Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips interviewed by Ric Hickey
Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival
Saturday June 14, 2014
*** Special thanks to Mike Breen from CityBeat for administrative assistance.
Hype and drama be damned. What the Flaming Lips are doing in the recording studio these days is among their finest work. In the news lately perhaps for all the wrong reasons (collaborations with Miley Cyrus, drummer Kliph Scurlock fired in a flurry of controversy), this writer believes the Flaming Lips are currently on the steepest creative upswing of their 30-year career. I recently conducted a whirlwind 10-minute interview with Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne in the backstage media compound at Bonnaroo. The man loves to talk. As an unabashed fan for many years I felt (perhaps foolishly) that there was no need to approach this situation with “prepared” questions. Without shame or preconceived direction, I tumbled enthusiastically into a conversation with Wayne about the bands’ recent releases The Terror and 7 Skies H3.
Interviews of all kinds require some editing in the transcription process. Each of us is guilty of mindless interjections like “like”, “ummmm”, and “you know”, you know? I tried to clean up these conversational hiccups and speed bumps, though it was tempting to leave a few in there so as to maintain the dizzying flow of the interview. Six hundred seconds with Wayne flew by in the blink of an eye. But later it felt like I’d spent an hour chatting with him. My synapses seemed to fire at ten times their normal speed when he was talking and others I’ve spoken to have had similar experiences with him. Apparently it’s not just his music that is mind-altering and consciousness-expanding.
Never before had it occurred to me the similarities between Wayne Coyne and the great surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Both men confidently assured of their great weirdness and their weird greatness. Each of them willing to talk about their art in the highest terms of self-aggrandizement, yet all too frequently in terms of childlike wonderment. Oblivious to any opinion outside of their own, their every living moment is comprised of self-discovery. Trying to get inside an artist’s head is ridiculous folly so I chose not to pick Wayne’s brain so much as to just give him a starting point and say, “Go!”
Ric Hickey: I’ve followed you guys since the 80s. And I’ve had love affairs with your records over the years, like The Soft Bulletin, Transmissions, on down the line. But I’ve never experienced anything quite like The Terror, where I can’t listen to it enough. I play it over and over and over, trying to get inside it, trying to get it inside me. Seems like you guys are into a whole new zone here lately, like you’ve crossed over into another kind of thing there…
Wayne Coyne: Well, I think once I got my recording studio at my house – probably like four years ago now – we’re just always doing music. And if you could hear everything we do, it’s just insane, you know? And that little synthesizer that you hear on almost all the tracks on The Terror… When we were recording with Sean (Lennon) up at his studio in New York, he had all this crazy old gear there. We were messing with this little synthesizer and he ended up giving it to us after the session. (Lips’ multi-instrumentalist) Steven (Drozd) and I were playing with it. And we always, always record. I mean, if we’re playing around we just record stuff. We started to do something and we had this, like, weird song. We had this weird mood. And we know – I mean we figured it out little by little – why it was happening. Because this synthesizer, like a lot of old analog synthesizers, it’s not playing a pure tone. You know it’s playing a note. And you can kinda hone in on what the note is. But they play a lot of tri-tones and just a lot of weird noises come with it. And so it’s very difficult for it to fit in just a normal… It doesn’t fit normal music. And it makes you not think of normal music. That synthesizer made Steven and I pick all these other sounds that weren’t based on notes and stuff. It was based on just sounds that worked together. Because they’re all just a cluster of different sounds. And it’s beautiful. I love it. It’s the sort of music I think you can get trapped in it and only wanna make that kinda music forever, ya know? Of course I don’t think we will because we’re always searching for something. But it is. It’s magical. Because you don’t really know what it is that you’re doing. And artists love that, ya know?
RH: That uncharted territory…
WC: Yeah. When you do music for so long you have many things that you become familiar with. And when you’re just thrust into the muck again, the darkness, you love that because it’s fun.
RH: You guys composed and recorded a 24-hour song cycle called 7 Skies H3 [streaming online for free since its release] in 2011. I haven’t actually gone online and listened to it in its entirety…
WC: (laughing) I haven’t either!
(Click the skull to listen to the 24 hour version for yourself)
RH: Tell me about the condensed, 50-minute version of 7 Skies H3 you released on LP for Record Store Day.
