Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne phoned from a New York recording studio.
Q: What are you working on?
A: A bunch of things. We’re doing a thing where we release a couple of songs every month, and we just did some tracks with a guy called Prefuse 73. You know, you do these things through email so there’s a lot of computer downloading and stuff. He sent us stuff just hours before we left to come to New York, which is where we’re at now, so we’re going to get those downloaded and mixed today and get that release ready, and then as we’re doing that we’re also going to set up and do yet another version, a live version, of The Soft Bulletin and Dark Side of the Moon that we’re assembling in a little auditorium at the University of Fredonia [a.k.a. SUNY Fredonia], where — I say a lot of things — Dave Fridmann [the Lips' longtime producer] is one of the head teachers and it’s going to be released in a marijuana-flavored gummy skull in a show we’re playing in a cemetery in Los Angeles in June. Whew.
A: I know.
Q: That’s a good lead-in to my next question. The industriousness and restlessness that your band has always embraced, is it as intense now as it always was?
A: Well, I would say for me, I think it’s gotten even more intense. Maybe it’s my response to seeing it fade and thinking, “Oh my God, I don’t want that to happen to me.” And I think I just have more at my disposal. I’ve been working with Dave Fridmann since 1988 so some of the insecurities about how are we going to deal with each other and who’s in charge, all these things about control or who has the say or whatever, those things have gone away. I know that I’m just simply creating and I’m not trying to prove to everybody that I’m right and that you should listen to me. I think everybody around me is in the same flow of ideas. I’m using their skill and their help and their ideas and their energy, and they’re using mine.
Q: Has the way you approach the work changed?
A: I’m more aware of this idea of time being spent. I’m more aware of how much energy it takes. But I’m also aware that I want to do it with people, and that it’s about love and it’s about we care about each other and we’re doing things because we’re lucky that we get to do them and let’s explore, let’s experiment. To me, this art that we do is representative of us understanding what’s important in life, and I think it’s all in the art. To do the art is the excuse to live the life, for me anyway. When people are young, there is this invisible energy. I don’t think people are aware that they have it, you’re only aware that you did have it once it’s gone, you know? It’s just by dumb luck that as I’ve gone along that thing has never left me. I’m actually drawing a picture while I talk to you, Joan.
Q: Really? What are you drawing a picture of?
A: Well, I don’t really know. See, because I’m talking to you, I’m not really thinking about it too much and I’m just going to draw whatever my hand is drawing at the moment. I’ll tell you because it’s becoming clear. There’s a little guy shooting out of some tube and he’s grabbing a naked woman’s leg at the moment. So whatever that means. [Wayne sent the finished doodle to me]
Q: You probably don’t know this, but there’s a whole category of visual representations on my website called Wayne Coyne’s Doodle, in honor of one you made for me years ago at South by Southwest. I interviewed you in a hotel lobby and we were talking about creative process and you were having trouble explaining something to me, or maybe it was my problem understanding what you were saying, and you grabbed my notebook and my pen and you drew a picture of your creative process for me. And it’s now enshrined in this section called Wayne Coyne’s doodle. I’m asking people to send me pictures of what they do.
Q: Hey, have you ever heard of something called neoteny?
A: No. Spell it?
Q: N-e-o-t-e-n-y. It’s a term used to describe adults who retain childlike qualities, and a psychologist I interviewed thinks it’s a big factor in creative longevity. It occurs to me that you are neotenous, Wayne. I think that you have retained that sense of wonder we associate with childhood and that it really is a driver for you. I think it makes people remain curious and vital throughout their lives.
A: Well, I think that if you’re not curious, then everything falls away. That to me is the key to everything. It’s sort of like everything in the world can be interesting, you just have to sit there and check it out. So this thing of being in a group, for a lot of people they think, “Oh, I’ve done this for 20 years. I’m burned out on it.” And for me, I still see it as growing and growing and being more open and more wonderful and more interesting. So I’m glad you said that. I don’t feel as though I’m retarded or something now.
Q: What has changed for you and for the band? Has age and time impacted your artistic life at all?
A: Well, yeah. Like I said, I’m not that insecure about what we do. It doesn’t mean I think everything we do is great. Sometimes no matter what you do, it’s still very boring and it sucks. Other times, we’re in the middle of doing a million things and we do this other thing spontaneously and it’s fucking great. And there is just no answer. So I’m just willing to take the chance. And like the way I’m doodling this thing while I’m talking to you, I’m not really in control of it. I mean, I’m talking to you, trying to give you a good answer, and not really worrying about this drawing. But half the time when I do these, I look at them, and I’m like, “Fuck, that’s really cool. I’d have never thought of that.” And it happened while I was doing something else. And so I’m aware that these choices, these authentic choices that I’m making, they’re happening more on a subconscious level than with the front of my reasoning mind where I think, “Hey, does that make sense or not make sense?”
Q: That’s an important point, I think, that you don’t question or censor yourself. The editor part of our minds is constantly saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that. That won’t be good. Don’t try that, it’s risky.”
A: Well, right. But I could see where, to a lot of people, it’d be like, “But Wayne, what if we screw up and this is all the money that we have or all the time that we have?” I would say, “Well, that sucks. I mean, of course there’s risks in everything you do. You don’t want to waste your time, you especially don’t want to waste your money and all the opportunities that are available.” So when I say that, I realize I am in a position where if we spend a couple of days and it doesn’t work out, oh well. We can do it again.”
Q: You’re very lucky.
A: Someone else may not be in the same position, but the truth at the end is the same. You can’t really know what’s going to happen. You could say, “Well, let’s try hard,” and regardless of your money or your time, if you’re not satisfied with it artistically, you must do it again.
Q: Has the Flaming Lips always done a lot of rethinking and reworking?
A: Even when we made our first record back in 1984, we would go into this studio in Oklahoma City with money that we would just save up ourselves, a couple hundred dollars, and we would record. And back then we did it secretly because we were slightly embarrassed. But there were several times we just went in and it didn’t work very well, and we went in and did it again. No one really knew.
I mean, when I say no one, I mean the people that heard it didn’t know that we’d failed three other times. But in our way of working, we realized that’s the only way that we could do it. I mean, maybe other groups can go in and do it right the first time, whatever right is. But for us, we didn’t really know what we were going to do until we did it. So, I don’t know, to me, part of being creative is you get to make something and then you can innovate on your own creation. I think that’s the hardest thing. I think people get caught up in the preciousness of what it means to them. But again, Joan, I’m lucky. I’ve done 14 records. I’m not that worried about the world understanding me. That thing that I did for you in Austin, I had no idea that that would have any impact on you, but it is doing that. If you had doodled something for me, it probably would have had impact on me, as well. It’s these silly things that you’d never think would matter, you know?