Interview with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips frontman wants to be Santa Claus, not dignified.
Looney Tunes. DC Comics. The Wizard of Oz. Is there a more appropriate corporate umbrella than Warner Bros. for the Flaming Lips to fall under? The Oklahoma psych-rockers have become an unlikely American treasure: They’ve built a strange world of whimsy with humanity, where cartoon characters and heroin junkies interact. At no other concert can thousands of people sing of our impending mortality while being showered with confetti.
When the Lips bring this year’s Pitchfork Festival to a climactic close, the batshit bacchanal will be a little different. This time, the fans voted on the set list. And they want to hear old stuff. Is the band up for the task? Like Neil Armstrong, Wayne Coyne and Co. are pooping their pants. You’ll see what we mean.
Time Out Chicago: You guys just finished your record?
Wayne Coyne: Well we’re in the panic stage. Like, do we have a record, is it any good, do we give a shit, does anybody else give shit? It’s all that. It’s the other side of confidence. You have to have a lot of confidence to think you’re gonna make any kind of stupid statement and then the minute you make it, you recoil like, I’m such an idiot, why do I think these things? We’re definitely in the recoiling.
TOC: You still have that feeling after all these years?
Wayne Coyne: Yeah. I get a sense that if you didn’t… You gotta have both sides. If you don’t have the confidence to think, ‘Fuck, we could change the world,’ you don’t ever try anything. But if you don’t have the realistic response of, ‘We’re just a bunch of fucking worthless idiots,’ why should people care? You gotta have that, especially as you get older. If you sit in the middle, it’s very easy to rationalize and say, ‘You know, there’s plenty of music out there in the world, why do we need to make any? It costs a lot of money. It’s a lot of hassle. Who really gives a shit?’ But then you gain this confidence of like ‘Fuck it. It could change the universe. That’s why we’re doing it.’ Then you come back to your senses like, it’s just stupid music. Who cares?
TOC: Well, your label loves it, if they can be trusted. They were raving about the new record. I was promised it’ll blow my mind.
Wayne Coyne: I think it’ll be a lot of fun. But like I said, I’m doing it because it pleases me at the time. I know it’s all kind of masturbation on some level.
TOC: Does it still sound as you once described—like a mix of Miles Davis and John Lennon?
Wayne Coyne: It depends on which John Lennon you’re listening to. There’re elements of obvious things by John Lennon—very piano-ballad mellow stuff. In the very beginning, in January and February, I had a group of songs that I thought sounded like that. It’s not like the Flaming Lips are that far away from that anyway. We’re Beatles influenced as much as anybody can be. But then we had this other group of songs that were minor-chord freak-out jams. I thought I like both these, let’s see where this can go.
But the freak-outs overwhelmed the mellow John Lennon side and I let it. There was a point where I thought, lets try to keep some balance. But like usual, I think I have some control over it, and that I know what I’m doing. We really don’t. And that’s what you want, you don’t really want to think that you can really calculate what it is that’s gonna come.
TOC: A few years ago everybody thought the album was dead, because most people are just downloading songs. Everyone predicted that, say, Radiohead will in the studio and release two, three songs a month. But that’s not happening. Not even with singles artists. Here you are about to release a double album. So what went wrong?
Wayne Coyne: Artists are just such egotistical freaks that of course they want to make albums all day long. They think everybody wants to hear their shit all the time. So artists are always going to be making albums. Producers want to make one song. Prince is a perfect example of someone who can do whatever he wants and he puts out fuckin three record sets every couple of years. Given the total freedom people would just make records all the time, sure. So I don’t think on an artistic level that’s ever gonna go away.
I just don’t know if people are ever gonna listen to them as albums. Do people ever do that anymore? When I was growing up there was no Internet. You couldn’t just watch any movie anytime you wanted. So if there wasn’t some cool movie on TV, we literally sat around listening to records. We’d sit in a room with 10 people and we’d be listening to a record. There wouldn’t be anything that we would look at.
TOC: Have you gotten your fan-requested set-list for the Pitchfork Festival yet?
Wayne Coyne: I’m not sure if we have the final one. I know we’ve been looking at it. We pretty much know what it is. I hadn’t been monitoring it, but Kliph our drummer has been. We’ve been kind of keeping a running tally of what we thought the songs were gonna be. We kinda knew what they were gonna be anyway. People write on blogs and boards and you get a sense of, ‘We wanna hear these songs.’
TOC: Is there anything that’s daunting or that you’re dreading going back to?
