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Wayne & Able
Over the past five years, Oklahoma psych-pop practitioners The Flaming Lips have become perhaps the foremost cult band of their generation. Olaf Tyaransen caught up with the Lips’ main man Wayne Coyne at the Jack Daniels birthday bash in Tennessee to discuss life, love, major label patronage and the vexed question of whether or not there’s life on Mars.
Olaf Tyaransen, 01 Dec 2004
Saturday, September 18th, 2004: In a vast and vaguely temple-like timber structure, built high on a heavily wooded hillside in Lynchburg, Tennessee, the Flaming Lips are blasting furiously through a particularly frenetic cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ in front of an audience of about twenty appreciatively bobbing heads.
Although this is just a soundcheck, the band are still going hell for leather, giving it full flame and lots of lip, and the entire building is practically vibrating. When they finally grind to a noisy, feedback-drenched conclusion, the small crowd - various technical crew and a scattering of tipsy music journalists and PR people – burst into spontaneous applause.
Frontman Wayne Coyne, looking resplendently rock star-ish in a ragged linen suit, pink shirt and scuffed sneakers (no socks), gives a mock bow and attempts to push a stray wisp of his long greying hair out of his face. Unfortunately, this proves impossible, as he’s wearing a giant oversized fist with the word ‘STOP’ painted on the knuckles (the other fist says ‘BUSH’). His hair immediately falls back into his eyes.
“How’d that sound?” he asks nobody in particular through the mic. The crowd further whoops its unanimous approval. “Well, I think... I think we’re gonna try it again anyway,” he drawls, turning to his bandmates Steve Drozd and Michael Ivins, and their rather unlikely named touring drummer Kliph Scurlock. “One... two... three!” And they’re off again. Noise, glorious noise!
Although the Sabbath song isn’t actually on tonight’s set-list (apparently they’ll be playing it for a prestigious Austin City Limits TV special next week), the band rehearse it three or four times anyway. When they’re finally satisfied they’ve got it nailed, they abandon instruments and start to fiddle around with the various cameras and special effects units that they’ll be utilising for the show they’ll be playing in just a few hours time - at the private birthday party for the founder of a massive Tennessee corporation – Jack Daniels.
Yes folks, they’re playing at a birthday party for a dead person – which, let’s face it, is a very Flaming Lips thing to do. For if he hadn’t already shuffled off this mortal coil, Jack Daniel would be 154 years old this very day. Of course the late Mr. Daniels has serious rock & roll credentials. But then you knew that already, didn’t you?
As Steve Drozd later quips to an MTV reporter, “Jack Daniel’s? We’re really much more of an LSD kinda band!”
A few hours, a barbecued Southern feast, and many, many shots of free Jack Daniel’s later, myself and Coyne are being introduced backstage, breaking the ice with some chitchat about partying in Dublin. “We’ve had some really awesome nights in Dublin,” he tells me, enthusiastically shaking my hand. “Wow! Did you travel all this way just for us?”
As it happens, hotpress had originally crossed the Atlantic simply to review tonight’s gig but having (a) fallen totally in love with the two most recent Lips’ albums, The Soft Bulletin  and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots , in the fortnight since they were mailed to me, and (b) realised that every other journalist on the trip had scheduled an interview, I decided to request some face-to-face at the last moment.
They don’t have a new album coming out (though there’s a special DVD 5.1 version of Yoshimi being released soon) and they won’t be playing Ireland until maybe next year, but I figured I’d be a fool to pass up on the opportunity to talk to the man responsible for such wonderful lyrics as, “Do you realise that you have the most beautiful face? / Do you realise we’re floating in space? / Do you realise that happiness makes you cry? / Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die?”
Without too much fuss, the media schedule is reshuffled, thanks to the endevours of the lovely ladies of Freud Communications.
Coyne is going on stage in less than an hour, but seems remarkably relaxed about it, and is more than happy to talk about the band he has fronted for the last 23 years. Most rock stars of his stature won’t do interviews on the day of a show, let alone an hour beforehand, but it’s immediately obvious that Wayne Coyne is not at all a precious character. Instead, he’s charming, affable, interested and interesting.
