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Catching Up With... Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips

September 3, 2009  |  8:00am
Catching Up With... Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips

There’s little that needs to be said about Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips, but after 26 years and a dozen albums, the veteran experimental rockers keep pushing the sonic envelope and throwing one of the best birthday-party-cum-live-shows on the planet.

In April, “Do You Realize??” was named the official rock song of Oklahoma, but with the October-scheduled release of its 13th album, Embryonic, the band seems prepared to move away from the anthems and pull its messy loud roots to the surface, offering an ambitious double-album that features appearances from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and MGMT.


When Paste caught up with Coyne recently, he was on the flipside of a run of dates in Japan during a long trip up the West Coast to Portland. The oft-suited frontman talked about the open-ended production of the new album, how Barack Obama lets the Flaming Lips make better music and why the legalization of marijuana just makes sense.


Paste: How are the Flaming Lips received in Japan?

Wayne Coyne: It’s wonderful, we’ve played there since the mid-'90s and it’s wonderful. The Japanese people, especially the ones who come to rock shows are very kind, patient, respectful; the shows are always very well done. We played with Grizzly Bear and Sonic Youth and it was just wonderful. Beyonce was actually playing at the same time as us on another stage.


Paste: One of the best parts of a Flaming Lips show is listening to the sing-along. How does that work in Japan? Are they belting it out along with you?

Coyne: Well, no. I mean, we played Los Angeles and Pomona last night where everyone sings along to everything. We get to Japan and we forget that, “Oh yeah, they don’t really do that.” So these songs, instead of them being a big sing-along where the entire stadium is going along with you, they just become these quiet, introspective things where I am singing by myself, which is almost more poignant, especially for Japanese people. It’s this very powerful, little small moment, so, in usual Flaming Lips fare, you take the big disaster failure and turn it into your own success.


Paste: When was the point and time when “Do You Realize??” transformed from this underwhelming thing, like it is on the album, to this thing where you’re like, “Dear God, where’d this come from?”

Coyne: I don’t know, that’s a great question. It just built little by little and every time we play a show, I’ll talk to at least one person who’s used it at their wedding or funeral or something like that, some big significant powerful thing. I think that’s just grown little by little by little, and the song encompasses all these little messages in it… But because we play it at the end of the show, even if you were a person who didn’t consider the song, when you hear the song played with that kind of impact with the audience responding to it that much, it gets seared into your mind.


I have to tell you, when I saw the Who play for the first time when I was 16, I didn’t know all their songs, but the songs that the audience went completely apeshit for, those got seared into my mind. It was like, “That was a song,” and it wasn’t simply for the song, it was because of the atmosphere that was created. So, I can see, not to compare ourselves to the Who, but I can see that thing happening. If you’re just a bystander saying, “What the fuck is this?” it’d be hard to resist that moment, the same way it is for us, as a group getting caught up in that, I think it’s a combination of a little of both.


Paste: Let’s talk about Embryonic. First, the album title: What’s that drawn from?

Coyne: I think a couple things now that we’ve had it for awhile, I think in the beginning Steven just suggested, “Let’s not do a long title.”


I don’t know why, but sometimes we’ll do long titles like Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, or Hit to Death in the Future Head, even Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots; there’s no limit for us.


I don’t know why, but Steven suggested that we try to do one word, and I was like, “All right, I don’t know what the word would be,” but as we started to make the record we had some of these ideas based around the word “embryonic,” like we had talked about making parts of the music where we weren’t going to give a lot of shape to.


I know that we had talked about the word “embryonic,” like, “let’s keep these compositions free,” like you don’t have to know what they are just yet, thinking that we would give them more direction as we went, and then I think, I came up with this cover image. It’s pretty strange, but I think on some level, that woman is embryonic. I don’t know, I use anything I can to build my own 10-dimensional world whereby I can sink into these songs and make them mean something to me.


I don’t know what [the album cover] means, but I’ve made a lot of music looking at that picture, thinking “What is that?” and I think that’s how a lot of art is made: you kind of get in this trance thinking you know exactly what this is talking about, you get in a kind of trance where you can build certain things, now that I stand back from it, I don’t know what any of it means, but I’m hoping the audience, with their own inertia and imagination, will fill in the gaps.


Paste: Walk me through the construction of the album, you recorded it between two places, Steven [Drozd]’s house and…

Coyne: In the beginning we didn’t know really what we were going to do. We’d been using Pro Tools and stuff on the computer since Soft Bulletin, not exclusively, more and more doing that, and you know, that’s not bad or good; you get comfortable doing things that way. Steven’s house was empty there and he had bought a new house, and it didn’t occur to us that we should be a jam band or anything.


