Text by Patrick Knowles
A few years back, sometime after the release of The Soft Bulletin and before Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, I found myself screaming my lungs out with hundreds of Flaming Lips fans in one long-pronounced maddening howl. As our yells escalated to deafening levels, the music became nearly inaudible. Lead singer Wayne Coyne had asked for this and as the song came to its climatic crescendo, he clutched his chest triumphantly, looked out into a crowd and gave us the green light to go completely insane just for the sake of going completely insane.
While I have never been able to piece together where that particular concert took place, the exact time of year, or what drugs I may or may not have been on, the moment somehow found a way to stick with me, exactly as Coyne predicted it would.
“I like to remind people at shows that even though it seems like we are playing a bunch of rock music and there are all these things going on, that’s not really what excites you. What excites you is being next to other people being excited. It’s kind of like fake sex. If you start to do it, it’s going to kick in and well, we have to believe that stuff works.” He adds, “When we sing songs, it doesn’t really mean anything. We are just doing something together – your adrenaline flows, you believe in different things and it becomes a moment that you just don’t want to end.”
You could say that this philosophy (albeit one that teeters between a Thich Nhat Hanh meditation and a sped-up psychedelic epiphany) has been a driving force for the Oklahoma-based band ever since bassist Michael Ivins’ parents went out of town 23 years ago and Coyne dropped by his house party uninvited and said he could sing. Sure, they have matured from the tripped-out garage-rock kids they were back then into artists that seem to transcend all of the standard cookie-cut genres, but The Flaming Lips have always seemed to hold to a blind faith that music can connect people and accidents are something that are meant to happen. “Certainly there are elements of expression that come from your heart and your mind and this need to speak about your experiences, but if you are being true to your goal, you’ll find that the universe will help you along the way,” Coyne says. “Something will fall into place and you just have to believe that. Not in a cosmic sort of way, but you just have to be open to accepting stuff. Most of our best stuff is just a bunch of dumb accidents.”
It should be noted that most interviews with Coyne often begin with describing how cool, down-to-earth and earnest he is when answering questions from nosey journalists. So it would be a shame not to mention how he is indeed way ahead in the polls for “The Most Personable Artist On and Off the Stage.” There is an immediate comfort when you see him from across a room, as if you have run into an old high school buddy that has since transformed into some kind of benevolent psychedelic Tom Jones rock star from the Island of Misfit Toys. In the same breath, it should also be noted that if you make the mistake of telling people you are going to be meeting Coyne in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel later in the week, you will be bombarded with a laundry list of questions from friends, family members and complete strangers.
A few of those questions in no particular order…
What’s the last beautiful sound that you heard? I was sitting in my room early in the morning and there was a conversation. One woman kept telling this other person, “This is the year 2006. It’s not 1973.”
Was it a homeless person or someone who was deranged? Without seeing what’s really going on, my imagination starts filling in all of the gaps. All sounds tell some sort of story, but if someone were to ask me what was my favorite sound, it would probably be having sex with my wife or something.
Do you ever listen to Harry Neilson’s The Point? Yeah. We listen to it a lot and we like the movie. Harry Neilson is great, even beyond The Point. What other endeavors were you humoring if the whole “international rock star thing” didn’t work out? Well, it’s almost like you don’t have a choice. No one is like, “You must be in a band.” All the poverty and hard times we had were self-imposed. We knew we were playing strange underground music for weirdoes like us, so it never surprised us if we were poor. We would do it even if the world wanted us to do it or not.
Some of the more practical questions, however, deal with his latest work, At War with the Mystics, and the undercurrent of disdain for the Bush Administration and close-minded evangelists who Coyne says, “have taken enough rights away from us.” The album showcases some of the most radical and tripped-out protest songs in recent memory and while elements of the Lips are all here in splendid form, the impassioned call to action is a bit of a departure for a band whose catalogue of songs include titles such as “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” and “Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles.”
“To be tolerant and patient and understanding are great qualities but I think that we have gotten to the point that we have become tolerant, but the other side hasn’t.” he says. “It just feels like we are being bombarded by these idiots and they’ll get their way if we let them and they will deserve to win if we let them win.” In the next five minutes Coyne rattles off issues like the importance of gay rights, the legalization of pot and abortions, and beneath his affable demeanor, a sincere concern about what is going on in this country rises to the surface.
“I’m not gay. I don’t smoke pot and I probably won’t need an abortion, but that’s not enough, ‘cuz there are other people standing right next to me that will,” he says. “These are the things that get inside my mind and that’s what we ended up doing with some of the music.” While Coyne looks forward to having a big soap box to address these issues, he is also quick to point out that his role is but a small one in the greater picture. “I don’t think that it’s going to change George Bush or the war, but sometimes you just want to scream about it. That’s what rock music does best. It allows you to scream into the dark. It doesn’t change the dark but we get to have a reaction to it.”
It looks as if the future might hold more than a few avenues for the 45-year-old artist to express his political ideologies as well as his more abstract visions of robots and Martians. There is talk of a Broadway musical of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on the horizon as well as his continued work on his film (shot in his Oklahoma backyard) Christmas on Mars. As far as what he sees as the next step for The Flaming Lips, Coyne smiles and says, “Hopefully we’ll just fumble on the next thing and go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where we should go.’ That’s the answer with art. You have to go out there fall on your face and scream at the top of your lungs. In the end, people love nothing more that seeing humans being human, so hopefully we’ll come up with some new dumb thing we can get excited about.”