LAist Interview: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips

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(Photo by Upshaw Imagery via Flickr)

Now in business for nearly thirty years, the Flaming Lips have hung onto a sense of childlike innocence and wonder that most bands have irretrievably lost by the time they wrap their second album. The Lips’ last studio effort, the double-length Embryonic, was their Ummagumma, the farthest-out, least radio-ready LP of their entire Warner Bros career, yet it was received with open arms by fans and critics alike. They’ve steadily built their sizable following through a series of uniquely psychedelic albums, and by relentlessly touring a brain-melting live show, making them one of the most crucial must-see attractions in rock. They have crossed paths with radio and TV at a few fortuitous moments, but each of these rare collisions with the mainstream has only prompted them to head into more experimental territory. They’re one of the few famous groups today whose next album has the potential to be both freakier and better than any they’ve made before. One senses they have no intention of giving up the search for the lost chord.

We spoke to head Lip spokesman Wayne Coyne as he prepared to depart for a series of shows which will will bring him to our fair city for a pair of spooky evenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetary, one featuring the entire Soft Bulletin album and one including their re-make of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (no word yet on whether the Wizard Of Oz will be incorporated into the stage projections). Coyne practically asked us not to mention the gigs this interview was intended to promote- “I believe the show’s already sold out (Ed. note - correct, and how) so I don’t want to say ‘Hey we’re gonna be there!’ because if you’re not already aware you’re gonna be there with us, you’re kind of getting stuck.” But he did share his thoughts on how to game the creative process by mentally preparing for a double album, his idea of the ultimate stage show, the power of the PC to enable music- making weirdos, and why completist collectors’ angst doesn’t faze him one bit.

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(Photo by Simon Cardoza for LAist)
One of the things I read when Embryonic was just coming out, was that when you started working on it, you had the intent to make a double album. How did that approach change the way the individual songs might have gotten developed?

Well, you know, I wish that I could fall asleep and then forget all these things that constantly influence you. Because when we started to do Embryonic, you know… we struggle. It may not appear that we struggle because we just do so much junk. But we really struggle with thinking “what the fuck are we gonna do?” That really is part of what’s good about being in a group that gets to navigate its own course, but it’s also the torture of it, you know. But I think that we knew from the beginning we were gonna do a double album. And so we would get caught into these quagmires with songs; what are they gonna be about? And you hope you stumble upon things that just happen, and it sort of takes you where it can. You don’t really want to dictate everything that happens.

But we were, as usual, trying to let things happen or trying not to dictate where it would go. So whenever we ran into (something that) felt boring, you know, we’re trying to make music but we think it’s boring, our minds would always go to, "You know, we’re making a double record, let’s just make some freakout music for a while and not worry about it". It’s kind of our concept was to make a record that could have some very structured, very produced songs on it, but then there would also be a lot of songs on it that are just very free-form, you know, freakout stuff. And so, whenever we would have a struggle, we would just go, “let’s go and make a freakout song.”

And I had a sense, the more that we did that, that that was really what the record was going to become. Because every time we would relax and say, man let’s just do one of these freakout things, I saw moments where everybody came ALIVE. And that’s because it was a new thing to us, it was unexpected and it was fresh, and whenever you’re doing that, you can feel that inertia happen in people like, oh this is cool. And we don’t feel so much pressure to create, if it’s kind of creating itself, and you’re kind of accepting whatever comes from that process. And then I think, we knew little by little, if we hadn’t conceived of this way of doing a double album, we probably would have gotten stuck a thousand more times before we realized there was another way to do things. So I think we just got very lucky.

And now, we try all things like, we’re making a double record or a triple record. And knowing that not all of the pieces have to be the greatest thing ever, or this concise, well thought out, well produced moment. But I think that frees you up. You’re already doing whatever you want. For me, I figure if we’re gonna do whatever we want, we might as well have a variety of stuff, some of it being very well produced, some of it being freaky, some if it being mellow. We’re just discovering new ways. You know, a little bit of trying to carry your own mind, or trying to un-know something you already know. I don’t know if (inaudible) but it certainly worked for Embryonic for sure.

