Exclusive Interview: Catching Up With Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips

Wayne Coyne talks music and marijuana-flavored Gummi Skulls.

By , Contributor

Wayne Coyne is the major domo, lead vocalist, and ringmaster for Oklahoma art provocateurs The Flaming Lips, logging in time as a teenage pot dealer and fry cook at Long John Silver's for 11 years before his band really took off - jobs that he claims were excellent preparation for fronting this band.

WayneCoynedoodle.jpgEditor's sidenote: Here's a doodle Wayne drew during an interview -- hopefully not this one -- and posted to his Twitter account.  Freaky!

But never more so than with the band's latest endeavors - releasing their newest music ("Drug Chart," "In Our Bodies, Out of Our Heads," "Walk With Me," and "Hilary's Time Machine Machine") embedded in a nine-pound marijuana-flavored Gummi Skull, with plans to release an eight-pound foetus with a USB drive containing more new music. There is rumored to be a seven-inch plastered on a cereal box too, but first they have to come up with their own version of Captain Crunch and manufacture it before they can think of what music to put on it.

If that wasn't enough, there's talk of Coyne starting an art gallery with Brit artist and creative doppelganger Damien Hirst. Hirst made his mark on the art world around the same time the Lips were starting out with his series of artworks with names that seem pulled off one of the Lips' albums, such as "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," which featured a 14-foot tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde.

There are also plans to collaborate with Prefuse 73, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, and iconic Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, which is especially noteworthy, since the Lips began life as a Led Zeppelin cover band back in the early '80s.

Also on the boards are two shows on June 14 and 15 at the Hollywood Forever cemetery (the place where both Johnny Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone are buried). And yes, we're certain it has everything to do with the fact the Lips' "Do You Realize" is one of the most played songs at funerals. Wayne, along with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, will sing a version of the song from the cemetery's bell tower just as dawn breaks over the Los Angeles flatlands.The Morton Report spoke to Coyne from the Oklahoma City compound that he shares with photographer Michelle, their two dogs Dazey and Road Dog, and their orange tabby Little Monster.

JU: In January you announced that you weren't planning on working on a whole album but instead you plan to release music monthly.

WC: Yeah, and it's worked so far. We did the song for the iPhone on Valentine's Day. We did track with Neon Indian that was released in March. Then on April 17 we released the Gummi Skulls. Now we're working on a 12-inch, I don't know exactly what day it's going to be released.

I've heard that Billy Corgan's starting to release things on a regular basis too. Did you talk to him about this or did he just pick up on it, or is it just the zeitgeist?

Well, I think everybody was starting to think, how are we going to do stuff. And frankly I was waiting for someone else to do it as well, just to see what would work but no one did anything.

But now Billy Corgan is releasing his music the same way.

Oh, I think he's a putz anyway. What is he doing?

His new lineup of Smashing Pumpkins are releasing their forthcoming album Teargarden by Kaleidyscope - which has 44 individual songs - track by track as MP3s online, and I think he's doing the same thing with some of the Smashing Pumpkins catalog.

To me that's always going to be his demise. He always wants to be successful, whereas we feel that we already are. So we don't care.

And that's why you put out such a romantic song as "Two Blobs F*cking" for last Valentine's Day.

Well, you gotta have reasons to live, you know.

That's a song lyric. But rather tame from the man who fronts the most predictably unpredictable band. Is that an accurate description of the Flaming Lips?

I could see where if you put all these things together, which as you know is going on 30 years now, when you put all those together and you want to tell someone in a good five-minute little thing about, here's what the Flaming Lips are about, a little bit of that space starts being filled up with this weird shit. But in the big picture I don't think our most bizarre things are a very big part of who we are, but I forget that our shows really are filled up with strange things even though we do it all the time.

But other bands don't. Is that wrong?

Well, when I see other groups I keep thinking, well, they're going to do something. They're not just going to stand there and sing songs, are they? And they do. And I forget that we have this ongoing onslaught stuff that just happens. And so for me this seems very normal.

