The Flaming Lips: Okies From Outer Space

In the warped world of the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, nothing - not God, not Dylan - is sacred, underwear vibrates and there's never enough duct tape

The Flaming Lips
Tabatha Fireman/Redferns
The Flaming Lips
By |

Wayne Coyne has not taken any drugs since his early twenties. This fact often comes as a shock to fans of his band, the Flaming Lips. The group has been making increasingly trippy and, to the surprise of even the band, increasingly popular psychedelic-rock albums since 1984, and its music, coupled with Coyne's surreal cover paintings and bent lyrical aesthetic – song titles include "Jesus Shootin' Heroin," "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," "Pilot Can at the Queer of God," "Talkin" Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever)" and, my personal favorite, "They Punctured My Yolk" – have led reasonable people to make certain assumptions.

And yet, insists Coyne, "I never liked drugs. They scared me. I just really love my senses too much." Coyne is a loquacious man, with a blustery, commanding speaking voice that always sounds on the verge of hoarse. Occasionally, he will slip into a slight Oklahoma drawl.

"I would enjoy bits of a trip, but it would just be too long for me," Coyne continues. "I would still take LSD if it could be for an hour. And then I could go back to work. But that's the trouble with all of these psychedelic drugs: too much of a commitment and not enough payback."

Now in his midforties, Coyne has allowed a generous amount of gray to creep into his scruffy beard and sideburns. This, combined with his unruly haircut and penchant for formally tailored three-piece suits, gives him the air of an Old West undertaker, or perhaps a flimflam man running an elaborate con. This afternoon, Coyne's suit is white with blue pinstripes, matched with a vest and an untied bow tie. I will end up spending four days with Coyne (on two continents), and every time we meet he is wearing the same suit, with the bow tie unfastened in precisely the same manner.

We are at London's Royal Albert Hall, where the band is preparing to play a sold-out show to celebrate the release of its album At War With the Mystics. The stately concert venue remains legendary in rock circles. Most recently, the first in a series of Cream reunion shows took place here, which prompts a joke from Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd.

The joke: "What do coffee and Eric Clapton have in common?"

But of course: Both suck without cream.

In a world – show business – in which performers tend to speak as cautiously as if they're running for a city council seat, the members of the Flaming Lips are refreshingly blunt. Coyne, especially, seems to take a certain glee in talking shit. In 2004, during an interview with Esquire, he expressed his disappointment in touring with Beck, describing the singer as an image-obsessed diva. (Asked if the song "Free Radicals," on Mystics, is about Beck, who is a Scientologist – the chorus goes, "You think you're radical . . . in fact, you're fanatical" – Coyne snorts and says, "No! I'd tell you if it was. But he's not fanatical in any way. He's not awake enough. I would love it if he was a freak.")

Backstage before the show, talk turns to Bob Dylan, who was famously heckled during a 1966 U.K. tour. Though the Lips will be opening for Dylan this summer, Coyne, perhaps inspired by hecklers of gigs past, mentions a backstage conversation he once had with a young Dylan fan. "What can an eighteen-year-old possibly care about a wrinkled-up old man with a pencil-thin mustache hunched over a keyboard?" he asks incredulously. "I mean, have you seen Dylan lately? You can't recognize a single song he plays anymore. It's like you order a pizza and Dylan brings you a pile of dog food, and you're like, 'What's this? I ordered pizza.' And Dylan says, 'This is my version of a pizza.'"

Listening to Coyne on a typical Flaming Lips track, with his pained, brittle falsetto, singing about beauty and loss and the unbearable transience of existence, one might assume the frontman to be a delicate, poetic soul, not prone to publicly mocking sacred cows. But spend any time with Coyne and it quickly becomes clear that very little is sacred in his world – neither God nor Dylan – and that, despite the wide-eyed, undeniably hippie sense of joy that comes through in his performances, when he shoots balloons at the crowd, dances with adults dressed in animal costumes and rolls around in a giant inflatable bubble, the offstage Coyne has a no-bull-shit, libertarian sensibility shaped by his working-class background and very red home state of Oklahoma.

"I can see where people think I'm some sort of psychedelic freak warrior who believes in UFOs and God, but I fucking hate that shit," Coyne says gruffly. "I believe in things that are real."

