Wayne Coyne Is Ready for the Apocalypse
"They've probably been tolerating us for a long, long time, wishing they could kill us." The Flaming Lips frontman takes on Trump, creativity, and the band's surreal new album, 'Oczy Mlody.'
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
It's one week before Donald Trump's inauguration, and Wayne Coyne is optimistic, kind of.
Reclining in a posh conference room inside LA's Ace Hotel, the Flaming Lips frontman fields questions about the current political climate with the cheerful ambivalence of a college senior being asked about his post-graduation plans.
"I'm not going to worry about something that hasn't happened," Coyne says. "Everybody wants to impeach Donald Trump before he's even in office. I'm like, really? You think this is the way we should do it? 'Before he does something bad, let's get rid of him.' It's childish.
"Being a citizen of America is the most powerful position in America. That's why it doesn't really matter what I do. You have all the power. He's giving you the power, and you don't want it. If we have the power, he's just the President."
Coyne has little concern for existential dread. Today is his 56th birthday, and it's been a particularly good so far—the occasion overlaps with the release of The Flaming Lips's 17th album, Oczy Mlody. Coyne celebrated both milestones the night before at a label party that included LED unicorns, a clothing-optional photo booth, and something called a "bondage-latex room with positive discipline." In about an hour, he'll take a car across town to Miley Cyrus's house, where the pop star and Lips pal-cum-collaborator is hosting a joint birthday bash for Coyne, Liam Hemsworth, and Cyrus's sister Noah.
"We had a record come out, and I'm contemplating, 'Am I getting older, or am I getting better?'" Coyne says, leaning back in his trademark grey suit and green animal paw shoe covers. The question comes off as cheeky as it is obvious; you get the sense he doesn't necessarily consider the two mutually exclusive.
Three decades into The Flaming Lips's career, the Oklahoma City psych rock heroes remain difficult to pin down. As many of their peers grow ripe for the festival nostalgia circuit, the Lips's output remains consistent in its urgency, and little else—even if it's to the chagrin of fans of the rock-oriented sound that earned the band early success. Oczy Mlody, which follows 2014's pop collaboration With a Little Help from My Fwends, teases out the droning electronics and pulsing rhythms of the group's post-Embryonic sound into something more light and strange: It's experimental psychedelia built on pop and hip-hop palettes (Cyrus and Reggie Watts are among its features).
If the Lips's last solo LP, 2013's The Terror, was about embracing anxiety and life in the absence of love, Oczy Mlody feels like relief on the surreal other side: It's an exploration of identity through escapism, with themes ranging from unicorns to suicide. Technically, it's also a concept album about a dystopian fairy tale world of big-box store convenience, filled with unicorns and castles and pharmaceutical companies dispensing designer drugs. But don't overthink it—Oczy Mlody is as weird as you want it to be.
We sat down with Coyne for an episode of Noisey Radio on Beats 1 to talk more about the new album, the band's evolving creative process, and staying sane in the age of Trump. Listen here and read on for an extended version the interview below.
Noisey: We've been talking about creativity, and you mentioned earlier that most people are very satisfied with having something to eat and watching some good TV. I wonder if that's a little bit how we got to where we are now.
Wayne Coyne: Which I think is much better than people wanting to kill each other 24 hours a day. Most people are kind of complacent, which is slightly peaceful, you know? I think that's a good thing. We don't want a bunch of aggressive assholes out there beating people up all the time.
I think that complacent state is what's changed, though.
Well, we live in good times where the Walmart world of everything being virtually almost free and convenient and you've sorted out all of it's dilemmas. If it's bad for me, it's your problem. If the coffee at Starbucks is too hot, I can sue you. Who would really live like that? What real mature adult would put those responsibilities on the whole world? But people do, people live like that. Most people are kind of, they want to be the victim of the world. "I have to have a fucking job, what can I do?" Well, what would you do? You want everything for free and you want it all worked out? A lot of people do. Or it's the way everybody communicates with each other about it. No one marvels at the half a million airplanes that take off on time and land on time and work miraculously. Do you have any idea how hard that is? No. They just know it's three minutes late and it sucks. It's a weird value system.
