Wayne Coyne: "The Who's Music Is Really Optimistic"

Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips performs at the 2008 VH1 Rock Honors honoring The Who at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California.
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Wayne Coyne's life was changed back in Oklahoma City in the 1970s, when he attended his first Who concert as a teenager. The Flaming Lips leader can still talk excitedly about that night with his brothers, hearing the music erupt onstage, watching the band explode, worrying if the green lasers just might cut off his fingers.

By 1986, Coyne and the Flaming Lips were performing a raw medley of songs from Tommy. And as part of Saturday's VH1 Honors tribute concert to the Who at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, the Lips will perform a typically mind-altering take on songs from the Who's most famous rock opera. Coyne plans to emerge in his epic "space bubble" and begin the Lips' set with the immortal words: "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me..."

The show, to be broadcast on VH1 on Thursday, July 17, will also include performances by the Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Incubus and Tenacious D (who will play "Squeeze Box"). But this won't be the first encounter between the Who and the Flaming Lips. In recent years, Coyne and the Lips have occasionally stepped onstage with Pete Townshend at his series of intimate "In the Attic" club shows, performing Who songs and originals with the classic rock icon.

"Their music is really optimistic," says Coyne. "There is a sense that they believe what they're saying. When the music is going with it, we all believe it together. And that's a cool thing."

Did you get to choose what Who songs you would be doing?
Luckily, they wanted us to do a Tommy medley. We're like, "Fuck, yeah!" We had done this Tommy medley in 1986. When we think of the Who doing those songs in the Live At Leeds era — doing the most intense freak-out shit — that was the period we like the most. We probably would have done anything they asked us, just because it's cool to do and to meet Pete Townshend is great.

You did this same medley in 1986?
We were such bad musicians back then. But definitely "Sparks," "Pinball Wizard," "See Me, Feel Me" and especially "I'm Free" — that has just got a fucking riff that the Damned could have played. I think we played it like one of these hardcore American bands like Husker Du or the Replacements back then. Of course, this rocks!

Once you guys mastered Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," you could probably do anything.
I agree! That's a fucking behemoth. Really, playing this stuff in the way that the Who with Keith Moon and John Entwistle did — it's really energizes you. The Who in that period, the energy would feed the song and make it almost better. They would find whatever groove was in a song and just exaggerate it. It's hard to remember that it's just three guys playing — just a guitar player, a bass player and a drummer. But it's this monstrous build-and-release of stuff. It's awesome.

Were the Who an especially important band for you?
When I first saw the Who, I wasn't ready for them. I was only like 14. It was a spectacular night in Oklahoma City and it was just fucking insane. We were sitting up at the very top of the arena, and they were playing the "Listening to you, I get the music thing, and the green lasers were literally hitting the wall above my head. Fuck! I was thinking I could reach my hand up and they would cut my fucking fingers off or something. And the bleachers made of concrete were literally rocking. I remember my brother said, "Wouldn't it be awesome if the whole place just crumbled?"

The Who and the Flaming Lips share a certain theatricality.
Certainly it's a show. I talk to people all the time who tell me that with Led Zeppelin or whatever that it was all about the music. And I'm like, "Are you fucking crazy?" When I saw the Who, they had giant laser beams! And they jumped around, they wore freaky clothes, and Keith Moon was saying "I'm about to fucking explode!" I was always drawn to the idea that it was a show as well. We were really seeing something cathartic. The way they performed it made them different, and that's cool. That's what art really does.