The Flaming Lips have achieved a rare sound: a psychedelic that’s as meaningful as it is spacey. While their music is undoubtedly referential of ‘60s hippie counter-culture, it tends to have more substance than a lot of the psychedelic freak-out bands they reference so liberally. The swirling patterns that serve as the backdrop to their music are no random tie-dyed vortex ... or they are, but they’re more than that, too. Rather than suggesting cheap, heal-the-world activism, or easy sentimentality, they speak simple, profound truths one could find in any seventh grade science textbook. The lyric from their classic “Do You Realize???” springs to mind: “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” There is a didactic purposefulness to their lyrics, a practicality to their formal experimentation, that is very un-hippie. They are ruthless in their search for new boundaries to break, and by no means navel-gazers. Delivering catharsis from the drug-hazy ether is not something their cohorts are known for, so it is strange that they would make it look so easy, while never straying far from the movement that spawned them.
Perhaps this sense of purpose emerges, because the Lips’ neo-psychedelia is willfully applied rather than the product of current cultural movements. As they look backward in time for inspiration, maybe the deliberateness of their disconnection from the music of today—much of which tends toward nihilism, crass materialism, or useless beauty—puts the ‘60s counter-cultural aesthetic to more practical use than was originally intended.
One thing is certain, whatever they’re doing works. They have produced soundscapes of great originality and beauty, both in single songs and at the album length (and beyond). Having just one album etched in the pop firmament would be more success than most bands would ask for. But the Lips have four full albums that are essential listening for students of pop music: 1990‘s The Soft Bulletin, 2002‘s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Embryonic, and their Dark Side of the Moon cover album (both 2009). Their famously inventive stage shows are as easily characterized by the use of visual gimmickry as meticulous musicality. They have pushed boundaries with art projects that both effectively package their music and enhance its meaning.
Lead singer and lyricist Wayne Coyne has been at the middle of the Flaming Lips’ magic since their inception in 1983. PopMatters talked with Coyne about everything from the Lips’ most recent experiment, a 24-hour long song, what he thinks about the recent break-ups of Sonic Youth and R.E.M., a possible upcoming collaboration on a cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever” with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, and so much more ...
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Where are you right now?
I’m sitting in my kitchen in Oklahoma City. We’re here just for another 48 hours, and we leave on Wednesday for Australia to play, I think, some festivals there. Summer begins there, when our winter begins here.
Because I was wondering if you felt the recent earthquake? [Just prior to this interview, Oklahoma had experienced a series of earthquakes, the strongest in the state’s history.]
Well, yeah, everybody did except us, because we were down in Austin, Texas. Of all the things that happen here in Oklahoma ... I’ve lived here for 50 years, and I’ve never seen a tornado. And now these earthquakes happen, the biggest earthquakes in Oklahoma’s history, and I’m down in Austin, Texas. I mean, I was having a good time out there. Don’t get me wrong ...
You wish you would’ve been home for the earthquakes?
Well, yeah, of course. It’s cool. I mean, the very first time we went out to Los Angeles, I think it was in 1984, we were lucky enough to be in just a little earthquake. And I ran outside, and I was like, “Wow, this is exciting!” It was the first time I realized how many people in Los Angeles had alarms on their cars. At least in the vicinity of the shaking, anyway. It was pretty great.
The car alarms made it kind of an auditory experience?
Yeah, it was just such a surprise that I hadn’t thought about in Oklahoma, because the car alarm craze hadn’t reached here. But yeah, I’m hearing about it today, and I’m like, “Dude we were doing this or that.” But yeah, I wished I was here.
Your band has been associated with a Neopsychedelic aesthetic. How comfortable are you with that association?
Well, I think it depends on what kind of psychedelia people mean. I think the term has really come to represent a big portion of music that I would say that I like. I mean, like I said, it depends on whose perspective. I think to a lot of people, it still is thought of as being a part of the ‘60s when we think of tie-dye shirts and things like that. But that’s not everybody. A lot of the people I talk to think about psychedelic music will include any kind of music that isn’t based in a traditional style. So that can be a lot of electronic music, a lot of rock music, a lot of freaky experimental music. All of it can jump into an area, where we can consider it to be psychedelic.
