Q&A With Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips

The Wayne Coyne profile that appears in the September 13 edition of Westword represents the SparkNotes version of a recent interview. Below, find the original text of our conversation with the Flaming Lips frontman, appearing unabridged and in its entirety.

Coyne talks amusingly and at length about his band’s 2006 show at Red Rocks, and his previous experiences at the famed venue; his long-delayed movie Christmas in Mars (the image here is taken from the film) and the chances of it being completed anytime soon; his views concerning the expectations fans bring to the typical Flaming Lips concert, and his devotion to fulfilling them; the ease with which uncoolness can be transformed; his dislike of the Avril Lavigne version of “Imagine”; a highly unusual high-school graduation video he created and an NPR essay he wrote that championed the decade-plus he spent working at a Long John Silvers in Oklahoma City; and his thoughts about whether the political commentary included in At War With the Mystics, a Lips CD released last year, made any difference in the overall scheme of things.

The overview's fine -- but now's your chance to check out the complete work:

Westword (Michael Roberts): I got a chance to see you guys last year at Red Rocks and really enjoyed the show.

Wayne Coyne: That was with Ween! I think it was one of those legendary shows. I couldn’t believe the audience that showed up. It was stunning, to tell you the truth. We’ve done Red Rocks before. I think that was our second time, maybe. We played there with Cake and Modest Mouse in 2002 as part of a big festival thing. It’s one of the great venues.

WW: When you played last year, there were people on stage wearing Santa Claus outfits – which puts me in mind of Christmas on Mars. This morning, I checked on your website and it said the movie would be out by Christmas of 2003…

WC: It did? (Laughs.)

WW: So either I missed it or that schedule’s been somewhat delayed.

WC: If you kept digging, you probably would have found something that said it would be out by Christmas of 2002 as well. (Laughs.) You’ve got to remember, we began making it in 2001, and really, it’s like a lot of thing. Unless you’re building some city or something, to tell people it’s going to take three or four years, they just can’t believe it. So I think even early on, we believed an element of it, but we were always half-speculating – like, “Yeah, maybe in a year, it’ll be done.” And then once it got to be two years, people were like, “Oh, it’s coming along. You’ve put a lot of work into it.” But there was no way I could have realistically told people it was going to be five years and them really believe me. Now I can believe it, but back then, it would have been too much. We’ve updated the Christmas on Mars stuff in other places, but other places, maybe not. But the second part of what you said there almost holds true. People believe that it’s actually already out! And I’ll take that as well. Eventually, you can see where this will be out, and it won’t really matter if it came out in 2007 or 2005. It’s like any movie. Who really cares when it comes out. Eventually it won’t have this expiration date kind of thing attached to it.

WW: Do you have an E.T.A. at this point?

WC: I do. I’m shooting for late November to finish it. Now, that doesn’t mean it’ll be out. But I think to have it finished and have it running in an order that people can watch it and try to understand it. And then hopefully by next – is it March, when South By Southwest does its film festival? Even if I’m not announced officially, I would hopefully be part of that film festival down there, and even by spring of next year, where it might not be the totally final version of it, but it would be in movie form, where we could all watch it and say, “What is this damn thing?” I almost feel like I can’t do anything else until I finish these two things. Even last summer, we shot the DVD that’s coming out. And we have another HD concert that we were editing even just yesterday. Some of these things, I’m like, “Fuck, I’ve got to finish that before I start on something else.” That’s my biggest dilemma. If I sit here long enough, I’ll think of another cool thing I want to do, and I can never tell how long it’s going to take to finish it, as you know. So I feel like I’ve got to finish that before I can start on something else.

WW: After working on Christmas on Mars for five years, is it something you’re still excited about? Or are you already kind of over it?

WC: I’m very excited about it now, but I think with all art in a sense, when you’re involved in it, it overtakes you, and when it’s not, you’re like, “Why did I care so much about that?” Christmas on Mars, there’s been so many phases of it. In the beginning, you try to conceptualize everything you’re going to do, but before you know it, you’re building a set and doing it a scene at a time. And even editing it, I’m really only doing it a couple of minutes at a time. So in that sense, when you’re doing it, it’s the most important thing in the world. But I also know that when you’re not doing it, that’s really when you can understand what you’re doing is really any good. So at the moment, we’re in between editing yesterday for the HD show and then putting together this series of live shows we’re going to do in September. And I think when we get done in September, we’ll again be immersed in this sort of world of Christmas on Mars. If you call me mid-October, I’ll probably say, “Fuck yeah! It’s the most important thing that’s ever happened!” But right now, I realize it’s just a dumb movie. I’m sure it’ll be great, but you’ve got to have perspective.

