Wayne Coyne interview: Wayne's world

Gossipy, irreverent and funny, Wayne Coyne is the most charming rock star you'll ever meet. Dorian Lynskey goes on tour with the frontman of the Flaming Lips

On a wet Sunday evening in rural Belgium, the name of the Dour Festival feels horribly apt. Three days of rain have reduced the site to a swamp and several festival-goers to a pitiful, Morlock-like state, plastered in mud from head to toe. Up on the main stage, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips is checking the equipment for the band's imminent performance: the giant rubber hands with which he will fire laser beams at a mirrorball, the balloons full of confetti that he will puncture with his guitar, the inflatable globe in which he will roll across the audience's heads. He says that, when he dies, he would prefer to do so on stage, possibly while inside the globe.

"I think that would be the greatest death ever," he says, gleefully imagining the scenario. "Something's happened in there! And then they open the bubble. He's dead!" He mimics a wailing face. "I don't think that will happen though. I'll probably have a heart attack while taking a shit, like Elvis Presley."

The marriage of death and showbusiness is at the heart of the Oklahoma band's appeal. During the show, amid all the confetti and clouds of red smoke, Coyne sings, in a high, cracked voice, about grief and struggle and how to face the unfaceable. Come for the balloons, stay for the space-rock anthems about the inevitability of oblivion. They end the show, as always, with their best-loved song, "Do You Realize??", often played at weddings and funerals because of its pivotal line: "Everyone you know someday will die." Coyne regards it as a miraculous phenomenon rather than something he had a hand in creating. "We play it like it's some magic thing we discovered in Antarctica and brought back, like, 'Look at this thing!'"

If Tim Burton made a movie about a rock band, Coyne would be the Johnny Depp character: a dynamic dreamer from the school of Willy Wonka and Ed Wood. He readily admits that he is neither a great singer nor a gifted musician, but he has an inexhaustible fount of ideas and the dogged determination to make them real. His guiding principle is "Why not?" Why not spend seven years making a movie in his backyard called Christmas on Mars? Why not break the world record for the most shows played in different cities in 24 hours? Why not ask Justin Timberlake to play bass with you in a dolphin costume on Top of the Pops? Why not release an album – this month's The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends – of intergenerational collaborations ranging from Yoko Ono to Ke$ha via Nick Cave and Bon Iver? "If nothing else I'm a man of action," he says. "You just have to start to do it."

Next year the Flaming Lips – currently Coyne, multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Kliph Scurlock – will celebrate their 30th anniversary. There is no precedent for their improbable career, which finally took off with The Soft Bulletin in 1999, when Coyne was almost 40, and continues to operate on its own bizarre internal logic.

"If you're in a rock group anything is possible," Coyne says excitedly. "The Flaming Lips made me; I didn't make it. Everything that people thought might be true of the Flaming Lips I've taken the chance and said, 'Maybe you're right.'"

Eight hours earlier Coyne is sitting in the bar of a plush Brussels hotel. At 51 he is slim and healthy with a Marc Bolanesque cascade of curls. "It's all going to end soon I'm sure," he says. "One day it will be: 'Bam! Wayne you look like hell now, give it up.'" His fingernails are painted blue-green except for a single pink one on each hand. He's not quite sure why but, he shrugs, "There's something going on."

He orders a quadruple espresso, but caffeine alone can't explain his torrential volubility. The man can talk. What's more, unlike most tireless interviewees, he doesn't recycle anecdotes or bon mots from previous interviews (I checked) and he actually listens. He has the kind of generous, intoxicating charisma that makes you feel like you're the interesting one. Still, you imagine that if you were working with him he might sometimes be overwhelming.

"I'm too intense for sure," he agrees. "Let's make it work! Let's keep going! Sometimes people come up to me and say, 'Dude, it's too much.' That's why I'm the first person to say I'm an idiot, I'm sorry."

"Wayne is a good man to have around when you're nervous about something going well," says Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers, who worked with the Flaming Lips on the 2003 single "The Golden Path". "He has a forceful belief in things turning out OK." When Coyne was pursuing collaborators for Heady Fwends he translated "no" as "ask me again". He even persuaded some of them to donate blood samples to be dropped into the mix for a limited vinyl edition.

"It's bugging people to the point where it's easier for them to do it than it is to put up with me bugging them," he explains. "That's the key. If you believe in your idea you'll fight for it and if you're not willing to fight then it must not be worth doing. For me it's all about the music, and all the grovelling and humiliation I have to do is worth it. You just have to keep trying. That's the rule with anything."

Music aside, he loves to forge new friendships. He pulls out his iPhone and shows me two text-message exchanges: one with Bon Iver, the other with the singer Antony Hegarty. Like his frequent tweets, Coyne's texts are forested with thick clumps of exclamation marks and illustrated with random photos. Bon Iver and Antony have responded in kind. This is Coyne's kind of dialogue. "Most of the coolest people you'll ever talk to will get down to the most basic thing that we all share: just gossipy, funny bullshit. I've realised that's where the truth lies. The bullshit is the truth."

