just too much with us being already so over the top. It really was just the opposite. Somehow, I thought it was over the top, and most people thought it was just a simple, elegant solution to what we’re all about.
Except that no one else has done it. It’s uniquely Flaming Lips.
No one else would be stupid enough or desperate enough or a culmination of those things. But again, I think I did it mostly because I thought, ‘I want to do it, who gives a shit.’
So what’s it like? Is it fun? It looks like a total gas.
It’s not that much fun. I mean, I am mostly concerned about the audience since I’m walking on their heads. Sometimes it’s very young girls, and I weigh 150-pounds and I’m in this 30-pound ball, so you have upwards of 200-pounds landing on the top of some 15-year-old girl who’s the size of the Olsen twins. I worry about that, and when I’m out there I’m in the moment of the show, and it’s a sheer panic. I’ve gotten used to it though. We’ve been doing it for almost five years, so I’ve done it enough where I hope it goes well but if it doesn’t who cares. I’ve had times where it deflates and I will literally get out, get up, and go do it again. It’s very Spinal Tap, sure. You have to kind of embrace the Spinal Tap element anyway. If you don’t, if you take it all too seriously, it’s bound to sour. I think it’s fun.
It strikes me that on your records and in your live shows the one thing I always get from it is that you’re definitely having a really fun time, that you’re not taking things too terribly seriously.
Exactly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an element of art that can say some very serious and dreadful things, and we want that. Anybody who wants to speak about death and doesn’t speak about how wonderful life is at the same time doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I make a point if I’m going to be around our audience, we sing about death a lot, but I also want them to know I’m thoroughly enjoying being alive and being with them in the moment.
As a band, it seems you’ve had a remarkable and unique freedom to do absolutely everything you want, which for a band on a major label most don’t have that freedom. Is that just good fortune, or have you made a point of going ‘this is how we want to be as a band, this is how we need to be?’
It’s just dumb luck, really, that the things that we really wanted to do, they worked enough of the time even on the dumbest commercial level. We’re not selling out, and we’re being successful enough. At the same time, the label is not demanding anything. The label does so much to truly love us. They love all their groups, to tell you the truth. If I came to them, as I did with even Zaireeka, and told them what I wanted to do, they’d jump for joy. They’d tell me, ‘Wayne, that’s exactly why we have you at the label. You are the man.’
And for the readership, Zaireeka was the album that came on four CD’s that were meant to be played simultaneously to create a quadraphonic experience?
Exactly. And even though that in-and-of-itself has a novelty appeal about it, some of the music is challenging anyway. It’s a mind-fuck. At the same time, I think they loved that. They had concerns about how to market it, how people would think of it or if they’d care, but they totally support that sort of stuff. Luckily, we’ve been, on a commercial level, successful enough at the exact right times. I can tell you exactly when “She Don’t Use Jelly” began to sell. We were already on the chopping block in 1994. The first collapse of the record industry happened around 1996, and that got us up to there. Just luckily, we put out The Soft Bulletin in 1999.
Let’s talk about The Soft Bulletin. That was, I think in many ways, a big shift in your band’s career. It seemed like the first time when the band really embraced this whole different thing in the studio. It was much more lush and orchestral. Where did that come from? Were you trying to explore new boundaries?
We wanted to do whatever came into our minds and say ‘fuck it, let’s do what we want,’ but at the same time nobody really cared. It wasn’t as though we were the biggest band in the world and we were going to disappoint the kids. No one cared what we were about. This idea of hovering just above complete failure, it gives you a lot of freedom. No one liked what we were doing all that much anyway, so why not change or go where we wanted. That really has been the most luck that we’ve had, that we’ve not felt any pressure to be anything, we just do what we like. That doesn’t work for everybody, but luckily for us it did.
When you go in the studio, you really see it as a sandbox or this big tool where you can do all sorts of things you wouldn’t be able to do as a live band. Is that a place where you can really explore and flesh out and push some boundaries?
Yeah, luckily when we made our first record in 1983, we basically did most of it ourselves. Every time we got a chance to do recording, we would. If you count all the EP’s and singles we’ve done, we’ve done probably over 20 records and have had utter, complete control over them. It should not surprise anybody that we get in there and take advantage of that. With [producer] Dave Fridmann and all the money and freedom that Warner Brothers give us, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’ve really discovered a lot of stuff. The way computers work these days, it is a wonderful, endless palette by which you can do your sonic painting with. That can devastate some people who would rather have a palette to work with and just do it, but for me I just look at it and think I can do whatever I want.
If you can think of it, you can come up with it.
Well, sometimes that’s not even good. Sometimes you do think of it, and you come up with it, and you think, boy, that sucks. I got what I wanted and I’m an idiot.
So you guys are getting ready to go back in the studio pretty soon for, is it your 12th full-length record?
You know, I don’t know, it’s gotta be something like that. Either 12 or 13. We’re considering doing a double-album. Not because we have so much great material, but sometimes it just seems like why don’t we. We’ve never done a double-album. We jumped to a quadruple-album before we ever did a double. We’re recording some of it at Steven [Drozd]’s house. He put his house on the market at the end of the summer and, like everyone else’s houses, it has yet to sell. He’s left a lot of his Pro Tools recording equipment in his house. It’s been empty for six months or so, and we’ve been set up in his empty house doing a bunch of strange live playing and weird mic stuff. People don’t realize how great an empty house can sound. There’re barely even curtains in there, and there’s a lot of great reverberation. We haven’t done that in a long time, where we all set up and just look at each other. The way the computers and all that work these days, sometimes you don’t even have to be in the same room, so a lot of that has been refreshing. Not new for the world, but certainly new for us in a way.
Christmas on Mars just came out late last year, seven years in the making. How do you feel about the final product and what led to the whole inspiration to want to make a movie in the first place?
Along with the ideas for Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, we realized we could just become whatever we wanted. We’ve always wanted to make a movie, and we thought why not, let’s just start making it and see what happens. That’s that ‘we’re kind of retarded and it looks like we’re ambitious’ because we don’t really know what we’re doing, but we set off to do it anyway. That’s one of those great accidents that we really did discover, that we liked making movies. We ran into a lot of people that were great at making movies, and we loved making the soundtrack. I’ve talked to so many guys who are in bands who tell me they’ve wanted to do this or do that and never did it, and we’re one of those groups where if we have an idea and think we want to do it, we just do it. We don’t worry about how we’re going to get there, it’s better to just start and go. If I’d have finished it in the first two years of making it, it would have been a complete and utter disaster, but because it took so long and technology is so wonderful and everybody around me is so good, it turned out fucking awesome. I watch it now, being removed from it, and it’s like fuck! I didn’t do all of it. I directed it, but a lot of great accidents happened along the way that make me jump for joy when I see it. No one else would make a movie like that, although no one else might want to.