Then again, given that fame only knocked on Coyne’s door relatively recently, it’s rather unlikely that the 43-year-old will develop any pretensions at this stage of his career. Formed by himself and his multi-instrumentalist cohorts Steve Drozd and Michael Ivins in Oklahoma City in 1981, the Flaming Lips have had a Pulp-like journey to success. Starting as a psychedelic garage band, they toured and independently released albums for years, gradually developing both their ever-changing sound and a cult following, but not really making much of a living. It took almost a decade before they were signed for a minimal amount of wedge to Warner Bros.
After twelve long guitar-to-mouth years, they finally scored a minor hit with the quirky (and fairly unrepresentative) ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ from 1993’s Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, but then rapidly faded into obscurity again.
It wasn’t until 1999’s The Soft Bulletin that people really started to take notice of the band. And it was only two years ago that their SF cartoon concept album Yoshimi - which was one of the albums of 2002 according to every critics’ list worth reading - broke them through to the edges of the mainstream (they even had a song used in a Mitsubishi ad). But there have been more Flaming Lips albums along the way than even Coyne himself can remember.
“You know, at this stage, I’m not sure really how many albums we’ve done,” the singer chuckles. “I think it’s about thirteen. Cos there’s so many things that we do that aren’t really albums - you know, we remix and do DVDs and EPs and things like that. So I think it’s probably around twelve or thirteen or something.”
Having wallowed in impoverished obscurity for so long, was there ever a particularly low point where the Flaming Lips considered splitting-up?
“I think early on we probably did,” he muses. “I mean, we didn’t have that many reasons as to why we were doing it. One of the reasons early on was just that we were looking for a big adventure. We never hated living in Oklahoma City but we always felt, ‘Well, the Flaming Lips will allow us to go to Europe or New York City or wherever else we might like to go’ - and just be there.
“And it was self-induced poverty, anyway, don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “We could’ve had careers and jobs doing something, we just never wanted to. I mean, we chose to work in fast food restaurants and be in the Flaming Lips. We did it to ourselves, no-one put it on us, you know. But that being said, I do think you kind of question your own life, [puts on timid voice] ‘What about when we’re 40, what’re we gonna do then?’ Ha, ha!”
Fortunately, the Flaming Lips’ first real break came at just exactly the right moment...
“We were very lucky in that our worst days, where we felt like we really wanted to be artists, were also our poorest days, right at the very beginning of 1990. And I think - and I say this almost like a movie could be made about this - almost on our very worst day Warners Bros called us up out of the blue. And this crazy A&R person - and I say ‘crazy’ because she really is kind of crazy - but she rang and her understudy had kept giving her these Flaming Lips records saying, ‘You gotta go check these guys out’. She called up and said she wanted to see us play.
“And we threw together a show and she came, and just really believed in us. So we signed to Warners. It wasn’t because we were ever gonna sell any records or because we were ever gonna make anybody any money, but this crazy woman just thought, ‘You guys are great and I’m gonna help you’. And here we are.”
The A&R person is long gone, but the Lips have enjoyed an unbroken and amicable relationship with Warners ever since. For the most part, Coyne maintains they’ve had full artistic control over their output. They must have done. In the mid-’90s, they released a commercially suicidal quadraphonic concept album called Zaireeka, which came on four CDs, to be played simultaneously.
“Yeah, the idea was four CDs played simultaneously on four different CD players out of four different systems,” Coyne explains, with a grin. “I was moulding this a little bit under the guise of there were these DJ Wars I was reading about in Jamaica and stuff, where one guy would set up on this side of the parking lot with his giant speakers and a couple of turntables, and another guy would set up over there, and then they’d kinda battle it out.
“So I just thought wouldn’t it be great if you had a piece of music that played over there and sort of battled with this over here, but also complimented it. So as you got closer to one piece of music over there it took on this sort of atmosphere and this flavour, and yet you could be in the middle and have a little bit of both, and if you went over here it could be something different.
