An Interview with The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne
About a decade ago, there was this goofy band from Oklahoma City that scored a hit single with the quirky alt-pop song "She Don't Use Jelly," earning them multiple late-night talk show gigs, even a spot on the trendy soap opera Beverly Hills 90210. The world of music has changed quite a bit since then, but The Flaming Lips not only continue to hang around Ė they have managed to produce two beautiful, inspiring, and challenging recordings in 1999's The Soft Bulletin and this year's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Both albums contain lyrical content of an uplifting melancholic tincture, reminiscent of a certain Beach Boy before he installed a sandbox in his living room, with vivid textures to compliment the message.
The Flaming Lips were on the road this summer supporting Cake's Unlimited Sunshine Tour, along with Modest Mouse, De La Soul, and Kinky. I had a chance meet lead singer and band leader Wayne Coyne backstage before their set at the Greek Theatre on Sunday August 11, and among the clatter of people in animal costumes blowing up confetti balloons with loud air compressors and people moving giant disco balls around in paint mixers, I found some time to probe a bit about the Lips' live show and feature film project, among other things.
Matty Meduri: So Wayne, one question I did want to ask about the band was about how you guys consider yourselves recording artists. How do you adapt what you do in the studio to present it to people in a live environment (The Lips have a huge sound, but usually have just the three band members on stage performing)?
Wayne Coyne: Well, you know, like even in the way like, say Moby or the Chemical Brothers you know, you can see where it's those guys and their recording equipment making records and even when we played with Moby and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1994 I think it was, and Moby got up there and for the most part he played his recordings, but he had a bunch of people banging along with him, he played guitar and sang and did all that stuff. And I thought wow, thatís a clever idea just 'cause he doesn't have to worry about recreating the records with instruments right there, 'cause some of his stuff is just abstract sounds, its not necessarily instruments that you can just play you know, and then seeing the Chemical Brothers do their thing where they really just have a big mixing desk with some samplers or whatever and they have a bunch of video screens and I thought, well, thatís powerful. It didn't matter to me that there wasn't a band playing the music, I just thought thatís a powerful show and this was back in 94-95. And I saw BjŲrk do her sort of show and she obviously is a great singer and performer, but she did a show where it was basically her and all the music was sampled and I thought, well that could work, and obviously bands like the Beastie Boys who do it all the time. They have some things where they play drums and all that, and they have some things where they just rap and the music just plays. And I thought, well, what we're doing isn't something new or hasn't been done before, but I started to think of the way those people were presenting their things and I thought, I'd like to be able to do that, instead of spending years making our recordings then going out there and just throwing it together as best we could; I mean I think it had worked for the most part, it's what all bands do, but it just got a little unsatisfying after a while, I really just sort of addressed the idea of what we do, we make records that are interesting, hopefully, to people, and when they came to see us play, they really wouldn't recognize the songs sometimes. So I thought, letís present our ideas to them again; (laughing) I'll pour fake blood on myself and do what I have to do to entertain them you know. I kind of draw the line, when I'm making records I think of myself as a recording artist, and when I come out here and put on a show I think of myself as an entertainer, and thatís my job. And I'm not saying that I'm right and they're wrong, I'm just saying a lot of artists, they never stop being artists, They think, well, I'm an artist, so I might have some weird idea, like I might want to paint this room or something, well I'm not like that. When I go to do art, I'm an artist, but when I'm not doing art, I'm just a guy. When I'm doing this, I'm an entertainer; I show up and I'm here to do a show.
MM: And to have a good timeÖ
WC: Yeah, and sure there's art involved in it, but the art is already done before we get here. All this has already been tried and tested, you know, it's made to work. It's like if you went to see a movie, you could say that there's art up there, sure; there's ideas, there's motivation, there's intention and all that, but by the time that movie's played a hundred times in the theater, it really is just a vehicle for entertainment, and that's kind of what we think of ourselves as, we're a movie that you can talk to. (laughs)
MM: So tell me about the movie, Christmas on Mars.
WC: Well, we've done so many music videos and I think everybody, little by little, gets the idea of, you know, music videos and movies are so close to the same thing because, you have to set up lights and have a crew, and you have to sort of set up scenarios. And even when we started to do music videos in 1990, we always thought someday we're gonna make a movie, and you know, you don't think much of it, but little by little, I'd been thinking of an idea how could we make a movie; we would be in it, we could do the music, we'd direct it; it would be just sort of our own homemade kinda thing so at the beginning of 2001 I just thought, man, lets just do this thing. I'd had the idea of Christmas on Mars for a little while, and I just started to shoot it. I've got about a third of it done so far, its gonna be like a 90 minute feature movie, I've got about 35 minutes of it done so far. We're thinking it'll be released on DVD Chistmas 2003, so not this Christmas but the Christmas after that.
MM: And maybe have some screenings?
WC: Yeah, exactly. Take it around to theaters and set up screens and big sound systems and stuff, it seems like it could really work out, I'm pretty excited about it.
