Wayne Coyne on the Flaming Lips’ New Album, Their Super Bowl Commercial, and SpongeBob
As a teenager, I considered Oklahoma City’s alternative-rock weirdos the Flaming Lips to be my go-to “happy” music. Thoughts of frontman Wayne Coyne’s endearingly off, high-pitched voice and the band’s strange experiments with guitar-pop assured me “brighter days are ahead for the home planet.” Whenever I reached for The Soft Bulletin, I remembered it’s not exactly upbeat. Earlier records like Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic were better choices to cure those teenage blues.
I would encourage my good vibes-seeking teenage self to avoid the band’s latest album, The Terror, and possibly the band’s new stage show, which arrives at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday. The album is a cold affair, as if transmitted by robots stranded on a lonely planet. Machines drone and electronics buzz to create unsettling atmospheres dusted with the crunch of cruel guitars and imprisoning drum marches. The lyrics are some of the most clear and frightening words in the entire Flaming Lips catalog. “Be Free, A Way” begins with Coyne asking, “Did God make pain/ so we can know/ the high that nothing is?” The brutal yet somehow optimistic finale, “Always There, In Our Hearts,” reminds us that “there is love and there is pain/ always there in our hearts.”
Before the band’s return to Merriweather, I spoke with Coyne about writing music for movies, the band’s sometimes overwhelming live show, and the group’s appearance in a Super Bowl commercial for Hyundai.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Washington City Paper: What have you been doing in the studio today?
Wayne Coyne: We are trying to get this deadline for manufacturing this vinyl for a record that’s gonna come out on the Record Store Day that comes after Thanksgiving this year. We have a song that’s in the movie Ender’s Game. While we were putting together that song, we put together a couple other things not knowing exactly what the movie people were gonna want or whatever, and we ended up really liking all these other things so we just made a little six song little thing that’s connected to the movie’s themes and the ideas about Ender’s Game. More about the book. I saw the movie. They allowed me to see the movie just one time, but since then I’ve come and gone through some of the book and got little tidbits of other pieces of the story. It’s a lot of fun, for sure.
WCP: Are you a fan of the book?
WC: Didn’t know about it, to tell you the truth. They contacted us, I guess it was at the beginning of the summer, about doing a song for this movie and it was only once they, y’know, said, “Hey, what do you think?” and I was like, “I dunno, let me look into it.” A lot of people that I knew loved the book. I got a text from Moby at four o’clock in the morning last night saying it was one of his favorite books when he was growing up and stuff. I think maybe I’m just a little too old for it. I think maybe if I was a few years younger, it would have hit me at the right time when I was a teenager or something.
WCP: How do all these offers to do songs for movies come about? Because you’ve done quite a lot over the years.
WC: I think it just comes down to mostly the people working in—the music directors of the movies themselves. Obviously, the music that they like or the people that they like, that they want to work with. It’s a combination of both of those and sometimes it’s connected with people you’ve worked with in the past, if it’s something good, or sometimes it’s just people who have liked your music and are now trying to, y’know, just things like that.
WCP: Do you have a favorite from any of the songs you’ve done for movies?
WC: Oh, I’m trying to think. I’m sure we do. I forget when the last time we were in the theater and we were like, “Hey! There’s our song!” It may have been during [Batman Forever], it’s been a little while since we’ve been all that aware. Maybe the SpongeBob SquarePants, I really like that SpongeBob SquarePants movie and I like being associated with that thing, too, that was cool. I’m trying to remember. Sometimes it’s great to stand in the theater and say, “Hey, they played our song.” During the Batman, one of the Batman movies, there’s a Jim Carrey scene in it where our song’s playing when he’s doing his thing. I remember when that came out, that was pretty fun.
WCP: You did “I Was Zapped By The Lucky Super Rainbow” for that movie Good Luck Chuck.
WC: You’re right! Some of them, they go by—you’re doing five or six things at one time and then, unless you end up seeing the movie, you don’t think about it, but yeah, yeah. It’s not something that always works out, but it’s fun to take on other—this other persona, these other people’s ideas, and say “Sure, we can try this or that.” Sometimes you want that. You want not to have it just be so open-ended. Sometimes it’s great to have a theme and a concept and an atmosphere.
WCP: Could you tell me a little bit about “Sun Blows Up Today,” [which is the soundtrack to the Super Bowl commercial the group appeared in]? Was that a song that the band just wrote or were you commissioned to write that song by Hyundai?
WC: Right. That was—I guess it would have been—I think in the beginning, we deal mostly with music directors and you don’t always know what the agenda is on the other side, but yeah. I think you just—and of course, all of them are working on a deadline so you just get in there and start. You start to do what you want to do first, and see if that works, and then they come back and say, “We like this, we don’t like that,” kind of go back and forth a couple times, but yeah. It can be a lot of fun, it can be kind of exhilarating, it can be kind of boring, it can be a lot of different things. But most of it depends on—if we like the people we’re doing it with, that’s the main thing.
