Wayne Coyne talks about the band's license to be itself.

Flaming Lips photo

[Updated] The Flaming Lips have become a festival institution, so much so that it’s easy to forget that Warner Brothers Records weren’t sure how much longer they were going to stay with the band after 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic failed to produce an alternative rock hit like “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which fueled sales of 1993’s Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. The uplifting sweep of “Race for the Prize,” “Do You Realize?” and their neon, confetti and streamer-rich shows make it easy to forget the very dark movie and album Christmas on Mars is also part of who the band is. 

Friday, I’ll explore some of this in The New Orleans Advocate in advance of the band’s appearance at Buku on Saturday night. It’s tempting to hear Embryonic, Flaming Lips and Their Heady Fwends and The Terror as the band shaking off the casual fans to play to those who really get them, but in the following interview, Wayne Coyne suggests that there’s far less intention than that.

At this point, Coyne seems to be more enjoying being America’s most public and beloved freak, and he publicly gravitates toward potentially similar souls including Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, with whom The Flaming Lips recently cut a version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” - a song they performed on Late Night with David Letterman with Sean Lennon.

Our interview starts with talk of The Flaming Lips’ 24-hour tour of the South, which I covered for Spin.com. On the eight-show journey from Memphis to New Orleans, the band played a series of 15-minute concerts - all that Guinness required for the appearances to be eligible for a world record - and made some roadside stops including a late night fireworks show in the Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi with a very woozy Grace Potter along for the ride.   

What’s your dominant memory of the 24-hour tour?

If you’re an optimist, the pain, the drudgery fades away and the joy and fun stay with you. The last couple of stops, if this had been a Steven Spielberg movie, would have been us crawling to the stage - Oh no! Are they going to make it? - but it wasn’t like that. A lot of the stops we were only playing for 12 or 13 minutes and running out the door, and people weren’t wild about that sort of thing, but at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, it seems kind of weird and special.

I don’t think we’d want to do it again, but I’m really glad we did it. It’s the sort of thing The Flaming Lips do. It’s the reason VH-1 got us involved. 

It seems like you’ve plugged back into the sort of weird, improbable projects that only The Flaming Lips would do.

I think the longer we go, the more offers you get. We would never have sought that out ourselves. If someone comes to you and says, What do you think of this idea? they usually have three-quarters of it organized and all you have to organize is a small segment of it. That’s a pretty good offer. Do you want to do this absurd thing with us? We’re open to it, and we attract that type of project: It could be great, but I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen. That’s just the way that that works.

Are you in a particularly creative period these days? It seems like you’ve had a lot of music come out recently.

There is a more relaxed work ethic about the way we do things because we’ve been doing it for so long. There are certain elements of being in The Flaming Lips that you just cannot escape. I think no matter what we intended to happen, we have these records now that are considered in some circles to be classic records. You feel like, We have a couple of those, and and there’s nothing you can do about that. You can’t approach every record and everything you do like it could be the greatest thing to ever happen. Part of what we do is if people have it set in their minds that The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are our masterpieces, we can say, Here we are, we don’t play those songs anymore, or we can say, We’ve yet to make our masterpiece and fuck all that. I think we go both ways at the same time. It’s a wonderful, wonderful bunch of luxury to go out in the world of people who know music and know that they love not every song we do, but a handful of songs we do. And that’s a great, great thing.

We’re artists so we live and evolve through our art, and we discovered that you can do one without having to fuck up the other.

It has to reassuring to know that there are people out there looking to see how you’ll confront them or how far you can challenge them.

That’s part of what we love about our audience. They’re restless, they’re creative, and they’re looking for new adventures as well. That’s why we have the audience we do. There are a lot of groups whose audience loves them, but doesn’t care so much about cultural events or other music or other ideas. It’s about I love my band like a football team. But our audience isn’t like that. Our audience is open to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being. That’s beautiful, so we’re always aware that there are ways to do all these things and it doesn’t have to be a burden. 

I know what people mean. When you’ve been around as long as we have - They must hate playing a song that they recorded in 1993, and we don’t. I can imagine some groups do, but we don’t think like that. Maybe we did a while back, but not anymore. We don’t remember when songs were recorded anyway [laughs]. I can understand if you - like a lot of bands - made music when you’re 20 and when you’re 30 you don’t play that kind of music. That’s a very real thing in people’s lives. When you’re as old as I am in my 50s, you don’t think there’s music you made in your 20s and music you made in your 40s and they don’t represent you anymore. It’s more, Of course, that all represents us. But it’s a different mindset of someone who’s 30 years old and someone who’s 20 years old. I can understand that, and I’ve been lucky that the world and mostly have our audience have encouraged me to evolve and take risks and fail and fail and try and try. 

