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10 Years of FILTER: Issue #18 Cover Story: The Flaming Lips

By Staff on October 18, 2012


10 Years of FILTER: Issue #18 Cover Story: The Flaming Lips

2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.

Below you can read the entire cover story from Issue #18, in which we get the honest inside scoop from Oklahoma City-bred frontman of The Flaming Lips, Wayne Coyne, regarding his personal truths, the band's growth, and organized musical mind explosions hosted in parking lots. 

The Flaming Lips: At War With The Mundane (Issue 18, Holiday 2005)
By Chris Martins
Photography by Pamela Littky

THERE’S A LARGE SHIP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SEA. IT ROCKS BACK AND FORTH WITH THE WAVES, BLASTING LIGHT OUT OF ALL SIDES LIKE AN UNHINGED DISCO BALL. Brightness and laughter and warmth in the cold black wet night – everything spraying out of every porthole and opening as if the entire vessel’s been consumed by St. Elmo’s Fire – beaming out from absolute nothing like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. And the sound. The sound blazes brighter than the light, and it’s full of color. And if you follow it down the stairs and through the decks, and through the corridors and into the ballroom, you’ll find the source of all of this beautiful pollution. Under the high-ceilings of this ornate and stately auditorium, there are nearly 2000 people dancing, yelling, singing, frying, spinning, running, jumping, enraptured, enamored, high, in love and otherwise feeling something, anything, in the belly of this large ship out in the middle of the sea.

And in the middle of this grand spectacle (figuratively, literally he’s in front of it) is a man standing as tall as he possibly can, heels lifted, arms high, giant fists pumping sporadically at the great big black nothing above as if to say, “I win! We win! Something wins over nothing! Scissors beat paper! Ridiculous and brilliant conquer the bitter and dark! Not just now, always!” All told, he’s about nine feet tall, covered in sticky red goop and confetti, looking for all the world like a giant…well, whatever he is, beaming light like the sun itself, shooting it back out into the atmosphere and clear to the moon if he can. The Flaming Lips are playing and all the freaks are out – the ones who can afford the $900 ticket to ride the Xingolati Groove Cruise. They’re standing on the tables, hanging from the rafters, shaking the balconies, proposing marriage to one another on stage and doing any number of things that have probably never been done on a luxury cruise ship. Certainly the walls of this ocean liner haven’t ever attempted to contain the flamboyant magnitude of a thousand-strong “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along.

Let’s meet our captain and commander, shall we? The next day Wayne Coyne shows up at my cabin wearing the same dirty suit from the night before. He washed his face – thank God – but there’s a square of opalescent glitter on his right temple and the canvas of his shoe is dotted with stage blood. His thumbs are wide and flat and they hook back when he gesticulates. As you would expect, the man comports himself like a mad conductor in the throes of a massive crescendo. He’s all hands, all thumbs, when he gets excited talking – which is just about any time that he talks – eyes wide like a child on Christmas morning, but voice level and everyman like a cunning statesman. (He uses my name frequently throughout our conversation, and his speech is a combination of whisky gruff and Oklahoma twang.) He’s a handsome man with a great beard and an uneven mustache (the right half hangs down farther than the left) who walks with the stride of someone who has something very important to do at the other end of the room. He commands attention without really asking for it (his eyes do a little pleading) whether he’s onstage (okay, asking for it), at dinner, or sitting awkwardly, his gangly body folded to fit the tiny seat with its back so straight the angle might just well be acute, in my stuffy, claustrophobic cabin. Back to his stride though. He has long legs. This helps. But he’ll stop them on a dime for just about anyone or anything that’s asking for his time. He always accepts enthusiasm, and never dissuades anyone from doing what makes them happy (as long as it’s only hurting themselves).