WW: You guys have been known for a long time for putting on a show rather than just walking onstage and playing. But was there a time when you just went onstage and played? And was there a first show where you decided to do something different? Where you realized that going beyond just playing added something to the proceedings?

WC: I’m not proud of this, but I do art in an Eastern philosophy sort of way. Whatever I’m doing, I turn that into the art. I know for sure, when we started, back in 1983, if we had a show that was two months away, we’d make posters for it, and we’d tried to do something unique for that show, whether it was smoke machines, strobe lights – whatever you could get away with back when you only had $25 to work with. And then as the times have moved along, there have been different things we’ve done that I thought is this concept of mine manifesting itself, whether it was just in the ways the band would look while we were playing onstage or whether it’s stuff we were doing when we were playing onstage. And for the longest time, I don’t think it really mattered. And what I mean by that is, I didn’t get the feeling the audience came expecting things the way they do when they go expecting to see Gene Simmons spit fire. I think they came and thought, “The Flaming Lips are going to do whatever they want,” and that’s what we did. We moved as kind of a conceptual-music/visual-music entity. But once we started to become a little bit more popular, and people would say, “That’s the band where the guy walks in a space bubble,” or “That’s the band where they play in alien suits” – any of these things that people know us for – I tried to gauge it like, “If they came to see us and they didn’t see these things, what’s the perception there?” So as it goes along, I can understand that if you saw us play Red Rocks last year, you might be like, “Man, you’ve got to see this band! They’re crazy! They do these things! They’ve got these beautiful songs and the audience is beautiful!” And I wouldn’t want you to come and think, “What the fuck is this?” Because if anything, I do want this to kind of be like seeing the Grand Canyon. You want to go and say, “Look how cool this is.” And you’ll see something new about it every time. Your experience will be slightly different. But in the way the Grand Canyon can maintain its majesty, the Flaming Lips should be able to maintain something about what you saw in them last year – and that you can see that again this year, but we can evolve within that so that we can be new without having to feel like we’re some stale product. All that’s true. We get to evolve as much as we want. But we also don’t want to disappoint people who are coming to see those things.

WW: But at the same time, do you want to avoid being in the Gene Simmons position of, “Oh, shit, I’ve got to spit blood again tonight”?

WC: Well, I think probably if you talk to Gene Simmons, in the same way that I’ll say it, I love doing that shit. I love that I get to spray the audience with confetti and walk on their heads in a space bubble. To me, this is like Santa Claus delivering toys. He probably never gets tired of it in the same way I love doing these things. And I don’t look at it as some horrible routine that I have to do. It really is a joy to do it. I can see some artists thinking, “I’ve got to put on the damn costume and go out there.” Whereas we really don’t. We embrace all those things. To us, it’s still a great honor to think, “People are coming out here to see us do this thing.” So I guess it’s all in the way you perceive it.

WW: A few years ago, you had people come onstage in animal costumes, and Westword’s music editor at the time, Laura Bond, was lucky enough to be in one of those suits one show – and I remember her telling me about the smell. There was quite a smell to those suits. (Coyne laughs.) Given the whole furry subculture, it made me wonder: Were those some people who wanted to be in the costumes for reasons beyond being onstage with the Flaming Lips?

WC: There were a few. We didn’t know there was a furry subculture until we started taking our smelly suits out there and realized, “Some of these people are liking this a lot more than they should be!” (Laughs.) But I would never be one to discourage people from doing extreme things. When we invite people onstage with the Flaming Lips, we tell them, “Don’t hurt anybody.” But your time up there is your own. We want you to kind of be a freak. I wouldn’t want to restrict them from doing any of that. And obviously depending on the place and the night, half the kids up there will be on drugs or whatever. We don’t want them too drunk, because if they’re too drunk, they get more rowdy than they get crazy. They can’t contain themselves. But yeah, there have definitely been people who’ve had some sort of sex within the confines of the animal suits while onstage, and some people, as you can probably guess, are blatant extroverts. It’s their show once they get onstage: “It’s all about me, motherfuckers!” And we want that as well. If I can’t outshine some amateur in a Santa costume, I should get offstage. So I welcome the opportunity to go, “We’ve got a bunch of freaks up here. You’re going to like this.” And they’ve done everything they can think of in those suits.

