Norman, OK is probably the last place from which anyone would expect a neo-psychedelic space-rock outfit like The Flaming Lips to emerge, but Wayne Coyne couldn’t imagine it any other way.
His early experiences living and working within the Dust Bowl limits of The Sooner State came to shape who he is as an artist, and the fact that he still maintains residence there today epitomizes the philosophy of taking pride in where you come from.
His compound in Oklahoma City is as peculiar as he and the rest of the band have always been, because the emphasis on communal living and egalitarian values is on display at all times. Everyone dwells within walking distance from each other, and, together, they work tirelessly to establish their own hippie utopia.
Aesthetically speaking, it’s a hallucinatory abode featuring a life-size UFO, ornately decorated facilities, and eccentric architecture that would fit perfectly on the set of a Stanley Kubrick production. In other words, it’s everything one would expect from a visionary whose song titles include such semantic gems as “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles” and “The Train Runs over the Camel But is Derailed by the Gnat.”
Sure, he’s living the life of a rock star, but his worldview is grounded in love and humanity for all living things, and the musical landscape he inhabits is an extraordinary, if sometimes confounding, reflection of that.
The Flaming Lips’ thirteenth studio release, “The Terror,” is one of the best albums of 2013, as it presents the listener with an experimental nightmare in which love may not be enough to conquer all. It’s a work that acquires deeper qualities with each listen, so don’t expect to have it all under control after just one session.
I spoke with Mr. Coyne recently to discuss his past, present, and what exactly The Flaming Lips have in store for Artpark in the near future. If you’re sick of sitting through the same old workmanlike concert experience, you owe it to yourself to come to Lewiston on Wednesday night to soak up the Lips in all their lush grandeur.
MNOD: You continued working a day job at Long John Silver’s right up until the band was signed by Warner Brothers in 1991. What would you have done had the band not taken off when it did?
Coyne: I probably would’ve continued to develop my band and art, because it’s what I always wanted to do. I think it would’ve become frustrating after a while, but I’m one of those people who would say ‘It will happen eventually,’ so my focus wouldn’t waver one bit. I would’ve always believed that things were going to work out for me. I consider myself very lucky that everything did work out, because being in my 30s and making 80 or 90 dollars per week wasn’t going to cut it for issues like health or car insurance. It’s not scary anymore in that sense, but I’m still very fortunate.
MNOD: I read that the restaurant was held up at gunpoint while you were working there. How did that experience change you from that point on?
Coyne: I didn’t really know at the time. I was 16-years-old and that incident brought all of my internal insecurities out in the open. The feeling of imminent death affected me, because it would’ve happened in an instant without any moment for reflection. Seriously, though, that day lifted away all the reasons I had for questioning whether or not the band would ever make it. I wondered why the robbers left when they did, but the fact that I survived pushed me ahead to write songs and be in a band. That was really the difference for me.
MNOD: Society shifted in a grunge-heavy direction during the early ’90s. Did you ever feel pressure to fall into that category?
Coyne: Not too much, actually. There were a few of those bands that we liked, but not many. Hüsker Dü and Black Flag were the bands that really influenced us in the early days. We would go to punk shows and everyone would wonder why these long-haired hippies were there. There’s never been a category for us, because fitting into the mainstream wasn’t something we were concerned about. Making some of the weird music we have is both a statement and a reaction against everything we didn’t like.
MNOD: I loved the change of pace that came when you guys released “The Soft Bulletin” in 1999. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” are two of my favorite tracks that displayed a deeper side of The Lips. Did the move toward more intricate arrangements come naturally or was there a concerted effort involved?
Coyne: Thank you, those were some heavy songs for us. We started working on that record as early as 1997, but we had an idea of the kind of songs we were going to write. We felt as if it would be the last record we would ever make, so we knew that we could make whatever type of serious material we wanted to. We had no boundaries and no reason to make anything else. That was the album that really changed it for people, because the critics loved it and it essentially signaled a new beginning for the band.
MNOD: With the new album, “The Terror,” the lyrical approach evokes a darkness and sense of impending doom unlike previous records. What was the inspiration for that?
Coyne: I don’t know where that came from, really. It’s tough to pinpoint where the inspiration comes from in particular, because every record is different from the next. “The Terror” began with a synthesizer given to us by Sean Lennon, because we spent some time in the studio with him and developed a lot of strange little tongues. Plus, the synth happened to include a bunch of different tri-tones that spoke to us creatively. It had a beautiful sound that we kept going back to, which allowed us to get 3 or 4 tracks laid down rather easily.
MNOD: How much does the socio-political turmoil of 2013 play a role in your writing process?
Coyne: I’m sure it has in part, but not really a whole lot otherwise. I don’t really have an opinion of politics on a macro level, because it’s nothing that I can directly impact on the grand scale. I try to stick to politics on a local level, because I like to know what’s going on in my neighborhood. I’ve never been of the mindset that I’m going to affect the world in a grandiose fashion, so I’ve always encouraged our fans and others to get involved in things in their own area.
MNOD: I know that you guys have an upcoming collaboration with Ke$ha. What is it about her style that made you want to work with her?
Coyne: I didn’t know her that well before, but we ended up talking to her and spending some time in the studio. She’s crazy, she’s funny, she’s just great all around. She was in the middle of a massive tour at the time, so we tried to work around her demanding schedule. I’d like to say that the record will come out in a few months, but it feels like I’ve been saying that for a long time now. We’ll finish it eventually, so it will be interesting to see how people respond to it.
The Flaming Lips will be at Artpark in Lewiston, NY on July 17.
“The Terror” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.