Q&A with Flaming Lips' Coyne - 80 Hours
Interview: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips
DI: One of the genres that has been applied to the Flaming Lips is this psychedelic rock, which has some kind of funky connotations in itself. It's very clear that the Flaming Lips stands out in the genre. How have you taken that and sort of made it your own and made it into something unique for the Flaming Lips over the years?
Coyne: I'm not sure we have. I know exactly what you mean. When people put this sort of tag on it, you can interpret it any way you want. When I think of psychedelic rock, my mind kind of goes to the worst - people with tie-dyed shirts and headbands singing, "Stop Vietnam War," or something. But I suppose that the word "psychedelic" can mean different things to different generations. That's what I would hope.
So when people think of the word psychedelic, I guess what they could mean is something that's made from an internal point of view. That you're going inside yourself and creating this world. Or maybe it means you can be sprawling and you're not making just one type of music. And you're making music that is just more visually oriented, or something like that. We always say we make drug music, you know. A lot of people are like, "Drugs? You don't need drugs to listen to your music." But it gives you a sense that there's another world inside of us, or something. But I know what you mean - it's always a little tough to know where you stand in the genre.
DI: You did say there's a visually oriented part of this. You've had to adapt your music to the live stage quite a bit because of all the manipulated effects in your music. Do you feel that anything is lost in that recorded-to-live transition? Do you ever feel like you're better represented by either the live or recorded version of your music?
Coyne: Sometimes when we're recording music, you don't really know what it's going to be. You really are doing it kind of like a painter, with your paint there and you sort of stumble upon this little patch, and you think, Oh that's great, you know. You're not really even sure what it means. You just kind of play around in it as sounds and the atmosphere or whatever.
And then sometimes a song like that doesn't work at all in front of people. There's just not an easily arrived at mood, or people don't know how to respond. The thing that you play live - and again I think it would depend on how many people you're playing for. When we're playing to maybe 2,000 people, there's a different intensity from when you're playing to say 20,000 people. I think obviously there are some weird things we do on record, that you could listen to lying in your bed with headphones on, and it's perfect. But that wouldn't work at all in front of 10,000 people on a Saturday night who are all drinking Red Bull. It wouldn't be the appropriate thing to play at that time.
It's hard to say, I think we sort of look at ourselves as being artists, and then we look at ourselves as being entertainers. I know a lot of people think, Oh artist - is that pretentious or is that self-important? But it's not. It's just art. It is what it is. We know that it's art, but that doesn't mean it's great. We know we're creating this stuff, but then when we go to play, there's an element that we know we're there to entertain people. We don't think of ourselves necessarily as artists that are up there creating something right in front of you. There's always bit of the entertainer in the artist, and a little bit of the artist in the entertainer.
I think most young bands struggle with that, because if you do 100 shows a year, it's impossible to play some unique different show every time you play. You just end up sort of beating yourself to death. And the audience doesn't understand what you're doing. So you arrive at something that worked, and you arrive at a certain way to play your show. But it can drive you crazy because you have to do same thing over and over before you get it to be really feeling spontaneous. I think because we've done this for so long, there's an element that you know: Now, we're creating, and now, we're entertaining. You can go from one mood to the other.
DI: Speaking of this unique show you guys do, setting aside all these bizarre things that the band has done - the crazy costuming, the stunts, the long, wacky album titles - absurdity seems to be the word to describe a lot of what you do. How do you keep on perpetuating that absurd image? Do you ever get sick of being crazy, or is that what keeps it interesting?
Coyne: Well, I think if anything, we just do what we like. If you feel like you have to do this to please the audience, you have to tone this down or change that, it would drive you crazy. In the end, we're ready to say, nobody really cares all that much. We just do what we like and let that guide us. I don't even worry, if it's absurd or what is it. I just do it or sing about it or whatever, and let audience decide.
Of course a band should get up there and if you're doing a performance, you should be doing crazy ****. I'm always surprised when bands don't do anything, or when bands play it so safe. There's plenty of things we do all the time that fail, that people simply don't care about. You move along, and keep doing what you like and what the audience likes.
DI: Now this is a very specific question, but where did you get the idea for a huge blow up ball in the first place, and are you ever afraid it's going to pop?
Coyne: I didn't know they really even existed; I kept looking for them for the longest time, thinking, I should try to get one of those. I think part of it was because we were making this movie, *Christmas on Mars*. And I thought I was going to use it as prop. I never really found one. And then I forget where we were looking, but someone had a picture of Peter Gabriel, and he used a big ball he was able to get inside of, and that led me to couple other websites.
I finally found a website, and the guy who ran the website was a Flaming Lips fan. I knew it would be wicked; it would be just this great image associated with the Flaming Lips. I knew if I could get one, I would just go for it. I tried it in the front yard a couple times to make sure I wasn't going to suffocate in it or something. If you do it 100 times, you're not worried.
I'm mostly worried I'm going to walk out there on people's heads and crush their foreheads in or something. I'm worrying more about the audience holding me up while I'm stepping on them than I do about myself. I mean, it pops, I think it was in Manchester - I went to get off the stage, and the side of it got cut on a corner of light thing that was there. It just sort of sliced it open. I got out in the audience, and it was kind of flat, and I thought, Oh, that didn't work very well. We just did it again. Everybody knows it's just a silly thing. We all sort of just play along like it's the greatest thing ever.
DI: What should fans expect from the movie, you're working on, Christmas on Mars, when will we see it, and why a movie in the first place?
