Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips Talks ‘Yoshimi’ Musical, Career Longevity and the Power of Optimism
Wayne Coyne is humming the lyrics to Destiny’s Child‘s ‘Survivor.’ After doing hot yoga outside a South Carolina venue, he’s drenched in ethereal sweat from what we assume was a rousing session of crane poses. “It’s freezing on this bus because the air conditioner’s on maximum,” he tells Diffuser.fm, chatting by phone while trying to turn down the blasting cold air. “But I’m gonna survive.”
Indeed, the Flaming Lips frontman has endured 30 years of music making and today stands as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enigmatic frontmen. At the ripe age of 52, Coyne seems mellower and more grounded than ever. The political Wayne of old has faded away, while the overall weirdness of the man continues to make him appealing to a younger generation.
As he and his fellow Lips tour behind their recently released 13th album ‘The Terror,’ Coyne took Diffuser.fm on a scenic drive through the Oklahoma group’s history. He also touched on the future of the musical based on the band’s 2002 masterwork ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,’ and explained how positivity can change your life.
Can you tell us what’s going on with the ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ musical?
Well, I haven’t thought about it in a while. It was at the end of last November. They do this workshop opening thing out in the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. This is where it finally gets its actors and its music, and its production gets seen in front of an audience. I think that went on for almost a month. We were there for the very first showing of it, and of course we were there for a lot of the rehearsals as well, with Des McAnuff, the director. He’d tell the audience before it starts, “This might not go up all that smoothly, and if it gets real bad, I’ll come up and stop it, and we’ll begin the scene again.”
So that happened a couple of times, and that was wonderful, you know, to see things in the works, and yet you’re still in front of an audience. It reminded me a lot of the way the Flaming Lips were with the “We think this is going to be good, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen.” And then we saw the very last night of it, and by then it had momentum. Somewhere in the vicinity of that playhouse is a cancer center. And the play, the ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ musical, really does center around the Yoshimi character battling lymphoma. We were sitting next to some people who were at the cancer center themselves, so it was a pretty f—ing emotional and powerful experience. At some points they’re literally crying right there next to you, and after it’s finished they hold you, and they hug you and say, “Thank you so much for creating this.”
What kind of input have you given to the production team?
You know, I’m really just a guy — it’s just my songs. I’m not really responsible for all the lighting and the characters and all that sort of stuff. So that was pretty great. And I think, where it is now, you have to remember I’m not the producer — I’m just a guy who’s letting them use this music. I’ve given it some of my input, but a lot of the reason that people are going to like it is mostly because Des, the director, is a genius. He’s determined, you know? So I think where it stands now is that they’re trying to decide what depth of production they want to do and where they want to premiere it at. I think he wants to do it in Asia, or in England, and then Broadway would be the last market that it would probably get to.
Coming from a rock background, do you like Broadway productions?
I didn’t think I did until I saw some of Des’s things. If I’m in New York I never think, “We’re not doing anything tonight. Let’s go see a show.” I would go see one of Des’s shows. But I don’t know if I would go see ‘The Lion King.’ I mean, I probably would like it when I’m there, and I’m tempted to see that thing in Vegas — you know, the Beatles’ ‘Love’ or whatever — one of those giant productions in Vegas. Those things look amazing. I probably will say that I love them but I haven’t thought to go to that many.
At 52 years old, how do you stay so positive?
[Laughs] It’s probably just within my personality. My mother, she’s been dead for quite a while, but when I think about her now, she always was encouraging and laughing and always saying, “Things will be alright.” I remember that, not thinking when I was young that that’s an optimistic person; it’s just the way you grow up. But now that I’m older, and I’m around people who aren’t optimistic, I try to get away from them. Because now I’m so much more aware of how that affects people. And it’s also probably just dumb luck. I’m lucky I get to do all this stuff that I love to do, which probably helps me feel better about the world and myself. I don’t have anything overtly wrong with me. And I can understand if people have too much pain in their lives, it can be very hard to overcome that, with just your state of mind.
‘The Terror’ is the Flaming Lips’ 13th album. Looking back at the last 30 years, what can you share that would give light to a sustainable career in rock music?
Well, for me, I don’t see it being that much different. Previous to being signed to Warner Bros, we almost — and by we, I mean all the people that we knew in bands and musicians around us in Oklahoma City — we all were making music that we believed in, and loved. And we really did resign ourselves to working in restaurants. That was the culture that we thought we would be in for the rest of our lives. We really thought that we would have these day jobs and we would make this weirdo music, and that would be the way that it is. And we would try to have as much of an audience as possible. But we always thought, “This isn’t popular music.” We were just doing our own weird music that we liked. There was no reason that we should be popular. And we really did resign ourselves to that way of living. Luckily, we were young enough, and didn’t have too much wrong with that. And then when Warner Bros. came along, part of us said that we wouldn’t be changed by that. We’re still gonna be our weirdo selves, and a lot of us still worked in restaurants for a couple of years even after we got signed. But I think, when our very first hit — I mean, we haven’t really had hits, but things that get played on MTV and VH1 and radio back in the day — when that happened, we had lived that way for so long where we just accepted that we’d work at a restaurant. And then we kind of welcomed that we could now do something else. I think we collectively decided that we would take it a little more serious, and we’d make records that cost a lot of money — and they were willing to give us a lot of money. We thought, maybe if we spent a lot of time making records, maybe they would be different. But it was only because we had lived that other way for quite a while. When this new thing happened to us, we didn’t really have any control over whether MTV played our music, and if they did, we were in a state of mind that was like, “F— it, let’s see where this takes us.”
Did you ever think you’d go back to that old way of living, maybe even take up a few more shifts at the Long John Silver’s you worked at?
Every part of us probably thought we would end up working at restaurants anyway — that we would get played on the radio for a little bit and go back to it. It wasn’t in any sense a defeatist attitude, we were just being realistic. Now that’s never happened. We haven’t gone back to that. Now we’re viewed in the music industry as an anomaly: “Well they do it their way, and I don’t know if it’ll work for anyone else.” I still think that part of that’s true. We really are operating on our own trip; it’s kind of like a family circus. But I think in that way, that’s the only way it could work for us and probably the same way it could work for a lot of groups if they were in our situation. For artists, especially people who really want to do their thing and be expressive, these are the greatest times ever. You can make a record in your bedroom that can be played on the radio. Everything is available to you right now. Now I don’t know what bands do about having this guidance from an A&R person and record labels, and stuff like that. You just have to remember that everything is always changing. What’s great now probably won’t be great in five years. But the opposite could also be true. You really have to be doing what you love and not worry about those things. I’d make music even if no one cared.
Flaming Lips shows used to feature quite a bit of politics. What do you think of the current NSA scandal?
I regret being so caught up in even painting George Bush [so negatively]. I don’t have that much of an opinion in that sort of stuff now. Honestly, I really don’t know [about the NSA scandal]. I’m political in my own community, which I suggest everyone should do. I have a lot more influence in my little neighborhood. I’m lucky if I can get storm drains cleaned off before the next storm. I understand [local officials'] plight, the bureaucracy and what they’re up against. We care so much about some abstract concept — something we don’t really know the ins and outs of. People are dumbs—s.