The Flaming Lips


APRIL 2000

I caught up with the lead singer of The Flaming Lips on the recent American tour with Looper. Their new album, The Soft Bulletin, has received so much acclaim that it would be difficult to live up to it. But The Flaming Lips live show, witnessed by a sold out crowd at Irving Plaza April 17, was theatrical and spectacular.

Video of the band, mixed with medical footage, scenes from the The Wizard of Oz, Brazil, and many other films created a bizarre backdrop for the band. Wayne Coyne was quite a showman with using puppets, blood, and a gong as props. Performances of new songs such as "Waiting For The Superman" and "What Is The Light?" were nothing less than moving. The band handed out FM Radios so you could listen to the music on headset.

As we met Wayne at the sound check, we went into a room that curiously reeked of pot. So the discussion started about drug use.

by Alexander Laurence and Robert Lanham
AL: I know that you don't use drugs anymore. What do you think about drug use?
WC: I read this story about Stanley Kubrick when he was talking about his film 2001. They ask him if it was supposed to be a psychedelic experience. In 1969, people were curious about that. They asked him if he had taken LSD, or if that movie was about an LSD trip. He said "No."

The reason he gave was that most of the people he knew who had taken a lot of LSD had lost their ability to be self-critical. People take it and think that they're one with the universe. I wouldn't want to be in that cosmic state because I would never want to lose my ability to be self-critical. It's good to lose your critical opinion of others but not yourself. Who wants to be 40 years old and doing the same things you did in high school anyway?

AL: What do you think of older musicians like Mick Jagger who seems to be in the papers all the time for his antics?
WC: He's got to be a smart guy. The things that we read about him and the things that he really does in his real life are drastically different. He loves the idea of being on VH1's Naughty News when he has gotten some model pregnant. He calculates it out so we think of him as some sexy old rock star. In real life he's a smart guy and people around him love him and respect him. I would never want to speak for someone who has manipulated so much of what we think of him. It's great. It's what a lot of artists do. They say "I'm going to invent a character and people will love him." I don't do anything like that. I'm just me. I don't have a persona.
AL: But with the band gaining popularity, and The Soft Bulletin getting so much positive response, does that allow you to hang out with Madonna, and have sex with models?
WC: No. We used to pursue that stuff more in like 1992, when we first started hanging around with celebrities. It's really exciting the first time you're in a room and someone like Perry Farrell walks in.

By the time we ran into Madonna, we were playing with The Red Hot Chili Peppers in London. Madonna came to see them. We were standing on the side of the stage watching the Chili Peppers waiting for the night to be over. By this time we had seem Flea naked about five times. We were bored. All of a sudden these bodyguards came up and there was a woman in there somewhere. I was thinking what the fuck is this? And then Madonna really sat down right next to me and all the bodyguards stood around her. I looked and thought "That's Madonna." By then I didn't really care. I realized that I was past being excited by anything. I mean we were on The David Letterman show and met Paul McCartney and David Gilmour. By the tenth person, you go home and say to your brother "Hey, I met Paul McCartney!" And he's like "Whatever!" It has no value. You see people at the ATM in New York, and they say "Hey, I saw you on Letterman last night, you guys must be famous?" Well, famous for you anyway.

RL: Is The Soft Bulletin your most successful album to date?
WC: No. "She Don't Use Jelly" off of Transmission has still sold more. But as this year goes on, I'm sure that The Soft Bulletin will do better. When we were doing it, we thought that it would be the end of us. It was so elaborate and "out there." It's more of a work of art than anything we have done is. We isolated ourselves and said "Let's make music the way we want to do it." With our past records we would occasionally look out and see what the market was doing commercially. With The Soft Bulletin, we figured whatever happens happens. It was liberating in some ways but at the end of the day you think "What are we going to do now?"

We did a show at SxSW around the time of the release and we didn't know what the reaction was going to be. But even during the show we knew that people were going to accept it. It usually takes us so long to do records. Three of four songs would go out and we would here feedback. First they would feel shock. But then a week later they would say "But now I love it." They were shocked but they didn't know what that shock was in the beginning.

At SxSW we felt the same thing. The shock happened and then we escaped out of town. But this time, all this other stuff happened, like it was named record of the year in NME and it was on the top ten list for a hundred magazines. We have become so thick-skinned over the years. You're so used to people hating what you do, that you become numb to it. The thick skin that protects you from the bad stuff deflects the good stuff as well. People come up to me and say "Well, you and Brian Wilson..." Whether the work is good and important, that's for other people to decide. When artists starts deciding what they're doing is important, they start sounding like idiots, like Billy Corgan or something.

AL: What is the connection with Mercury Rev? The Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs were recorded at the same time with the same producer. Were they an influence?
WC: Totally. Me and Jonathan have a lot of similar things we're trying to do. I think that honestly when we were doing these records, Jonathan was thinking "I'm completely going into outer space and doing my own thing." We both probably thought that we were going into different and opposite directions. In the end it turned out we were doing very similar things.

It makes sense since we were in the studio at the same time with Dave Fridmann. There were times when we were pulling our gear out at ten o'clock one night, and Mercury Rev would be there in the morning the next day. Dave Fridmann would be at one session to the next. Whatever miraculous things we would stumble upon, whoever came in next would benefit from it. Most of it was technical stuff, because ideas for one band rarely work for another. How to get these sounds and these songs to combine with these ideas. We would come into the studio and Dave would say "Fellas, you know that thing we were trying to do and couldn't do? I found a way to do it." That was the process of making those records. But idea-wise, you can't translate that over from one band to another. Some bands try to do what was on their last record, and those are their own ideas, and they fail. You never know whether an influence is going to be a good or a bad thing. We have so many ideas of what we want to do, that we pursue them all and sort them out later.