Wayne talks a lot, and his philosophy isn’t hard to decipher. Like the Flaming Lips’ music, it’s a near-even mix of light and dark, eternal acceptance and naked openness. He’s something between a pessimistic optimist and an optimistic pessimist – he prefers existentialist, though he loves life’s greater gifts too much for that. (“In a lot of ways, life is horrible,” he says with a slight smile, “but my feeling is that if we want to, we can make it great.”) It’s the yin/yang balance that we’ve heard in his band’s music for so long, even in the early days. Back then it was animalia whimsy meets religious mistrust, bright melody meets crashing guitars, the alternative nation packed into a station wagon smashing into the Beach Boys' petting zoo. Today it’s pink robots and wizards and kung-fu schoolgirls setting the scene for the heaviest rhetorical questions we’ve ever been asked over a twinkling major-chord flourish of orchestral godliness. Bandmates Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins play the pipers pied, while Wayne asks the questions that make us ask ourselves even more. But he puts it to us in the same way that he puts it to himself, reminds himself to keep an even keel (if you’ll excuse the nautical reference) in both times of joy and times of grief, that he couldn’t appreciate one without the other, that we’re all spinning in the same giant rock tumbler with as much polish as there is grit, but hell if the end result don’t shine. Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die??

But when Wayne speaks, the question marks are mostly gone. He is a loving, accepting man who speaks plainly and seems to have the universe figured out in the same way that a child does. A dog is a dog. A fence board is a fence board. Grandma is good and the bully down the block is a jerk. It’s a simple perspective, yet when applied to colossal things like love, life, death, hate, war, music, art, thought, it seems rather remarkable. And the fact that Wayne possesses this quality makes us wonder even harder at what we already suspected somewhere along the way – does he already hold the answers to these great rhetorical questions? When Wayne speaks, his truths are simple.

On the world: “Anybody who thinks everything is beautiful is a fool.”

On the war: “We don’t say, ‘Oh this is bad! My gosh, I hope no one gets hurt!’ War is bad and people are going to die. It might be you or it might be one of your friends, but someone is going to be doing these ugly things and to avoid them isn’t the answer.”

On politics (soft of): “You have to know from the inside what you truly believe is right and wrong and then act on that. You don’t wait to elect someone to act on those things; you act on them yourself. Then it won’t matter if Bush is in office for the rest of our lives.”

On the source of the band’s fearlessness: “The way that we’ve been a band, most of it has been based on things that have failed. We’ve never been very popular, we’ve never made very much money, we’ve never been that much of anything. It’s not even a bravery; it’s just a kind of, ‘Ah fuck, let’s go for it.’”

On the (supposed) End of Days: “All you gotta do is wait around and you’ll see that these things happen. It just hasn’t happened while the Internet’s been going. The idea that the cosmos are somehow conspiring to make the hurricane hit New Orleans as opposed to the middle of the ocean…it only matters once you see it on CNN enough.”

Okay, so maybe he is an existentialist, but Wayne Coyne is also wont to acknowledge certain greater mysteries that lie in the cosmos – universal things that a body can tap into on rare occasion and, with any luck, share with the thump of a collective human heart. He is a natural born leader, but of the proletariat. A grassroots commando, Captain Weirdo. He’s a freak in a gentleman’s suit, a man who likes to use the word “psychedelic,” an icon to the cult of Wayne and a hero to the oddball populace. He’s also a big, overgrown kid having the greatest adventure of his life, always.

So as we dust off our New Year’s top hats and look forward to a year of even more inspiration, Filter decided to check in with one of the true, most innovative bands of the last 20 (plus) years: The Flaming Lips.

Wayne Coyne on Michael Ivins: “He’s quietly intimidating. You think he’s judging you behind his sunglasses but he’s really not. He’s mellow and very quiet and he’s not judgmental, though he comes across sometimes as secretly impatient and above the proceedings, which I think he likes as being part of his persona. If there are characters out there for us, I’d think I’m Captain Kirk and he’s Doctor Spock.”

Michael Ivins (secretly above the proceedings) on Wayne Coyne: “Something’s always going on with Wayne. He’s always up to something. If I was to describe him in terms of somebody you were just going to hang out with – well, I don’t actually know if that ever happens.”

