The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne on Miley Cyrus, Psychedelia, and God
Do you realize... that this is a very good interview!!!
Backstage in a converted dressing room at Montauk's Surf Lodge, Wayne Coyne is wearing a gray T-shirt with pants made out of neon duck tape and Hawaiian flowers draped around his neck. Not even 15 minutes ago, the Flaming Lips frontman was skedaddling around the venue clutching enormous inflatable rainbows from Miley Cyrus' Bangerz tour, avoiding anyone trying to speak with him. Totally scatterbrained, Wayne's pushed back our interview three times for sound check purposes and I'm starting to wonder if traveling all the way up here from Manhattan was a mistake.
Just as we're about to get started, someone from Surf Lodge rushes over. "We need to gift him the guitar first." My PR contact, a promoter who once rolled with the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, tries to intervene, but it's evident this photo-op trumps all.
"I thought I was getting the red one," quips Wayne as he's gifted an all black D'Angelico, numerous bottles of Stella and Jack Daniels scattered on a table behind him. Everyone glances at one another, not sure how to respond, before the resort's concierge smiles and takes the red one off the wall, handing it to Wayne with a flourish.
"Much better," he smiles, fingering the instrument's strings with his thumb. Later in the evening, Wayne will perform in front of hundreds of young Manhattan socialites, the sun setting behind him as giant chromatic balloons reading "Fuck Yeah Montauk" sway in the wind. He will sing happy birthday to a seven-year-old girl, hold a turtle towards the sky like baby Simba, and dawn the infamous inflatable bubble he once used to crowd surf over thousands of concert-goers in Central Park.
But for now, he turns towards me and grins.
"All set?" the iconoclast asks, leading us outside to discuss God and Miley Cyrus, the ocean sparkling in the distance.
Noisey: What do you think of Montauk so far?
Wayne Coyne: Well, I've been to places like this. Have you ever been to Hangout Festival? The one on the Gulf Shore? There are a lot of party, festival things that happen on beaches; people love beaches in the summer.
We were in Seaside Heights last night and it gets chilly in the evening. Down in, say, Houston and Galveston and Alabama and shit, it's hot. At four in the morning you're still out there…
Yeah. It's a little bit more that you party and not worry about it as much. Here, it gets kind of chilly, for me, but it's certainly beautiful.
Where does a song come from?
I think it changed over time. Technology and shifts in the industry have helped us along. When we started in 1983, we didn't really know how to write songs; we would read things and we would ask people and we would play chords trying to figure out melodies. It wasn't too long after that we got recording devices, these little four-track things you could do at home. I don't see how anyone, unless you're an absolutely perfect memory writer, would remember all the little nuances that you come up. You have to be able to record. Now, when we're at home, we probably record every day. The way I would describe it is that we come up with really cool sounds and then just put words to it.
You mentioned music's evolution and the way it's changed.
Yeah, but I think to people who love music, all that stuff just helps you. For me, I'm not really a musician. All these beats and new sounds, are fucking cool. There's definitely emotional music [where it would be] difficult if you didn't have some understanding of composition.
Would you say the messages in your music have changed alongside the shifts in how it's made?
When we went to make The Soft Bulletin in 1997, that was the first time we were recording where a computer could remember all these little nuanced moves with E cues and panning directions and all that. I think that really helped us because I think we had gotten pretty frustrated. At the end of that time, there would sometimes be five or six of us on the mixing desk, all with our share of faders. I remember we counted, with the song "Unconsciously Screaming" in 1989, we mixed that over 200 times. You reach a point where if someone fucks it up on the 150th time, it's like, "Godamnit." I think if we kept having to do it that way we would lose our minds out of frustration.
Right. But what about in terms of the messages you were communicating?
