The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne Uncensored: ‘David Bowie Died. Why Didn’t Trump Die?’
The frontman for the psych-pop outfit opens up about their new album ‘Oczy Mlody,’ his modus operandi, and life under President Trump.
Beyond the hair, a magical mess of salt-and-pepper tendrils, and beyond the confetti-cannon theatrics lies the hinterland of Wayne Coyne’s mind: a place brimming with creativity. It’s easy to envision the Flaming Lips frontman as a far-out caricature—a cross between Doc Brown and Jeffrey Lebowski—and in some ways, he is. His hippie-dippie conviviality is nothing short of charming. But he is also a tireless worker; a fount of creativity who’s been at the helm of 27 albums, 18 EPs, and one sci-fi feature film over the course of his 34-year career.
The Flaming Lips’ 17th studio album, Oczy Mlody, marks a return to the psych-pop sound that made them a household name in the late-‘90s and early aughts. Its title, roughly translating to “eyes of the young,” is taken from the Polish translation of the Erskine Caldwell novel Close to Home, and its music sees the Lips at their catchy, sonically audacious best.
The Daily Beast caught up with Coyne from his Oklahoma City compound to discuss the band’s latest and how the liberal red stater is coping with Trump’s shock election win and chaotic month-plus in office.
The narrative surrounding Oczy Mlody is that it’s a return to the Lips’ more pop-oriented, accessible fare like Yoshimi. After giving it a few spins, I sort of agree.
Well, yeah, I totally understand that. We freely explore whatever it is we’re interested in, and sometimes that can be a 6-hour song or a 24-hour song, and we know that those things are not meant to be part of this wider audience that we have. We’re lucky that we can get away with that, and this type of record is one that we love to make as well. We don’t pick and choose that much. Things start to happen, and we follow the flow.
How have you managed to stay together for, what’s it been, 34 years? There have been famous marriages that lasted 72 days. That’s damn impressive.
In the beginning, you don’t know what you’re doing. Being younger with full testosterone, anxiety, and not knowing what you’re going to do, that can be chaotic for groups to stay together. We’re lucky that we were doing so much stuff then that our personalities didn’t clash. But as you get older into your thirties, your personalities start becoming more pronounced, and I think that’s why bands stop doing stuff. The things that you used to tolerate, as you get into your mid-thirties you say, “You know, I hate you! I don’t want to be around you anymore.” You see that a lot with groups that started young.
You seem like a chill, freewheeling guy. Are you the glue holding this thing together? It’s kind of my personality, I think. I come from a big family and love the chaos. Steven [Drozd] is from a big, chaotic musical family in that same way, so our personalities are mostly what’s happening within the Flaming Lips, and the other stuff are things that we’ve attracted to us because of those outsized personalities. But the rest of it is dumb luck. Nothing overly bad has happened to us that would make us not able to keep doing it, and overwhelming success can be a big mindfuck on people, too. We’ve been pretty lucky that it’s always been about the music, the records, and we’ll figure out how to make money as we go.
The Lips recorded Oczy Mlody off and on over the course of four years, right?
As we were working doing things we’d always stumble upon little magical moments, and mess with it. It’s sort of dumb luck. Even now, we have four or five things that we’re working on. Some are boring, some are fun, and some we’re stuck on, but you just go with it. The way I’ll work is, instead of making one song and then you put that away and work on another song, sometimes I’ll combine three songs I’ve been working on into one song. Music really invites two or three different dimensions. Music can hold all that. Sometimes, I think movies and television struggle with that, but music gets into a part of your brain where you welcome complexity, and like that it’s flowing around in a way that you didn’t expect.
Miley Cyrus is featured on the album, and the Lips also released an LP with her, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. That’s a relationship that initially left some Lips’ purists scratching their heads, but now it seems to make more sense.
We had worked with Kesha before then [on “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)”], so we were leaning to do stuff like that anyway. We already liked Miley’s music, too. And, in around 2013, she was becoming the world-famous, controversial Disney star gone fuckin’ freaky. We liked that. We don’t really know our position in the universe that well, either. To us, it’s hard to say, OK, Miley is this way and the Flaming Lips are that way. It never felt like, Hey man, this is gonna be weird! It always felt like we were being stimulated, doing new things, and that we were being absorbed in her world and her in ours. It’s all up to her, too. We have nothing to lose by doing something freaky with Miley Cyrus, and she has everything to lose doing something freaky with us. She’s really amazing, though. To be around her is good times, so I can see why it looks like worlds colliding, but it really feels like the same world when you’re inside of it. The Lips’ live shows have always been pretty psychedelic. What role do psychedelics play in your creative process?
For me personally, I just cannot function in that way doing anything. I wouldn’t drink or be on anything when we’re together doing our music, and if I’m creating on my own, rarely would I want to be on anything. The only time I want to be on something is when we’re just going to be out there talking to people and having fun—those are the only drugs I’ll ever do. But I’m taking the drugs mostly because I’m too intense, otherwise I literally would work all the damn time. Sometimes I’m having a conversation with someone and half of my mind is still thinking about a painting or a song I’m working on, and I don’t want that. I want to be absolutely with you here. The drugs I am taking are to allow me to be more in the moment and not another part of my mind. But I don’t need to take anything. I’m absolutely into it all the time. You’d want to take some drugs when you’re around me because you’re like, dude, you’re too into this shit.