It feels like an emotionally exhausting way to live.
I think it probably frees you up, because if you're not actually gonna do anything about it there's not really any stress. It's not your fault if it works, it's not your fault if it fails. When you're doing art and stuff like this, none of it does anything unless you start making the mechanism go, and the minute you stop, it stops. I think that's the dilemma that a lot of young artists have. As you're growing up, most of your life is happening to you. For the beginning of your life you don't even have to worry that you're gonna eat. You're fed food at certain times and you go through your life and people are wiping your butt and feeding you and sending you off to some school. Get in the van and it takes you everywhere. Then little by little you're being urged to have a decision about what you want to do, and you don't really want to do anything, you just want everything to be done for you, it's wonderful.
But, doing something like art that really, there is no reason to do it, if you want to do it, you should do it. If you don't want to do it it's fine. It doesn't really matter to anybody if it doesn't matter to you. When you're the instigator of all the action, it is very frustrating to look around and see people who don't want to do anything and want everything done and they get to complain about it. Look around, these buildings got built, these eyes got made. Everything here, somebody did it. It's proof, a lot of cool proof out there doing a lot of cool stuff. A lot of people complain about it, but a lot of cool people don't care and do stuff anyway.
I think it's a personality. If you're that way, you don't see any value in being the other way. I always say if we think tolerance is good, then that's what we should tolerate. People that really aren't like us at all. We can't kill them, or we shouldn't kill them. That's what tolerance is. It's not tolerance if you kind of like them and you like what they're doing. Tolerance is you really don't like them but you believe it's important that you allow them to do their thing. That's our situation with Donald Trump and these horrible conservative billionaires. This is our side of tolerance. They've probably been tolerating us for a long long time wishing they could kill us.
Maybe now they'll get their chance.
They probably had some faith that we'd kill each other. Create enough chaos and it all will fuck up. We're not as crazy as they thought we were either.
One thing that stands out about The Flaming Lips's work is longevity—not it because it implies a certain kind of long slog, but because there's an urgency that builds on whatever came before it. Can you talk a little bit about maintaining that kind of creativity and momentum this long into your career?
I still think it is just your personality. I would appear to you like I'm driven, but I'm really not. I really am just liking the things that I like and I go after them and no one has stopped me. Doing things like art and music is deep inside of you, something that you're not controlling. You can be as driven as you want and it wouldn't make you like doing music, you know? A lot of it is your personality being formed for you as you're going through life and It would be difficult to be 25 years old and wake up and think, "Well I want to be something now." Because you're already you. And you've already started to become this thing. It's possible for sure.
It's hard for a lot of people to just allow that in themselves, though. To listen to that, and not have that thought that stops them. As people get older it seems like there are more and more blocks that they create for themselves.
When people are smart enough the feelings and the emotional fun of it kind of goes away. And you can kind of just have a bigger understanding of what it is that you want to do and how you can do it. If you're not that smart you really do rely on these markers of how you feel about it and how it makes you feel and that sort of stuff. And I think that's wonderful too. You can feel good and then that's good and you can feel bad and that's good, at least it's better than feeling nothing. I think at some point early on, I felt like my feelings would guide what I liked and what I didn't like. And then I think little by little, that drops away and you're just more drawn to things that you've been doing. The thing you're doing is pushing you towards doing more stuff and the way you feel about it doesn't really have to come into it. Even when people talk about doing interviews, it's like they think about, "What am I gonna say? What am I gonna do? I don't wanna say the same thing a thousand times over." If you do it, it always can be a new and fresh thing. Your feelings don't have much to do with it. When you're younger, your feelings don't have that much to do with it.
So if you're not listening to feelings, what are you listening to?