At the Royal Albert Hall, the eccentric English singer Robyn Hitchcock, who toured with the Lips in 1999, stops by to say hello. Coyne, meanwhile, marches about the venue with a half-dozen laser pointers hanging from his neck, attempting to work out the logistics of a stage effeet that would involve the crowd shooting him with hundreds of such lasers. Pausing before an outsized confetti cannon, he notes, "Even for veterans of confetti, this will be spectacular."

"His biggest influence, as far as I can tell, is The Wizard of Oz," says Hitchcock. "That's his template. He's stepping out of the black-and-white world into the colors. But he's not Dorothy. He's an Oklahoma gunslinger. He's tough as old leather."

For the past fourteen years, Coyne and his wife, Michelle, a photographer, have lived in the same home in Oklahoma City, only a few blocks from where Coyne grew up. When I ask if he's ever lived in any other cities, Coyne says, "Norman, for a couple of years." He's referring to a college town less than a half-hour away.

The Coyne home – two floors, red-brick and as square as a bunker – would stand out in any neighborhood, but surrounded, as it is, by dilapidated wooden ranch houses, the building is especially conspicuous. The Coynes live in a rough part of town. Their home was built by its previous owner, a contractor who used leftover parts of various building projects (marble from a courthouse, a spiral staircase from a theater, diner banquette in the kitchen).

"He was this weird old man who lived in the front and worked out back, and now, forty years later, there's another weird old man who lives in the front and works out back," Coyne notes with pride. "We got this place for $20,000. It's not like we think this is the greatest neighborhood in town. But a couple of years ago, when we finally had enough money to either buy a big house or make this our spot, we decided to stay.

"Oh, see, now this gal looks like a prostitute," Coyne continues excitedly, grabbing my arm and pointing out his breakfast-nook window. A woman in a tank top and blue short-shorts is talking to a man in a truck. It's just after noon. In the next few hours, we'll see several more likely prostitutes as well as the police arresting a man in front of a nearby crack house.

The Coynes have never had any break-ins and don't seem overly concerned about the possibility. "I think most people in the neighborhood are actually sort of afraid of Wayne," says Lips touring drummer Kliph Scurlock. Coyne has purchased three of the houses adjoining his own. He tore one down – the previous owner had been running a meth lab out of his bedroom – and houses a Lips roadie and a tech guy in the other two, creating a minicompound. Props from Christmas on Mars, an unfinished low-budget science-fiction film written and directed by Coyne, are scattered throughout the yard: a propane tank turned space capsule, a deflated astronaut's suit. The Coynes have also taken in three large stray dogs. One of them, the Dragon Dog, had mange and has been exiled to a fenced area in back; signs in the kitchen, warn, "Do not let Dragon Dog in house." For the past few weeks, Coyne has been trying to capture a fourth stray by rigging up a cage with a tripwire, a la Wile E. Coyote.

Coyne always hated school, and when he was a teenager he began working as a fry cook at Long John Silver's, selling pot on the side. He didn't last long as a dealer but remained at the restaurant for nearly twelve years and says he always liked the job. The Lips started with Wayne's older brother Mark, the quarterback of the football team, on vocals, and Michael Ivins, a quiet guy with a weird haircut who had been class valedictorian, on bass. They took drugs and emulated their stadium-rock heroes – Led Zeppelin, the Who – but couldn't really play their instruments, which led Wayne and Michael to messier, punk-inspired bands like the Minutemen and the Butthole Surfers. Mark eventually left the group, and Wayne took over as vocalist. "People act like you're limited by your gifts, but I don't know," Coyne says. "When I started out I couldn't sing at all, and now I can sing pretty good, just by trying to sing like people I liked." Like? "Carly Simon. Gladys Knight. People always think I'm trying to sound like Neil Young. I do like him, but I never wanted to sing like him."

Early on, the group specialized in feed-back-heavy psychedelic freakouts, with trippy stage shows to match. "We did pyrotechnics for a while," recalls Ivins, "until it set my hair on fire." Drozd, the only Lip with actual musical training – his father had made his living playing saxophone in polka and country & western cover bands – joined the group in 1991.

