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Weekly Alibi Race for the Prize

Interview with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne

By Stewart Mason

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Ever since their self-titled 1984 debut EP, the Flaming Lips have been a bunch of nice boys from Oklahoma City with an ever-shifting lineup based around the duo of Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins. Together, they have a remarkable facility for bending the forms and conventions of rock and roll to fit their own whimsical desires, resulting in a string of unique, strangely accessible and occasionally utterly whacked-out psych-pop albums culminating in 1997's conceptual masterstroke Zaireeka, a four-CD set with all four CDs designed to be played at the same time.

But despite their steadily increasing cult audience -- the band even scored a modest MTV/alternative radio hit in 1993 with "She Don't Use Jelly" -- The Flaming Lips never quite entirely nailed it. While each album was a striking development from the one before, and some individual albums -- particularly 1990's In A Priest-Driven Ambulance and 1995's Clouds Taste Metallicw -- were truly excellent, the Flaming Lips never quite made the record that caused you to phone up all your friends and babble "Oh my god, you have to hear this!"

That is, until The Soft Bulletin. Nearly two years in the making and guided by hot producer du jour Dave Fridmann, who helmed last year's similarly career-defining Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev (not coincidentally a band whose leader, Jonathan Donahue, used to be a Flaming Lip), The Soft Bulletin is a neo-psychedelic masterpiece. It's an album simultaneously gentle and uplifting and dark and terrifying, featuring arrangements of near-impossible density -- not for nothing is one song called "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton"! -- and quietly philosophical lyrics which mix humor, dread and a childlike wonder, often in the space of a single line. From the expansive Phil Spector-on-acid opening of the instant-classic single "Race for the Prize" onwards, The Soft Bulletin is a marvel which deserves the high ranking it's been getting on nearly every year-end best-of poll, as well as easily being the best listen-on-headphones-in-the-dark album since My Bloody Valentine's Loveless back in 1991.

Having delivered an unexpected masterpiece a decade and a half into their career, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins are in the enviable position of being the buzz band of the moment. But they boast an extensive discography for newcomers to acquaint themselves with, and they're making full use of their increased notoriety: This interview with guitarist Wane Coyne was conducted the day before the band left Oklahoma City to start their second European tour in less than four months.

What's the first pop song you remember hearing?

Huh. To be honest, I really don't remember. When I was young, my mom always used to have the radio on in the kitchen, listening to the top 40 station in Oklahoma City, KOMA, and I always heard that. This must have been pre-Beatles, because although I was very young, I remember when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan -- we were in the grocery store the day they were on, and there was such a fuss, it was like Christmas or Halloween! I don't remember actually seeing them, but I remember the fuss! So the first song I heard was probably in that sort of early '60s folkie era, somewhere between Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary.

You know what's weird? John Peel used to be a DJ on KOMA in the early '60s! I couldn't believe it when we went to England for the first time and did our first Peel Session, that this amazing disc jockey, probably the greatest disc jockey ever except maybe for a Wolfman Jack or some wildman like that, worked at the station I grew up with in Oklahoma City!

So really, music was always around, and music was a lot of fun, but it never felt like this really big thing at the time. When you're a kid, lots of things are fun! Drawing pictures at the kitchen table is fun! Beating up your little brother is fun!

Speaking as a little brother, I disagree. ... So when did you decide to become a musician?

Starting from the time I was eight or nine. I'm 38 now. That was the era of the big mega rock stars, you know, Led Zeppelin, Yes, those people, and to a young mind at that time, that was simply the thing to do! I didn't want to be a musician, I wanted to be a rock star. By the time I was 15 or 16, it just seemed so easy. You know, grab a guitar and grow your hair and you're good to go. You'll go off and change the world! I think when you're around that age, you're looking around and all your friends are getting their first jobs and you're all deciding what you want to be. Some kids wanted to be lawyers. I decided I wanted to be a rock star.

Of course, as I got older and I kept playing the guitar, that changed, because you go from "I wanna be a rock star" to "well, I wanna be an artist." Surely by the time I was 22 or 23, I realized that I was never gonna be that kind of big mega world-changing, incredibly wealthy and famous rock star. That sort of thing just didn't happen.

When the Lips were first starting out around 1984, who were your specific influences?