We got the drums out and I was playing bass and Cliff and Steven were playing drums at the same time, and we were, in some sense, trying out what it would be like to create a bigger palette of rock group. You know, a bigger ensemble with two drummers, two bass players, or whatever; anything was possible. We set up in his empty house and put one microphone in the living room, just to hear what we had played, not intending for it to be an actual recording, but our instincts led us to redo it, and redo it.


We ended up with these little pieces of jam sessions that were kind of cool, and we initially were thinking that they were to be the blueprint for something we would redo in Dave [Fridmann]’s studio. We went up there and played it for Dave and he’s like, “This is kind of cool just like this and it’s got this crazy energy about it,” and it did sound actually good. Part of that’s just because the guys play so good; I think that sometimes people think that Dave is this magician with recording and he will be the first to say that it’s not about recording, if you play something and it’s got this vibe and energy, the fucking microphone will pick it up. It’s not about the microphone, it’s you. We’re always so aware that there is a process and he gave us the confidence to say, “This shit is cool, and you should turn these into songs and make something out of it.” You know, we’d go up to Dave with four to five of those and he wouldn’t like all of those, but the ones that he liked we’d pursue, and some of those turned out to be the best things on the record.


Sometimes we’d take them to Dave, and he’d be like, “Go into the room and fucking, if you don’t know what you’re doing, find something.” He’s tough like that, he gives compliments but he’ll say that he doesn’t like something, and he’ll make me be the one to stick up for these ideas. He’ll be like, “If you like these ideas, fight for them.” That’s a great way of working, intense self-exploration, which is what we want.


Paste: Do you feel like you have more freedom to explore now?

Coyne: I don’t know, you have to go in with a lot of confidence, but that gets shattered by the realities of the songwriting and creating sound and all of that is an impossible task. Every day you can go in and be like, “This is going to be great,” and by the end of the day you’re utterly defeated; by suppertime you’re feeling good and by bedtime you’re absolutely destroyed.


It is art though; none of it is real. I mean, these are all, if you’re imaginative and creative, you’ll come up with a hundred new ideas. To me, that’s all we’ve ever done. I think we do have more freedom now, because if we don’t get it right, we just keep trying, and I know we have an audience and we have money and we’ve done things that have worked out in the past, and all those things give you confidence.


Picasso would always talk about surrounding himself with other failed paintings while he was painting just to remind himself that, “Eh, shit doesn’t always work out, but just keep going.” One out of every 10 things that you do will be accidentally great and you just don’t worry about those things, you just keep going. None of us think we’re the greatest thing ever, or worst ever, we just keep going… I’m not saying I trust my instincts, but, on some level, you have to work on “that’s pleasing me, fuck it.”


Paste: Does that tie into your decision to make this a double album?

Coyne: Totally. I think we always considered double records were kind of self-indulgent. I mean, there’s one song on the record where we have a six-minute guitar solo. I think with our experience of making records and all, I think we’ve found ourselves, not for the good, trying to get down to the essence of what our music was, you know, “Let’s make a song shorter and more precise,” I don’t think that’s always good.


When we would go on for five or six minutes, I was just like, “Fuck it.” I thought it was cool when we played it... We’d let it, not be so aware of what we’re doing or saying, let us work with whatever hypnotic instinct we can, and it does. There was a lot of that doing Christmas on Mars. There were times where we didn’t know what the music was doing or saying, or the scenes we were shooting, what the meaning might be. Sometimes you’re not sure of what the meaning is, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning. A lot of powerful art can do that. Powerful art has a way of communicating in an abstract way. It’s clear; you just can’t speak about it. It’s cool, and I think that we like music that is unspeakable.


Paste: What was it like to work with Karen O, she’s on two tracks or what?

Coyne: She sings on two, but she appears on a couple screaming here and there. She didn’t know she was going to do that, but I took her voice. The recording we did was for this song “Watching the Planets.” I don’t know why it occurred to us, but we were doing this track and I thought, “This sounds like a song that Karen O would sing,” and we looked at her schedule. You can look at everyone’s schedule online and know where they are immediately. And we knew they were on tour, so we e-mailed her a song. I don’t know if we had her e-mail already, but we had played shows with her, so we made a few phone calls; it’s not like we’re best friends.


Paste: But you know people who know people who have e-mail addresses of people…

Coyne: Right, I could walk up to her and be like, “Hey Karen O,” and she’d say, “Hey Wayne.” So we e-mailed her the song, and she was like, “Oh, this is a great song, I’d love to work on it,” and she said, “Give me a couple days and I’ll go through the song and think of a few things to do.”


