The SPIN Interview: The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne

The Lips' 13th album 'The Terror' pokes severe, noisy, brooding holes in Wayne Coyne's reputation for being rock's most fearlessly freaky optimist. But looking back over a 30-year career scarred by drugs, revolving lineups, and participation in '90210,' Coyne plunges into the darkness that he's always fought against

Wayne Coyne / Photo by Jolie Ruben
Wayne Coyne / Photo by Jolie Ruben
WRITTEN BY
Andy Beta

In 1983, two brothers from Norman, Oklahoma —Wayne and Mark Coyne — played a punk show in Oklahoma City with mutual friend Michael Ivins on bass, despite the fact that he didn't know how to play. With that inauspicious start, the Flaming Lips were born. And, outside of maybe Fleetwood Mac, no American rock band has been "born" as many times as they have: Even by their first LP in 1986, Mark had left the band and singing duties fell to Wayne with his gruff and gravelly yowl, a sound which defined the Lips during their acid-eaten, garage-gunk days.

But by 1991, a funny thing happened to the American underground, and in the wake of Nirvana's Nevermind, The Flaming Lips were signed to Warner Bros., beginning one of the strangest and most rewarding indie-to-major label relationships in pop-rock history. With their curious "She Don't Use Jelly" becoming a Beavis and Butt-Head-approved hit in 1993, the band sloughed off its murky, grungey skin for something more candy-colored and psychedelic. Wayne's growl tightened into a cracked, keening falsetto. And by the end of the 20th century, the Flaming Lips emerged from the chrysalis yet again as a wondrous pop act, part Beach Boys, part Bacharach, part Technicolor dreamband. Coyne's songs now marveled at the discombobulating, childlike splendor of the world, full of skewed optimism and hope, even if blood was running down his head and suit.  Oklahoma even named of the Lips' tunes as the state's official rock song.

And with the band's 13th studio album, The Terror, released today, yet another change in the Flaming Lips has manifested. Coyne has found a higher, more fragile register for his falsetto, while the music itself has turned turbid and mesmeric, the winsome pop of their 21st-century work replaced by the punishing repetition of bands like Suicide and Silver Apples. The past year has been turbulent for Coyne, facing blowback from disgruntled Heady Fwends collaborator Erykah Badu and a separation from Michelle, his wife of 25 years (a situation he wouldn't address). Bedecked in his well-worn gray suit with his fingernails painted in bright colors, he held court in the Warner Bros. offices, the sunny, glass-half-full Coyne now counterbalanced by a man who, at times, seems as frayed as his suit cuffs. 

"I sing this wonderful song, 'Do You Realize??' every night on tour," he says. "I talk about it with our fans a lot. I want to talk to people about it. I don't think I really am this utterly resilient, optimistic warrior. When I talk to people, their stories are devastating to me. They sometimes say: 'Wayne, you understand.' And I go: 'No, I don't understand. The music understands.'"

Coyne's current role as the Pied Piper of Weirdness took a 30-year odyssey from gritty punk rock trenches to confetti cannons at Coachella to his current retreat back into deeply experimental waters. To understand how he got here, we went back to the beginning.

Was there a moment after your brother left the band in 1985 where you went, "Now I get to sing!"
No, no. It was never: "Now I can sing." We didn't have any identity that we were satisfied with; I don't even think we do now. Mark didn't like being in the group, so I think it was a relief. By the time he left, it felt like it would allow us to make this kind of music that he didn't seem very interested in. I didn't think that much about being the singer. In the beginning, it seemed very egotistical that it was me and it's "about" me, because later on you realize: Of course it is.

Coming up on punk rock in the middle of nowhere, was it hard to take being in a band seriously?
Yeah. I can't say enough how much punk rock changed our lives. Just the idea that you could just do it. Knowing that there's no way this is going to work, it told you somehow to still fucking do it anyway.

Was the regional nature of hardcore important for you?
That was one of our saving graces. I think of the first time we played at 7th St Entry in Minneapolis. Those were our heroes, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, and then we got to play there where they had played. Most of the places we'd go to, the little blurb about us was like, "And you won't believe it, they're from fucking Oklahoma. So you've gotta see 'em." We didn't think of ourselves as freaks, but that was a freaky thing. Then you go to San Francisco where it's all freaks. We loved it. There were times where we thought maybe we would move there, but part of us thought, "Music is in your head; it's not in a place." Frankly, we couldn't afford it, so we were just the Flaming Lips from Oklahoma.

I still say that I could probably go back and work at Long John Silver's... I get to do my art...but my skill level is working at a dumb restaurant.

If you had moved elsewhere, you probably couldn't be as self-contained as you are now.
That's for sure. Little by little, I became aware I had my own world here. As soon as we could, we bought this giant house that I still live in now. It was a way of saying: "We can always play our music here." No matter what, we know we can be here in the bombed-out part of Oklahoma City. But even back in 2006, we were still building the light show in my backyard. Now we have giant warehouses and stuff.

On 1987's Oh My Gawd, there's this song, "One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning," that was a Pink Floyd rip-off and seemed to be this comment of sorts: As a punk you could play classic rock, but you could never become classic rock.
Punk rock told us you should do what you wanna do and not worry about what's going to be cool or successful. That's what punk rock said to me. We'd go to these early punk-rock shows and we'd have long hair and people would be so offended. Like, "What are you doing here?" You'd admit to people that you liked the Beatles and Black Flag. That's why we liked punk rock, it was good music. We weren't performers. But once we did our first record, we knew we had discovered something within ourselves: "Man, I like making records, that's cool." I think that changed everything for us.

It was really just a way to be like, "How can we get enough people to like us to get enough money to make another record?" We'd make records as a clunky garage-y punk rock group, but not knowingly we were attempting these big musically oriented elements like classic rock. I think in a sense that's what changed for us. We never knew how difficult or possible it would be for us to do that kind of music. That group back then, we weren't musicians. Now it's, like, we should do whatever the fuck we can think of. There's just no limit in the way that you can record. It's just no limit.

You closed 1990's In a Priest Driven Ambulance with your first recorded cover as a band: Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Why that song?
I think that song "Wonderful World" — when we did it, it was at the core of who we were — we loved that song and we really meant what was being said in it. But we thought no one is going to buy that. We pretended and played it as if we were saying it's a horrible world and everybody's fucked. Which is really not what we were about. Whenever we'd play it for people, they'd come back like: "That really touched me." We were like: "Goddamn it, we wanted to be tough guys." We thought we were being tough, but we knew that with the way my singing was becoming, we were ever so slowly embracing that childlike wonder, that vulnerability. We knew we were embracing it, but we wanted to be tough punk-rock guys or whatever. I think singing that song and seeing people's reactions to it was like: "You can pretend to be this 'other' thing, but the music always betrays that." What a great song to show us.

In hindsight, it anticipated what you would ultimately do with "Do You Realize??" which was engage with pop in a wholly sincere manner.
It is. It really showed us this emotion that previously we couldn't access. The beauty of punk rock is that with very little ability you can just do it. But to make emotional music, you gotta have some stuff. I think running into [producer] Dave Fridmann at the time that we did, he had some abilities that we didn't have and running into [early-'90s Lips guitarist] Jonathan Donahue, he had some abilities we didn't have. You know I think that pushed us toward, "Let's do that kind of music that we didn't know how to do before."

It's about expression, it's about emotion. Those are bullshit things to say, but it drives you. If you are just an obsessed freak like I am, it's wonderful. It just goes back to us wanting to make more records. So, for the longest time, anything that we had to do — it didn't matter what it was — if it got us to make another record we would do it. Beverly Hills 90210, a Hyundai ad, whatever. It showed us just the stupid limits people would put on themselves: "That's cool. That's not cool."

You only quit your day job working at Long John Silver's when you signed with Warner Bros. in 1991. What was it like to finally stop?
It never, ever seemed as though you were never not going back. I still say that I could probably go back and work at Long John Silver's. By the time it really happened, the job was such a big part of me, I didn't like leaving it. I liked the escape of it. I'm really just one of those people. I get to do my art — that really is my job — but my skill level is working at a dumb restaurant. And that was acceptable. When people started to get signed to major labels, that started to diminish this other life. Working at a restaurant, you're like, "I don't know if this could ever happen for us; I wouldn't even know what's popular." Luckily, what we were doing accidentally looked like what [was happening] in popular music, and then you move into this stratosphere of, "Wow, now I'm on a major label."

The way money and all that works doesn't feel all that different. You know, I'm not a career person. I'm not going to be a banker or a lawyer or one of those good jobs. I'm going to pour myself into my art. That work ethic really works for us. It used to be everyday was Saturday. Now everyday is like Monday and there are no Saturdays anymore. If you're lucky, you get to stay up late or sleep late, you enjoy life as if it's by your own design. That invisible part of me says, "Man what are we going to do today? Where does this shit come from? Why don't we just watch TV and dick around?"

