The Flaming Lips: “Let's just do retarded things.”Twenty minutes on the phone with Wayne Coyne is never going to be enough. You hardly get around to discussing music by the time the operator is feverishly trying to cut you off.
Still, TheVine took some time last week to catch up with the Flaming Lips frontman, discussing the band’s impending trip to Australia for dates at both Falls and Southbound Festivals, the origins behind their ludicrous live shows, and his own work on Amanda Palmer’s racy new music video.
Coyne is also the kind of guy to ask the curlier questions: about humble beginnings and successful careers, economics and life as a multi-disciplined artist. He’ll answer them, taking his time to slowly sift through your enquires, the frequent pauses in conversation just as likely a busy mind as they are the quavering phone line to Oklahoma City.
You’re not touring just at the moment. I’m guessing you’re in Oklahoma.
I’m in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – thousands of miles away from you and it sounds like we’re talking in the next room. I have a big house here and this is where we’re based out of; this is where we’ve always lived. So I’m sitting in my house on my cell phone, yeah.
Why did you guys stay in Oklahoma originally? Plenty of young musicians would move to the bigger centres – if not in the south then New York or Los Angeles. Why did you guys stick around?
Well, if a musician is career-oriented they may do that. In the beginning, you have to go back to the early '80s when we were thinking about becoming a band – 1983 – and we liked groups like The Butthole Surfers – they were from Austin, Texas; there was a band from Kansas called Mortal Micronotz – that’s just a couple of hours away from us; a group called The Meat Puppets from Phoenix, Arizona; Hüsker Dü were from Minnesota. So we situated ourselves among these groups that we really liked and they were from weirdo places, so we didn’t think of it as, “Wow, we’re from Oklahoma. How weird is that?” I think little by little, we discovered that it was like that, because we’d go places and people would think, “What the fuck?” But the groups we associated with, it seemed very normal.
Even though Sonic Youth were from New York and Black Flag from L.A., we didn’t think of them as being typical New Yorker or L.A. groups – it’s just where they lived. And we felt we would do the same thing and for the longest time we just did that. “We’re playing music, we’re from Oklahoma. Who cares?” But even now, it still feels very absurd to people that we’re from Oklahoma. I think it’s made it a lot more unique and different for us, and we would never consider a move to L.A. or New York for our careers. We may move there because we like to party and we know some people there, but it would never be to have more access to the entertainment business or whatever that is.I know Bill Clinton attacked the problem of poverty in Arkansas when he became governor [in 1978], Arkansas being your neighbouring state. Oklahoma was also very poor – has it changed much over the last 25 years?
Well, I would say that people here have gotten used to being poor, in a good way. When people say that Oklahoma is recession proof, I think what they mean is that it could not get much worse. I mean real estate here, I don’t think any of it is making much money. But I think it’s stable, and I think that’s what people sometimes want. They want to sit somewhere that they know isn’t going to get much worse. But for me, [what’s happened in] my community is amazing. I live in a neighbourhood … that part of it is still prostitutes and drug dealers and people getting shot on the street corners. But because it’s a low-income area, a lot of artists and musicians live here now because you can live here for cheap, which is really what artists and musicians want. They want somewhere they can live and work without it costing $10,000 a month. Now, all around me – and I’m not taking any credit for it, it’s just the way it happened – there are all these young, thriving and really trying artists. The area I live in now is great: it’s full of all kinds of great shops and restaurants and bars, and it’s a really cool spot. So for me, it’s great. I dunno if it’d be great for everybody, but.
The big news surrounding you, Wayne, is your work on Amanda Palmer’s new (NSFW) music video. It’s been causing quite a stir around the traps. Did you expect that degree of reaction?
I think that’s part of Amanda’s agenda. It’s not, “Look at me, I’m great.” It’s to just push it a little bit, and I think anytime you bring in a porn star and you shoot a lesbian sex scene, some people are going to think that’s the greatest thing ever and others are going to be upset by it. For me, personally, I wouldn’t say it’s normal but I think that’s exactly what people would think she would do. She’s crazy, y’know. Even when we were shooting it – I suppose it’s just the people I’m used to being around – none of us thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re shooting this.” We all enjoyed it.
