The Flaming Lips have conducted boombox and car-stereo orchestras, constructed a single album across four separate CDs, composed a 24-hour song, and issued music on gummy fetuses and skulls. So for the long-running psych-rock crew, releasing a conventional best-of package and early-era box set might be their strangest experiments to date.
The six-CD Seeing the Unseeable, out June 29th, compiles material from the band’s first four LPs for Restless Records – before their eventual signing with Warner Bros. – and showcases their evolution from ragged post-punk (1986 debut Hear It Is) to more melodic, psychedelic alt-rock (1990 breakthrough In a Priest Driven Ambulance). It’s a diehards-only proposition, and even Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, out now, mostly appeals to hardcore fans – considering the Flaming Lips never really wrote conventional singles.
“We don’t really think of ourselves as having any hits,” Coyne tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. “But some of our favorite albums that people have ever done are greatest hits. When people ask me what my favorite Donovan album is, I say Donovan’s Greatest Hits. It’s this idea of saying, ‘Let’s decide which ones would be easily the most popular, and if you like those popular songs, what would be a bunch of songs you’d dig that you weren’t aware of?’
“Our manager [Scott Booker] is like the biggest Flaming Lips fan that could ever be,” he adds. “He’s always like, ‘Let’s do a greatest hits!’ He points to Echo & the Bunnymen and the Cure having a greatest hits. And as we were growing up, those records really did turn us onto these bands because we didn’t really know about their other albums. Of course, back then, it wasn’t that easy to get those other records. You’d hear a song and would say, ‘I’ve gotta hear that record.’ When you hear a lot of our music, it just starts to blend into being the Flaming Lips – it just doesn’t stand out as being from this time or that time. From like [1993’s] Transmissions From the Satellite Heart to Zaireeka, it all starts to blend together.”
To mark this rare repose of looking backward, Coyne spoke to Rolling Stone about their creative evolution, the crucial impact of his bandmates (both temporary and long-term) and the idea of becoming a “character” – both on album and in real life.
It’s easy to break down the Flaming Lips catalog into these clearly defined eras: 1999’s The Soft Bulletin is an obvious marking point, as is 1992’s Hit to Death in the Future Head, your Warner Bros. debut. Was part of the reasoning of creating this Greatest Hits to remind fans that, “Hey, there’s this entire other Flaming Lips universe you may not have heard of”?
The Flaming Lips fans are people who say, “Oh, I like this music,” and then they discover more of our music, and it becomes a bigger and bigger thing, instead of it being just attached to a certain part of their life. A lot of people are only going to be interested in music or buy music or have it be connected to their life for just a short amount of time – maybe from the time they’re 18 to 25. We always know we’re gaining a little bit of our audience but also losing a little bit of the audience all the time. But for most Flaming Lips fans, it’s not like, “They put out an album 10 years ago that I like.” It’s “I’m interested in them – what are they doing?”
Even for me, back when we were really young, we would listen to Elton John’s Greatest Hits or Beatles compilations, and it never really occurred to me that these were different moments in time. You could easily just think, “It’s the Beatles, and they’re cool. A song they made in 1964 is just as cool as a song they made in 1969.” Part of us knows that’s true anyway. You could listen to “She Don’t Use Jelly” from 1993 and then The Soft Bulletin from almost 10 years later, and you can say, “It’s the same group – who cares?”
The Flaming Lips have been around for decades. Why release a Greatest Hits now?
We’ve been trying to put out a Greatest Hits for a long time, but we just haven’t been able to get all the pieces to come together. Spotify is a great example: They’re putting out kind of a greatest hits already. “Here’s the song everybody wants to hear first,” and then it goes from there. We were just thinking, “Why don’t we make that easy? Here’s this collection. If you like the songs, here they are. You don’t have to search around for what album they’re on. You can just have them.” In a sense, it’s curated by us – we’re the ones saying these songs are important. And we’re putting it in a certain order and giving it a certain vibe and remastering it. For better or worse, it all sounds really fantastic.
