Flaming Lips ringmaster Wayne Coyne has said that, when creating art, one should “just go for it.” The Oklahoma-based group, which includes founding bassist Michael Ivins and longtime multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, have been doing just that for almost 30 years now. And fans have followed members through every metaphoric rabbit hole, no matter how dubious or absurd.
Granted, gone are the days when they would bring a motorcycle on stage and slap a mic on it as the engine revved, filling the venue with exhaust. But the Lips have maintained that fearless, anything-goes spirit as they prank called their way onto the Warner Bros. roster, scored a breakthrough single with the arty-pop song “She Don't Use Jelly,” recorded two of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last 15 years with “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” and ventured to the furthest reaches of psychedelia yet with their double album “Embryonic.”
Flaming Lips material is expected to be released in unconventional formats throughout this year, including the recent Gummy Skulls, which contain thumb drives with four new songs. In the meantime, their live performances have evolved into spectacles of joyous celebration where the audience is dazzled by manned space bubbles, Day-Glo confetti, pulsating strobe lights and people gyrating in animal costumes.
Calling from Tarbox Road Studios in Buffalo, N.Y., Wayne Coyne comes across as your average Joe, albeit one who has the artistic freedom to explore any eccentric idea that pops into his head. Coyne still live with his wife in the same working-class suburb of Oklahoma City where he grew up. Lately, he’s been spotted hand delivering Flaming Lips EPs to his local record stores.
Style: Who are you working with for the latest round of songs?
Wayne Coyne: We've done three tracks with (experimental hip-hop producer) Prefuse 73 and we're waiting on another track he's going to email us. That's how you do a lot of things these days. You get to work with anybody you want, but it's all done through the computer. It's not as glamorous as the vision of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan sitting in front of a microphone getting drunk, but you can get a lot of interesting things to happen because you don't have to wait on everybody to arrive in the same place at the same time. I live in Oklahoma most of the time and everybody else is somewhere else in the world, but as long as you have a computer it's cool.
What is the benefit of releasing new songs monthly instead of putting out a proper album?
It's like visiting your relatives. If you only visit them once every couple of years, you kind of dread it and you hope it all goes well. But if you see people every weekend then you feel like, if I made a fool out of myself last weekend, I'll be nice this weekend so whatever damage is done I can make up for it. There's always a sense that the music you're working on at the moment is you and is what you want the world to hear. This gap that arrived in our contract with Warner Bros. at the end of last year was either going to be a time where we sit around and do nothing or a time where we fucking do all kinds of crazy shit. I picked the [latter].
Where did the idea for a gummy skull originate?
When we did our first record, we were using this cool-looking skull that I stole from high school. We thought, “Why don't we use a skull again?” We covered a replica skull in pink rubber and sprayed it with bubblegum perfume because I thought it'd be a great thing. Everybody I'd hand it to thought it was bubble gum, so they'd want to eat it. It made me think I should make a skull out of bubble gum and we’d insert this USB drive with music in it. The bubble gum companies didn't know how to do it, so we found this guy in Raleigh that does giant gummy stuff, like worms and bears and things.
So, you have to eat it to get to the USB drive?
My suggestion is to get some of your friends around and eat into this damn thing, get the music out, and have a good time. You have to destroy a little bit of this art to get to some other art, which is keeping with the Flaming Lips philosophy. If we try to make things that are too precious, they end up in a museum somewhere and no one gets to have any fun with it.
Tell us about the new EP with the band Neon Indian. …
I knew we were going to be collecting different weirdos from around the planet to see if they would do stuff with us. Coincidentally, [Alan Palomo of Neon Indian] was in Dave Fridman's studio at the end of January and we were scheduled to come up. We want to do that all throughout these releases, where every other one has some interesting musician attached to it. It sparks another atmosphere and another direction we might not do ourselves. We're going to do some stuff with Lee Ranaldo [of Sonic Youth], and Nels Cline [of Wilco] and there's talk about Jimmy Page doing something later in the summer.
All amazing artists...
Well, you hope. You never know until you do it. We know how that goes. It sounds good going in, but we'll see what happens. We're willing to take a chance.
One song from the EP is titled "Is David Bowie Dying?" Did you mean for it to sound like classic Bowie?
