“It will probably sound horrible to say this to some people, but music and art is not first in my life — and maybe it never was. There’s nothing worth sacrificing for your music and art.”
This statement might come as a shock when you consider its source: merry prankster Wayne Coyne, frontman of the Flaming Lips, a man whose whole life has been seemingly dedicated to art, music, and generalized weirdness. But at 59, the whimsical rock star has, in some ways, grown up. In addition to playing ringleader in the Lips for nearly 40 years, Coyne has also lived through divorce, remarriage, and the birth of his first son, and today, he’s more concerned with obtaining a safe family car than jetting around the world.
Like pretty much every other touring musician, Coyne is currently rooted at home due to the pandemic, all Lips tours canceled for the foreseeable future. With a new album, American Head, out now, one might think Coyne would be distressed at the prospect of staying put, but according to the singer, he’s happy with his family, pets, and friends. “Us being [stuck at] home, that part of it is not that different,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We would go out and play shows and then come home and be very glad to just be by ourselves in our house with our own stuff. And we have a little boy who is just one year old and our dogs and cats. So, it’s not that much different in that way.”
The singer spoke with Rolling Stone about the state of the country, how fatherhood has changed his outlook, the dark side of psychedelic drugs, and more.
For your new record, American Head, you wrote an essay about being an “American band.” Do you hesitate to call yourself that now with Trump and the escalating pandemic?
I never considered Trump. I don’t even speak about him. I think Flaming Lips music, when it’s at its best — it’s something deeper than Donald Trump.
Are you optimistic about the state of the country?
You hate to say anything positive about the pandemic. We’ve all lost our jobs because we can’t go out and play concerts. But I feel optimistic that it’s allowed people to take a break from the onslaught of all the cool things that can occupy your attention. I don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement would have had as much power if there were all these other things going on. I was very glad that there were no concerts and no sporting events — nothing else in a way to say, “Yes, this could be the news.”
In the shadow of all that, I think some really powerful things are happening. I hope we don’t all just die like it’s the plague or something. I hope this is just a moment in our history and we learn a lot from it.
You recently had a son, Bloom. How has fatherhood affected the way you see the world and your music?
It’s allowed me to know what’s important and what isn’t. I’m almost 60 years old, so I feel like I’ve had a good long time. I’ve been doing music and art since my early twenties, and it’s like, man, what a great bunch of luck I’ve had that I’ve got to spend my life doing that.
What do you hope the world is like when your son is your age?
I think the world is a wonderful, beautiful, insane place. I don’t think of the world as being this great punisher that’s here to teach us horrible things. Surely, there is a lot of injustice and there’s a lot of pain, but the world can really only be as beautiful as you see it. Two people can be standing in front of the sunset, and one of them just sees it as a waste of time: “What are we standing here for?” And the other one sees it as the greatest experience they’ve ever had.
I would say I hope that the world is as great and as wonderful and as challenging and as cool as it is now when he gets to be older.
You have a song on this new album, “My Religion Is You,” that delves into love and religion. What are your feelings on spirituality?
I remember questioning my mother about religion when I was seven or eight years old. She said, “Well, some people don’t have a mother that they can talk to and they have to talk to something. They can talk to God because they don’t have anybody they can talk to.” And I understood that because I did have a mother and a dad and brothers and a lot of people that I could talk to.
And I said, “Well, my religion is you. My religion then is my brothers and my family, and our house and you.” I think at the time she was like, “I could see you thinking that way.”
I’m not trying to sing something that everybody will understand; I’m just trying to sing something so I can understand it. And I think in that, it probably becomes a thing that everybody can understand.
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’re ever made?
[My wife] Katy and I took a trip to Hawaii. Man, that just sounds bad. That’s like rock-star [behavior]. And now we have a brand new white Volvo family car; I know that that’s an indulgence.
Your indulgent purchases are a family vacation and a safe car?
[Laughs] There you go. See, coming from you, it sounds pretty good.
You seem so happy with your wife and baby, but I know you previously went through a divorce. What did you take away from that experience?
