Different Flavored Skulls: An Intimate Chat with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne
In speaking to PopMatters about the creation of the Flaming Lips' latest edible piece of insanity, frontman Wayne Coyne reveals how he turned mistakes into opportunities, gives much love to the major label he's signed to, and remains unshakably upbeat about what's next for one of the greatest bands working today.
Talking to Wayne Coyne is exhausting.
It's not that the enigmatic frontman of the Flaming Lips doesn't have anything interesting to say, but rather the opposite. Ideas come quickly, like an enthusiastic machine gun. There are many reasons why so many people love the Flaming Lips -- their unhinged pop aesthetic; the sheer massiveness of their sound; their theatrical live performances; their weirdness -- but if not for Coyne, none of that would even exist. He's an otherworldly motivational speaker, a psychedelic soothsayer, a court jester who felled the king and took the throne for himself.
I could say that it's an interesting time to be a fan of the Flaming Lips, but that's always the case. Their history includes explorations in sound (the four-disc Zaireeka and its associated parking lot and boom box experiments), B-movies (Christmas on Mars), and the exhilarating day-glo expansion of the tent revival approach to building a collective experience (pretty much every live show they've ever played).
But in the age of the digital download, when artists and record labels are scrambling to figure out how to get music fans to actually pay for music, the Flaming Lips just did what they always do: they got weirder.
Early this year, the Flaming Lips released "Two Blobs Fucking", a descendant of the Zaireeka days that was a single song divided into 12 separate YouTube videos meant to be played simultaneously. It signified, at least in part, the coming year of odd releases. And when you're as odd as the Flaming Lips, that's really saying something.
They've released an EP with Neon Indian, performed shows paying tribute to their own classic albums and put four songs on a USB inside a novelty item called the Gummy Song Skull. They've rarely let a wild idea go unchecked, unrecorded or unreleased. And they did it all on a major label.
If Warner Brothers isn't always an active conspirator in the bizarre shenanigans undertaken by Coyne and his fellow Lips, they're certainly willing cosigners. In fact, Coyne says, his experience with Warner Brothers is considerably different than the stuffed shirt shitstorm indie hopefuls are always scornful of.
"I think a lot of major labels get a bad rap from unknowing portion of bands who have, I guess, had a bad experience with them," says Coyne. "But most of the people that we've dealt with at Warner Brothers, even previous to being signed there, were all about being creative and being unpredictable and doing new things and being, you know, absurd and being unique. All these myths about major labels wanting to take you and normalize you and put you in a mold, I mean we've never experienced that, otherwise we would not want to be at Warner Brothers. The people that signed us ... the woman that signed us signed Van Halen, signed Dire Straits, signed KD Lang, signed Devo. You know, the people that we signed the deal with, there was a guy that signed Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols. I mean, that's pretty extraordinary. These are not conservative money-oriented people. These are people that loved music, and when they brought the Flaming Lips to the label, they were like, 'We found another part of our story. We have another Frank Zappa. We have another Captain Beefheart. We have another Jimi Hendrix here,' and I was like, 'Wow, amazing!'"
Coyne added that the relationship between the Flaming Lips and Warner Brothers has reached the point where the label will often allow the band to follow their own path outside of the artistic realm.
"Warner Brothers is arguably one of the biggest corporations on the planet, you know, and they deal with in-depth, to my liking, sometimes bullshit entertainment strategies," Coyne says. "They're a big bureaucracy, and something I can do in ten minutes, sometimes when they get involved -- and they know this -- will sometimes take ten months, simply because there's a lot of people who have to sign off on something. Back in the day, if we wanted to do something that had a budget of half-a-million dollars, well you'd have to get 200 people to say, 'This is cool,' and that takes a long time. That's a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of desks things have to go through. Lucky for me, they have a lot of money, and if I'm patient enough, I can make that work for me."
That goes beyond the decision-making process, as well. According to Coyne, many of the Flaming Lips' projects are completed with almost no label involvement at all.
