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Interview: Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips

words by Jon Aubin | photo by J. Michelle Martin-Coyne
10.27.2009

photo by J. Michelle Martin-CoyneThe Flaming Lips have been with us now for 26 years. In that time, they’ve evolved from the Fearless Freaks of Oklahoma City — a ragtag group of high school misfits, playing dangerous and shambolic live shows — to one of the mostly highly respected groups in rock and roll, whose concerts must be experienced to be believed. They shoot confetti and streamers out of cannons over the crowd, while frontman Wayne Coyne traverses the stage in a giant inflatable hamster ball. The audience is bombarded with free associative images projected behind the band, and a legion of volunteers costumed as Santa Claus or aliens dances on both sides of the stage. It’s chaos, but when seen as part of a continuum, the Lips’ live experience has not changed much — the budget has just gotten bigger and their ideas have become even further out there. One thing is certain about their live shows: Flaming Lips fans do not go home disappointed.

The Flaming Lips’ music has shown a similar evolution. Anyone who has listened to The Soft Bulletin can attest to that. There’s not too much to write about the Flaming Lips that hasn’t already been written. They’ve had an excellent, no-punches-pulled documentary made about them, they’ve produced a film of their own (Christmas on Mars), they’ve managed to stay on a major record label (Warner Bros.) for nearly 20 years now, and have made some of the most gorgeous and heartbreaking music of this young century (if you haven’t sang along at least once to “Do You Realize??” you need to have your vitals checked), and they’ve done all of this while staying true to their selves.

Attempting to construct a narrative around an interview with Wayne Coyne is similar to building a house out of sugar cubes — you might have a structure, but that structure can be washed away with the slightest provocation. In conversation, Mr. Coyne is effusive, open, honest, friendly, but above all, scatological. In the following unedited and uncensored interview, Wayne Coyne holds forth on the new album, Embryonic, sexual perversion, animal cruelty, punching Muhammad Ali, Oklahoma sunsets, and dispenses marital advice to boot.

I can remember my first Flaming Lips show. It was at the Orpheum in Boston in 2002 [when] you opened up for Beck, and I can say with certainty that the Flaming Lips blew the minds of everyone in attendance. While Beck was playing his set, even though you were his back up band, I couldn’t help thinking, This isn’t fair. Who in their right mind would want to follow that? Do you think it is intimidating for other bands to play on the same bill with you, or do other bands know by now what they’re getting themselves into?
When Beck started that tour he was purposefully going to go “stripped down.” I’d seen Beck on a couple other tours previous to that where he’d had gadgets and lights and people in suits, and there was more [of an] elaborate attempt made to put on a show. I think at the very beginning he said, “This is going to be stripped down, so this is going to be about me and you guys as a group,” and we thought, Oh, that’s cool, we don’t care. And when it came time for us to do our set, we were like, “We’re just going to do the craziest shit ever. We always do that.” I think, in the beginning, that seemed to be just the way things went. We’d do our thing, then we’d come out and play with Beck and it would just be less than what we were doing with the visual overload thing.

But little by little, I think he thought, Well I’m going to have to do more stuff, pal, because if you’re going to be doing all that it doesn’t seem like enough. I never felt that that was true. We thought, Well, that doesn’t matter. I always felt that variety is much better than oneupsmanship.

Whenever groups play with us, I think what people want is a big variety, good things done well. I recently saw Wilco play right after Bonnaroo, [when] they played Oklahoma City. I don’t even know if they had a light show. I mean, they had lights on them, but I don’t think it was anything except them playing, and I think it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. So I don’t think that. It’s whatever the group wants to do. I could see when you play bigger [venues] like stadiums. We were playing with Coldplay in Europe and stuff and when the audience is away form you, like at a festival, it helps to have bigger things. I can see where it would be intimidating…it’s just different.

Are there any new elements you’re planning on adding to your stage show? Any elements you’re planning on retiring?
We never really necessarily “retire” or “add.” I mean, there are things that we do: we’ve added a new member to the live ensemble, a kid by the name of Derrick Brown…we have known him since he was 15. He’s a musician from Oklahoma City, and he plays guitar, congas, and he is going to be playing keyboard on the next leg of our tour in November, so on one level that is a musician — a real person there — giving you more energy and more options and dynamics that you can play with.

I’m trying to think if there are any new gadgets that I have…I have so many that I don’t even get to use them all in one night. Sometimes I forget the handheld lasers — we [used those] at ATP and that was fun. I don’t really know. I still will pour blood on my head — if it is a small enough crowd that they can see. Some nights — if we are playing at a big festival and people are 100 yards away — they can’t tell if you have blood on your head or if you have a head really. We still do the giant balloons and giant confetti blasters, but there are always new elements of the songs and new stuff that I forget what it all is.