I think I’m lucky that I grew up a lot; I became more mature; I became just a nicer person. I didn’t always put family ahead of art and music. I’m not like that at all now and I wasn’t like that when I met Katy.
Your family and your people, those things are important. You’ll find a way to make your dumb music and art, and you’ll find a way to make some fucking money. Who cares? But that’s easy for me to say now. When I was 30, I probably would have read this interview and thought, “This guy’s stupid. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But in time, you will.
What was your favorite book as a kid and what do you think that says about you?
How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I mean, it’s such a great story and you wish it was true in life — that these bitter old fools who hate the world somehow get enlightened and change the way they are. Most older people that I know that are old and bitter and hate everything are not just going to wake up one morning and see everything great and new. But it’s a great story in that way — that you can change your heart and your mind and suddenly see the world differently. It’s like a Bible story, it’s just easier to understand.
Drugs appear quite a few times in the track list of American Head — from quaaludes to weed and LSD. How do you view drugs at this point in your life?
Steven [Drozd] and I both talked about having these older brothers that we kind of vicariously lived through. We saw the way we wanted to live; we saw the way not to live. I think we both have a little bit of survivor’s guilt about that, that we didn’t embrace everything that they did. A lot of my brother’s friends died from drugs and overdoses and motorcycle accidents and stuff.
So, we’re not singing about drugs as if it’s a hippie, cosmic, mind-opening, beautiful thing. When I’m singing, “Mother, I’ve taken LSD,” I’m singing about my oldest brother being on the porch telling my mother that he had taken LSD. When your older brother says he takes LSD, you just think, “Oh, my God. He’s so fucking crazy. Why is he so crazy? And why is he trying to kill himself?” And then part of you says, “He is crazy — and he’s cool, he’s wonderful, he is like a God because he can see things and do things that I can’t do.”
When I took LSD, it didn’t open up the world — it made me think of how horrible it is and how painful it is and how unfair it is. I’m almost 10 years older than Steven, but he had virtually the same experience with his older brothers and drugs. So, when we sing about these things, it’s like we’re relating to each other.
“When I took LSD, it didn’t open up the world — it made me think of how horrible it is and how painful it is and how unfair it is.”
When you were younger and working at Long John Silver’s, you were held at gunpoint and feared you would die. How did that experience change you?
Well, until then, I could probably say I didn’t realize I was really alive. I never really thought about it. We were living such an insane, healthy, wonderful, happy life — my brothers and all of our friends just running around doing the craziest shit ever. But then I’m laying on the floor thinking, “This is how I’m going to die.”
I do think that I had a lot of anxiety about not working with my older brothers and my father. He had his own business and my brothers and their friends would all work with my father, and I didn’t really want to do that. I really wanted to start to make music and see if I could do that. And I really wanted to kill myself over this because I wasn’t part of their thing. And after this robbery, for a little while, I just thought, “It doesn’t matter. They don’t care. They want me to do music.” So, I think it helped me in that way — to not feel like I had abandoned these things that my father had worked for. So, I have to say, I think it was probably the greatest gift a young person could have — to suddenly get a new perspective on what’s important in your life.
What’s the worst advice anyone ever gave you, and did you take it?
My dad didn’t like cats. When I was five or six years old, I remember him saying: “If you see a cat, you can kill it. You can run it over, you can shoot it because cats aren’t good.” And as I got older, I didn’t really think cats were bad. I mean, we have cats all the time now. But I remember when we were young, he would say that as if this is some good advice that you should carry.
Is there anything that you wish someone had told you about music and the music business at the start of your career?
I wish I would have known that you don’t have to be a musician. We’re just weirdos making music any way we want. We don’t really fit into the music business. I mean, now that we’ve been on Warner Brothers for 30 years or whatever, we never view ourselves as being part of the music business.
You used to draw a lot during interviews. Do you still do that?
No. I think I proudly called it multitasking. I think the drawing went well but I don’t think the interviews went very well. You start off just doodling, and the doodle, because you’re not paying attention to it, it’s going better than something that you’re intending to do. And then the minute it starts going well, you forget that you’re talking to someone and you should be listening. You know what I mean?