This interview, which originally appeared as the cover story for the September 2005 issue of State of Mind, was done while the Lips were in the middle of recording At War with the Mystics. We've decided to pull it out of the archives because it's pretty much timeless. And even the stuff that dates it, like Wayne talking about politics - "I hope sooner or later that this whole momentum of George Bush's vision just runs out of steam simply because he can't be reelected and someone's going to have to get in there and say something different." - is interesting. Wayne was also finishing up his film Christmas on Mars, which they did screenings of over the summer and just released on DVD. So here it is, revived from the dead, an enthusiastic and open conversation with one of rock's most interesting and genuine madmen. Enjoy.

What happens when punk rockers take acid? Well‚ in the case of the Flaming Lips‚ they become music's coolest oddballs. For over 20 years now‚ they have paraded down one of the wackiest and most blazingly original paths in rock. This journey (surely one that only they themselves could have carved out) has seen the group from Oklahoma City evolve from undisciplined‚ messy‚ noisy post-punk rockers to bold‚ intrepid musical explorers. They conduct some of rock's grandest studio orchestrations‚ as well as crisscross the country unleashing over-the-top performance art‚ concerts that resemble a Dalí painting come to life. They have the audacity to pull off outrageous ideas‚ such as 1997's Zaireeka‚ an album consisting of four CDs that had to be played simultaneously in order to be heard correctly. They have also released critically acclaimed albums‚ such as the most recent‚ 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
This coming year is shaping up to be a monster year for the Lips‚ as they plan to release Yoshimi's follow-up‚ At War With the Mystics‚ as well as frontman Wayne Coyne's feature film debut‚ Christmas on Mars. I talked to Coyne about what has inspired and allowed the Flaming Lips to become rock's reigning lunatics‚ as well as what fans can expect from the band in the coming year.
You have an interesting quote in Fearless Freaks where you talk about The Who and how they created rock songs in almost religious terms. Can you elaborate on that idea and talk about how the Lips have adapted that and made that their own?
Well‚ I don't think it's something that we necessarily stumbled upon by ourselves. There is some intrinsic need that religion fulfills in people. I don't think it's any accident that rock concerts and churches and preachers kind of resemble themselves. I think they're all‚ if you dig it‚ of equal redemptive qualities. When you go to a rock concert‚ people are up there singing songs about how powerful things are happening to you in your life‚ and people look like you and are of your own age and that sort of stuff. Being with a bunch of people and experiencing something is‚ I think‚ one of the most powerful things humans can experience.
And you see it for the good all the time. But there are a lot of good examples‚ or poignant examples I should say‚ for the bad. I think a lot of people even point to this current situation of Bush in the White House - how a philosophy and a tone and someone up there telling you the way you should act can really control people. And it can be a lot of different ways. I don't feel like using it. I think what I'm doing is being an entertainer. And that desire for that thing that happens where we call it the religiousness of rock 'n' roll‚ I think if the audience wants to do it‚ I simply say‚ let's do that thing if you want to do it. If you want to do it‚ then you'll be the one that sings and screams and plays along with all these things that we do. And if you don't want to‚ it should be just as good an experience. But certainly if you're susceptible to that thing that happens - the enthusiasm‚ the love of being in a crowd - it should be a good moment.
You're definitely good at milking it. You make the comparison to Bon Jovi in concert and why people sing along to it.
I don't try to make that big of a difference between the people who want to see Bon Jovi and people who want to see the Flaming Lips. I always try to remind the Flaming Lips audience that their graciousness and their enthusiasm is what makes the show so good. I'm letting them know that when people go to Bon Jovi concerts‚ this is what they do. And we collectively‚ as more culturally aware sort of people‚ miss out on some of that sheer joy and enthusiasm that people get to enjoy. So I'm saying‚ look‚ we can make interesting music‚ we can make challenging music‚ but we can make it simple and fun enough that we can have all of that at the same time. There has to be a tinge of envy every once in a while when you see all those hands waving in the air at the Live 8 concerts. And we all want to sit in the dark and listen to Spacemen 3 or Suicide or something. You think that must be fun as well. So if you want to have that experience‚ you can have it at a Flaming Lips show. There's no shame. There's nothing to be embarrassed about.
I love how at the beginning of the show you say‚ "This is your life presented to you by the Flaming Lips." Can you tell me about how your show has evolved over the years and what it's become today?