And once I have to tell people, oh, yeah, well, we've done this, we've done that, and we've done that, there's a side of it that's like, damn, that shit's just weird. And sometimes, I can just say, well, we're making music and we're playing shows. And it feels like that's what all groups do.

But you do write proper songs. They're not all off beat. Take the "Yeah Yeah Yeah" song.

But it gets connected to like it being a Kraft commercial. I always look for, well, why is it interesting? Of course we do music and we do shows and you know, all that sort of stuff, and I make Gummi Skulls, too. Everybody does that, you know.

To be unpredictably unpredictable you'd have to do something normal, correct?

Well, normal, implies almost boring though. I always try to remind people that the reason I think we're so free to explore anything that we want to is because the music has given us the freedom. It has emotion and it has power and it has authenticity, and it is the realest thing that we can do. And so once you have this music that doesn't have to be filled in with anything, I think that frees you up. So I always try to remind people that the music isn't the second and third thing that we do. The music is the first thing we do and then we get to go out there and put it into a Gummi Skull.

gummy-skull.jpgI think there was part of us that thought we were just a rock band. And don't get me wrong, I mean we love rock music. We love music and a lot of it is simply about sound. I guess it's just a symptom of just a restless imagination, it's like, we're here, and we may as well do something. And I don't necessarily always think that it is worthy of attention. I mean, some of it you just simply do it because you want to, and just wonder if people will think it's stupid.

I have to say, when I did the space bubble at Coachella, I really feared that it would just be too much of a dumb gimmick and at some point I would just be apologizing for doing it. But then people really loved it so I just thought, well, what the f*ck. I won't apologize for it. But at the same time I'm not really thinking, oh, what can I do to get everybody's attention. I mean frankly sometimes these things in rock music are just boring. It's just boring to do the same thing every day, so I take it upon myself to entertain myself.

So when did you get the idea that you should imbed music inside of a giant nine-pound Gummi skull?

We knew that we were going to have this period where we were not under contract per se with Warner Brothers. We're with Warner Brothers but they're this open-ended thing that we knew that would start to happen at the end of 2010. So [our manager] Scott [Booker] and I decided that this would be the year that we would just try anything that we could as if we were some wealthy, independent label that was run by an eccentric artist dude. That would be me. And that I would just amass all my resources and do this crazy shit. Easy to say, and then you get into it and it's like WTF.

So we started to think that we were going to do a song a month and they would be released in objects. And then you think that sounds like a great idea but what would that object be? I knew that we were going to try to go back to this other version of ourselves that we did in 1984 in the very beginning when we were just an independent little group making our own records. So we used this idea of the skull, because a skull was on our first EP. So I bought some of these dumb plastic skulls at Urban Outfitters and I started to cut them open and fill them full of junk, thinking this is just a prototype of maybe something that's going to happen.

So anyway we ordered this rubber junk and we were started dipping these things that looked like real skulls in this rubber. We had one that was a very fluorescent pink and [my wife] Michelle has some of this bubble gum perfume, so I sprayed some of this bubble gum perfume on one of these pink rubber skulls. It was sitting in our living room and we have people sometimes on Saturday night, and I showed everybody this skull and everybody was tweaking out, some of them drunk, and they said, "Can we eat it?" I said, "Well no, you can't really eat it because it's just rubber." They said, "It smells like bubble gum. You should make this out of bubble gum."

So I thought, yeah, we should. That would be a great idea. So we tried to find some bubble gum companies around the world or in America and say, hey, would you be able to do this. They all turned us down. They said the bubble gum machines aren't set up to do molds. But while we were searching for a bubble gum company we stumbled upon this place that does giant Gummi Bears, and five-pound Gummi Worms. We called the company and asked if they'd be interested in working on this skull idea. The guy says, "Yeah, of course. And I'm a big Flaming Lips fan. Let me help you." Within about ten days we had this prototype of this Gummi Skull. Then we inserted the brain, and then we find out if we can put the USB flash drive in there...

And then making them marijuana-flavored. What's appealing about having a marijuana-flavored Gummi Skull?

