Wayne Coyne, musician, The Flaming Lips
It’s not a record – it’s a revolution that’s inside your head that you have to either get through or you don’t. We’ve been through it, and if you keep trying you’ll get through it too ...
When it comes to artists who do it all, Wayne Coyne is right up there as one of the hardest-working people in the business. Best known as the frontman of rock’n’roll band The Flaming Lips, Wayne has spent his entire life creating in some way, shape or form. A prolific career with his band has seen the release of 15 albums over about 30-odd years, not to mention collaborations with artists like Miley Cyrus and Kesha. Known for his larger-than-life personality and wild stage productions, Wayne has fostered a reputation as a true entertainer. The Flaming Lips will be coming to our shores to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their landmark album The Soft Bulletin, so we caught up with Wayne to chat about living in the land of freaks, keeping people interested and how to find hope in the world.
You’re a pretty prolific all-rounder when it comes to the arts, but people would probably know you best as the frontman for the Flaming Lips. Would you say music is your biggest artistic passion or do you think it’s just the avenue that people connect with the most?
It would definitely be the thing. I think it’s true of all the arts – whatever you’re doing, you want music to go with it. If you don’t make the music that goes with it, you get someone else to make the music that goes with it. I just go ahead and make the music because I don’t want to get up there and do a painting without music, or a movie, or an installation, or cook dinner, or live very much life! When I was like, 15 or 16, I started to make music because I liked it. I never thought of visual art and music as being separate. I’m not a musician in the way that Steven (Drozd) is – he’s a master musician and I am a creative musician. I think that urge to create – I don’t think it cares. It’s like, making a song? I’ll do that. Making a painting? I wanna do that. Making a sculpture? I wanna do that. It just doesn’t have any boundaries, and so I just do all of it because I can. I think all artists would say the same thing – if you don’t have music with the thing, you want it to have music.
Did your upbringing influence how you approached your art?
The way that I grew up with my crazy, great, lovely, big family, there was always music playing – drums, motorcycles, just crazy living. I spent a lot of time in the corner by myself drawing and painting but I also wanted to be out in the world and be a part of it. Being in a band, which is different to me to being a musician. Being in a band is a ticket to be like, “Alright, you’re going to go into the world of freaks and crazy people doing crazy shit.” And part of me was like, “I want to do that too!” It’s a split personality – part of me was introverted, and then the other part wants to walk out into the world and be with the freaks and do all the weird shit. It suits my personality.
Your live stage shows are unlike anything else in the world – how do you switch off your introverted side to create these amazing performances?
We really are still introverts – so I think part of it allows us something to hide behind. We can do the music and give you this freaky show, but it really isn’t about us. When someone is really an extrovert, they really do think they can just stand on stage and that they’re so wonderful and beautiful and good that you’ll just look at them all night. We would never want that! We like that we’re part of the big thing that’s happening – the big show – we’re the emotional, human part of it. If we weren’t able to do giant LED screens and lasers and blow-up stuff and smoke and glitter and confetti and all that, we would still feel very exposed and embarrassed and vulnerable and uncomfortable. Once all that gets going, we kind of feel like we can be ourselves amongst all that. Without that I don’t think we would ever have found a place to stand up there and compete with someone like Mick Jagger or Beyonce – that’s just not our thing.
How do you create that live-music experience from conception to completion?
Part of it is that you really do want the music to have impact, and some of the impact with our music is like an emotional impact. It’s very easy to be distracted at concerts by your friends and just having fun, and cellphones or people talking. We’ve been doing this for a long, long time – we really play all the time. We never really take a year off or anything – we’re always touring. I feel like that works for us because we’re always working on stuff. We don’t play so much – you know some bands just play and play and then they just hate each other and never want to fucking do it again. We don’t do that! We play maybe 50 or 60 shows a year and that’s great – every show is professional and has all of our energy and all of our love. We just work on it – sometimes a little thing will happen and suddenly we figure out that it really works. We started to do New Year’s Eve shows right around the year 2000 or something and we wanted them to be over the top – everything you do has to be big, big, big because everybody wants this big celebration. So we did these shows and then the next show we did, we would just treat it like a New Year’s Eve show. Each year it kept getting bigger and then eventually we would just do that every show – we would never scale it down. We were able to see ourselves within this spectacle instead of the spectacle being us. Little by little we amassed a bunch of things that we could repurpose for every show – when we created new songs we wanted to create new moments that the songs could capture people within.
So you use it as a way to keep people engaged for the whole set?
