Oh, I thought someone was gonna connect us but it’s you right there. In the old days it would take 10 assistants to get you to me or me to you, but now we’re just the last men standing. I always thought it was too much trouble. Just let me call them! I was just in the middle of grabbing a rubber-coated skull.
Why do you need a rubber-coated skull?
There’s a guy in town who deals in human bones. When he was 12, he found a skull of a possum out in the woods. Fast-forward 35 years, I was at his place and he had some actual human heads in his freezer. I’ve been experimenting with covering them in pink rubber.
The Flaming Lips recently released With a Little Help From My Fwends – a psychedelic reimagining of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album – and now you’ve announced a gig at this year’s Liverpool Sound City. Is that appropriate synchronicity?
That’s right. The Beatles have become so omnipresent that you forget that they were just some dudes. A quote I read in the late 90s really inspired me: “The Beatles are humans.” They lived in working-class streets, they went to school. I’d like to see if some of those places are still there.
Has covering the Fab Four’s most celebrated album resulted in any cries of “sacrilege!”?
Well, in 2009 we did Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. If there are two groups with a fan base that probably feels that way, it’s those groups! So out there in the social media world, you get 100,000 people a day saying: “This is the greatest thing ever” and another 10,000 saying: “I hope he dies.” If anyone thought about it, Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth is no different. I love the music and the idea of having my own version of it was just too tempting.
The Miley Cyrus collaboration on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds seems to have upset some of your fans – and Miley’s!
Oh totally! She has a lot more fans saying: “Who the fuck is this dude and why are you doing this?” Three-quarters of her audience knew her when she was 10 and on TV, and hold on to that. It reminds me of when we played with the band Tool in the 90s. They were a serious, heavy, almost metal band who loved the Flaming Lips, but their audience hated us with all the testosterone and aggression that they could muster! That can be pretty exhilarating. We still meet people who say: “I saw you with Tool and I threw my shoe at you, but now you’re my favourite band.” We’re now writing songs for Miley, so that’s what I hope Miley’s fans will find as well: as she grows, some of them will grow.
Eyebrows were raised when you both got matching tattoos (1).
I’m 54. When I was growing up, the only people that you saw with tattoos were prisoners, or the Manson girls. But now it’s another experience you can have with each other, like going to a bar or getting your nails done together or going to the Grand Canyon, which we did as well. Being around her, you can be in three or four places in one night and they’re all just fun moments. You’ll be at someone’s house and they’re all having fun or getting high and suddenly it’s: “Let’s get a tattoo!” It’s not: “Oh my God, we’re bonded together for the rest of our lives.” I think Miley and myself think those things anyway; making music together bonds us more than tattoos. She’s awesome, true to what she is; just a real fresh, energetic freak to be around.
There was yet more controversy when you recorded with Kesha (2) and tweeted a photo of what looked like hard drugs.
If you looked closely, you would have seen the bottle of Tums [indigestion-relief pills] in the background. We thought it was obviously so funny that no one would believe it, but suddenly it was: “Wayne Coyne does cocaine with Kesha.” It’s the same effect as Miley showing her butt while riding on a car, throwing money around. You do a hundred things connected to music and art and ideas and nobody cares, and you do one thing like that and it’s: “They’re out of their fuckin’ minds!”
Does the bad press you’ve had about this stuff lately bother you?
I can see if you were a veteran Flaming Lips fan and I’m hanging out with the most celebrated fuckin’ 20-year-old and she’s a child Disney star at that, you’d be like, “This is too much. It’s not acceptable.”
Can you see why some people have thought: “Here’s an older man, going through a divorce, younger girlfriend, hanging out with young female pop stars … Wayne Coyne is having a mid-life crisis”?
I wouldn’t really know what a mid-life crisis would be. To me it’s not a crisis, it’s a lot of fucking fun! But yeah, there’s that vibe that you’re not supposed to be this way in your 50s. Am I supposed to ask for permission for the way I want to live? People go on what they’ve read about Miley and piece together what they think happened, and I can see why they think [it’s a crisis]. I think some older people do not like younger women who are too sexual or too open about it. It’s seen as an assault on something. To me, it’s nothing to do with age, it’s about the person. If people don’t like it, don’t pay attention. But these things do impact on your insecurities. In my 40s and early 50s, I was always worried about getting old. Then one night I was a little drunk and thought: “Hang on, you’re already old, so stop worrying about it.” And suddenly those insecurities melted away.
You did somewhat fuel the outrage when you posted an (admittedly not quite all-revealing) nude photo of yourself on Instagram.
