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Wayne Coyne From The Flaming Lips On The Importance Of Pushing Creative Limits

Photo by George Salisbury

The Flaming Lips have seemingly done it all since forming in 1983.

They’re known for psychedelic rock music, unique song and album titles (like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1”), and eccentric live shows that often include costumes, balloons, puppets, large amounts of confetti and Wayne’s signature man-sized plastic bubble in which he walks over the audience.

They have a Tony nomination, three Grammy Awards, 14 studio albums, five “fwends albums” that feature collaborations with My Morning Jacket, Miley Cyrus, Dr. Dog, Tegan and Sarah, Kesha and more.

But even with all of that, they’re not stopping anytime soon. In fact, they’re celebrating their 35th anniversary with a bang.

The Flaming Lips Greatest Hits Vol. 1 three-disc collection came out on June 1, and they recently launched a podcast called “Sorcerer’s Orphan,” which will offer a song-by-song history of their music and is hosted by band member Steven Drozd.

Fargo Monthly got the chance to chat with Wayne Coyne before the band’s June 25 show at the Sanctuary Events Center. We talked about how music has impacted his life, his creative personality feeds into his musical career and he experiments with music.

When did your love of music begin, and what inspired you to start The Flaming Lips?
Wayne Coyne: It would be hard for me to remember a time in my life where music wasn’t already there. Music has always been in our lives. I didn’t really think of myself as a singer in the beginning. I thought I would like to play guitar or something like that and write songs, but I sort of became a singer by accident later. But then now I find that I really, really love singing, and I think that goes back to even that stuff when I was really, really young, and my older brothers would be singing Beatles songs or Bob Dylan songs or something, and my mother loved Tom Jones. She absolutely loved him, and so I would love him.

It would be hard for me to remember a time in my life where music wasn’t already there.

How did you first sign with Warner Bros Records, and what was that experience like for you?
Coyne: I think we were very lucky that the person that started to make the more powerful people at Warner Bros aware of us was a guy that we got to know out of San Francisco. He worked at one of the radio stations there, and he became an intern for the woman who would end up being the person that was responsible for signing us, but he was the one that kept urging her, ‘You gotta go hear these guys. You gotta see them, they’re the greatest group ever.’ We weren’t really the greatest group ever, in his eyes we certainly were. Then she came out to see us in Oklahoma, and she fell in love with us. And really before we knew it, we were signed, but we never really thought of it as being signed by Warner Bros as much as being signed by her. We absolutely loved her, and she absolutely believed in us.

We knew then and still know today that we really love to make records.

We’d already been a group since 1983, and it wasn’t until 1990 that we got signed at a major label, but we had been on a couple labels previously. So by the time we were getting ready to be signed to Warner Bros, we had a good idea of what we thought we could get out of the label and what we thought would work for us. And we never asked for very much money, and we didn’t have any big demands. We just wanted to see if they could help us to record. And we thought ‘Oh my god, this sounds too good to be true,’ but it wasn’t.

It’s really great for you to have such a positive start.
Coyne: Well, we were lucky that we already had some experience, and we weren’t trying to be the biggest group in the world, you know. We knew then and still know today that we really love to make records. I think they knew that they didn’t want to really change us. They just wanted to help us evolve, and they really did. I think without someone like them coming in, I think we probably would’ve been frustrated and who knows what would’ve happened, but it was wonderful. It still is. We’re still with Warner Bros almost 30 years later.

I’m creating, so I’m always writing a song or painting a picture or making a video or something.

What’s your songwriting process like?
Coyne: I’m just a kind of driven, creative person, and that doesn’t mean that my creations are good or anything. I’m creating, so I’m always writing a song or painting a picture or making a video or something. And I only know that because I’m around people that don’t do any of that, so I know the difference. There’s something in me that says I have to have a song and I have to have a drawing or I have to have a painting. And a lot of people I know don’t want to write songs or don’t paint the picture. It doesn’t mean I know more or anything. I just know that that’s part of my makeup, that I like making things.