“ME AND MICHAEL HAVE KNOWN EACH OTHER SINCE 1982,” WAYNE SAYS, SWAYING VISIBLY AGAINST THE PITCH OF THE BOAT. The only thing to remind us that it’s not the hangover (and as far as this boat’s concerned, a hangover is a transcendentally connected thing – the thump of a collective human head) is that roiling royal blue out the window. We’ve been lost in the motion for some time now, lost in talk about the new record, At War with the Mystics, lost in talk about the Flaming Lips’ cinematic debut now five years in the making and another from being done (Christmas on Mars), lost in talk about what’s to come. But before we go any further, the conversation turns to the past. 

“Me and Michael, we both know that we’re not musicians, so to be involved in this for so long – shit, going on 25 years, and I’ll be 45 in January – to be as involved as we are in production and soundtracks for movies and these big epic songs that we do now, I mean, this is all more than we ever thought would be possible. I think of the two of us as these stalwart pirates that have been on this ship [not this ship] as it sailed around the universe forever. And I think that’s part of the appeal of the Flaming Lips. We’re not pretending to be Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or anything – it’s a different sort of trip. We did this out of pure enthusiasm. No one ever came up to us and said, ‘Wow, you guys play so good and sing so good, you should be entertainers.’ We just did it because we were inspired by the times – being 1979, 1980 – thinking, ‘Fuck man, punk rock changed our lives.’”

What changed the most since those early days?
When you’re young, you just want to always be where the ideas and the people are and the opinions and the things are happening. And being in a band, you sort of get dragged around with everybody else who is thinking and doing and coming up with some identity that matters for the moment. I think we were lucky in that we actually started to experience more what it was about to be musicians and make records, while still having the art in all that, so that everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve always had outlets for our internal ideas. Which is really what I think destroys people after awhile. If you want to be an artist and you think you have something to say and you want to communicate something…if you don’t get to do that, it just almost makes you go insane.

Definitely. It’s happened to the best of them.
I mean, I can see why guys will sing for quarters in the subway. They just want to sing, and at some point it doesn't matter if there’s a thousand people or nobody – you just have these things inside of you that you want to get out. Whether you’re a painter or a novelist or whatever. And it doesn’t make one person better than another; I just think that some people are more sensitive to their internal ideas, and some people are more sensitive to their experience outside. A lot of people buy into this stuff that if you’re an artist, you’re more important than the guy who watches football games on the weekend. It’s not true. I mean, you’re an artist, that’s your problem. But when you’re young you have to surround yourself with those people who feel like it’s more important to be an artist. And I think that as we went along we realized, “Hey, we’re the ones who like making the art.”

What led to that shift?
We found that we really loved making records. Even though we didn’t make them very well, we loved making them and we felt like the more we did it, the more we’d get better at it, satisfy ourselves. Same with songwriting, communication with lyrics and sound, all that kind of stuff. And so we stumbled upon the idea of making our records from the beginning. In 1983, that was the norm. Every punk band and every weirdo psych band just went into a studio and did it. We were gaining these experiences along the way, so that by the time we got signed to a major label – and as the late ’80s and ’90s were rolling along, everybody was getting signed to a major label – we weren’t thinking, “We’re gonna be rock stars!” We were taking it as an opportunity. Maybe somebody will give us a lot more money, give us more freedom and the opportunity to make this into a career. We took it pretty seriously, you know, we wanted to be guys in a band making music. We didn’t know to what level of popularity, but certainly we wanted it to be artistic.

And as it turned out, the band didn’t even really puncture the public consciousness until its sixth album.
Exactly. I think we got lucky in that we weren’t ever very popular when we were young, but we got to see a lot of guys who were. We were always around bands that were popular enough to be considered rock stars and it’s a struggle. People make fun of Paris Hilton because she has trouble keeping her boyfriends, but it’s a struggle for any young person to have that much attention. When you’re young it’s like a drug in a way – you just want more and more – and we were just making music, doing art, doing whatever it was without a lot of attention, fame, money and the shit that comes along with that. I think we just got lucky.