Wayne Coyne: Oh, yeah. Yeah. All of it. I’m not a very good musician. I’m always struggling to play anything to get it to sound good once. let alone. It’s frightening, but I don’t think the audience wants it to be a perfect thing. I think they want you to do the best you can, fumble through these old classics. We’ll rehearse the hell out of it, and we’ll pick the songs and act like we’re gonna make them as great as we can. Sometimes with Flaming Lips shows we make a big production out of every song and I don’t know if we’ll do that.
TOC: Is there anything specifically that you can mention that you had to revisit?
Wayne Coyne: It seems to me like the song “Bad Days” has been kicked around a lot from Clouds Taste Metallic. There’s a lot from that era back when we were more of the guitar freak-out onslaught. It’s mostly old.
TOC: Most people didn’t get a chance to see you in those earlier days. I know that’s why I voted for early material.
Wayne Coyne: I hope that it’s good. I think there’s some illusion that we must have been really great back in the day. People are like, ‘They suck now, but back in the day they were really something!’ I don’t know. It’s weird because we play old songs all the time. We do songs from In A Priest Driven Ambulance. So we hope that we pick the right ones and it’s the ones that the fans want. Even if it’s embarrassing, that’s why we’re doing it. It’ll be fun. It’ll be ridiculous.
TOC: Does the chatter online bother you, the complaint that the Lips are doing the same shtick that they’ve done for the last five or six years’? First of all, isn’t that what everyone does.
Wayne Coyne: I know, I know.
TOC: So it does bother you?
Wayne Coyne: No, I mean, I really think people have to say something. But it is true and anybody who is in a group knows that is true. Every group plays the same thing. If someone said I saw ten shows of theirs and they played the same thing every night… It’s not really a criticism. You can say that about me, but you can say that about any group. I don’t care. I don’t mind if people don’t like us. That’s cool. Well, you certainly want people to like you, but we have enough people that like us that sometimes it just turns people off. People say great things about us and people say bad things about us. I don’t care. I take it all. Like when I was accused of saying some bad things about Arcade Fire earlier in the year. There’s like 10,000 great reviews about how great Arcade Fire is, and one person says one negative thing, and it’s like, ‘Hey! Who do you think you are?’ I never attack anybody for speaking their mind. That’s what I do. It’s rock & roll. You’re allowed to fucking think something about it.
TOC: Speaking of Pitchfork, there are so many bands these days that hit it big right in their infancy—in their fetal stage. At this year’s festival you can point to Wavves or Vivian Girls for examples. What would have happened to the Lips if that had happened to you? If right when Hear It Is came out, suddenly you’re on ABC News and playing festivals across the oceans.
Wayne Coyne: Well I think about that all the time, to tell you the truth. I think it would have ruined us. I think we probably would have stumbled upon a certain sound or a certain identity and thought, ‘Look at us. Look how cool we are.’ And we probably would have stayed with that mentality that we had in our early 20s. And I probably would have grown frustrated and thought that this doesn’t speak of me anymore.
We were such hicks from Oklahoma. We were very lucky that people left us alone. We’d play to weirdos who were making music in their bedrooms. We were celebrated enough among people that we respected that we always thought that it was worth pursuing. I’m sure a lot of these new groups will handle it wonderfully, but it would have just crushed us. We would have thought ‘Oh no, everybody is watching us! Now we really have to be cool all the time.’ And we would have just been idiots.
TOC: One could argue your band’s career won’t ever happen again—going from a decade of fiddling away in the underground to getting a nice bunch of money from a major to make big experimental pop albums.
Wayne Coyne: I agree. I talk to young bands all the time. There are strange things that happen. You’re making art—I don’t mean that in a big pompous way—whatever it is you’re doing, a lot of times you’re doing it in isolation, in a little bubble of your own making, in a corner somewhere. And then when you go to play music, or you’re going to be in a band, it’s just the opposite. You have to go out in the world and talk to people and have these grand extrovert experiences. So people want to go back and forth between being very isolated so you can make your art and then going out in the world. And the more successful you are, the less you’re able to be truly isolated or truly have a perspective of how you’re able to make your art anymore.
We had so much time to make it, that I don’t really ever need to be isolated or overwhelmed or any of that. I’m just able to do it all the time. But I could see where, even in the times like we were around, someone like Beck, where he was just a successful artist from the get go, you’d get a sense of kind just being either “on” or you disappear. With The Flaming Lips we’re just kind of ourselves no matter where we go. We don’t ever feel as if we have to be another personality. It’s just us. That definitely saved us
TOC: It comes down to the personality really. Bands could conceivably ignore what people are saying about them.
