Walking in on The Flaming Lips’ pre-gig stage show is like arriving early to a superbly weird and decadent party. Backstage is peopled with roadies dressed in bright orange dungarees, working away on parts of the intricate stage and camouflaged amongst the amps and props decked out in the same luminous colour. We pass one group blowing up giant balloons, others concern themselves with the spacey video projections, while one prepares the specially painted cannons which in a few hours will be erupting clouds of yellow and orange paper over a delirious crowd. The Flaming Lips circus has come to town and from the midst of the apparent madness emerges its ring leader: Wayne Coyne. With his ruffled grey mane and characteristic suit, Coyne embodies a kind of Willy Wonka for the musical sphere, a top hat and cane all that is missing to complete the picture — out of the corner of your eye you could easily mistake the stooping, orange-clad roadies for Oompa Loompas. He momentarily leaves his station to lead us through the labyrinthine corridors of the O2 Academy and into the band’s dressing room hidden deep in the bowels of the old theatre.
Wayne Coyne is an interviewer’s delight: pleasant, talkative and genuinely enthusiastic. After twelve albums The Flaming Lips have remained a band consistently following their own path, from the spaced out symphonic electronics of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots to their early freaky guitar albums such as Clouds Taste Metallic and In a Priest Driven Ambulance. Though at first listen, latest album Embryonic may seem a departure from their previous work, Coyne explains that it felt like just another natural progression for The Flaming Lips: “I don’t think we looked at it as really being that different from a lot of what we do… I think the worst thing that can happen to groups is that they finally figure out what it is that they do and they do it over and over again. I don’t know why but that always bores me.” The freedom afforded to them by record label Warner Brothers and their open-minded fan base has always allowed them to be fearless, taking each album as it comes and being unafraid to just be “completely freaky”. “Since 1984 no one has ever come in and said ‘you have got to do it my way,’ I think that has been the worst thing that has happened to us, no one has ever come in and really dictated what we do. They have always loved us as this weird party-freaky-rock ensemble from Oklahoma, they have never seen us as some cash cow you know like Linkin Park or the Chili Peppers.”
They say if you are nervous about meeting someone, you should imagine them naked. As anyone keeping up to date with NSFW videos now knows, we need no longer merely imagine for Coyne. The recent video for latest single Watching the Planets has the frontman stripped of his clothes by a horde of savage nudists before being dragged back into a giant vaginal sphere. “I had heard on a radio show about these cyclists who will get a troop of maybe 200 people together and ride through the streets of Portland, Oregon naked.” Coyne contacted the organisers, and thus the video was born. Coyne is refreshingly honest in outlining his initial concerns “Your fear with any nudity is that it is gonna be forty old fat guys showing up naked and it will be horrible, to my surprise it was a group of healthy, enthusiastic young people, many of them quite beautiful women, running around for two days straight completely naked, there are worse things in the world! Since I am the director I had to come up with some idea/story. So I built this giant fur, vaginalistic, living bubble thing which is like my space bubble but going back in time, the pre-space bubble thing or whatever. I conceptualised that these strange otherworldly people would be born out of it while these peaceful naked people are cycling around Portland and somewhere in the middle they would meet and I would be their catalyst by which the magic underground world of naked people and the weird real underground Portland world of naked people would come together.” Misgivings about his own nudity were also quickly overcome: “I looked at them and thought gee, if they can do it then why can’t I! Before you know it, you are doing it! When you are with a couple of hundred people who are also naked, it’s no big deal.”
This isn’t the first time nudity has been linked with The Flaming Lips, at a recent festival appearance in New Orleans one of the band’s renowned on-stage dancing animals burst out of her Yeti suit and ran to embrace Coyne before being escorted off-stage. “I guess it is not as weird as you would think. When you are around people you are always expecting crazy sort of shit and when you are around a bunch of girls… It is not about sex though, it doesn’t feel weird. Nudity in the way that the Flaming Lips use it is a way of saying, we are not restricted. No one is making us live our lives any way other than the way we want to. To me, I am not doing it to compete with Shakira or Madonna, I am doing it to say we are all allowed to do the music we want, to look the way we want, to say what we want and to be the way we want.” The flower-child freedom Wayne espouses has not caught on in our part of the world, though: “There are only a few European countries in which, if I asked some people to come dance naked with me, they would do it. It would never happen in the UK” — perhaps this might not be so much a question of propriety but of temperature.