President Trump is dominating the news these days. Are the Lips planning a protest song, like you did on At War with the Mystics? No. We slightly did that on At War with the Mystics when Bush was re-elected, and we don’t regret that. [Trump] is on there too. And that’s not even ironic, it’s just, My god, these are the times we live in. Popularity is a motherfucker. But no. I don’t really think music does that anyway. I don’t think people standing there singing songs about politics does anything. Sometimes it makes for great songs, but they don’t really affect politics in that way. And I discourage that in people.
What about the 1960s? You don’t think music played an important role in that countercultural movement?
Not if you look at what really happened. I think in the romantic, Oliver Stone version of reality, but that’s not what really happened. I was born in 1961 and was around when Robert Kennedy got assassinated. My older brothers, who pretended to be very involved in politics and all that, said, Fuck it, I’m going to give up and just do drugs now. Fuck it. And I remember my mother saying, “That’s not going to work. You have to stay involved. We need you more now. I remember people saying, “Woodstock stopped the Vietnam War,” and it’s just not true. It was Nixon that stopped the war—not Woodstock. And I’m not saying it doesn’t make for an occasionally great song, but I don’t think music is gonna do anything to change Donald Trump. If music could do that, there wouldn’t be a Donald Trump now. There couldn’t have been any more opposition to Trump than there was prior to him being elected, and he was still elected. It’s like, if you broke your arm and you went to the hospital and someone sang you a song, and someone asked, “Did that help you?” you’d say no. If you were hungry and went to a restaurant and they sang you a song, and someone asked, “Did that help you?” you’d say, “Well, I’m still hungry but that was a pretty cool song.” Songs are just songs. They don’t do work. People would rather sing a song because it’s fun. And Republicans don’t like music.
What about Ted Nugent?
[Laughs] Well, yes.
You’re a liberal guy. How are you coping with Trump’s election?
I’m involved as much as I can be in my local government, where you really do have an absolute say if you’re involved enough. On the morning after the election—we went to sleep at about 4 o’clock in the morning pulling the covers up, trying to stave off the doom that, oh, Donald Trump is the president now—we woke up in Oklahoma City, and there were seven or eight things on the ballot. Oklahoma City is a slightly more progressive city because of some of the things I was urging people to vote on. Yes, Donald Trump is the president, but things were slightly better. I’ve never waited for the president to tell me what to do or how to live. I’m gonna live my life. If it’s against the law, well, we should change those. I’m not waiting for someone to tell me it’s OK.
Maybe it’s the last time we’ll ever see someone like a Barack Obama. We should have worked harder when we had him and gotten involved because of his inspiration, but we didn’t. He became president and we said, “Good. You’re in charge. I’m gonna go do my shit that has nothing to do with politics.” We all acted like, well, we got you elected and now we’re free of responsibility. You could see that. The Democratic Party would only become very much alive when it was time to re-elect him, and then it didn’t.
You don’t seem all that worried about President Trump. Well, I think my level of worry was always there anyway because the world is a chaotic fuckin’ weird place. We recently played in Paris [at Bataclan] where the attack was, and that happened under Barack Obama. The world is always in chaos and it’s always both normal and fucked up at the same time. We live in the most Republican state there is now. We’re counted before the election starts as already being Republican, even though within the structure of all the communities it’s a lot more diverse, but I don’t know. I’m as worried as you could be, but I was also worried before he was there. I also don’t give him that much power. I don’t give a fuck. I’m not going to let him tell me how to live, and if we see that he’s doing something wrong, we should go and do something about it. We shouldn’t just make a joke about it or talk about it like it’s the weather. Every time we make a joke about him and spend time talking about him, he gets more popular—like he did all during the election. All we’d talk about with Hillary was, well, hope she wins, and all you’d talk about the next 23 hours of the day is how ridiculous Donald Trump is.
You’ve been critical of Kanye West’s connection to the Kardashians. Do you feel reality television is dumbing down society?
I don’t think it does any of that. I think you can be entertained by the Kardashians and still think Donald Trump is an idiot, and you can be entertained by the Kardashians and still think some of the things that Kanye West says are stupid. You could like Kanye’s music and still think some of the rants he goes on are idiotic. It can be complicated. Everything is so available and so convenient, and news goes 24 hours a day even if there isn’t any news, so if you don’t have news you’re going to run that Kanye story, even though it’s stupid, just because there’s nothing to talk about. We’re all at the mercy of consumption. There can only be so many deaths in 2016 that we can care about. As I’ve said before: David Bowie died. Why didn’t Trump die?
We did lose an unbelievable amount of musicians and actors last year. Many millennials felt like, between the deaths and the election, it was perhaps the worst year of their lives. We see how much everybody gets those news alerts on their phones, too. Whenever something happens, everybody is alarmed to it, so I think everyone is more hyper-aware of who’s died today and what else there is to talk about. We had an idea that David Bowie was in decline for a while. It didn’t surprise me that he died, but it did affect me. You don’t have to consider that he’s dead until he’s dead though, and then it is quite sad. Prince was probably the only one of all those that seemed like, Oh fuck? He seemed like a Superman. You never knew how old Prince was. He ran around and looked like he always did, and you never considered that he was addicted to painkillers or anything. Of all of them, his was the most shocking. I thought it was a hoax at first. Did it make you think about your own mortality?
Well, I’m 56 and I’ve considered it a bunch anyway. Everybody considers it when they enter their late 40s and you start to take stock in how you can battle back against things you’ve done badly, and what’s in your favor. I’m lucky. I don’t really have anything overly wrong with me or anything. I’m probably healthier now than I was when I was 25. You think about your decline, but I’m not worried about it—at least not at the moment!