You're listening to your experiences that you've done before. It's a repeat of what you've done before. A lot of it I think about learning to yoga, in a way. It's like, before I did yoga I could easily dismiss it and say, "Well, it is kind of a waste of time and I don't see it's value." And it's hard and it's for young people and if it's your bag you should do it. But it's not true. If you believe all of that, the way you feel about it, it will be true. But if you kind of look past it and say what are it's things? And you can't get them just by reading about them. Older people want to read about something and say, "I know it." Older people want to watch a movie about it but you can't. You have to do it and live it and experience it. So, you know. The way the world is now it's very easy to read about everything. It's very easy to know every little nuance about someone else's life without having any care about your real life. It's just fun to have information. I'm lucky that the less I worried about how it was going to make me feel, the more I could just be me and have feelings or not. And some of my feelings would be stupid. What did I feel that? Maybe I'm old and so thick skinned that I don't care anymore.
It definitely is helpful if you're dead set on doing your art and your music and that sort of stuff. Being too thick skinned is like, "Hey man, if it's too painful why would you do it?" I don't really believe that art is made better because people are tortured. Most people are doing art because they like it and because it allows them some escape from other insecurities and even though there may be pain that they're obsessed with talking about or singing about or painting about, the actual doing it...You wouldn't do it if you didn't like it. That's why I say it's like yoga. If you didn't see any progress or anything get easier, you wouldn't keep doing it. But as you do it and you take on these challenges it becomes true. The things you couldn't do, now you can do them. The things you thought were hard now are easy. But you're doing it. And if you stop doing it, it will recede back to being hard again and it will be difficult and you have to keep trying and keep doing, right? This is very vague, existential…
What challenges you, when you do get to those places? Or what do you find to be challenging?
To not try to predict what's going to happen in the next couple of moments. We were at Coachella a couple years ago and to the side of Coachella there are these little parties going on where they have these carnival rides and you always wonder if they're dangerous. And everybody's getting on them high and on drugs and having a great time, and I always get on them like, I don't trust this thing, and I can predict, because I'm smart and cautious, that something bad could happen here. Really, most things are going to work out. It usually works out. The last time I got on the ride, I didn't try to predict what was going to happen that much. And it was horrible and thrilling and scary and fun all at the same time, but it did help me a lot to not worry in advance of something that I may not have to worry about, and that's what I was trying to tell [another interviewer] on the phone.
Everybody wants to impeach Donald Trump before he's even in office. I'm like, really? You think this is the way we should do it? Before he does something bad let's get rid of him. It's childish. It's these dumb reactions and people in coffee shops in New York and LA are going to talk themselves silly believing that all of that's true. I do think we are going to have to wait and decide once he's done something, can we do something about it. We can't just throw people out of office and in jail because we don't like his hair and we don't like what he says. Right?
Regardless, it doesn't do a lot of good to—
You don't believe that, you think there's no way he should be president.
He is president. He is. I mean—
A typical answer. Yes, the president involves me. Being a citizen of America is the most powerful position in America. That's why it doesn't really matter what I do, you have all the power. He's giving you the power and you don't want it. If we have the power, he's just the president.
We'll see who has it in about a week, right?
It'll take a little longer than that. We voted him in. But we'll see what happens.
I'm not going to worry about something that hasn't happened…I've seen people whose team loses in the fucking Super Bowl and they're broke up for a couple of days. And we go, this can't really be affecting you that your team doesn't win the Super Bowl. "Fuck you, my fucking teams didn't win." And this isn't that radically different. He's a man you didn't like, and he won and you're trying to predict all the things that he hasn't done, and it's just a silly game of worrying. News outlets love nothing more than to think what they're saying is important. They probably do a ratings check, like, "If we do an hour long special about the dangers of Donald Trump, we get fucking ratings out the roof. If we do an hour long show about how we think everything's going to work out, nobody watches." So why would they want it to seem like it's going to be alright? We have tornadoes in Oklahoma, and we have weathermen who are rockstars because if there's a tornado anywhere in the city there's been billions of dollars spent on technology so we know exactly where they are. We've built it up so that everybody knows who they are. I mean Gary England is like a saint! We still see him around town and people cry when they see him. And I've lived in Oklahoma my whole life, I've never seen an actual tornado.