I think we called her three to four days later and she was in a hotel in, I think, Milwaukee, and me and Dave do this sort of stuff all the time, where we set up a phone line and he’ll record over the phone and I’ll give direction and she’ll be listening to her iPod and sing at the same time… On the one song, “Watching the Planets,” she’s singing and harmonizing with me and Steven. And then it’s just a big group of us doing a big conquering tribal, you know, chant thing.


Then there’s this song, “I Could Be a Frog,” that, at the end of this session we were doing for the “Watching Planets” song, she suggested that she do more of a freak-out and maybe I would like that for the song, and I said, “Well, yeah, just do whatever you want to do.” But it was so great that I ended up thinking, “I’m going to make another song.” I built this other song that sort of sounds like some version of Sonny and Cher where I’m Sonny and she’s Cher and I sing this kind of dumb love song and she makes these animal sounds in the background and it’s just awesome.


Paste: And the kids from MGMT?

Coyne: They did their first record with Dave Fridmann at his studio, and they’re going to attempt to do their second one. We were working on this song and didn’t really know what it was going to be, but Dave Fridmann was talking to MGMT, and while he was on the phone with them, I got on the phone with Andrew [VanWyngarden] and said, “Hey we have this song, would you guys want to sing on it? And we’ll send it to you?” So, knowing that they were going to sing on it, I just went in and made up these lyrics and this melody that I thought if I could do a song with MGMT, what would it be like? I sent it to them, and I think they worked on it in the middle of the night; I think they started working on it at midnight. I think it’s not just Andrew and Ben [Goldwasser] of MGMT, but their whole group is sort of doing stuff with them, and I think they set up a microphone in the middle of their room out there, and they all ran around it screaming and throwing spears at the microphone or something.


It’s a very inspired track, and when they sent it to us, we literally lined up our track with their track and just let it go. Everything they sang is on there, there’s a very small bit in the middle where they, I don’t know if they were aware of it, but they broke into Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I don’t know if they realized they were recording, but that part we didn’t use But everything else they sent us is there.


In the spirit of what we were doing, it’s calamitous, it’s inspired, it’s freaky, it’s drug damaged, and it’s wonderful… They’re just a lot of fun to just do stuff with, and they bring their imagination to it.


Paste: Have you felt the scrutiny heavier as you’ve been creating this album? Does it bother you that people are always wondering what Wayne Coyne is doing on any given day?

Coyne: Well, you get a little more used to it, in a way it does make what you’re doing feel more connected to the time when it’s created. Even when we made Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, even the late '90s and 2000s, you’re sometimes making music and a year later people are hearing it; you just get used to that.


I would long for the days where you could just make some music and by the end of the week everyone can hear it. In our scenario, that never happens, because you’re making records and you’re marketing them and you’re producing them and it’s a long process, and some of our records have taken years in between.


I was kind of glad that this, especially this new record, has fallen into this new way of...I could make a track now, and in 10 minutes from now, it’s out in the world. Especially the way that these tracks have been released, we’re just now starting to learn how to play them, and the audience is like, “That’s my favorite song, can you play it tonight?” It adds energy and urgency to what you’re saying, what you are doing right now. That I like.


If your mind is active and creative, the things that your interested in right now is who you are, and I tend to like it. I don’t mind the scrutiny… People say you’re great all the time, and that’s nice, but it’s not as potent as people really having something to say, “I like this, but I hate this,” and I think that’s the power of the internet: It lets you have an opinion. I mean, sometimes just because you love a band doesn’t mean you have an opinion. Don’t get me wrong. I love that people love what we do, but I like having it go both ways, I want to know what people think.


Paste: There were some political undertones to the last album. With this album, is there any type of vein that you find yourself coming back to?

Coyne: I’ve been asked that question a lot because with the last record we had things on there that were based off of Bush. It must be some type of invisible compliment by which we feel that Barack Obama has things in control. Now that he’s in office, we can be self-indulgent artists again. To have to be so aware of what you’re saying, when you’re doing things trying to speak about the state of the world, it’s hard because you want your mind to be intuitively free to just babble on about whatever comes into your head, and I supposed Barack Obama has let us do that.


Of course, you’re always aware of war and horrible shit that’s happening in the world. I think that’s what dumb musicians do: They’re like, “Now I have to make a stand,” and now I don’t. Whatever his job is, whatever Barack Obama has to do, he’ll do, and I don’t have to sing about it, and even though I’m concerned about it in my life all the time.


Paste: Have you felt any of your idealism or hope for what Obama has brought to the White House lessen with some of the more pragmatic storms that have been going on in the last months?

