October 25th, 2009 | Interviews


The Flaming Lips came walking out of the wilds of Oklahoma like characters in a Leone movie—mysterious men with mysterious powers animated by some combination of madness and genius who over 25 years have become one of America’s bedrock psychedelic bands. Singer Wayne Coyne speaks before a free show last month in Los Angeles. This interview by Dan Collins.

Do you ever worry about those audience members that are on, shall we say, psychotropic drugs?
Wayne Coyne (vocals/guitar): Oh no, we assume that they are! We encourage it! You should get out of your fucking mind. This is a rock show. What are you doing here? It costs a lot of money. You got things to do. This is your time!
Do you ever worry that some kid on acid is going to look up and see you on a big screen covered in blood and freak the fuck out?
I want them to! I want them to fucking freak out! I think there’s no better place to be overwhelmed and to think that the world is too intense than at a Flaming Lips show—for the better and for the worse. I think that there’s times that people are so overwhelmed with it for joyous reasons because they’re doing drugs, and other times they’re freaking out because we’re showing freaky shit up there and they’re having a bad trip. I want them to! When you’re young, you’re resilient. Your mind wants to know that there’s more going on than you’re ready for.
One of the clichés people say about your music is that it is atmospheric. But I would say it is more cinematic. Are you influenced by the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet and things like that?
Well, all those can be great—there’s a lot of bad stuff in there as well. I wouldn’t say sci-fi music per se. If Blade Runner is sci-fi, or 2001: A Space Odyssey is sci-fi, yes that, but I wouldn’t say Plan 9 From Outer Space. We’re like everybody! Everybody’s influenced by great music from the ’60s and ’70s. Music you hear when you’re growing up damages your subconscious somehow, and you live with that for the rest of your life. You cannot control what has gone into your mind.
The lyrics to that song ‘Do You Realize??’ are seemingly un-ironic truisms about life and love. ‘Everyone you know is going to die.’ ‘You have the most beautiful face.’ Is it hard to sing lyrics that naked without sounding precious?
Not for me. I think it would be if there were things we did in the show that were ironic or double-entendre. I always have trouble going the other way, where I’m trying to make fun of you or something. When I say, you know, ‘We’re floating in space, and you have the most beautiful face,’ I mean it! That said, there is a power that comes with singing a song that’s different than just reading it on a page. When you read it you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty hokey.’ In the power of music and melody, you can say some simple things that don’t have as much meaning on a page as they do within the context of a song. Songs are different than just words.
A couple months ago I saw this old Shirley MacLaine movie called What a Way to Go! and there’s a movie within the movie starring Gene Kelly called Flaming Lips!
There is! Exactly—yeah yeah! I wish I could claim that we knew all that. There’s even a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that says the words ‘the flaming lips,’ as though when people speak the brave truth, it comes from their flaming lips! He has great colorful language, and people have often said, ‘Wayne, I know where your name came from!’ I wish it came from that!
Is it vaginal?
It is now, you know? Now because we have so much vaginal stuff and we’re called the Flaming Lips, I see that as a response. But at first it wasn’t.
Your new video is supposedly very vaginal.
It is exactly that! It has me—I’m naked in it, to tell you the truth. But it’s all story-driven. It’s not for the sake of shock.
Your appearance on ‘Conan O’Brien’ last night was very shocking, in a good way. The ‘Yes!’ on your hand seemed a little Yoko Ono-esque—are you trying to seduce John Lennon from beyond the grave?
I wish I could say that! I didn’t know it was Yoko Ono-esque. When you do these shows, you’ve got to give them stuff! Even as we rehearsed it, I had ‘OOO’ written on my hand. I thought, ‘Hey, if I do that, can you show that?’ Because they have groups on there every night, and you just stand there and sing and you gotta do stuff. That’s why we have the gong that lights up.
I saw the gong! Who was that hitting it?
That’s a friend of ours called Ray, who everyone thinks is a Chinese woman. He likes being thought of as a strange psychotic gongist for the Flaming Lips. He’s hitting it with a big gong beater, and it’s got a big Muhammad Ali tassel on it.
I’ll always remember seeing you at Coachella when you premiered the big hamster ball. Have you ever gotten in trouble in that thing?
I don’t worry about me so much as I worry about the audience. There’ll sometimes be patches of short girls, and if I go over the top of them and they’re not ready for me … I mean, imagine you’re sitting there text-messaging someone and all of a sudden there’s this old man on top of you.
I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live recently, and they had a big bouncing eyeball that went into the crowd! Did they steal your bit?
No, I don’t think they stole it at all. Everybody thinks of the same stuff. I know Karen O, and she wouldn’t care if she stole it, but I know she didn’t. I think she just thought, ‘We should do something crazy that’s big because we’re playing these big festivals!’
She appears on ‘I Can Be a Frog,’ but she’s just clicking her tongue!
She did that, but she didn’t know she was doing that. She was just making weird noises, and I used her as an exotic instrument. We did the track ‘Watching the Planets’ for about 45 minutes, so she went through the song four or five times, and at the end of it she made her weird noises. And then I ended up grabbing a collection of those weird noises and making ‘I Can Be a Frog’ out of that! She didn’t know she was contributing to the whole album until I told her later.
Does she get royalties?
I don’t know! I’m sure she gets something.
The album is very astrological. As a Scorpio, what can I learn from the song ‘Scorpio Sword’?
I’m sure that even by our standards, that’s one of the strangest Flaming Lips tracks you’ll ever experience. It tells you, ‘Beware!’ I always felt sort of like the sword you pull out could do more damage to you than to the thing you’re attacking. When you go to attack, it sort of falls apart. I could cut my own leg off if I’m not careful!
The same tape I’m recording you on has Gil Scott-Heron and Billy Joe Shaver on it. The last thing Billy Joe Shaver said was almost like a koan—he said, ‘Simplicity doesn’t need to be greased.’
That’s a great thing to say, but what does it mean?
I think you guys have taken simplicity and greased it!
We will say stupid things and they will have some kind of meaning. Even with this … I’ll just say, ‘Oh, we just play intuitively.’ Well, no shit! Everybody does, until it’s bad. And then you try to correct it and play something intuitively until it’s better. All those things—who knows what it is? We did some jamming. There were some bits of it that when we listened to it a couple days later that we were lucky enough to hear in kind of an objective way and think, ‘Damn, that bit’s cool!’ And we would continue to work on these little bits. Steve would do some overdubs, I’d hear it a couple days later and think, ‘Damn, that’s become interesting!’ And then you pull yourself away from it and try to judge it as if someone else had played it. And then we would take it up to Dave Fridmann maybe a month or two later, he would hear it, and judge it in some other objective way—’What is this shit?’ You’d try to trust each stop that it makes along the way. By the time it gets to phase three or four, if it’s still, ‘Hey, I’m liking this—what is this?’ then we feel it is something. But you’re the last one to know, and any of those clichéd words of intuitively playing or going where the music led us, that doesn’t mean anything! Everybody does that.
Do you have any last words for our L.A. readers who want to know more about you?
Be happy. Do what you like. Be kind to animals! Don’t worry about the rain. In most of the world, it rains all the time. Be more resilient. Come on, you soft Californians! Make pot legal and don’t worry about the rain!