WCP: So, “Sun Blows Up Today”—that was a song where people said, “We want you to write a Flaming Lips pop song” or something for us?
WC: Well, they had three or four songs of ours in mind and they said, “kind of like this, kind of like this, but we want an original song.” When you’re in the Flaming Lips, it doesn’t seem very apparent what people are talking about, so we just took that as, “OK, we’ll sort of just do some stuff.” And I think the first thing that we did, I don’t think they liked it all. But you gotta kind of give something, just so you can get a little bit more of a direction of what they think is gonna work. And you try to ask people for references and stuff like that. Like I said, it’s a lot of fun to not always be thinking in this internal way of making art and stuff. Sometimes it makes better art…
WCP: It’s interesting, some of these things that you’ve written, like that song, or for the movies, are these really fun pop songs that are kind of more in line with what you guys were doing awhile ago. Very different from The Terror. How do you go between something like The Terror and “Sun Blows Up Today”?
WC: We felt that way musically. I don’t know if we felt that way as people, because we always, even while we were doing The Terror, we always were doing a lot of music, so it wasn’t exclusively just that music for very long…You would see where this one thing is a very, it’s in an area of a mood and a sound or whatever, but by the time we did the “Sun Blows Up” song, we had already done The Terror. The Terror had already been done for quite awhile. And we’d already done, I dunno, probably eight or nine different things for different movies and things like that that we were working on anyway...You sort of become songwriters. Like, well, they could say, “Do a thing like this, a thing like this.” Then come back and say it needs to be 30 seconds shorter and you say, “Okay, we can do this.” A lot of stuff like that. I don’t think it would be for everybody, but we have our own studio and we produce other people’s records and things anyway. I dunno, it’s fun. I think especially with the Super Bowl commercial—in the beginning, part of the appeal was that we were actually gonna be in the commercial. So we were kind of like, “What? OK.” It just seemed absurd to think that the Flaming Lips are going to be in a commercial that plays during the Super Bowl. I mean, it’s kind of hard to imagine.
WCP: So, if you were ever in a mood, it’s possible that the next album could be all pop songs, instead of the kind of path you’ve been on lately with your LPs.
WC: Well, we kind of go back and forth, I think. [Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Steven Drozd] and I talked about this last night. I think we wouldn’t do music like The Terror, probably, for very long. For us, that’s probably a two or three year period where we can feel like we’re discovering that and we’re sort of figuring out and liking that and wanting that, but you know, it’s always—I think it’s just part of Steven and mine’s personality, that we’re kind of always hearing things. Going, “Oh, I like that,” and it changes you. You play different instruments, and it changes the way you feel about things. So I think there’s definitely a thread that goes through all our recordings, but if you grab…the Flaming Lips like 10 years apart, it usually seems pretty radically different from the way we were to what we’ve become. I feel like it’s a slow grind, we’re doing one thing and then discover another. That thing sort of hangs on, but we’re still doing something new while we’re doing something old.
WCP: Was making The Terror at all an upsetting process, considering the emotional content?
WC: Well, you have to remember, it is just recording music. Some days we’d be making music and even though I think the music is, can seem kind of moody and existential or whatever, it is just people making music. It isn’t like we wouldn’t be laughing and eating food and have our dogs in the studio or something. You know. Our life is our life and creating things is creating things. I don’t think it has—one doesn’t have to look and sound and feel like the other. I think The Terror, I think like all of our music, it’s something that’s inside of you. It isn’t really something that’s in the air or in the room or in life, you know. I don’t think you’d wanna be around people who are like that, if you’re making this music that feels very stressful and full of anxiety... We are just—I don’t want to make it sound like it’s insignificant, but we are recording music, we are creating music. It’s not—you don’t just walk in there and everything that you play for two years feels like this. There would be things that we’d play and we’d say, “Oh, this doesn’t work,” and we’d move on to something else we felt like was more in keeping with this mood and this story of The Terror we ended up folding into. I think it would be very easy just to make music if you just were in that mood, whatever mood you were in, you could make music for that. For me, it doesn’t really [work that way]. If I sort of create it, it drives me along. I don’t have to be in a mood to make something that feels like it’s very much of a mood.
WCP: Is it draining to perform the songs live, though? What’s the experience of that been for you?
