Q&A: The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne On Stephen Colbert, Ke$ha, And An Inadvertent Game Of Telephone With Lightning Bolt
Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne dreams weird and hard and big. What often starts off as a whimsical vision might just end up as a new world record (for the most live concerts in 24 hours) or a limited-edition vinyl release infused with the blood of other artists (as was the case for 2011's The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends). The Lips have an impressive track record of following through on their shenanigans, and that devotion to being endlessly irreverent and self-indulgent (in the most nurturing way) has helped them build a cult-like army of followers. The band has consistently grown creatively, too, its music morphing from scuzzy buzz-bin warmth to orchestral pop masterpieces to hard-edged, highly adventurous psych rock explorations. The band's most recent work, Heady Fwends, was made with people who spanned the gamut of popular musicYoko Ono, Prefuse 73, Ke$ha.
Few personalities are more outsized than Coyne's; when he talks, he uses what seem to be the most directly vague terms imaginable. It comes off almost like a brain-fried hippie having a conversation with a sped-up incarnation of the Dali Lama, but the trains of thought converge into a force of charisma and authority. Coyne has made a scholarly pursuit out of an obsession with examining trivialitiesthe little thingsin the most grandiose way possible.
But he may have met his match in comedian and faux pundit Stephen Colbert. Coyne and the Flaming Lips appear tonight on The Colbert Report, getting interviewed in a decommissioned space shuttle and performing aboard The U.S.S. Intrepid as the headliner of StePhest Colbchella '012 Rocktaugustfest, an over-the-top take on the music festival. During the taping of the event last Friday, the Voice sat down with Coyne to talk about the band's upcoming 30th anniversary, human skulls filled with blood and new music, and an accidental game of telephone that might just have turned into a LSD-filled night.
The last time I saw The Flaming Lips was in London last summer, when the band performed The Soft Bulletin [in its entirety]. It was incredibly emotional at the end.
That was the thing that would happen with some of those [shows]. You'd start off just saying, "we're playing this music, and its all in order and all that sort of stuff." But when you play for crowds that know every second of that music, and have had a connection with that, you can feel it.
That audience seemed especially grateful since there was a lot of drama. Someone jumped in front of the train going up to the venue [Alexandra Palace] and died, so people could barely make it up there. I saw people, myself included, just scrambling to get cabs anywhere they could to make it to the show.
Wow, wow! It was a great show, and I didn't know about all that.
Speaking of great shows, you've obviously played some of the biggest festivals in the world. This is one is probably bigger and better than anyone you've ever seen, right?
Well... it's good enough (laughs)! It's fun to be invited to [Stephen Colbert's] show, knowing how much he loves music. And it's just a great show, he's so smart. You really feel like he's on our side.
So the band was asked to perform?
I know that some of the people on [Colbert's] staff are always saying, any chance they get, "We've got to get the Flaming Lips here." And we have new stuff out, so it worked out.
Both The Colbert Report and your band have this incredible theatricality, outlandishness, and a kind of charismatic talking head figure at the helm. Do you feel similarities between your band's aesthetic and the kind that [Colbert's] show goes for?
Well, I don't think about it like that so much. Part of Stephen's thing is that it's all a contrivance. And that's part of the dilemma when you're with him. One second you're talking to him, and he's really Stephen Colbert. He's gracious, and he's smart, and its all coming at you, and its in one dimension. And then suddenly he goes into character, and he's confrontational about things that three seconds earlier, he wasn't. So for me, that's always like, "Whoa, wait a minute, I'm just talking with you." And he's so smart, we all get the joke. But for us [The Flaming Lips], there's absolutely no contrivance. It's just, "We are what we are, hope you like it." We perform and we do our thing, but I never thought of it like that. We're pretty disconnected from daily events. I think we kind of live in our own world now. I think I do more and more all the time. On the show, its all current events. And I wouldn't even be able to tell you if Obama got killed this morning, I really don't know. I'm not really watching TV.
Is that a good thing, you think, kind of delving more into your subconscious and your own personality?
I don't think it would be good if I hadn't already had a lot of... there's days [in the past] where all you would do is listen to NPR, watch news. I think I reached a point where its like, I've watched enough TV, I've listened to enough NPR. It was almost like in a day, I'm done with that. And its not because its bad, its not because anybody else should do what I've done. Its just I'm older, I'm 51 years old, so I feel like you can get into this netherworld where you just drift and that's what you do for the rest of your life. And part of me says I don't want to do that. And really, I think it was Anderson Cooper... I hadn't seen him in a long time, but the last thing I remember how its just nauseating how he demands every ten seconds, to update you on the most important story in the world! I started just buying The New York Times every Sunday and saying, "if it's a big story, it will be in there". And if its big, it will still be big next week. I won't need to have an update every 20 seconds. Even NPR began to do that more with some of the oil spill stories and all that. They'd have a news story, and an hour later, "hey we have something on that again". Its like, "leave me alone, I'm working!" You can't bug me every 10 minutes and say "hey hey hey, its important." And I knew that was my fault, that I was addicted to this "what's now, what's now." But really, nothing's now. Who cares.