Let's talk about what the record is called and how that came to be. There's a certain fantastical conceptual motif behind it—can you talk more about that?
Our new record is called Oczy Mlody, and there's a lot of abstract meaningless titles thrown around by all kinds of artists all the time and I think some people could look at that title and think that's a funny, nonsensical word and be satisfied with that. And other people could look at it and say, "What is that? Is that some words that I should know and don't know?" I've tried to explain to people that it's a Polish phrase that when we were searching for a title for the track that we ended up using it for. We were searching for a title and Steven was reading through an old paperback that I bought only because I liked the cover, I had no idea what the story was or what the novel was really about. As I looked through it I realized it was in some language that I didn't understand, but I liked the cover and it was only a dollar so I threw it in my suitcase and somehow it ended up in the studio, and every once and awhile someone grabs it and they're confounded by that we can't really read it. But we're in there all the time and we get kind of used to it. So we're looking through this thing and it does have a lot of funny little - that could look like English little phrases in it. They do have another meaning, you wonder, "What is this stuff?" And this "oczy mlody" phrase, when we Google searched what it meant translated from Polish to English, it means "eyes of the young." So us liking it as an abstract meaningless, funny-sounding word and then it having this other kind of sentimental emotional meaning to it, we really liked that. It kind of opens up a way of having your concepts and your stories be in this—you're sort of igniting them in this one sphere and yet they have their meaning in another. We liked that. We would have some songs that we had titles for them and the titles were fine, a title like, "Listening To The Frog With Demon Eyes." It sounds mysterious, but it really is just the name to an Instagram that I put out five years ago where I took a picture of our little dog and we were listening to frogs in the creek. And when I took a picture of her, her eyes turned read from the flash on the camera. I was literally saying what we were doing, and I always say that's demon eyes even though it's only a reflection, you know. The next day I was in the studio doing stuff and I liked that title as part of a story. And then it turns into something that's more abstract, even though it's based in reality. Then we'd have other passages of songs where we just didn't know where any of it would go. You start to make it up or letting your imagination roll along.
I was writing the song that ended up being called, "The Castle." In the end I think it's a quite sad song and in the beginning of writing it I do what songwriters do. A friend of ours's sister had committed suicide, and it was a pretty devastating thing. It wasn't as devastating for us as it was for them, but we were feeling their pain and feeling their struggle, and you don't sit down to write songs about it, but you're compelled to express whatever. I started to write this song and it had the line, "And the castle can never be rebuilt again." There's a song, "McArthur Park," the Jimmy Webb song, "someone left the cake out in the rain / I don't think I can take it." It's a very ridiculous thing to say. But in Jimmy Webb's song, this is an emotional crisis and it changes his entire view of the way the world is and this precious thing has been ruined and that recipe and that cake can never be made again. I think part of me had that ridiculousness about me that I could talk about a castle that can't be rebuilt…But what I really am thinking about is this life. Not the life of the suicided person, but the life of the sister that, now this colouring and this thing is always going to be with her. You can't go back to the way it was before. This isn't going to be something that you'll forget about. It was very sad. I thought that part of the song got written out of [purely] me exchanging my feelings and putting it into music and lyrics and all that. But after that, it got very boring to me, so in the next week or so I thought that if I really wanted the song to not just be this little reference to me and I want someone to listen to it and feel something from it, I should try to make it into a fun little story. Since I already had the castle in there, I started to think of things that would have castles in them. I built this little fairy tale story into the castle, and the more I did that the more that would sort of spring into other unfinished bits of songs. I kind of liked it. It seemed to start to give it some identity, and before long we were building up this thing that did have a fantastical sort of futuristic, druggy, underworld fairytale-ness about it. We didn't really know what it was or how to explain it, but we were vaguely singing about it through our song.
