After a dozen-plus years working at Long John Silver’s—and more than double that making music, movies, and sundry visual conceptions involving disco balls, balloons, parking lots, and human hamster balls—Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne turned 49 in January, effectively rendering the Oklahoma City resident a pop art pirate facing 50.
His psychedelic rock band’s latest release, The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing the Dark Side of the Moon, serves as a family-style treatment of the Pink Floyd classic released when Coyne was still a pre-teen glomming onto his older brothers’ record collections. One recent morning, oft-interrupted by Dazey, a stray yapper adopted into the four-structure compound he shares with his wife, Michelle, Coyne posited and philosophized on both his current mindset and other mile markers along the course of a sonorously singular life and career.Here are some excerpts.
Oh, man, when I read obituaries . . . Sometimes you’re going through the paper and you just go, “I wonder how old these people are.” I often run across people who are just dead for no apparent reason. They were old, and they were only 51. And I’m 49, and so I think, “Wow, I guess if I was in my 20s, I might think being 49 is pretty old.” But, you know, once you get there, it doesn’t feel like you’re at the end of your youth, in a way.
As you get older, you try to find more and more examples of people who are older than you who still seem to be alive and smart, you know. And so when you were 20, you looked ahead to people who were 30, and you said, “Well, they don’t seem to be as pathetic as I assumed.” And as you get to be 40, I think you look ahead to 50. I have older brothers—I think my oldest brother is seven years older than me. I’m not the youngest in the family, but I’m close to the bottom of the youngest, so I’ve had my older brothers being in their mid-50s, and I think, “Damn, you’re cool.”
I don’t think anybody who isn’t just a complete egotistical idiot ever does anything without a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. I mean, as many records as we’ve made, it’s always treacherous. You just don’t know, ever. You never really feel like you know what you’re doing.
This must be something like being the cook in the kitchen. You know, you put all the stuff into it, then you simply go to the dining room and eat it. And you can still remember all the experiences of making it. So as long as I can remember the state of mind and all the things that I was doing when I made the music, it doesn’t feel like someone else’s music does to me. But little by little, your mind gets full of other things, and then you forget what you were thinking about when you created this thing.
The Soft Bulletin came out in 1999, so it’s quite an old record by now, and if I don’t listen to it for a while, sometimes someone will put it on and I’ll think, “That’s just amazing. What the fuck is that?” And people will say, “Dude, that’s The Soft Bulletin.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah. That’s cool,” because it’s just not that familiar in your mind all the time. Even though we play those songs live, it is a different mindset than just simply listening and enjoying music.
With some of these tracks from our first records and stuff, there really isn’t any reason to talk about them or remember them. There’s no pictures of us, you know, in the studio making them, and they’ve really become very small, abstract things, so that when you hear a piece of music, you’re like, “Wow, I don’t remember who I was when I made that.” But in a way, I think all that’s wonderful—I mean, when I hear that early stuff, I’m so relieved that we were not some refined group of musicians. It’s a ridiculous concoction that we even existed at all back then, and even a more ridiculous concoction that we made that music then and are able to make this music now. And to me, that’s where it seems wonderful.
You know, those things that you do when you’re 12 or 13, that really is a strange, powerful moment in your life. There’s a lot of people I talk to who, you know, what they’re doing when they’re 12 and 13 years old is almost who they are now. And so I’ve always been strangely aware of the power of that time in my life. And I think it’s because of my brothers. Yeah, I have parents, but I have so many brothers and all their friends and everybody pulling you along as you’re being an insecure teenager. And you have to imagine growing up, especially at that time in the ’70s, being surrounded by rock ‘n’ roll and all this stuff—there’s just no way you couldn’t have thought that that was going to be the greatest life ever.
You just wonder if this thing that you’re doing, if you’re really any good at it. And even being good at it, does the world care? I have all these guys, not just the guys in the group, but a lot of people who work for us. You know, it’s a big responsibility. And you understand how much all this teeters on just your dumb ideas. If the world likes your ideas, 25 people get to make their house payments and eat this month. And if they don’t, two years from now, this will all disappear. And so maybe that’s very empowering, but, like I said, it’s worrisome.
