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."
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