Coyne: The Flaming Lips' audience has come to want us to go into the unknown and do the unexpected, and to surprise them … I think that's the one great thing the Flaming Lips' audience has instilled in us: to be brave and follow your most ridiculous idea and see what comes of it. So I take that and I say, Let's go. I don't worry whether it's going to succeed or fail that much. You've got to do things you're obsessed with. The worst failure would be not to do it, to say it was too crazy or too much, and we didn't have enough energy and ambition. I've got plenty of energy and ambition, so I think, why not? Let's go.
DI: That's a great way to look at everything.
Coyne: I agree. That's what art is for. Making a painting isn't that brave … but you can do the painting because it pleases you. That's the way you have to live your life in a sense. Nobody can come up to you and say that your life isn't successful. If you've done what you like, you have to follow your own path, whether you're an artist or just a guy who works at the bank. When we see bands that are supposed to be the freest and most absurd thinkers out there, when we see them play it safe, we wonder, what's left for us normal people?
As the Flaming Lips, people think that we should be - in most exaggerated sense - free to follow our internal desires. If we're not free to do it, who the **** is? So I say, I'm gonna go for it. In that sense, I don't know if you can ever really fail. To make money and be famous and all that, is different from doing your art and being honest in that.
DI: A lot of bands rise, have a moment in the spotlight and few hits, and then fall back into obscurity. Clearly that is not the case with the Flaming Lips. Maybe it is this great fan base that you guys have. How have the Flaming Lips managed to stay on the major label, keep the fans, and keep producing quality music under all that pressure?
Coyne: We are probably closer to almost always being in obscurity than ever really being famous. I think that's what has worked for us the best … It was sheer dumb luck how we went about making our records, and music, and own show. Nobody cared. We weren't making that much money that everybody wanted to jump on it because there was money being made. And we weren't that famous that people wanted to be around us because we were famous. We did these things that attracted people a lot like us, other people who were energetic and creative. And they did it in a sense not just to please themselves but to have this thing they love to do. That really makes all the difference. To know that what you're doing, you really love doing it, because the people you're working with want to love what they're doing.
You can amass this big thing that moves along, loving what it does. I don't know if it's success in the sense of you're famous and making money, but it allows you to do things in a great kind of way. We were lucky that we could attract that sort of thing early on. And it wasn't really till the last seven or eight years that we were able to make money and be famous. I'm 47 years old, so it wasn't until my late 30s that I really felt any other elements of it start to come in. By then, we were the Flaming Lips.
I can totally understand how young guys get caught up in their egos and drugs, and all that money and powerful stuff. You want to be overpowered by it. It's great stuff. You want it to have an effect on you. But all those things can overtake you, and it's hard. But really, with us, it was mostly just dumb luck. None of it's been because we're that smart or that good - a lot of it's just dumb luck.
DI: With the trend moving toward online releases and free downloads, do you guys worry about your future in the music industry? Do you feel more secure on a major record label? Is that something that even bothers you?
Coyne: We've seen so many bands we know - people I thought were great - I've seen them come and go a million times. And to think, they thought they'd be doing it their whole life, and now they're not able to do that. Just because the audience doesn't care, or whatever - talking about bad luck.
So yeah, I think you constantly worry about all those things. Even though I make lots of money, I still want the things we do to have a certain, that people know we care about them, that our art is presented in a certain way, or that there's any audience there at all.
Whenever we play shows, people have to pay a lot of money to see us. Of course you worry about that. I think it's like any important job, you get up early and you get your *** to work. In the most basic sense, you treat it as the most serious thing that there is.
It's always changing. I don't worry about the changes of people being able to download your music and stuff like that. One thing will leave, and another will come up. I don't worry about that so much. People who don't worry about that stuff are crazy. Even the Rolling Stone guys still worry about it. That's why they're out there playing. They have this great show and a lot of energy. They present themselves as though, you know, that they care about what they're doing.
Hopefully, I'll always be able to do this, and hopefully, I'll always know why. You have to care, and you have to be thinking and aware that maybe this thing has changed, but there's a new thing opening up. So yeah, it's scary.
DI: Well, we're about out of time, but I do have to ask: Everybody's going to want to know what's in the works right now? Can we expect any albums out anytime soon?
Coyne: We're just now starting to get to where we'll present this movie. I don't know exactly what will become of that. We get a lot of offers to go to film festivals and things like that. But I don't know exactly where that will lead, but I know we'll release that around Christmas as a DVD and another version of the Flaming Lips experience.
As the next year goes along, we'll probably start on what I'd say is another record. We've already started in the way that we always have tons of ideas and songs floating around. The things that we're messing with at the moment, that I can see us having a desire to add to our, how do you say, identity of what we're about. In the past, I think we've veered away from doing songs that were too much like a John Lennon sort of thing. Sometimes people read things into our songs and they think too much about that.
We have a couple songs that I think would fall into some category like if John Lennon ran with Miles Davis around the *****es Brew period, but they had some giant super computer, and they could just do whatever they wanted. I would say we're moving in that direction, if there were any direction of all the millions of things you could pick out there, if there were one thing with a direction that I knew we were exploring, it'd probably be something like that.
DI: All right, well we're looking forward to seeing Christmas on Mars and hearing the next album. Best of luck, and we're really looking forward to your show at the 80/35 Festival in Des Moines. Have a good one.
Coyne: It's just a party, so let's hope the rain holds, and we'll see what happens.