Wayne Coyne: When you’re young, though, that’s impossible. You really do feed off of what everybody thinks of you. Luckily people didn’t think that much of us when we were really young. But I agree, I think our situation is probably the greatest freedom and the greatest amount of encouragement that any artist could ever have. Mostly I think its just luck that we’ve been able to carve this thing we’re able to do. But I don’t know if anyone else would want to do it, to tell you the truth. I want groups to go out and be successful. It’s easier to deal with success than deal with too much failure. That devastates groups as well.
TOC: Recently I interviewed Thurston Moore and he was talking about how he looks forward to being an elderly avant garde rock. That excites him. Does it excite you?
Wayne Coyne: What does he mean he’s looking forward to it? He’s already there! I guess he’s not elderly. Especially when you see him, it’s hard to believe he’s 50 years old.
TOC: I read it as there’s this sort of this Moondog-y allure to being an eccentric old dude making weird music.
Wayne Coyne: For me it’s wonderful. I run into kids all the time that don’t really know how old I am. They’ll think I was alive in the ’40s. I’ve kind of gone from being young to being really old, instead of that having that weird middle area where you feel like trying to be young. People think I could already be like 60 years old. That’s perfect. I’ve always wanted people to view me as some kind of Santa Claus figure.
TOC: In the ’80s and early ’90s the idea of someone being 50 and playing rock & roll seemed ridiculous. But now there are so many.
Wayne Coyne: Well I think everybody keeps looking at the Rolling Stones and thinking, ‘They’re older than we are, so fuck it.’ I could see Thurston Moore saying, ‘I’m not as old as Keith Richards, fuck it.’ And we all keep creeping up. Or maybe it’s just there’s a certain amount of freedom that it comes down more to doing art as opposed to being a pop performer.
TOC: Right, it’s easier for someone like Sonic Youth or the Flaming Lips, who’ve had a connection to outsider art and jazzy stuff. It’s much harder to be like Poison. It’s a little weirder.
Wayne Coyne: I don’t know. I think there’s some truth to the slogan that 50 is the new 30. Sometimes I run into people who are 50 who seem healthier now than they did when they were 30. They just become a different person. Maybe there was a time when it seemed embarrassing to be 35 years old and be in a rock band, I don’t know. Maybe it still is. Maybe we’re just so caught up in the dream that we don’t notice.
TOC: I think it might feel more embarrassing to be that old and writing glam rock. It seems more pathetic. I don’t know.
Wayne Coyne: I firmly believe you should do what you like. If it’s embarrassing, so what? Most people who worry too much about having dignity don’t have very much else worth admiring. I don’t worry about it. Dignity is overrated. Fuck it.
TOC: That’s always been the great message of your band, something that’s always inspired me.
Wayne Coyne: Well, it’s true. It’s not bravery and it’s not stupidity, but there’s something in between there. Of course, you called me on a day when I don’t feel very confident. I feel like, what the fuck are we getting ready to do?
TOC: Going by your lyrics, artwork and feature film, Christmas on Mars, you seem to be someone who’s into outer space. We never go to the moon anymore. Are you bummed out that humans haven’t done more in space?
Wayne Coyne: I’m always interested in what humans can learn from the idea of what the universe means to us. When the moon landing happened, we were sitting on our back patio and watching it on TV, and this was in the summertime, so the moon was up. You could see the moon at the same time you watched guys on TV walking on it. I remember looking up and saying, ‘Wow, they’re up there.’ And this is 1969. There’s the Beatles. Woodstock is happening. All these things are happening. In my mind, I figured by the time I’m in my 30s, of course we’ll be living in outer space, playing music, and the Beatles will be ruling the world. I was eight years old. And it seemed like that would be the utopia that I would want to live in.
But I don’t really know if everybody worked towards that. And when I say worked towards that, I think a lot of people had the same mentality I did—that all the work would be done for us and we would reap all the benefits. I guess something like what’s happening in Star Wars. No one seems to have a job. Everybody is just flying around doing whatever the fuck they want.
And when you think about it, realistically, it’s like, ‘What would we do in space?’ People forget that when those guys go up there, they’re actually shitting in their pants. It’s not a luxury hotel. It’s a strange suit you gotta wear, you’re breathing some synthetic air, and you’re shitting in your own pants.
The Flaming Lips headline the Aluminum Stage on Sunday 19 at 8:40pm. Their forthcoming album, Embryonic, is out in September. Click here for our Flaming Lips discography.