Um, like I said it depends on what you’re thinking of as psychedelic. But I like it. I use the term “psychedelic” myself a lot. But I don’t think the people that I’m saying it to ... I think they understand that I don’t mean, “This reminds me of 1966” or something.
It’s just a term for saying, “This thing that we’re looking at is full of experiences and full of meaning and full of, um ...” It doesn’t have to be full of a lot of color. A lot of the time I’ll see things that I think are psychedelic that are not at all full of color ... it’s got an expansive depth about it that it evokes other things. And that’s what it is. It evokes this explosion in your mind, where you gotta think, “Well, yeah, that’s what drugs do,” you know?
How do you think you would’ve gotten along in the original Psychedelic movement?
Well, I mean, I was born in 1961, so my older brothers were sort of ... I would say they were a part of it, though of course they weren’t in their early 20s or ... I think ...
I think, judging from when I was in my late teens and early 20s, the way that I was able to embrace the the things that were happening in the culture of the time, I think I would have been a very good, radical hippie. For a little while, anyway. [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I mean, I don’t know what “good” means, but I would’ve probably gone for it. Yeah.
You would’ve been an effective hippie, maybe.
Well, I don’t know about that. I like this idea of standing in line and doing the thing that everybody else is doing. I think that can be cool. It can also be stupid and wrong. I don’t know. I think if I was in my early 20s, and it was 1967, it would’ve been hard to resist all those cool things that were going on in the culture. It’s especially hard to resist, when the music is so great, you know, and politics are so intense.
And I think that things are just as great and just as intense now. It’s just that there’s a billion things to pick from, so everybody is not focused on the exact same thing at the same time. And who knows? Maybe it’s better, maybe it’s worse.
But I think my brothers and I, we got caught up in it as much as we could. I was only eight years old in 1969, so it was kind of hard to, you know, you know ... what kind of life you could’ve lived. But I would say those things, they affect me even today. I mean, one of the most powerful songs that is still with me is “Strawberry Fields Forever”. And I think about that song almost every time that we’re recording. And there’s still a lot of mystery to that, so um ... you know, but I think I would’ve been a hippie, sure. I think I am, probably ... maybe I am a hippie! [laughs]
Your band has a compilation disc called, Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid ...
I’ve always thought that’s a pretty apt description of the band’s aesthetic. Do you think that’s true?
Well, I mean I didn’t really make it up. There was a guy who had a radio station that I would listen to real late on Friday nights and Saturday nights. This was a time when a lot of the music he was playing, and lot of the music I was interested in, you know, had a real zeitgeist of interest in things. And I was always a little bit older than the crowd that was there.
The crowd was probably a group of people that were 16 or 17 years old. And I was 20 or 21 years old. And I always had long hair—and especially back then it was never really very short—and I was always viewed as an enemy of some of these punk rock shows that we would go to. But secretly I would have conversations with some of the more open-minded guys who were putting on the shows. And they would say things like that, like, “Dude, when more of these kids start to take acid, man, the music is gonna be really intense, and really interesting.”
And he was talking about people like Hüsker Dü and, you know ... it wasn’t just thrash punk rock. They were starting to infuse, oh, you know, just more psychic ideas into their lyrics and more emotional things into their songs, and a bigger, more freakier dimension to the sounds that they were using.
And I don’t know if it held true for everybody who was around then. But to me, that was a great explosion. In a sense that was where groups like the Butthole Surfers and even Sonic Youth came from. It’s based in punk rock, but it’s still expanding.
And it’s silliness to compare it to acid and stuff like that. It’s the idea that people were willing to use themselves as the experiment. To say, I’m gonna take this and see what happens. I think it’s a really cool marker of a sense of curiosity. Not just curiosity about the world, but internal experience.