And strangely enough, even in just the sense of the way things are made sometimes, the sex scene that we shot – I dunno if Amanda would want me to tell you this, but it’s the truth – we started on a very long hot day, and when I say hot, in Oklahoma it’s fucking hot. And we had to do so much shooting, and Amanda more than anybody was really the director; I was just there watching over things, logistically and stuff like that. But she is completely, completely badass and never out of energy. And when we shot this sex scene, it was about 1:30am and we were just dead tired. Even though you’ve got [porn star] Stoya there, and she’s all sexy and freaky, we were all just like, “Do whatever you’re gonna do.” But of course, when you see it in the video it’s pretty stunning. But it was funny as a real life experience how much shooting [there is] in movies and videos compared to the effect they have once they’re made.
You’ve been getting more involved in music video recently. Could you imagine that being a way of sidling away from playing music full time? Or could you see it that way in the future?
No, I’m about as involved in all that as you can be and [be able to] still keep doing it all. I mean, the way that our show is as The Flaming Lips, a lot of it is based on big video screens and big things that are telling the story or providing the intensity of music along with it. But to me it’s all the same thing: even before I talked to you, we were working on a concert here in Oklahoma City at The Zoo [Amphitheatre] – a Halloween show – that was full of a bunch of different stuff: people getting tattoos, a guy taking human blood, and everyone getting dressed up. So we’re putting out this concert footage that we’re editing, and then I go into another room where we’re putting together the album cover for an album’s that we’re getting ready to come out, and then I come into another room and talk to you.
So even though it’s all based around the music that we do, everywhere you go everything is always going all at once. It’s all about the visuals and the sound and the recording, and when I get done with you I’ll meet Steven [Drozd, Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist] in the studio that’s just across the yard and we’ll work on two pieces of music probably until about midnight tonight – another four hours or so. But for me, that’s a great, full, creative and energetic day. Not every day would I want to be like that.
But I love having these people around me – they’re so good at what they do that we can really push things along, and with a little bit of direction from me here and there it can really become something unique. But to me it’s really all the same. I would never think, “Oh, I would like to make movies and not music.” To me, the minute I make music is the minute I want to make a movie; the minute I’m making a movie, I want to make music. The stimulation is crazy – “I’m doing this but I want to do that too” – but it’s all the same to me. I would never want people to ever think that I would ever not want to be in the Flaming Lips. That’s the greatest thing in the world and lets me do everything else I want to do.
I was interested to learn about your background, that you came from pretty humble beginnings – and of course we were just talking about Oklahoma – but does that affect your own outlook? Do you ever worry about any sort of transience of life as a musician?
No. Well, I don’t now. I’ve been in The Flaming Lips now for 30 years [laughs]. So I always feared that. There was always a fear of, “You indulge in this and it changes you,” or whatever. In the very beginning we were so insecure and such idiots, we would travel somewhere like England, Japan or even Australia, and we would try to hold onto the things that we liked and were familiar to us. And we were idiots. In a sense, what I do now is that if I go somewhere, I want to do what those people are doing there now and experience it now, because I don’t fear that the real me is going to disappear. But I think in the beginning we were young and we didn’t know who we were; we probably were already who we are, but we didn’t know, y’know. We were very susceptible to influences and all that – to drugs and money and ego. Nobody is immune to that stuff.
But now, I think I’m so broken in the other way. I have so much desire to get up and do this stuff that we call work – music and art and other things – that I don’t think it would dry up. Sometimes I think I’d do it so much that I’d burn other people out on it. And I think I’m lucky that I do have a real sense of ambition and energy – that doesn’t always mean that it turns out good, but I think people who are around me like that – that I never tire at trying and trying and trying. And that’s not something I’m even responsible for; it’s just the way my personality is, and the thing that I get to do feeds that. And I think I’ve learned that little by little. That’s just me. Probably ten good things come from that, but five bad things do as well. It’s not all good.
Well you’re noted for what seems a limitless enthusiasm. What’s behind that? Is it total confidence or is it partly bravado? I mean, when you say things are going to be OK, are you ever bluffing?
No, no. I think there’s a side of me that just tried to have a realistic outlook on what life is, so when I say that we create our own happiness people could go, “It’s easy for you to say, Wayne. You’re in The Flaming Lips!” But I think it is true. I would say that it is probably true for everybody, but then I don’t know because I haven’t had my face burned off in a car accident and had to deal with that. There are dimensions in life that you just don’t know or experience.