Over time‚ we've had the opportunity to play to bigger and bigger audiences. And you have to remember‚ it's not always just our audience. Even the show [Street Scene Festival] we played over the weekend‚ there were 60‚000 people there. They're not really coming to see any one act. They're there because it's a big event and you get Snoop Dogg‚ The White Stripes‚ The Flaming Lips and a bunch of stuff. We're presented with the chance to play to 50‚000 people at one time‚ and so it would be different than if we were playing to 400 people. There are things you can do with 50‚000 people that you can't do with 400 people‚ and there are things you could do with 400 people that wouldn't work with 50‚000. We want to do all kinds of different shows and do interesting things. I just take the opportunity that's there.
What's more fun than having‚ especially when you're in the audience‚ a crowd singing along to some of the most absurd lyrics that a crowd of 50‚000 could sing along to? Like "She Don't Use Jelly" or "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." There's kind of a fume or a vapor of love that can go between what I'm saying and what they're giving back. And the reason I like to get that fervor whipped up is that at any concert there's always going to be a couple of people who are having some horrible things happening in their life‚ and they go to a concert to kind of escape that. My guarantee is that if you are one of those unfortunate people in the audience having some psychic stress of some kind and you come to the Flaming Lips as a kind of relief‚ I think to stand in the audience when the audience is giving that love‚ even if you're not in the mood to give the love yourself‚ you will be so embraced by feeling good about life that I think you would walk away with a renewed resilience. These things are happening to me. I can make it work and get through them. Life is good‚ and life is worth making beautiful. We all know that life in essence can be really dark and horrible and meaningless. You're the one that has to give it its beauty and its meaning and all that. And if you rest for even a minute‚ thinking I'll just let life be what it is‚ you're missing it. It's going to mess up on you. You always have to be there saying let's make this work. Let's make this optimistic. Let's see the good in what is happening around us.
Definitely. In the last few years you've introduced yourself to a much wider audience‚ and one of the things I'm curious about is the jamband audience and the festivals you've done‚ like Bonnaroo‚ moe.down and All Good. What has that experience been like for you guys? I know from the fans' perspective‚ they can't get enough of it. It's amazing. Because you're so different.
We've been lucky. As much as it seems as though we've gone to them‚ they embraced us. It's just something that we're lucky to have stumbled into. Years ago‚ we were playing a New Year's show in Chicago and Al [Schnier] from moe. came over to the show. They were playing across town and he came over to the show with his daughter - maybe it was his son; I forget - to show me a video of his son or daughter singing "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." We got talking and he said we should do some shows together. And that crowd‚ that type of band and whatever we call the jamband circuit‚ has embraced us. I would never have thought that people would. I don't think I thought of it in negative terms. But I thought we do a lot of kooky things and I know a lot of times the bands that are playing at these things‚ it's more of a personal thing; they're going to play music and you get inside your own head and you do what you want. Whereas we really say‚ hey‚ this is stadium rock. Get your hands in the air and let's sing some songs together. But actually‚ it's transcending what's bad about stadium rock and making it seem like‚ let's all just do a giant form of karaoke together. [laughter] It can be a lot of fun. It can be a giant bonding experience. And it can be something different amidst a sea of other unique things. So I think we've just been lucky. I don't know how it happened. And I'm stunned and amazed and gracious every time we play one of these things. It's really kind of a traveling mass of people that go to probably 100 shows a summer like that‚ sing along and have fun while we're doing it. It's great.
Let's talk about the stuff that you're doing now. Your album At War with the Mystics‚ much like some of your recent albums‚ has been a long time in the making‚ which really speaks to the trajectory of your band. You went from noisy post-punk rockers to grand orchestrators in the studio. Can you tell me how you guys made such an evolution
[laughs] That's a cool compliment‚ definitely. Well‚ we've been lucky that even from the very beginning we (not out of being egotistical; we simply had no choice) had to make the records ourselves. And then we really got curious about the possibilities of what you could do in a studio‚ and we would try anything. We'd spend whatever time and whatever money we could to make our version of what we thought our record should sound like‚ but doing it basically ourselves. We were lucky to run into Dave Fridmann in the late '80s‚ and he had a similar sense of obsession and skill and curiosity about what we could do. He added some momentum to us being able to make better records‚ and as time went on we were lucky to run into the people at Warner Bros.‚ who saw what we were doing as being something that they wanted to be a part of their label. And then you infuse all this energy and curiosity about what we could do with records with a bunch of money and a bunch of support. What it does is it allows you to fail and not feel like you're going to lose everything you have. I think that's the beauty that a lot of people don't see in something like having a Warner Bros. support you. You can fail and it's all right. You take chances. And if it doesn't work‚ don't worry; we'll find a way to make it work. They believe in us having imagination and us being determined‚ and they want us to take chances‚ so little by little we've been able to amass this group that goes along with us.