Interview with The Flaming Lips
by Matt Keefer
Frontman Wayne Coyne approaches the tour at his own pace.
Few could predict that an indie punk group from Oklahoma City would have such an innovative presence in the music world. At 49, Wayne Coyne and his quartet of space-a-delic freaks, including bassist Michael Ivins and drummers Steven Drozd and Kliph Scurlock, have earned a Grammy, covered Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety, and toured relentlessly across the world. Currently on tour for their first double-album Embryonic (excluding Zaireeka, their 1997 four-album experiment), the self-deprecating Coyne delivers about the not-so-glamorous side of touring, as well as about future projects.
Matt Keefer: Thanks for your time. Do you mind if I record the interview?
Wayne Coyne: Sure. I don’t expect you to write it all down and remember it. I’m not doubting your ability to remember, but, see, I just talk. It might be a lot easier for you to say, ‘Nah, that fucker goes on too long.’
M: At 27, being 49 seems like a long way to travel.
WC: I remember when I was 27, I would think about someone who’s almost 50 years old: ‘Dude, are you alright?’ I don’t ever get the feeling that I’m any different. It’s only when I look in the mirror sometimes that I think, “oh wow, I look like a weird old guy.” I don’t feel different to myself. It’s a strange phenomenon.
M: How’s your tour for Embryonic going so far?
WC: We’re never really on tour for very long. We’ll go out for maybe about ten days, play some shows, then we’ll go home for ten days… we’re always doing everything at the same time. Since we’re playing some shows in the summertime, you always run into other groups, and we ran into a group, Trombone Shorty, just last night. They’re almost into their third consecutive month of playing. That can beat you down. I already did that several times – when I was your age – and it can be such a mind-fuck, you’re so torn away from your life that you’re trying to build, the people that you knew. Like I said, I’m 49 years old, and the other guys, they’re not as old as me, but they’re not in their early 20s. I think they don’t want to be taken away from their families and their lives for that long. And you can almost go endlessly the way we’re going. You can almost never stop, because we’re going full-time. Doing the Flaming Lips tour is kind of like working at Target: it just kinda is. It’s not too hard, you just get up and go to work.
M: I know some musicians that have kids, and touring must be rough on them.
WC: Especially for musicians. The reason I say musicians is that they have a sensitivity about them, or they probably wouldn’t like music. And all these things that play into human dramas and emotions are just a little bit more, either enjoyable, or a little bit more painful. Sometimes I think groups try to say ‘we’re going to play for six months straight,’ and then take three years off. You know, that’s easy to say, but a lot of things happen to people in six months that you cannot reverse. Especially if you have young children. Six months, they’ll be completely different little creatures by then. We don’t want that. We want to make our music, do our performances, do all these things because we love what we do, not put one thing that we love on hold so we can have another. We want to have it all at the same time.
M: On the positive aspect of that, do you have any good tour stories?
WC: (Laughs) I don’t know, a lot of times there’s not that much crazy shit going on. When we played at Bonnaroo about a month ago, you play into the night pretty long, and there’s a lot of young people there that are doing drugs and stuff. So those [gigs] always play more into the good old rock and roll stories. After we got done, it was about ten minutes after three in the morning, I went over to the LCD Soundsystem stage, where they had just started their set – and I sort of Tweeted about it the day afterward – but this big, naked guy sort of attacked the stage. Me and, what’s this comedian’s name, Aziz Ansari? – this giant, freaked-out naked guy, had to be doing some acid or something, simply attacked the stage, and we sort of had to hold him down until the security guards could take him away. It was a very strange, charged moment, where that doesn’t happen to you every day. You know, where you’re suddenly assailed by a 300-pound, naked guy, and he’s all sweaty and he’s drenched. That’s probably the last phenomenal rock-and-roll moment that happened to us.
M: I guess at that moment you’re glad that you pump iron five times a week.
WC: I don’t do that much, but I do yoga almost every day. So, yeah, you’re glad that you have energy and you can react and you don’t feel intimidated. I know you’re saying that jokingly, but I mean it. To be in a group, and to do all these things; you wouldn’t want to do it if you don’t have a lot of enthusiasm. So yeah, I jumped right to task. We didn’t really want to. The guy was very strong but he was pretty slippery, because he was so sweaty. The slipperiness made it impossible to grab him. It’s a good trick. If you’re ever going to run from the cops, strip yourself naked and be slippery.
M: Sure. I should probably carry some cans of grease, too.
WC: (Pauses) Then their only solution is to tase you.
M: You’ve also toured Europe and around the world. Any places you’ve enjoyed outside of the US?
WC: It’s all pretty great when you’re a group like the Flaming Lips. Most everywhere that we would go nowadays, we’re invited to play by a group of enthusiastic ‘freaks.’ We just recently went to Croatia, and we played the Glastonbury Festival (in UK) and got to see Snoop Dogg, meet Mick Jones from the Clash. Hang out with Damien Hirst. There’s a lot of great things that can happen to you simply because you’re just traveling the world all the time. But the other side of it is that you spend a lot of time in airports and on airplanes. Sometimes you get done playing at two-o-clock in the morning, and you have to get to the airport at four-o-clock in the morning. Running from one show to the next, everything is ‘hurry hurry hurry’ all the time. Sometimes I think it’s too many experiences. It’d be like having to eat twenty meals in one day. There’s just no way you can enjoy all the things that are happening.
M: Do you have anything new on the horizon?
WC: We’re always – I don’t know if ‘contemplating’ is the right word – but you’re always considering new musical ideas, new things that you want to play into. We’re always doing little movies and little videos. I just shot an ending of a video for a song on Embryonic called “See the Leaves”. We were shooting this guy on the north side of Oklahoma City who has a big acreage where he’s burning a bunch of his brush that he had chopped down. So we saw this giant fucking bonfire. We shot for an ongoing piece in our storyboard there. So it’s always a kind of combination of everything: new music, and new movies, new videos, new things for our website, new toys, new t-shirts. Everything is a Flaming Lips creation. The great range of things that you can do readjusts your focus on music.
M: Last question: Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a brief appearance as a frog on Embryonic. Would you consider a fuller collaboration with her?
WC: These are definitely collaborations of a sort. I don’t know. For me, I’m more comfortable doing these types of collaborations, where I have the song written, and I have the arrangement, and I just simply call Karen and say ‘All you have to do is be you, and I’ll do all the work.’ A lot of artists don’t really want to collaborate in the sense that people think they do. The art is a lot of times just made very intensely. You simply say, ‘I like this and I don’t care what you think.’ That is in a lot of ways how art is made. And when you’re collaborating with someone that you love and admire, the way that I was working with Karen O, it’s not so much a collaboration, as it’s me giving her a format for her to be her pure self. And that’s different than us writing a song or writing lyrics or writing an arrangement together. So, I don’t know. If whoever called me up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this,’ I would always be open for it. I’m open to new experiences and new failures or successes. But I could understand how a lot of people wouldn’t be. It’s nerve-wracking; it’s not always very pleasant. I try to make ours as easy, as quick, and as pleasant as possible. They simply can do this little thing, and be part of this bigger thing. That’s why most artists would want to do it in that way, more than a ‘Hey Henry (Rollins), why don’t you write a song today?’ A lot of people will do that to us. I’ll say ‘not really, but I will, if that’s what we’re doing.’
M: You’re definitely right: you talk a lot. But it works with interviews.
WC: (Laughs) I know I paint it like it’s going to be torture, but I’m trying to give you as much a lay of thinking about me as you can. Make me sound cool.
The Flaming Lips will be playing on 10/10 in Austin, TX. You can buy tickets here.