WC: It’s a great little record! Mike Fridmann (son of long-time Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann) was starting to work with us in the studio then. And he’s probably listened to it more than anybody ever in the world. He’s probably listened to it six or seven times in its full length. And he started to pick these little moments… There’s a track on there – I think it’s called “The Metamorphosis” or something like that – that originally went on for seven hours. It’s a seven hour piece of this cascading and collapsing series of chords and melodies. I think his first edit was like a 9-minute version of that. And he sent it to me on a CD and I was like, “Wow! This is amazing!” He and Dave decided maybe we should do a double album of that and then I had them do even a more condensed version, saying, “Let’s try and do one record.” And I think it turned out amazing. I think some of those things take on a different quality when they’re going for a couple of hours. But I think if they’re really great [they work in shortened, condensed form] as well. And that’s why we felt we should put it out in a condensed form like that.
RH: In the liner notes to the 7 Skies H3 LP, Steven said he was completely drained of ideas after the experience of creating the 24-hour song cycle. Like he just had nothing left. And I wonder if that affected the bands’ overall approach to making The Terror. Starting fresh after draining the well completely dry…?
WC: Well, when you start working on something new you think, “Here’s an idea. That’s the thing we’re gonna work on.” But doing something like a 24-hour song – where it’s not just a couple minutes of music – it’s just going and going and going. It’s a lot, a LOT to do. And you know, after we made our very first record in 1983 I felt like I had no more ideas too! (laughs) But here we are, you know? I think that really is the thing. If you have ideas, they’ll show up in what you do. I think there’s a mistake that a lot of people make, and that is that you have to have an idea before you get up and do something. And we know that that’s not true. ‘Cause if you don’t know what to do, you still have to get up and do something. But if you have ideas, they will be in what you’re doing. If you sit around and wait for an idea before you do something, it doesn’t happen. So I’ve learned a lot from being empty and in a panic. And I think, even when I don’t have any ideas, they come to you. You know, you’ll think of something. Or something will trigger something…
RH: I think 7 Skies H3 works extraordinarily well in its condensed 50-minute version.
WC: I think it totally does! I would play that in my car, like after they’d sent me the CD version of it. And sometimes Steven would be with me in my car and he’d say, “What the fuck is this? This is awesome!” Because it was from the middle of this thing, this 3 hour piece. And when you’re there [in the studio], you know, you’re liking it and you’re making it. But then you quickly move on to the next thing. We hardly ever have that much time where we can listen back to something we’ve just finished. And that was definitely one of those situations. Because we had a deadline, and a lot, lot, LOT to do. And we’d hear these little pieces after the fact and Steven would be like, “That’s cool!” And I’d say, “I know! That’s us! We did that!”
RH: It’s interesting to me that after the fact, after you’ve built this 24-hour song, only then did the idea occur to you to scale that back to a one-hour album…
WC: Well, you know, if someone had told me, “That would be much better as like an hour-long thing”, I’d have said, “Forget that! 24 hours or nothing!” You know? (laughs) But I think all you gotta do is hear it and it works. And that’s Dave Fridmann and his son. They’re listening. You know? They’relistening. I think when you’re making music and you’re in the moment, you’re creating it, that’s great. But you need to have a taster at the other end. Whenever you’re making your soup you gotta have someone taste it and let you know where you’re at. And they are. They’re always listening to our stuff.
RH: I saw you guys land a spaceship here (at Bonnaroo 2007). I wonder, without giving too much away, what can we expect this year? Do you step up your game or break out anything special for Bonnaroo?
WC: Well, we have a pretty big, elaborate stage show now with some really great big inclusive video wall stuff going on. We have new string LED lights that sort of play off in a million different directions, like a 3-D sort of stage. We have a lot of big blow up props and things and I come out in different suits and stuff. So, I don’t know… We never think of it really like we have to top the things we’ve done before. And I think for some people who’ve seen us before you’re not gonna top that experience they had when they were there at the show with their friends and stuff. We played a show in Oklahoma City in 2006 at this new amphitheater there. And for whatever the reason it was just a mega, beautiful, perfect show. The weather was perfect. Everybody in town was there. It just felt good. And you can’t really control that. You know? We’re just the band. And we just hope everything else works, you know? But I think for some people tonight will be amazing. And our audience is great. They really are. They’re energetic and they give a lot of love.
The Flaming Lips close out the 2014 Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati, OH on Sunday, July 13th!!!