Q&A: The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne On Stephen Colbert, Ke$ha, And An Inadvertent Game Of Telephone With Lightning Bolt
Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne dreams weird and hard and big. What often starts off as a whimsical vision might just end up as a new world record (for the most live concerts in 24 hours) or a limited-edition vinyl release infused with the blood of other artists (as was the case for 2011's The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends). The Lips have an impressive track record of following through on their shenanigans, and that devotion to being endlessly irreverent and self-indulgent (in the most nurturing way) has helped them build a cult-like army of followers. The band has consistently grown creatively, too, its music morphing from scuzzy buzz-bin warmth to orchestral pop masterpieces to hard-edged, highly adventurous psych rock explorations. The band's most recent work, Heady Fwends, was made with people who spanned the gamut of popular musicYoko Ono, Prefuse 73, Ke$ha.
Few personalities are more outsized than Coyne's; when he talks, he uses what seem to be the most directly vague terms imaginable. It comes off almost like a brain-fried hippie having a conversation with a sped-up incarnation of the Dali Lama, but the trains of thought converge into a force of charisma and authority. Coyne has made a scholarly pursuit out of an obsession with examining trivialitiesthe little thingsin the most grandiose way possible.
But he may have met his match in comedian and faux pundit Stephen Colbert. Coyne and the Flaming Lips appear tonight on The Colbert Report, getting interviewed in a decommissioned space shuttle and performing aboard The U.S.S. Intrepid as the headliner of StePhest Colbchella '012 Rocktaugustfest, an over-the-top take on the music festival. During the taping of the event last Friday, the Voice sat down with Coyne to talk about the band's upcoming 30th anniversary, human skulls filled with blood and new music, and an accidental game of telephone that might just have turned into a LSD-filled night.
The last time I saw The Flaming Lips was in London last summer, when the band performed The Soft Bulletin [in its entirety]. It was incredibly emotional at the end.
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That was the thing that would happen with some of those [shows]. You'd start off just saying, "we're playing this music, and its all in order and all that sort of stuff." But when you play for crowds that know every second of that music, and have had a connection with that, you can feel it.
That audience seemed especially grateful since there was a lot of drama. Someone jumped in front of the train going up to the venue [Alexandra Palace] and died, so people could barely make it up there. I saw people, myself included, just scrambling to get cabs anywhere they could to make it to the show.
Wow, wow! It was a great show, and I didn't know about all that.
Speaking of great shows, you've obviously played some of the biggest festivals in the world. This is one is probably bigger and better than anyone you've ever seen, right?
Well... it's good enough (laughs)! It's fun to be invited to [Stephen Colbert's] show, knowing how much he loves music. And it's just a great show, he's so smart. You really feel like he's on our side.
So the band was asked to perform?
I know that some of the people on [Colbert's] staff are always saying, any chance they get, "We've got to get the Flaming Lips here." And we have new stuff out, so it worked out.
Both The Colbert Report and your band have this incredible theatricality, outlandishness, and a kind of charismatic talking head figure at the helm. Do you feel similarities between your band's aesthetic and the kind that [Colbert's] show goes for?
Well, I don't think about it like that so much. Part of Stephen's thing is that it's all a contrivance. And that's part of the dilemma when you're with him. One second you're talking to him, and he's really Stephen Colbert. He's gracious, and he's smart, and its all coming at you, and its in one dimension. And then suddenly he goes into character, and he's confrontational about things that three seconds earlier, he wasn't. So for me, that's always like, "Whoa, wait a minute, I'm just talking with you." And he's so smart, we all get the joke. But for us [The Flaming Lips], there's absolutely no contrivance. It's just, "We are what we are, hope you like it." We perform and we do our thing, but I never thought of it like that. We're pretty disconnected from daily events. I think we kind of live in our own world now. I think I do more and more all the time. On the show, its all current events. And I wouldn't even be able to tell you if Obama got killed this morning, I really don't know. I'm not really watching TV.
Is that a good thing, you think, kind of delving more into your subconscious and your own personality?