Shortly thereafter, the Lips signed with Warner Bros., where, surprisingly, their unique sensibility remained wholly intact. Their very first Warner Bros, release, at the height of the Ice-T "Cop Killer" controversy, was an EP titled Yeah, I Know It's a Drag . . . But Wastin' Pigs Is Still Radical; a few years later, when the majors began unloading the commercially unviable indie bands they'd signed during the alt-rock boom, the Lips persuaded Warner Bros to release Zaireeka, a four-disc album in which all the discs were meant to be listened to simultaneously. The band scored a fluke hit in 1993 with the single "She Don't Use Jelly," which featured a big, catchy, grunge-era guitar riff and nonsensical (but weirdly sexual) lyrics about Vaseline and toast.

"For a while we loved being the weirdos," says Coyne. "We loved setting things on fire and being like, "We're freaks! We're pirates!' And that served us well, because we could do a lot in that context.

"But we always wanted to play beautiful music," he continues. "We loved the Butthole Surfers, but we also loved the Bee Gees. We wanted to be able to make emotional, touching music. But that really does take a lot of skill. It's hard to stumble upon sounding like Stravinksy. You can almost by accident, here and there, sound like Sonic Youth, just by dicking around. You don't ever really sound like Beethoven, not by accident. But we wanted to."

The Lips' creative watershed would come sixteen years into their career, with the 1999 release The Soft Bulletin. The album was something no one quite expected: a leap forward in terms of craftsmanship and ambition, akin to Radiohead's progression from Pablo Honey to OK Computer. In the case of the Lips, a band known for fuzzed-out guitars and absurdist lyrics, they made a bold feint in the opposite direction, embracing lush orchestration and, in Coyne's lyrics, an often poignant sincerity.

"It came out of us being sort of disillusioned," says Drozd. "It just seemed like there was such a proliferation of third-rate alternative-rock crap. And we were right there, smack dab in the middle of it. It felt good to say, "Well, fuck guitars and goofy lyrics.'"

"I think the minute I stopped trying to be weird," Coyne adds, "people thought I'd actually gone insane."

Before Coyne recorded the album, his father died, and the singer found himself questioning everything about his life. "I really thought we were going to be singing suicidal songs, these songs of existential despair and how horrible the universe is," Coyne says. "I thought you'd hear the record and be like, 'This is the worst fucking negative doom-and-gloom bullshit I've ever heard.'" (Along with the death of Coyne's father, the band was coping with Drozd's heroin addiction.)

Throughout The Soft Bulletin – and on the 2002 release Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – Coyne, indeed, sings about seemingly hopeless moments: a superhero admits the world is too heavy to lift ("Waitin' for a Superman"), a guy unpacking groceries is struck by the inevitability of death ("Suddenly Everything Has Changed"), a man from the future travels through time to deliver bleak news ("All We Have Is Now"). Yet the music continually soars, and surprises, with warped string sections and cinematic choral accompaniments giving way to Trampton Comes Alive-style vocal effects and free-jazz percussion. It's all pretty enough to make even the darkest lyrics go down easy. A couple of years ago, the Lips song "Do You Realize??" was even featured in a Nissan commercial. (Perhaps wisely, the rest of the song's titular question — "that everyone you know someday will die" — did not make the ad's final cut.)

"The more I would try to sing about the universe destroying me, the universe being dark and mysterious," Coyne says, "the more I sounded like I was worth listening to. It's strange. It's like, the guy who'll get up there in front of people and not be afraid of humiliation is the most powerful guy in the room. The more insignificant I thought I was, the more significant I think I sounded. The more I admitted I was helpless, the more powerful I became.

"As we started to make The Soft Bulletin, I was like, 'This isn't gloom and doom. These are resilient, optimistic believers. These guys aren't defeated at all.'"

Coyne, who will cop to posessing an overdeveloped work ethic, spends the rest of our afternoon in Oklahoma City running errands. As we climb into his green Ford pickup, he mentions that he's read a story I wrote about Pete Doherty. "I'm going to give you my version of a Pete Doherty story," Coyne says. "He's going around scoring crack. I'm getting duct tape."

