In just five words, Fred Armisen managed to capture the enthralling, unpredictable essence of the Flaming Lips. • When asked why he accepted an offer to become the bandleader for Late Night with Seth Meyers, the comic told the Hollywood Reporter: "I like to think, 'What would Wayne Coyne do?'" • "I love that," Coyne said by phone this week from his native Oklahoma City. "We've known each other for a while, and I really like him. And I understand what he means. You just have to look at things and say, 'Here's what I like about it, here's what I want to do,' and not be all concerned about, 'Is everything going to work out?' I understand that." • Few understand it better than Coyne, the shaggy shaman behind alternative rock's weirdest, wildest psychedelic circus of love.
Thirty years after forming in the Sooner State, the Flaming Lips remain a magnetic spectacle in concert, which has kept them in high demand on the summer festival circuit. But if you haven't paid them much attention since their left-field 1993 hit She Don't Use Jelly, or even their widely acclaimed turn-of-the-millennium albums The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, man, are you missing out. The Lips these days are engaged in an all-out war on normalcy and convention, with the free-thinking Coyne, 53, leading the charge.
Here is just one example: On Halloween 2011, the Flaming Lips released a single song, 7 Skies H3, that lasts 24 hours. You could (and still can) stream it at flaminglipstwentyfourhoursong.com, or, if you had $5,000 to spare, you could buy one of 13 physical copies that came on a flash drive encased in an actual human skull. (Do not confuse this with the band's recent vinyl reissue of its 1984 debut album, which came with a lifelike skull made of chocolate.) The amazing thing is, you could argue, credibly, that this is not even among the five weirdest things the Flaming Lips have ever done.
Days after flying to and from Los Angeles to perform on Miley Cyrus' Bangerz Tour (see what we mean?), and before coming to Tampa to headline Day 1 of this weekend's Gasparilla Music Festival, Coyne let us poke around his magical mind, sharing words of wisdom on artistic innovation, his fear of being boring and hanging out with aliens. Here are excerpts.
Is this your first big show of 2014? Have you been toying with any new production techniques?
We are. I always say, if you haven't seen us in five years, you're going to think it's a radically different show. On the scale of big productions, it's about as big as you can do on kind of a "circus festival" — we say that, because you've got to set it up real quick and tear it down real quick. Whereas touring acts, they get to have a big arena to themselves all day and all night. We were just in Los Angeles for a couple of days singing on the Miley Cyrus tour, and their show is one of those gargantuan military operations, where they go in, destroy the city and then rebuild it two hours later. It's definitely not on that scale, but it's about as much as you could do being on random stages. ... I mean, some of our LED lights, they're completely, radically brand new. One of the guys that works for me is one of the people that invented some of the lights. He's really pushing this stuff forward.
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You do seem like the kind of guy who would hang out with inventors.
(laughs) I think a lot of what I'm doing is in the sense of innovation. We put things together that already exist, and say, "Look what we can do." Anybody who has that type of mind, you want to be around. If you are that type of person, you don't want to be around people who are bored by that, or don't care. The way that you are attracts other people that are the way you are.
There aren't a lot of artists who can do what they want without fear of consequence. Do you feel like that?
You would fear if you spent tons and tons of money on something and it didn't work. But we don't do that. Most of the things that we're doing are still on the do-it-yourself, punk-rock scale of things. I think our biggest worry is to be boring. The enemy of all art is boredom. If the people that are making it are bored, it can destroy them. So we make a lot of art and music, we collaborate, we do insane things all the time, and I would say at the end of the day, accidentally, we came up with some music and some art that transcends into the other realm.
I would have to imagine a potential pitfall of doing whatever you want, artistically, is that people might stop taking your music seriously. Is that a fear that you have?
Not really, no. Anybody that does writing, painting, music, anything, they know that the enemy of all that is the desire to be taken seriously. That's why last weekend we were out with Miley Cyrus, because the idea that you just don't give (an expletive) is where you get all your power. If you don't give (an expletive) — meaning I don't really care if people think I'm the greatest artist ever — you usually are in at least an area where you may possibly do something that is the greatest art ever made. You kind of have to be the biggest fool in the room.
You've worked with Ke$ha, I just saw you on Instagram with producer Mike Will Made It, and then you sang with Miley. Do you want to make a pop album?
I just love music. And it isn't just music; it's the people, and the things they're doing and the things they say. Someone like a Miley Cyrus: There's a lot that you can find out about her just from seeing interviews in USA Today while you're sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for a van. You don't have to dig very deep to see how she feels about things, and I love that. ...
And being around people that mega-popular, that's just another world. It's fun. It's like being with an alien from outer space. It's like, "Oh, this is how you go to the bathroom. This is cool." If an alien came down here to visit, I would hope I'd get to go out with them and have a good time. That's what I do with all these people.
You seem to be setting this new template for how a rock band can get older. A lot of your contemporaries, bands that you would have played with in 1987 or 1993 or 1999 or 2005, would be taking a completely different career track right now. Do you feel like all these choices you're making are building to something? Do you have a grand plan?
Well, no, not really. When we started, you obviously have a lot of ideas of who you are and what you want to be, and if you're lucky, all of those quickly get crushed or they get realized, and they don't matter to you anymore. You want to have your life be interesting and weird and unknown and special and extraordinary. If you're successful on the level of someone like Coldplay, it'd be very difficult to have some weirdo like me at the front, saying, "We're making $10 million a day, but why don't we not worry about that?" Everybody else would be like, "Wait a minute, if we just do this music this way, we could probably make $10 million per day for the next hundred years," and that's hard to argue with. I might do it. But we're not in that category.
Finally, if you were in Fred Armisen's shoes, and somebody came to you and said, "Would you be my late-night band" ... what would Wayne Coyne do?
Well, I'm already in a band, and we're already committed to a lot of things. They probably wouldn't come to me if they looked at my schedule. I would probably — like I do with a lot of things — say, "Yes, but can someone sit in for me once in a while? Because I love the idea of it, but I don't know that I'd love that I have to be there every day, and that would stop me from doing other things. Can Fred sit in for me here and there?" (laughs)