Well, simply because when you go to the store, no real candy manufacturer is going to do that because it's weird and it would alienate your audience that's made up of kids whose parents all have jobs and they're trying to be respectable. And so the idea that there probably, if there was a marijuana-flavored Gummi out there, I think people would buy the shit out of it...

I don't have any restrictions on what I'm doing. I know there are laws and all that sort of stuff but I'm saying if I ran a company, I could do whatever I wanted, this is what I would do. And in a sense it doesn't all have to work. I mean the idea of doing music every month is already an absurd, ambitious undertaking. And then to think that it's got to be released every month in something that's the newest, greatest thing, frankly for me it's too much anyway. I don't need a new freaky thing every month. But the fact that we are pushed to say okay, what do we have now--

The Gummi Skulls are rather expensive. You're selling them for $150. Do you feel bad that most of your fans couldn't possibly afford that much to get a USB flash drive with four songs on it?

Not really. If you don't have the money, you can't get it. That's the way that it is. I mean there are shoes that Michelle wanted to buy ten years ago that were $1000 and we would simply say we don't have the money, and we would move on. We didn't go home and despair that we didn't have the money. And now that we have the money if she sees them, she buys them.

My feeling is if you don't have the money, the Flaming Lips make all this music available to you virtually for free anyway. And so if you can't afford to buy a Gummi Skull, so what? I mean you can't afford to buy a Ferrari car. These things are expensive to make and they're expensive to put out, and if you have money you can get it, and if you don't, don't worry about it. I mean to me it's just that simple. Some things you can't afford. That's okay.

Were you mixing up vats of that in your own garage, or were you always having other people test the gumminess of this?

When we first talked to the guy who would eventually do the giant Gummi Skulls he sent us some samples. Probably about 20 pounds worth of Gummi stuff, so I went back in my shop here [where the sets for Christmas on Mars were constructed] and made a mold how we think the skull should look. He thought it should be made in two parts, we thought we could do it in one mold. We devised a way to make the mold. We just melted down about eight pounds of the Gummi stuff he sent it us, poured it into our mold, and then the next day showed him. See? It'll work. And then he was like wow, cool.

I like the picture of you doing it like some wacked out Willie Wonka.

I don't want to give people the wrong idea; I don't want people to think that the candy that they're eating is made in my shop. I just did the first prototype.

You don't even smoke marijuana, why did you make a marijuana flavor?

Well, because I know a lot of people do, especially younger people. I mean I'm 50 years old but so a lot of younger people do have some dilemma with their energy and anxiety, and I see all the time how much it helps and how much it's this lubricant of people being able to relax and not be so brutally self-conscious. So I think it's a great thing.

It's not real marijuana though; let's make that clear. It's actually just marijuana flavor. Ersatz marijuana.

Cannabis-flavored. Yeah, there's not marijuana inside of it. But anybody could say that and have marijuana inside anything they wanted.

Okay, Hollywood Forever Cemetery shows. The cemetery came to you?

Yeah, I mean they have this great spot and I think they're always looking for a show that enhances the whole experience. Because I think they've had some groups come in and simply play a show, even though it's in a cemetery. Once all the lights are turned off it's very similar sometimes where we play these very ornate theaters. All around America there's theaters that are a hundred years old and they're amazing, but the minute you turn the lights off everything that's great about the theater kind of disappears and then you just watch a boring old band do the same old thing.

So I think they were realizing as the Lips came in here, maybe the cemetery would be part of the experience and it wouldn't just be, oh, we happen to be playing in the cemetery and who cares about that.

So yeah, so they gave us access to all the old mausoleums and rooms and everything there, so we're doing a kind of freak-out in one of the buildings. I'm not sure how it's going to work. Then we're doing "Do You Realize, Morning Rendition" with Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Bimbos from the big bell tower there. They're going to do this one song with us.

But I don't want to give people the impression that you get to spend the night there. This is not a camp-over sort of situation. We're going to play the Soft Bulletin, you're going to go home, you're going to go out for coffee, come over, and watch this "Do You Realize" as the sun comes up, go back home, and sleep because then you're going to come out the next night and watch us do Dark Side of the Moon until 3:00 a.m.

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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