Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips
Interview by: Mary Marge Locker
“If I hear, ‘Watch out, they’re a freak,’ I usually think, ‘Oh, good. Let’s see what happens.’”
Pegged as one of the greatest live performers of our time (or, rather, for the past three decades), Wayne Coyne led his band The Flaming Lips to a new level of stardom earlier this summer. Touring from Memphis to New Orleans, the band broke the Guinness world record for Most Live Shows Played in 24 Hours. Now that the experience of this bizarre tour and accomplishment has sunk in, we got to catch up with Wayne to figure out what it means to be a weirdo and exactly how far he’d be willing to go to earn himself another world record.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: Well, first of all, we’d like to say congratulations on your new world record.
WAYNE COYNE: Yeah, thanks. Now that it’s been about a month ago, I think I’ve actually recovered. And so I’m like, “Oh, good, we did that.” In and around the time that we did it, and the short time afterwards, it was like “Jesus, I’m doing an event.”
THE OA: So why did you guys choose the South for this recent mini-tour? Was there any real motivation behind visiting those eight cities in the sort-of Delta region?
WC: Well, to be honest, most of it was MTV and VH1’s idea. I think they were looking for a place where, you know, it would be a little bit absurd, and I think we all liked the idea that Memphis was the birthplace of rock & roll—there’s a lot of music connected to these weird little towns and communities. They thought it’d be more interesting than, say, going to New York and driving to Boston or something. They thought it’d just be strange and I agreed with that.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the Sex Pistols and the tour they did—the only tour they did in America was in the South. So, yeah, to me it appeals in the same way…. We are obviously not on the same level as the Sex Pistols—we’re just kind of the weirdos coming into this region not really knowing how the crowds would be. Yeah, I mean, I’m exaggerating. The whole tour was full of such lovely, lovely people who were so overwhelmingly glad that we came through their little towns. I mean, I couldn’t predict that and that part was quite unbelievable. You go “wow,” not having realized there would be a thousand people on the streets, some of them literally crying.
THE OA: Was that whole tour experience anything like what you had expected? Or was it completely bizarre and new?
WC: Part of it, I mean the things you can control—the music that we would choose to play and how the venues might be—yeah I guess I didn’t really think about it that much. It was so much work going into it, you just hope it’s not a complete disaster; you hope the bus doesn’t crash and kill some people or that there’s not a fire in the venue.
To tell you the truth, there was just so much to do that we couldn’t really think too far ahead. And we did a lot of music for it, I mean it was eight shows, and for a world record you shouldn’t really care if the shows are good or bad really. But we cared. We poured a lot of effort into playing different songs in different places, different towns, so we were doing a lot, a lot, a lot of rehearsing leading up to it.
THE OA: We were lucky enough to catch one of the world-record shows, the one in Oxford, and obviously it was a different kind of set for you guys: How do you think these more simplistic shows compared to the usual Flaming Lips experience? Did it feel right or wrong in any way?
WC: Well it did feel kind of wrong because you show up and go to a lot of effort, but then you’re only playing for fifteen minutes. You know, it’s a little bit like having sex with someone—you barely got going here. And we walked in there with the same amount of energy and love that we always try to maintain. You want these things to be an experience for everybody, but sometimes it’s—well, for me it was a little unsatisfying because it’s just too short, no way around that. Sometimes even the sound check would be half an hour and then we were only playing for fifteen minutes. And I know people would go to a lot of effort to come to the shows, sometimes they’d be waiting for hours and hours and hours. I wonder if they’d known that we were only going to play for fifteen minutes, and so I felt a little weird about that. A normal Flaming Lips show is a big, big production, but I don’t always want to do that, either. Sometimes I like just playing simply, in strange little places. There’s a lot of that we had to consider.
THE OA: How did you guys start out as such weird punk rockers coming from Oklahoma, a place most people just associate with country acts and Woody Guthrie?