Would early success have spoiled what you guys had going for you?
I’m sure that it would have. I mean, we were the biggest idiots on the block. If we’d have gotten money and all that we would have just been like, “FUUUUCK! Let’s go!” But we didn’t, and instead of letting that defeat us, we said, “Hell, we want to make music. What do we care?” and we got to make it with the freedom of isolation. We always had an audience, but our audience was a lot like us – hey man, the freakier you can be or the more moronic stuff you can do the better. We embraced that part because it was all we had. So now it’s different and we can make money and there’s a certain amount of fame and all that, but it still really is based on music and people that really love music. And the superficial thing, like, “Oh! I saw you on the cover of a magazine!” – that doesn’t really happen to us because the people who are sort of the superficial fans get beat down by the real fans who know about different music and ideas and all the rest. So I don’t know…it’s a pretty good spot to be in the Flaming Lips.

In a sense you guys were able to mature on your own, as normal people do, while the band pushed forward regardless.
And now I’m old enough to have some perspective on it, and I’m lucky. Our audience is a good 20 years younger than me and I can never get enough. I’m not some old fool who thinks I deserve a ton of money and fame and that I should be bitter about anything; I’m just happy that I get to have that audience. The other thing that can happen to a band is that they’re just not relevant any more – they find an audience but the audience is a bunch of lunkheads, you know? As much as Bon Jovi must love being rich and everything, he must look out and go, “My audience is a bunch of dorks!” But he gets what he deserves, shit. If I can do this for the rest of my life, that’ll be the greatest life I could have ever dreamed of. But look, it’s all just dumb luck. There’s no design in any of this. We just sort of kept pursuing the things we were interested in and noticing the things that we liked and it just worked out. 

Steven Drozd on Wayne Coyne: “You can just ask the man a question and you’ve pretty much got an article after that. He’s kind of a robot that way, but with a heart. The thing is, he has an inability to lie. If you ask him something he’s going to tell you what he thinks, so watch it. He’s actually really friendly even though he seems confrontational and once you’re friends with him, he’s got your back.”

Wayne Coyne on Steven Drozd: “He is a master musician, I mean even on the level of Stevie Wonder or Stravinsky. For Steven to come in and join the ranks of these biker pirate weirdos I think that’s what gives this thing its whole authority, its credibility. We’re not just standing up here making a ridiculous show of it – there really is some artistic emotion that’s being expressed. When you couple that fearlessness of being the idiot savant artist – me and Michael – with the endless possibilities of a musician like Steven…I can see where the ridiculous happy accidents that have happened along the way come from.”

WAYNE IS IN A FUSS. HE’S A BRIGHT YELLOW FLURRY OF THUMBS, WALKING EVERY WHICH WAY ALL AT ONCE, doing his best to keep up with the very important things happening to the left, right, front, rear and even overhead of him. He’s wearing a raincoat worthy Gorton himself, name haphazardly stitched into the back, barking out orders through a megaphone. He looks like he’s ready for a battle on the high seas. Except that, well, he’s in a parking garage in Oklahoma City, about 250 miles south of the smack-dab middle of the continental United States, and it’s not even raining. So it’d be a tad bit more accurate to say he looks like he’s insane. Which means he’s up to something incredible.

Maybe it’s the carbon monoxide talking, but there’s a method to this madness here in the Lips’ hometown in the summer of 1996. Next door is a nondescript Italian eatery, a giant boxy pink bistro no doubt plopped out by the same prolific machine that plants suburbs in the California desert, and here is a parking garage looking like…a parking garage. Except that it’s filled with people who already reached their destination. It’s also filled with cars, which would hardly be remarkable if they weren’t arranged to look like a mismatched, oversized, rust-speckled orchestra. Wayne’s given each of the 40 cars a number and a position according to their sonic capabilities (1st chair goes to the bass-heavy boomers), and each owner a bag of cassette tapes. The first one’s a test. Everyone hits play at once, and the vehicles start talking: “This is car number one.” Two seconds. “This is car number two.” Two seconds. “This is car number three.” And on down the line until they’re all checked in. When Wayne gives the command, the other tape goes in, and with a “1-2-3-GO!” it begins. The participants get out of their cars to join the gathering crowd and for 25 minutes, normal goes haywire. Music and mumbles and barking and cursing and found sounds and buzzing and orgasms and the rest, each blasting out of its respective system, echoing off of the concrete, flitting out into the ether and onto oblivion. And somehow all of this sounds like something – in fact, it’s clearly a composition – and somehow, something utterly fantastic is happening within one of the most drab and utilitarian structures known to humankind.

