To many, The Flaming Lips is known primarily as the band behind "She Don't Use Jelly," the weirdly compelling hit from 1993's Transmissions From The Satellite Heart. But that song is just one moment in a 16-year career that began with a series of primitive, esoteric recordings and continues with some of the most expansive, ambitious, and technically brilliant records of the '90s. Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) and Zaireeka (1997), the latter an album that required the listener to play its four CDs simultaneously, are both exceptional, while singer-guitarist Wayne Coyne has drawn admiration and befuddlement for his Parking Lot Experiment, which entails synchronizing dozens of car stereos to work as an orchestra. Such endeavors, coupled with Coyne's often bizarre lyricsthey're at once obtuse and literalhave led some fans to fear for his sanity. But the Oklahomans' new album, The Soft Bulletin, is a work of such deliberate, exacting genius that few should worry: Filled with songs about bugs and scientists and Superman, it's a painstakingly recorded, sprawling, sonically precise masterwork. Coyne recently spoke to The Onion about his sanity, the price of a perfect record, and his band's celebrated cameo on Beverly Hills, 90210.
The Onion: Is it an advantage or a disadvantage that people think you're nuts?
Wayne Coyne: Um, it's both. It is both, and I know it to be true, because it leaves you some freedom to not worry that people will think you're nuts. You just assume that they already do, [because people don't] come up to you and say, "Well, gee, I'm surprised that you're so crazy." But at the same time, it isn't true, and it can be a little bit of a hindrance to have people always think that your imagination and your ideas stem from madness, as opposed to something that's founded in more of an analytical or scientific sense. So I try to use both to the most advantage I can. I think it's probably a good thing to be considered stable, but with a capacity for madness. Mostly, it scares people; they think, "He might kill you if the mood strikes him." Maybe that's a good thing.
O: The band is from Oklahoma City, you don't really adhere to an easily defined genre, and you're always doing stuff that no one else is doing. Have you ever fit in?
WC: Do you mean as a person, or a personality, or...
O: I was thinking more as a band.
WC: Well, I think we've always fit in in certain segments, but at the same time, we've always left it loose enough where we weren't exclusively part of any movement. In the liner notes of a compilation we put out about a year ago [A Collection Of Songs Representing An Enthusiasm For Recording... By Amateurs], I talk about the fact that, when we started, we thought we weren't like anything else that was going on. But just by doing what we wanted and figuring that times would change, by coincidence we've always resembled something that was being accepted. That's kind of been the most beneficial aspect of being the way we are: It never seems in touch, but it never seems out of touch, either. We loved playing hardcore shows in the early '80s, because everybody at these shows was anti-Reagan, almost Nazi-lookingskinheads, and so on. There was all this political energy, both negative and positive, and we kind of enjoyed watching it. But we were never really part of it. They were all anti-drugs and had their fashion statements, and we had long hair and sort of liked drug music. And we said, "Well, we certainly aren't made for that movement," but the movement changed with bands like the Meat Puppets and Black Flagbands that had long hair and were sort of embracing more druggy elements of music. And so, just by sheer accident, people associated us with stuff like the Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets, which was stuff we loved anyway. So I think things change. You can never really say. We might not fit in today, but we might fit in by the end of the week. You never know.
O: The last few records you've done seem really well-funded, as if Warner Brothers took its "She Don't Use Jelly" money and gave it back to you to spend on the most elaborate possible projects. Is that true?
WC: Well, I mean, we do have big budgets, which is one of the nice things about being on Warner Brothers. Their sole intention, really, is to make money. I've never really had any problem with that. They want to sell records so they can make money. They'd prefer to put out good records, but they don't exclusively do that. They'll put out bad records if they feel they can make money off them, and as well they should, because that's what smart business people do: They capitalize on what they have. And I think in our case, part of what you say is true, but we know what our budgets are going to be a couple years in advance, so it wasn't a direct effect of "She Don't Use Jelly." Certainly, "Jelly" allowed us more confidence and more longevity because of the amount of money it made and the amount of notoriety it brought us. But, that having been said, I think a lot of people can spend a lot of money on records without there being any evidence of that in the record itself. We do take a certain amount of pride... And I don't know why it's viewed as being something people should be proud of, to actually make records that sound good. I think it's really kind of a sign of the times when people are surprised by the idea that a record that cost so much could actually be good. Because so often, the opposite is true, where a record can cost a million dollars and be utterly unlistenable. I don't think it's any achievement to do what we do; it just seems so rare these days that people take notice of it. I wish a hundred bands took the money that these major labels gave them, as opposed to spending it on drugs or mansions or whatever, and actually spent it making the records... And we do! We spend a lot of money making records, and I hope you can hear every bit of it when you put it on your turntable. I'm glad that people are taking notice of it, but I don't know why they stand for anything else.
O: Your early works are pretty primitive, and listening to these last few records, each is more technically overwhelming than the one that came before it. Did you learn how to produce and assemble these records as you went along, or were you taught?
