"To Be Happy in Your Own Life is All You Can Do": An Interview with Wayne Coyne
It laboured for years in production, all while its lead actor was at the height of his drug addiction and the press grew wary of its many delays. Finally, the Flaming Lips' full-length film Christmas on Mars is seeing the light of day, and Wayne Coyne couldn't be happier to talk about it.
As someone who has followed the Flaming Lips closely since the early '90s, I have often wondered what kind of cosmic disturbance or divine intervention has given the Lips a career of such beguiling longevity and consistent creative brilliance. I mean, this isn't supposed to happen, not in an industry obsessed with dollars and easily marketed pop constructs. One can only imagine what stars aligned for a group of experimental psych rockers from Oklahoma City to grow into one of the biggest bands in the world, selling out New Years Eve Madison Square Garden shows, while remaining true to their singularly warped vision. It's great to be a fan, and to see the band achieve a level of celebrity allowing them to perform in honor of the Who at the recent VH1 Rock Honors. As leader Wayne Coyne rolled out on stage in his giant inflatable bubble, I got all warm and fuzzy, as I often do with the Lips' music, realizing that dreams indeed come true, we're all floating in space, and that good art can prevail. PopMatters caught up with Wayne from his home in Oklahoma City, where he discussed fame, optimism and how he created a feature film (Christmas on Mars) of intergalactic proportions in his backyard.
"We started shooting the movie in 2001," said Coyne. "We'd wanted to do it for a long time and we were trying to make it as close to the Flaming Lips philosophy, which is D.I.Y and all the other colorings that come with that, and you really don't know if any of it's going to work, and you really don't know if you're capable of doing these things, or if these things just happen to you. As we've gone on making records and putting on shows, you develop a style, but you don't really develop it on purpose, you just think 'well, we have a style I guess.' When you make a movie, every atmosphere and every word is scripted, and you start to wonder if this thing that people see in us is really something that's in us, or is it just something that's happened accidentally. I think that we're relieved. We finally made it, and it seems very much like a Flaming Lips product. In other words, it seems like the Flaming Lips would be the only people who would make this. In any sense, whether it's good or bad, it's our film ... it's a Flaming Lips movie."
Christmas on Mars is indeed a product of Wayne's bizarre and fertile imagination. Conceived and co-directed with audiovisual technician George Salisbury, Wayne has spent years on the film, constructing much of the Red Planet landscape and space stations in his backyard. Speaking with the gregarious Coyne, it is sometimes hard to keep up as his mind spins at 180 RPMs, but it is impossible not to get caught up in his whirlwind energy. "I really created a small town or place in my mind that I must have inhabited since I was a small child," said Coyne. "The viewer gets the impression, even though it is on Mars, that it's more like a state of mind. There's an abandoned space station, I don't mean abandoned entirely, it's in its phase of being a forgotten outpost, even though there are workers. We kinda get the feeling that it's not a glorious scientific achievement anymore. I can tell you exactly where I got the idea. You have to remember I was born in 1961, so I became a teenager in the seventies. I had older brothers who all took drugs and listened to music and all thought about what the nature of the future would be. I remember there was a lot of talk after we had landed on the moon about what the future of space travel would be. Some of my brother's very stoned and conspiracy theorist friends would tell me stories about how there had already been [on] a mission to Mars and it failed because something happened to their oxygen generator and they all died and it was a big secret that the government was trying to cover up because they didn't want the world to know what a big failure it was."
As Coyne explains, it was these conversations that inspired him to create a story that is equal parts Wizard of Oz, Eraserhead, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, only on stronger acid. "So, it's a space station in disrepair, and there's this baby being born in this weird, futuristic incubator machine and the birth just happens to be coinciding with Christmas Eve," said Coyne. "On the space station, the oxygen generator, like in the paranoid stories my brother's friends told me, breaks down, and there is a strange gravity device that is making the gravity in the station very strange. Those two things conspire on all the crew members and some of them have horrible hallucinations that play out throughout the film. The Lips are all in it as well. My character is an alien super-being that flies around in this strange flying saucer bubble who shows up and is able to fix the generator. Michael Ivins' [the Lips' bassist] character is kind of the quiet, weird, super genius mechanic on the ship who saves the space station just in time for the baby to be born and send them on to the next phase of life on the strange, empty landscape of Mars. That's the plot in a condensed version. It begins roughly around 9:00 in the evening of Christmas Eve and goes until 3:00 Christmas morning. That's the timeline, and a lot of weird shit happens in between."
