The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne: he’s got some furry balls
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oklahoma WAYNE COYNE has been on a fantastic psychedelic journey with The Flaming Lips since they formed way back in 1983. Now, aged 55, he’s relaxed about where the adventure takes his band, as long as it’s somewhere new. “We’re d
The 55- year-old man who looks like a wizard flew in from Oklahoma City last night. Entering his room at the boutique Zetter Hotel in London, he fiddled around in the dark trying to get his plastic room key into the electricity slot, switched on the light and was delighted to find himself bathed in the pink glow of a coloured bulb. He pulled a band of fake flowers down over his eyes, snapped a selfie on his iPhone, and uploaded the hypercolour result. “Cool light in my room in London,” he tweeted. Whatever he does, it seems, Wayne Coyne is filled with a sense of childlike wonder at the world around him. Now it’s just past lunchtime the following day and, posing for the Q photographer in the Zetter’s basement games room, he is an eye-popping vision in a psychedelic fur coat, accessorised by tiny multi-hued balls strung around his crotch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his favourite word seems to be “absurd”. The other is “yesssss”. The Flaming Lips singer is proud to let his freak flag fly. Back in his downtrodden Southern US hometown, populated by redneck cowboys, he attracts weird looks but never trouble, seeming to exist as he does almost in a parallel universe. “Well, I’m not going to the singles bars on a Saturday night where a bunch of drunk cowboys would have a dilemma with me,” he points out. “I’m not dealing with what’s really there. I’m living my own life in my own world.” Since 1992, Coyne has lived in the Plaza District of Oklahoma City in a huge house he managed to buy for $ 20,000 in cash, mainly because it’s an area filled with low-income families and drug dealers. Sometimes at night, he can hear gunfire. But, the singer says, he has never once considered leaving his rough neighbourhood, mainly because
“You just start off like, ‘Well, I’ll look like this when I perform.’ And before long you’re not just looking like it, you’ve become that person.”
in the midst of it he has managed to create his dream home, in the sense that it’s dreamlike, and very Wayne: an otherworldly palace of giant metallic disco balls and white-walled ’60s futuristic wonder akin to the sets of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Living the way I do in Oklahoma, you would have to be a millionaire of sorts to do that in New York or LA,” he stresses. “Where I’m living you can do it without it costing shit.” Each Halloween, Wayne decks the outside of his house with phantasmagorical decorations, attracting visitors from miles around. These days, though, he tries not to encourage outsiders bringing their kids into his neighbourhood. “It’s too hairy,” he says. “Unsuspecting soccer moms with six kids and there’s drug dealers trying to rip you off.”
It’s not surprising that Wayne Coyne loves Halloween though, since along with his bubbling enthusiasm for all things, he’s also drawn to the dark stuff. The latest Flaming Lips album, Oczy Mlody, spotlights this with its lyrics about going through “the hole in the night sky” in the wigged-out Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes and the strange tale of One Night While Hunting For Faeries And Witches And Wizards To Kill where the singer goes on a nocturnal search for said creatures and ends up being blinded by his own gun. It all sounds like a hellishly bad trip. “I think the drug music that we like is always a bad trip,” Coyne beams. “We’re never gonna see God and like it. We’re gonna see God and it’s gonna ruin us and we’re gonna lose our minds. No one wants to hear someone say, ‘I took acid, oh it was just so wonderful.’ You’re like, ‘Fuck, who gives a shit?’ I wanna know that the fucking worms ate your dick off or something…” Wayne Coyne has lived in this world of pure imagination since his teens. Surrounded by his working-class family of brothers and a sister who were into music and drugs, he spent hours and hours drawing while chaotic scenes unfolded around him. “Always music going,” he remembers. “They’re doing drugs all the time, every day, every night. If you weren’t used to it, it would be a madhouse. You’d be like, ‘Fuuuck this is