We don’t have any children—me and my wife—and so I suppose if I had these other markers, that could be both kind of satisfying but also sort of accepting of, “Well, dude, you’re getting older.”
I have more access to doing my music and art and all these bullshit things that I do. I’m so surrounded by it all the time that, you know, what you fear is that you’re going to be this old curmudgeon, this old, demanding curmudgeon that everybody knows is a fool and you’re the last one to know that. And maybe, secretly, that is what’s happening. But I don’t feel like that.
If you’re curious about things, that’s great, but being curious with no desire or any energy leads nowhere.
I mean, I don’t ever long to be that guy that I was. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure I remember who I was, but I’m perfectly satisfied saying, “This isn’t some bleak, strange world I find myself in.” I love this world. You know, all the mysteries that have been solved only show me that there’s a million mysteries yet to find. The beauty I’ve seen in the world only opens me up to seeing more beauty out there.
I understand that, you know, you die. We all are going to die. I mean, it’s all right there with us. But I think you become more aware of it. I mean, in just the past couple of months, we’ve had some friends of ours commit suicide. You become more aware of—you know, people’s lives start to pile up on them.
I don’t know that I think about it more than I used to. I think I’ve thought about death quite a bit ever since my father died in 1996. You know, you become acutely aware of how temporary things are. But I have to say, when I was 17 years old, I worked at a restaurant and we were robbed one night, and in the moment that we were robbed, it seemed certain that I was going to die. I mean, I lay on the floor with giant guns a-blazing in the back and just thought, “Well, this is it. This is how you’re going to die.” You know, it was a powerful amount of time to be suspended in that other-world thing: “This is how you die.” And I have to say, when I didn’t die—obviously, I’m here now—when I didn’t die, I never realized until then that I had been alive. I know that sounds retarded, but I had never realized that I was alive.
And so I think when I was 17, I jumped for joy and I said, “Oh, my God, I am alive.” And a lot of things that I feared seemed silly to me after that. I mean, they didn’t stay silly—you creep back to the way that you were—but it took quite a few years before I thought of all the petty insecurities that had mattered to me. And so I think I was very lucky that I was shown, “Dude, you’re alive. Don’t worry about it. This could be so much worse,” or “This could end. You should go for it.” And I was lucky. I didn’t ask for that jolt. And so I think I had that and I think it altered a little bit of my inertia of what I wanted to be and become. And I thought, “Well, what do I have to lose,” you know? And so in a way, I’ve considered death probably since then, but if you’re lucky, you consider it and it shows you how great the world is as opposed to how horrible it is. I don’t want to say that death is this wonderful thing—I don’t think it is at all. I think it’s brutal and it changes people and it’s too powerful and it is almost always bad, more bad than it is good, but it is with us.
You don’t want to just spend your days doing things, saying, “Well, the art is the only thing that matters.” And so I surround myself with people that I love and care about and have fun with, even if we’re going to make shitty art. When you’re young, you think all that matters is the creation, and you’ll destroy and you’ll fight and you’ll do whatever you can to make these great creations. And I don’t do that at all—I don’t think that ever works. I would rather make bad art and have fun with my friends and family and do this wonderful life than sacrifice all that and say the art was all worth it. And I know Neil Young talks about that. He’ll say the music is all that matters. Well, it’s not to me. I mean, music matters a lot, but it doesn’t matter more than the people in my life and relationships and being kind and caring about people. So, you know, to me, I’m so relieved and so thankful that people love our music, but the idea that I get to love living and making it and all that is more important.
The Flaming Lips play Central Park SummerStage July 26 and Terminal 5 July 27. Both shows are sold out.
“Given that black folks make art and market it within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, none of us can ignore the reality that any black person who wants to create a product with mass crossover appeal must do some serious soul-searching”