But I believe it’s true, and I think what happens with us when we’re making music or art – but mostly music, which I think is our real forte – is that with our conscious minds we’re really trying to do something that we have an idea about, but what we really know is happening is that our subconscious mind is doing something at the same time. And if we’re lucky, we do—almost every time—abandon what we were doing consciously in favour of the thing that happened subconsciously. Because it’s telling the horrible, horrible truth about us that we would never say to anybody. Whereas the other thing is us being whatever you want to say – calculated or cool or clever or whatever, which we never want.
I think when we were making even a record like The Soft Bulletin, part of me thought we would come out of that sounding very wise and we were going to tell everyone how much the world is full of death and darkness and, “Fuck! It’s horrible.” But little by little we were making these songs and [producer] Dave Fridmann was like, “Man, you guys have this way of making cool, optimistic music.” And me and Steven would go, “Fuck! We’re trying to be tough here, and no matter what we do it always sounds like a bit of sunshine shining through us.” But for me, that’s the greatest thing – when we are truly being ourselves, we’re optimistic dorks who believe the sun will come up tomorrow and we’ll find a way through it. What can I say?So, the trip to Australia. Falls Festival: I hear you might be seeing in the New Year. Is that right?
Well, I believe we’re playing New Years Eve on a beach in Tasmania. I think that was really the catalyst for us being in Australia at the beginning of the year: we could play this great New Year’s Eve show on the beach, which is radical because we’re used to playing in America at the time of year where it’s cold and stuff. We only started to look specifically at the schedule in the last couple of days; I’m not familiar with every bit of it. And it’s not a lot – I think it’s three or four shows or something like that.
But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that we were in Australia playing some great shows. Australia for us has become a place that has fans we can play to, and that’s amazing. I think up until a little while ago we were a once in a while festival group, but now I think we really have some pockets where people are coming specifically to see us. And that’s cool; that’s very cool
Touring is now seen as a band’s bread and butter – do you think the Lips were somehow well-equipped to deal with the onset of the digital age in that sense? That your early focus on live performance gave you a head start?
Well the truth is, talking about the late '90s, people in the band had drug problems and people were starting to have kids and things like that. And part of us said, “Why don’t we just not play live? Let’s just be a band that makes records. Let’s not worry about all that stuff.” And then we went and made The Soft Bulletin and we knew we were going to have to play shows – see how I say it, almost with a bit of dread [laughs] – but since we weren’t interested in being this big rock group anymore we just said, “Fuck it. Let’s just do retarded things that we want to do.” I started to do puppets, and I started to play with confetti, we started having balloons, Steven stopped playing drums and started playing guitar and sing and play keyboards, we started having video. The exact reason we started doing all that was because we didn’t think we were a very good live band and that it didn’t matter. So we just thought, “Why don’t we do the stupid things that we like, and if people like it, that’s great. But if they don’t, at least we’re doing things that we like.”
And that was the thing – as stupid as it sounds [laughs] – that made everyone want to come and see us. Even the space bubble thing came out of that: “I just wanna do this.” And I really thought the first time that I did it that people would say, “Man, that’s just too much!” But it’s not. It’s pure and I think people see it as a pure extension of our lives and the way we want to live. We like it and we want to do it. So part of us now just goes with that, and if we come up with an idea that we think is too stupid we say, “Well, I dunno. Let the audience decide.” But it’s all based on the idea that we would not be a live group – that we’d be recording and every time we’d play we’d do stupid, absurd things and that would be the way it went. But it’s turned us into something else, and everybody comes to see these silly little things. And I would’ve never have predicted or thought that I would want that to happen, but that’s kind of the truth of it.
It’s the band’s 30-year anniversary next year. Plans to celebrate?
We don’t know. We’ll probably have a couple of releases that are based on 30 years of The Flaming Lips where you can get virtually everything that we’ve ever done. I think we’ll probably have a couple of nights in special theatres where we play every song that I’ve ever had and maybe play for 24 hours or something like that, with built-in breaks where people can pee and eat and stuff like that. Probably a few things like that. I don’t know how much we can do as a show that travels around, because some of it is pretty absurd, but we have a few things, yeah [laughs]. But we never care about doing it the normal way, so we could do 30 years of The Flaming Lips, and then the next year go, “Hey, it’s 31 years of The Flaming Lips.” We don’t stop at the ten-year anniversary!
Matthew Shea (@mrmatches)