Wayne Coyne’s on a roll, and apparently enjoying the hell out of it. The choirboyish singer and guiding light behind the Flaming Lips — crafters of perhaps the most smartly melodic, sonically fetching and not coincidentally most keenly heartbreaking pop music on the planet — is frenziedly and happily trying to keep up with the demands for his band’s services. One of the early-’90s major-label alterna signings (Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers), the Oklahoma-based Lips have resided in the Warner Bros. stable since 1992, having spent close to 20 years hashing out a peculiarly skewed and psychedelic form of sort-of punk rock, never doing anything too obvious and boosted by the feverishly creative Coyne’s ongoing interest in just about everything. The Lips gained tenure when their 1993 indie hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” continued to sell in decent numbers, which allowed them to scam Warner Bros. into releasing the 1997 Zaireeka, four CDs meant to be played simultaneously. (That one sold decently, too.)
It was with 1999’s startlingly poignant and decidedly non-aggressive The Soft Bulletin, however, that the Lips painted their masterpiece. Coyne — aided by geniuslike multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and bassist/sound-tech ace Michael Ivins, along with indie rock’s Phil Spectorish producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev) — deemed it time to grow up, drop the cleverness and obscurity, and deal head-on with life, death and (gulp) sweet, sweet love. The recent Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, like Soft Bulletin engorged with sublime melodies awash in American roots music, quasi-hip-hop beats, Mellotronic silver linings and surprising electronic filaments, further pursues the perfect, pleasing, progressive pop that’s relevant to the brain and the heart, and most especially to the band’s ever-growing legion of fans.
Meanwhile, Coyne, taking a break from writing liner notes for a planned Lips DVD project, as well as from his long-gestating film project Christmas on Mars, is gearing up for yet another Flaming Lips tour. Following up on March’s rather oil-and-watery stint as backing band for Beck, the group play L.A. this week. The forthright and folksy Coyne’s a plainspoken kinda guy, so let’s hear it from the horse’s lips.
WAYNE COYNE: I’m always biting off more than I can chew. People love liner notes, you know, so I thought, Oh, I’ll do liner notes for every song. Well, you get these DVDs, and you can just put tons of things on there — I’m a hundred into this thing, and I’m still doin’ liner notes. Trying to be clever but precise, you know. It’s tough.
L.A. WEEKLY: I was reading your notes for Yoshimi, and you actually seem to be able to put your heart into stuff like this.
Well, I know how much I like it when you get a presentation from a band, and they tell you the absolute truth, things that are interesting, things you wouldn’t know. And I always forget how much work it is until you’re actually doing it. It must be like raising your kids or something; you know, you think they’re gonna be successful and gorgeous — and then they become drug addicts and beat you up!
It’s like the good old days when you got an album and you got a lot to sit there and look at and read.
Sometimes I’ll hear a song, and I won’t be moved by it significantly one way or the other, but then I’ll read something about what it’s supposed to mean or what it’s saying, and then suddenly it’s like, Oh, I really love that song now.
Given your band’s long-standing fascination with warping the way we hear pop music, like with the multiple-disc Zaireeka, it makes sense that Flaming Lips should try their stuff in DVD 5.1 multichannel format.
It really is pretty fascinating to sit in the middle of all these speakers while all the songs are kind of moving in and above and around you and stuff. We have things hitting you in the head, whereas with a lot of these things it just changes speakers here and there. Let’s see what the possibilities are. That doesn’t mean that the old stuff is ever made worse by the invention of the new stuff, it’s just that if you don’t embrace the new stuff, you’re missing all the fun.
You’re planning to put your film Christmas on Mars on a DVD, right?
I don’t really see that it would ever be a film that could just be played in movie theaters. It would be a DVD that you would buy at the store and go home and play, or that I would bring around [on tour] and sort of play in a mega-movie way, where the Flaming Lips bring their own sound system and snow machines. You know, we could make it loud and you could smoke and get drunk if you want.
The Lips records arrive like special gifts every other year or so.
If you’re lucky, your record keeps sort of being accepted, and it’s going on a year now, we’re still releasing singles and playing shows. So I imagine it’ll probably go on for at least another eight months or so, till I stop and say, Okay, that was that record, and then begin the next thing, which will be the Christmas on Mars movie. I judge when things should be released by when I think the audience will be interested again. Our audience really gets a lot out of our records; they’ll sit there and listen to them and analyze them, and I like that there’s some time in between where you just leave them alone. I think every artist runs into that; it’s like you overstay your welcome at the party. For a while you’re the life of the party, you keep tellin’ jokes, but everybody’s just tired of it now.
I never get tired of hearing The Soft Bulletin, or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Where did they come from?
Until The Soft Bulletin, there was sort of a confrontational aspect of us that I didn’t notice; we wanted to push people’s buttons. The Soft Bulletin was the first time that we thought, Let’s just quit fuckin’ with people. Why don’t we sing songs to them, like the way that, when we listen to music, we love it? In some ways, to let the music be beautiful was the bravest thing that we ever did.
Both albums have an almost miraculous balance about them, the way you’re dealing musically and lyrically with lightness and darkness.
Well, luckily, people have given me a kind of platform, because I’m an older guy and I sing about things and they hear it as being a voice of experience. When you’re 42 years old and you’re wondering, What does death mean?, it’s because you’ve experienced it, you start feeling it. I think it has a little more power because of that.
Living in the moment is a running theme in your songs.
But the moment you realize you’re living in the moment, you can’t do it. In moments of sheer panic, when you think you’re gonna die, suddenly you’re living in the moment. But it’s terrifying.
Probably the best compliment I could pay you is that your music always suggests possibility.
It’s because I see that that’s a real way — it isn’t some fake metaphor that’s supposed to cheer you up. Maybe I’m retarded in that way, but I truly believe it. Life has so many horrible, evil things that are gonna come your way just by virtue of you being alive that you have to see new ways that you can’t see now.
I can seriously say your music has improved the quality of my life.
Well, it’s like, if you came to my house and I cooked you a baked potata, and you said, Damn, Wayne, that’s the best baked potata I ever ate — you know, at the end of the day it’s the potata, really, that’s doing most of the work. I just grabbed it at the store and cooked it, you know?
This last year and the year before have been like the Golden Age of Flaming Lips. You’re touring a lot, and getting a lot of critical acclaim; you even won a Grammy. I’m impressed by how much you appear to be enjoying it all, after these 20 long years. And those shows of yours — down-home medium-low-tech videos, balloons, confetti, people parading around in animal costumes, and of course the nightly “Happy Birthday” song — well, it’s all about a kind of fun . . . isn’t it?
But in our live sets, we’re mostly singing about death. So it only makes sense that our show should look like a birthday party. We’re celebrating being born and we’re celebrating dying, and all we have is this ship that’s in the middle and we may as well make the best of it.
The audience is giving me this great life, because they believed in me. Our audience is not coming to a Flaming Lips show thinking they’re gonna see the greatest entertainers of all time; they’re thinking, I’m gonna see the Flaming Lips from Oklahoma, and I’m gonna see something I’ve never seen before.
The Flaming Lips play the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, May 31.