Did you feel the same freedom around the time of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or At War with the Mystics that you feel right now?

When we did The Soft Bulletin, there was already this break from what we had been working on from the beginning of the group through the late ‘90s, where we’d set ourselves up as a rock band but anything was possible. We played it like songwriters who play guitars. [The music] goes into different realms, but it was based in that. As the ‘90s rolled along, we got restless and didn’t care anymore for this image we’d set up for ourselves, and we simply threw it away. 

We really like music and we really like recording and being The Flaming Lips. Why does it have to be a certain way? Why can’t we make it whatever way we want? We started to do these things that are now known as “The Parking Lot Experiments” which led to Zaireeka, which, in the making of it and the believing in it, and everything it took to do it, it changed us. It opened our minds. It blew our minds wide open: Fuck! Why do we ever want to one certain kind of band? Then we started to play around with all kinds of ideas, especially in our live show. And this is the absolute truth: We really thought no one would care anymore. We really thought we’d be a band that made weird records, and when we’d play, we would do absurd things, and that led to all the things we do now because we thought, Why don’t we do whatever and not worry about it so much.

Because you tour so much, did you have to take time off to work songs from The Terror into your set?

Well you don’t really take time off. I think compared to the way that most people view their jobs. My job - I don’t get up at 9 and work until 5 in the afternoon. I love what I do. I live and breathe doing what I do. I’m lucky. I get to get up and think of ideas and things we can do in our show, and if we’re lucky we can try them out and see if they work. Some weeks we work every day 18 hours, and other weeks we hardly work at all and sleep ’til noon and have fun. It’s not like most people would think of a job, but I love it. I think of it as what any wealthy, free person would do. I do whatever the fuck I want. [laughs]

What I was wondering if you stop at some point and have rehearsals.

Yes. The music is always the main thing. Once we know the music has the potential to have this emotional impact, and we know all the pitfalls and dynamics about the songs we want to perform, it allows us to build this weird light show and bigger, dramatic things that can reach bigger audiences. When you’re playing to 10,000 people on a big field, we don’t have songs that the whole audience will know. A lot of the audience will still love the show because they love the energy and the lights and what we’re all about, even if they don’t know all of our music. Our music is weird. It’s what we want it to be, but we still want to have a lot of impact. 

What are the challenges of performing in your current stage suit?

It’s a tight leather suit, and it makes me look like a gay pirate from outer space. I’m stuck up there on a podium, and I like being like a giant DJ booth. A lot of DJs are in their booth and have stuff happening around them. I’m glad I’ve done that, but I don’t think I’ll keep doing it. I like the idea of being able to walk around and do things. I think as we go, I think we’re finding ways to have the podium for some of it and not have the podium for some of it. But it’s a little restrictive, yeah. But it’s a great focus for everybody. I could see a couple of songs where I could do something else like the Space Bubble, things like that. 

Is it hard to stand still for a show?

No. I’ve gotten used to it now. In the beginning, I was more strapped in. I had lights literally strapped to me, and after five or six songs you’d be tired of holding up the lights. But when we got to where those are standing on their own, no. 

During The Terror music, I pay a lot more attention to the way I sound instead of being this character that runs around throwing shit at everybody. I thought, Maybe I’ll see if I can really put myself into the songs and concentrate on the singing and standing there as the presenter of these songs, and that I think has helped a lot. I’ve never considered that very much. At the beginning of The Soft Bulletin shows in 1999, I did that because I thought, These are some powerful songs. If I can really nail them and feel them and have the emotion, that would be a great addition to the show. But then sometimes you forget about all that and are on top of a bear or jumping in a Space Bubble and all that. I think we’ve done that for sure. And I love that I’m able to stand there and sing without people expecting too much more to happen. 

Was there ever a time when you went onstage in just jeans and a T-shirt?

Yeah, in the early days of The Flaming Lips. That was just the way we looked. You would see us walking down the street and that’s how we looked, and that’s how we looked [onstage]. We always tried to have an element of a show, but I never thought of myself of being a rock star. Now I take that as a funny gimmick that I get to have blue hair and wear weird shit and use yourself as your own art project. Be who you want to be. I think it’s more powerful and better and more fun. It’s what the music deserves. 

Sometimes I think the music demands that some weirdo from outer space sing the songs. I’m glad to be that entity.

Our Buku playlist

Updated March 21, 7:39 a.m.

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