The Hippie That Wasn’t

An Interview with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips

by Nathan Pensky

19 January 2012


Why do you care about the individual response to a Flaming Lips album or show?

You have a reputation as someone who cares about what individual Flaming Lips fans think. Why is that? Why do you care about the individual response to a Flaming Lips album or show?

Well, I think you can find space in your life and in your mind to care about a lot of things. And they are the people who have given me this fantastic life. They’re the ones who give me the confidence, the money, the freedom to take chances and do things.

I remember back in 1996 when we started to do these parking lots experiments that led to Zaireeka, that led to The Soft Bulletin, that led to Yoshimi ... [The “parking lot experiments” Coyne refers to are a musical project leading up to the release of the album Zaireeka, where fans were gathered to simultaneously play the different tracks of a given song on their car stereos in parking lots.] You know, this series of years I was constantly in awe of how much people believed in us, and believed in me. And it really has an effect in me. And so I’m always ... I want to know what they think, because I want to know if what we’re doing, if what we think is working, if it’s really working or if we’re just up our own asses and don’t know.

But I also ... I hold to this obligation that they want me to do my thing. They don’t want me to go out there and take a consensus and make the Flaming Lips record that I think everybody wants to hear. They want me to be completely my own design. And they want me to go to outer space ... fucking find some galaxies and asteroids and comets and say, “Look what I found, what do you think?” And so, in that, I think they’ve given us the freedom to fail. And it doesn’t all have to work. “Bring us back these things that you’re doing.” And so we do.

I want them to know I love them. And they want me to know, they say to me, “You’re free. Do whatever your mind can get you to do.” And so I do. That’s why it’s important. I’m not out there kissing ass. I want to do this, but I want you to understand. I want you to be a part of it. I want you to love it. It’s like when you cook Thanksgiving dinner for your family. You want them to like it. It’s about love.

Can you tell me a little bit about “Found a Star on the Ground”, in particular, the Strobo-Trip?

The Strobo-Trip is kind of the modernized version of the Zoetrope. The Zoetrope is a spinning, little series of photographs. And back in the day before they had movies, you would just connect a bunch of photographs, and spin it at the right speed, and it would look like it’s in motion. The Strobo-Trip is like a modernized version of that. It has these little discs that you spin, and it has drawings and illustrations on there, and when you hit it with a strobe light at the right speed, they actually move like a little movie. And they’re like psychedelic, freaky little, colorful drawings and things.

Um, it’s a great toy. We didn’t invent it. We found it, um ... my wife found it almost about a year ago. And we thought it was great and wanted to make our own little version of it. And the people who make it and license it said that we could do this thing. And so we did.

And so the six-hour song initially was going to be something that accompanied you while you played with this toy. You could listen to any music, but we thought, “We’ll make a song that you can listen to this toy with.” And we thought, “Well, how long would you play with this toy?” And we thought it’d have to be at least a couple of hours. And so we sort of arbitrarily arrived at, sort of ridiculously, six hours.

And so we said, “Let’s play a song that lasts for six hours.” And we didn’t think about it that much, but Steven had this composition that he’d been fucking with, that went on for a half-hour anyway. And he was like, “I have this piece of music that really goes by pleasantly. You think it’s gone by for only ten minutes, and it’s gone for more like a half-hour.”

So we were both intrigued by that, and we thought, “Why don’t we see if we can make it go on for more than that, for four hours, or five hours, or six hours, and see if we could make it work.” So that’s kind of how that got started. It starts from a real pragmatic need for something. But one you get into it, you have to surrender to the demands of the music, and all that. And before you know it, you’re making a song that goes on for six hours, and you don’t think that you’re insane.

That’s the deal with all these things. You kind of have to kind of go insane before you can do it, otherwise they all just seem like ridiculous ideas. So when you’re doing this six-hour song, it opens your mind to do the 24-hour song. And it didn’t seem insane at the time. But now that you’re in it, you’ve gone insane, so it doesn’t really seem insane to you.

What do you think you can accomplish with a 24-hour song that you can’t in the more conventional three-minute pop song?

It’s kind of like all experiences. If you’re curious, and you want to find out things, not just about the world but about yourself. You know, some people would ask, “Well, why don’t you just drink one beer?” Well, I like one beer, but what if I want to drink 10? Or 500? You know, you just want to see what it does to you?

And perception with music is a very powerful thing. There is some music that is not the same if it doesn’t go on for a bit of time. There is an intensity at the amount of time that things play. It’s just a different experience. And I would say it’s like that with everything. You’re part of the experience, too.

Like, we fly a lot. And we’re on airplanes, and I like flying. And so I’m always kind of aware of how long the flight is. And last, I think it was September, we went to Japan. And so you’re sitting in a plane for fucking 13 hours. But when you know you’re going to be in a plane for 13 hours, three or four hours could go by, and you won’t really think about it. Because you know you’re in the plane for so long. And just yesterday, I flew up from Dallas to Oklahoma City, and that’s only a 40-minute flight. And the whole time, I’m completely aware of how much time is going by. It seems to fucking take forever. And that is all about perception about where you stand in this ever-moving thing that we call time.