Let’s go back to the beginning with your first album, Hear It Is. The opening lyrics to “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” are fascinating. In a way, they’re sort of classic, existential Wayne Coyne, but they’re also darker and angrier than your trademark style: “Well, I never really understood religions/Except it seems a good reason to kill.”
When I hear it now, I know I’m being too obvious in one way and too innocent in another way. That’s probably one of the great accidental things that the Flaming Lips do. I think I’m being smart and cool, but the more I think I’m doing both of those things, the less I’m actually doing that – but through trying to be cool, I’m exposing some innocence, some dorky part of me, that’s better, that I never could have done that on my own. If I really thought, “I’m a great singer and songwriter, and I want to sing about loving my mother,” I could never do it! But singing these ridiculous things that I don’t really know the meaning of – a lot of times, it’s a collision of all these exaggerated ideas about religion and drugs and the way you’re putting your life in-between these. … When I hear that stuff now, I hear just how innocent and happy and dorky we are through music that’s trying to be angry and cool and whatever. We are so bad at being mean that it’s funny [laughs].
The more of those records that we made, the more we got it out of our system to say, “Oh, my gosh, we really aren’t any good at being cynical.” We did a cover of “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong, and we absolutely loved this song – we loved it on the most cornball level you could love a song on, like exactly the way it’s meant to be loved. When we did it with the Flaming Lips, we were trying to present it like, “What a Horrible World” – the opposite of what it actually meant. That’s what we thought we were doing. We thought we could never embrace a song that said the world was wonderful – we can only embrace the song if we know the world is horrible and we’re pretending like it’s not horrible. That gets us through doing all these things that we feel insecure and stupid and embarrassed about. Luckily for us, the song doesn’t sound at all cynical and mean, like we thought we were being, you see?
It took us time to get to where we could simply say how we feel and not be embarrassed about it, or be embarrassed and do it anyway. Now we don’t really care that much. We try to just do the thing – this is us being creative and using our imagination, but it’s also how we feel and what we’re about. You try to do all that at the same time, and it’s always difficult. Early on, nothing short of punk rock would have gotten us through anything. If we would have had to compare our music to real groups that we loved, like the Beatles or Echo & the Bunnymen, we thought, “You can’t compare us to them because we can’t do that sort of thing.” We tried to do music that you couldn’t compare to anything. If you liked us, it stands on its own – we didn’t sound like a shitty version of another band. That was probably the only thing we were able to do because we couldn’t play very well or sing very well, but we were very curious about recording. From the very first time we were able to go into the studio, we were like, “Wow, there’s a lot of cool shit here,” but we didn’t really know how it all worked. Even still, being in the studio and creating sounds, having songs and turning them into sounds, that’s our favorite thing ever. Without that kicking in, we probably would have been too scared to expose ourselves.
Of course, the level of technical ability in the band rose significantly over the years.
As time went on, we were very lucky that we ran into people that joined up with us and said, “I want to fucking help you guys do your thing.” I think about how insane we must have sounded to attract people like Dave Fridmann or Steven [Drozd] into the group. To have them be so, so good and have such abilities and apply that toward our pile of creative anarchy was just the greatest thing that could have ever happened. Without discovering some musical sense and some production sense, we probably would have just gotten frustrated that we couldn’t quite say what we wanted to say. It’d have to be [filtered] through other things we didn’t mean and hope you’d see us through it. If we hadn’t done “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin,” we probably always would have wanted to do it. And that’s one of the Flaming Lips’ trademarks: If we want to do it, we do it! [Laughs]
For the past few decades, you’ve been the face of the Flaming Lips. But in the band’s formative stage, you were just the songwriter and guitarist while your brother Mark was the singer. In the Lips biography Staring at Sound, you compared your role to Pete Townshend with Mark as Roger Daltrey. Do you ever miss that – not having the spotlight on you all the time?
