Talking with The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne

Frontman Discusses New Songs, Fantasy, and the Loch Ness Monster

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Wonderful, whimsical, even wubbulous — these are a few adjectives one might use to describe the psychedelic, Seussian trip of The Flaming Lips, whose fantastically candy-colored rock will enliven the S.B. Bowl along with singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco and openers The Garden on Friday, October 6. I spoke with lead singer Wayne Coyne about the legendary band's new album, Oczy Mlody, plus the importance of fantasy, ridiculous stage antics, and the Loch Ness Monster.

How has this new round of shows and touring been so far?

Well, I mean, I think we’re really lucky that, right at the beginning of the year, we started to play quite a few shows — kind of like, you just put a record out and people expect you to play new songs. That’s always kind of a challenge, but the ones we picked, we’re not doing too many. “There Should Be Unicorns,” “The Castle,” and “How??,” and those are just spectacular, sprinkled in between some of the more bombastic songs. Like with “The Castle,” it's a really powerful, kind of emotional thing, and you can tell when it’s really working: There’s a guy standing out there for the first 40 minutes of show, and he’s getting affected, his arms are going up …. It's a bit of a thrill to behold it, and I think all musicians and all groups live for that sort of thing, where you get to play something not so known or rehearsed. … We saw Paul McCartney, and while there’s no real comparison — the difference between Paul playing a new song and “Hey Jude,” he’s pretty despondent, saying, “I know this is a song everyone’s gonna get a drink and recharge their phones.” It's hard to compete with a 50-year-old song.

The new album is quite beautiful, and I want to use the word … bittersweet? Like wanting to believe in fantasy or purity, but knowing it doesn't last, or knowing there's a melancholy side.

Well, well, right, I think we sort of term that kind of romantic. In the beginning, you’re always a true believer; you always think, "This is gonna work; this is gonna be great," whatever the situation is. As you go deeper into trying to present some emotion — that’s part of the beauty of the way [multi-instrumentalist and composer] Steven [Drozd] arrives at melodies and chords. They hit you even before we do the lyrics; they already hit you in this kind of melancholy, sad understanding of the world. He's such a master musician.

We have quite a few songs about that idea. We remember the shiny young part of our life where it all seemed to be wonderful and everything that you explored was just cool as fuck. I grew up with older brothers and an older sister, and my parents, as well, they all had crazy fucking friends who took drugs. I was born in 1961, and by the time I’m 8 years old, The Beatles are making their coolest weird records, people were landing on the moon, Charlie Manson was killing people, all these insane things. My brothers knew the Hells Angels and took drugs and sold drugs — all this stuff should be in a movie — and there I am, 8 years old, taking in music and art all the same time. Not that my family was musical, but they all knew musicians. People would jam at our house, and we’d all try to figure out “Stairway to Heaven” together.

With Steven, there's something very deep that we allow with his expression; me, I'm a quirky songwriter. I'm lucky I get to sing simple things like “Do You Realize??” But like with “There Should Be Unicorns,” even though I think it’s meant to be this silly, overdone, fantastical thing, there is still a melancholy or emotional connection to it, and I think there's a wonderful freedom there.

I don’t like the word "bitter," it feel like we’ve been cheated. That’s never the case. We always feel like for every 10 great things we’ve discovered in the world, we’ve also discovered four or five really horrible things. We say, well, this is the world, and it could be the other way around; there could be 20 horrible things, and you discover just one great thing. I think that’s one of the messages of our more mature music, the stuff we’ve made since the late ’90’s, when you're bold enough or brave enough or stupid enough to put your own feelings into it instead of just absurd shit. Even though “There Should Be Unicorns” is absurd, underlying that is great, sad, longing melody, but it's not bittersweet. We're innocent always. We’re always innocent.

Do you have a favorite mythical creature or imaginary beast?

Well, I don’t know if it would fall into those categories, but I really do like Santa Claus. And the unicorn … the unicorn was never part of our vocabulary of weirdness until really just a couple years ago; then it kind of became — the unicorn and the rainbow are freed from their New Age trap. Several years ago, you could have a unicorn on your T-shirt and suddenly, you’re a thing — you like to take drugs and have fun — instead of "Ooh, you’re too sensitive and cosmic for me, brother.” Even though I ride the LED unicorn in the show, it's not something I thought of that much when we were younger.

When we'd first go on tour, we’d oftentimes look for Bigfoot, even though now I don’t think we would take it that seriously. In the early days, we'd be driving at night around America and swear we were seeing UFOs by Area 51 or whatever, and all those things.