Well, of course before then I was influenced by all the major stuff, and you can still hear it in our music -- the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, that's all in there -- but by the time we started the Lips, we had seen that there were all these new bands, and that was the beginning of the hardcore scene. Not a lot of bands came through Oklahoma City, but the ones who did -- Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, all of the Texas bands like Texas Instruments and the Butthole Surfers -- I could tell that there was nothing remote or mystical about them. I mean, the first time the Minutemen played Oklahoma City, they stayed at my house! I could see that these were real people: "Hey, these guys are just like me!" Seeing these bands up close and personal was a big deal. I remember when Sonic Youth came through town, it was just a revelation. If they can do it, so can we.

You've said that you'd never heard of neo-psychedelic bands like the Dream Syndicate, Three O'Clock or Plasticland before you were being compared to them. What did you think of them when you did hear them?

At the time, I thought the Flaming Lips had everything in common with Black Flag or the Minutemen. We were amateurish, yeah, but there was that urgency there which we shared with the hardcore bands. And at the time, I thought a band like the Bangles or the Three O'Clock seemed very retro. Back in the early '80s, you could connect everything the Three O'Clock did, down to their paisley shirts, back to bands like the Byrds. It seemed like revivalism to me, and I've never been into that. I've never been interested in the clothes and the vintage guitars. At the time, I lumped the Dream Syndicate into that just because I knew they were part of that whole scene, but a bit later on, I realized that they were much more of the moment.

Of course, if you have a big enough record collection, you'll hear eventually that a lot of good music vaguely resembles a lot of what's come before, and now I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I do think the worst thing you can do is sound like your record collection. When I listened to our early records again later on, I was a little disappointed at first to realize that at times, we sounded like a '60s rehash band ourselves, mostly due to our inability to translate the sounds we imagined into reality. But that's fine. Now when I listen to some of the paisley bands or the Dream Syndicate or the Fleshtones, I realize that a lot of it is actually damn good!

Warner Brothers signed you in 1990, well before the post-Nirvana rush for "alternative" bands. I remember reading about that and thinking "The Flaming Lips on a major? How did that happen?" How did that happen?

Yeah, it was before Nirvana, but remember, it was after Jane's Addiction. The woman who signed us to Warner Brothers was a legendary A&R person. She was ... eccentric is the polite word, but basically she was crazy. She was the crazy lady who found all the crazy bands, but a lot of the bands she signed turned out to be Van Halen, Dire Straits, Devo, Jane's Addiction, all these groups that sold a lot of records and made a lot of money, and you can't argue with that! So she had a track record within the company, and she was very powerful because she'd gotten lucky so many times before, and we were just another of her crazy bands. As far as Warner Brothers was concerned, we were basically just a freakier Van Halen!

The thing was, we'd always just naively assumed that eventually all the major labels were going to want to sign us! So we never sought out any of the labels, because we just knew that they would come to us, and it was ridiculously easy. She called us on a Thursday because she really liked our album In A Priest-Driven Ambulance, and we set up a gig [the following] Saturday in Norman, which is about 15 miles south of Oklahoma City, and it turned out to be just an unbelievably good show. There were about 500 people there, and we literally set fire to the stage at one point! So there's all these people and these flames creeping out, and it was just incredible. We were signed within two weeks. We just stumbled into it, really, and we made all these outrageous demands, like we had to produce the records ourselves and stuff, and they never blinked. There was no struggle, it was simply luck.

When "She Don't Use Jelly" was a big MTV/radio hit, a lot of longtime Flaming Lips fans I knew seemed kind of perturbed that it was treated as a sort of silly novelty song by the mainstream listening public. Did this perception bother you at all?

I didn't really notice it at the time, but you're right; that song is no sillier than a lot of our other songs, or a song by Camper Van Beethoven or the Butthole Surfers. The problem is that the people who really like our music catch it when we're being sarcastic or ironic or maybe doing some kind of social commentary. But to the average person who hears the song on the radio during their lunch hour and has never heard of us and isn't hearing it in the context of the album, maybe it sounds a little like Weird Al Yankovic or something. They don't hear the irony or the sarcasm; it's just "funny." But there's nothing you can do about that. I think a lot of the issue is that five or six years ago, it still felt strange to read about or hear about some favorite obscure indie band in the mainstream media, like "Hey, who are you to be talking about one of my favorite bands?" Now of course, nobody blinks an eye.