That’s a great, insightful way to see it. But for us to compare ourselves to Pete Townshend or Roger Daltrey, that just shows how insanely wrong we were about our own abilities. If punk rock hadn’t come along – nothing short of the most insane, amateur garage punk-rock – we never would have had the courage, or the delusion, of thinking we could actually be a group. We would say things like Pete Townshend or Roger Daltrey only because those were the only people we could think of that our friends could relate to. I thought at the time that I could play guitar and figure some things out, but as we got further along, we would meet people who were actual musicians on all different kinds of levels, eventually leading to the kind of level that Steven Drozd is. He’s a master, master musician. He could play with Miles Davis. He could play with Igor Stravinsky. In comparison to that, we wouldn’t have counted as musicians at all. I have a creative drive and energy and all that, but without a little bit of musical-ness you quickly run into a dilemma. My brother Mark and myself went along with the delusion that we could make stuff that sounded like music but really sounded more like punk rock and was more energetic and freaky. And that would be what we did. That would be how we made our first record and how we played our first shows. And there wasn’t any consideration of the future. Back then, people would ask us about record labels, and we didn’t even know what they meant – “What do you mean, a record label?” We were so far off the typical map of, “We’re gonna do this and make a demo and get a record deal.” We were just making shit up as we went along. No one went up to us and said, “Hey, you guys are great! You should form a band!” It was all our own whimsical, retarded idea of what we would do with ourselves over a summer or something.
“Steven Drozd is a master, master musician. He could play with Miles Davis. He could play with Igor Stravinsky.”
Back then, everybody we knew was doing the same sort of things. We would work our day jobs – I worked at restaurants and with my dad. He had an office-installation company where we’d unload trucks and install these office things – stuff you didn’t want to do, but that’s what you did as your job. And then in your spare time, you’d do your art or your music. Virtually everybody we knew did the same thing. We didn’t really know any musicians. We didn’t know anyone who was in the music business or anything. All of that would have been so foreign to us. So in the beginning, the mold was: Wayne’s figuring out the songs and figuring out what the songs are going to be called and the lyrics and all that, and Mark would be like, “I’ll be the fucking crazy singer.” But Roger Daltrey is one of the greatest singers ever, and my brother Mark and myself aren’t singers at all. When those two get put into the same sentence, I think only in attitude are they similar. I’m an amateur with no real musical ability. I’m just making up my own versions of chord structures and scales and all that. I think in the big picture, for good or bad, that helped make us utterly unique. And over time we were able to attract musicians and producers who were musical who saw something in that – “Let’s keep the freaky stuff and get more music attached to it.” Early on, I don’t think we could even wanted to think, “What will we do for a second record? What will we do 10 years from now or 30 years from now?” All of that would have made us explode, like, “No! We’re just doing this right now, and that’s all that matters.”
You mentioned the importance of punk on your early music. It seems like it opened the door for you guys, who weren’t trained musicians.
“Unlistenable,” isn’t the right word, but it was such of-the-time music. Most everybody that we knew wasn’t really into punk rock. We were starting to explore English punk rock in the beginning, but we got turned onto a lot of the early cool American punk. We were at Sonic Youth’s first show when they played in Oklahoma; we were at the Minutemen’s first show in Oklahoma. We unloaded their equipment with them and talked with them. Little by little, they were kind of letting us in on, “Here’s how you do this.” If you saw Led Zeppelin or Ted Nugent at the arena, you stood there drinking a beer, and they came out and play, and it all seemed fantastic and wonderful. Then they left, and you didn’t know how any of it worked. We’d be there when Black Flag was unloading their van and talking to them, and you sort of see, “Oh, we can do this! I don’t know that we can ever be the Beatles, but we could do something in the way Black Flag is doing it.” All of that is why we started to write our own songs and do our own records – we were inspired by these other guys who came from similar backgrounds, in nowhere cities like Oklahoma City. I think they had the same attitude of like, “This doesn’t have to last 30 years. We’re doing it right now, and this is what our lives are.” Now when I think about it, it’s like, “Oh, my god, what were we thinking?” [Laughs] But at the time, it was a way to break out of just becoming young adults who have a job you hate and, before you know it, a house you can’t pay for – things we’d seen with our older brothers and their friends. Not that it was bad, but it was a way of saying, “If we don’t do something, nothing’s going to happen. We didn’t come from musical or artistic backgrounds. It was a great leap into the unknown.