"Nowadays we don't really need them to give us money," Coyne says. "We just can say, 'We know how this shit works, and we are going to move ahead on this.' When we made that Neon Indian record that, I believe it was March when that came out, we recorded it and in six days actually had a record in our hands. When I asked (Warner Brothers) how long it would take, they were like, 'Well, if you can get the music to us, we can get you maybe a demo, a master that you can listen to in six weeks,' and I can't take six weeks. I just started to say, 'Well, I'm going to find somebody who can help me do it quicker and better and not so much bureaucracy.' And I didn't know if it would be three weeks or if it would be four weeks. I tried to get it overnight. And so I found places that can do what we want them to do quicker. And they wanted that.
"We've been doing this for almost 30 years now. We made our very first record ourselves back in 1983/1984. It would be difficult for someone young who was just getting into it to do what I'm doing. I have a lot of people that want to help me do cool shit that have been doing cool shit for a long time. That being said, some of it is that we can just move a lot faster without the giant machine of Warner Brothers being dragged along with us, you know? So they want to find ways to be more immediate and to be more current and to be more spontaneous. But it's difficult for them, because they've got thousands of people that have to sign off on shit, for better or worse."
The Gummy Song Skull was devised in a similarly independent way.
"We knew that we were going to do these objects, and I'll give you the quick, you know, fast-forward version," Coyne explains. "Our very first record that we made had these versions of these skulls on them, and when we knew that we were going to get into this self-imposed indie version of ourselves here ... we never have any fucking ideas, and so we fucking panic and say, 'We'll use the skull again! That's what we did in 1984!' So I bought some skulls, some plastic skulls at Urban Outfitters, and we just started to play with them in my shop.
"We started to think of like objects that would represent whatever the Flaming Lips represent. And we were dipping them in rubber and plastic and doing shit with them. I ended up with this pink rubber skull, and my wife has some pretty exotic perfumes and has a perfume that smells like bubblegum. So I sprayed a pink rubber skull with some bubblegum perfume. I have parties at my house all the time, so people are over here doing drugs and shit, and they were fucking with this skull, and they said, 'Wayne, this skull is made out of bubblegum, can we eat it?' And I said, 'No, you can't. It's made out of rubber even if it smells like bubblegum,' but it gave me the idea to make them out of bubblegum. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a fucking bubblegum skull?' Well, we tried to get it made out of bubblegum, and no bubblegum company could figure out a way to do it. But in this process of trying to find a bubblegum place, we stumbled upon this gummy guy who's out of North Carolina who makes giant gummies. We called him and said, 'Would you like to make a skull out of gummy with this?' He was a Flaming Lips fan, so bam! You can fast-forward to where we are now with these things that are so elaborate. But without him being a fan, and without him being a freak and without him being ambitious and without him wanting to try new things, this could take a year. We made the first skull ourselves; we believed it could be done. Having a lot of experience and just being lucky to find likeminded people with skill who have a great thing they're doing that can sort of enhance what we're doing, you've just got to get lucky."
There's also room in Coyne's world for mistakes, especially as they often lead somewhere unintended with the end result something potentially more special than the original idea. It all stems from Coyne's unabashed optimism.
"To me everything is an opportunity, from the size of the box that it's going to be in to the way it's going to smell," Coyne said. "It's not just, 'What is the music going to be?' All dimensions of things are an opportunity for you to say, 'Here's what it could be.' So when we started to think about flavors, part of me was saying, 'Can we make a brain that's marijuana-flavored?' and your imagination just goes wherever it goes. When I said that to (the North Carolina gummy guy), he said, 'Yeah, let me try that.' He sent me samples of his hemp-oil experiments and some of them failed miserably and were too oily. When people are willing to try, especially in the realm of art ... you've got to know that if you can't do weird shit in the Flaming Lips, it's going to be a bad world. We are willing to try and see what happens. Part of it, too, is aesthetic. When you see a skull that's red, you've got to think, 'Is that strawberry? Is that cherry? Is that blood-flavored?' There's a lot of things it could be. But you kind of want it to be, not an obvious experience, but to play along with it. So, I don't know. All that stuff to me is another opportunity to insert your will of the world on it."