When we started to do the track [with Neon Indian], I was working on a different song called "Is David Bowie Dying?" which had more of a narrative about that specific subject. In Steven's mind, he thought the song we were working on was called "Is David Bowie Dying?" because it has kind of a David Bowie chord progression, which I hadn't considered. So I was working on a song that I knew where it was going and he was working on a song and knew where it was going and at the end of the session, I looked at him and said, "Man, that's cool." He was like, "Yeah, I know, this is that track called 'Is David Bowie Dying?'" I was like, "No, that's not this." I think it had poisoned his mind in a good way, that he was incorporating David Bowie (elements), especially with the voices at the end and all that. I want that to happen. I've worked with Steven for 20 years and the things we are doing are infecting each other. So, it wasn't intentional. The beginning of the song was different, but the way it ended up I think you're correct, it does sound like Bowie, which is a great compliment.
You released the vinyl box set “Heady Nuggs: The First 5 Warner Bros. Records 1992-2002” on Record Store Day. What's one thing that strikes you most about the band back then?
When I hear the records we've done in the past couple of years, I think, “Oh, that's just me.” But when I hear this old group, especially the really old stuff, I'm always jumping up in my chair going, “I love these weirdos! This is fucking insane. Who makes ridiculous music like this?” Frankly I don't remember how we did them or why we did them. It's like trying to remember how you did a drawing or painting. When I hear them, I can see why people would think we were on drugs all the time.
At your shows, do you still try and bridge the gap between the band and the fans?
A lot of rock audiences, they will be looking at the person on stage as if they’re the same person, like, “you are singing about my life.” But with a Flaming Lips audience, I’m fifty years old singing to people in their early twenties. The things that I think about life, the meaning of death, exploring your internal fears, is completely different than someone who is twenty years old and I understand that. That’s why I say, “Let me stand in front of you and tell you my stories.” I’m not you and you’re not me, but that doesn’t mean this can’t have some power. If you’re lucky, you will pursue art and music the way I did and maybe by the time you’re forty, this music will still mean something to you. They can understand that I was twenty at one time and I stand there with them completely empathizing with their plight. You have all the wonderful things of the world available to you, but unfortunately you have all the horrors and pain in the world available to you too. When you’re young, all of those things can be overwhelming.
Do you feel that creating art and music without boundaries helps you deal with this sometimes overwhelming reality?
People who are drawn to music are drawn to it because it does have a sense of giving you answers. It’s giving you faith. It’s giving you understanding of another dimension, some subconscious dimension of yourself. So I think anybody who makes music or does as much in music as I do, would already have that going on. But, I’m still hungry for ideas, hungry for sounds, hungry for another version of myself. When I wake up in the morning, there’s a hundred things I get to do during the day and one of them is write songs and make music and fuck around with sounds and I get to do that and get away with it. It hasn’t always been true of my life. When I was younger, I didn’t know if I would be able to do that or even want to do that into my thirties and forties. But I’ve found as my life has gone on, that’s become my life. I wouldn’t say that if any big tragedy would have happened to me, music could take that away. Music is an invisible, wonderful thing, but it does not compare to painkillers and psychiatrists… it’s just not meant for that. But I think if you’re able to do music, your music will speak about those things. I would say my life has been very pleasant and music has been such a joy in it. It does help you through your existential fears.
You have used sexuality and nudity for videos, posters, and recent live shows. Have you ever been censored or had negative reaction to this imagery?
Well, yeah, from conservative naysayers who think they can tell everybody what to do. But I would say for the most part, if you’re in the Flaming Lips’ audience, you’re not conservative and you’re not a naysayer. Occasionally we do shows where the promoter will say, “Can you not do that?” We know that it’s about the music, but I want people to understand that I am completely free to do whatever I want to do. I’m not abiding by anybody’s rules other than my own. It’s just me doing what I like and I think from watching a Flaming Lips show or listening to our music you have a pretty good idea of what I like.
Have you ever had a malfunction in your space bubble?
There was a time in Manchester, England, where the bubble actually got ripped as I went into the crowd and it went all floppy and deflated. Luckily, I just went and got another and came back out and people loved it. It's like the “Wizard of Oz,” where they see the man behind the curtain. When the gimmicks fail, I think it shows how human and how imperfect we are. Which is exactly why I think the music rises to every occasion, because we are saying in the music that we are not perfect and we're fucked up and I don't know why -- but I still think life is beautiful anyway.
The Flaming Lips will appear at the National, 708 E. Broad, on May 15 at 8 p.m. For information, go to thenationalva.com.