Wayne Coyne does not have a natural habitat.
Over the years, the Flaming Lips frontman has variously appeared at home floating over crowds in a gigantic hamster ball, taking a bath in his Oklahoma City backyard and putzing around white fiberglass structures designed to resemble Mars.
But this one feels especially strange: We’re sitting in a bland office at the Warner Bros. headquarters in midtown Manhattan. There is nothing remotely trippy within view—just papers and office supplies and stacks of promo CDs. Coyne, clad in a neon vest with glittery arts-and-crafts trinkets stuck to his face, looks about as out of place in this corporate environs as a god-fearing dental hygienist wandering lost through a furry convention.
It’s a Monday afternoon in January, and the Flaming Lip-in-chief is in New York City to promote Oczy Mlody, the band’s 14th or 16th or 25th studio album, depending on how you do the math. It is a strange and cold record, populated by inscrutable song structures and icy synths that wash away any trace of the band’s noise-rock past. As on 2013’s The Terror, the lyrics use surreal imagery to grasp at death and isolation. A rare moment of pop levity, “We a Famly,” stars the Lips’ unlikely muse of late, Miley Cyrus. “She's an extrovert, as extroverted as you can be. And she embraces all that,” Coyne says of Cyrus. “But then she has this desire to be like, ‘I want to write the songs. I want to be the person like Wayne. He gets to be the singer. He gets to be the songwriter. He says what videos they're gonna make.’”
Politics comes up during our conversation. The subject is hard to avoid. Coyne is fired up after watching clips from the prior night’s Golden Globes. He seems particularly inspired by Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump remarks, which he watched on his flight. “I'm gonna put some social media out that celebrates that,” he tells me, pulling out his iPhone. “Because she's so right.” (He posts a clip from Streep’s speech on Instagram, adding “Right on sister!!!!” in the caption field.)
In a wide-ranging conversation with Newsweek, Coyne discussed the Lips’ improbably long career, his equally improbably creative partnership with Cyrus, what the hell “Oczy Mlody” means and his deep loathing of Donald Trump.
You’ve been a band for more than 30 years now. This new album is your… 14th? 16th?
Well, no… I think we've done about 25? But there's a lot of them that you wouldn't know about because—
Are you including, like, EPs?
We would include stuff like the six-hour song and the 24-hour song and the King Crimson cover record and the Stone Roses cover record. Some of those are just impossible to get.
Most bands don’t survive nearly that long. What is your secret to longevity as a band?
I think it's probably my personality. I come from a big family. I think growing up around my older brothers and people having different drug dilemmas—just being in a very intense, freaky environment when I was really young—I think it really suited me to be around a bunch of freaks all the time.
But mostly I think it's just luck. Even though we play a lot, our main thing that we like is really making records. For a long time, we would just do whatever we had to do so that we could make another record. That was more difficult early on. We had to go out there and pretend that we're a real group or something. And then we'd convince people to give us money, and we'd spend a year in the studio messing around.
You’ve weathered a lot of crises as a band.
Not big crises. It's like, no one has died. And we didn't make $10 billion. These things that would really affect you.
Was there ever a time when you didn’t think the Flaming Lips would be able to go on?
Well, when we started, I don't think we even wanted it to last 30 years. If you told me, "This is going to last 30 years," I would have said: "Oh, fuck, that sounds horrible !" I think it would have been a horrible thing to think, Oh, this is gonna be your entire life. This is gonna be from now on. But as it went, we didn't want it to end. Being together five years felt like an achievement. But being together 10 years kind of felt sad—like jeez, haven't we found something better to do? In between the 10- and the 20-year [anniversaries], you don't really celebrate 15 years that much. But then 20 years comes around and people are like, "You guys have been around for 20 years!" It's like, "Jeeesus." There's a furniture store in Oklahoma that, even though it's shut down, the sign on the front would celebrate that it had been around for 20 years. I remember being like, "Jesus Christ, that's a long time."
Is there an album you’ve made that you consider your masterpiece? Like, you’ll never top it?