The malleability of a Gummy Skull could well represent Coyne's own flexibility when hurdles suddenly pop up.
"If I'd have been stuck on saying, 'It must be bubblegum, godammit,' we would really be in a pickle," Coyne said. "Part of it is that you're not rigid with your ideas anyway. Our movie that took seven years to make, Christmas on Mars, I think in the beginning you have a lot of ideas of what you want to do, and some of them work and some of them don't. And I would say even the very first scene that I shot, I was using the cement factory that's on the south side of town here, and I spent months getting this scene ready. It was in an abandoned cellar of the cement factory, and it was filled up with water, and I was going to have this space guy emerge from this water, and we were going to add computer effects to it and it was going to be a big hallucinogenic thing. And the day that I went down to film it, the motherfucker who owned the place didn't tell me, he had it pumped out. I went down there and all the water was out of it, just kind of like out of nowhere. And I was like, 'What are you doing?' And he said, 'Well, I knew you wanted to use this place so I'm getting it ready for you,' and I said, 'Dude, I've been getting ready for a month with this water.' We just had to fix up whatever we could do now that the water wasn't in there, and fill it up with smoke and lights. But I would say that it turned out a thousand times better than if the water had been in there. I think for me it's just this idea that you cannot be set. You can say, 'I always have ideas, and they're good if they turn out good,' and that's all you can say. Your ideas are always failing and exploding and turning into another one all the time."
But when your brain is firing full speed every minute of every day, the realities involved in making your dreams come true can sometimes be a bit of a bother, too.
"These devices that kind of take some manufacturing, you kind of have to get a little bit ahead of the game, which to me is just a mindfuck," Coyne said. "You're always living in the moment, but you have to project ahead and think, 'Fuck, we've got to get that thing going.' It's kind of like planting grass. It's like, 'I want that hill to be green.' Well, you have to plant the grass now so a year from now it'll be green. It's always those types of dilemmas."
But for all the Technicolor imagery and sensationalism surrounding the Flaming Lips, it all stems from the music. For Coyne, that means tapping into a feeling he experienced nearly 35 years ago.
"It's hard for people to relate to this now, but when I saw The Who in 1977, they were to a lot of people not at the peak of their power," Coyne recalled. "But I think the night that they played in Oklahoma City, they were having an extraordinary night. And they had giant laser beams and they had their great energetic freak out show. Pete Townsend was probably at the peak of his peakness. Moon was playing, and they were loud. I mean, I was only 15, and it was like a religious experience where you feel like, 'They're speaking to me, and they're speaking everybody, and we're all feeling this love and this energy all at the same time.' And it was extraordinary. Everybody that was there came away feeling like we got to peek at some other life. I'd seen plenty of bands before that, and I didn't know that much about The Who -- I was pretty young, and I was experiencing a lot of new music. But I was like, 'Fuck, why doesn't every band play like The Who?' And my older brothers would say, 'Dude, it's 'cos they're The Who.'"
Coyne couldn't be in The Who, but he didn't have to be. Because for the Flaming Lips, a big part of their collective goal is to knock the crowd the fuck out, to have someone's older brother tell him, "Dude, it's 'cos they're the Flaming Lips."
"Having experienced that sort of power, it was like, 'Fuck, that's what I want to do,'" Coyne said. "I didn't want to do music. I mean, I know it's about music. But I wanted to be in a band that got to do that, that did that sort of thing. Not in a band because we'd be popular, and not in a band because we'd be famous. I wanted to be in a band that did that thing. And I'm sure it's connected to that, seeing and experiencing it from the other side. And I'm always putting myself in the audience, saying, 'What are they getting out of this? Does it sound right? Does it look right? Is it powerful? Are we building this momentum? Does it work?' I want the audience to have that thing. When they respond, we feel it too. And I think that's exactly what The Who was feeling that night. They were feeling that energy and that love regenerating itself in the room. That's why they played so fearlessly and so confidently, because they knew as they did it was going to work and make it better."