WW: Another thing about last year’s show that I loved was the sing-along to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Coyne laughs.) And it occurred to me that in some ways it was the most uncool thing ever – but in some ways, that very uncoolness made it seem even more cool. Is there a freedom in not worrying about whether something is uncool or not? In just doing what you want to do and having a good time with it regardless of its cool factor?

WC: Well, if we could all secretly have a meeting, and go, “You know, this thing that people think is cool really is bogus, but this thing that people think is really bogus is actually a lot of fun,” we would probably all agree on the same things. So at a Flaming Lips show, we go, “We already know this is cool. If you don’t think this is cool, it’s your problem!” I don’t know why its such a ridiculous secret. That wasn’t the first time we’d done “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but we knew from the very first time we did it – we thought, “Wouldn’t be wicked if a band could go up there and play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and there’d be thousands of people doing the Wayne’s World routine?” As dumb as that is, it really is exhilarating, and it does take quite a bit of musical skill to play the song and perform it. And to me, it’s one of those things where you could go to work the next day and talk about how the Flaming Lips did a lot of things – but even if you don’t know a lot about music, you can say, “We all sang along with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’” and everyone can understand that being a fantastical thing. I try to get at least some reference for people to what their experience is. But that’s a given, that it’s cool. Why there’s some debate about whether it’s cool or not I can’t understand. Although I guess it does depend on whose hands it’s in. And if it’s done with some pretense, like, “Look how powerful we are!,” it might be bad. There’s an Avril Lavigne version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” on that new Darfur CD…

WW: I’ve heard it.

WC: … and in the right hands, that song is moving and powerful and eloquent and all that. But when she sings it, it just sings very trite and very empty. Silly at the same time. And with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it does depend on if the audience has a playfulness about them. If we approached them with the attitude of, “This is serious art, you should shut up and listen,” I think it would fall flat. Like, “Come on, everybody. This is karaoke on a giant scale.” That frees everybody to say, “Fuck, this is cool. This is fun.”

WW: Speaking of fun, last year you delivered a high-school commencement address in Oklahoma where you admitted right at the top that you’d sold pot out of your apartment and then told an anecdote about how a friend was stung in the face by a jellyfish and had to be treated with urine.

WC: Exactly!

WW: That sounded to me like the greatest commencement speeches ever – maybe too good. Have you been asked to deliver any more commencement addresses since then?

WC: Luckily, I didn’t have to do it for real. Because I was able to do it on videotape was the reason I was able to be so colorful. As soon as I was doing it on videotape, I realized, “Fuck, I don’t know what I’m going to say.” So I went through it and told these stories. I was asked by the school: I live really close to the high school I went to, so I don’t think I’d do that for anybody. And it was a horrible high school when I went to it, but now it’s one of the most advanced art and math and music schools in the country.

WW: So it was the right venue for something a little less traditional?

WC: Well, these kids, I see them around town, and some of them have even sat in when we’ve done some of our movie shoots. They’re all interested in movies and art and paintings and videos and stuff like that. So it isn’t just this yuk-yuk kind of we’re-back-in-high-school-isn’t-this-fun kind of thing. I really felt as if these are my kids. They come by my house. It isn’t just that it’s my old high school. It’s more what it represents now – not in a highbrow kind of way, but I’m really proud. It’s a beautiful old building, and I really like the way they’ve kept it connected to the community and stuff. That is harder to do than just have these smart kids go off to Los Angeles or New York or Harvard or wherever and say, “Look, we can excel there, too.” This idea that these kids are from here, and that there’s a school here that lets them excel, and if they like the Flaming Lips, hey, sounds pretty cool to me.

WW: So many commencement speeches seem to be people telling kids what they think they’re supposed to tell them, as opposed to giving them any kind of actually useful advice. It seemed to me that it was much more important for you to be honest and real, as opposed to going up there and wagging your finger at them.

