The Flaming Lips: Wayne in Real Life

By • Jun 26th, 2010 • Category: Features, Lead story


Photo courtesy of Randy Cremean / Soundcheck Magazine

A slaughterhouse employee stands on his patio, looking out toward his suburban swathe of land. In front of him, colors swirl. Large animals appear dancing alongside him. Blood drips. Distorted voices waver in the distance. The man stands motionless, reverent at the specter around him, anticipating a series of magical and tragic events. His silhouette casts a large shadow over the grass that intertwines with the characters of his hallucination so convincingly that it begs the question whether this is a fantasy at all. Maybe this is reality. It looks real. It smells real. It certainly sounds real. In fact, it feels more genuine than the punch-clock life that he’s been hacking away at for all these years. Is he dreaming, or did he just wake up? All this has to be in his head, right? His life can’t actually be like this, can it?

Cut to Wayne Coyne’s home: Oklahoma City, Okla.

cover“At the moment, it’s just called The Backyard,” said Coyne of the movie idea rattling around his brain beneath that familiar salt-and-pepper mane. “Things happen in [the character’s] backyard, and he doesn’t know if they’re real or not, but they affect everything that he does. They affect the way he works and the way he starts to believe his life is.”

The Flaming Lips front man rambles through conversations tangentially, hopping between ideas until he stumbles upon answers as though he just figured them out at that very moment. The paradox within Coyne’s southern drawl is part of what makes him both endearing and perplexing. His answers are abstractly concrete. Scientifically nonsensical. In some instances, the singer speaks with the conviction of a person who most certainly has thought of all of this – regardless of what this might be – many times before, cautiously precise in his opinions and with a clear agenda. At other times, his voice hits an excited pitch, sounding like a man surprised by his new revelations.

Is he absolutely uncertain? Positively unsure? Definitely, … maybe.

When Coyne talks, it’s as though he’s solving a crossword puzzle by running through a series of synonyms before deciding on one. The wrong verbiage means systematic failure. The right phrase means everything perpendicularly makes sense. But it’s his trial by fire – or try all by fire – way of responding that gives the singer such a personable demeanor. For a man with such thorough beliefs, he sure isn’t bashful about letting perfect strangers listen in as he figures them out. And once he has, he shares them with a sort of reckless verbal abandon that raises the same question as so much of Coyne’s public persona.

Is this for real? His life can’t actually be like this, can it?

The only remaining original member of The Flaming Lips is preparing for his band’s upcoming summer tour while sitting in his Oklahoma City kitchen – in the house he remodeled like a 1950s sci-fi film, resembling something out of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. While discussing The Backyard, he takes a rare pause and sighs slightly as his tone drops to an almost apologetic pace.

“It’s probably just a movie about me again,” he said sheepishly. “All these dumb things are really just about the way I see the world.”

It’s hard to blame him for drawing comparisons between the film’s lead and his own life. After all, Flaming Lips concerts are chock-full of dancing animals, flashing lights, and psychedelic revelry. There’s confetti and fake blood. There are experimental soundscapes, balloons and billowing smoke.

To take Coyne at his word is to believe that the Flaming Lips’ entire output – 12 proper albums during the past 27 years, including last year’s double-LP Embryonic – is simply his window on the universe, not a window into him.

“[It’s] my version of what the world is,” Coyne said of his music. “Creating another world – or creating your version of the world – I think that is our job. I’m hoping it’s not coming from the way you’re aware that you’re seeing a forest or a mountain. I hope that my music is coming from the way you’re sleepwalking, that you’re not aware of what is real or imagined or what’s possible. … It comes from a place in your mind that you don’t really have control of. … Creating is using another part of your brain than observing.”

Thus, with each new album – or movie, or longwinded diatribe – it’s Coyne who learns a bit more about us, not the other way around. Although he might find answers through his work, everyone else is left wondering: Is this for real? His life can’t actually be like this, can it?

What we have learned over the years about the verbose front man is that he’s a hybrid of many of rock ‘n’ roll’s landmark visionaries. On stage, he twirls lights above his head the way Roger Daltry swung a microphone, yet sings in a fragile tenor more like Neil Young. His recognizable curly locks invoke memories of Bob Dylan’s iconic 1960s figure, and his trademark designer white suits recall Abbey Road John Lennon. That is, until he covers himself in fake blood like he’s imitating Gene Simmons, although he’ll tell you the look was inspired by a Civil Rights-era photo of Miles Davis.