WC: Well, sure, like anything you do, if you're lucky, you arrive at new ways to insert your ideas and master your craft. You know, getting money to make records isn't an accident. We've had to try hard to make sure we have a lot of money to make records. That's part of what we do, as well. I think that, little by little, we've managed to reach further and further. So the more we learn about how studios work, the more we've learned about music, the more technology comes along and helps us out, I'm hoping the bigger our expressions can be. But I don't think that any of that should exclude being primitive. Sometimes primitive is what you're trying to express. If you line our music and our records up in a linear way, it looks as though we have a bigger capacity for better musical arrangements, sound arrangements, and technical arrangements. But I hope that one doesn't make us forget about the other, because when you're planted in all that technical stuff, you still need to be able to master what the human mind is made of, and a lot of times that is just the basic, fundamental stuff.
O: Everyone assumes your records are these big acid freak-outs, where drugs are a huge inspiration. Do you find that a little bit insulting?
WC: Well, I don't have a contempt for that sort of thing. I think a lot of people don't actually think that but feel the urge to ask it anyway, kind of in the way you did. [Laughs.] You're curious at the same time. And I can see where we get compared to people who have sort of drug-damaged histories: Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, people like that. But, no, I don't do drugs in that kind of way. We've really never done drugs and made records at the same time, so I don't think any of it could be attributed to the drug experience, per se. We've definitely listened to a lot of music that has been made with the ideals of what drugs are about, but not in the sense that we did these drugs and we made this music, and you can see that [connection] clearly. I think that's all kind of a myth, and more a curiosity than a reality.
O: You guys seem like happy people. Are you?
WC: I think I am. I'm not necessarily happy, but I think there's definitely an overriding optimism. I certainly think that when it comes to art, when you write songs and present your ideas, you end up standing up and saying, "Well, here's what I'll say given my chance." And I think that somewhere along the way, that responsibility or that obligation to say what's on your mind... I guess that, looking back on my stuff, it's more optimistic than ironic or sarcastic or negative. But it's not by design: I've never sat down and thought, "I represent this optimism within this genre of music." When I look back, I use our cover of "What A Wonderful World" as a resounding example of that. We recorded it back in 1989, and when we did it, I really thought we were being ironic and sarcastic, and sort of mean. I thought people would listen to our version of "What A Wonderful World" and know that in our hearts, we were saying, "Oh, what a miserable world we live in." And to this day, no one has ever thought that from that song, and when I hear it myself now, I don't even know how anybody could have ever thought that. It makes me realize how much that does shine through in my music. And I think that's good, although it's not by design. Sometimes, the things you do are different from the things you intend.
O: Why didn't you do a single-disc version of Zaireeka?
WC: Well, it was never intended to be played as one single disc. I mean, a lot of the technical factors with the way we put it together just simply wouldn't sound... You couldn't fit that much sound on one CD, which is one of the reasons we did it that way. Some of those CDs contain as much sound per digital unit, or whatever you want to call it, as you can hold. There's as much high end and low end, and as dense a sound, as you can put on it. It wasn't a matter of choice, really. That's the way it was designed: to do the maximum that we could do with each CD. So if we were going to do it as a single CD, it would be a compromise of sound and sound quality, and actually probably the way that some of it is actually played.
O: Did you ever actually get the Parking Lot Experiment to go off without a hitch?
WC: Well, no, but the hitch is actually part of the experiment. A lot of times, people will say that they're doing an experiment when really they're just doing things because they sound weird, and there's not really a question or a result that they're looking for. When I say that we're doing an experiment, we truly are, and we're trying out some things to see where we're able to go within the framework of the idea that we're presenting. Part of the way we were doing it was that some of it would not work. Some of it would surprise us in the way that it worked. We wanted to do them, and we had to do them to see what would happenboth to hear what the sounds would do and to see how the audience would react to them. And the hitch is that you take what worked last time and make it better, and there's some new stuff, and you hope it works, and if it doesn't you'll have trouble. Even as recently as last month, we did a Parking Lot Experiment at a festival in Denmark; we were in the middle of a field at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon with 20 cars out there. I think people are interested in new ideas. I do. I think that when we show up at these things, people are interested in it.
O: How did that Beverly Hills, 90210 thing come about?
WC: Well, I'm not positive. I think we were probably one of 10 bands on the list, where they said, you know, "We want one of these new alternative bands that have a hit right now." And that could be 10 bands at any given time. I think that just by us being one of those 10 bands that had a hit going, with none of the other ones being available, we got picked. I don't think anyone explicitly stood up and said, "We must have The Flaming Lips!" I think it was more just a matter of convenience and luck, and us saying, "Hell, yeah, we'll do it!" I think people expected that we would be so guarded and above it all that we would smirk and say, "We'll never do bullshit like that." But as soon as you get the opportunity, you jump right for it.
O: Did Ian Ziering really think you guys "rocked the house"?
WC: Um, no, not at all. They said all that stuff long before we played. It was at the end of a long week of shooting for them; we got there on a Friday, and it appeared to me that they usually wrapped it up around 7 o'clock. And at about quarter to seven, they started shooting our segment. You could just see the yawns and complaints and, "When the fuck are we going home?" We knew, then, what real TV is all about.