Probably The Soft Bulletin. People like it so much. It's just one of those records that we could have easily forgotten about or thought "Hey, that was fun" but it's always referenced. And it's always brought up. You know, without that record we probably would have not been around for 30 years. We probably would have thought, It doesn't seem like it's working.
Do you worry that you might repeat yourself and make an album that sounds too much like one you’ve made before?
We did The Soft Bulletin. We'd say, “Well, people seem to really like it. So what the fuck, let's just do more of that.” When we went to do Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, part of us was just making another Soft Bulletin. And then we just discovered this other thing.
The title of your new album is a Polish phrase. How do you pronounce it?
We pronounce it just like it sounds. We pronounce it OX-ee ma-LOH-dee. I always think it sounds like it could be one of the weirder-looking blobby Star Wars characters or something. “He drives a weird ship—that's Oczy Mlody !” Sometimes nonsensical titles are just—they're just beautiful. It doesn't have any reference that is coloring it.
What does the title signify?
It actually means "Eyes of the Young.” We probably wouldn't purposefully call a song that we've done "Eyes of the Young." It feels a little too emo or Coldplay or something like that. And I love Coldplay. I just mean, it doesn’t initially feel weird enough or stupid enough or something. But we liked it as the meaning of these words, though. Sometimes I think that's just a dumb trick we have to play on ourselves to think that we're more subversive and we're not so emotionally driven.
You’ve always had some pretty great song titles. My favorite new title is “Listening to the Frogs With Demon Eyes.” That was inspired by your dog, correct?
Sometimes when you take pictures of people, but especially dogs, if you use a flash, their eyes will get that red thing. I always call those "demon eyes." If someone sends me a picture of their kids and they have that, [I say], "The demon in your children is showing up." We were actually in the park that night. In the summertime, there's a loud chorus of all these frogs. It's amazing. I remember taking the picture and saying I was listening to the frogs with the demon eyes. And it was literally what we were doing!
The dog was listening to the frogs?
I was. But the dog was with me. She probably was. But it didn't interest her as much as it did me. I had this song that I was fucking with. And I liked that title.
Since Trump was elected president, I’ve been hearing musicians saying stuff about how punk rock needs to stand against Trump. Do you feel any responsibility to write more political lyrics these days?
No. No. I think, really, just the opposite. To me, in my everyday life, I despise him so much. I keep hoping that his train wrecks and he gets killed or whatever, you know? David Bowie dies, and fucking Donald Trump lives on. Carrie Fisher dies, and Donald Trump lives on. Why can't he just be one of them? He's fucking 70, you know?
Anyway, that’s me being bitter. But no, I don't think music does that. Music is, when it's at its most powerful, it's your comforting friend. When you're having deep personal pain, frankly, you don't really give a fuck who's president—whether it's Obama or whether it's Hitler or whatever. I remember the year my father died. I didn't give a fuck who was the mayor. I didn't give a fuck about any of that. But music, when it's at its most powerful, it's there with you and you can relate to it. Our music doesn't really work any other way except for that way. Maybe you're the only person that understands this [pain], but this music understands this with you. We want to be there with you in this pain. When we think, "Oh, we should make protest music," that’s just us being stupid and silly. And we've done [2006 song] "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.”
You went through a little phase of writing protest songs.
We did it as a joke. Which I regret now. I don't regret the music. But I regret that we didn't just spend our time doing something more emotional or something. I think some of that is silly. But I really don't think music does that. My proof would be, there couldn't be any more freedom of music and expression than there is right now. If music had that much power, Donald Trump wouldn't even exist, you know? Let alone get elected. If you want to protest, you can't do it abstractly. Music only works as an abstraction.
I was listening to At War With the Mystics the other day and was surprised to be reminded you actually name-checked Donald Trump on that album.
I know! I'm not proud of—at the time, he [was] this kind of celebrated loudmouth that everybody would wish they could ignore but he's just so stupid that you can't help but pay attention. I think that's the exact thing that happened to us with this election. For whatever it's worth, Hillary Clinton could’ve come to Oklahoma City, where we live, and I would have been bored. As an opponent of Donald Trump, I'm a thousand percent for her. But as an entity that's interesting and exciting and all that, I probably wouldn't have even gone to see her. I went to support Bernie [Sanders].