The new album, Embryonic, is out. Can you describe the sound of your new record?
As a sound, it probably sounds somewhere between Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. A lot of it is sort of garage-y, freaked out, jammy kind of stuff. On top of that there is a very thin layer of some strange, sophisticated coloring of delicate little things.

Conceptually, I am not really sure what it is getting at. It seems to be trying to reach some other plateau or dimension of primal scream therapy. There is something about it that feels kind of pornographic. I am not sure I know.

I was very influenced by this strange movie from 1974 called The Night Porter, and I am still discovering as I listen to [the record], “Oh yeah, that is from that movie.” It’s a movie about a young girl who is taken in by the Germans to a horrific concentration camp, and since she’s beautiful and young, one of the sadistic guards at this concentration camp decides to use her for whatever kind of sexual perversions he wants to explore. I’ve seen the movie probably about 20 times now. I have it on my iPod.

The first couple times I saw it, I couldn’t get the sound to work on this dilapidated laser disc system that Dave Fridmann had set up [in the studio], so I watched it three of four times not knowing exactly what was going on dialogue-wise, just trying to understand what was happening in the storyline. So this young girl is being sexually manipulated by the guard, and as the movie goes on, you find out they meet in the present. We are flashing back in time and they meet in the present, and you think this going to be some horrific sort of encounter, but then you find out as the movie unfolds that she really liked being sexually abused and perverted by this cruel Nazi guard, and she actually dominated him, and it is a very strange sort of twist — and maybe a true one. Maybe that’s why it impacted my sleep-deprived mind so much. I was like, “What the fuck?”

So there are elements of that. I don’t know what that is; maybe I have some kind of subconscious desire to either dominate or be dominated, or just wonder, what are the depths of your strange sexual perversions, and how free are you if you don’t explore those? I don’t really know — there are definitely elements of exploring all elements of human freedom, whether it be for evil or for kindness or for pleasure or pain or whatever.

There seems to be a dark undertow to this record. It sounds a bit colder, heavier, metallic, even frightening at times, like an unexpected transmission from deep space. For example, on the song “Evil,” you sing, “I wish I could go back in time/and warn you/those people are evil/and they’ll hurt you if they could.” Who is this song addressed to? Who are the “evil people?”
There’s a story I believe I was reading. Peter Beard has a reissued photo book with stories about the plight of animals in Africa, and [of] Africa in general, and he [has] this story of coming upon a village that had this baby hippopotamus that was kind of the village pet, and they loved this little baby hippopotamus, and the hippopotamus seemed to love them back. And then on one of the days that Peter Beard was there experiencing this whole thing, these American hunters came in and saw how powerless this hippo was, and took great glee in killing it as a trophy. Peter Beard did not have any control over the situation, but he really regretted that [the villagers] had no idea that these hunters would be so cruel and so nonchalantly take away this beautiful creature.

So I don’t know why, but I love animals, and I love all creatures and things of the world. I even love trees. I am even sometimes anguished when people cut down their pretty trees. I am just a sensitive idiot like that, and that story really stuck with me. There was an element — there are a lot elements of this story [in common with] the German guy that we were [talking] about: our own capacity for evil versus our own capacity for kindness and love and all that, and I do think that they are connected. I think somewhere in the depths of all humans there is the freedom, or the way of deciding what you can do — what you are capable of — and I am sure we are all capable of doing the most horrible things our mind can come upon.

You recently curated an impressive roster for and played at ATP New York 2009. Whose sets were you most excited to see there?
Well, for me, it really was the greatest collection of music that I have been a part of to see — all those groups, and to be with that very selective audience; only about 3,000 people. It was probably one of the great events of our Flaming Lips existence, to stand there and be able to watch all those bands and be around them. Yeah, it’s pretty incredible.

Were you able to interact much with the fans?
Everyone is at the same locations. There are two hotels; there is the main one, where all the groups are playing, and one for guests as well. You’re just trying to fit in as much as you can; it is a pretty hectic schedule. I mean, groups start at about two in the afternoon and they overlap each other by about 30 minutes. So you are with one group, then you see them, and then you quickly run off to see yet another one, and this goes on until about 2:30 in the morning. There is no break for lunch or dinner; you just grab something and then go. Then I would be with a lot of people that were just in the audience in between.