The Flaming Lips evolved from a more abrasive punk style to a psychedelic approach on your second LP, Oh My Gawd!!! The centerpiece is “One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning.”
The weirder moments on that – when we were remastering it, it just knocked me out. Some of the rock stuff is good and weird and all that, but it’s really the more gentle moments – “One Million Billionth,” “Love Yer Brain” … We thought we were doing something else. We really thought we were doing this serious prog-rock, introspective stuff. And as we were making it, we were like, “We do love this music, and we’re doing the best we can, but we’re not very musical.” So we’d use little things to help us out that were slightly strange. Listening to those specific tracks, I think that really made the Flaming Lips who were are. We weren’t getting more aggressive. By the time we were doing Oh My Gawd!!!, there was more coloring coming. The songs were getting longer, and we’re using more overdubs and melodic things. And if we hadn’t done those things, I think we would have given up. Those were the hardest moments because we knew our audience would laugh at us for being so sentimental and soft. But to our surprise, we discovered just the opposite: These people that we thought were gonna be like, “You don’t sound like Sonic Youth anymore – what the fuck?” actually loved us. They were like, “You kinda sound like Sonic Youth if they ran into Chopin or something.” We were like, “No way!” Which was even better than we could have ever done. We couldn’t even quite figure out the chords we were playing, but we thought, “Let’s just record them, and we’ll figure out sounds that go with them.” It’s so absolutely amateurish, but we were fumbling our way thought it. And sometimes that fumbling is so beautiful. And it’s hard to capture, especially when people have abilities and are really good. You want to hear those imperfections, and with the Flaming Lips, there are so many imperfections.
You just mentioned “Love Yer Brain,” which is another standout on the album. I’ve read that you wrote the song about a friend who committed suicide.
At the very end of it – you cant tell on the album, but we literally destroyed the piano we played it on after we recorded the song. It’s all one long take that took about 25 minutes. We had hammers and things and destroyed the piano. We built it as a slightly sappy song, but at the end of it we get artsy and destructive. If we hadn’t had the concept of destroying the piano, we probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to do music that was touching. We knew if we didn’t just record it, we’d become too insecure: “We don’t really know chords or know how music works.” But we would stumble upon things where we thought, “That’s still an emotional thing.” [Drummer] Richard [English] knew how to play the piano a little bit then. We’d all jump around: He’d play part of the chord on the piano, and Michael and I would probably play another piece of it. None of us could play the piano per se, but the three of us together could grab a piece of the piano and say, “You hit that; I hit this.” We’d practice it enough to know it when we’d record it to get one take down. I think even that way – we had to care about each other and cooperate with each other. That brings out those special things in the group, and you quickly get scared that you’re being stupid or sappy or sentimental, and you tried to be tough and noisy. But I think we were lucky that we’d simply run out of time and couldn’t redo it or rethink it…. These things would open us up to another world: “Maybe we can do music that emotional and not just noisy or whatever.” But I think that insecurity is a real thing that people relate to. We’re always insecure, even when you’re really fucking good at shit. I was just hanging out with Shaun White the snowboarder, and he’s Mr. Badass. But he’s up there like, “I’m up there, and I don’t know if it’s gonna work.” Music is like that. Music is such a deep reflection of what you really are. You cannot lie. Music doesn’t let you lie. It may tell the world that you’re a poser or a liar or a fake. But you can’t fake it. No matter what you do, it exposes you. We’re really lucky because when we look back, we weren’t trying to be rock stars. We were trying to [tap into] something inside of ourselves.