As a filmmaker, what he doesn’t take from David Lynch’s bizarre plots and fill-in-your-own-blank style of storytelling, he draws from Ed Wood’s flair for do-it-yourself science fiction. The Backyard is poised to be his second venture into full-length cinema. His first, 2008’s Christmas On Mars, told a story of a suicidal Santa Claus in outer space. The film took almost a decade to complete and found The Flaming Lips members cast alongside celebrity friends such as Fred Armisen, Adam Goldberg, and Steve Burns, with Coyne writing, directing, and starring as a benevolent Martian named the Alien Super-Being. The notoriously DIY Coyne also built the film’s sets – fittingly, in his backyard. At one point, he talked a local gas station into giving up its old underground tanks so they could become the film’s spaceships.

As an artist, he’s part Frank R. Paul, with many of the Lips’ album covers resembling the pulp novels of the 1920s had they been reworked by psychedelic painter Edvard Munch.

But it’s as a conversationalist when he’s at his most raw, staying on target as well as an arrow without its fletching. It would be maddening, if he weren’t as engaging as a fellow southerner with a knack for persuasion, Bill Clinton.

After all, Coyne is the man who once convinced a parking garage full of strangers to play customized audiocassettes simultaneously on his cue, conducting their car stereos like an automobile orchestra. He’s the same bandleader who later passed out 40 boom boxes with corresponding cassettes, and effortlessly talked people into following his audio experiment. This, all before he persuaded Warner Bros. Records in 1997 to release the virtually unmarketable Zaireeka, which requires four individual CDs to be played simultaneously. He’s the same guy who once talked Justin Timberlake into joining his band on stage, … to play the bass, … dressed as a dolphin. This is the man who can be seen on Google Earth, … taking a bath, … in his backyard. This is the person who crowd surfs during his concerts, … standing up, … walking over the outstretched hands of the audience, … from inside a human-size hamster ball. He’s the guy who wrote the poetic retrospective about love and life, “Do You Realize??”, … put it on a concept album in 2002 about space robots seeking intergalactic supremacy, … then had it sell more than 500,000 copies – before it became the official Oklahoma state song. And Coyne is the same guy who followed a pair of Grammy Awards in 2005 by releasing this year’s challenging double-LP with 18 distorted and messy songs about sex, reproduction, and violent death, … only to have it debut at No. 8 on the Billboard Top 200.

But his life can’t actually be like this, can it?

“If you gravitate toward this music and you embrace it, and you give it the meaning you want, it’s you doing it. It’s not necessarily the music. … Whatever the mystery is of what music does to our minds, it’s phenomenal. It’s even more pronounced or more powerful, when it’s done in front of people, in a big group of people, all sort of seeing this thing together, all having this experience together,” Coyne said of the persuasive power he yields as one of the most iconic performers of his generation.

The Flaming Lips have built a reputation since the early 1980s for ambitious rock ‘n’ roll with equally eccentric stage shows. What began as ear-splitting prog-punk – accompanied by motorcycle-fueled fog machines and fiery drum kits – has aged into a celebratory symphony of painstakingly coordinated madness.

“And I don’t really know what music is; I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to it. … I don’t really know how it works, or why it works, but occasionally, it works very well,” Coyne mused. “We know that it’s something that we’re hearing; it goes in through our ears. But besides that, we don’t really know. Why do notes in a series evoke emotions? We don’t know why it may evoke these emotions from me but evoke it for you. Why music might appeal to you and not to me. Why sometimes music makes you seem like you want to kill yourself, while other music makes you save yourself from killing yourself.

“It’s the power of music that I guess I don’t understand,” he continued. “Certainly, I understand the idea of music and where it comes from. But a lot of music is still very strange. There are sounds and combinations of rhythms and things that you just don’t know why it has such a hold on you. … I understand that we can define what [music] is, but I don’t know if that is really what we mean. What we mean, is that it’s magic. When music is saying something to you, it’s an invisible friend that is only alive in your mind.”

As Coyne debated – in part, with himself – what sort of power music has on listeners, his voice again began to slow. His familiar drawl began to waver, and his tone reached a pitch as though something had just clicked.

“It’s a muthafucker, that’s what I think,” he said, relieved by his conclusion. “It’s a muthafucker.”

For some, he’s a salesman, convincing his minions before they realize what they’ve agreed to. For others, he’s a feverishly hard-worker whose hands-on approach to everything attracts even the most skeptical observers.

After all, he did work at Long John Silver’s for 11 years, some of which were after he had a major-label recording contract. He’s the guy who fashioned the original rigging for the Flaming Lips’ massive LCD projection screens himself – again, in his backyard. He built the air pump that he uses onstage to fill the dozens of oversized balloon that bounce among concert-goers out of a leaf blower and funnel. (He publicly has estimated that he spends more than $10,000 a year on Duct Tape for similar Flaming Lips projects.) He sets up and soundchecks his equipment before each gig in plain sight, casually talking with fans from the stage as he tunes.