The Flaming Lips are a group famous for their intensely devoted following. With fans so willing to throw themselves at his feet, has he ever been afraid of what he has created? “No, I mean they are devoted but they are not just devoted to me, this isn’t like Charlie Manson, they love music, they love art and they love the idea that you can be inspired by an experience, and I know that people who go to see The Flaming Lips will go to see another band tomorrow and another band next week, and they will go to museums and read books, and I’m not the only thing and that’s what is so great about them. They have a lot of experience and they feel this thing is worth their time and energy and for me, that makes all the difference because I don’t want just a bunch of mindless super fans.” It is true too, if you look around in the audience you will see teenage goths, middle aged metal heads, tweed-coated art students, all looking up at the raining confetti with abject wonder transforming their faces into mile-wide smiles. It would be impossible to find any real majority, other than people who love good music and are willing to put themselves out there and enjoy it. “That’s what I like, it’s not just bands liking bands, it is people who make art liking other art.”
True to this belief, The Flaming Lips recently recorded their own version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of Moon. Although initially suggested as a joke by Coyne after iTunes asked for an exclusive release from any surplus material from Embryonic, it soon took on a life of its own. “So I asked my nephew’s band, and in the meantime we thought we’d ask Henry Rollins to help us. We thought we could get Peaches or Karen O to do the screaming, orgasmic death chant on Great Gig in the Sky and my imagination got going, but we love that record and our version of it is different enough so that anybody who knows that music will hear new things within that.”
The aforementioned nephew’s band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, after having toured with the Flaming Lips for six years, return this year as the support band. There may be a whiff of nepotism, but nothing to complain about when talent runs in the family. There is always the danger with such bands that the standard of music may be eclipsed by their associated heritage, but Dennis Coyne is happy to resolutely celebrate his connection to the Flaming Lips. “If some people will listen to us just because I’m Wayne’s nephew that’s fine, just like some people may hate us just because I’m Wayne’s nephew. All those people that are either gonna hate us or love us are going to listen to our record.” There seems to be a certain dialogue between the two bands — Stardeath undoubtedly holding a candle for middle-era Lips material — and there is also a concordance between the title of their debut, The Birth, with Embryonic. Is this something deliberate? “To say there isn’t any would be false. We are always together so much and even if it’s not openly talked about I think the relationship between the bands is just there. Some songs may sound similar and some titles may sound similar, literally because we both were reading the same magazine or heard a song we liked … but I don’t think either band would say there is a conscious resemblance.” Of their recent collaboration, Coyne Jnr. explains: “We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fucking cool if we could sit down and do one of our favourite records together?’ We’re going to play it live in Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve.”
For a band so representative of counterculture spirit and enlightened ideals, it is important to note that the soil from which The Flaming Lips sprang, Oklahoma City, is not known for such libertarianism. One indication of this is the state’s endorsement of John McCain in the last election, winning over every county and with the highest percentage of any state during the presidential race. Nevertheless, The Flaming Lips are adored by their home city, with an alley named in their honour and Do You Realize? recently voted as the state rock song.
“I have lived in Oklahoma City all my life and I live in a very poor part of the city, a crime-ridden, crack-smoking, prostitute kind of area but they like that and they like to use me as an example. Some of the guys who pushed this are a lot younger than me and so they have been Flaming Lips fans since they were twelve so it’s not actually that weird! As I said, in Oklahoma there is country music, sport and the bible, we are not trying to obliterate that, I’d say now that instead of being three things there are four: there is also The Flaming Lips, we are never going to get rid of those other ones.”
So it is a case of accumulation rather than transformation, but still a fantastic accomplishment. “It is not like Glasgow, it is a new, weird, midwestern city — I mean if it can happen in Oklahoma City to the Flaming Lips then it can happen anywhere!”
Music critic Kitty Empire recently proclaimed in her Observer review of Embryonic that if secular humanism were to have a house band, the Flaming Lips would be it. This assertion proves to hold salt at the performance later in the evening, Coyne preaching joy and goodwill between songs, and of course crystallising it all with the finale of Do You Realize?, an existential anthem, celebrating the fragility and transience of life, wrapped in the unassuming beauty of a perfectly written pop song. “Well that’s a great compliment!” Coyne replies. “I know Do You Realize? was a song I fumbled upon and especially the line “everyone you know someday will die”, the big statement in that. I hear it now and I see why people would play it at funerals, weddings, the birth of their children, I can understand how that ties in. I run into people every night, when we play, who have some story about how this song has helped them to overcome some thing, some big challenge in their life.” The live incarnation of The Flaming Lips does exactly this, it transports the audience, offers a temporary relief and cements their status as one of the most significant bands of our time. “I know it can sound a bit Bon Jovi-ish but those things are true: music does that, music… you hear a song and you make it your own; you give it all the power. It is what every songwriter dreams of, creating something that connects your life with these other people through this big cosmic thing.” With that Coyne is summoned to the helm once more and though there is the feeling he could talk for hours and hours, we allow him to return to his symphony of sound and vision.