Jim Jarmusch did a little “Q and A” after one of his movies, and I got to sit there with them for a good 45 minutes, but it was pretty hectic. I stayed until 4:30 Sunday morning just taking pictures, talking, hanging out and signing autographs and stuff, and it was a pretty special event.

How much control does ATP allow you in choosing bands? I heard recently that because of an incident at the Bowery Ballroom, your heroes, the Butthole Surfers, were blacklisted by ATP. Had you planned on inviting them?
I don’t know. What do you know about it?

What I heard was that Gibby Haynes punched a soundman at the Webster Hall who was some how associated with ATP, so they were blacklisted.
Oh I see, was this a long time ago?

This was last summer [July 29, 2008].
Well, that’s a shame. We didn’t realize that the Butthole Surfers were getting back together or we probably would have invited them. We didn’t invite them, and so I don’t think there was any crossover there. That’s weird, isn’t it?

We were lucky that when it was announced that we were going to do [ATP], we had a lot off groups that we love just come right to us and say, “Can we do it?” So we didn’t have to bend too many arms behind peoples’ backs to get them to do it. And then there were a few things that I thought, we can pursue this or that, but I didn’t. There is only room for so many. I mean, I talk about trying to get Muhammad Ali to show up and let everybody at ATP punch him in the stomach — but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice a group like Deerhunter for something silly like that. I am not sure that Muhammad Ali would want to do it anyway, so there are some things that you think, You know, should we pursue that? I suppose if we had asked Radiohead to play and they wanted half a million dollars that wouldn’t have worked, you know? We had listed a couple hundred groups that we could have picked from. I mean, it was about as good of a lineup as you could want to have.

What is the greatest difference between how you are perceived and who you actually are?
Well, most of it is pretty harmonious. There are obviously some exaggerations. You know, I am in a rock band called the Flaming Lips. We get to do some pretty extravagant things. I think people would probably be surprised that I don’t do any drugs [even though] I am around drugs all the time.

Not even a little weed now and then?
I don’t like to smoke pot, even though I am one of its biggest advocates that it should be legalized. Just because I don’t enjoy it, I can see that a lot of people do, and so that is probably the only thing [that people have a misconception about]. Though a lot of things that I think people believe about me, they’re pretty true.

That’s true. There seems to be a lot of candor in The Fearless Freaks, like nothing is held back.
That’s mostly because Brad Beasley is a pretty determined filmmaker. He’s the guy that made The Fearless Freaks, and he has known us since the early ‘90s, so he has been around us in all ways and he is just such an obsessed filmmaker. He is always filming something, so it didn’t surprise us at all that we became his subject.

I think the more disturbing elements of The Fearless Freaks make the unbelievable things more true. There is an element of the Flaming Lips that embraces a self-made happiness and optimism; I think if he didn’t show some of that stuff about how realistic and how bleak a lot of our world can be, I don’t know that some of these things would seem so believable. So I’m glad for whatever embarrassment it can cause once in awhile. It is a powerful movie — more powerful than we deserved, to tell you the truth.

What frightens you more than anything?
It would be that you would lose your mind and not be aware of the things in your life that you value, like your wife and your family and your animals and those sorts of thing. On one level I think about that a lot. But I don’t know that I fear that much in the world. I fear that the people around me might be in some plane crash. We were flying last Friday on September 11th into New York City. You consider these things quite a bit. What would life be like if those people you love are killed? I am sure it is the same sort of thing that all people fear.

Iron & Wine covered “Waiting for Superman.” Would you ever consider returning the favor?
I guess I never considered it in that way, like he did one of our songs, so we should do one of his. I have only been around him a little bit here and there, and he is a wonderful person, but his songs are too complicated for me as a musician to do. He is obviously a much better musician than I am. Not to say that Steven [Drozd] couldn’t figure out his songs, but personally, I wouldn’t be able to just sit down and go, “There is an Iron and Wine song. I’ll just sing it the way he sang my song.”

He’s got a great voice, and I don’t know, what do you say, except that it is a great honor to have someone think of your song as being worthy of their own telling of it. It’s weird. But that would be why I wouldn’t consider it so much. I’m just not that good of a musician, you know?

What is an activity, food, or general distraction that you consider an indulgence?
Well, for me, I try to do yoga everyday. I try to drink some great coffee every day. I try to have sex with my wife every day.

Every day?
Yeah, three guys in the room all said “yes” at the same time, and I try to. I don’t know if these are indulgences, but they are things that you feel like, “I want to do this,” and then get on with the things that are supposed to be important. Just being aware of your friends and your experiences as they are happening. It’s hard, because life comes at you and you are tired. There’s a lot going on, and you want to have energy, and you want to be curious about it all. I don’t know I am going to say those things. I mean, I know I don’t need to do yoga everyday because I am healthy, but I like to know that I am giving back as much as I am taking.

