There is no one else in the world quite like Wayne Coyne. As frontman and songwriter for the Flaming Lips, Coyne has been a prolific, entertaining and reliably odd force in music for nearly three decades. Over and over, he and the band have managed to turn ideas that might sound bad to anyone else into beloved trademarks.
The Flaming Lips' live performances — with their generous nudity, copious stage blood and Coyne's occasional crowd-surf in a human-sized hamster ball — have rightly earned their legendary reputation. But Coyne's creativity extends beyond these big visuals into the musical art that he makes nearly every day at home in Oklahoma City, where he has lived for most of his life. This year, he put out one of the Lips' most unconventional albums yet, Heady Fwends, a vinyl-only release that captures some spectacularly peculiar collaborations. Only Coyne can claim to have assembled, on one record: Coldplay's Chris Martin, Erykah Badu, Nick Cave, Ke$ha, Biz Markie, Lightning Bolt, Yoko Ono, Neon Indian, Prefuse 73 and Bon Iver. And what might have been an aural nightmare finds a common thread that somehow makes the album cohesive. It's still plenty weird. It's also very good.
The band's 2012 has an impressive array of festival dates all over the world, with a double-wide stop in Lawrence June 21 and 22. Over those two nights, the Lips' immersive concert experience comes to Liberty Hall as the band helps that institution mark its 100th anniversary. Coyne joined The Pitch by phone earlier this month to talk about his band's summer shows, Heady Fwends, and the way he wants his art to be perceived.
The Pitch: Have you spent much time in Lawrence? Kliph [Scurlock, drummer for the Lips] lives there.
Coyne: Well, you know, the Flaming Lips have been playing together for a long, long time, since 1983, and Lawrence is just one of those places early on where a freaky, psychedelic punk-rock band like us was able to play. Just by virtue of it being where it is, it's compared to Norman or Oklahoma City, where we're from, but I think it's a lot cooler than Oklahoma City or Norman. So I've been there quite a bit. I think people will remember that the Wakarusa festival used to be just outside of Lawrence there, and we've done that two, or maybe even three, times. I would say we love Lawrence, and it's a very cool place for bands to play.
Liberty Hall is a much smaller venue than you typically play now. How do you adapt your huge stage show to a smaller theater?
We've played places where, even though they can hold a lot of people, staging and stuff can be small. The last show that I saw there, I think, was Sigur Rós quite a few years back. A lot of times, we don't worry about it too much. Something will work. And to me, it's never about stuff as much as it's about love and the people. It'll be fuckin' crazy, I'm sure. When it's smaller like that, it's crazy.
Have you played with Deerhoof before?
Yeah, we've played quite a few shows with them. We did a tour with them maybe three or four years ago, maybe longer than that. We've played shows with them and seen them and know them and do all kinds of stuff.
Is there anything that you particularly like or dislike about festival settings?
What we like about it is that it's not all about people coming to see the Flaming Lips. You kind of feel like you're invited to this giant party. And a lot of times, we'll be at the end of the thing where we get to come out when everyone's already having a great time. Our music is, you know, it's set to a sort of optimistic joyness — an event — and it's meant to sort of be more of a party. Having all the lights and volume and all of that stuff helps. That and ... lots of types of people who want to go hang out with their friends and do crazy shit. It isn't just the setting — it's the mindset of those people that make it. We're some of them, you know.
What does it feel like to cruise around in the big hamster ball?
The first couple times that I did it, I worried that I was gonna get killed. Once I realized that I wasn't gonna get killed, now I really worry more about the audience because sometimes it's a very — well, not violent, but there's a big crowd of people trying to push each other and shove each other. We don't want that. We want it to be a lot of fun. I try to make it like I'm just trying to walk on top of you, but sometimes it's just not possible to keep people from going a little bit crazy. I'm mostly worried that there are some small women at the front, and this big kind of avalanche of people can overwhelm them. So I don't worry about myself anymore. It is a lot of fun, and you can really see how people are excited by it, even though they've seen pictures of it forever. They're just excited maybe to see it in real life, and all that junk. I think people wonder if I'm ever gonna get sick of doing the bubble. I'm just glad that people like it. I do worry about the audience, though.
I've heard your live shows described almost religiously, with all of the extra visual components that you bring to each show. What do you aim or hope for at these performances, as far as the whole package coming together?
You have to remember that we've been doing shows for a long, long time. Next year is the 30th year that the Flaming Lips have been together. We've always done, you know, a show — something that's a happening. I think we've always felt conscious about this thing of performing. We just like a happening — we're mostly doing it to entertain ourselves. That's what a lot of art does: You just kind of do your thing and hope people like it. We can always tell that it's having an effect, you know. We do a lot of different things, and the things that don't work, you change. And the things that do work, you try to make them better.