Coyne: No, I don’t. I think he’s so smart, and so cool and so realistic, sometimes just to hear him speak, you’re like, “This is what a president is all about.” We’re doing the best we can here, we’ve got good people and bad things happen even when people know what they’re doing, and that’s a world I can accept, a world where… The George Bush world just seemed like, “Oh my god, we really can’t let this guy do whatever he wants.” Eh, you know, maybe we didn’t do anything about it except complain. Obama is awesome and I feel a great sense of joy and relief, whenever I see him on TV talking, I’m just like, “Damn, he’s cool.”


Paste: As someone that’s been involved with independent music for a long time, you’re right alongside with these kids who are just getting their break, what do you see is the biggest problem with the kids coming up now?

Coyne: I don’t know if I’ve seen any problems; I think they’re really doing it with this do-it-yourself mentality. We were really inspired by that early punk rock, especially the early American punk rock with bands like Black Flag, Minutemen and Hüsker Dü that were just saying, “Fuck it, we’re going to make records like we want to,” inspired by the idea that punk rock, to us, in the beginning just meant, “Do whatever the fuck you want.”


It didn’t mean “punk rock” like Green Day. I’m not putting down Green Day, but punk rock has become this cliché sound. Punk rock was the thing that said, “Do your thing,” and I think that now, that thing is always there, you don’t have to sear it into your mind, that you should do what you want, it’s all free and available, everything is possible, and I think that’s a great world.


I think what it says is there was a time when if you weren’t thinking that you wanted to play music full time, well, why even bother? When punk rock came along it said, “You don’t have to be a serious musician. If you just want to make music for six months and make a fucking racket, do it,” and I think that’s going on all the time now. I think that people can just make records in their own living rooms, put it out there, and before you know it, you’re playing the festivals, opening up for fucking Animal Collective.


Paste: Did you like that album?

Coyne: I do… I don’t think it’s the greatest thing ever, but I think that’s the way that music should be, just do what’s in your mind, and I think that some of my favorite music is like that. What I’ve been liking lately is this group called Hearts Revolution, and I don’t even know what they look like, but I’ve got them on my iPod and shit! There’s a band called Cloudland Canyon, and I don’t know if you’ve heard them, but some of this stuff, you get like one or two songs, I call them kids, but whoever these types of musicians and artists are, they’re just following their own, freaked-out vision, and I think the world is a better place for it.


Paste: A bigger question as we wrap up, we’re celebrating Woodstock at 40, and as someone who used to be considered a drug band, and I say that with care…

Coyne: I still think it’s true in a way.


Paste: ...what do you see as the role of drugs in our society, and in our music?

Coyne: From my own experience, which isn’t out of the range of a lot of people across the world, I was talking to the President of Warner Brothers just last night about whether we think that marijuana will be legalized, especially in California where it’s already medicinally legal, I can tell you honestly, I sold marijuana when I was 16. I wasn’t a big-time dealer, but I sold it, and made a reasonable amount for a 16-year-old, but in my mind, I was thinking, "This is 1977. You know, in a couple years, this shit’s going to be legal anyway, what’s the harm?”


Well, here we are, fucking 30 years later, and it’s still illegal. I guess in my mind, I know for sure there are a handful of drugs no one should take. Don’t take heroin, don’t take crystal meth, these things are too powerful, they overtake you and you really have to have a determined constitution not to have those things affect you profoundly, but I can tell you for certain that my whole fucking life, people around me, myself, smart people, everyone in my whole life has smoked pot and it’s nothing. It’s just pot, it’s no big deal, the reason we want it to be legalized is not because it’s good and it’s great but people are curious about it and it’s one of the signposts of exploration in a sort of artistic community.


And what we end up doing is we tell these sensitive kids, that are sometimes 15 years old, “You’ve got to go into this drug infested world to get a fucking joint.” On the way there, someone might say, “Well, here’s some heroin, want to try that? And here’s some crystal meth,” and we don’t want that because it’s too tempting and too powerful. Wouldn’t it be great if the horrible drugs were left on the edge of town with the fucking addicts? You know what I mean? And marijuana was just down there at the shop where you can buy records and paints and comic books and all these other cool things you try when you get to be an adult and you can decide if you like it or not. For me it should be like drinking beer, there should be some responsibility, you have to be old enough, but with the right amount, it’s a great cultural and social thing. I think the time has come for that.


As far as drugs go, what can you say? Music and drugs... The drug experience it’s just another way of having something a little more intense than it really is. I had some guys on our crew last night, taking some ecstasy and stuff—in the right hands, yeah, let them be free.

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