RL: Are there any current influences? Are there any records that you are listening to now?
WC: I listen to everything now. I bring about fifty CDs along when I go on tour. After a week I'm sick of those. I listen to everything from classical to jazz, from old to new, from techno to folk rock . . . everything. I don't have any area where I won't go anymore.

Influences are weird. There are things that I hear that are definitely exciting. My biggest influences are my own experiences and things that have impact on me which I can put into something that becomes poetic or lyrical. Instead of talking to you right now, I would rather put some words and sounds together that move you.

AL: What do you think about bands who use a lot of techno gear and computers versus bands who play all the instruments live? I ask because you use backing tapes in your live show.
WC: There are people who say if there aren't real musicians playing, it sucks, and other people who think that real musicians are old-fashioned. I just sit in the middle and I think that I have no stance either way. If it's good, let's have it. People want to restrict you because they have this idea how music should be presented. I'm sure that the greasers in the late 1950s were bummed out when they stopped having the sock hops every Saturday night. Evolution moves on. It's fine to gravitate towards things that you like. Those things don't have any intrinsic meaning. People give meaning to a longhaired guy playing an E chord. To me it's no big deal. It's what they do. People have asked me "Is the guitar dead?" And I say an instrument is never dead or alive, the people playing them are. People who have too much time analyzing their record collections are the only people who think of these things. We have noticed with our live shows that they don't even notice that we're doing something weird. They just think that this is a great show.
AL: Do you like these new shows more than the shows you did ten years ago when there were more people in the band? Not having to play guitar allows you to be more of a showman.
WC: I'm a horrible singer. And I'm even worse when I have to play the guitar. To me, I like it much better now. I don't know how people can do both. They are talented and should be applauded. I'm not one of them. I'm more entertaining and focused when I don't have to play the guitar, because I'm not a very good guitar player either. There's something in my voice that people like. They let me sing. People can come to see us and I could play guitar all night and they would go "Man, I didn't come to see this." At the end of the day, they came to hear me sing, in the context of the band.

When I saw Brian Wilson play about two years ago in the Midwest. He had fifteen musicians up there and they played wonderfully but it didn't matter till he sang. Even though he couldn't sing very well, it was him and those songs that mattered. I'm saying that, not comparing myself to him. Some nights my voice is gone and I'll apologize. And they love it more because I'm trying to do things that I am not capable of doing. In some ways it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you get there. I am a lousy singer but I have experienced moments where it can move people.

AL: We were just over at the Virgin Megastore and I was looking at the new Q Magazine. In this month's issue they had an article about "The 100 Crazy Acts by Rock Stars." Number 30 was the Zaireeka album [a 4-disk cd intended to be listened to simultaneously on 4 seperate boom-boxes or stereos]. It was beat out by the John Lennon and Yoko One nude picture, Jim Morrison's poetry, and I think Ginger Spice becoming a UN Ambassador among other things.
WC: That's regrettable, definitely. When we started Zaireeka, people were going "You got to be kidding?" I don't see it as being anything special. We had an idea for a record we wanted to pursue. We were able to do it, not because we wanted applause or attention, but because we knew it could be done and I wanted to push the possibilities of what listening could be like. So much of the responsibility goes on what you do making the record and everybody listens to them the same way. And I just wanted to force the hand both ways. That we make it differently but you have to listen to it differently as well. It is an area where new things can be done.
AL: Did the sales of boom-boxes go up after you released Zaireeka?
WC: Even as we were experimenting with the boom-boxes, we discovered ways of doing it more easily. People would go to their friends who worked at hi-fi stores and they would put them all in. I thought that the audience that got it, were the people who did get it. People who were much like ourselves, people who were in bands, or involved in music. Those are the people who are pushing the evolution one more step. It's rarely that the casual listener who really contributes in any way. It's usually people who were digging and digging and trying to find something. It's rare that an idiot wakes up without giving it any thought and says "I've invented the greatest thing ever!" Those who try harder usually find it. And we do try hard and I do go consciously into the unknown and unexpected.
AL: Was "Waiting for Superman" influenced by Nietzsche and his ideas about a "superman?"
WC: Unlike Nietzsche, who wanted the world to improve, I think it's already great. I don't have any complaints. I don't do art to make the world a better place. I do art cause I like it. The world is already as good as it could be. It doesn't need to be saved or improved.
AL: What about your hypothesis about love being a chemical related to the Big Bang? Have you done any further testing?
WC: I have no way to do any testing. I feel that it's a theory that may proved right or ludicrous. It's a great concept. It occurred to me that we are all made up of the same sort of things, and the most powerful thing drawing us to each other is love. People will die for or kill over love.
It's a vague observation. I'm not trying to predict the future. But as far as songs go, what a great thing to sing about. The universal revelation that love is what connects us all.
RL: Scientists are trying to re-create the Big Bang somewhere out West. They were talking about the possibly of creating a black hole if the experiment goes wrong.
WC: I don't know what people like Stephen Hawkings envision with all that mathematical jargon about how the universe folds in on itself. Some of that stuff is so abstract I can tell how it's going to have any impact on me. I sometimes wonder how much science and reality can explain each other. That's the great thing about art and ideas: some of them are based upon science, but a lot of them defy science. There's no formula for how you get to things in art. That's why it appeals to me I guess. You don't have to have any knowledge of the elements to come up with something amazing.

Alexander Laurence is a writer who lives in New York City. He has interviewed over 100 novelists, many of which are accessible through the Internet. His book reviews have appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, American Book Review, East Bay Express, LA Reader, Bay Guardian, and American Book Jam. He has been the editor of Cups magazine since 1993.