WC: I don’t think we considered that we were all that weird. When we were young, we didn’t know as much about music as we do now, but we at least listened to a lot of music. We weren’t even very good musicians! So I think we were inspired by punk rock, mostly American punk rock that we got to see up close, bands like The Butthole Surfers. These were people of our own time and of our own age doing things just like what we were doing. We’d see them, they’d see us, and we’d be like “fuck, man, that’s the kind of music we want to do.” And it wasn’t very popular, but we didn’t need to be very popular to be making good rock & roll music.
We weren’t making any money and we sure weren’t famous or anything, but we weren’t busy caring about those things…it wasn’t necessarily one type of music: It was experimental, it was psychedelic, it was punk rock, and that’s what we wanted to do. We thought that’s what our goal was: There shouldn’t be just one type of music. It should just be your personality and the sound of that personality.
Our personalities changed and shaped the music, and we just thought, “all right, this will be cool.” Not everybody thought it was cool, but we thought it was cool, and we just set out to start to live that way, play music that way, and record music that way. We were lucky. We love, love recording.
THE OA: Do you think the live experience is the most important part of being a Flaming Lips fan?
WC: Yeah, I do. That’s true, I’d say, of really any and all great groups. And we forget that there are a lot of groups we haven’t seen like The Beatles. We have in a sense: We all know what they look like, we’ve seen footage of them performing, we understand them so well that even though we may never have stood in front of John Lennon, there is still a lot of John Lennon around us. Most of the groups that I really, really love, I love their music, but then something happens when you see them that just brings it all together. That’s what you want—you want to get to know them the way you get to know anybody.
In the beginning you may think, “oh you’re great…but the more I get to know about you, now I don’t like you.” With music, you hope it’s like, “I think I like you and now that I’m getting to know you, I like you even better.” That’s the scenario that makes the most sense for me—but, I’d also say a lot of groups go the other way: I’ve seen U2—and I don’t like putting people down—but I remember thinking, “I really thought they’d be better than that.”
THE OA: Do you think the live performance supersedes your records?
WC: I don’t know about that. I think listening to recorded music is such a private experience that I don’t think you can compare the two, not even with The Flaming Lips. Someone could be desperately in need of companionship, someone who’s had a relative die or had a lover die or had their heart broken or someone who’s feeling like they want to kill themselves or someone who feels like they’re going insane, and you just can’t get that needed companionship at a concert. Now I know, even from my own experience with music, [that you work] by yourself.
I’d say that I think the live show is important because it does incorporate so much of the music that it can feel like an almost overwhelming experience, whereas listening to recorded music has a little bit more staying power because you get to put us in your life as opposed to you coming into the band’s life through the venue—I always like to think I’m in your life and that you’ve put me there in some way where I can stay there. When I put you in my life, it’s just for a moment that you’re really here with me. When we’re on tour, we can listen to the same record for hours and hours and hours.
When I stayed at Ke$ha’s house when we were off tour, we listened to the same Led Zeppelin vinyl record for fourteen hours straight. We were intensely listening to it, it wasn’t just the background, and it was crazy good—good enough that that’s what we wanted to do.
THE OA: Speaking of records, you have a new one coming out in early 2013. Tell us a little about that.
WC: Basically, we’d done so much music leading up to the Heady Fwends album release that we weren’t really in the mood or in a place where we had enough energy or ideas to make another record. But, without realizing it, we were kind of making a record as we went. We didn’t realize it, but we were making this strange, kind of abstract—I’ve been describing it as this sort of religious music because the people making the music have absolutely [given everything to] life, love, happiness, and beyond. But it doesn’t work. And so it sounds triumphant and it sounds suicidal, to me, at the same time.
THE OA: What excites you most about the new record?
WC: Anytime you get to produce some new music you get to become some new version of yourself to the world. It’s kind of exhilarating at first, then kind of embarrassing after a little while, depending on how many people really like it. I’m not as thick-skinned as I sound, you know, I really want people to love our music. But you have to take risks and they may not love it, they may say “Oh, this is a bunch of…shit.” But there’s a thrill in that, putting out new music when you don’t know at all how an audience will take it. I’d rather be on the side of taking crazy risks, just hoping that they work, than taking no risks and having them succeed.
THE OA: Your recent collaboration album, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, has garnered a lot of attention in the past few months. Did working with artists like Ke$ha, Nick Cave, and Chris Martin earn you guys new fans?