A lot of critics and fans point to In a Priest Driven Ambulance as the first great Lips album. You’ve previously cited that guitarist Jonathan Donahue joining the band gave the Lips a huge confidence boost. Do you still feel that way?
Jonathan also knew Dave Fridmann. Jonathan was a fan of the band, and he sort of jumped in the van one day and was like, “I’ll help you guys. I’ll run sound and monitors or whatever else you guys need.” And that led to him playing guitar. And we were like, “Well, play guitar on this song or something.” Within a couple months of him doing that, we started to record with his 4-track. Up until then, we didn’t know how to record other than being in a studio. He had this little cassette 4-track, and we bought some crappy little microphones and used our guitar effects to experiment with how we would record. He brought that whole thing into it. It exploded the whole thing. And we wanted it to. We were struggling with, “How do we make this more emotional? I don’t know.” We had no idea about scales and chords. Someone would ask me, “What’s the key of this song?” And I’d be like, “I don’t have any idea what the key of a song even means.”
Instead of Jonathan and Grasshopper, his friend in Mercury Rev, and Dave Fridmann making fun of us or making us feel embarrassed about that, they absolutely embraced that and made us feel great about that. The things they could bring to it – the musical-ness, the structure, some organization, making us sound better and more musical. They really loved us and helped us and encouraged us. That could have gone so many other ways, like, “You’re not very good; who the fuck do you think you are?” Jonathan and Dave were so beautiful. People will sometimes say, “The Flaming Lips really helped out Mercury Rev,” but I say it’s exactly the other way around. If Jonathan hadn’t jumped in and encouraged us and added his abilities to ours, I think little by little we would have been frustrated. I don’t know that we would have given up, but it would have been tough for us. Dave was really patient but intense, like, “You guys have to stay freaky, but we’ll help you with the stuff you’re not good at yet.” It was the perfect meeting of the minds. They liked that I had the energy and the motivation and the connections. We didn’t hardly know each other, but we were like, “Fuck it, let’s make another record.” We hardly knew each other at all, and we stated to make what became the Priest Driven Ambulance record. Nothing could get in the way, and I think they liked that about my personality. But them bringing in that emotion and beauty and subtlety, it’s like, “Ahhh.” And now I’ve learned more and more about it. And having someone like Steven in the group, who has such endless abilities. He’s such a master, and he’s so empathetic to my quirks and my way of doing things. Sometimes I can write a song that’s completely unique to my abilities, and what he adds to it makes me seem even better.
When I lead the group, they have to play to my abilities. And it still has to sound like something. I’m playing this thing that’s in some unknown key and rhythm, and I’m speeding up and slowing down, and they’re playing with me and making it sound amazing. That’s when a band is really good because I know I’m not doing that. They’re following me, and I’m only the leader because I can’t follow them. I think they love that: “We’re gonna go somewhere. Wayne’s gonna take us somewhere. It’s not gonna just be music – it’s gonna be something else.” They allow me to be the insane person leading the asylum.
In a Priest Driven Ambulance really benefitted from Jonathan and Dave’s input. But there’s also an obvious maturity – a sort of purity and sweetness – to songs like “Take Meta Mars” and “Rainin’ Babies.”
