Robot Talk With the Flaming Lips

Wayne Coyne sounds off psychedelia and science fiction

You'd be hard pressed to find a stranger act on a major label roster than the Flaming Lips. Theirs is a nearly twenty-year career, during which they could conceivably be tagged a one-hit wonder, after their 1993 single "She Don't Use Jelly" wandered into MTV-land out of left-field.

Since then, the Lips -- now boiled down to a three piece of singer/guitarist Wayne Coyne, drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins -- have focused their sounds for an oddball set enamored with their spacey soundscapes and tales of robots and spaceships. They are seemingly childlike images that serve as vehicles for more philosophical takes on life and death, sometimes delivered in a user-friendly manner (like 1999's grandiose The Soft Bulletin), sometimes less so (1998's four-CD Zaireeka: all four CD's were supposed to be played simultaneously).

Last week, the group released Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a more spacious follow-up and companion to Bulletin, again with the usual themes running through, dressed up with lovely washes of keyboard and guitar, catchy melodies and the occasional screaming fit by the Boredoms Yoshimi P-We.

After a broken cell phone call saying he's running late, Coyne settles into his Oklahoma City residence and sits down to talk about Yoshimi, as well as a movie he's shooting in his back yard, and a musical life less ordinary. "Sorry, I'm late," he says in his gregarious rasp. "I went to the hardware store to get some bits for my jigsaw. I'm working on a set on the back porch. You never know what you're gonna need, so you end up running to the hardware store five times a day."

The Home Depot in Brooklyn is open twenty-four/seven.

Jesus fucking Christ! Is that right? The one here is open from seven in the morning until ten or so at night. Gosh, we live in great times, don't we?

Indeed. So tell me a bit about "Yoshimi."

Yoshimi is not supposed to represent any real person. The short story is, we had this song -- and this will be confusing -- that had no particular title when we were recording it. And as you sometimes do, titles just get made up, and sometimes they're great and sometimes they're stupid. And sometimes they're vile. They're just references, and the four people in the room know what it's about but it's not supposed to go outside the room. So we had this title that we knew was virtually unusable, because it was just disgusting. But everybody kept calling it that, so I felt compelled to say, "Look, I need to put a title on this thing before people start to hear it."

So the reason I gave it that title is that we use a voice of this woman we know, Yoshimi, who is a trumpet player/singer/drummer who used to be in the Boredoms. I had this recording of her doing some screaming, and I thought, "You know, it really sounds like she's in some kind of fight." So I just thought "OK, I'll call it 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,'" and that'll be that. That would get rid of that other useless vile title.

I feel like Connie Chung. Can you whisper the title to me? I won't tell.

Jesus, no! [Laughs]. But this story takes a few detours. You know how on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" they have that woman screaming?

Mary Clayton?

Sure, there you go. And on "Dark Side of the Moon," they have that gospel-esque singing? I don't know about you, but when I hear that music, I think of a robust black woman. I think of these English guys and this black woman, and that suits me fine. When we were recording Yoshimi doing this screaming, it was apparent to us that she was a small, crazy Japanese gal, but we didn't know if the audience would hear it that way. But we didn't want someone to think this was a black woman or a white woman. We wanted it to sound very specific, a crazy Japanese woman -- we just thought that was a funner image. So we thought it would be smart if we said it was Yoshimi and then you'd think, "Oh she's a Japanese girl," if you heard that title.

And once I had this title it really loosened the whole feel of what we were doing. A lot of times we get into these things that are philosophical and heavy, but there's a relief of having something called "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," as opposed to "Psychiatric Exploration of the Fetus With Needles." So that's the loooong-winded reason.

There's a spacious sound on this record, but it doesn't lend itself to the dread p-word as easily.

Which I've actually come to like again. For the longest time, psychedelic -- starting about 1970 -- started being associated with stupid hippies and tie-dyed shirts, and it really got a bad connotation. Even in the early Nineties, it started to feel repulsive all over again, because of all the Starbucks, Seattle-type hippies who wanted to save the world. I sometimes feel like every four or five years people are interpreting things slightly differently. Sometimes when I mention "psychedelic" to people, they'll mention Bauhaus or My Bloody Valentine or the Orb or Aphex Twin. They'll say, "That's kind of psychedelic." And I'll say, "Oooh, I see." Like a lot of things, meaning isn't very permanent.

You seem to have gotten quite comfortable working with [producer ]Dave Fridman.

I think we've done most of our good records with Dave. And he has his own studio and as it becomes more impressive, it shows up on the records. He's really on -- I hate to use words like this -- but the cutting edge of where ideas and music and production can be. And if people hear that on our record, a lot of that can be attributed to him, because we're still just the weirdos sitting on the couch going, "Make it louder!"

He's in upstate New York, right? Do you like recording so far from home?

He's over by Buffalo. So you don't get the idea of cocaine and glamour when you're over there out in the woods like you would if we were in Manhattan. In the city, there's that temptation to say, "Fuck it. Let's do something else." But where his studio is, the urge doesn't even occur to you. So in some ways when I say we're going there for three weeks to record, we're working on it every minute we're awake. Sometimes I get the feeling with the Rolling Stones or ELP or something, they say they're recording, but they're really just having all-night orgies. I wish we had that type of lifestyle that we could do that, but we don't. We're more thinking about music and recording it and making it work.