WC: I’m not sure about new fans. I think people who like Nick Cave wouldn’t necessarily like The Flaming Lips. People that like Chris Martin—if you really like him, I can see you really liking that track but I can’t see you really branching out too far to liking The Flaming Lips.
But I think by far we’ve gotten the most response from Ke$ha’s audience. And in the beginning I would never have thought that. But the more you get to know Ke$ha, I think her fans are kind of like her—she’s so crazy and she’s so open-minded and she’s so fun and she loves, loves, loves music. And Ke$ha’s got a pretty big Twitter [following] out there, compared to all the people we’ve been with and worked with—I think her audience [loved it]. I think we really gained people from her audience. I don’t really think from that many others.
THE OA: Do you think working with any of the artists on the Heady Fwends collaborations has had an effect on the album to come?
WC: Yeah, because when we were doing these collaborations we very much would take on the persona of the artists we worked with. When we were doing a song with Ke$ha or a song with Bon Iver, we didn’t feel like we had to sound like The Flaming Lips. We got to sound like somebody else. I think that’s what people like about working with other people and artists: You get to take on a kind of character or whatever. When we weren’t doing that, we were making music that kind of felt like it could be made by no other group, except The Flaming Lips. It’s not stylistically anything except Flaming Lips, and a lot of it is big, fat, strange melodies with a lot of voices and a lot of universal drama, but not really big drama, it’s kind of internal drama.
I think anytime that you’re doing a lot of one thing—like when we play shows, my guys work so hard at the shows—when you’re so used to working hard, when you get done you just don’t want to do nothing. So they party really hard, which is a really great reward. So when we were in the middle of doing what we were considering a lot a lot a lot of music, we didn’t want to not make music. We just wanted to be free to make whatever music came out of us as opposed to music that we had to make. When we were working on the Bon Iver track, we couldn’t just say we [didn’t] like where [it was] headed. You already have a vehicle that you have to make work.
THE OA: Were there any artists you guys collaborated with that you were surprised to find out were Flaming Lips fans?
WC: I’d say for sure Ke$ha would be the top of the list. I didn’t know her at all. I’d heard she was a fan and then she sent me a text message and we just started talking on the phone for an hour, and then she sent me some music. We are truly, truly great friends and I feel like I’ll know her for the rest of my life. That is a really wonderful thing that I get to say. The way that you’d think our music is so different, it’s really not. She’s crazy and radical, just this wonderful person. I didn’t know that people like Bon Iver would want to make music with us.
Some people, though, were difficult. Erykah Badu was not difficult, she just has her own way of being and you kind of have to work around the way she is to get that great music out of her. I like it to be weird and interesting, I don’t like it to be normal, especially when you only get the chance to work with someone for a short time. If I hear, “Watch out, they’re a freak,” I usually think, “Oh, good. Let’s see what happens.” They’re mostly nice, normal people, but they’re an insane group.
THE OA: What’s the best album you’ve listened to in the past year, new or old?
WC: …the new Beach House is unbelievable.
Wayne asked me to hang on for a second because Ke$ha had just texted him.
THE OA: So after thirty years, do you have any pre-concert rituals or superstitions that hold true to this day?
WC: I don’t. I mean, I know my drummer has a few OCD dilemmas he has to deal with or he won’t be able to carry on with a show. I don’t really. I do drink a lot of Red Bull, probably way too much. I wouldn’t call any of it a ritual, but I have clothes that I wear. But nothing really weird, not like I’ve got to shave my testicles every time we have a show or something.
THE OA: If you could break any other world record, what would it be?
WC: There’s actually a movement amongst Flaming Lips fans to make the world’s largest group hug, and so I would always join in force with these fans and say that would be a really great world record. I don’t know, maybe there’s already a world record with a billion people doing that…but I don’t think there is. I would join in on that. I mean, to be honest, I’m game for just about anything. Being able to do music on that sort of scale, the scale of a world record—it’s just hard to do and still make it good with the restrictions of time and all. I’m really up for anything. I’d do whatever. I’d spit watermelon seeds, I’d grow my toenails long. I’d probably do way too many things.