“And when I first approached them I thought I could do this with ten CDs but, luckily, our manager is a smart guy and Warner Bros aren’t idiots and, collectively, they talked me down to four. Which ended up being an insane amount of work and everything, but again, it’s them seeing us and saying, ‘You guys have some weird ideas, yet you seem to know what you’re doing’, or whatever, and believing in us. And records like that hardly ever get made. They certainly don’t get made on a major label like Warners Bros very often. And we were able to make one of them.”
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Zaireeka didn’t exactly run off the shelves. But it still seems amazing that they’d let you release such an obviously uncommercial album in the first place!
“Yeah, that’s what makes it all the more absurd,” he laughs. “Because it wasn’t made as some sort of ‘Fuck you!’ to a major corporation. It was made with their money and with their blessing, saying ‘Go do it boys!’ That’s what I try to remind people. We’re not fighting the system. We’re showing you that the system can work a million different ways. You don’t have to be the outsider and say, ‘It’s us against them!’ There’s a lot of ways you can do it. There’s a lot of ways you can make music, there’s a lot of cool people who have a lot of money, there’s a lot of assholes who don’t have any money, there’s a lot of everything really. You know, it’s not one simple path that you can take.”
You were wearing a pair of oversized fists with ‘STOP BUSH’ painted on them during the soundcheck. Are the Flaming Lips becoming more overtly political in these troubled times?
“No, not really, man,” he shakes his head. “I mean, every time the Flaming Lips play I think we’re already preaching to the converted. I don’t think there’d be many people in our audience who’d be hardcore Republicans anyway. I mean, a lot of it is kinda silly - things like the oversized fists. I just do it because I know it gets a reaction and stuff like that.
“I mean, if I’m around people and they wanna talk about ‘George Bush this’ or ‘George Bush that’, it’s easy and it gets a reaction. But normally I’d rather not talk about him. I try to remind people that by doing those things you give these people too much power anyway. You make him more powerful than he really is. I mean, you - you! - control your own destiny much more than any politician ever will.
“The things that you want to change about the world, be those changes. I know it sounds all Gandhi or whatever but it really is a simple thing. If you wanna help people, go help them! You don’t have to wait for the government to hand out money. And people can really do that but they prefer to look at the world and say, ‘Oh this world’s fucked-up and it’s all because of the politicians’. Well, change a small part of it. I know you can change your own house, you can change your own neighbourhood if you want. Change the things you can.”
Probably the two most famous Lips’ songs, ‘Race For The Prize’ and ‘Do You Realise?’, are both thematically bleak and existential, but also somehow very spiritually uplifting. Is Wayne Coyne religious at all?
“Not religious in, like, do I believe that there’s Jesus or God watching down on us,” he says, “but the idea of whatever this thing is that makes you believe that life is worth living - however you attach meaning to stuff. Because to be purely existential and to be purely drawn from your senses and experiences can be pretty brutal. You don’t know what awaits you in life and if everything is worth just as much as everything else, you know, you may not find it’s worth holding onto at all.
“But I don’t think that there’s any entity that we’re made from or anything that we’re made to be like. When I speak of religion, I would think it’s like the Universe made us, and the Universe is great. Whatever it is that this world is, I’m part of it. So I’m part of the stars and I’m part of the potion. So I guess [I’m religious] in that way.
“But I dunno if that’s gonna be the new religion - where you can believe the facts and believe science and still believe that it has meaning as well. Cos that’s the hardest thing to do, it really is! I mean, I think that’s why art and music and all these things are always gonna be powerful influences on people, because you have to have some things that you believe in just because you like them.
“And one of those things is love. And love, it’s a weird thing, because if you don’t believe it’s there... maybe it’s not there. And we all know love is real, but I don’t know how it’s real other than that it’s a manifestation of things that we believe. And religion is all that as well.”
Warming to his theme, he continues, “In the way that the world exists now, if somebody came up to me and said, ‘Well I believe in Jesus Christ’ then I’d say, ‘Well good, because at least if you believe in Jesus then I don’t have to worry that you believe in Hitler’. And the consequences of someone believing in Jesus are a lot less hazardous to society than someone who believes in Hitler. So people need something to believe in, whether it’s the Beatles or whether it’s Gandhi or whatever. So I’m glad that there is organised religion out there.