For sure, but the strongest Flaming Lips followers love that they can see everything. They can see Miley and I getting tattoos at 2am, then the next day they can see us recording.
I hear you closed down Oklahoma airport when you were carrying a fake grenade?
With a lot of these things, the difference between what happens and what you read about [in the news] is comical. It’s a small airport and there was no security there – they were probably watching the football – and the security man had to drive from his house to the airport, so they had to close it. In a normal situation, this would be a 10-minute thing. But because it was me it became outrageous.
There was another ruckus when longtime drummer Kliph Scurlock exited the band (3) and claimed he’d been sacked for objecting to an Instagram picture of your friend Christina Fallin controversially wearing a Native American headdress.
Yes, and part of you wants to fight back, but the more boring truth is that, after a month, nobody thinks about it. But him connecting it to the headdress incident … I don’t know her that well, but she’s a friend of mine, and if someone wants to bully my friends, as Kliph Scurlock was, I will defend them. If you’re ready to hate me, you’ll jump on that. What can I do? But I think: everything you’re doing, all the hate that you’re putting into it, is making me more famous [laughs].
Christina, the daughter of the Oklahoma Republican governor who oversaw a botched execution last year, seems an unlikely friend.
If you were round here [Oklahoma] you wouldn’t think that. She had problems with drugs and alcohol and she’s outside of the politics. I suppose she could be seen as a politician’s rebellious daughter, but when I first knew her, her mother wasn’t governor. I don’t know her that well – I know a thousand people in my area - but everything got more intense because of that connection.
Is it true that you’ve formed a band together, the Posers?
Why did you have such an epic public fallout with Erykah Badu?
We recorded [Roberta Flack’s] The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face with her, and it had a really fragile, emotional, vulnerable quality to it. So we made a video with her singing naked in a bath of glitter (4). Then, when she started to get a bad response to it, she didn’t like it and she blames me. People think I must’ve tricked her. There’s no way I could have made a video like that if she didn’t want to make it. She is naked in the bathtub, with lights, cameras and everything. Her sister is in the video. We had a lot of fun doing it.
[Mischievously] I think ultimately what Erykah didn’t like is that her sister’s butt is a bit bigger, which I think is fantastic.
Do you think you have a certain charm that makes people do things that they might regret?
I think when you’re in the moment it’s very easy to get pushed along by the moment, but that’s how cool things get done. If we sat around and thought about everything for three weeks, no music would get made.
How on Earth did you coax the collaborators on Heady Fwends to give you their blood (5)?
We didn’t coax Nick Cave. Everyone I asked except for Nick and Yoko were cool. Kesha and Bon Iver jumped right to it. Chris [Martin] was always, “I’m gonna fuckin’ do it!” To me, if the music’s that good, you need to get people to remember it and talk about it.
Is that your philosophy? When you used to perform in a hamster ball with the crowd carrying you over their heads, the ecstasy on your face and the crowd’s face seemed to take the music to another sphere.
I agree. Any time you get that opportunity to connect like that with the audience … and also, to break down expectations of what a rock show can be. They can be boring, and as the Flaming Lips, we want to do things that will break through that barrier and give people something emotional, that will be more than just “let’s get drunk and be cool”.
You once described the Flaming Lips’ last album of original songs, The Terror (2013), as “music that sounds like you want to kill yourself”. Your marriage was over. Was it a dark period for you as a person?
When people say “dark”, I don’t want to compare it to the death of a child. If you were around me, you wouldn’t have thought I was sad. But there is a line in the song The Terror – “You don’t even control the controls” – that summed up how I felt. There’s what you want your life to be and what it is, and beneath that there’s something deeper which pulls at you; an anxious, subconscious terror, like a cigarette smouldering in the couch. One day it’s going to explode and take over the whole couch, so you’ve got to dig in there and pull it out. I dug in there and pulled it out. I am an intense person. I decided that being unpleasant would just be horrible for everybody, so let’s just try this other thing.
- The Flaming Lips headline Liverpool Sound City on 23 May. Wayne Coyne will also give a keynote speech at the event.
1) Of a dead dog, as you do.
2) The pair collaborated on the 2012 album of collaborations, the Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends. However, a projected full album project, Lip$ha, was called off in 2013.
3) In 2013. Scurlock later apologised, saying he’d been fired over musical differences.
4) After the 2012 video with Badu was pulled, a subsequent clip appeared with Amanda Palmer as replacement (although the original version also now appears to be doing the rounds).
5) For a limited pressing of 10 $2,500 copies of Heady Fwends, containing the celebrity collaborators’ blood in the vinyl. It has become known as “the blood album”.