WC: Well, you don’t invite Wayne from the Flaming Lips and expect to get the usual, “Go out there and study hard” kind of thing. I gave them what I thought was what worked for me. I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I didn’t feel that I had to decide when I was 18, and the things that happened to me were what shaped me more than me deciding I was going to be this thing. Your life is a sort of series of experiences where you go, “Oooh, now that I know what that is, I want to do it,” or, “Now that I know what that is, I don’t want to do it.” And that’s especially true of people who are getting ready to go off to college and things like that. How can you know what you like until you’ve tried it? So I was speaking for, “Let’s live life and try things and not be afraid to fail.” And that’s why I think the anecdote about urine on the face failed. Like, “That sounded like good advice, as horrible as it was.” But we’re learning mainly from our experiences, for the most part. As much as it’s all about knowledge, I think knowledge is more, we know how to think, so we know what to do, we know how to act. And I tried to make that connection with them as much as I can. It’s not what you think, it’s what you do.

WW: There’s something of a contrast between that and the This I Believe piece you did for NPR. You talked about your eleven years working at Long John Silvers, and how people might think that job was almost like a horrible jail sentence – but within that, you were able to find a lot of happiness…

WC: Well, it must be easy for me to say, because I’m 47 years old and I get to do all these great things, and I can see my life not being some used-up, worthless thing. But I even said it back in the day. I never saw working at this minimum-wage fast-food job as being horrible. I did enjoy it. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that I make the money I do now. I’d never be able to have this house and these things that I have making the kind of money you can at Long John Silvers. But as an experience, it opened me up to the world. Even being robbed three times while I was there – even that shaped me, helped me to find the urgency in my life and seeing the contrasts of the experience, and the way it shapes you. But the reason I say that so much is because I run into so many musicians who say, “Music saved me. If it wasn’t for music, I would have fucking killed myself. I’d never work at a fucking restaurant. I’d fucking kill myself.” And I’m like, how horrible that must be. I take myself back in time to when I was seventeen years old and working in a restaurant. To have some musician that you really like tell you, “If I was you, I’d kill myself.” I mean, I know for sure, when I was going to see Led Zeppelin and the Who and all these guys, I was working at Long John Silvers, and I thought, “Maybe some day I’ll get to do that, but maybe I don’t. I don’t know what’s going to become of my life.” So even then, I thought, I don’t mind this. At the time, I thought maybe I should have – maybe I was stupid for not despising it. But I found I could still enjoy life. It wasn’t do or die. It wasn’t be a rock star or live some pathetic existence – and I say that to kids now. I say you can work at a restaurant and dream and create. Go for it.

WW: Your most recent album contained your most overtly political material ever, and in interviews at the time, you were very clear that you didn’t think anything you were saying was going to change George Bush’s mind about anything. But in the year or so since, it seems like a lot of other people’s minds have been changed. There’s been a shift where even a lot of people who thought he was the one person between them and the next 9/11 have changed their minds. Do you think that shift had anything to do with people like you speaking out? Or is it more a matter of the Bush administration having screwed up for so long and on such an epic level that it finally sunk in?

WC: I’d love to say because of our fucking song, Michael! What do you think? (Laughs.) But really, I think all art is just a gauge of what most people are thinking, although I’m the one who is feeling it and has an opportunity to say it in a song and can shape it and has all this apparatus behind me to do it. So I think that’s just dumb luck. When we’re singing songs, we’re really just talking about shit in our life – about anything that’s happening to us. And when you go back even two or three years ago, this helplessness, this idea that this is just getting worse and worse. And from the beginning of the Bush administration, it was like, “This is so stupid. Let’s just stand back and hope it doesn’t get too out of control.” And then he wins the second term and you’re like, “Oh my God!” Then you really do feel like you’re involved in this thing. And any time artists have this overwhelming thing in front of them, I think their urge is to paint or sing or make a movie or any of these things you do. But you realize that’s not going to change the situation. It’s just your way of saying, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” And I think the more afraid you are of something, the more you want to make art about it. But it always happens this way. The more art is made about something, the more people become opinionated and brave and they have their own things to say about it. So I think if there’s a song that says, “Bush sucks,” fine, and you can say, “Fuck you, I think he’s great,” or you can say, “You know? Now that you’ve said it, I’m going to join you.” And maybe everyone who’s been saying over the past couple of years, “Fuck, CNN isn’t going to tell you the truth, so I’m going to try” has little by little chipped away at this thing. And the truth is, he’s bungled this thing so badly, he didn’t really need our momentum, did he? But mostly, you just sing what’s on your mind, screaming at the black void in front of you, and whether that’s your own suicide or the country’s suicide, whatever it is that you’re frustrated about, that’s what you sing songs about.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts