When I met Wayne Coyne in the lobby restaurant of a fashionable Manhattan hotel this week, he was trying to remember the name of a band the Flaming Lips played with at Reading Festival in 1994. They were from the U.K. and sounded like the Bad Seeds, he said, and he’d never given them much thought until their set that day at the festival. Within the first few songs, the singer stopped his band altogether because he’d tripped up, then apologized to the audience for his poor musicianship and started the song again. Coyne previously considered this band to be a little too serious for their own good, but that moment revealed a lightness and humanity in their music that he hadn’t initially noticed, and eventually he came around and became a fan. But he still couldn’t remember their name. After an hour of conversation that circled back to this conundrum multiple times, a representative of Coyne’s record label came up with it: it was Tindersticks.
The point of the anecdote, when we finally got to it, was the abundance of extramusical factors that figure into an artist’s appeal: the album art, the onstage outfits, the personas, the dancing. If it weren’t for Stuart Staples’s flash of onstage humility over a decade ago, Coyne might still think of him as just another wannabe Nick Cave. The Flaming Lips, of course, know the importance of presentation as well as anyone: Over the last decade, they’ve transformed themselves from a melodic indie rock band with a surrealist streak into a full-scale roving psychedelic circus, complete with a Christmas movie, remote-controlled orgasms, and collaborations with huge pop stars. Even if you stopped following the Lips after Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and haven’t trudged through the neon slime offered up on their most recent albums–including the mellow and fantastical Oczy Mlody, out January 13–you can probably call to mind an image of Coyne crowdsurfing inside a giant plastic bubble or onstage next to Miley Cyrus.
Coyne arrived at the hotel in his customary rainbow granola regalia, with a long pom pom scarf and plastic jewels bedazzled around one eye. Over fancy potato wedges and ginger ale, we had a winding talk about music that was utterly divorced from all of this critical context. We surfed Soundcloud and Bandcamp for anything uploaded and tagged “psychedelic” in the 24 hours leading up to our interview, with little to no information about the far-flung performers we were hearing, and found aimless guitar noodling, dreamy Argentinian shoegaze, and a lot of ambient and drone. Read a condensed and edited version of our conversation below.
1. Rose Beatty – “Yolk” and “Intermission”
Coyne: I like it already. If that’s the beginning of a track—I have no idea what it’s supposed to be, but if you put that up, and you’re calling it “Yolk,” I say, “Yeah.” With our rules being restricted, it means we don’t know: are they involved in the Trump campaign? Is this their tenth record? Are they long dead? Did it come out in the ’50s?
2. Sweater Creep – “Howl(er at the party)”
SPIN: This guy has something of a Nick Cave, crooning quality to his voice.
Something, kind of, slightly, [grunts] about it. It’s kind of Radiohead, it’s kind of… who’s the famous singer guy, he had a famous dad, and he drowned? This is like playing charades.
You know what I mean? A little bit of that drama to it. Which, sometimes, I’m like, “Yeah, cool.” It reminds me of a couple things, in a good way. It reminds me of Morrissey, a little bit. It’s interesting—the strange, bashing guitars, and the plinky guitar. The big cymbals. An interesting change in the middle. Sounds like The Smiths and Pavement together, I don’t know. There’s something brave about that.
I live in Oklahoma City, and there’s this other group from Norman. When I would hear their music, I would automatically get a vision of, “This is what they look like. This is what they’re about.” And if I like something, that vision keeps coming back to me. And sometimes, you do actually meet the people, you actually see the group, and that part of it is so repulsively against what you thought was going to happen. With these guys, I found that I still like their music even though I really don’t like them as people. One of these guys tried to steal a projector from me. I let him borrow it, and then he lied about me letting him borrow it.
This is sort of the opposite of you not really considering Tindersticks until their singer apologized for messing up the song.
Nick Cave is a great example of this. Without knowing so much about Nick, and The Birthday Party, and everything that comes with him, it wouldn’t be the sort of music where I’d hear it and go, “Oh, who’s this?” I’d hear it and go, “Jeez, who’s this old dude, croaking along?” But when you know all the stuff about him, his lyrics and everything, once you listen and get captivated by his stories and stuff, it’s fucking amazing.
Any particular record of his, if you heard it without the context, could be its own universe.
Especially the latest records. If you didn’t have any idea: Is this guy 22 years old, or is he 90? Who is he? It would just seem bizarre. Maybe to some people it wouldn’t, but to me it would. But when you’ve followed him all the way to here, especially with some of the atonal weirdness, it’s like, “Alright!” The new stuff is one more notch of, “Fuck, man, we’re really in it, now.”
3. Artistic/Cerebral Musak – “Psychedelic Cowboy Drifts Through the Desert”
I think it’s a great relief to not hate everything. It’s so easy to just, “I don’t care, it’s not worth caring about.” But I think it’s wonderful. I think we live in fucking good times for music. And whether they’re going to the next Beatles, I don’t know. But even this, I’m thinking, “You’re calling that a song? Cool!”
All musicians are struggling with the multi-personality dilemma: If you really love playing music, you probably don’t really love recording it, or doing any of the other things that come along with trying to add personality and stuff to it. It’s always a struggle to find someone where you can tell they know a lot about music, and they’re working on these other aspects of it.
I think of someone like Rhianna, where she’s the figurehead behind a lot of stuff, the production and everything. And in the end, I think she probably digs it. I don’t know the way she works or anything, but when I see her perform—and who knows, maybe she will be this way in years to come—but I never get this frustrated, like, “I have to sing these dumb songs,” or whatever. She’s like, “This is a fucking cool party. I’m glad I’m here. Fuck it.” And I think that changes the way you feel about someone. They’re just embracing what’s cool about it, and not worrying about the stuff that doesn’t work for them.
With what we’re listening to now, it used to seem like, “What a weird life a person must have to make music like this.” I think of groups like Suicide, back in the ‘70s, where it’s like, you’re thinking this is going to be your life. You’re thinking you’re just going to live, doing this as your thing.
Cutting yourself open onstage and throwing blood at the audience.
I’m looking at it, and I’m like “Are you sure?” But I always loved it. They’re like, “Yep. This is my life, motherfucker. I’m hoping to get a car, get some insurance, get a house, and this is how I’m going to get there.” And that takes a lot of balls.
Whereas this stuff we’re listening to is really more like the way we would have made music when we were young: I work at a restaurant, and I don’t foresee people really liking my music, but I have such a desire to make it that I have to make it. And in the void of no one liking it, at least I get to make it, and that fills up the void halfway.
This is the world that we were hoping for! Where the weirdos in their rooms could make music, but didn’t have to stand out there and fight against all of the blows coming at them. Just give us the music, we don’t care about your haircut.
And now, a day after they uploaded it, we can sit here in this hotel and listen to it and talk about it.
I think it would be very encouraging to younger artists to say “Yeah! This guy just put that up there.” When I saw fucking Black Flag and Sonic Youth, I said to myself, “Dude, they’re doing it!” I saw Black Flag play to 20 people. They may play to 1,000 people, but when I saw them, they played to 20 people. We could do that! We’re not Black Flag, or anything, but it lets you think, “Fuck, they’re doing it. Why can’t we do it?”
4. Ron Hambone – Cloud 7
Ron Hambone? If that’s your real name, that’s rough, but if you’ve made that up, that’s… that’s so dorky.
So far I like the guy’s name and album art better than the song.
Yeah, there’s not enough there for us to like it or hate it. It’s in the middle. Dude, I don’t know. It feels too standard, too lazy. Musical enough, but ultimately kind of dull.
But I have to say, I’m not that good of a judge. We’ve known Coldplay since the beginning. We knew them before they even put out their first record. They were always at little festivals and stuff, and someone that was connected with us knew them. They were trying to decide what should be their first single, and they had two or three songs to pick from. Our manager Scott and me were sitting in our hotel, and he played “Yellow” for me, and I was like, “Man, that is dreadfully dull. How is that going to work?” And they didn’t listen to me.
And good for them.
Six months later, without really knowing what was happening with them, I heard the song again. I was like, “I like those guys. They’re cool.” Heard the exact same song, and I was like, “Dude, if that’s not the single, they should make that the single!” And they were like, “Dude, it’s already number one.” And now, I’ve seen them play probably ten times, and when they play it, I absolutely love it. And at first listen I didn’t get anything from it. Your mood at the time colors it a lot.
5. Private Investigators – “Datas End”
This is kind of intriguing. There’s something about music that doesn’t demand all of your attention. That’s kind of an art in and of itself. But this is kind of fun. It reminds me of something Psychic TV would have put out. “That’s our new single, what do you think?” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s the single? OK.”
The Private Investigators—that’s just a dorky fuckin’ name, for this kind of chill, noise stuff.
6. The Relaxation Company – “Days of Heaven”
That’s a fun beginning—the dissolve into the structure. This feels like they’re setting you up. Something’s coming. It’s simple enough, and intriguing enough, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve got the main course yet. These types of musical changes are familiar enough that you’re not like, “Oh man, I could listen to this forever.” We’ve been conditioned to understand that this is how they’re going to set us up for a song. But I don’t know if a song—more than this—is coming.
Well, we’re almost halfway through. It’s kind of an endless intro.
Since we’re inside of a restaurant, I keep using food analogies. They’ve brought the bread, and the bread’s not bad. I wish there was more butter, but at least I’m not desperately hungry anymore. And then the main course just never really comes. And you walk away like, well, we did have some good conversation, and the bread wasn’t bad. But the service sucked, and if they’re a restaurant that just serves bread, that’s weird.
7. Caspar Sonnet / Thomas Burkhardt – “Michlantecuhtli” and “Vucub Caquix”
The album title is “Book of the Demons” in Spanish, I think. Maybe we got some metal. OK, never mind, it’s definitely not metal.
Right from there I’m like, “That’s how you’re going to begin the song? Alright!” It sounds cool. It sounds like a soundtrack to a movie, and we don’t know anything about the movie.
Sounds like maybe they’re coming from more of a contemporary classical, art music perspective than a rock’n’roll perspective. I really like these percussive guitar sounds. A little call-and-response going.
If I ran into that again or something, I’d go, “Oh yeah!” It leaves an impression on you. The fact that the title is what it is, and the music sounds like this, is interesting.
I think we did pretty good. We walked away saying, this world, where you can just put stuff up there, is working. Seventy percent of the time when we went in randomly searching for music, we were having fun. That’s a pretty good night out.