Wayne Coyne: Weirdness Likes Company
[This is almost assuredly the most fun I’ve had with an interview, and with one of my artistic heroes. Wayne and I were supposed to have a mere 20 minutes to chat but, being the affable and charismatic guy he is, we talked for closer to an hour. Originally published in TIDAL.]
The Flaming Lips have friends.
On their new album, With a Little Help From My Fwends, the Oklahoma rockers recruited a diverse dream team of musicians (including Tegan and Sara, My Morning Jacket, and Miley Cyrus) to make a track-for-track tribute to The Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The result is a wild piece of work that doesn’t attempt to redefine the original so much as lovingly pick its guts and celebrate its fantastic spirit.
After 30 years of making music, The Flaming Lips have distinguished themselves as one of the most singular, creative, friendly, and shamelessly playful rock bands of today. This essence is perhaps best embodied in the group’s charming, eccentric frontman, Wayne Coyne.
Revealing the wisdom behind the weirdness, we spoke at length with Coyne about the unquestionable genius of The Beatles, the relationship between drugs and music, defending his friendships and being addicted to creation.
Your new record is a tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album is well regarded as a milestone in music history. What does Sgt. Pepper’s mean for you, and how did the album influence the Flaming Lips?
I love the record. It’s probably come in and out of being my favorite 10 different times. I was born in 1961, so the Beatles have been around my whole life, and there was a time in my life when the Beatles were a living, breathing entity making records. My older siblings listened to the Beatles, they took drugs to the Beatles, so I think there’s a lot of subconscious connections to all of their music. I think it’s meaning has changed a hundred different times for me.
Sgt. Pepper’s is one of those records you really got to know a lot of stuff about – it’s so well documented. You can see which day they recorded “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and how many takes it took to make “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” When the Beatles talked about their records and what they meant, there was only a handful of groups that did that. Nowadays everyone makes a documentary about their record, even if nobody cares about it.
And I have to say, when you get to rethink or re-imagine these songs, it’s wonderful. I think you really end up having a greater and richer appreciation for what it is they actually did.
As you mentioned Sgt. Pepper’s is known as something of a stoner album – something people took drugs to. Would it offend you if I said your version sounds even more drug influenced than the original?
[laughs] Well I actually take that as a great compliment, and I’d agree. I think there is a lot of art, and music especially, that could use that type of anarchy and chaos. Throwing away what is normal – I think you can say that about most of the great art that’s made in the world.
So yes, thank you. I don’t know if very much of it was made on drugs but a lot of it sounds like the people making it have destroyed their fucking brains on drugs. Mind you, they haven’t. I think the more we learn about drugs is that people who do a lot of drugs don’t end up doing much – they end up doing drugs, and that’s about it.
The Beatles and the Flaming Lips have both been responsible for condoning or downright encouraging the use of mind-altering substances. What’s your take on the drugs and music.
Well the thing that most people forget is that most artists are simply willing to try things, all kind of things. They try different hair cuts, different clothes, different girlfriends, different restaurants – so of course they try drugs. It’s seems like just another experience out there asking you, why not? It’s just part of the personality of a person that’s willing to say, Fuck, I don’t know what will happen – let’s try this! You can say that’s why they make cool music, because they are willing to try new and different things.
In my own personal experience, I’ve never found that doing drugs and making music ever really worked. But I can say that by taking drugs and having experiences can form your mind, and you can come back to your creative essence. We’re informed by what we’ve done – whether it’s from taking LSD or going to Japan.
But I wouldn’t say it works very well being on the drugs and trying to make music at the same time. At least somebody in the room has to have their faculties about them. We like being awake and energized and aware. I don’t think we would be very interested in making music if we were taking drugs all the time – it’s just distracting.
You said recording this album deepened your appreciation for it?
Oh for sure. The music on Sgt. Pepper’s is very impressionistic – sometimes you get the impression that you’re hearing one thing when it’s really something else. It’s very much a collision of sounds that make up these sounds that aren’t really there. It’s like when you stand away from a painting and you think you see these colors of purple and violet, but when you get up close you realize it’s intersecting hues of blue and red. You think they’re playing these strings and horns, but when you get up close it’s voices and sounds.
That’s pretty cool.
Yeah, it’s really cool. Sometimes you hear people dismiss the Beatles. They’ll say they weren’t that good. The Beatles were absolutely better than you think. There are a lot of groups as great as the Beatles – but the Beatles did it first, in that accelerated no man’s land of the late Sixties, and without a lot of the tools we have today. It adds a dimension that blows your mind.
The music sounds so simple – but if you go in and try it yourself you’ll see why they’re the Beatles and you’re just you. It’s like going to a really advanced yoga class: you’ll see people do things that make you say, that looks easy, but when you try to do it yourself you realize, that’s fucking insane! Beatles music is like that – it gives the impression of effortlessness.
You previously covered and performed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, along with covering John Lennon, Stone Roses, and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You obviously enjoy it. What are you trying to add or accomplish by reinterpreting them?
Mostly we do it because it’s fun. Sometimes it turns into a bit of a challenge but you don’t know that when you begin. Like a lot of things it starts out fun, then turns into work, and luckily it turns into fun again.