In the same way, because it got, not easier, but less time and energy being spent, we were freed up. I think with us, and with most artists, we don't have an agenda with what we're going to do. The best thing to do is to just do a bunch of stuff, knowing the trueness of what you are will come out. I think if you're lucky, like I am, you'll have people who will listen to what you're doing and will have some kind of judgment on whether it's cool, interesting, or boring. When you're doing it yourself, I don't think you really know; there are so many things you're doing subconsciously. Singers don't know; they come into the same place every time with their songs and jump to the same intervals, without even realizing it because there are so many things they do naturally. So for me, to always be writing with Steven [Drozd], it's great because he has this unlimited perspective wherein I have somewhat of a limited one. I think it's a great combination, but I'm always listening to what he's doing and he's always listening to what I'm doing. Of course, there are other layers of people that you can tell are either excited or bored. You just play it for your friends and if they're like, "That's great… let's go party," you're like, "Fuck, they didn't like that one." [Laughs] Nobody ever wants to tell you they didn't like it, but you try to gage where they're at with it.
How are the responses when you try out experimental stuff?
I think that's probably the thing we get the most joy out of, but the audience gets the most hell out of. I always make it a food analogy: people want shit to taste good and have a good texture, and if you're fucking around all the time they're going to stop [wanting it]. I think some bands and some artists stumble upon a thing and they just like to do it. For me, I don't look at it is a good thing really; I get bored doing the same thing after a while and will want to try something else.
You obviously incorporate this type of thinking into your live shows as well.
We do it as much as we can. At the end of the day, I think you're slightly confined to being a band up there singing your songs.
But you do it, and incredibly well. Even with tonight, you have all these gorgeous inflatable props and gorgeous set pieces.
Thank you very much! Well, we like all that stuff. It would be torture if we were obligated to do this thing we didn't want to do and not enjoying it. We just really love it. If you come to our house, you'll see it's how we live. I think that's really the true secret to everyone's super power; if you love it, you can just do it and do it and do it. But if you don't, then you're always looking for a reason to get out. You need to get off on it. Once you get off on it, others get off on it and it's like this collective drive.
What's your fascination with psychedelia?
I think it's open to everything, you know? Everybody's influenced by stuff, and as much as we try to do our own thing, certain bands got zapped into us, bands like Pink Floyd and the Beatles. Part of it is that they're singing a true emotional thing. If you have a desire to do that, and you're not able to do that in music, you do it in painting or something else; you find a way to do it. For us, it's psychedelia, but it's more that it allows us to get to an emotional understanding. I think the things we like the best are the things that go to some unspeakable human emotion. Music has a way of crescendoing. If we get to do that, we're more satisfied than if we hadn't.
Are you talking about some deeper, spiritual truth?
Not all the time. I think every fifth song or so should be from your heart, whatever that is.
Over the years, you've also been involved with a number of films. What are some similarities between the artistic processes of creating music and film?
I think film, depending on what scale you're doing it on, is too collaborative. It's the most collaborative, but it also demands that someone is the dictator. There's one dude who says, "Fucking do it again," and they have the absolute say. It's hard for everybody to see the big picture. Whereas when you're doing music, everyone can hear if it's working or not working and it's everyone together. A filmmaker who has a vision and is dealing with writing, editing, acting, and special effects… I think it's impossible. I don't know why anyone would want to just make films, unless they're your own and you're driven to do it. The things I do, I just do it because it's my shit. I don't think I'd really do it for anyone else. I'm making music with Miley Cyrus but we're kind of making our own music together. She's helping me make Flaming Lips music, more than I think I'm helping her do Miley Cyrus music. I just do so much stuff. It's like, if you were around me we'd mow the lawn, we'd do some music, we'd go to the store. [Laughs]
How did you two even start working together?
I sort of knew, even from her late Hannah Montana years, we knew she was a fan. She comes from a really musical bunch of people. We would become aware she was a fan because she would tweet songs of ours. I think it was after the time she did the twerking on the VMAs, we became a lot more interested in each other. She seemed smart, crazy, and we really liking some of our songs. We weren't letting her know, but when people asked me—I think this was around the end of 2013—who I liked, I would always say, "I fucking love Miley." I didn't even know her; I just thought she was so badass, honest, and fun than all the other mega-stuff that was going on. I think she probably knew that if she said hey to me, I would say hi back. I knew that she liked our music and she knew that we liked hers.