By 1993, when things really started happening for you, it was a strange time for rock: PJ Harvey, Björk, Beck...
When all that happened, it was really just in the shadow of Nirvana. Dave Grohl is the biggest rock star there's ever going to be; he's even eclipsed Cobain now. He's the spokesperson of all rock. On one level, [Foo Fighters] seem very much a part of our underground world, but one step over and they're part of the big "rock" world. And I think that's perfect. You can embrace them like this underground group, but your friends that like Bon Jovi could like them too, which probably annoyed you. We were very aware: Some of the things we do may sound like that, but we're never going to be that. Even someone like Björk, it never occurred to us that she was mega-successful. She's a weirdo. I think that's just again, 'There could be a zeitgeist.' You're kind of accidentally doing your thing and the world's doing it's thing and you come together. That's just dumb luck.

You had a few members leave over the years, but when guitarist Ronald Jones left in 1995, it triggered a seismic re-imagining of what "the band" could mean.
We would use Ronald for so much of our sound, so when he left it gave us this excuse to be completely different. To be so retarded as to say we're going to do "this": the parking-lot experiments, the boombox orchestra, Zaireeka, to do that and still be called the Flaming Lips, that was the freedom that happened when Ronald left. Because he was so weird and talented, we would have just made more records that sounded like that, got dated, and we probably would have run out of energy. We would be touring 20 years later for "She Don't Use Jelly."

Is that departure what prompted Steven to move up from the drum kit to guitar and keyboards?
When we were making records, he was doing everything, to where we would be, "You can't just be the drummer," and he'd say, "I know, but I'm the drummer." We struggled with these roles we'd set up for ourselves.

Had Steven kicked his heroin addiction at that point?
He was not drug-free until just like a year ago. Recording The Soft Bulletin, at the time, I really thought it was going to be the last record we ever made. I knew how deep into his heroin addiction he was: No one gets out of that. I knew how deep he was. He knew how deep he was. There's only a couple places this can go. I know a lot about drugs and drug addiction. I've been around that my whole life. We weren't kids and we weren't trying to stop it. The Soft Bulletin has this aspect that's like reaching for an answer. It was all because of that. The Soft Bulletin was sometimes done in the stupor of Steven having a "good enough" day: collecting and recording, but only for a little while, because then he's going to have to leave. These were the tracks — "Spark That Bled" and "Race For The Prize" — where the pureness of it was just there. But it was as bad as it can get.

Did his relapse have a big impact on recording and the thematic outlook of The Terror?
During the Heady Fwends collaborations, we knew he was struggling. I just knew it. But this time, he went and just said, "I'm going to make this music and hope I get through it." It was not to make a record. I'm doing so much stuff in Studio A [at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Studios]. And Steven would hole up in Studio B: "Well, I'm going to do music over here because I'm going insane."

Saying, "I'm not doing anything, I'm just dicking around," that's where true expression comes from. The lesson that we learned — and we learned this and then forgot it at least 20 fucking times since 1983 when we started making records — anytime that you veer away from the thing that you love, the thing that's like masturbating, the thing that's like sitting in the corner drooling on yourself, anytime you drift away from that, it really becomes a different kind of art. It becomes about fixing things, arranging things, trying to manipulate things for effect. We like to do that and I think oftentimes we're good at that, but it's not nearly as satisfying as the other type of art.

To make this new thing, we were pretty intensely immersed with getting the Heady Fwends collaboration project all together. Erykah Badu, Bon Iver, Chris Martin, Ke$ha, I got all these great things, but then there was the realization of, "Fuck, now we have to figure out how to fit them all into this record." It's not masturbating, drooling on yourself "art," it's schedules. Let's get this shit done and hope it's cool. So we would retreat to Dave Fridmann's B studio until 2-3 a.m. and we'd do this other kind of stuff that was sad, strange music. We weren't intending to make another record. We were just dicking around with all this stuff that we were making for the Heady Fwends record. But I would hear this stuff and go, "Fuck, that sounds cool. Who is that?" And Steven would go "That's us, dude. Don't you remember when we did that at the studio?"

If it's an expression of your subconscious, one might not recognize the same person who sang "Do You Realize??" on The Terror.
I don't really believe anyone who walks home and says, "Everything's okay." The reason we're optimistic is that a lot of things aren't great and we have to find a way to get through it… I don't want someone to listen and only hear that I'm just some scared old man. Well… I am, but I don't always sing about that. It is focusing on a particular dimension in our minds that this music on The Terror goes towards, which is darker. But at the end, it makes that optimism even more believable.

We were in Australia in January and I swam in the ocean for only the second time in my life. You know you're going to get in there and it's going to be kind of cold and these waves are big. There's a time where you've got to go from being very dry and very warm to being very wet and very cold. But if you get through that, it's a fucking blast and you really feel this braveness. You're in the waves and fighting against the waves. So I think now we're kind of like that: "Fuck you, bring it on, motherfuckers." It's huge and immense, but we're not so vulnerable. It's better to be scared and do it than to be scared and not do it.

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