outta control.’ But I think in the way that I was just in it, it made me probably the only person in the world that would want to be around that chaos and music and lifestyle when I grew up. That’s what The Flaming Lips are. I mean, The Flaming Lips, it’s chaos, you’re never alone, there’s always shit happening.” The only normal job Coyne ever held down was at Long John Silver’s fast food seafood restaurant, although a heavy dose of reality was meted out to him there when one day, along with his fellow employees, he was held up at gunpoint and forced to lie on the floor, believing he was going to be shot and killed. Understandably then, when the first line-up of The Flaming Lips formed in 1983 (when he was 22), he ran away with the psychedelic circus, creating an art-rock noise that would often be accompanied by the band members igniting outdoor fireworks indoors and setting their cymbals ablaze with lighter fluid. As the ’ 90s hit, and already in their 30s, The Flaming Lips never seemed to quite fit into any scene, not least grunge. “Y’know, we didn’t have this mission statement to destroy Guns N’ Roses,” he says. “I mean, we liked some of their songs and didn’t really give a shit. But we weren’t 25- years-old by then either.” In 1993, with She Don’t Use Jelly (from The Flaming Lips’ sixth album Transmissions From The Satellite Heart) and its nursery rhyme-like words about a guy blowing his nose with magazines and a girl dyeing her hair with tangerines, they had a novelty radio hit whose success ensured that they didn’t lose their deal with Warner Bros Records. Threatening to destroy their alternative cred, they even appeared on cheesy American teen soap Beverly Hills 90210 to perform the song. Never though, says Coyne today, did he worry that The Flaming Lips were destined to become a one-hit wonder. “We followed the absurd and said, ‘Why’s it matter?’” he states. “And I think that saved us. Cos when people would say, ‘You’ve got this one-hit wonder,’ we’d be like, [ excitedly] ‘I know. It’s so cool. It’s better than having no hits!’” But Wayne Coyne’s great act of self-invention was to follow and propel the band to a higher flight level. When the four-piece Flaming Lips were reduced to a trio with the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones in 1996, they re-imagined themselves as a post-digital Pink Floyd with the brilliant The Soft Bulletin, released in 1999. Onstage, in front of trippy film projections, offering gently beautiful songs such as Waitin’ For A Superman and Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, the now 38- year-old, greying-haired, peacoat-wearing Coyne became the ecstatic ringleader of this headspinning live experience. He’d animate hand puppets to mime along to the songs. He’d pour fake blood down his forehead. He believes this was the point where he began to truly build his own personality. “I’m creating a persona that lets me go up there and say, ‘Thank you tonight!’” he reflects today. “Part of me was like, ‘I want to become the person that gets to sing those songs.’ And so you just start off like, ‘Well, I’ll look like this when I do it.’ And before too long you’re not just looking like it, you’ve become that person. And that’s the great thing that art does. It’s not that you make it. It makes you.”
From here, over the next few years, The Flaming Lips’ shows became progressively more elaborate, with Coyne walking atop the audience in his transparent space ball, as outsized balloons bounced around him and confetti cannons exploded and people danced at the sides of the stage in animal costumes. There was almost a revival tent-style fervour to the band’s performances, not least with the modern classic Do You Realize??, which put the human condition into sharp perspective with its reminders that we’re all floating in space and that we and everyone we know will die some day. From the stage, nightly, Coyne could see people crying in the crowd. “For sure,” he notes, “and it affected us too. We’d never have that and feel, ‘Oh, look at these idiots.’ It was always very powerful and it would make us play better.” Nonetheless, Coyne and the band’s freakish instincts made them buck against the idea of becoming an arena-sized rock band known only for their emotional, existential anthems. “When I see a band like Coldplay, y’know, I like them enough,” he says, diplomatically. “But I wouldn’t have wanted to do records in that way where, y’know, if you like Do You Realize??, well we have four other records that have this [ same] idea about them. We like Do You Realize??