I don't think it would be good if I hadn't already had a lot of... there's days [in the past] where all you would do is listen to NPR, watch news. I think I reached a point where its like, I've watched enough TV, I've listened to enough NPR. It was almost like in a day, I'm done with that. And its not because its bad, its not because anybody else should do what I've done. Its just I'm older, I'm 51 years old, so I feel like you can get into this netherworld where you just drift and that's what you do for the rest of your life. And part of me says I don't want to do that. And really, I think it was Anderson Cooper... I hadn't seen him in a long time, but the last thing I remember how its just nauseating how he demands every ten seconds, to update you on the most important story in the world! I started just buying The New York Times every Sunday and saying, "if it's a big story, it will be in there". And if its big, it will still be big next week. I won't need to have an update every 20 seconds. Even NPR began to do that more with some of the oil spill stories and all that. They'd have a news story, and an hour later, "hey we have something on that again". Its like, "leave me alone, I'm working!" You can't bug me every 10 minutes and say "hey hey hey, its important." And I knew that was my fault, that I was addicted to this "what's now, what's now." But really, nothing's now. Who cares.
Your music often exists in its own world, and that's one of the beautiful things about it. But have you noticed changes in your creative output since distancing yourself from the outside world like that?
Well, its probably become more narcissistic, and more about your very small, idiotic bullshit that you think is important. But I think it should! I think when it goes the other way, its not you anymore. I think that's the kind of the dilemma of trying not to be influenced by things. There's so much great shit going on out there, you could literally spend 24 hours a day, every day, searching out new music and listening to it, or finding some obscure piece of music, or an obscure movie. You know, you could literally go one moment to the next, and never be disappointed. So yeah, I think part of it is to just not be influenced, not to be pulled into the new thing. Do your thing. Because a lot of that stuff is so tempting. And we're not above it at all; we're fans of music.
Well you definitely collaborate with so many people, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends being the most recent example. That album might have come off [at first glance] as just a novelty project, but really the songs were above that. How did you put the record together?
Well in the beginning, we were going to take 2011 and try to release something every month. But immediately we thought, well that'd be boring if we just release a song every month, especially if its just a Flaming Lips song. So we sort of started to set the bar a little higher, saying we'll do three or four songs every month, and every other month we would do it with one of our friends or something like that. And in the beginning, we talked to Neon Indian, and they were just by coincidence in the studio that we were going to. They stayed a day later, we went a day earlier, and we had a day and a night together where we did a couple of songs. And so I would just run into people, almost in a panic sometimes. The way I did it with Lightning Bolt was just shear panic. We needed something in about two weeks, which is a pretty short time to think you're going to record, make a record, and get it out. But I really wanted to do something with them, and they were coming through Norman [Oklahoma] to play a show. Norman's about 20 miles south of where I live. So I went down there and they were late for their soundcheck, and in the time that they were latethere's a studio next door, I had a stereo pair set up, and a guy running a Protools set up there. I had gotten someone to call them on their cell phone on the way, and I told them, "Here's what I want to do." They didn't know me, I didn't know them. "So when you get here, when you do your soundcheck, can you not just play a song, [instead] just start to jam. What I'd like to do is, I'd like to take this jam, and make a song out of it, and then I'll send it back to you and we'll go back and forth a couple times."
So some of [making Heady Fwends] was in a sheer, sheer fucking panic of like, "If [the collaborators are] here I can do it." And of course you don't know if they are going to like it or if it's all going to work out. And that's pretty thrilling, to make music that way. To say, "This is what you got, hope its cool," taking everything that you can from it. Even the conversation I had... Lightning Bolt had just gotten done doing their soundcheck, and there was an opening band doing their stuff. And everyone was talking with their ears still blasted from this pretty loud soundcheck that they [Lightning Bolt] had done, and I thought someone said something like, "Do you have that aspirin?" I couldn't remember what he said. And then, this seriously happened, I said, "Did you say you're working at NASA? "
I see you have a NASA pin on your blazer right now, too!