By and large, the Lips are a family-run organization with more than just Coyne’s hand in everything from the band’s album artwork to their music videos. His wife, Michelle Coyne, takes most of the band’s photos, and the two still live in the low-income Oklahoma City neighborhood where Wayne grew up, only blocks away from his childhood home. His brother, Kenny Coyne, had a staring role in Christmas on Mars, while Michelle and his nephew, Rayce Coyne, have been featured throughout the band’s music video catalog. Another nephew, Dennis Coyne, is the band’s former roadie who now fronts Lips-like outfit Stardeath and White Dwarfs, which recorded this year alongside Uncle Wayne on a remake of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to even consider what it would be,” said Wayne Coyne of his band’s 2010 remake of Pink Floyd’s seminal album. “We knew we didn’t want to do what Pink Floyd did. By that, I mean we knew we didn’t want to make a meticulous space-rock record. We took their songs and their themes and their arrangements and said, ‘Why don’t we try and do this like we were a punk-rock group and just see what happens?’ ”

Released originally in 1973, the psychedelic milestone stayed on the Billboard Top 200 charts for a record 741 weeks, finally dropping off the list in 1988 – just about the time the Flaming Lips were kicking around the ideas for the band’s sophomore LP, Telepathic Surgery. Over the years, Coyne and Co. made a habit of performing Pink Floyd songs in concerts, including during a radio performance in 1999 when the band performed a combination of David Gilmour-era Floyd alongside music from The Wizard of Oz (the film that forever is linked to The Dark Side of the Moon over speculation that the LP can substitute for the film’s audio track).

That affection toward Floyd – as well as Coyne’s sarcastic tongue – lead to this year’s output. When pushed by Internet giant iTunes to provide exclusive B-sides for Embryonic, Coyne quipped that his band didn’t have a stockpile of recordings and that they should just cover Dark Side in its entirety. A few days later, the band’s lawyers, who had taken Coyne seriously and inquired about the legality of doing such a recording, informed the singer that the proper calls had been made and he was free to launch The Dark Side of the Moon project.

“If you’re a band, you do stuff like this. You don’t think, ‘Oh, this is going to change the world.’ You think, ‘Well, this will be fun,’ and you do it,” said Coyne of the no-win situation that he entered by rerecording such an influential LP. Succeed, and critics could cite working with Pink Floyd’s raw material as the reason. Fail, and the Flaming Lips could be remembered as the guys who ruined a classic.

“And sometimes I think that’s the only way you could ever make music that probably can be world-changing. You’re really just doing it because you like it. You don’t really need anybody to tell you it’s great, and you don’t really care if people tell you that it’s not great. A lot of times, frankly, you’re making these things because you want to, anyway. A lot of times, I’m only doing it because I want to.”

The Lips’ version, which clocks in at 1 minute, 59 seconds shorter than the original, features spoken-word parts by Henry Rollins and electro-trash diva Peaches filling in the female vocals. It’s an elaborate undertaking that has swelled from a knee-jerk comment into a full-on concert tour, with Coyne reworking the album into a live performance, including high-profile performances at Bonnaroo.

It’s a tour, however, that saw a portion halted and the rest hang in jeopardy over multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd’s admittance to alcohol rehab. The 41-year-old musician long has battled substance abuse, his usage documented thoroughly in the film The Fearless Freaks, which shows the performer using heroin and discussing its effects in real time. When news broke that Coyne, bassist Michael Ivins and longtime drummer Kliph Scurlock had canceled a portion of the 2010 road show, many skeptics immediately connected the move to Drozd’s history. This latest setback left Coyne wondering about his time after The Flaming Lips, debating whether this was for real, if his life actually could be like this.

“For the longest time, I never considered the life of The Flaming Lips. I thought, ‘Of course we’re in The Flaming Lips, and we make records, and we play shows. That’s what we do.’ And over this past month, it’s been very strange for me,” Coyne said of the realization that his surreal fairytale might not last forever. “I’ve thought, ‘Well, I don’t know if The Flaming Lips will always exist.’ Obviously, I should have thought of that all along. But this has been … weird. And I think, ‘Wow, maybe The Flaming Lips won’t always exist. What the fuck do I do now?’ ”

For the time being, that answer is on hold. Drozd ended his hospital stint in June. According to Coyne, Drozd is on the uptick, and his recovery has left plenty of time for the bulk of his band’s summer gigs.

For now, all is back to normal for Coyne, Drozd, Scurlock, and Ivins. It’s back to the flashing lights, confetti, dripping blood, dancing animals, oversized balloons, and even-bigger hamster balls. It’s back to movies about aliens, songs about robots, and albums about the other side of the cosmos.

But life can’t actually be like this, can it?

Yes, it can, and much of it begins in Wayne Coyne’s backyard.

Soundcheck Magazine, June 2010

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