“If I was 35 and Miley Cyrus was 22, I might say, ‘Y’know, I’m kinda old for what you’re doing.’ But I’m so old and she’s so young, it doesn’t matter.”
but it didn’t make us think we should go away from what we want to do with our music and ideas.” And so The Flaming Lips decided to head further and further out there, following a path of ever-more extreme outsider art notions. In the video for 2009’ s skronk-rocking Watching The Planets, Coyne was kidnapped and stripped naked by a nudist cult. He had no qualms about getting his todger out on film? “No,” he laughs. “You think it would be weird. It’s only weird for about 20 seconds, y’know. We knew it would represent just… there are no rules. We’re doing whatever the fuck we want and no one is gonna stop us.” Subsequently, for The Flaming Lips’ 2012 collaborations album …Heady Fwends, Coyne managed to convince most of its guest singers, including Chris Martin, Kesha and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, to donate blood to be mixed into plastic for the record’s limited-edition vinyl release. Only Yoko Ono and Nick Cave declined. “I made a blanket statement,” says the singer. “Like, if you feel for any reason you don’t want your blood in there, it doesn’t matter to me why you don’t… you don’t even have to say. I mean, Kesha was the first one. She FedExed it to me.” In more recentecent times, eyebrows have been raised about the fact that Coyne has developed a close friendship and creative relationship elationship with the increasingly freakified Miley iley Cyrus. “If I was 35 and Miley was 22, I might say, ‘Y’know, I’m kinda old for what you’re doing,’” he reasons. “But I’m so old and she’s so young, it doesn’t matter. If you were around her, in five minutes, you’d be like, ‘Oh, I get it, yeah.’” Two years ago in Los Angeles, Cyrus, Coyne and his girlfriend Katy Weaver even got matching tattoos done, featuring a drawing of the younger singer’s dog (which had recently been killed by coyotes) along with the legend: “With a little help from my fwends.” “It was just something absurd to do,” Coyne says with a grin and a shrug. “Miley likes getting tattoos. You should see her brothers and her mom and her dad… they’ve all got the same sorts of things. One would be of a grandmother and they’re like, ‘This means the world to me.’ Then the other is just a pizza, and it’s like, ‘I don’t even
remember why I got it.’ [ Laughs] It’s the most meaningful and the most meaningless and it doesn’t matter and that’s why we like her.”
For all of his tripped-out joie de vivre, underneath it all, Wayne Coyne can be a worrier. He frets sometimes that his fragile Neil Young-like singing voice isn’t strong enough to carry the melodies he hears in his head. “I’m not a very good singer,” he reckons, while at the same time acknowledging the emotional qualities he brings to a song. “I get to sing the song and the song is better than me.” In years gone by, he used to worry about The Flaming Lips breaking up: “I would always worry that people [ in the band] would just get burned out or lose interest or their happiness in it. But then after a while, I would just be like, ‘Well… me worrying about it is probably making it worse.’” Above all, he used to worry about getting old. “Then people would be like, ‘Dude, you’re already old,’” he roars. “And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ It was such a great relief. I kept waiting for something to happen. I was relieved that whatever was gonna happen probably already did and this is the way I’m gonna be.” Coyne can’t imagine a time when he would want to quit the road and retire to his psychedelic compound. “I think I could probably go on like this forever,” he muses. He understands that while most people exist in the “straight” world, he’s free to be alive and creative in whatever weird ways he chooses. “I’m just very lucky that I kept working toward the fact that, like, I’m supposed to get up and do music today,” he concludes. “It’s what everybody wants me to do. Everywhere I go, everybody’s saying, ‘You’re gonna do your thing today.’ So I could see where if you want that, you’d wanna be around me and say, ‘How’s he getting away with it?’” The simple reason being because he’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oklahoma, and that he glows with a bright light, pink and all the other colours of the rainbow, wherever he goes.
Super furry animal! The Flaming Lips frontman shows off his manifesto for a good life.
Race for the prize: The Flaming Lips with their Best Rock Instrumental Grammy, New York, 2003.
(Above) The Flaming Lips, with Coyne (centre), in 1989; ( below) getting a big hand on Later… With Jools Holland, 2006.
That shows real balls: (left) Coyne meets the fans at Coachella Festival, California, 2004; ( right) with heady fwend, Miley Cyrus, Soho House, New York, 2015.
Transfusion music: The Flaming Lips’ …Heady Fwends blood-filled limited-edition vinyl.
Off on a stag do? Wayne Coyne, London, 2016.