It’s really all for the music – so you’re no distracted by anything that we don’t want you to be. We want you to be part of this experience. We’re controlling what you see, how intense it is, and what you feel and what you’re hearing – hopefully that’s why you walk away loving all 18 songs that we play. You know at a show you might hear a song you don’t know and think, “Oh, maybe I’ll go and get a beer.” We want you to be there every second.
I’m assuming there’s no good time to go to the bathroom during a Flaming Lips show.
I’m that person though – I do that all the time when I’m seeing bands. You can be at a movie theatre and the movie can be absolutely the greatest thing ever but if the person behind you is talking or on their phone, it’s an interruption to your experience. We don’t want that – we don’t want you to be thinking, “What’s going on behind me? What is that?” It’s hard to get everybody to be focused on the same thing at the same time, so that’s what we’re doing. We want it to be the same experience for everybody that the people in the first ten rows are getting. We want that to be the whole auditorium. When that happens, that really is the magic, magic thing that is what a concert is. It’s not us playing music or turning on lights at the right time – it’s that feeling you get when everybody is surging and feeling that joy and enthusiasm at the same time. It’s a moment that we get to create where you get to be at. It’s not about us – it’s about getting to that moment.
As much as the audience gets out of the show – what do you love most about performing?
We feel it too – it’s a drug that we want to take every night. We want to feel that energy – not just stand up there and touch a bunch of buttons. We want it to be overwhelming – if you’re overwhelmed then we’re overwhelmed and that’s a night worth being a part of.
The Flaming Lips are coming to Brisbane to play The Soft Bulletin for its 20th anniversary – what does this album mean to you?
I think it marks a new world for us. We think about it all the time because once that record came out, our lives have never really been the same. We played good bits of it virtually every night that we played our Flaming Lips show since 1999. I think that because it has such and impact – and because I think what it says to the listener is such a beautiful, real, helpful thing. I don’t think we realised in the beginning but I think I understand it more now – it’s taken me 20 years to kind of understand it, but I think it’s such a great message for a sensitive person struggling but really starting to understand how brutal and ugly the world can be. You can be a loving entity, and yet this is the world you’ve been living in your whole life and just never noticed how horrible it is. You never noticed how much pain there was. You never noticed how unfair it is. I think it’s a quagmire that every sensitive adult eventually has to face – I know that we did. We were very lucky that we were making an album while we were intensely struggling with this quagmire. But it wasn’t just me – it was Steven and also our producer Dave Griffin. I think we all felt like we needed to find a way to get through it or find a way to understand it or find a way to know it and live with it. So were part of what The Soft Bulletin meant, we now look at it like what a great service that we get to go out and play this music. The audience’s reaction to us singing some of these emotional, heavy songs is what every artist would want to see – to be able to stand there in front of people and have what you’re saying be really clearly understood and listened to. In that way it just started a whole new world for us that really is still going – if you’ve embraced that record and you’ve gone through that questioning of reality and your place in it, and how much love you give to this brutal world, I think it’s a wonderful thing that’s in the world now. I know it’s us that did it, but I think it would be great no matter who made it.
It’s hard to find hope in a troubled world but we think that this record is sort of a touchstone for that feeling.
It’s gentle. It’s not telling you to go and revolt – it’s not telling anybody “fuck you” and it’s not saying anything in that way. It’s not a record – it’s a revolution that’s inside your head that you have to either get through or you don’t. We’ve been through it, and if you keep trying you’ll get through it. It’s hard but you’ll get through it, and I think that’s a great message for music to have.
What gives you hope?
I don’t think of the world as negative – and I’m in America where there’s Donald Trump! When you’re enjoying your life, you don’t worry about who the president is – you don’t really care. When your life is having real, serious tragedy or whatever, you never think anything like that. I never think the world is in turmoil because of this or that. I don’t think the world is negative at all – I look at the things in the world that are always going to be beautiful or good. I don’t look at the bad things and think, “What are we going to do?” I look at the good things and say, “Let’s keep that going.” We have a little baby, two months old – and to me that’s like the greatest thing ever. The world doesn’t have any say over that, it’s your own little life that’s either really good or not. It’s not who’s president or who’s won the football game or any of that. Sure, that stuff fills up your day and gives you something to talk about, but your real life is just you. It’s your own little world where your happiness and tragedy is.
You can catch Wayne Coyne tearing it up when The Flaming Lips take over The Fortitude Music Hall on Saturday September 28 – grab your tickets here.