The very last song we did was called, "There Should Be Unicorns," which was, to me, okay, now we really are singing about this futuristic fairy tale world that is in the future. Fairy tales are usually talked about back in the medieval times, but it doesn't seem to be as bad, or something. And I'm talking about a fairy tale that's happening in the future where the indulgent billionaire hipsters of the day build whole communities where they just live in another world. This would be a fairy tale world where you go in there and there's actually unicorns and castles and we're torturing people and all the fun things. You don't really have to care, because it's all just kind of happening for your convenience. I think that'd be a lot of fun. There's designer drugs made by pharmaceutical companies, which I think should become true. And the drug Oczy Mlody, the way we portrayed it in our story is a drug that you take and it ignites only your really great, innocent childhood memories. Everything that you decide to do on this drug would be like, "Oh my god, I have never tried Diet Coke before! This is so great! How did they make it?" You would have this wonder of experiencing things for the good, for the first time. But it's all just fantasy, but that's what we, little by little, you want this colouring to be part of your expression. Otherwise it is just kind of, you are just singing about your boring old self making music, which is what we do most of the time.
There would be times when I feel like I'm a character within the song and I have lines to say. Sometimes I sort of feel like the song itself is already telling you everything. There are some movies that you could watch where there's no dialogue. Everything that's happening is happening and you understand it without them having to talk. And occasionally I think The Flaming Lips have a song that's like that—you really do feel the emotion, you really do have a great experience with it without us having to say any words. There's melodies and all these things. When that happens, I think it's a little bit like a Coen Brothers movie, and then the characters get to say ridiculous funny things where I'm a character in the song saying absurd things. That would be a song like "How??" where the first minute of it already tells you everything you need to know about the song. It tells you the mood, the emotion, the momentum, everything about it. And if you dig it, you just sort of sit back and say, "Okay, this is fun." Then I'm allowed to say absurd things being a character within the song. And other times I'm the narrator and you don't know what the story is unless I'm telling it to you. I kind of go back and forth within our songs being the Wayne character saying absurd things, to being the guy that's telling you, "Here's what you should feel. Here's what this means." All of those require that you have something to say. I never know what songs are about. You just start saying shit.
Nothing seems to dictate when it goes one way or another.
I think there's a subtle rejection where you know that you do, but you're not aware of it. By saying a lot of things, you know you're going to pick the things that you like and hope to forget about the things that you don't like, and that's how the process goes. Little by little you keep doing the things that you like and you try less and less to do the things that you don't like. And you don't know what you like and don't like until it's all over.
At the end of the day people say, you seem like you're into whimsical, sci-fi, psychedelic music. I would deny that, and say I like all kinds of music. But in that process, you go forward with that, and it's not that you reject the other thing, you just don't go forward with it. The things that you do are the things that you went forward with, and the things that you don't do are the things that you don't go forward with, and in art and music that's all there is. The result speaks for itself. When we get to the end of a record, there's really no judgement because you've made the 20 billion decision of what it's going to be and you go, "Well, I guess this is us. And what we're going to do."
The Terror, which is the last album you guys did as just the band, is about confronting anxiety and loneliness and depression. Listening to it in conjunction with this new one, it feels like they're very much two sides of the same coin, kind of an inverse.
Occasionally I do talk to people who say they're both such optimistic records. To some people that is! But I agree with you. If you really love the new record, The Terror would grind on you, maybe in a good way, but it would grind on you.
When you were talking earlier about not allowing feelings to stop us from just doing and being, that struck me because The Terror is such a meditation on that.