“And then, just by accident some great things happened,” Wayne says. We’re back in the cabin of the cruise ship, me cross-legged on the bed, him constantly reconfiguring his body to fit the chair. “We were in these parking lots at 10:30 at night, it’s kind of cold, kind of wintery, and there were 150 people out, standing there just sort of quietly talking. And I’d start the music and it’d be this kind of weird internal experience that each person had as they walked around. It wasn’t a giant screaming rock fest like it is when we throw balloons and confetti around; it was just this really quiet kind of thing and I thought ‘Damn that’s cool.’ We do so much music that’s based on bombast and over-the-top shit, and for something to be quiet and, I don’t know, dignified…it felt different.”

The earliest Flaming Lips shows were quite what you’d expect from a gang of biker pirates – they were loud and weird, involved the best pyrotechnics that next to no money could buy, and often put the audience at risk of serious bodily injury. The first incarnation featured Wayne’s jock brother Mark singing, and intensely gothic-looking Michael playing bass to the back wall, and Wayne writhing on the floor with a guitar. Next it was Michael, Wayne and drummer Richard English dressed as characters from The Exorcist (Wayne was the possessed 12-year-old girl) while the movie was projected on top of them performing the Who’s Tommy, naturally. Then it was Michael’s hair on fire and a stagehand dousing him with beer. Then bottle-rockets and Roman candles within confine spaces. And at some point there was a running motorbike on stage. In ’88, English quit mid-tour, leaving the stalwart non-musician pirates to ride the rest out as guitar-guitar duo. By 1990, however, they were a quartet with enough musical force to be able to eschew the fireworks – which, of course, they did not do. Jonathan Donahue (guitar) and Nathan Roberts (drums) joined up in time to come as close as the Flaming Lips ever have to burning down a club (alcohol + cymbals + fire = poor man’s napalm), which was also the night they were signed to Warner Brothers. After recording In a Priest Driven Ambulance (the first album to hint at a deeper genius within the band, and – not coincidentally – the first to feature “Fifth Lip” Dave Fridmann on production) Donahue left to be in Mercury Rev full time, Roberts followed, and in came guitar whiz Ronald Jones and (then) drummer Steven Drozd. “She Don’t Use Jelly” gave the Lips their official one-hit wonder status and befitting their minor brush with stardom, one member (Jones) left to pursue his paranoia elsewhere.

Which brings us back to 1996 and those great things that were happening by divine accident. The Parking Lot Experiments were the first in a series of strange events surrounding the release of Zaireeka. The next were the Boom Box Experiments. Confronted with the unwieldy concept of taking their cavalcade on the road, the band looked for alternative means. Wayne began systematically buying up all of Oklahoma City’s used portable stereos, taking them home and modifying them to his mind’s grand design. There would be 40, and each would have its buttons and dials glued in place – everything except play, stop, rewind and volume – and several tapes of music/sound to go with it. The concert hall would be split into halves, 20 crowd members in fold-out chairs on either side, one for him, one for Steven. In the middle up front would be Michael at a mixing battle station, wires coiling out to the venue’s re-arranged PA system. And on “GO!” the beautiful mess would begin. Backs touching as if preparing for a duel, the two Lips on the floor would conduct their players through a frenzied symphony – hands to the ground for silent, arms to the sky for blaring, with the orchestra sectioned out by instrument (or noise). The end result was spectacular by all accounts. They toured like this for a year and were able to count Krist Novoselic, two Posies, a couple Presidents of the United States of America and a Seattle city councilman amongst their flock.