What we're trying to do for the most part is have your complete attention. Whenever you go to anything with a large group of people where they're all paying attention to the same thing, it is, in a sense, a powerful vortex of energy, having everybody experiencing the same thing at the same time. That's really what we're trying to do. When we play a big outdoor festival, luckily we're able to bring laser beams and other things so that even a great distance back, you can still get the magic. Maybe it's not the exact same message as if you were standing onstage with us, but it's a pretty good resemblance of this message that we're putting out because it's just pure, big, and it's bright, and you can see it from a ways away. It's difficult to communicate if people aren't engaged. You just want their full attention.
You, I'm sure, have been to see a movie at a movie theater where people are talking on their cellphones behind you during the movie. As much as the screen is big and you can tell what's going on, you just don't like this distraction of them not being into the same thing that you're into. You want them to shut up. I think that's what we're doing. We're just gonna create something that if you're not paying attention to it, you're probably gonna want to leave. And when we play a place like Liberty Hall, it should be about as overwhelming as it can get, which I think is pretty fun.
Changing gears a bit: Heady Fwends is one of the most random collaborative albums maybe ever. How did you assemble the group for it? Was it all through Twitter?
Well, I like this word random. It's the first time someone has said it, and it's exactly fucking right. I could have never, even in a ridiculous imagination, thought that I could have gotten Chris Martin, Ke$ha, Lightning Bolt and Neon Indian all together within fuckin' 12 minutes of each other. I would say some of it was because of Twitter, but all of it is based on [the idea that] you kind of reach out to people and hope that they're already aware of, and like, what you're doing. I don't think it would work, regardless of Twitter or anything, if you reached out and asked, "Would you like to do a song with the Flaming Lips?" And they said, "No, I hate you guys. I don't want to." It just wouldn't work.
Like, Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver — that was definitely a connection through Twitter. But the minute that we were able to connect with each other, I realized that he was a big fan of the Flaming Lips, and he realized I was a big fan of what he was doing. So that, I think, is mostly what it is, liking each other's work and liking being around each other and to be around their energy and creativity and their way of being. I know these things sound hokey, but they're very true. It's really amazing being around people who do cool music.
And then others would be based around friendship. ... Most of the people I'm working with are pretty busy, and I'm here interrupting them, saying, "Here, do this thing with me." So it's probably mostly that people like each other's music, and then, secondly, convenient schedules. Mostly I'm texting people, and am relentless in that way. When I say I care about something, I don't just care about it once. I care in every way that I can. And if I want something to happen, I let people know that I really want it to happen. I'll do everything that I can. It's not anything other than sheer will, and it's important that we try. I'm getting more out of it than they are. I love the energy and unpredictableness of this type of work.
The results of this were very interesting. It's a surprisingly cohesive album, considering how different all of the artists are.
Thank you, that's a great compliment. Some of it, I think, we just got lucky that there were some Flaming Lips-type themes running through this — you know, insects, this idea of living in a world that is separate from this other world. It's everybody being so like-minded that we can sing one of my songs that sounds very much like one of my songs, and Justin Vernon can sing one of his songs, and it sounds very much like one of his songs, and yet they sort of sound like they belong together.
You also have a generous attitude with your fans. Do you think artists should be as accessible as possible, within reason?
I think they should just do what they like. For anybody in the audience, that's what is of the greatest benefit. When I've been around artists, I feel like it's a luxury to be able to hear the truth. People aren't obligated to tell you the truth, even in your life. There are people in your life that won't tell you the absolute truth. For me, the artists that I really relate to, they cannot live anyway else. They have to live what they think the truth of their own lives is, and that's important. For me it's not about whether I agree or don't. I just love being in the presence of people who are really living their own trip. They're not worried about what's cool or being embarrassed or making money or any of those things. They're doing their thing, and it tells you how to live. It tells you, this is the way that we should live our lives.
We like some artists because they're generous, and they give love and they have a lot of really cool-sounding ideas, but we really want them to say, "I am what I am, and I hope you love me." That's what makes great art. I think that's why I'm so drawn to animals and nature — there's nothing fake, you know? Humans are very hard to read, but it's very rewarding to read them as well. When I run into people that I relate to, it's like a volcano going off — it's great. To run into someone like Ke$ha or Erykah Badu — I mean, they're like my sisters. We could sit there and talk for weeks about music and art and crazy shit that they do. I get more out of it than they do. I think they're thinking I'm just a weirdo, but it's fact. People should be the way they wanna be and hope it works. I would always say that it's better to be kind, whether you're famous or not, or live alone. Just be a kind person, and the world is already a better place because of that.