I imagine that lifestyle gets tougher as you get older too.

You mean the all-night orgies? I think it's probably hard on people when they're young too. They just think, "Shit, we gotta do it." I don't know, maybe it didn't happen that way, but I think that's the idea people get. People always want to come to our recording sessions. I tell 'em, that it's boring.

It's been a pop-heavy three years since The Soft Bulletin. I imagine your fans were starved for new stuff.

I wish I had some agenda that would say, "This music is more important than, gosh, Shania Twain," but I really don't feel that way. I really have come to the conclusion that the music that you like is the greatest music in the world to you. If that's Britney Spears at age sixteen, let it be that. And if that's the Beatles to you when you're fifty, that's fine. If you like it, it's serving its purpose. But, there's something about the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tour where you get the feeling that they got back together and they're going out to tour America because America needs them. America is in these trying times. And the way Paul McCartney came back out. To me that's the most pompous sort of road you could take. Even our fans, who've bought our last couple of records, I don't think they're ever in need of another record. I'm sure if they're like me at all, they have a lot going on in their lives. And I think that's the way it should be. I totally look at what we're doing as a small, small slice of someone's day.

So you won't be wrapping yourself up in the flag when you tour?

It's pathetic is what it is [laughs]. I mean, it's like, "These stupid people I'm gonna make them some good music to listen to." Man, leave people alone. They'll go buy music they like. They don't need someone to tell them they're stupid if they like Britney Spears. That's always gonna be a losing battle and I think, frankly, it's a battle that's wrong.

So are you an open teen-pop enthusiast?

I like it all, in a way. It's meant for teenagers, and there's no real reason why I should like it. It's about clothes and a sort of overtly sexy thing that teenagers just love, and that's fine. But I really don't understand why people get up in arms about it. I think people in bands tend to complain that it's not them on the cover. If Britney Spears is on the cover, they hate it. And the only reason they hate anything on the cover is it's not them. And until it's them, they're gonna say, "Oh, the state of music sucks." What they really mean is, "Nobody likes my band. If people liked my band, the state of music would be good." Oh, go home.

So in twenty years, Britney will have to reflect upon songs about clothes. How do you feel looking back at your music?

I've recently been going over our whole career, back to 1983, because Ryko is putting out a collection. And we're listening to it and making some revisions and putting in some old demo tapes and stuff that people think is interesting. I listen to it now, and I don't think any of it is that radical of a departure from any of it. None of it seems like a great leap or anything . . . like, "Oh my God, if you liked them then, you're gonna fucking hate them now." I certainly see how if you loved what we were doing in 1983, it would be kind of hard to fathom that we could be doing what we're doing now. They seem like drastically different approaches, but they should be -- Jesus, it has been almost twenty years. But I don't think we need to radically rethink our identity for a new record, even though that seemed to be what we did with Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin. The music just sort of happened and we molded ourselves to it.

Was listening to the old material like looking at old yearbook photos?

I applaud the freaks that are on those records. They were just so far removed from where we are. In a lot of ways, it's just a moment of our lives, making records and being in a band. I don't even remember all the songs, to tell you the truth. But I do hear through all of it, that enthusiasm for whatever it was that we were doing. And at the time, we thought you just had to go run towards the next thing. I'm glad to be chairman of the board when it comes to people who have an undying enthusiasm for new ideas; I didn't say good ideas, but new ones certainly, and I hear that on those records. And some of it is funny, and some of it is ridiculous.

At ten years, we were just starting to figure some things out. It wasn't as though we never thought that we should keep going; it was just better than going back and working at a fast food restaurant. People do so much believe in what we're doing, and to me that's what makes me so enthusiastic. It could have been the other way around. We could have been like the Ramones where people love something we did and people go, "Hey, why don't you guys play like you did on your first record?" And I would have hated that.

So is this the best job you've ever had?

You know, it truly is. Rock & roll and this whole idea of creating yourself through your art, I think sometimes people start to do it and they go, "Gosh I don't like that." For me it was the other way around. I just said, "Gee I like doing that sort of thing," everywhere along the way. I like getting the equipment out and setting it up. I like presenting new ideas to people, I like the struggle of having to make things work, I like driving the van to shows, and I like staying up 'til three in the morning seeing sometimes absurd things happening. So it's worked out great for me.

And you guys have gotten some major-label support uncharacteristic of a band that hasn't sold 20 million records.

I know, we really did luck out. We had enough success at just the right time to allow us to keep this longevity going. As much as people like our ideas, the bottom line is still the bottom line, and I think that's great and the way it should be. Right when it looked like it was getting bad, we got extremely lucky, and it's still working.

So is the Christmas album still in the works?

The Christmas album has become the Christmas movie [Christmas on Mars]. I never bothered to look at how many Christmas albums come out each year, but one year I did. If you are a recording artist of any acclaim at all, you probably put out a Christmas album every year. It wasn't that I was discouraged, I was awakened to this thing that was already there. So we started thinking of what can we do with this Christmas theme, and we started working on this movie, which really has become a big thing. I've got about thirty minutes of it shot, and I'm building my set even when I get off the phone with you.

Sounds like you need to lobby for a twenty-four/seven Home Depot in Oklahoma.

There you go. See, this could be the year that happens.