It was the first time we did these things we’d call demos. Jonathan had this 4-track machine. You said “purity” and “sweetness” – previous to making those demos the way we did, those would have been things we would have been utterly embarrassed about. If someone had said, “I love that song – it’s sweet,” we would have been like, “No! We’re supposed to be radical and noisy.” I think those are the exact things that Jonathan and Dave were hearing in our music previous to that, but not very much of it. Some of it would shine through here and there, even though we were pretending to be mean or weird or whatever. By doing those demos, which is always a way for you to be free because you can say, “It’s just a demo; it’s just a throwaway. It doesn’t mean anything.” But Jonathan and Dave would say things like, “Well, that part I really like,” and your embarrassment is still there, but it’s a little covered up. We were wanting that anyway – we just didn’t really know how to get there. They would hear stuff like with “Rainin’ Babies,” which is such a sappy, sentimental, ridiculously sweet, but somehow abstractly cosmic, ridiculous song all at the same time, there would be elements of that that would appeal to all of us. It would be like, “You can’t really sing, but the fact that you’re trying so hard to sing is evoking another trigger in my mind.” You know what I mean?
I totally relate to rappers and stuff – I don’t know how to sing, but I sure do love to sing. I remember I’d be singing, and Dave would be like, “I like that note. It’s the wrong note, but I like it.” And then another one, he’d be like, “This one’s just not appealing. You’ve gotta keep working.” I’m always just fumbling in the dark because I don’t know when it’s sharp or flat or wrong or right. But I had a lot of energy and patience: picking the things they think were really working and working on the things they thought weren’t working. A lot of it was done with love, and that’s why those records shine so much. It was a group of guys really helping each other, really loving each other, and the music absolutely was the king. There was nothing else that was important to us. When I listen A Priest Driven Ambulance, I’m like, “Fuck, how did we do that? That’s sounds so good. This is a band that sounds like they knew what they were doing.” We didn’t at all, but we sound like it.
It seems like you were allowed to fumble around through these early albums – refining your style and slowly gaining confidence, until you figured it out.
I think we’re the luckiest band that’s ever existed. Over time you see these weirdo groups, and they get to make one record. And the record company picks them up, and the record gets normalized or over-produced, and they get disillusioned and disappear. We never got disheartened or so successful or unsuccessful – we were just able to keep going. I think that’s exactly what artists really want. They want to say, “I did that; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I found out a little bit about myself.” You get another crack at it, and some things work better than others, and you just keep trying. Because we have so many recordings, you really do get to see, “Hey, this thing they were trying to do on their third record, they really nailed it on their seventh record!” [Laughs] When you look at filmmakers or painters, you see that sort of thing: They keep trying it; they’ve figured out this one thing and connected this other thing to it.
[We’re lucky] not having too many bad things happen at once where you get discouraged or end up hating each other, too much resentment. Success comes into it as well, because without some success, everybody kind of loses hope. But too much success – you never know what’s at the bottom of people’s desires about getting money or getting famous. And all those things are catastrophes for groups as well. All these elements come into that start to change you. We got to be ourselves in these periods and really work at it, and before we get too boring or too zany, something else would come along that would make us change. Or the music world would change, and we would start to be like, “We want to do these other things instead of what we were doing three or four years ago.” All of that can destroy bands. Most of it is dumb luck.
This is jumping forward a lot, but it’s also incredible that Warner Bros. – a major label – allowed you to continue this experimentation on their dime.
Those people at Warner Bros. who signed us weren’t trying to get the next Nirvana. We came into it because of Jane’s Addiction, and I think it was previous to even Nirvana being successful. We were signed by the woman who did the stuff with Jane’s Addiction. She was like, “You guys are weirdos like them.” We were like, “We’re not like them. We’re not these L.A. rock guys.” But she said, “I know, but you’re weirdos in your own way.” We just sort of went along with it, but they were never looking at us like, “You’re going to sell 10 million records,” or whatever. They said, “We’ll help you do your records. We love what you’re doing, and let’s make it work.” We kept waiting for it all to be a lie.
That’s definitely not the norm. Were you just waiting to expose their hidden agenda?