It’s not always easy listening to your songs to separate your expression of extreme joy from your expression of extreme sadness, just from how the music sounds. What do you see as the relation between those?

Well, yeah, I mean, I think luckily, within the context of music, those things are, I guess essentially, the two most powerful things that music can do. I like music even if just sounds cool, whether it evokes anything or not, music can be very powerful. But I think when music is at its peak of its power, you’re feeling those things, it’s joining you in your own version of what’s bringing joy to you. But the things that bring you the greatest joy are also the things that can bring you the greatest sadness. There is a connection there and I think there is a sense, they’re both up in another echelon of our minds.

I don’t do a lot of music where I feel angry, we don’t try to remain pissed off very much. I think there’s some things we did on At War With The Mystics where we tried to keep this frustration about George Bush going for some tracks. But, I wouldn’t say we get bored with it but it’s not really our own thing. We want to be kind of, you know, hypnotized by this music too. I think that’s the best thing that can happen really. We get conked in a way that we have, the way we sing and the things we sing about. And you know, I just don’t think music grabs us unless we’re in one of those intense worlds.

But I think a lot of that is in the way we love. There’s a tonal quality in my voice, and I don’t know, I’ve been doing this since I was fifteen years old and there’s this tonal quality, this childlike element exists when I’m trying to sing. Luckily I think that hits, it grabs some of our audience and they really like that and I’m glad. I like that… this is the way that I sing, and so it’s like, I like singing with this kind of vehicle that’s kind of fragile and you know, and all those things. And also approaching sadness at the same time.

So I don’t know that it’s something that we do on purpose but it’s something that we definitely hear right now, and we think about the Soft Bulletin and stuff like that. There’s songs going on that you know, wow, you know? Whatever that is, do that! But it’s hard to do, it’s impossible to kind of, you know… believe your own shit. And you feel like an idiot at one point because it’s your biggest responsibility. It’s a struggle.

The music industry has changed significantly since the time that you guys rose to prominence. Looking at the landscape today, do you think the potential for an oddball act to find popular acceptance is greater or less than it was when you guys got signed in the early nineties?

Well that’s a good question. I think it’s always been… artists have a chance. We’ve got a lot of people that are drawn to this other part of the music business, you know, being rich, being famous and all that. I think there's probably more weirdos involved in music now, because it’s easier to do than ever. I mean, before you had to go into the studio. I don’t mean you HAD to, obviously you had bands that were doing more low-fi stuff still, but you couldn’t make a record in your house on a computer back in 1984 like you can now. We had computers and stuff but… so many artists, musicians, just weirdos having access to all of these ways that you can make music on your computers now, and you don’t need a lot of money. It took us a long time to save up money, working at restaurant jobs and all that back in 1984, to even make our first record. Whereas, today you can make music and put it up on the internet almost without thinking about it. So, there’s so much music available.

Now whether they will be able to generate a living from it, the way the Flaming Lips have for almost twenty-five, thirty years now, whatever… that is really out of anybody’s control. The things that happened to us, much of it has been based on just… luck. This thing that we’re doing at this time, or the way that we want to do our shows, or the things that we think are interesting, or even dumb things like winning a Grammy, we KNOW that a lot of this is just dumb luck, that you could not have organized and planned and marketed the Flaming Lips to be what they are. A lot of it’s just absurd timing.

But I would say most of the weirdos I know that make music, they’re very happy just making their art, doing their music. So I would say, in that way, I would say that now, more than anytime ever in the history of music, there’s just a mindset that says do it, do your thing. Do your thing your way. And I say this to artists all the time - if you make something that’s interesting, people will find it. People are curious about cool things.

Of course if you’re trying to just become (Famous Band) “X”, be another version, whatever audience you get will meet their death pretty quickly as well. And it’s not to say there weren't always a lot of groups out there that are fake, or whatever.

But I would say, now. Even with the way that we’re doing music now. The way that we’re doing it, I don’t know if we would have been able to do it this way ten years ago or whatever.

Your live shows have been getting considerably more elaborate as they’ve gotten bigger and I’m curious to know - what would be your dream effect to bring into the show if you had U2’s budget?

