ASSISTED BY KEVIN TRAGESER
RETOUCHING BY TODD AT 4C IMAGING
If you’ve never been to a Flaming Lips show, some might say you’ve never lived. Mirror-balls, confetti, dancing characters from The Wizard of Oz and a lead singer charging across the crowd inside a giant inflatable ball are all part of the travelling circus that make up the Lips’ epic performances. Much of that ‘insanity’ is thanks to frontman Wayne Coyne who’s been producing the soundtrack to alternative rock junkies’ wet dreams for a quarter of a century. They’ve released no fewer than 13 studio albums including the legendary The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot, made a feature film, and scored themselves three Grammys. Coyne may be embarking on the golden age – he turned 50 this year – but not in the way you’d expect. The Flaming Lips are cranking out more awesome music, playing more tour dates, working with more artists, and selling more skull-shaped gummy treats than ever before. The Lord of the Rings alumni, music fan and Simian Records founder Elijah Wood was psyched to ask Coyne about his creative process, his recent collaborations and how he came up with those cranium candies. Pucker up Lips fans and read on.
WAYNE COYNE—Hello, Elijah Wood.
ELIJAH WOOD—Hello, Wayne Coyne.
WC—What are you doing today? I just arrived in Boston. There was a thunderstorm and the plane felt like it was going to crash. It’s a phenomenal thing, air travel. Has that ever happened to you?
EW—I’ve been on flights that were pretty harrowing and frightening. After a flight like that you feel happier to be alive because you may have actually averted death. That’s quite a good feeling, isn’t it?
WC—I have to agree with that. Even though previous to the near-death experience you’d rather not have it, but once on the other side of the near‑death experience you’re really grateful you had it. Once we were flying from New York to Washington and a fucking engine went out on the plane and there was a good 25 minutes where you’re just thinking oh my God, we’re going to die, and then it lands and 15 minutes later we jumped on another plane. I guess you think what would be the chances that we’d get on another plane and the engine would fail on that one, too. You almost feel like you’ve been given a get out of jail free card.
EW—So you’re in Boston. You’re still on the tour, right?
WC—We don’t ever think of it as a tour, because to me a tour feels like you’re going to be in Michigan one night and then you’re going to be in Minnesota and Chicago, but what we do is more like you’re in Texas one night and Madrid the next. You jump around, you go to Europe and Asia and everywhere.
EW—So you’re not on buses this time around?
WC—No, we are. We’re getting on the bus tomorrow, and then we’ll be on the bus for the next couple of weeks but occasionally we’ll fly to England and be on a bus there for a week and then we’ll fly back. We’ll drive from Seattle to Texas on a bus; we don’t give a shit about the distance. People don’t realize what a luxurious bunch of self-indulgent laziness you can get up to on a bus. You can lie in bed all day; it’s dark and quiet.
EW—I’ve spent a bit of time on tour buses with Gogol Bordello and you’re right, it’s like a dark cave and you can sleep the day away and then get up and go to your show. You have no concept of where you are at any given time.
WC—But after a couple of dates you don’t really care. Here’s why I think it’s so cosy. This goes back to prehistoric times when humans all lived and slept in caves together. When other people are sleeping it makes you want to sleep and when other people are awake it makes you want to be awake. There’s this urge. We go back to being cavemen – that’s what we really want to do.
EW—And there’s something kind of magical about it as well. You guys have had a pretty incredible year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much work come out of your band so consistently especially with the amazing gummy project and all these collaborations you’ve done. It sort of seems like a crazy creative explosion – what happened?
WC—I think it’s just called scheduling. When you think about people who are art majors in college and they have all this work due on a certain day, it’s amazing how much you can crank out if you have to do it. When given the complete freedom of saying my art is finished whenever I feel like it’s finished, shit can drag on for years and years. Before a band is successful the less they have to adhere to this schedule of release. We’ve definitely fallen into that in the past where it’s like, we might put out a record this year, but it might be next year. And I don’t always think that’s a good thing. I like the idea that we’re going to work now, and tomorrow we’re going to party, as opposed to that nebulous life where you’re kind of working all the time, but not working. When you work on movies you totally see it because everything is money, money, money and if you don’t get this shit done today it’ll be worse tomorrow. I think people in the movie industry understand, more than ever, that now is the time. But I think musicians think they’re in a different world from everybody else and they like this idea of inspiration and motivation but I’m like, “Dude, we’re recording today and whatever it was you thought was going to happen, it’s happening right now.” I like there being some urgency.