You’ve been married a long time now. My wife and I just celebrated our first anniversary. What advice would you offer a newlywed on maintaining a long-lasting relationship?
We’ve been together since 1989. We — how old are you?

I am 29 and my wife is 27.
Those are good enough ages to say maybe this is not your first relationship, right?

Yeah.
Having some experiences shows you everything you [need to] know, and sometimes people think they don’t know enough about the world: “I want to get to know more people.”

I would say if you are determined to make it work, it will work, and if you are not determined to make it work, it will never work — and that’s all it takes. If two people want to make it work, it will, but a lot of people will say meaningless things, like, if it was meant to be, it will work, and that’s not true. Nothing is meant to be. You are a human in this world and you decide almost everything that happens in your life. You decide when you are going to pee, when you pick your nose; you decide what color shirt you are going to wear. Everything takes you deciding, so there is no “It is meant to be” stuff. You wake up every day and decide, “I am going to be with this person,” and if you’re going to make it work, that will work.

I met a woman in Maryland over the summer — she’s a waitress and her husband is a crabber. She said, “Don’t do anything by yourself that you’d be embarrassed to do in front of your wife.”
That is a fucking great answer. Let it be said that we want to allow each other freedom to do those things because, otherwise, you [would] want an outlet to be free and do what you want — and it might be embarrassing, but it’s only embarrassing until you do it and discover that it is not embarrassing. I would want for myself and my wife Michelle to be like, “If you want to do it, then fuck, lets do it,” and there would only be certain areas where you would say if that is unacceptable. “Embarrassing” is a weird term. There are things I have done in my life that at one part in my life I would have been very embarrassed [to admit to], but as time has gone on, I would not be embarrassed at all.

I gathered from watching The Fearless Freaks that you’re a big football fan.
Not necessarily. To me, anything done well and with some intensity is interesting, and so growing up in Oklahoma, you have the Sooners from OU there — I don’t know if you are familiar with college football…

Yes, that was a lead-up to the question — Sooners or Cowboys?
Well, I would like to think that I wouldn’t care as long as they are doing something that is good and interesting, but I’m a Sooner fan. My brothers — and when my parents were alive — we really had some great times rooting for them to win. They won a lot of national championships. You know, I am a believer in letting yourself get caught up in the moment. It is easy to get caught up in that kind of hysterical pride like that. I wouldn’t say I follow them, though. I wait for there to be a big game, and when everyone wants to get together, I go and watch it with my brothers and stuff, but I don’t really care. I’m easy to please.

Most overrated (anything)?
Fucking Rush Limbaugh’s power over the fucking minds of conservative America — Jesus!

Most underrated?
Light show sunsets in Oklahoma. People — they don’t even care. They sit inside in air conditioning and don’t even realize it.

My dad’s buddy at work always says, “There’s nothing more overrated than a bad fuck, and nothing more underrated than a good shit.”
Well, I would add that I don’t think any fuck is really bad. It’s like ice cream: even if it is really bad, it is still pretty fucking good. A good shit — it’s weird, the idea that there is something metaphysical to contemplate about things coming out of your ass. To me, that’s a line I don’t want to cross.

You seem to have an uncanny ability for feuding with your fellow musicians. You’ve had well-publicized spats with Bob Dylan, Beck, and The Arcade Fire. Is there any one band or musician you’d like to single out for derision at this moment?
I have never really feuded with Bob Dylan. I tell stories about my experiences with him, and I am sure he doesn’t care, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I tell a lot of stories that are true, and I don’t have any beef with the Arcade Fire. I only said that one thing that could be considered negative from my experience being around — not just them — but being around their crew and all that, but I don’t really have a beef with them. I have run into some of them, and I actually like some of their music a lot, but I would say I think that the problem I have is when people are horrible humans and [other] people let them get away with it because they are rock stars.

I don’t really care if you are a rock star or whatever; you should be nice to people around who are trying to be good human beings. It doesn’t matter what you do, so when I see that — and because I am around rock groups a lot — that would be my experience, but I would speak of anybody who I think is being a dick and say, “Hey, let’s not stand for that!” as anybody should. I think people who tolerate it allow it to happen. If anybody around me is being cruel to animals or children, I would stand up and say, “Hey, we are not allowing that!” and I would say it only makes the news if you speak of someone like Bob Dylan or Arcade Fire. It doesn’t make the news if I stand up and say, “Hey, my next door neighbor is treating his son like shit.”

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