The Flaming Lips
The idea that so many people can be smiling right there in front of you can really affect you. It’s powerful. We can deny it and say, ‘oh these are just a bunch of hippies on ecstasy,’ we can say that, but the truth is, it’s your life and if you want to have this sort of happiness that’s almost self-generated, you can have it.
story by James H. Ewert Jr.
photo by J. Michelle Martin-Coyne
Ask Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne if he’s a hypnotist and he’ll tell you he’s the greatest in the world — but only if you want him to be. The Oklahoma City native’s answer directs the question back where it came from: Do you want to be hypnotized? The curiousness continues and Coyne plunges the question into an endless state of optimism and possibilities. In many ways, the music of The Flaming Lips embodies the nature of hypnotism; if you want to believe in it, it will mesmerize and fascinate.
Having just returned to his hometown from a European tour and about to embark upon another domestic musical adventure, Coyne took some time out of an ordinary hum-drum day to talk to Chicago Innerview about what he would say to kids if he was Santa Claus delivering presents and had diarrhea, the contagiousness of vomiting and crying, as well as a few words about The Flaming Lips’ first-ever live DVD, UFOs at the Zoo: The Legendary Concert in Oklahoma City, released last July.
Known for their extravagant and spell-binding live shows, often accompanied by dozens of dancing aliens, Santa Clauses and strange dog/bears romping around in the glow of more lights than the Las Vegas strip, The Flaming Lips are as much a figment of pure imagination as the shroomed or tripped-out concertgoer wants them to be. Sober or not, every description of a Flaming Lips show will require words and phrases like ‘far-out,’ ‘trippy,’ ‘psychedelic’ and ‘the-most-incredible-god-damn-show-I’ve-ever seen!’
Despite the stereotypes about the band’s seeming correlation to hallucinogenic drug use, Coyne doesn’t do drugs and instead of the rambling nonsense that psychedelic or experimental music can imply, the band’s music teeters on an axis of universal understanding. When viewed and heard from the right mindset, almost through osmosis, the listener is able to reach the same metaphysical plateau as the humble band itself.
“The idea that so many people can be smiling right there in front of you can really affect you. It’s powerful. We can deny it and say, ‘oh these are just a bunch of hippies on ecstasy,’ we can say that, but the truth is, it’s your life and if you want to have this sort of happiness that’s almost self-generated, you can have it,” Coyne said. “I mean, 20 people can see a sunset and most of them would say ‘oh, it’s a sunset, who cares? It happens every day.’ But one person is seeing the exact same thing and it’s utterly changing them, and they think ‘wow, we really do live in a beautiful world.’ We just have to be aware of it.”
No more is that awareness of beauty (in what may otherwise seem like dull or banal moments) evident as it is within the optimistically tinged songs of tragic love and catastrophic happiness in the face of impending doom that the 46 year-old Coyne sings about. “I think I’ve lived my life in reverse. The older I get, the more wonderful I see life being. In the beginning, you don’t realize how dangerous and cruel the world is and you go through this period where you go ‘wow, people are suffering endlessly every day.’ But it’s a long journey and little by little you understand that suffering, pain, joy and all those; they have to be there,” Coyne said. “Death gives meaning to life, without one you don’t have the other.”
Since the inception of The Flaming Lips in 1983, the band’s mixture of big, star-reaching melodies and sometimes hopeful, sometimes woeful lyrics has been amassing a cult-like fan base so loyal that some dress up in the most ridiculous costumes ever to grace a human body. Following the lightning-in-a-bottle popularity of their hit song “She Don’t Use Jelly” in the early ’90s, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Brothers) was released to rave reviews in 1999. Oddly enough, as the band’s mainstream popularity began to increase, so did the absurdity of their live performances. Confetti, strobe lights, smoke machines; all the gags commonly found in a novelty store became mainstays of a Flaming Lips show.
“When you’re at a Flaming Lips show, we’re doing so many things to just wipe the slate completely clean, to totally devastate whatever you were thinking. And after 45 minutes of standing in front of The Flaming Lips, if we’ve not devastated you, you probably can’t be devastated,” Coyne said. “We get those little moments together where we can all say, ‘fuck, this is cool. Let’s not forget this.’ It can be overwhelming.”
It can be difficult for a band like The Flaming Lips — who emphasize so much on the oneness of being with the fans and communicating with them — to have the amount of success they have enjoyed over the past decade, but Coyne and the band take their recognition and influence just like they do most other things: in humble stride. Coyne understands that fans pay a lot of money to go see shows, so he makes every attempt to be aware of his position as a figure that many look up to. He even equated it to being Santa Claus.
“I say this a lot, but to me it would be like if you were waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney, you can understand that he’s delivering toys to billions of kids around the world, but you want it still to be fantastical to you. [If a kid approached me] I would never go, ‘ah fuck you kid I got diarrhea, I got a billion more kids to deliver toys to, fuck you’,” Coyne said speaking through his dry, scratchy Santa Claus voice. “I would say, ‘ah this must be fantastical to you,’ even though I know I’m just a normal person, but the scenario that we’ve set up has allowed this fake magic to overwhelm us for the moment.”
Coyne could be described as a modest and artistic Wizard of Oz who operates on stage behind a curtain of entertainment. He can orchestrate a glowing UFO landing on stage and have the possibility of a million things going wrong, but because The Flaming Lips fans believe in the band like they do, there is never any worry. “This knowing that people believe in you; and that they’re behind you changes your life. It makes all the difference in the world to know that people care about you and they’ll allow you to fail,” Coyne said.
During the shows, he said there is always a moment where he takes out the time to explain to the audience that the experience they are all having is somehow enhanced by everyone being there together. In the DVD, just before singing the song “Do You Realize??”, Coyne said that is where he nearly breaks down.
“I remind people how important it is that the way you behave, the way that you are in front of people can really change the world. I realize that they’re doing it and I don’t need to say it. It isn’t that I’m just feeling it; I’m feeling it because they’re feeling it,” Coyne said. “Too often during performances you get into these things and you’re so busy making sure everything goes so well that you rarely get to stand back and view the sunset and the rainbows that are happening right in front of you.”
In a word, The Flaming Lips are ‘contagious’ — and listening to their music means that you are allowing yourself to be hypnotized by them.
“It’s a bit like a vomiting contest, if you see three people throw up, chances are you’re going to throw up. On stage, all these things are affecting us and when we’re standing around people who are having these small epiphanies, realizing in their own lives how life can be good for them and how they can be happy, it’s contagious,” Coyne said. “In the same way that crying is contagious to me, all these things are contagious and we have to know that that’s real.”
The Flaming Lips :: with Black Moth Super Rainbow :: Aragon :: Sept. 7.