Well… I know. I don’t fantasize too much about things that I don’t really think are possible. There really is a lot going on that we’re trying to fuck with. Even with using, like, colored laser beams and things like that. We try to remember that we are trying for the most part to be an exaggerated version of our humanistic selves up there, and so everything that we do is based on: here’s a song, and here are some great things that happen, and then the Flaming Lips are doing the song.

So I don’t know.. in even in the way we’re able to do light shows and things now… I mean, I would love to be able to do things like fire, where no one would get hurt, and… something like that. There’s lots of fantastical things that you’d like to be able to do. And some of them, we are able to do. I mean, we used to think about things where the stage comes out and actually just crushes the audience. Just ridiculous things, or me shooting laser beams literally out of my hands, shooting over the crowd’s heads. And I do some of that, but they’re limited versions of these things. Almost everything that you’d want to do, they’re illegal or impossible or dangerous or someone would die, that’s kind of where that would all go.

But I don’t know, we don’t fantasize that much about what would never be possible. It’s hard enough to make the things that we’re doing. It gives you a concept to think of ways not just to think of what are they, but, how do you carry them around, how do you tear them down real quick, how do you get them in and out of the countries because there’s a lot of restrictions and all that…

But the fact that anything exists at all and can work, I’m just lucky to have that, and I’m sure that we’ll find something to do.

How did you enjoy the collaboration with Stardeath and White Dwarf? Did you find yourself taking a different role than you do when working on things that are strictly your own?

Well that’s my nephew’s group so, you know, I’ve been around Dennis and his bandmates - Dennis, I’ve been around his whole life. There would be times when Dennis would be at my house, and I would be working on Flaming Lips music, and he would kind of naively try to get involved and think “This is fun! I should do this!” So it wasn’t a surprise to me when he formed his own group.

So, I don’t know. I think sometimes, for better or for worse, I’m opinionated and intense. When we’re making music, I don’t want it just being whatever seems to happen. If it’s boring, or you know, “we’ve done that before, “ or it turns out to be, “let’s find some more interesting sounds” or “let’s hope we stumble upon something.” I mean a lot of the way that I work, it’s just intuitively hoping that you will stumble upon something. And when you’re working with a bunch of people who are all musicians, they don’t wanna play. They don’t wanna PLAY music, and I’m saying “well I know you’re gonna play but we want to stumble upon things that we’re not aware of yet.” And I think everybody likes that. So with that I would remind them just to do stuff and not be so caught up in thinking it.

But all groups work differently. I would say when I’m working with a group, it would be hard for me to just sit back and not speak my mind. And so, I’m not sure anybody wants that or likes that. But I think people get used to it if I’m there. A lot of times it’s the Wayne Show. It’s, “let’s do this” or “let’s do that”. But I’m very open. It’s not really about ME making MY music. I just wanna make something that sounds cool. If someone else does something that I think sounds interesting, I will quickly drop whatever I’m doing to go with the more interesting moment. That’s what I’m kind of hoping always happens.

You guys seem to enjoy driving your fans a little bit crazy with all of these limited edition releases that have minor variations and unreleased tracks. I was curious to know, are you a collector yourself?

(Laughter). No, not in that way. And I’m not really doing it to frustrate the collectors, even though I know there’s varying degrees of that. I know some people that will go on Ebay and buy stuff for thousands of dollars. I don’t know, I don’t really… we’re not saying that you SHOULDN’T do that. If you wanna do that and you have the money, you should just do whatever you want. But I don’t know… that’s part of the fun of having to follow along. It’s a lot of stuff that we’re doing and I don’t expect everybody to be interested in every bit of it. I think it’s part of the fun of (it). We do the record and we get to dictate when it comes out, we’re doing virtually everything on it. Yeah the fact that I take it to, what record stores I take it to, obviously if you’re at that record store when I take it there, I could sign everything that’s there and we get pictures taken and… A lot of it, yeah, I think there’s a lot of experiences connected to the way that we’re doing this that can leave some people out.

But I promised everybody that we’re doing this for a long time, and I’ll try to, not out of fairness, just out of it seeming more interesting to me to somehow, everywhere we go to do something related to this stuff that isn’t available to everybody. It’s like, well, some things you just can’t have everything. But I think it’s interesting to want everything. Sure.