In fact, the sheer amount of duct tape purchased by Coyne at his local Home Depot raises the concern of the matronly cashier. Coyne explains that his band uses the tape to bind concert equipment. "You make enough money to afford all this tape?" the woman asks skeptically.

Later in the afternoon, we swing by a warehouse to see Coyne's friend Mark Dillon, a novelty wholesaler who has just returned from China with several new types of laser pointers. Coyne then explains another new idea: vibrating underwear. Apparently, there is a new adult-novelty technology in which a vibrating disc built into a pair of panties can be activated via remote control. Coyne's plan is to make Flaming Lips vibrating panties available to fans and then activate them from the stage. He tested samples on his wife and female label reps during a recent European tour.

"I wasn't sure how long to go," Goyne admits. "At first I did it for a six-minute song. After, everyone was like, 'Dude, that's way too long.' I guess it got all hot. So the next time, I just did quick little spurts. By the end of the night, you could see a visible thrill in their faces, like, 'That was a better show for me than for other people,' " Coyne turns to Dillon. "So this underwear: Sound like something you could do?"

Dillon shrugs and says, "I'd have to source it out."

"See, I believe in doing things," Coyne says later. "That's the problem with most artists: They just dream and dream and dream. You gotta do stuff." Coyne delivers the line with a smile, but he's mostly serious. He seems uncomfortable with being labeled an artist, preferring the tangible results of various Lips projects and, especially, the idea of "working with men," a phrase he uses after we load a dozen boxes of confetti into the back of his truck. (He also regularly helps load the stage sets and refuses to employ a guitar tech, which prompts Hitchcock to dryly ask Drozd, "Is Wayne driving the bus as well?")

Coyne's populist love of practical labor has helped to make the Lips one of the most exciting live bands of the moment. "I'm talking to a guy who makes those inflatable things where you put a big fan on it and it stays inflated for an hour," Coyne says. "We're trying to make an inflatable woman, maybe she'll look pregnant, but she'll be spreading her legs, and when we come onstage, they'll rip off her underwear and we'll come out of her vaginal orifice." When I ask if the band will be covered in amniotic fluid, Coyne looks disgusted. "Hopefully," he says, "it'll be more of a gag."

At the Royal Albert Hall, stage dancers are dressed as Santa Claus, Jesus, alien beings and Captain America. Coyne's wife, Michelle, is dressed as Wonder Woman, and Ivins wears a human-skeleton costume. Coyne shoots Silly String at the crowd and inflates a giant balloon with a leaf blower. During one song, a microphone camera projects an image of Coyne's singing mouth onto the background screen. In such an extreme closeup, his mouth resembles a toothy anus. During another song, the band shows a video clip from a Japanese Fear Factor-style show in which enormous lizards are released into a tub, where they menace contestants. Subtitles read, "The studio is in a panic. Everyone is panicking."

The next day, the band plays Top of the Pops, the long-running British music show. Shit-talking, of course, ensues. As we pass the trashed Dirty Pretty Things' dressing room – there are actually clumps of human hair scattered about the floor – Drozd, who is wearing a one-piece flight suit, mutters, "Well, they got the dirty part down." Someone also tells a scurrilous, possibly actionable story involving John Tesh and Oprah.

In the studio, Jamie Foxx sings "Unpredictable" on the stage opposite the Lips. His belt buckle looks like it might have once been an Escalade hood ornament. Other performers on today's show include Gnarls Barkley, Goldfrapp and the Pet Shop Boys. The Lips perform their latest single, "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," and, perhaps not so oddly anymore, fit right in.

"When we went from being young to old, we wondered, "What do we do now?' " Coyne says later. "We don't want to pretend we were young. That's the worst thing in the world. Or sing songs like we did when we were twenty-two. But now we've been able to go through whatever that thing is that allows an older person to sing to a younger crowd and be acceptable. And with this persona that I have, I think some people – especially younger people – could look at me and not really know how old I am. They could think I'm forty or seventy, really. It's like Willie Nelson. He might be eighty – I don't know. If the audience lets you be an old guy, that's a great gift. I don't see any reason to stop, as long as people like it."

This story is from the July 13, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1004: July 13, 2006