There's truth to that, but what I think we were trying to do is while we were feeling it, to go ahead and do it. Not keep working on it with these billions of decisions. If you keep going on it, we're gonna go back to the thing we like, we're going to go back to what seems right or easy or whatever it is that you naturally do. For a little while, making The Terror, Steven and I couldn't get out of that. We didn't want to make music that worked and soothed you. I know for a good month or two we would play something and it would—we say it all the time, "It's just music." It couldn't penetrate us and we would do these things that had slightly messed up rhythms and these atonal, tri-tone little melodies, and both of us would unknowingly go, "Yeah!" We would just veer towards it. You get more used to it, and the longer you work things happen. There was a point where it was happening, and then there was a point where we quickly did the rest of it. And we didn't want to be woke up in the middle of it and come to our senses. We wanted to make a record that was full of anxiety, was uncomfortable. We were trying to sing these religious-type songs with that undercurrent of uncertainty and self-destruction and all that, and I think it succeeded. It wouldn't be a record we could easily make again and again, because we really aren't like that. We really are kind of lazy, optimistic people. We'd rather have things go well and not worry as much. To me it feels a lot different than this very laid back, relaxed stuff than what we're doing on this record. With the throbs and they're all going along and no one's really fighting it and we're kind of just grooving. The word "vibe" gets overused, but yeah, it's got a good vibe to it. We like that, we'd create that and I'd want to not mess that up. We'd try to approach it like, I'm singing in this atmosphere and we would build on that. I feel like it's absolutely a different vibe. You could like one and really not like the other one.
By contrast, this feels like rediscovering yourself through escape. What in your life or the band's life was going on personally that marked the leap from one to the other, or that allowed for growth?
Us probably being not just exposed to but being around someone like Miley Cyrus who really comes at music from a whole different...there's nothing about the way that we think about music that on the surface would seem very similar to what she does. She's listening to music and not thinking about it and judging it the same way that we are. I think being around that changed me more than Steven, but both of us. And us having a desire to have a different perspective.
Talk some more about working with her on this album for "We a Family."
She has on her computer probably 500 magnificent, well-produced tracks that people will send her and say, "Hey would you want to sing on this?" To us that's a completely unknown world where you're a singer and people make tracks for you and then you can just sing over them if you want to and that becomes a song. Other things, she's creating and people are contributing. But that specific thing of there being a track and you feeling the way you feel and starting to sing over top of it, I think Steven and I both thought, "Damn, I'd like to do music that way." It's such a great relief than having to make the music and produce the music and the lyrics and all these things being this one force that you have to contemplate all at one time, to where it's like, we like the idea that you would hear music and it would evoke something in you and that would be what the song would become. So we started to make music that way where we'd make a track and I would react to the track and write a song and try to build the way that a song would sound. These are all just internal things that dudes do when they're trying to create stuff. So breaking free of our music being made my musicians, where there's a bass player, a drummer, there's keyboard parts, there's delay or whatever. If I asked Miley about that she'd be like, "What are you talking about? It's just a cool track. I don't care what the bass drum is, who cares." And I was like, that's cool because it doesn't really matter what it is, and we always compartmentalise, it's a bass, well it was this and we turned it into this. It's just sound. I think this record is us applying that to our melancholy childlike things. If Steven and I were given a lot of drugs and had a lot of freedom, we would probably make that music all the time. It's melodic and it's kind of sad but we would get lost in it because it wouldn't have any other dimension to it. I think that sort of production, that strange production that is void of really sounding like music, it just sounds like sounds, was our way of going deeper inside ourselves and at the same time being completely in the unknown and putting them both together and seeing if it worked and seeing if they could play off each other and ignite little different areas of your mind while this music swam around. It did that to us.
It's very much like rap and hip hop, too. That's what makes a lot of it more exciting than rock.
I think that's a great luxury, especially for the rappers who get the really great tracks. It doesn't take anything away from the great orator, the great singer and the great rapper and their great cadence and everything that they're saying, but that track having the ability to - I do that all the time. I love nothing more than to say, "This track is making me want to go do something, I want to sing something," and you automatically have that pushing your creations and making that happen and you can like them or reject them or whatever. The worst thing is when nothing happens and you've got to think your way to the next phrase or note or something. That's just dreadful. Usually I'll try to get just enough stuff going that anybody that walks into the room that's creative will spark to it. You can feel it happen in a room when something good is starting to happen everybody wakes up, everybody gets more, everything becomes a little bit more charged. And I think that's why it's such an addictive process. That's why you can make music every day if that happens. You wouldn't want to make music at all if that didn't happen.
Andrea Domanick is waitin' for a Superman. Follow her on Twitter.
All photos by George Salisbury.