Photo by George Salisbury
In the late ’90s, the Flaming Lips were asked to play a New Year’s Eve show. They brought in all the required party tricks, such as balloons and confetti falling from the ceiling and a screaming champagne toast, and when the show was over, they wondered how they could keep the party going.
“We fucking loved it. It was a little bit of an insane moment,” frontman Wayne Coyne recalls via phone. “For the rest of the year, we wanted every night to feel like that. And the next New Year’s, we did a next one, and we did 10 times as much.”
Building off of that, the Flaming Lips’ shows are now famously known as insane, wild feasts for the senses. Lighting displays, screen projections, dancing fairies and wondrous falling objects all enhance the experience. Coyne says that playing with his group in these moments is as good as any drug. The more theatrics, the more emotional, musical connections, Coyne says. “We don’t really want to stand there and play music for ourselves,” he says.
Today, Coyne is outside his Oklahoma City home talking to Scene via phone, sitting in his “home office,” his Prius. He’s the kind of person who could probably spark up a conversation with a rock. He tells long, insightful stories and answers questions warmly. The 57-year-old is nowhere near as strange as you’d expect for someone who has no qualms wearing fuzzy Care Bear sweaters, releasing vinyl albums made with actual blood and beer and hanging out and recording with Miley Cyrus.
Bringing the band's fully-realized show to the renovated Agora next Friday, Coyne seems somewhat enthused to get on the road. Today, he’s just come from the studio, where he writes and records nearly everyday. Warner Bros. Records, the band’s longtime label hasn’t interfered with their sound or off-the-wall ideas from the beginning, something Coyne has described as some sort of miracle. After the band’s last record, 2017’s Oczy Mlody
, Coyne’s ready to pump out more of his act’s experimental, psychedelic rock.
“A long time ago I had a conversation with [The Who’s] Pete Townshend, who said, ‘You’re so lucky you get to keep recording and to make records. When the Who was at our peak, we didn’t do that,’” Coyne recalls. “He made me realize he was right. Now, I’m in the studio making music almost every day. We’re mostly a band that makes records, and the idea that we go out and play shows, it’s almost like an interruption. But most people see us the other way around, as a band that does crazy shows and also records.”
Unleashing the Hits
Head to any artist’s Spotify page, and you’ll see the band’s Top 10 most-played songs right at the top. In this way, Coyne says, Spotify has already made a best-of playlist for all artists. He figured it was time for his band to get in on that action and curate its own list.
Earlier this year, the band released Greatest Hits, Vol. 1
, which included their most well-known songs, B-sides and a couple previously unreleased tracks. They also released Seeing the Unseeable: The Complete Studio Recordings of The Flaming Lips: 1986-1990
, which includes more than 70 songs over six discs that Coyne swears he’s listened to in its entirety.
“I don’t really think the Flaming Lips are a Greatest Hits band,” Coyne admits, as they don’t have any huge radio hits. But he says he and his bandmates have always been fans of the Best Of format from their favorite acts. He says there’s nothing wrong with liking these records, as the songs are the best for a reason.
“We wanted to make things interesting; if you like this song, maybe you’ll like this song,” Coyne says of how they picked the lineup of tunes. “Because we do have so many songs, and some of them are very likeable. Not everything we do is so weird.”
Coyne says he’s not a singer. Except that, other than the band’s first two years when his brother Mark was frontman, he’s been the lead singer of the Flaming Lips for nearly four decades.
“No one ever came up to me and said ‘you should be able to sing,’” Coyne says. “But I started to be able to sing things. I’ve had a lot of help. [Multi-instrumentalist] Steven [Drozd] has helped me hone in on the little quirks of my voice to make them work.”
Drozd, Coyne says, is the band’s secret weapon: “He could play anything … with his feet if he had to.”
“Steven’s pointed this out: ‘People are going to hear a 1,000 singers hit notes perfectly and it won’t matter. If you don’t hit it okay, it will be more powerful.’ So I’m going to try, if I don’t get there the audience gets to feel that with me. I’m lucky that I’ve navigated that enough I can own that.”
Coyne certainly isn’t some powerhouse, go-for-the-rafters-type singer, but what he brings to the Lips is a raw, sweet vocal power. In embracing his imperfections, he feels free.
“I try very, very hard,” he admits. “There’s nothing worse than watching someone who doesn't care.”
Ode to a State Rock Song
Ohio is now the only state with an official rock song — the nonsensical O-H-I-O anthem, “Hang On Sloopy.” Oklahoma used to have a state rock song as well, in the form of the Flaming Lips’ most well-known tune “Do You Realize??”
Coyne says he always thought the song was a bit too sad to be the state rock song. Its lyrics are beautiful if not morose:“Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” When the song was voted as the No. 1 choice in a state historical society poll back in 2009, he remembers heated internet discussions.
“I mean, people were saying things like, ‘How dare you, it should have been a Toby Keith song” Coyne recalls. “Maybe it should have been, but the people had spoken. We certainly didn’t choose this.”
Following the will of the people, then-Gov. Brad Henry, a democrat, signed an executive order officially making the tune the state rock song. When Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, took over in 2013, she chose not to resign the executive order. At the time state office officials said the decision had more to do with her political priorities than her taste in music and musicians.
“Yeah, fuck her,” Coyne says. “She just didn’t care. Her loss.”
But Coyne, who doesn’t live far from his childhood home, is still happy to represent Oklahoma in other ways. “I still have my song,” he says. “It makes you realize how easily things can come undone, especially in today’s political climate.”
He says he’s not worried if it gets reinstated or not, and that Ohio can keep its distinction. With this business out of the way, Coyne’s positive that he and country singin’ Toby Keith can friends.
“The possibility is there,” he says.
The Flaming Lips, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $45-$75 ADV, $50-$75 DOS, agoracleveland.com.