Once we played a festival — there’s a festival that’s on the lake where the Loch Ness Monster is supposed to live, in Scotland — in this little corner of this little town where everything is celebrated about the Loch Ness Monster. Do people really believe that the dinosaur is hiding out there in this black, murky lake? And they go, "Yeah, of course! Fuck, why not?" And part of you goes, there's enough cool little fragile things in the world that are gonna be killed off anyway, you don’t need to kill them off yourself. With all those things, part of you can say, it’s all silliness and fantasy. But fantasy is a very useful thing for your imagination. I think even recently, my girlfriend’s father died suddenly, and you are haunted by these unanswerable questions. There's nothing you can do about that, and the more you think about it, the more painful it is; and when you have dreams, you try to have dreams where they're still here and you can talk to him in your life. I don't think any of that is crazy. Short of being a drug addict or an alcoholic, relying on fantasy to not have to face the truthfulness before you're ready, it makes sense. A lot of people do have pain; you just can’t see it. You run into people all the time who are on the verge of killing themselves; you just don’t know it. It’s a truism of the world. It’s not sad or bad; it just is. Anything that helps you get through horrible, horrible, unanswerable pain like that — fuck it, it works.

Before we go further, I have to give you some belated gratitude. When I was 14 or 15, I saw you guys play at Coachella 2004, when you came out in your big bubble, and to this day it was still one of the best shows I can remember — I felt like I was surrounded by thousands of longtime friends I'd never met before.

That's great, ah man … when I think about that, I was quite young when I was able to go to my first concerts, and nothing is as great as those shows you see being 14, 15, 16. Being at Coachella is already great, and I knew if I got in that space bubble on a Sunday, it'd be late in the back end of one weekend. It was the first time I did it, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t really tell anybody. If we had told the Coachella people, they’d say, "No, you can’t do that; it would break somebody’s neck, and they’d sue us." It was quite triumphant in its ridiculousness.

Do you ever go out in public in the bubble, like go grocery shopping or take it in the HOV lane?

Yeah, yeah, I mean, well, if we’re at a festival that’s kind of going all day, occasionally we’ll run around. But sometimes it just causes too much of a ruckus, and I don’t know if it’s quite worth it; the fun is kind of outweighed by the panic. We did it one time, at a Canadian festival, and I went through one of the really crowded camps, and this really fuckin' intense, steroid-ed up guy jumped at the bubble as if he was gonna come through it and attack me. I was really alright with it, but the security guys had been through a lot already at the festival, and they just grabbed him, and he was fucked up and got into a fight and scuffle. I'm glad the guy got excited, and it was my intent in a way; I try not to overthink it, otherwise you get too cautious.

You guys are renowned for your live shows. Do you know that Karlheinz Stockhausen piece where he flew helicopters around a stadium [Helikopter-Streichquartett]?

We love Stockhausen, but I'm not sure if we know that one …

It's a string piece involving helicopters. If you had an unlimited show budget, would you do anything on that scale? Or what would your unlimited-budget show look like?

Well, I mean, yeah, your imagination goes pretty big. I’m trying to think. I don’t think we’ve ever thought about anything like that seriously; we’ve done things on cruise ships. Early on, we thought of having a giant moving stage, and it’s crushing the audience, and the bigger epic numbers get louder, and it's rolling over the audience — just ridiculous. We’d consider doing things like that, or going around in the early ’80s, we were lucky to live close enough to Missouri that we’d drive there and buy fireworks and literally light them onstage, literally light them all around the fucking club, and all that’s just a bad idea; it goes up into the ceiling, and we'd all die. So I don’t think we’ve thought of anything too insane. I love the idea about helicopters, though I don't know how entertaining it’d be. I remember Van Halen would make an entrance in something akin to a giant doghouse, and it wasn’t just them; it was dudes that looked a lot like the dudes in Van Halen who'd climb out of this thing [and] go into this little house, and five seconds later, the dudes from Van Halen would burst out. Or Michael Jackson got his jetpack, though it was clearly not real. We would really want to do it, with a real jetpack — that’s the difference with us. Being in the space bubble, it’s gotta be me. You can’t throw someone else in there. At Coachella, I really just got in it and hoped to survive; now I sing in it and stuff, and now I fill it up. I love all that stuff, and who knows, maybe your helicopter idea will spark.

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The Flaming Lips and Mac DeMarco play the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) with The Garden on Friday, October 6, at 6:30 p.m. Visit sbbowl.com.

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