There really wasn’t [a hidden agenda]. In the early days, the A&R woman and her assistant would come to the studio, and we always thought they would give us some pointers of what we were doing wrong and what we should do to make it better. They’d be sitting in the studio listening and loving it. I’d be like, “Come on! What do you mean you love it? You’ve gotta fucking help us.” I think about it now and I’m like, “People wouldn’t believe it.” They sat in the studio with us, just listening to it and being like, “What’s this song about? It’s so cool what you’re singing about.” I’d be like, “I don’t fucking know!” They were just in love with it, and they always were. That’s the only story I’ve ever heard that’s gone like that. A lot of people get to major labels, and they have an agenda and the label has an agenda. It’s difficult for people to be successful and happy at the same time. Somehow we just got lucky and got through some of it without even knowing how we got through it.
Jumping back to the Priest Driven Ambulance era, there’s a scene from the Staring at Sound book that always touched me for some reason. While you guys were on tour around that time, you staged these fake UFO photos on the side of the road. What was the thinking behind that?
We had a couple of these books – back then, it was difficult to find these paperback books that had these strange, almost believable, pictures of UFOs and stories of abductions and stuff like that. All of this is in the late Eighties. I think we liked this evocative nature of these grainy photos and this mystical feeling of “Are UFOs real? Are they some kind of government conspiracy?” We weren’t that interested in the truth of it – we liked that otherworldly connection to it. It wasn’t the cosmic, hippie connection to UFOs – it was a mysterious sci-fi, but not hokey sci-fi, kinda scary sci-fi. And somewhere in there, it predated understanding a kind of Blade Runner mentality that we were all starting to live in. We wanted our own version of the future. It was a grungy punk rock [thing]. It was the weirdos that had the computers back then – it wasn’t businesspeople. We were fascinated by these UFOs – we liked the idea that you could talk about this fantasy world, and it’s all contrived. You’re not really believing in UFOs, but you liked the idea of believing in UFOs [laughs].
We were taking our own Polaroid pictures. All that stuff when you’re on tour, playing shows and making up your own identity and character of who you are. All that’s leading into you being able to write songs about stuff. All that living that we were doing on tour is stuff we know we’re going to put into our songs. In the late Eighties, and especially when we got to Priest Driven Ambulance, we were creating our own fictional version of ourselves. Previous to then, we came from this authentic punk rock thing – you’re really just yourself. You happen to up there playing and singing songs. And we always struggled with that because we were just normal, dorky dudes. We would sing about there not being anything on TV. It wasn’t sexy or dramatic, but that’s the way we lived. Music wasn’t going to save us from some horrible life – we already had this dorky life that we liked doing art or whatever.
But I think by the late Eighties and early Nineties, we started to think, “Maybe we can be characters.” This “Wayne” guy who sings in the Flaming Lips, he’s a character. I could be that character that gets to live this life and stand up there and sing songs, and it doesn’t necessarily have to just be me. All that stuff we started to do was our way of saying, “Who’s this character going to be?” You just start to become a character. By the time we did something like The Soft Bulletin, that’s me totally saying, “I’m going to be this character who’s like this worldly pirate from outer space who’s bringing this message of love,” and that would just be me. And as time went on, I just said, “Fuck it, I’ll just be that dude!” [Laughs]
So in trying to make your creative persona more interesting, you ended up changing yourself. Then again is there really a difference?
It’s always like that – there’s always some corner of your personality that says, “Be more like this. Be less like this other corner.” I imagine everybody does that, but you have to. We’re introverts and very insecure about standing up there and playing music. A lot of people who see a guy up there playing music, they think, “Who are these show-offs, these guys being loud and noisy with long hair?” Really, it’s the exact opposite. We know we have to get up there and do this thing because part of us wants to. But a bigger part of us is like, “Oh, shit, this is embarrassing. I don’t know how to do this.” But I think that made the music unique. As much as we could be loud and freaky, we could be – and still are some nights – scared shitless because you don’t know how to do anything. I think that’s what made us slightly unique: We never really truly won the battle. We never got over, and probably never will, that we’re just dorks. When read stories about people like Prince and David Bowie, you realize that as talented and successful and gifted as they were, they were insecure as well. When I found my character and allowed things to happen to me, it’s not just me it’s happening to. It’s happening to this guy who’s telling these stories. I think all that sort of helped us – otherwise we probably, again, would have been frustrated that we’re just not very interesting. We don’t know any celebrities, and we’re not rich and famous. What do we fucking sing about? When I listen to these old records now, I’m like, “Oh, my god – these guys are fucking insane! What were they thinking? It’s just amazing. It’s unlike any group. Why did they make more records? It seems like they fumbling through this, hardly making this one.”
