Interview: Wayne Coyne Talks Embryonic
The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne has been interviewing for months now about his band's upcoming album Embryonic. He's talked to Billboard and the BBC and just about anyone else. It would be hard to not to weary of Coyne's sales calls. The band is no longer just the pride of Oklahoma and stoner college kids. In recent years, even Madison Avenue has recognized Coyne's abilities in convincing the world that his band's abstract songs about life, death and the muddy middle are sell-able bits of sunshine. Mad Men see one of their own, using the Lips most notoriously to sell Kraft ("Introducing a fresh idea in salad dressing"). So you could be forgiven if you changed the channel when you hear Coyne and Co. coming on.
The suit. The confetti. The bubble ball. All have become ubiquitous and expected. Coyne's burden is to convince us that what he's selling isn't just a fresh idea in salad dressing. The Lips don't have albums, they have projects—from the parking lot experiments to the multidisc play-all-at-once Zaireeka to Soft Bulletin's brilliant orch pop and Yoshimi's semi concept arc. The band's one true misstep is its last album, 2006's At War With The Mystics, with its kinda tired, kinda shaggy songs about Britney Spears (who's that?) and George W. Bush ("Every time you state your case/ The more I want to punch your face").
Now, Coyne has to overcome our own cynism. Embryonic is being sold as a double LP that's not just any double LP. It's a sonic freakout experiment. It's Miles Davis meets John Lennon meets Can, etc. I was willing to sit this one out until I heard three new songs that have recently leaked. The band is serious again. They're no longer selling rainbows to goths or pop-psych to moms. Go ahead and find the leaks. For the first time in good while, the songs sell themselves.
Tonight, the Flaming Lips take their freakouts to Merriweather Post Pavilion. Black Plastic Bag interviewed Coyne via phone last Friday. Did he win me over?
After the jump: Coyne talks about what it was like to make the new album, Miles Davis, his personal relationships with his bandmates, and my, gulp, upcoming wedding.
What did you do today?
"We waited on one of our trucks. It's only 12:30 in Seattle...We've loaded in. One of the trucks was late; it got lost. I made some very strong, tasty coffee that I was to given...My day has been productive and pretty good so far. For me I don't have any downtime. I do interviews from anywhere from 10 to 2 or 3 until soundcheck starts. After that, there's time for dinner, [after the show], I do autographs and talk to people for a couple hours."
When did you start work on the new album?
"We knew even when we were making our last record that we were going to make a double record. I'm 48 years old...I have a specific thing in my mind what double records mean. I think back in the day when I was very young I would say like groups like the Beatles' White Album or Pink Floyd doing The Wall or the Rolling Stones doing Exile, they felt like self-indulgent weird moments...These were great insights into the way the bands are. They aren't trying to make every song a perfect song."
How did your double album come about?
"Some things are really precise songs and some things are really abstract and weird. That was the goal we had in mind. We wanted to get lost and see what happens. I definitely think that happened. In the beginning, we thought we were going to go in there and have 10 really great precise songs and maybe nine or 10 tracks that were freakouts. Every time we would do a sort freak out thing, we would want to keep doing that. I thought 'fuck it let's do that.' I was more than pleased to go along for the ride."
How do you think you've progressed?
"From working the middle of Zaireeka to Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, we little by little became more into Pro Tools which is wonderful. There is so many things we couldn't have done with this computer stuff."
Now it's about the jamming.
"I'm not a very good musician. I always feel sort of self-conscious about guiding this dynamic...I think Steven and Michael and Kliph let me guide this thing. We sit down to do some open-ended jams and I don't think they sound like Can or Miles Davis but when I would reference these things to the guys, they knew what I was talking about. It would get us in a frame of mind. They would intuitively play along. It felt cool. It felt fun. It felt more human. A lot of it is still manipulating. But some of the basic tracks are these open-ended, free-form strange jams that we did in Steven's living room and that was the basis for the songs. We were excited by these strange little jam sessions that we did. Sometimes that's enough.
We're you trying to sound like Can meets Miles Davis?
"We're not trying to make records like them. But it's hard not to have reference points. To me, there's moments in the Miles Davis stuff that's hard to find. There's some intensity going out there and that makes it not jam band and not jazz, but more freaky. I don't know if we were capable of that. We are capable of trying."
"Trying can be a great quality. I don't always worry about failing. Sometimes failure is wonderful to watch. One of my heroes is Evil Knievel."
Coyne goes on a tangent about his love of watching Knievel not make that jump over all those cars. Songwriting is less dangerous.
"In the beginning, we are always ridiculously over confident that we are songwriters. Between me and Steven, we had seven or eight songs...It was until we did these spur of the moment jams in his living room that we started to think 'why do we care about these songs?' Songs are wonderful cosmic gifts. But some of these jams that we did that we thought were meaningless just stayed in our minds. Little by little as the months went by I don't know that we pursued any of the songs that we wrote."
Are you bored with pop songs?
"You can be easily self-satisfied with this thing we could do well. Even young people tend to go to the same restaurant every night or read the same books. For me, it's not necessarily what we do well. I am just curious about other things, other types of music or whatever or types of identities that the Flamings Lips could put on or have...I am in awe in the way the audience has given us this opportunity."
"The audience lets us do whatever we want. I think the audience would totally forgive us if we made this bad indulgent mess. I don't think we'd be worthy of their forgiveness [if] we played it safe—like this is where our journey ends.
Coyne believes Embryonic is new territory for the band.
"It feels as though we made a great leap. We've tried to do some things in the past but we haven't gotten this lucky."
Coyne is particularly proud of the album opener "Convinced of the Hex."
"That's the very first song we worked on out of the batch that we had of all the recordings in Steven's house....It could have gone a lot of ways. We took it up there and [long-time Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann] did a little bit of sonic work on it and then he demanded I turn it into a song.
Coyne says he wrote the lyrics fast. He tried not to get too embarrassed about writing on the fly. He said it worked.
"I think that's why we put it first on the record. It's a mystery. We don't know why it works. I think all good music has that about it. We just know we like it....We want to make music that's never been heard before. That shit's hard. Everywhere you go there's cliches and stupid things attached. When [the songs] work, it's beautiful."
Watching the Lips documentary Fearless Freaks, in which you see all the ups and downs that the band has gone through since its early '80s inception in Oklahoma City—Crazy-ass song experiments, their MTV moment, parking lot recordings, drug problems, and now, a band with an established roadshow and cred—I wanted to hear what Coyne had to say about his personal relationships with his band members.
"I truly love these guys. I would be nothing without them. I love them. It's my family. For it to make great music is great. But I would want to be with these guys and Fridmann even if we made mediocre shit. I would never put my life or my art above these guys."
Finally, I asked him what I should put on my mix for my upcoming wedding. Coyne immediately suggested ending the wedding reception with "Do you Realize??" I told him: that's already going to be played during the fireworks set off the night before.
"Steven does that a lot, he puts mixtapes together for weddings."
I wasn't letting Coyne off the hook. He needed to make a real suggestion.
"The Wesley Willis catalogue is always out there. That stuff is always a lot of fun.”