EW—I think that’s wonderful and it must constantly challenge you and inspire you because you’re forcing yourself into the schedule of having to come up with material and to work. What was the genesis of the gummy idea?
WC—We’ve always thought it would be cool to do Flaming Lips objects that hold the music but not necessarily as a CD or a download. Around the end of last year I went to Urban Outfitters and they had these plastic life-sized skulls there, and they gave me the idea to use a skull in some way for this next batch of music we were going to do. At one point we thought about making foam skulls that you had to break open. I like the idea of the art being a little disposable; you have to destroy the art to get its full meaning. We tried covering the plastic skulls in this pink fluorescent rubber and we sprayed it with some of my wife’s exotic bubblegum perfume. I had a party at my house and we had this skull on the table and it smelt like bubblegum, and people were like, “Wayne, we want to eat your skull!” So I immediately thought how cool it would be if we made these things out of bubblegum. In the end we couldn’t find anyone to manufacture it but we did find this guy who makes giant gummy things and about five days later we had a prototype of this gummy skull. So it wasn’t as though I woke up one morning and said, “Let’s make a giant gummy skull.” It’s always an evolution of an idea and trying different things. I don’t want people to get too excited, but we’re planning on creating a life-sized gummy skull and inside it is going to be a gummy foetus that you pull out through a life-sized vagina and inside the foetus there’s going to be a USB of this whole collection of music. It should be pretty fucking outrageous.
EW—What’s so great is you guys really engage your fans in an interesting way, especially with your shows. I saw you guys play the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and what was great about those shows was you could buy the tickets for the two nights with the gummy skull and it sort of incentivised the fans to be a part of something special. You’d really curated that space to be a Flaming Lips experience.
WC—I agree, thank you. But it’s like announcing you’re going to do a song every month, we thought wouldn’t it be great if… but then it comes down to really having to do it. Sometimes I wish we could fast‑forward to right after it’s done and be like, “It was amazing!” But there’s this period where you have to make something and I think that’s what’s daunting to most people. For example, when we started to do [sci-fi film] Christmas on Mars I didn’t know how we would do it but I knew we could do it. In the beginning your imagination goes to the extreme, but then you get there and reality reins you in. But those things are difficult and I understand why a lot of groups wouldn’t be able to do it because there’s this protocol of who’s calling the shots? With our group I’m very lucky that I’m the most insane and ambitious, but I’m the guy in charge, so if I say, “I want to shoot lasers out my hands,” no one comes up and says, “Wayne, come on, don’t you think that’s a little dangerous?” Everyone who works with me wants to do something that’s a little bit fun and weird, otherwise you end up treating being in band like a fucking nine-to-five job and everything becomes safe and we don’t want that. We’re given the freedom to do something, so we go for it.
EW—And do you have a team, for all of these ideas you come up with, for instance those laser hands, which are incredible, or do you also create things?
WC—We do now. When it comes to things like lasers and stuff, that technology is dirt cheap if you get it from China and you can mess with them yourselves – not me, of course, the electrician guys I’m working with. They do the laser part and I’ll cut a block of aluminum out and glue them in there. I imagine Chris Martin from Coldplay probably goes to a meeting with people and says, “Here’s what I want.” and then he goes off and fucks Gwyneth Paltrow and shows up later and it’s done. I’m not putting him down I’m just saying that’s probably how it works for him but I want to figure out how things work because the way it works can affect how it can entertain the audience. It isn’t cool because you show up and turn it on; it’s cool because you know everything about it and how it works.
EW—You built a lot of the sets for Christmas on Mars didn’t you?