What was the collaboration process like with her?
It depends. Sometimes I'm always writing songs and some of them I'm thinking, "Nope… this is going to be for her and we'll have a little bit of it while getting her to sing on it." I'll usually come in with things as ready as I can, to say, "Here's stuff and here's melodies for you to sing." But she's very proactive and will sometimes say, "I don't like those words." Then she'll change them into her own words and do her own versions of the melodies, just so we're doing stuff. It's impossible to sit down with people and tell them to make something up on the spot. It's as collaborative as you would want it to be. Any more than that and you'd just be sitting next to someone while they think of ideas. I work probably every day honing things down and changing little things. It's not really a production, but it's building on the ideas we're going for.
Last time we were out there, we had a song where we already wrote the lyrics and she was just re-singing and doing layers of harmonies off that. And there was a part of it that we simply just made up. We had a melody and fucked around for a couple hours working and changing the lyrics and putting things down. Now that we have it, we'll change it because we really know where the little nuances are. There's really not any way; some of it's just dumb luck. You'll be working on one thing and these things that you thought you were doing for one song turn into another song. It's a lot like if you're doing a sketch. If you're sitting there drawing something with no agenda, it eventually starts to go a certain way and you just follow it. If you came in one morning and we were working on a song, you may come back in the evening and be like, "What the fuck happened with the song?" We just got on something else. We're not really set to do anything, we just do what's cool in the moment. But she's really badass. If you say, "We're going to go sing," then she'll sing all night. She'll party and sing. She likes singing most and then she likes to party. You get both of those together and it's pretty great.
I have two questions left. They're both pretty heavy hitters.
Oh, good. [Laughs]
Do you believe in God?
Not the way I think normal, gay-hating, religious people would want there to be a set truth out there. I think when we talk about what I think people refer to as God, they mean nature and the universe. It's very difficult to know what that does to you. But I think as I've gotten older, I've accepted some ways that I am and tried to change some. I think when we were growing up, even though we went to church, my mother always stressed the importance of finding out shit for yourself. We were lucky that it was like that.
God, as defined through nature.
I think that's really what God is, if you're open to experiences and if you're searching for the truth. But if you're not and just want to know all the answers, that's why people gravitate towards the Bible and all those things. But my life hasn't been very difficult. My parents didn't die when I was six years old so I can't speak for someone who had that happen to them. I think if believing in a God or a Jesus gets you through that, by all means do, so long as you don't hurt anybody.
Final question for you. It's heavy.
I don't think they're heavy. I think they're great!
What do you want as your legacy?
I don't care. You know what I mean? A long time ago, we stopped worrying what people thought of us because life's just too short. When people started getting tattoos in the mid-80s, my first response was that our records are our tattoos. They live longer and more than we can ever speak for. I think when you make music and stuff, if you're lucky, something gives you some feedback as to the way you're perceived in the world. I think even with our song "Do You Realize?," it's better than we deserve. It speaks to people in a way that none of us could have ever crafted and done. Sometimes, just through sheer popularity, something has more power. I think if that had happened to us when we were younger, it wouldn't have been real somehow. We get to sing it and be the ones who said that in the world. It's a powerful thing. I run into people all the time, even today, who tell me that it had been played at their brother's funeral. If you're lucky, that's the only brother who dies, but it's still a big deal.
It's powerful to be associated with something that heavy in someone's life. It's an honor, really.
It is. When you hear something in a song and you feel like it's helping you and getting you through, it's like, man. And to just have a couple of our songs that have done that for people is humbling. Luckily, we don't know how to do that. We just write songs and do what we like. As it goes, maybe we'll get a couple more, but who knows. I don't think about it too much.