I don’t think we have any agenda. I mean we make so, so much music that it can be a relief not to be working on your own songs. Especially when you get other people involved it’s like: we’re not doing your songs, we’re not doing our songs, we’re doing the Beatles’ songs. We can put ourselves into it without being too much of a big stressful creation.
We work with a lot of people and they love it. It’s just a truism of musicians: everyone who makes their own music has this secret joy of playing songs that aren’t theirs.
That said, the choices you make tend to be these definitive works. You’ve written a few tunes yourself that people would describe as “classic.” What is it that makes a piece of music legendary?
Well thank you. I think we’ve been very lucky that some of the things we’ve done have been able to reach people in a way they can relate to. It’s wonderful but it’s just dumb luck. There’s no way you can know what that is, you just have hope the things you do get some sort of reaction in people. I know plenty of people who are very talented and hardworking, but the things they do don’t resonate with people.
Any plans for future tributes on the drawing board?
No, but we didn’t really plan on this one. It all happened in a matter of couple months. Involving Miley Cyrus really upped the ante. People loved those tracks so much it sort of urged the whole thing to be realized into a full album.
This idea of organizing a bunch of people to do a record, we’ve sort of gotten really good at it by accident – so by the time we got to this one we knew what we were doing. The music is all I really want to care about, but eventually you have to involve lawyers and managers or you’ll never be able to put the thing out. Especially when you deal with catalogs like Pink Floyd and the Beatles – these are some of the most popular artists of all time – you’re fucking with their music and they don’t always like that.
You recruited quite the list of friends to play on the album, or as you call them “fwends.”
That’s an Americanism we like to use to remind people we’re not so serious. This project is not meant to say, look at us and all of our important friends. We’re just doing this to have fun.
I would imagine everyone had their favorite tracks from the album. How did you decide who plays on each song, and who plays together?
Not really actually. No one really had an agenda – and a lot didn’t even know the Beatles that well, especially as people get to be younger and younger. When I asked Tegan and Sara to do “Lovely Rita,” they didn’t know it. I’m not sure they were familiar with Sgt. Pepper’s at all – but they liked doing it. With most of the groups it didn’t matter, so Steven [Drozd] and I and the rest of the Lips did most of the choosing. And when some of the songs didn’t work out with someone, we just tried another.
Do you have a favorite of the tracks on the album?
I’ve only recently been able to sit back enjoy the record, and there’s not really any song I don’t love on there. I’m really crazy about the opening – that “Sgt. Pepper’s” track with Fever the Ghost and My Morning Jacket and the J Mascis solo – that’s just a great fucking way to begin a freaky, fun, unpredictable record. And then those tracks we did with Miley Cyrus were so great, I just love her to death. There’s something honest and loving about the way she sings.
Speaking of Miley, a lot of people have been critical of her or confused with your association. Do you get tired of defending your friendships?
Well no, I never get tired of defending her because she’s awesome. And she understands as much as anyone that someone who perceives her image, or reads the things written about her, might misunderstand her. But I can honestly say that if you are lucky enough to be around her for five minutes, you’ll fall in love with her like we have. If you go to one of her shows you fall in love with her. There’s no secret as to why her fans love her so much.
I can understand if you don’t know her or have never been around her, from a distance you could say, Oh, that’s that fake, constructed record company thing. I won’t name any names, but there are a lot of people I meet who you’d expect to be cool, down to earth and full of love – but aren’t. With Miley it’s exactly the opposite. She seems made up and when you meet her she’s totally real. The same is true of Yoko Ono. There’s a lot of hate for her out in the world, but if you’re around her for five minutes you can absolutely see why a John Lennon would want to be around her.
You’re going to be involved with Miley’s next album. Has that begun?
Well yeah, we were talking about it at 2 A.M. last night. Like a lot of friends we’re involved with we say, Hey, let’s make some music and see what happens; we don’t know what’s going to come from it. I think it’ll be cool as fuck.
What do you think it’s going to sound like?
Even the record she has out now doesn’t really have a single dimension to it. There’s going to be an element of pop to it – having Miley Cyrus singing just takes it into that realm. But she’s just a freak, it could sound like all kinds of things. I think it’s going to be great. When people hear the things that we’ve already worked on say, “What is this? This is really cool!” When I tell them it’s Miley, they go, “No fucking way!”
You’re a band that has made a reputation for being different, for standing out. Is this a conscious effort or a natural tendency?
I don’t think we’re aware of what the status quo is. I don’t think anyone could purposefully say, That’s what normal people do, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m just in my own world, doing what I like.
I think that’s why when we doing something with a Miley Cyrus, it doesn’t even occur to us that people would find that strange. We’re just drawn to what we’re drawn to. I think some of our music, like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, sounds very normal and very pop. And then other times we do things that if I played it for my own family, they wouldn’t know how to relate. But it’s not something we think about – I don’t think you really could. If you spend too much thinking about it you wouldn’t want to make your art.
What’s the most gratifying aspect of what you do?
I try to explain to people that if I didn’t do the music and the art and the videos and the shows, I would just go crazy. It’s just an expression of who I am, and I’m lucky enough that I can wake up and fill my day with making things. I love that it’s fun and makes money and makes people happy, but it really does come down to being in that moment as much as possible. I am truly addicted to being able create, like someone is addicted to drugs. I can do shit all night until 5 o’clock in the morning, wake up and fucking go right back to it as if it was a pile of cocaine.