You did appear at a rally for Bernie. What was that like?
They asked me to get up there and say something. The dilemma in Oklahoma City is that we’ve got this stupid governor and she’s implementing a lot of stupid things… So when I got up there, I didn't really know what to say. Because I didn't want to bring our stupid Republican governor into it. I was just like, "I'm glad to be here." And Bernie did win there.
Does Bernie know who the Flaming Lips are?
[laughs] I hope not.
You referred to Kanye West as a “pompous idiot” a few months ago. Do you have any regrets about what you said about him?
Well, no. It was around that time [when West said he would have voted for Trump]. He's so connected with the Kardashians. Maybe he feels like he's got to out-shock them. But I would tell Kanye, if I were around him again, I would say, "Dude, people like your music. Don't make it so difficult to like you.…" It’s like, you know, dude, if you need attention that bad, go get it. Run for office yourself. I don’t care.
Kanye did say that he wants to run in 2020 or whatever.
I hope he does! I think it'd be fun. I think it'd be funny. I don’t think he'll win. And I don't think he'll like it. I think he'd probably quit it like he quit his own tour.
I assume you have no aspirations to make the jump to politics?
Not real politics. I definitely like the guys that can help my neighborhood, which is all I ask anybody to care about. To abstractly care about anything in the world is fine. But I think you have a lot more usefulness and a lot more power and a lot more knowledge about your own little part of the world.… We knew Trump was elected. At 4 o'clock in the morning we finally conceded: "Oh, fuck. He's elected." But about noon the next day, all the results came in on these other things that you had to vote on locally. So we woke up with Trump as president and Oklahoma is a slightly more progressive state now! The farm bill was soundly defeated. The marijuana drug laws—that won. So it's a strange world! Both of those are true at the same time.
Some small victories…
Well, they're not small if they're in your world. And your world is small. So I don't know. It's a weird world we live in. But it always has been. I mean, I remember when [George] W. Bush was elected. It felt as though, how can the world stand more stupidity and more chaos? But it came and went! My dilemma is this: I'm an old white guy. I'm wealthy, and I'm doing my shit. The people that it affects most don't vote for president. Don't care about who's president. I always feel like, it's not our voice that we're always voting for. We're voting on this other idea, that we're helping people who don't have it as easy as we do. It's like, “Fuck, this isn't just about you wanting to smoke marijuana! It's a bigger thing!” But I'm old. You know? I'm not young enough to be pissed off about little things like that.
What’s the secret to the Flaming Lips’ creative partnership with Miley Cyrus?
When I met her, she was 21 years old and fighting through all this stuff with your confidence and all that. She's completely badass. She’s fun, she's badass and she's full of love. And all the other things just work. I’m lucky that I'm old enough that when people say, "She's so young, how do you deal with that"—well, everybody's younger than me! [laughs] You know? The fucking president of Warner Bros. is younger than me. I don't give a fuck. I'm old enough that it doesn't really matter. And she's young enough that, well, everybody's older than her. “Wayne, you're old like Santa Claus, right?” I'm like, “Yeah, exactly.”
Over the years you’ve really pushed the boundaries of a rock concert, from the dancing animals to the giant hamster ball. Any crazy ideas you want to implement before it’s too late?
On this new tour—we've just done it one time—we've got this plastic replica horse that we turned into a unicorn. It's got these LED lights all mangled to it. It looks like this glowing unicorn. It's on an elaborate set, like a giant skateboard on wheels with batteries and Wi-Fi that runs video from our video guy standing a hundred yards away. Most of the things that I try to implement now—they're bombastic or they're unique enough that you'd want to take a picture of it and show your friends, like, “Dude, here's where I'm at! Wayne's singing a David Bowie song inside a space bubble while he's standing on my head!”
We try to figure out what we think would make the audience the most happy. And then see if we can do it really well. I mean, a song like "Race for the Prize”—we’ve played it virtually every night since we've come up with it.
Are you sick of it?
No! When [musicians] say, “Oh, I can't stand playing that song,” our minds just don't work that way. We're very relieved to be the entertainers. Part of us just says, we're here to entertain people. And I think that's a great, great thing.