The Hippie That Wasn’t: An Interview with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips have spent the past year doing off-beat collaborations, releasing songs in skulls both Gummi and real, and creating songs that last up to 24 hours. In this extensive interview with PopMatters, frontman Wayne Coyne discusses all of this... as well as his peacocks.
Do you care about the breakups of R.E.M. and Sonic Youth?
Speaking of Sonic Youth, are you sad that they’re breaking up? Either them or R.E.M.? These are two sort of huge bands that have broken up in just the past little while.
Well, I don’t know if we really know the extent of Sonic Youth ... I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything other than Thurston and Kim were not together at the moment or whatever. But I didn’t know if it was totally decided that they would end the group.
I think that would be sad. I mean, I think they’re one of the groups that, though they have been around even longer than we have ... you know, not many groups have been around longer than we have. But they have. And I’ve always thought they are very true to themselves, and they have not stopped being curious and never stopped being interesting. And there is something really valuable about having people making music right now, who have opinions and are saying things and have their own way of doing things.
So yeah, as an entity, if they break up, that would be truly a loss.
And I don’t mean anything bad by this, but for me personally, R.E.M. have not been interesting for a long time, anyway. So I hadn’t thought about how critical it would be if R.E.M. wasn’t around. But definitely, Sonic Youth, yeah.
Just personally, one of my favorite Flaming Lips songs is "The Spiderbite Song" from The Soft Bulletin.
I was just wondering how common it is for you to use real life events to inform the composition of songs.
Well, if you’re lucky, that’s really all you ever do. You know? It’s real life, but it can also be internal life. But I think it gives you a real sense of what you’re interested in. I mean, I think sometimes artists, musicians, or whatever ... you know, they make this mistake that they have to think of things, or use their imagination.
And you do. Everything about you is about your imagination. But it isn’t imagining scenarios. It’s inserting different views of real experience. So for me, when I do a song like "The Spiderbite Song", I sometimes am very self-aware that it’s just a silly little thing that I think I’m interested in. And so I play it for other people, and I say, "What do you think?" And it doesn’t always work. But sometimes they’ll say, "That’s a very unique song, Wayne, that only you would care about." And so then I think that’s the kind of song that we should do. And they don’t always work out, like magical little gems.
But that’s, you know, that’s what I always say to groups ... They ask me, "What should we sing about?" And I’m like, "Sing about what you’re interested in." You know, if some other people are interested in the same things you are, people will listen to your music.
For me, that’s almost the catalyst for everything. Something has happened, or you’ve been contemplating a situation, and it’s in your mind. I think that’s what songs are. The things that are deepest in your mind are the things you want to dream out.
But I think the reason that "The Spiderbite Song" was so embedded in my mind was that it was about Steven. I had thought about it a lot, and ... Steven was a drug addict at the time. And it was a lot of lessons about, "Is this really a spider bite? Is this something caused by his being addicted to drugs?" -- all these things were really heavy in our minds. It wasn’t simply like, "Oh, he got bit by a spider and then went swimming and then got in a car and drank a bottle of diet pop." It was a significant event that started to reveal a lot of things what was going on with Steven.
And so that’s more why it became this song. It was an insignificant, sort of, physical thing. But it started to light a bigger dangerous thing that was happening to him. That’s definitely why, yeah.
So more than the song being about the spider bite, the song is about how it brought about a greater consciousness for you of Steven’s drug problem at the time?
It did. And I think, even when we made the song, there was still a little of ...we weren’t really sure of what was going on there. And I think "The Spiderbite Song" stays interesting, because it’s forever connected to this time in our life, and these things that were happening to him, because he was addicted to heroin.
And so, when I sing that line, "If it destroys you, it destroys me ..." You know, part of it is that we’re not just talking about the spider bite. We’re talking about this deeper thing. And I think that’s probably why there’s so much emotion in it and stuff. We’re really singing it to our friends and ourselves and our life.
It happened to us, you know? And I think that’s what you do in life. You scream at the things you can’t control. It’s like, "What are we gonna do? What can we do?" You know?
Your band is known for its elaborate, visually inventive stage productions. Why are visuals so important to the Flaming Lips?
Well, because everything is important, you know? When you’re in front of people, and you’re asking them to give you money and their time and their love and everything, I mean, everything is important. So we care about the way that we sound. We care about being on time. We care about, you know, how loud we are. We care about the way we look. We care about how bright the lights are. I mean, everything is part of the experience.
And I would say all groups do that. It never really is just about the sound. When you go to an auditorium, it’s about everything. And we just like that. And I’m sure that we are an exaggerated version of all that. We like things to be a little bit more intense. We like things to be a little bit brighter, a little bit louder. I don’t know? We just like that. And we don’t hold back. [laughs] You know, we’ve found that there’s a real dynamic in being to be very loud, because it allows you to be very quiet if you want to. And there’s a real dynamic in being able to be very, very bright, because it allows you to be very small, and dark.
So you know, the expanse of the contrast is what’s available to us. If you don’t have very many lights or very many bright lights, then you can only do so much. But if can make it really bright sometimes ... or if you can use video screens or lasers, and all these little things that are just other little cool moments that happen, while you’re doing this variety of moods and songs and emotions and stuff ...
For me, I don’t like it when it’s just too much of the same. I like it for the song and the mood and the atmosphere all to be kind of be the thing ... And you know, we’ve been playing for a long time, and we’ve been messing with gadgets for a long time, so we do a lot of visuals, you know? But I think all groups do. You’re either looking at them, or looking at their videos or something.
How is your working philosophy between visuals and audio adding to the stage production of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots musical? Is that still happening?
Yeah, it’s still happening. I mean, I don’t really know if ... I mean part of the dilemma of why it’s taken so long is that I’m not really sure I should be involved. I mean, I really love and trust and believe in the director, Des McAnuff. And he’s been involved with hundreds of these things, which have already been hugely successful. He’s one of the greatest directors out there. And I think part of the dilemma is that sometimes we all feel like we’re making it together, to where it’s like, "I don’t really know how to do it." I mean, I know he came to see a Flaming Lips show and decided that it would be great, as a production, so I don’t know.
When me and him talked about it, when we talked about what the productions could be, to me it’s like, "[Let’s do] giant video screens and lasers and, you know, things flying over the audience!" And he said that those things are great ... but to him it really is the emotion. Without the emotion in the songs getting across, all those big things don’t matter. And I would agree with him. I think that’s what’s happening even at a Flaming Lips show. I think that if we didn’t have these songs to sing, and this audience that is so absorbent to its power, I think a lot of those gadgets would be like, "Ah, who cares?" You know?
All that stuff, and when all these things are done, not in the "right" way, but when it’s pushing the emotion along we have this great, exaggerated experience of sadness and joys and triumphs and all that. And so to him, that’s not gonna be the Flaming Lips doing this music. He wants to get these people, these singers and performers, to do this music. And the story, because for him it’s all about the story. And he says, "If we have that right, we can shoot pink lasers out of women’s pussies all day long. And it’ll be great, Wayne. But if we don’t get that right, nothing will matter."
Wouldn’t that be great, though? Pink lasers out of some women’s pussies ... that’d be pretty great.
That’d definitely be a spectacle, yes.
I’d go see that Broadway show. Yeah. [laughs]