WC—In the beginning I didn’t intend to. I thought we’d probably get a bunch of filmmakers and they’d help us build sets, but it’s not really like that. I think I was lucky that someone didn’t come in and say I’ll do it for you. All those little nuances of how you put something together shape the way a film works. I didn’t realize that in the beginning but little by little people started saying, “Who’s building your set? That shit looks crazy!” People cared about the sets and I’m not saying it would’ve been generic if I didn’t do it but I started to see how I was shaping everything: the floors, the ceilings, the doors, the clothes, and the music. I wasn’t doing it by myself, but I was dictating everything about it. Have you ever directed?
EW—I’ve directed a music video but I’ve actually never properly directed. I think if I was in your place I’d be doing the same thing. If I wasn’t in there physically building it I would be collaborating with the artists involved in making it, because I can’t imagine directing anything I wasn’t fully involved in. I’ve always wanted to direct because I love working with a team of people, and the idea of all those people working together towards something they believe in.
WC—It’s not unlike a band or a group travelling around the way we do. The dilemma is most art is done by yourself sitting in a corner, basically just masturbating, because you’re doing whatever you want; you have no one to answer to. But then if your art gets big you’ve suddenly got to explain your ideas and deal with people and it becomes this big collective trying to do what started out as one person’s idea. I think it has to become a little bit of everyone’s child for it to actually work and that’s a tough process. The horrible thing that happens to musicians, if they’re lucky I suppose, is that they become popular and are surrounded by 25 people from six o’clock in the morning until midnight and they all have their own ideas. People will say, “Never compromise,” and I’m like, “Are you kidding? It’s all compromise.” You have to be able to see your idea in a million different ways and not be stuck in your own vision. I don’t want to make music by myself. I love having all these other intense people giving me their energy, their opinions, and ideas and me doing the same for them. For me if it’s a compromise it’s for the better.
EW—I completely agree. For an actor it’s the same kind of process. You can’t just go in and do your thing and be singular because you’re ultimately working with another person to create the piece. But the end product is out of your control. As a musician in a band I feel like you have a lot more control with how things ultimately turn out.
WC—But at least actors know it’s out of their control. Musicians always act like if they had everything their way they’d be a big star but we know that’s not true. I think we’ve learned that what we can’t control is where the fun comes in. You always have to be willing to make something that can be blown over by the wind otherwise everything you make you already know what it is and we don’t want that.
EW—I want to ask you about these collaborations with Lightning Bolt, Prefuse 73 and Neon Indian. I want to know how they came about.
WC—I saw Neon Indian last October in Portland, Oregon and we liked their music. We had a night off and they were playing with Prefuse 73. At the end of the night I went back stage, met them all – they’re all fucking cool people making cool music – and I said, “We’ve got to do some music together.” Five months later, I was talking to [producer] Dave Fridmann to schedule some recording time and he said Neon Indian were coming into the studio around the same time. I told him I wanted to do a collaboration with them so he arranged it so we would have a couple of days together to record something. So in some ways it was just serendipity. With Guillermo of Prefuse 73 I send him stuff and he sends it back to me. We both have studios in our houses so we never have to really meet in person… The thing I did with Lightning Bolt was a bit different. I knew they were coming to town to do a show and even though I didn’t know them I like their music and I think they do cool shit. So I decided to go to the venue and see if I could record their sound check. So they show up and agreed to do it. I asked them to just play some open-ended jams. We recorded it, it took about half an hour and an hour later I had a CD of some original Lightning Bolt music. Later, we built some songs around it and Lightning Bolt took it into their studio and built some songs around it, too. I think they believed in my energy and my intentions. There are a couple of other collaborations I think would be great. I have a great track from Nick Cave that I did and I want to do a couple more with him. We’re still talking about working with Jimmy Page and Karen O. I’ll tell people if you can spend five minutes on this, that’s great for me, as long as you put something out there that you like.
EW—I love that sense of trying to capture something as opposed to over-thinking it – that’s what makes it interesting.
WC—That’s what these releases are trying to get at. We want to release things in a different way so we don’t sit here, record 35 songs, and then whittle them down to the 12 we think are great, release those and then regret it. It’s about recording something and two weeks later it’s out. We hope you dig it!