For the lead character Major Syrtis, multi-instrumentalist and Lips composer Steven Drozd took on the role during a period of life-threatening heroin addiction, one that threatened to doom the film and the future of the band. "We started shooting at the beginning of 2001, which was really the height of Steven's addiction," said Coyne. "That was probably the worst period, it's always the worst just before it ends, because people either die or they get over it. The atmosphere that we were operating in at the time allowed me to say, 'I'm going to do this now, because I really don't know if Steven will be alive in a year or two.' The temporariness and precariousness of our situation at the time gave me the ability to think, 'OK, I've got this genius musician who is willing to give me his time, love and skill and I don't know how long he'll be here, and I don't know how long we'll be in this state of mind where we can do this stuff and I thought let's just take on the world.' Even though I knew we were going to do [2002's] Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, we didn't know it was going to be that record. We knew that we were going to do something ambitious as a recorded piece of music. I also knew that we were going to try and do this movie thing, because we had talked about it for years, and I thought, 'Fuck it: now's the time.' It was kind of like, 'What choice do we have?' You can either live your life and make your art or you can live in fear."
After a desperate battle, Steven kicked heroin and the band released Yoshimi in the summer of 2002 to rave reviews, achieving a synthesis of the band's pop headiness and brazen inventiveness that clicked with the public. The score for Christmas on Mars is a mix of the spaced electronics of Yoshimi, crossed with classical and modern influences. "As it went along, it changed to more of a dramatic score and I think people who know a lot about movie scoring would know it sounds something like Bernard Herrmann or Jerry Goldsmith, and maybe even some Igor Stravinsky," said Coyne. "The track on Yoshimi, 'Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon' was originally made for the movie, because Pavonis Mons is a little spot on Mars, even though people think it's a made-up part of the fairy tale that is Yoshimi. It really is the most elaborate, sophisticated, complex music we've ever made. If you'd talked to me three years ago, I would have said it's not possible. When you hear it, you're like 'Fuck man, that's awesome. I didn't even know we could do that!' It's really satisfying. To try and do these things and know how badly it can go and to see how good the final product is ... it's really a relief."
For a live show comprised of giant dancing rabbits, torrents of fake blood and hand puppets, Coyne acts as a surreal Pied Piper, imploring anyone who will follow him to buy the ticket and take the ride. Lips albums are sonic head-trips, rewarding and challenging, fearless and freaky, with humanity winning out against all odds. "I know by the time we made 1999's The Soft Bulletin, everybody thought of me as a director," explained Coyne. "I have this weird vision and the group and everyone else around me will help us get there. In a truer sense, I think I'm just the most obsessed one in the group. I look at myself and see the obsessed, freaky artist side and then also the rational side that has to follow that up. I could wake up on day and say, "OK, we're going to climb to the top of that mountain!" and the band would say, 'Well, I know we will because you're so fucking obsessed that we won't stop until we get to the top.' The other side to that is that the band might say, 'Wayne, I don't know if we're climbing a fucking mountain or a volcano that's going to erupt the moment we get to the top and kill us all!' I think they know that if I have an idea like that, that I'll pursue it and I think a lot of people want that. They want to know that they're giving their time, love, skill and energy to something they can believe in. I think that people know when they work with me that if I say we're going to do this that it's going to get done. And it may suck in the end, it may not be a good idea, but we're going to do it."
After seven years, Wayne finally did it, and Christmas on Mars premiered last May at the Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington State. After playing at various festivals throughout the summer, the film had it's theatrical premiere in New York City on September 12, and is scheduled to run in offbeat venues across the country into 2009. The DVD is scheduled for release on November 11th, 2008, and the set will come packaged with a bonus CD containing all of the music from the film, but Wayne is primarily looking forward to reviving the spirit of the midnight movie. "We'll take it to theatres, mostly the arty places around America and England," said Coyne. "We're not trying to compete with The Dark Knight, which is a whole different realm of moviemaking that I'm not trying to do. I'm just making a weird little art project. I'll probably take it to rock clubs as well, where I'll take my own screen and my big sound system and everyone can get drunk and smoke pot or do whatever they want as they watch it. I really made it for the midnight movie set. I feel confident that strictly as a movie, even if you knew nothing about the Lips or me or what it's supposed to be about, you'll dig it. I think if you couldn't sleep one night and you turned on The Independent Film Channel and it was playing at 2:00a.m, I think you'd say, 'What the fuck am I watching?!' I think you'd talk about it the next day saying, 'I saw this weird fucking thing that I can't get out of my head.'"
Talking to Wayne, I am amazed that after twenty-six years in the game, he speaks with such joy and passion about his projects. There is zero pretension and absolutely no jadedness. He speaks with teenage zeal and wonder, a 47 year-old man-child who still believes that there are uncharted places on earth waiting to be discovered. "I would say that most of our success, in regards to having a career and making money, is all just dumb luck," said Coyne. "I've been able to be in this rock band for almost three decades and I really have been given the freedom and encouragement to just do my thing, so on an artistic level I never worry that we're not doing the art that we want to do. I still live in the poorest neighborhood in Oklahoma City, but this is where I grew up and I love it. I would say to anybody that to do what you like and be happy in your own life is all you can do. Rock is so much about how successful you are and how much you rule the world. Honestly, as a band we never thought that we would be anything. We never tried to be Number One or be the biggest band in the world, so anything that's happened to us has been like, 'Hey, this is pretty fucking cool!'"