Interview The Flaming Lips: ‘We Make Up Shit As We Go’

Wayne Coyne definitely does not have ‘The Terror’.

Waiting for the Flaming Lips’ head honcho Wayne Coyne to arrive in one of those fancy ‘boutique’ hotels is a pretty nerve wracking experience; after all, with Coyne, anything can happen; and it often does. He doesn’t make it easy to settle the fear. He’s running late, the photo shoot ahead of our appointment hasn’t taken place, and when he decides to greet us first, his PR informs him that this isn’t happening yet. The receptionist stood filing her nails is unprepared for Coyne, it seems, as he imitates blowing us all away with a violent machine gun. “I could kill you all,” he grins, much to her (and our) consternation.

This will be the first threat to our lives.

Eventually we’re led by Wayne to his hotel room, ostensibly to discuss new album, ‘The Terror’, although as you’d expect, his conversation meanders way beyond that subject. He pours himself an orange juice and perches on a chair, and it feels a little strange to see him in this setting; not in his crisp linen suit, or the fur that he’s lately taken to wearing on stage, with no confetti gun or laser cannon in sight. Instead, he’s wrapped up from the London cold in a duffle coat, which he’s taken to asking everyone he meets if they like. You get the feeling he’s moments away from giving it to someone enthusiastic enough, although clearly he’s besotted by it himself. His grey suit is casually strewn across the bed, suitcases haphazardly left around the room. This trip, it seems he’s had no problems getting through customs, unlike the time when he accidentally set off airport security by forgetting he had a grenade in his luggage.

“I was at a party, and I didn’t even really care about the grenade, it’s just the guy wanted me to have it.” Coyne is visibly riled by the memory. “So it got put into my bag. It’s empty, and really, the people there see them all the time. But the fact that it was me, and it was a Saturday, the TSA had to be called in. And it becomes a big deal.”

“Part of me didn’t really feel like it was all my doing. I mean, it’s not against the law to carry those, just like you do a can of coke or whatever. I’m not trying to smuggle anything through, it was just a mistake. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. So the Transport Security Authority has to come in, has to shut everything down. I think everyone there knew, once we’ve pressed the button, we can’t go back in time. We’ve pressed the button, we have to go through the bureaucracy. To me, it’s just the nature of that kind of silly thing, where we know what it is, but bureaucracy demands we act a certain way. But in my life, I don’t live like that, I don’t live by laws that I think are stupid.”

Stupid laws getting in the way of his fun is something that Wayne appears to get frequently pissed off over. In the UK, he tells us, their stage show has to be somewhat muted because of our Health And Safety regulations, and the Flaming Lips can’t get away with half the stuff here that they do elsewhere in Europe. “Fucking England is out of control… it’s too paranoid. Something must have happened here, everyone’s worried about fire codes.” But hang on, isn’t America the litigious nation? Aren’t you under the constant threat of being sued in your homeland? “People try but they don’t really get anywhere.” Coyne laughs. “The things that we can do around America and Europe, half the time we can never do them here. So yeah, you should change that.”

We make a mental note to lobby parliament immediately. “It’s like any law though, they can make a law, and if you act accordingly and uphold it, who’s the worst? That’s the dilemma. In the early 1960s, where I live in Oklahoma City, there was segregation; black people had to go here, white people had to go there, black people had to go to these restaurants. And people accepted it. People would just say, well, that’s the law. And that’s not a law, that’s not a law that I would follow. Fuck you, I don’t agree, I’m not going to compromise. So you can make the law because you have more people on your side, but I’m not going to agree.”

He looks us dead in the eye, before making the second death threat of the day. “You could say, I can kill you, but I’d say, I’ll kill you first.” He laughs, “You just wouldn’t live by those rules, and I just won’t follow someone’s laws that I don’t agree with. That’s my law. I make my own laws.”

The idea of Coyne challenging the establishment isn’t a new one. In 2006, their ‘At War With The Mystics’ album shifted them beyond their beautiful brand of hippy psychedelia, into a far more political realm. America was at war with Iraq, and it didn’t take much delving to discern that The Flaming Lips were pissed off about the whole thing. Since then, they’ve moved in different territories, with their ‘Embryonic’ record evoking their old acid drenched freak outs, and ‘Heady Fwends’ featuring both brooding and batshit collaborations in equal measures. But ‘The Terror’ is all change again; choral chants mixing with occasionally ominous soundscapes. “I don’t know if it’s dark,” he ponders, “Or it’s just not light. There is a difference.”

We remind Wayne that over a year ago, he said that this album was going to be “very sombre songs that sound like they’re distorted transmissions from some religious cult from the future and they’ve found the answer. But the answer doesn’t work.” It’s turned out to be a fairly apt description. “It is!” He agrees, excitedly, “We were still making it then, but it sounds exactly like that! That’s great. I should write it down.” He takes out a pencil and begins scrawling on a scrap of paper. “Cool, I like that. It does sound like that. Yeah, yeah! Some of these songs, they feel like church songs, but they’re saying something different. Sometimes leaning that way, leaning that way…”

That doesn’t mean that they knew what they wanted before they started recording ‘The Terror’ though, they were further into it than perhaps they were letting on at the time. “We’d already made most of it when I said that, most of it was already done in the first couple of weeks,” he admits, “By then we’d decided, this would be the record. It’s almost a year since we’d finished it. People think that you write all the songs before you go into the studio. We don’t, we’ve never done that, we make up shit as we go. You can never really go in and say, that’s what we’re going to do. It isn’t that you know what you want, it’s just that you reject what you don’t want. By listening and… tasting, you know it’s not that. And what you haven’t rejected, is your record, is your art.”

“With a group like us, we’ve made so much music, and we’re so open to whatever. I don’t think it’d be that difficult to think, by listening to our music that you know us. If you like our music, you probably like us. Because all art is you. And if your art sounds like it’s made by a narcissistic asshole, that’s probably who you are.”

He grins broadly, as a knock at the bedroom door dictates that our time in his world is over. We all shuffle into a small red lift, lit up by the neon glow of the green buttons, to head back downstairs. It’s just like being in The Matrix, we comment, unaware that we’ve given him the opening to leave us where we started; with a final death threat. “In that case,” he chuckles, “I can kill you now and no one will ever know.”

The Flaming Lips’ new album ‘The Terror’ will be released on 1st April via Bella Union.

Taken from the April 2013 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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