Speaking of mainstream media attention... Zaireeka -- artistic experiment or publicity stunt?

[Laughs] I can see why it might be seen as some kind of clever publicity stunt, but I know how hard it is for even a regular album to be released, much less something as weird as Zaireeka. Every week, albums get canned. Albums that have been recorded, mastered, sometimes even pressed, get scratched off the release schedule for all sorts of reasons. People get fired, or someone decides the market isn't right, or whatever. So right up to the day it came out, I was sure the record was going to be dumped. I had made every concession I could to the label to get them to agree to this, like limiting the edition to 5,000 copies and not going to the expense of promoting it or sending out press copies -- all of that costs a lot of money -- but I was sure they wouldn't go for it because why bother with only 5,000 copies of something especially if you're not going to promote it? So I knew it was a tremendous risk.

Of course it did get a lot of publicity, but only from journalists who were interested in the idea and had gone out and gotten their own copies, because like I said, it wasn't promoted at all. And it really wasn't a grand artistic experiment, either, because it was really a very simple idea. I think that as the years go by, it looks like a simpler thing, just a canny scheme to get the public's attention, but at the time I just thought it would be this insane achievement to have such a weird record come out on a major label like Warner Brothers! Getting over that hump of just having the thing released was such a big deal that it never occurred to me to look beyond that!

The first thing I noticed about The Soft Bulletin was a thematic similarity in a lot of the songs -- a lot of lyrics about nature and science both being barely in control, and a lot of implied and barely-suppressed violence. Did you notice this as you were writing the songs?

I'm not sure how conscious it was at the time, but as I stepped outside and looked at the lyrics I was writing, yes, there's a strangeness in the themes, a sort of insane drama. Anytime you feel like you have a big idea, you start to take it apart. It's like writing a book, dividing it into chapters where this chapter looks at what the previous chapter had been about from a different angle. They're related but separate. It's sort of like arranging your thoughts in order -- big themes are hard to sum up in three minutes, so each song is like some images and a little story that are about a tiny part of the bigger theme. But there's a lot more to say about love and death and nature and science and the universe and God and all these huge unanswerable things! So it becomes a dilemma. And I like that. And so The Soft Bulletin became a way of expressing that dilemma from one song to the next, so that they're individual stories but they're all interconnected by these themes which pervade them.

I think The Soft Bulletin is about questioning the nature of existence. Eventually in a person's life, you sort of struggle to find your philosophy and try to force the universe to reveal itself to you. And on this album, I'm simultaneously trying to confront that and hide from it.

Okay, here's the question that's been driving me batty from the beginning: How did you get that sound on "Race for the Prize"? Is it a pitch wheel?

No, but a lot of people think it is!

My first thought was that it was a Mellotron where the tape had gotten damaged or flipped around somehow, but I knew a Mellotron couldn't do it repeatedly like that and that it wasn't a loop because the sound is slightly different each time.

That's a good guess! I think a Mellotron with a damaged tape would sound almost exactly like that. What it is, it's a tape being stopped and started. If you're playing back a tape and you hit stop and then hit start again immediately, it makes that weird sort of dip as the playback heads move. We first discovered it on the four-track as we were making a demo for the song, so we went ahead and did the same thing as we were recording on the 24-track, just standing there and hitting the button repeatedly as the tape played.

This sort of thing is why I love having Steven [Drozd] in the band, because when we first did it, I was just like, "Oh, cool, that's a neat sound, let's put that in the record," but it was Steven who had written that melody in the first place [hums the melodic theme of "Race for the Prize"] and he listened closely to the tape effect and made sure that it didn't change the pitch or the structure of the melody at all and figured out exactly where the dip should go. He listened to it as a trained musician, which I can't do, and that's why the effect works so well. Steven brings that sort of knowledge to the table, and so our different skills mesh really well.

But what's most important is that our audience actually gives a shit how the sounds were created! It didn't used to be like that; people used to just listen to records uncritically and think, "Oh, I like that" or not. But today, people listen to records and actually think about how they're put together and the science of it and how the band makes the sounds mesh. And for a band like the Flaming Lips, that's very important! We're very lucky that there's this curiosity about how our records are made, it makes them feel a little more important somehow. Less like something you just put on and more like something you listen to.

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