I know, what a coincidence! And I thought he said aspirin, but I didn't'really know. So I said just making a joke, "Did you say you work at NASA? "And Brian [Gibson] from Lightning Bolt said, "Yeah, I have some acid." And the guy said, "No, I asked do you have any aspirin since I have a headache from that soundcheck." So when we were putting the little title on this Protools session, I wrote on there, "I'm Working at NASA on Acid," whatever that title ends up being, just because we had to say something. And so you just use everything you can, because you're not really sitting around thinking about it, saying "wouldn't this be cool, wouldn't that be cool." Its like we were just going. That's what I really liked about it [Heady Fwends]. And I think that's the real reason that I like collaborations, because its like, we're going, lets just go. But it doesn't mean they always turn good. The ones on the record all did.
The range of acts you collaborated with was impressive. Ke$ha's not someone I would really think about listening to with you...
Dude, Ke$ha is amazing. Every chance I get to say it, I say it. She is utterly amazing. Her musicI don't think is as amazing as she isbut I think it will become that. She's a lot of fun.
How much thought beforehand do you put into the things that you say to the audience during the band's performances?
We'll there are things that we do almost every night. There's the thing about "Do You Realize?", knowing that there are people in the audience who are have seen some tragedy. And its true every night. And then there are some nights, miraculously, you have no idea what you are going to say, you start going and it seems like, wow, that's the greatest thing ever. So yeah, sometimes it doesn't really matter what you say. And that' when you can say the greatest things almost. Because you're just there, with people. But no, we don't really give it any thought. I know we've given that part of the show [speaking to the audience] in general, especially what we say before "Do You Realize?", we've given that some thought. Because when you are one of those people in the audience, who, I don't know, whose son has died of cancer two weeks ago, that's pretty heavy. And we run into people every show who come up and say something like that. And you want that. I mean you get great things too, great things happen to that happen song. But its really the horrible things that make a lot of impact on people. So when I say something about it [personal tragedy], it another way of saying "oh yeah, we're not just playing music here, that person's life could be affected by this crowd." And it really is true.
With the 30th anniversary of the Flaming Lips coming up next year as well as a new album, does the band have any special plans?
[For the new album] I think were going to try put together a big, elaborate, everything included... at the moment it's a giant clear block with a human skull in it, that's got a light that you plug in. Its like a lamp, but it's a giant clear thing. That store in Oklahoma City where I can buy the human skulls, it's insane. And I think we're going to put some vials of our blood in there, close to the lightbulb so it kind of burns it up. I don't know, these things are cool to think about, but hard to do. Because we've already fucked it up three or four times. And it would just probably be something that you buy for 5000 dollars, a big giant thing.
And as far your fans and events, anything outlandish in the works?
There's an update of the Fearless Freaks movie that we're going to do that will include new stuff but not get rid of too much of the old stuff. And I think we're going to try and do a 24-hour movie theater experience. There's a movie that's called A Year on Wayne's Phone, where all through 2011, any movie I took we've taken off, and they all run in series, three videos playing at one time on three screens. Kind of like... well I forgot, but there's movies that play like that, where its split the whole time. So there are three of them the whole time, and its just random shit. Whatever I was doing is there. I've watched over four hours of it and it didn't feel like it was that long. And there's nine hours of [raw footage] it. So we had to edit quite a bit of it. But I watched four hours of it and didn't even blinklike, what the fuck! Because I forget all the scenarios by which I made a 20-second little movie.
Let's hope that your own personal mini-dramas are interesting!
Well its just so random, that's what kept it interesting. There's a lot of music, but there's also a lot of other stuff. So I think we're going to try and do something like that, where there is The Fearless Freaks, there's [A Year on Wayne's Phone], and then there's Christmas on Mars. You spend the night in the theater, and you wake up and we have breakfast. Just these events that are not... you know, you could see us at a concert, and yet there are still other thingsits just fun to do things. It's fun to try new things, to do different things. Even as a lot [of what we do] gets into the big rock stuff, we're always working on something new.
The Flaming Lips perform on The Colbert Report, which airs on Comedy Central, tonight.
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