It’s something that you’re just called to do.
Coyne: Well, and I think I’ve been encouraged to do it. I’m lucky that everybody’s always encouraged me. No one ever discouraged me. When I started to play guitar and write songs, everybody was like ‘Let’s listen to Wayne’s songs,’ even though I knew they weren’t very good. I think I’ve been very lucky that there’s never been anybody I’ve run into that said ‘I hate you, I don’t want to hear your songs.’

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the Parking Lot Experiment and the Headphone Concert idea. I thought that those were such unique ideas for different ways to experience music.
Coyne: I think the main thing was that we had taken it to a new phase of what we thought The Flaming Lips could be. And in the previous incarnation of The Flaming Lips, we had this really insane, insane guitar player. He was an insane musician, but he was also kind of an insane person, so when he left the group, part of us was sort of devastated, but another part of us was actually relieved because he has mental problems that we know of now, but at the time we just thought he was fucking difficult and crazy, and we realize now it wasn’t that. So when he left, it sort of marked a new wave for Steven and I to think ‘Let’s just push through this type of music.’

I think that really changed us.

The Parking Lot Experiment was really just a silly idea that we had one night. We were in a big underground parking garage, and we always loved the way it sounded, especially when it was slightly empty and it had all these big reverbs and all that stuff. So we just sort of haphazardly said, “Let’s make a cassette.” We made this sort of cassette orchestra, and we got all of our friends that had cassette players in their cars, so everybody would pull their cars into this parking garage, and we’d get everybody a tape and then we would sort of organize where they would be in this parking garage. And after a couple of months of doing this with 50 different cars all over the place in a strategically placed arrangement, that led us to doing that in clubs. Instead of being in a parking garage, we would go into music clubs and instead of using cars, we would use boomboxes.

I think that really changed us, and we then made this record that’s called Zaireek. That’s on four CD’s that was meant to be played all at the same time, which is an insane idea now. It’s a very insane, unmanageable, weird thing, but Warner Bros encouraged us to do it. Still out there to this day, it’s one of the strangest records ever made, and they helped us do it.

The music sometimes would be very strange, but sometimes it’d just be very beautiful and emotional. People would listen to it and not know that it was supposed to be weird.

So all that I think would lead us to being the kind of group we are now. And again I think it’s that people encouraged us and helped us and then we got very lucky. The music sometimes would be very strange, but sometimes it’d just be very beautiful and emotional. People would listen to it and not know that it was supposed to be weird, and I think that’s a very lucky byproduct of working so hard and trying to make something that wasn’t just crazy; we wanted it to sort of touch us.

With so many studio albums and collaborative albums, what keeps you motivated and inspired to keep writing and performing music?
Coyne: I think there’s some kind of internal motivation. Making a record, it’s not like an achievement that you say like once you do it, you don’t do it again. It’s probably like climbing a mountain or being a marathon runner, you know. Once you’ve done it, you want to do it again and again, and you want to try it a different way. And so for us, I think the more records that we were able to make, I think the better we got at it and still continue to get better at it. And I think even once you’re good at it, you have new things that you want to say and new things you want to see.

But I would say there’s no reason. It’s just your personality. I think I have a personality that’s a certain way, and then it attracts people that want that personality. They don’t want to be me, you know. They are glad I’m me so they can be them, and I think that’s the sort of karma if you want to use that word, that kind of puts it out there in the world. I’m saying I’m going to be me, and I want you to be you, and let’s work together so everybody is not trying to be like ‘I want to be the rockstar.’ I don’t. I just want to be me. I just want to do my own thing.

Check out one of their live performances here:

Check out their top tracks on Spotify here:

Find out more about The Flaming Lips and their tour on their website. Their 21+ show will be Monday, June 25 at Sanctuary Events Center. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show starts at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $49.50 in advance or $52.50 the day of the show and can be purchased here.

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Written by Jessica Kuehn

Jessica Kuehn is the web editor for Spotlight Media. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead with a degree in print journalism. When she isn't writing or correcting her and other people's grammar, Jessica is obsessively quoting The Office and reading way too many books.

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