WC: Well, not on an emotional level or anything like that. I think some performers have that about them, but for me it’s not like that. We rehearse and we rehearse and we figure out what it is that we’re gonna do. Part of what you’re doing is just, you know, you figure out a way to sing the song and make it work and I don’t think that you can always be emotionally invested in it. That’s part of why—we’ll go up there—I don’t think sometimes people see a schedule of what people have to do. I mean, most any popular singer out there, I mean, some days, you’re playing at two o’clock in the morning and you drive to the airport, you fly for eight hours, you get off of that, you do interviews for four hours, and an hour later you’re on the stage singing again. And you don’t really have to be emotionally involved in it…Most singers and most bands that I know...don’t go back in time in their minds and think, “This is what this song is about.” It’s just, “Here we are, we’re in front of these people. And we’re going to sing these songs,” and if we sing them right and we play them right, the emotion will be part of it, but I don’t think it has to be, “Oh my God, I can’t do that.” It’s not like that for me.
WCP: How does someone become a member of the Flaming Lips? Because I know he’s been playing with you for awhile, but Derek Brown is listed as a member for the first time in The Terror liner notes, I think.
WC: Well, I think he joined right after Embryonic. I think that came out in 2009. We had been thinking that we needed to add another singer/keyboard player/guitarist, just really a musician that’s like Steven that can just play anything. I think we’ve been needing that for awhile. But that’s the first, even though we’ve been playing with him for quite awhile, that was the first record that we made since he was in the group. Now we have another guy in the group, as well. I think we were in need of a fresh entity, another person to bounce ideas off of. He was someone that we, I mean, we’ve known Derek, I think since he was almost like a teenager. There are a lot of musicians from around here that we all knew and liked. He worked a lot with our manager and stuff. He had several groups of his own, even when we asked him to join the Flaming Lips. He had a group. I didn’t want him to stop that. I was like, “I’d like you to join our group, that doesn’t mean I want you to stop your other groups.” He was like, “Well, sure, that sounds great.”
WCP: What did Derek contribute to the creative process?
WC: We didn’t bring him in thinking we needed new songs or things like that. I think mostly it’s just another—he helps us, definitely with our live show. There’s a lot of things that when we create these albums, there’s a lot of sounds that have to get attended to or the songs just don’t get performed right. So a lot of it would be that. And then when we’d be in the studio, sometimes it’s all of us in the studio, but sometimes it’s not. Then [earlier today] it was just myself because it was a little bit of mixing and a little bit of figuring out what some segues were gonna be. Sometimes it’s just Steven and I, sometimes it’s everybody. We don’t really know exactly what all we’re doing. There’ll be times when we’re all I guess collectively saying we’re working on a piece of music and everybody will take a crack at melodies and things like that. But I think for the most part Steven and I are, not because we don’t want them to be, I think it’s just mostly I think they’re sort of like, “Well, Wayne and Steven will write the songs and they’ll sort of figure out the bulk of it and when they need some help or if they want some help, we’ll help them; if they don’t want the help, that’s okay.” And if so, it’s not like we all sit there together in a room writing things down and playing instruments. We do that but not very often.
WCP: Wayne, you guys have a really insane live show, of course, and you’re well known for that. Do you ever feel like that kind of spectacle overshadows the songs that you’re taking out on the road?
WC: Well, I think it can. I mean, I think that’s why we’ve worked and worked and worked on it so it doesn’t seem like the stuff takes away so much of your attention away from the emotion of the songs and stuff. But I don’t worry about that that much. I think most people would come to see us because they like our music and they like the idea of what we’re about. And when you’re there, it kind of is whatever you want it to be. I’m not a fan of Beyoncé’s music, but I really did enjoy being at her show—even if it’s just a bunch of stuff going on and people partying and having fun...I don’t really put a sort of rule what is supposed to happen live. If you wanna take some drugs and come and watch our lights, it doesn’t matter what we sing, that’s fine. If you wanna be in the fifth row and, y’know, see everything that’s happening onstage and really feel the emotion, you can do that...So we don’t worry about it that much. Sometimes I think one song can be amazing and then, for whatever the reason, on this night, the next song wasn’t that good. And then the next night it can be completely the opposite of that. It’s just kind of hard to tell. But I think for the most part, I think the audience—when you play songs that they really love, they’re into it. All that stuff only really comes into effect when you’re playing big, big places. We played a festival last weekend in England, and there’s 30, 40,000 people—so, you gotta kinda have some stuff to reach the people way back there if you want to involve everybody in the show. But, yeah, there’s always that danger [of overshadowing]. But there’s a danger of that no matter what. There’s a danger of it being involved if you don’t do anything, as well. It’s always a little bit of a danger. I watch groups all the time that don’t have all the stuff and sometimes it’s utterly amazing, and then two songs later it seems to kind of not work. So I would leave it to: You should do what you like to do and try to work it out so it works most of the time and whatever.
The Flaming Lips perform with Tame Impala and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger October 4 at 5:30 p.m. at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. $17.50 to $45.
Photo by George Salisbury