Not every encounter with fellow artists goes this swimmingly. A few years ago he met Aaron Sorkin to brainstorm a narrative for a Broadway adaptation (now, finally, nearing completion) of the Flaming Lips's 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. "He wanted to make it about 9/11, with the giant robots as the Bush administration. I think I was the first person who said no to him in about 30 years." He grins. "It didn't occur to him that I could say no and I didn't realise either until I did it."

He has gone on record accusing both Beck and Arcade Fire of "treating people like shit" on tour, though he has since made amends with Arcade Fire's Win Butler. "We laughed about it and we agreed we'd keep the feud going because it's the only feud they've got. I really didn't think he'd want to fight me. He's pretty big and I'd have to be pretty scrappy."

Coyne fundamentally believes rock-star behaviour is fine on stage – that's what people pay for – but common decency should reign everywhere else. Drozd once told me that when he first met Coyne in 1991 he was "shocked at how normal he seemed. I wasn't expecting a normal guy from Oklahoma."

Oklahoma is one of the poorest states in the union and Coyne is the youngest son of a man who struggled to sustain six children through long spells of unemployment and two bankruptcies. Coyne worked for 11 years as a fry cook at the seafood chain restaurant Long John Silver's. What's more, he never thought he had it bad or that life was better elsewhere. "I didn't get into the Flaming Lips to escape my life and get away from this horrible place. I loved it. Still do. But other things become interesting as you do them. Everything to me is interesting. It's never, 'Let's get away from this and get into that.' Let's just have more."

The waiter comes to collect our cups and spots a streak of spilt Canderel on the table. "It looks like cocaine doesn't it?" says Coyne.

"Well, you're the rock star," the waiter jokes.

Coyne smiles. "Trying to be."

We board the tour bus for Dour and sit at the back. A crew member walks up with a doodle of a grinning yellow skeleton and invites Coyne to add something. It's something they do to pass the time on tour. After scrawling some additions Coyne hands me the pens. I hesitate, stumped for ideas. "Don't think," he says. "Just start drawing."

As a kid, Coyne loved to draw and paint. It was a nurturing, creative household, full of music. Among his older brothers' circle there were also vast quantities of drugs. "I was a wimp," he says. "I was so afraid just from seeing my brothers and my friends. I didn't want to end up like that. I wanted to go in my room and paint and draw pictures and do music. I still feel that's part of me that could be shrivelled up one night if I did too much cocaine or something. I could wake up the next morning and have absolutely no desire to do anything except get high again."

From a distance you might assume that Coyne is powered by immense self-confidence and indomitable optimism, but it's more complicated. He has kept the band going through thick and thin, but only recently stopped worrying that it could all vanish tomorrow. He has been depressed only a handful of times (the first time, amazingly, was in his 30s) yet constantly thinks about death. After the whimsically titled, often goofy Heady Fwends, the next Flaming Lips album will be full of "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."

The consistent thread is a keen sense that everything in life is precarious. When Coyne was 16, Long John Silver's was held up at gunpoint. "This was the first time I realised I was going to die and when that gets into your mind that's a motherfucker. It utterly changed me for a while there. I thought, 'I'm not going to sit here and wait for things to happen, I'm going to make them happen, and if people think I'm an idiot I don't care.'"

Setting out to fuse punk and psychedelia, the band formed in 1983 with Wayne's brother Mark as their first frontman. They had no real ambition beyond releasing one EP, nor any idea what to be ambitious for. "We didn't think we should be playing stadiums. We thought we shouldn't even be playing, we were so horrible." The Flaming Lips slowly grew in competence and stature, largely thanks to Drozd's arrival, but didn't truly realise their potential until 1997. Coyne's father was dying from cancer (which also claimed his mother a few years later) and the band's record label looked unlikely to renew their contract. "That gave us utter freedom," he says. "The execution den is where this is heading so why not do exactly what you want?" What they wanted was The Soft Bulletin – a cosmic pop extravaganza about life and death.

"What I do is sing about a way of being and, once the music exists, I feel like I could be this thing I'm singing about," says Coyne. "With The Soft Bulletin I was singing about being more caring, more open, more accepting." He pauses, which is rare. "After my father died I realised I didn't know if I wanted to keep knowing how brutal the world can be. The Soft Bulletin is a quest. It's saying 'I think life is more beautiful than it is horrible,' but I don't really believe that. I think the world is more horrible than it is beautiful." He pauses again, momentarily downcast, then rallies. "But we have to make it beautiful."

And this is what Coyne does all the time. He looks for opportunities to believe the world is better than, deep down, he suspects it is. Later, midway through the Dour show, Coyne points out a clump of muddy, addled Morlocks, around whom everyone else has understandably erected a cordon sanitaire. To Coyne, however, these benighted souls are beacons of inspiration. "For some people the mud would ruin the festival, but you motherfuckers don't give a shit." He flashes them an encouraging smile. "That's the way to live!"

The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends is out now on Bella Union


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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