The Next day, as many of us as can fit are crowded into another one of the boat’s highly wrought rooms. There are strings of lights running in every direction. Bizarre bulbs hanging from the ceiling with nothing attached. Mirrors and streamers and columns and funny stoned post-rave burnout types (read: Burning Man regulars) littering the floor. The Flaming Lips have brought us here to listen to Zaireeka as it’s meant to be heard: four discs, eight speakers, in synch, out of synch, lovely, terrifying and nauseating all at once. In 1997, the Lips set out to commit their sound source experiments to tape. Or rather, to a version that somebody could conceivably operate without the assistance of a bullhorn-toting loon. The idea was to create something that played differently upon every attempt (CD players vary in speed, as do listeners, and there are 14 possible disc combinations) and hope that along the way it could provide a few moments of gut-wrenching awe. The odd title was actually quite simple in origin: a Coynesque amalgam of “Zaire” and “Eureka” – anarchy and inspiration.

It comes without warning. About 10 minutes into the listening (album time – with Wayne’s introductions and band’s false starts it’s about 30), something strange takes hold. Up ‘til now it’s been as interesting and weird and impenetrable as expected: the Flaming Lips’ music blown wide open and sent skittering across the faces of the burnouts, up the columns, off the mirrors and along the wires – it’s the Parking Lot Experiment in a smaller box with only pinholes to escape through. But when “Thirty-five Thousand Feet of Despair” begins, something completely new happens. I mean completely new. The next four minutes and 59 seconds feel like an indeterminable stretch. There are instants where I hear sound and can recognize it – the dying man’s heart beat that keeps the pace, usually – but there are other times when all of my external senses are just plain shot. The only thing I can do is feel some great and awful pulsating ball of visceral gut wrench somewhere inside of my being (the body irrelevant at this point). And in the brief intervals of respite, I look up to find that the people around me are streaming tears. And so am I.

“It sounds like some washed out, tie-dyed hippie shit,” Wayne tells me later on the phone, “but there are elements of that sort of experimenting where you stumble upon some of these mysteries of the universe by sheer dumb luck. I think Zaireeka’s the only thing that we’ve done that does that, but if you can build an atmosphere that little by little breaks down the stuff that you’re used to doing, it lets these things get in there that are powerful.” He stops in a rare moment of self-consciousness. “I know it sounds hokey to talk about; it’s better to experience it and quietly get on with your life, but that’s why it was a big deal. It’s a big deal that there was an audience out there for it at all, it’s a big deal that it got made, and it’s a big deal that it got made on Warner Brothers. When I present Zaireeka to the world like that, I’m presenting it like a guy who found some exotic three-headed white lion somewhere in Siberia. It’s not something that we can take responsibility for.”

So much for the existentialist.

The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize from matt wissing on Vimeo.

I DON’T KNOW HOW THESE THINGS HAPPEN, BUT THEY DO. COINCIDENCE. PROVIDENCE. BRILLIANCE. Chain reactions. The coconut to the head that sparks the idea that changes everything. It happens all of the time in the most ordinary ways you could possibly imagine. What’s the last thing that changed your life significantly? Chances are the event itself isn’t even worth remembering – it’s the effect that’ll stay with you for years to come. Standing around at the photoshoot on Thursday night, our ship docked visibly in the distance, trying to keep warm and occupied in the stinging air coming off of the water at the Port of Long Beach, Michelle Martin-Coyne (the stalwart wife of a certified biker pirate) and I got to talking about, of all things, a hamburger. It was a day not unlike that one – they were constantly in transit, pulled from location to location, interview to photoshoot to photoshoot to soundcheck to hotel to venue to let’s do it again tomorrow – and by the time she and Wayne could sit down and eat, the only option was a burger. She ordered, and with little fanfare it arrived, this gray saggy wad of beef smashed between two pieces of stale bun. But this was no time to be picky. Michelle closed her eyes, plugged her nose, bit in, and didn’t eat meat again for a decade.

Admittedly, it’s an odd example, but we all have our stories. These mundane little pieces of our day-to-day drama can change worlds for us as individuals. Wondering about that eye patch? It’s a holdover from Wayne’s 11 years as a Long John Silver’s fry cook. How about why we haven’t heard from Michael that much? He’s a 42-year-old nerd with a profound love of all things esoteric and technical, a man who found himself the first time he heard Steve Jobs speak (Steven’s joke, not mine). And what about Steven? Well, perhaps Steven serves best as a testament to the power of life’s more unkind twists and turns – the grave, dark things with their crippling weight and destructive tendencies. The things that the Flaming Lips have patently made it a point not to ignore. Steven’s well-documented heroin addiction (you can see him shooting up in the Fearless Freaks documentary) most likely would have killed him if he hadn’t quit in 2001.