A lot of people say this to me, since we’ve put out the six-hour song and the 24-hour song. They say they were only able to listen to the first five hours of the 24-hour song. ...which is insane! There are some groups, and their whole catalog doesn’t even amount to five hours. And here are some of our fans, who have so much immersed themselves in this, and to only listen to five hours doesn’t seem like they’ve got the full experience.

And I know this isn’t for casual music listeners. This is for people who are deep into music and art and ideas and experiences. I wish every group made a 24-hour song.

How married is this format to new technology?

Well, exactly. There’d be no possible way that this could be pleasant, or even worth doing, if you go back to the time of CDs. You’ve got 70 minutes on a CD, and what are you gonna do? Give people 25 of those? It’d just be impossible. So this way, most of our audience is gonna be able to listen to it through streaming. We have two streams going, of the 24-hour song. They start at midnight, and it goes to midnight the next day. And those are going to go for a year. So you can log on any time, and listen to it virtually for free.
And then there’s a handful of people that have bought these human skulls that have the hard drive embedded inside of it, that they can listen to. But that’s a pretty expensive, weird object to have.

Does the band have any plan in the future to perform either of these?

Well, I don’t think it would be very entertaining to stand in front of any group, regardless of who they are, for six hours, let alone 24 hours. But this isn’t performance music. We’re not playing this for 24 hours. This is a recording of a compilation of a lot of sounds and a lot of ideas to make this something compelling to listen to. I think sometimes people think that we were performing this for 24 hours, and we were performing some of it for hours and hours. But it’s an amalgamation of sounds. It’s not like we were just putting microphones in front of us and singing. It’s made of a billion different parts.

So no, I don’t think we would ever want to torture anybody with something like that. I can see us having experiences that, you know, tie a small group of people in a setting. We put people in a setting and use lights and volume and things to have an experience with a 24-hour song or a six-hour song, but I don’t think we’d want to perform it. I don’t think that would be very much fun.

What would you think of your fans listening to parts of this music and then coming back to the other parts later, like how someone might read parts of a book?

Exactly! That is exactly what I would say to them. That’s how you should look at it. Or you should put it on, while you’re doing something else, which you can’t really do with a book. I would say if you’re carrying his around with you, if you go to a hotel ... put it on one night while you guys are having dinner or doing some drugs or having sex or having a party, and just put it on. I mean, you don’t have to listen to it intensely. I think that’s the beauty of all music is that sometimes it’s just there with you, while you’re doing your thing.

And oftentimes, for intense listening, you really can’t be doing something else. But this music isn’t meant to be listened to like that. It’s meant as the air and the shadows in the room with you, and something is happening. But because it’s so intense, and some of it is so long, I mean there’s a segment of it that goes on for seven hours ... You can’t help but be changed by it. It’s just a strange experience. It’s rarely that you’re around music that does that that for that long.

And like I said, I don’t think it’s for everybody. But I definitely think it’s kind of for people who are like me. I’d want to listen to it and check it out.

Are there certain segments of it that you really want people to pay attention to, specifically, and not have anything going on in the background?

I don’t know. I think we know what triggers people, and a lot of times, especially with Flaming Lips music, it’s about singing. When we’re singing, it’s like, “Wait, hold on. They’re saying something.” It’s like when anybody’s talking. And when music has a lot of intricate changes, it makes you either listen to it or shut it off.

And so, you know ... I wouldn’t say we know a lot about music, but we know a lot about the way our audience listens to music, because they’re like us. So you know, when we want music to go on for an hour, we present it you as something you can handle for an hour. Because it’s hypnotic, and it’s not punishing, and it’s not disorienting, and it doesn’t require your full attention.

And there’s another part that goes on for seven hours ... but it’s very abstract. And it change, and it does this series of chord changes that are slightly predictable, but they’re also very fluid. It’s kind of like watching clouds. You know that clouds are moving, and you know that the sun is moving. So it’s kind of a little bit of a surprise, but a lot of it’s not a surprise. It’s just happening. So a lot of it depends on what you’re trying to do.

So there are segments during the 24-hour song, where we start to sing. And this would be the time where if you’re having sex with your girlfriend ... well, hold on a second, we’re gonna sing to you for a couple of minutes, then you can go back to it.

So that’s what we do. We don’t want to sing to you for 24 hours. We don’t want to demand that you pay attention to us for 24 hours. But we still want to be with you. We are like your friend. Anybody who demands too much attention from you, you want to kill them, you know?

Finally, my friend Allie wanted me to ask you about your peacocks ...

Well, we played a show at this old-fashioned cemetery in Hollywood over the summer. And when I went out there to see how we were gonna set up, and talk to the promoters and all this stuff ... we were walking around the grounds, and they had these peacocks there. And they know that I like exotic, cool animals. And we were walking and looking at them and all this stuff. And they said, “We need to get rid of some of these peacocks. Would you want to take them?” And I hadn’t thought about it much, but they said that when we came out to do this show, which was about six weeks later, they could present us with these peacocks, and it could be part of the show that we did out there. And I thought that was a good enough reason for us.

And so we got two of them. There was a male and a female. And lo and behold, now there’s three of them. Three at the moment, and they all came from this great cemetery in Hollywood.

Do you have names for them?

We don’t have a name for the little one yet, but I think Michelle named the two Freddy and Frida for Freddy Mercury and Frida Kahlo. [laughs] But I don’t think they know their names like our dogs and cats do.

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