Wayne Coyne is in a hotel room, looking at his band, The Flaming Lips, on the cover of a well-known, rival street press. “They’re not very hip or anything, are they?” He laughs, looking puzzled while thumbing through the magazine, before realising he’s probably just offended the hard working publicists who make these things happen, “Warner- they’ve got such control over this town,” he jokes, “when you are with these people, everything just works, I’m telling you!” If I wasn’t already a fan of this man, he certainly made one out of me at that moment…
When I meet with Coyne, he’s just returned with his band back to Sydney after wowing audiences around the country with their post- Splendour shows. He’s now back in town to enjoy some r&r and Sydney could not have turned on better weather if it had tried. “It’s not really a tour I guess- it’s just a couple of shows! We did the Byron Bay thing for a couple of days which was cool, then we came here, down to Melbourne and we’re back. There is some illusion – delusion actually,” he corrects emphatically, “about flying from show to show. We don’t really like it. We play so much that to have to get up and make those flights is too much stress. Like going into Melbourne- like, if we were ten minutes later, our whole schedule would have been fucked up! It’s too much stress to ask twelve guys to get up, get on buses and planes. In America and Europe, you just get on buses and I would love to do that here! See all the weird scenery! Even though you are still travelling, airports – they’re just all the same, you get some bad coffee, something to eat and then you’re on another plane”
If Coyne sounds fatigued, don’t be fooled. He is incredibly excited and is in raptures over my story about the drive to and from Byron Bay for the festival, asking me about what the countryside was like, where I stayed, how long it took. There is a cheeky glint to his eyes and he talks at a million miles an hour.
At the Sydney side show, there was a lovely moment when two of the backup dancers, dressed as Geckos’, became engaged onstage (a surprise for the bride to be) to the opening strains of ‘Do You Realise’. It was a lovely moment, but not a new one for Coyne and the Gang. “We do it a lot! Sometimes we don’t get very much notice- sometimes it will just be the guy gets a hankering for it and almost never does the girl know what’s going to happen. I always think that is a bit of a bummer, because he’s going to say it and there’s 10,000 people there. What are you going to say? Do you think that sometimes they get in the car and she’s like ‘WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING UP THERE?’”
The room explodes in laughter- Coyne is flailing his limbs and doing a damn good impression of a pissed off woman. “I think it sets a precedent, that your husband won’t ever think twice about putting you on the spot! But I’m glad they make a moment of it. That’s the thing; to seize on it and do something different that is going to affect the rest of your life. That’s great. And at a Flaming Lips show, there is a sense, that if you can’t muster up the bravery or the enthusiasm and just surrender to the moment, then you probably never will. We run into quite a few couples years later and they’re still going strong.”
A Flaming Lips show, as you know, has to be seen to be believed.
Glitter guns fire rapidly, balls bounce around the crowd, streamers fall from the roof and of course, Coyne gets in that giant inflatable bubble and the crowd goes batshit crazy every time. On their recent Australian tour, they emerged onstage through a giant video of a throbbing vagina. Awesome. When did the Flaming Lips first realise that adding some colour and spark to the mix would produce such emotional reactions in people, I ask?
“It was weird, because we never thought we’d be this “live” group. We thought, ok, well we’ll just go and play some shows but never knew it would end up being this… thing.” He ponders for a little, and then continues, “Around the time we were touring The Soft Bulletin, a record which, a lot of it is about death, wondering about insanity, but a lot about death. I realised – maybe it was because at that time I was in my late thirties, but I was like, ‘we’re playing shows to 19 year old kids who want to smoke pot and have sex. Why would I want to bum them out on their Saturday night, singing about the triumph and the horrors and the beauty of death?’ But, if we do it and treat it like a giant party, I could probably sing songs about death and show them that I was really singing songs about life. We thought, ‘that’s a dumb idea but lets go for it’. Back then, I was throwing handfuls of confetti,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
The evolution of the live show did not stop there however, finessing the idea over time, Coyne is pragmatic about it’s affect on people.
“We really started to see the affects that this side of us was having. Don’t get me wrong, we are genuine about it. We really do embrace that sort of thing, but you never know what is going to work. Back then, we were finishing with ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and people would literally start to cry. Grown, cynical punk rockers. We thought it was awesome! But you do want to get some response; so we would just try different things. We were never concerned about being the greatest live band. The whole thing is contrived- people are being asked to partake in it. It showed me that people come to a show to do that, if you encourage them, even though it’s contrived, all you gotta do is say ‘let’s go!’”
For a crazy band of outsiders, whose origins lay in the psychedelic and mystical, the emotional response to songs like ‘Do You Realise’ has on their audience is not lost on the band. “It changes people, it moves people,” he explains. “It isn’t just this empty sports-yahoo thing. These songs mean a lot to a lot of people. Almost everyone has relayed a story to me about, particularly ‘Do You Realise?’, being used at a funeral, or wedding. To some, these are their most precious songs. That release, that joy, is such a great thing. I try to stay professional, but it’s hard not to get caught up in it. The humanity in the room is beautiful. But I do care so much. ”
With a new album under their arms, the double sided Embryonic, it’s a departure from their recent work. More psychedelic than the endlessly cheerful Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and the rifftastic surge of At War With The Mystics. As Coyne puts it, Embryonic is “groovy”.
“It’s strange, it’s groovy. Like we just locked into something. The way that we arrived to this music was by accident- I’d be messing around on the bass by dumb accident and I think, intuitively as a group they’d play to my strengths. Which is no strengths!” he laughs. “So, since I’m the least able, I’ll play the simplest thing and they gallop along with me. That’s where their skill comes in. When they play to my groove, it moves along with a good humanistic energy to it.”
“With this record, we were trying to just start completely at the weird accidents and just move backwards from there, and arrive at a strange sound, or mood, or exotic new-ness. It’s hard, after 13 or 14 records; you can easily be satisfied, thinking ‘I’ve written every song I was ever going to write’. After 1984 when we made our first 6-song EP, I thought, ‘I’m done here!’” he jokes, animatedly wiping his hands.
What’s true of Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips is that they’ll probably never be done. Lurking in that brain is wildly creative man, interested in the obscure and unafraid to be oblique. “You always want some reason to get lost, some freedom that lets you drift off into outer space. That’s the beauty of what art can do. If you get lost in it, you’ll never know what could happen…”
May these happy accidents continue to be birthed into the world for much longer.