You were exactly right before: Running into Jonathan and Dave Fridmann – instead of that being a confrontation with a bad reality with ourselves, they showed us so much love. They’d show us things on our records: “This little thing, why did you do that?” We’d be like, “Fuck, you were really listening to that! You really liked that!” Same thing when we ran into Steven. When Steven came into the band, [guitarist] Ronald Jones came in at the same time, and they’d play our songs back to us. They’d marvel at things, like, “They’re in this key right here, and they change for two bars, and then comes back to this other key. Why did you do that?” We’d be like, “I don’t know – it just sounded cool.” I think that’s what Dave and Jonathan liked about it as well – it didn’t follow some musical path that you’re aware of or used to.
I think if you were to learn music theory, the band wouldn’t quite work as well. You lose a certain innocence when you make it more technical.
I totally agree. The fact that I wasn’t interested in [theory] was more telling than anything. But I’m interested in it if someone else can do it. I think Steven and I would say the same about each other: “I’m glad that you allow me to be myself, but I want you to help.” I think that balance of us being in different ways that our minds arrive at these creations gives it this flavor and color that we want in there. Without the other one being in there, you’re not getting to see who I am enough. You’re seeing all the bad stuff, and it’s covering up the good stuff. When Steven works on my music, he gets rid of the bad stuff and you just hear the good stuff. If we’d had big egos early on, that probably would have ruined it. But learning and learning and listening and listening and getting lucky – saying, “Hey, that little thing, people liked it. We liked it! That worked!” It’s like when people make movies that are supposed to be comedies, they always say, “People are laughing at the right place. What we thought was funny they did too.” That’s what I’d say about our music when it got more emotional: It would be emotional to the listener as well. It wouldn’t just be us in our own dreamworld. Those things are encouraging – you don’t feel like you’re just screaming in the dark.
When other musicians say, “Man, I hear ya, brother,” that probably more than anything encourages so much. I saw a group play last night [Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards], and when musicians turn on other musicians, it gives you a jolt, an energy, this reason to live that’s just unexplainable. I think musicians relate to that. Early on in the Flaming Lips, I never would have thought that. I would have been an outsider if I had to talk to another musician. But once Steven came into it, he said, “No, man, other musicians want to play music like you do. They just can’t because they know too much.” All that makes you feel kinda weird but also good, like you’re on the right path. It doesn’t take much. I’m ready to go anyway, and if you get around a couple guys who are good and encourage you, that’s how we could arrive at something like The Soft Bulletin, where they’re allowing me to be as grandiose and epic and dramatic as I want to be in my own way, and them saying, “I see where you’re trying to go.” One song on The Soft Bulletin, “The Spark That Bled,” I think it changes keys four times. I’m just playing along, like, “Here’s the way I want the song to go.” And between Steven and Dave Fridmann, they’re like, “You’re changing keys there. You don’t know you are, but you’re changing keys in this little change.” And when we’d go to make the music, Steven would make these beautiful little passages, and that’s what real musicians do: They make these passages so beautiful that you don’t know that it’s awkward anymore. That takes away the bad part of the awkwardness. And like you said before, it leaves behind that purity and sweetness. And that’s really them. I’m so lucky. I’m getting to stand in front of this thing, and it looks like I know what I’m doing, but I don’t really know.