“Because there’s always gonna be something out there that would be a lot worse. Yet I’m lucky. I’ve got a whole wonderful world out there that agrees with me. I haven’t had horrible experiences that would challenge that too much either. My life’s been pretty cool.”
His band’s been pretty cool too. But also, it must be said, pretty uncool at times as well. The Flaming Lips have been steering a fairly unpredictable sonic ship for more than two decades now, never making the same record twice - for good or for bad. He’s quick to point out that he’s not necessarily all that proud of everything they’ve done over the years.
“Releasing an album is a lot like getting a tattoo done,” he smiles. “You know, it’s done, you’re stuck with it, you can’t get rid of it. We’ve done some stuff that I really don’t like now. But then I’m always changing my mind about how I feel about the stuff we’ve done anyway. I’m probably not always the best judge.
He tells me that the Lips are currently at work on a new album, tentatively titled At War With The Mystics. Just don’t expect it any time soon...
“We’re kind of funny in the way we make albums,” he says. “I guess it’s kinda like when people think of a band making an album they think, ‘OK, they’ve gathered all their stuff together and then they go off to a studio with a producer and then they do something for a couple of months and then they come out the other side - and they’ve got something’.
“But we’re kind of always making a record. Until it’s done, we’re thinking of things and we’re writing songs and we’re experimenting with possibilities. But only because we’re given the luxury of not really having a specific agenda. You know, where it has to be out by a specific date. I mean, we do a lot of things like that, where you have to work on a schedule but I don’t think...” His voice trails off for a moment, and he scratches his beard before sheepishly continuing. “You know, in the way that we want to present our next ideas to the world, it’s like we simply don’t have them really. I mean, whenever we have them, we’ll collect them together and put them out.”
Are Warners not putting you under any pressure to release a quick follow-up to cash in on the success of Yoshimi?
“Nah - we don’t sell that many records!” he laughs. “Like no Warners’ executives are buying houses and stuff like that thanks to us anyway. I think they’re glad that we’re getting a lot of attention and people really like what we’re doing. Whatever we’re do is deemed as being credible, worthy art or whatever, and I think, if anything, Warners love that the most about us.
“And we’re successful on our own terms anyway. By the end of the year we’ll probably sell 800,000 records, when it’s all said and done. Which to us is, you know, mega! But compared to what Warners is used to, that’s just getting started or whatever. So I don’t think there would ever be any pressure in that way.
“The only pressure that they might give us is saying, you know, ‘You guys have a cool thing going and time is going to march on’. But I think we’re even more acutely aware of that than even they are. I think we owe it to our audience - if we’re going to ask you to believe in us and give us some of your money and all that sorta shit - I think part of what we do is to take chances and to do new things, and to go where we haven’t gone before. And I think that’s part of what the Flaming Lips idea is about.”
One Flaming Lips side-project which Coyne has been mentioning in interviews for a few years now is their long-overdue movie Christmas On Mars. Are they still making it or has it been abandoned?
“Yeah, we’re still making it,” he nods. “Well, I started it in 2001 but we hadn’t really started the production until this past year. But because I’ve talked about it so much people just seem to think it’s gonna happen, instead of it being a slow process. I mean, a lot of art is made that way. You just keep believing it’s gonna happen and keep plugging away. And that’s the awesome thing about ideas. One day there’s just something in your head and the next day there’s evidence that this idea exists. I think that’s awesome.”
By now, Coyne is due onstage in a few minutes, so we steer him on to the subject of his life philosophy.
“You know, I’m truly lucky,” he announces, beaming widely. “Anything bad that happens to me ever in my life, I know that I probably deserve it. I’m lucky! I’ve had the best life anybody could ever have. To stand here and be able to be in the Flaming Lips and to have done all these things that I’ve done. I mean, we truly have the best fans in the world – artists, musicians and writers. People dream to be a band like we are. And I know it’s awesome.”
He looks happily around the room and then continues, “And I know it’s not because we’re so great. It’s because we’ve been lucky - and we’ve been lucky enough to have been left alone. I sometime say to people, ‘We’re weirdos who’ve been given a lot of money and then left alone’. Ha, ha!”
And with that, Mr. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips walks off into his awesome night, his awesome life, his awesome future.