From his home in Fredonia, New York, with his month-old son sleeping in the next room over, the man who plays 90 percent of the music we hear on any given Flaming Lips record begins, “If someone would have told me five years ago that number one: you will be alive; number two: you won’t be living in a van down by the river; number three: you’ll be married to the great love of your life; number four: you will have a newborn son that’s happy and you’re okay, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’d have said [taking on the voice of a curious child] ‘Really? I’ll be alive?’”

At the height of Steven’s addiction, Wayne was fighting his own battles with mortality, watching his father – the perpetual rock of the Coyne family – get eaten up by cancer. And all of this incredible heaviness sat on top of the band with the weight of a cruise ship, condensing their then 16-year history – the explosion, the experiments, the gains and the losses – into an hour-long magnum opus called The Soft Bulletin. It was a remarkable album, suspected by some to be the best of the ‘90s, run through with a staggering beauty. The lush shadow-painted soundscapes, the sorrowful hope of the lyrics, Wayne’s imperfect voice sounding damn close to perfection, the synergy of the three Lips plus Fridmann reaching an all-time crest – it’s the band’s high-water mark, the Flaming Lips at their illuminating best. Those that felt it felt it hard.

Which brings us to the true heart of the matter: this is a band whose stock in trade is the creation of extraordinary moments. They take the natural inclination of a dumb luck crashing into inspiration and bend the odds as far as they possibly can. While the details of the burger that turned you vegetarian will probably escape the folds of your memory with the rest of the mundane muck, you’ll never forget the time you compulsively wept because of the way that sound hit you. Or that time back home in OKC, where just for the hell of it, you decided to go be a part of some “experimental concert” that you picked up a flyer for. Or when your husband dorkily proposed to you on stage at a Flaming Lips concert on a cruise ship out in the middle of the sea. These things, these events, have the potential to inspire revolutions – even if the result is only insular, something changed. Something shifted. A new thought was broached. A new feeling was discovered. A new lease on life was given. And though there’s no way to measure such things, that is, quite frankly, the Flaming Lips’ greatest accomplishment. Do you realize that happiness makes you cry??

As easily as Wayne would sign this legacy over to chance, he has to be aware of it when he talks about what it means to be an artist. For all of the externals among us out looking for a rush, these guys are there – acutely sensitive to their internal ideas and working (failure after failure) to transfer them into something tangible. He paraphrases Gandhi’s “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” before taking us back to his everyman roots.

“We live in a fairly bad ghetto,” Wayne says. “We’ve always lived there – we have a very nice house, but it’s in the ghetto. And this is all by complete accident, but it’s something that people like. I’ll be out mowing my lawn and see guys drive by saying, ‘That’s where Wayne lives. The Flaming Lips live there, man,’ and there’s something about that that’s real believable. Unless you’re in new York or Los Angeles or Seattle, every place is a fucking nowhere Oklahoma City where people who are trying to be artists or musicians sit there in their basement going, ‘Who are we? I’m nothing.’ And I imagine if I was 20 years old I would pick up a magazine and say, ‘Well the Flaming Lips live in a fucking ghetto in OKC, and if they can play the Peach Pit on 90210, maybe we can too.’ I know what it’s like to sit there and wonder, ‘Is this worth doing? Am I even any good at this? Am I gonna succeed? And if I fail am I stupid? Am I stupid for even trying?’ And maybe the Flaming Lips are just a good symbol of, ‘You are stupid for trying, but it’s more fun to be stupid and try than to be cautious and right.’”

Even with the diluted fake blood staining his collar pink and the glitter that’s now well-dispersed about the cabin, Wayne Coyne looks distinguished. He’s aged well – so well that he looks better than he did 10 years ago, even 20. But of course, the punk rock biker pirate existentialist weirdo is never too far behind. Out from under that striking salt-and-pepper-speckled façade, the freak king laughs and offers his final thought on the matter: “Who knows. It’s your life.” F