MM: That sounds fun. When I first heard about it, I thought it was kind of funny because there was this movie I saw when I was a kid, and I can't remember the name of it, but it was a really poorly done movie about Martians that abducted Santa ClausÖ
WC: Yeah, I know what you mean, I can't remember, it's like Santa Claus Vs. The Martians or something like that, yeah. I haven't seen it, but everyone that has talked about it says the same thing as you, that it's so badly done. I mean, parts of it may be charming, but parts of it are just unwatchable.
MM: Yeah, it drags in certain parts, but itís just fun to see a cheesy Santa Claus surrounded by Martians in a 50's-esque sci-fi approach.
WC: Exactly, and I didn't know of that when we started, but even though that exists I still feel like itís an idea that can be unique even though its similar to other things, but you know, I don't want to make a movie thatís unwatchable like that. I want to make a movie thatís compelling, that has a story, something that you like to watch as opposed to something thatís torturous like this thing, maybe, that you were talking about.
MM: Yeah, Well, there were parts of it that were bad, but they're generally fond memories I would sayÖ
WC: There you go, and maybe its absurd, I mean I hope that my movie is absurd, but I hope that it's really entertaining at the same time.
MM: Thatís a good way to approach it
WC: Well, a lot of people do art films, and they are arty if you like to study films, but I don't want people to have to study my film, I'd like them just to sit and watch it and enjoy it; just like it you know, eat popcorn and have a good time.
MM: The things you talk about in your songs, especially with The Soft Bulletin and even with the new album, they seem like really deep concepts, but the style strikes me as if they were the observations of a little boy looking at these things that maybe a little boy wouldn't understand.
WC: Well, yeah, I think in some ways, it is that sort of fairytale storybook format that we kind of set a lot of it in, You know, itís meant to seem like these things that I'm in awe of, or these things that I think are wondrous things, I try to sing about them like I'm seeing them for the first time and maybe that enthusiasm and me being in awe will make the listener kind of feel like, "gosh, you're right," that there is awe in that even though it's things that we could perceive everyday and I think it has more to do with the tone of my voice and the melodies we like to sing in, as opposed to me thinking that thatís a thing that I could actually present, because I think you get the music and my tone of voice, 'cause I'm not a very good singer, so it always gets a little bit quirky up there, it always sounds a little bit like Bobby Brady or something. So there's an element that does sound like children's music sung by Tiny Tim or something ridiculous like that.
MM: Not necessarily children's music, but that attitude like you say, that aweÖ
WC: It is that attitude, and it's true. And I don't do it in a kind of unrealistic way. I try to be enthusiastic about these ideas and I think it shows, and especially, you know, music really is such a powerful format, people forget sometimes how music just does stuff to you that a story or anything else just can't do. Music really sets up a whole magical sort of atmosphere right there in your head almost instantaneously, you hear music and lyrics that go together and it just builds a little story. I know that music has that power, I mean, not necessarily our music, but all music has that potential. But I'm lucky that the tone of voice that I like to sing in evokes that in people, ícause it could go the other way. Sometimes people could think I can't sing very good and it's annoying to some people, but I'm lucky that it resonates with some people instead of making them ill or something.
MM: I hear you're somewhat of a storyteller, you have any you'd like to share with me?
WC: Well, I'm not necessarily a storyteller that's just a solo storyteller; my songs are all kinds of stories of sorts, I mean, everyone likes a good story. You say here's a guy and something's gonna happen to him, and something happens and you go "oh, that was worth listening to" but I really didn't have a story prepared, I mean usually I'm singing a story or something. Well, there's this story about today, we're thinking about playing some shows with Beck. He called me, I was coming down I-5 from San Francisco and he was waking up in Detroit, and he had just gotten done yesterday evening playing banjos with The White Stripes, so thatís a good story, and some guy was driving him around town in a 1987 Camaro and it broke down in some horrible part of town, which in Detroit, you know, can be pretty decrepit. And someone had to come give him a ride or something, and he called me today while I was driving down I-5 and through the marvels of technology while I'm still driving down the road, I'm talking to him about some story that happened to him in Detroit yesterday. Itís a crazy world, I mean, people think, "well of course that happens all the time" but sometimes you stop and think about it and I'll be doing interviews with people on the cell phone in the van driving down the road and they're in Iceland or someplace. It's pretty bizarre. Itís a weird world we live in. I don't know if that's what you meant by a storyÖ
MM: Thatís exactly what I meant.
WC: That's about all that happened to me today though. We drove here, we're blowing up balloons in there (the dressing room), we've got a couple of new animal costumes, we've got a Panda and we've got a Turkey tonight. That makes altogether we have the Pepto-bismol Pig, the Fuzzy Frog, the Leopard, the Dog-Bear, Michael (Ivins, bassist/multi-instrumentalist) and Steven (Drozd, guitarist/drummer/synths/backing vocals) are Rabbits, and the Turkey and the Panda tonight.
MM: It's gonna be a fun eveningÖ
WC: Yeah, I'll be like the Dr. Doolittle guy, I'll be the guy, there'll be a bunch of animals around me and I'll throw shit at the audience and throw some blood on my head and sing these little fairy tale songs, hopefully, and we'll see what happens.
And the show did not disappoint, there was even an extra elephant in costume helping spread the joy and the confetti to all the seats of the Greek Theatre. The Flaming Lips are currently on tour with Beck. More information can be found at www.flaminglips.com.
By Matt Meduri