A Trippy Q&A With Wayne Coyne About the Flaming Lips' Return to Noise

If a band leaks four full songs from a new album months before the street date, it's usually a sign they're confident about the total package. And in the case of the Flaming Lips, that confidence appears legitimate. For anyone disappointed by the more commercial aspect of the band's last two efforts, the Lips' next 70-minute full-length release, due Oct. 13, plays like a freak-show mea culpa, clattering and gyrating with psychedelic glee. Lead Lip Wayne Coyne spoke with NEWSWEEK's Seth Colter Walls while rolling on a tour bus through Northern California. In the course of several dropped calls, he discussed the recording of Embryonic, and his influences—ranging from Jean Cocteau to Gwen Stefani. Excerpts:

Coyne: Hey, just so you know, we're in the bus, traveling through Northern California. It's the worst place to try to have a phone conversation. We're probably going to lose you, but you can keep calling me back.

Good deal. You were just in Japan, right?

And Australia. You know when you leave from L.A. to Australia, it's 16 hours flying. Pretty mind-blowing. You ever done that?

It's sometimes 24 hours from the West Coast to Beirut. You wind up having to switch in Europe because the U.S. doesn't run direct flights into Lebanon.
Oh man, wow. I feel like, people who do that, it changes you. You just accept it. Coming back from Japan, you get a day back. I never realized that. You leave at 5:30 at night and you get back home, and it's 10 minutes later.

Did you put your extra day to productive use?
You know, I have to say I was riding my bicycle around the lake by the time I got back home to Oklahoma. That was awesome. The last night I was in Tokyo, there were four earthquakes that happened while we were playing. We left in the afternoon, and we went through a typhoon while flying through Japan. It was such a wild adventure.

So, to make a totally abrupt journalistic transition...


The new record sounds like it was an adventure to make. It's less pop-oriented and more tripped out than your last two records: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With the Mystics. Was that always the plan?
In a sense you want them all to be an adventure that way. You really do want to get lost in this s--t that's coming out of your subconscious and let it overtake you. I've said it, but it's not my quote, it's [filmmaker] John Cocteau's: "I don't have ideas. Ideas have me." And it's like you're just a slave to them. You know Cocteau?
[Sudden static. A couple minutes and several redials later, Coyne's reception returns.]
Coyne: Oh man, here we go. We're gonna make it, though!

Absolutely! Anyway, you were talking Jean Cocteau and about being a slave to the artistic idea. His Orphic trilogy of films is really great.

Yeah! Well, for me, I know what he said is true. That doesn't always mean the ideas are worthy of being a slave to. But there's no other way. I think the worst thing anybody can say about an artist is that they're clever. Like, "They knew that was going to work!" I don't feel good about thinking and contriving and coming up with ideas. Like, I don't f--king know if it's going to work. I'm not even positive about this new record. I don't really know what it means. I'm still coming down from the high of making it and listening to it. It was utterly fun and weird and freaky for us.

But you have to know the new album is a pivot away from your more pop-oriented work this decade. Especially compared with Zaireeka, which was 12 years ago. And you're also aware that the reaction of some longtime fans to Mystics was a bit "meh," right?
Well, for us, you know—even to speak of Zaireeka, all that still feels like stuff that we just did. And that was in 1997—already that's like: Oh, my God. When you get older, the f--king years go by quick. And I think for us we felt ... [Pause] This is just dumb analyzing it, okay?

Like, we were still experimenting—even if we were experimenting with pop music. It wasn't as though we woke up one day and said, Hey, let's act like we're great songwriters. We just said, Let's experiment on a different trip and let's see where it takes us. With Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, that's us in a sense thinking that we sounded like Gwen Stefani! [Laughs] But I can clearly see how people who followed us ... [Pause] Um, like where's the difference between experimenting with making pop music and just making pop music? It's strange, subjective line-in-sand drawing, but somewhere along the way, I guess we said we're going to make a record like this. We were making crude sort of demos of songs, and then we thought, Oh, but we like it like this! Following in that stupid way of "I like it and that's all I know."

Was it hard to get Warner Brothers to accept the record as is, in basically demo form?
No. I mean, Dave Fridmann's a great producer. And Warner Brothers, they wouldn't know it's a demo. We don't have to do demos for them, either. It's just for us to know where this thing is going to go. And all the people at Warner love anything that we do, support any of the ideas. I don't think it occurred to them it would be demos. When I speak of it now, they can hear it. Like, Oh, that bit is clumsy. But they sit back and listen to it and are like, cool. That's always been the kind of strange relationship with the label, especially for a band that's so freaky like we are.

Is there going to be a single for radio?
I don't really know if there's a single. I'm going to make some videos for "I Can Be a Frog," "Watching the Planets," and "See the Leaves."

Well, at least you made that non-album single earlier this year, the cover of Madonna's "Borderline."
Totally. We like that song.

Did you ever hear from Madonna about it?
Um, no. But we still could. I never considered it, to tell you the truth.

Next month, you're headlining the All Tomorrow's Parties three-day festival in New York's Catskills. And you got to pick all the bands for the closing night. How did you hook up with ATP?
We were part of the very first festival, back in 1999, I think. I forget the area it was done in, just a holiday camp somewhere. I have to say it was really great—the vision of that sort of thing. The bands are all there together. The audience and groups are all mixed together in a friendly area, getting drunk, you know. I thought back then it was a really unique and cool collection of groups.
[Connection drops again. When it comes back, Coyne is moaning.]
Coyne: Ahh, I'm sorry about this!

It's cool. We'll just put it out like William Burroughs's cut-up tapesall spliced together randomly.
Totally! [Laughs] Man, this is just the way of driving in Northern California.

Are there any bands at ATP that you're particularly looking forward to catching?
Well, I know the group No Age is putting together something with Bob Mould. And Boredoms are going to do a crazy drum-collective thing. I've seen pictures of it, and it looks fantastic.

I saw a similar show of theirs with 77 drummers in Brooklyn back in 2007. It was a great piece.
Yeah, the thing about Boredoms is they just f--king go for it when they get an idea for something.

I'm curious about your philosophy when it comes to serving fans. People who buy tickets to some of your upcoming shows will get an advance preview of three songs from the new record, and then you'll send them a digital bootleg of the show they saw a week afterward. Is that kind of added-value approach just a survival strategy in the era of torrents and leaks?

Well, we kind of want our audience to be smart and resourceful. I know myself, if a group I like, say, Radiohead, has something new, and if someone has it out there, you want to hear it. We try to justify the idea that if the fans like the music, they should just get it. And we should ... [Long pause] just find a way to make money from that! [Laughs] Sometimes these ways of making money just change and there's nothing you can do about it.
I don't despair about it that much. I think a lot of times people are able to get our music who wouldn't have been able to buy it or care about it before. So you're losing one aspect of the business and gaining another. And still, everybody knows nothing good should be free. People work hard and spend a lot of money making things. Why should they be free? But I'm old. I'm 48. I didn't grow up with an iPod and a computer and everything available at the flick of a switch. I think it's awesome to see the popularity of the Flaming Lips when people have the freedom to get whatever they want—without waiting for a radio station to play it or a magazine to write about it. But I'm glad you're writing about it, of course!
And it's even worse for you in the magazine world, right? In a sense with bands, we've always made most of our money from playing shows anyway. You have these other dimensions by which you're existing. But writing—that's a full-time job. And for the money not to be there must make some people despair.

Maybe I could take this Q&A out on the road as a spoken-word show. I'll do it in front of a screen that plays Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.
Yeah, man! I'd go see you!