But Coyne also recognizes that experience is a two way street, noting that much of the energy and excitement comes from even the furthest corners of wherever the band happens to be playing on any given night.
"I don't always feel like we're the ones responsible for it," he said. "I feel like music has such an impact on people that they give it this epic meaning, because it's a personal thing to them so it has no limits of what the meaning can be. You could see where it would be impossible for me to create exactly the meaning that it has. I kind of make the song and you kind of make it special to yourself. I think the more people think that about our shows, the more people are drawn to our shows. They think, 'This will be a special experience.' Our audiences get filled up with people who are willing to have this kind of over the top experience with us, and so when that happens ... if you're kind of a casual person in our audience, if you think, 'I'm just here to get high and listen to music,' and if you're standing next to ten people who are completely overwhelmed by this show, you'll probably be overwhelmed as well because it's just kind of this group thing, this kind of contagiousness that happens when you're in a group. Not to put a negative twist on it, but that's why people are always concerned about riots, because once they start it's very difficult to resist. And that's true in the other sense as well, that we all become one and love each other and can get taken away by something. That's contagious as well. I'm not saying that I'm doing that. I just know that once that starts to happen in the audience, it's easy with the way our music works and the live show and there are so many visuals and all that, that by the end of it, you could have walked in and, you know, 'Fuck, I'm just here to listen to music and get laid,' and then you're like, 'I love everybody, man!'"
And for all the laser beams and gigantic Hulk hands, the Flaming Lips make the greatest impact because of the music. The excitement of recording new music is as tangible for the band in 2011 as it was back in the '80s when they weren't sure anyone was ever going to hear it.
"In the beginning, we always are in a panic and struggling with what we can just to make one song any good, you know?" Coyne said. "And we think, 'Well, if we get one song that's good, in that process it usually would turn into a fucklot of things just because you're being immersed in ideas. I don't know if it helps. If you're working on something and everybody is excited in that time, that's all you can ask. Sometimes we do something we love, and then six months later you hear it and go, 'Oh, that's just kind of ridiculous. Why did we do that?' But you just kind of have to believe in the moment you are wanting to do it. But, yeah, it sometimes gives you a lot of freedom to think, 'We're doing four songs as opposed to one.' And then you think, 'Well, one can suck and it won't matter.' We really do think like that."
That renegade swashbuckling vibe is part of the reason the Flaming Lips veer so effortlessly between pure pop confection and sonic exploration, often within the same song.
"When we made Embryonic, the record that came out a couple years ago, the fact that it was a double-record changed everything for us," Coyne said. "You don't realize how rigid you are. We were thinking in terms of songs, and then we thought since it was going to be a double record, we knew we were going to have this abstract, avant-garde side of it. We'd do a song, and then we would kind of relish the freedom of doing the freaky stuff, you know? After we did that three or four times, I said, 'Why are we fucking with these songs? Why don't we just do the freaky stuff, because that's what we want to do anyway?' And we ended up making a record that was all the other dimension of the record. You don't know what tricks your mind is playing on you, because it's all done in your subconscious. Occasionally you get this insight where you realize, 'We're retarded. Why can't we just do things this way? Why can't we do things like this all the time and not worry.'
"But it's hard, because you're always looking for a system to work on, and there is no system. But if you realize there's no system, you'll go insane. So you always build one no matter what. It's the music as well. Sometimes we make this music, and we forget, 'Dude, this is going to come out in three weeks. We're not just sitting on this.' And to me that's where the real freaky joy is. We're not mulling over 100 songs here and releasing four that we think are great. We're literally making them and releasing them. And it's a wonderful, spontaneous time to be creative. And it's exhausting. Everybody around me is fucking sick of making music and candy and all this shit. But fuck, it's cool."