Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne
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Wayne Coyne has one of the more active imaginations among his fellow rock stars. From scrounging junkyards to staging experimental DIY concerts in parking lots, the Flaming Lips frontman is always looking for new ways to expand his consciousness through art. After completing last year’s psychedelic noise exploration Embryonic, Coyne decided to put his mark on one of his favorite Pink Floyd albums with the help of his bandmates, his nephew Dennis’ band Stardeath And White Dwarfs, and a couple of special guests. Their version of Dark Side Of The Moon was first performed near his hometown of Oklahoma City, and the official tour recently kicked off in Houston and carried on to Bonnaroo. Coyne recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the challenges of the project, the creative process, and what new developments to expect in his ever-expanding live shows this summer.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to Dark Side Of The Moon?
Wayne Coyne: I guess with any band that’s been around as long as we have, somewhere along the way you listen to Dark Side Of The Moon and you go, “Well, what are they doing there?” We’ve analyzed it a million times, along with a lot of other records as well. I’m sure it’s because we like it, but when I was approached by the producers at iTunes to come up with some exclusive tracks to go along with Embryonic, which was released last October, I told them I didn’t really have any. We didn’t have lots of tracks just lying around. We made this sort of sprawling double record, and we didn’t really have a bunch of extra stuff. Kind of in a panic, I suggested, “Why don’t we just do a cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon?” They wanted my nephew’s group to do the tracks with us.
We had a couple of days in the studio here, just south of Oklahoma City, where we live, and it just all kind of worked out where we could get Henry [Rollins] and Peaches. A lot of things just fell together. Some of the initial re-workings of the songs that we did weren’t too embarrassing, so we thought, “Let’s just move along and see what happens.” Luckily, I think, because you have to do these things so fast sometimes, it’s just better and more spontaneous. You hope that shows up in the recording.
AVC: What was the most challenging part of recording the album?
WC: I would say it’s that track “Money.” For whatever reason, it’s the most popular track on the record. Everyone knows that song, but for me, it’s my least favorite. We knew everyone would be like, “Well, what’d they do with that dumb song?” Once we got our silly hip-hop version of that going, we thought, “That’s a good take on that.” You simply don’t know what to do with some of these songs. They’re so etched in your mind as kind of being these big guitar solos, so that was the biggest challenge. But in some ways, it ended up being the easiest because we just did this silly version, and we’re quite happy with it.
AVC: And that song is known for having a really interesting time signature, right?
WC: Yeah, exactly. A lot of people don’t even notice until you say that it’s got a weird time signature, because you just kind of go along and don’t think about it. Our version has that as well, but it’s so fucking weird that you don’t really think about where the time is on it. The way Steven [Drozd] programmed the sloppy hip-hop drums on it, it’s hard to tell exactly where the beat is anyway. It’s not hard to tell on the Pink Floyd song, but it’s definitely hard to tell on our version of it.
AVC: There’s a lot of energy in your take on the album. Did you set out to record it at a faster tempo?
WC: I don’t know. Do you mean “Money,” or just in general?
AVC: In general, it seems the album has a much faster pace than the original.
WC: We purposely played it as kind of a punk-rock group would have played it. There was definitely a mentality of “Let’s not just do another space-rock thing here.” I don’t know if it’s necessarily faster, but there’s definitely some aggression that we put into it. We didn’t know if it would even work, really, but you just sort of say “Let’s try this or that.” Some of it seemed to work great. I mean, the songs seem to be so resilient and well-arranged. It does seem to give you a lot of room to fuck around with it. We weren’t really that worried about it. Some of it, you just say, “Well, this is the song, and this is what we’re doing.” You really only have a couple hours to work out your arrangement and your recording stuff anyway. Luckily, a lot of times, that works in groups to their benefit. You capture a little of the energy and the feel and don’t worry about all the little nuances, which I think to me was in direct contrast to the way Pink Floyd made Dark Side Of The Moon. Some of their records are more, you know, clumsy, but Dark Side Of The Moon isn’t. It’s well-crafted, and there’s lots of little nuances of sound and everything. I think our approach was saying, “Well, they did that. Let’s do something different.” We kind of just threw ourselves into it, hoping it didn’t suck too bad.
AVC: What kind of time frame did you have for recording it?
WC: Luckily, Steven has a really good Pro Tools setup at his house, so we could do some of the production there, and my nephew, Dennis, he has a Pro Tools setup at his house. So we could do some production just really at our houses on the days previous to going into the studio, where we really only had two or three days. Luckily, this studio is two studios in one, so we had two different engineers working the whole time. We could be in one studio doing “Us And Them” while my nephew’s group was in the other doing “Brain Damage.” Everyone’s kind of feeding off each other’s anxiety and energy, going, “Well, what are you guys doing over there?” You poke your head in and say “That’s cool,” and suddenly you’ve got another idea or another take on something. That’s great, to have just the atmosphere charged with possibilities. A lot of times, it can be just the opposite. It can be really stale and boring, and you think, “What the fuck are we doing this for?”
AVC: So the way the studios were set up informed how you interpreted the music and the collaborative process?
WC: Well, I mean, I’d like to say that only to the people who think it turned out good. Some people may think it turned out like shit. “So why’d you do that?” I don’t know. I mean, because you have to work so fast, you simply go with your very first feeling and say, “Oh, that’s great. Let’s do that.” And before you know it, you’re doing that thing. It doesn’t always work out, but for the most part, that’s a good way to work. You just get in there. You don’t know what it’s going to turn out like, but it doesn’t sound like anything until you finish it. It’s kind of like making soup. You can taste it in the beginning, but it doesn’t give you any idea how it’s going to taste after you’ve spent hours cooking it. Some of that is just sheer experience of making 13 or 14 records, like we have. You simply go, “Let’s just start to do it, because if we don’t, it doesn’t matter what it is, because there’s nothing here.” You start to get nervous, and you panic and go, “Fuck, I hope we don’t suck.”
AVC: How did Henry Rollins get involved in the project?
WC: Well, you know, the Pink Floyd record has these voices throughout the record, and people who know that record will be aware of how much the voices play into the atmosphere, the way you interpret these songs, or what they evoke when you hear them. For me, I always thought we had to have those voices in there, and I didn’t want it to be someone in the group. I could have easily done it, but I didn’t think it would have the same impact as with someone that has such a powerful or memorable voice, or just a different type of voice than just hearing us do it all the time.
I think Henry was the only one I thought of, and we e-mailed him and he said yes, and we were off and running. I thought of him because I thought “I know Henry. I don’t know him well, but I’ve known of him and have seen him.” He would be aware of who The Flaming Lips were since the early ’80s. I saw Black Flag play here in Oklahoma City probably four times. Honestly, he’s one of my great heroes. I think he’s cool and smart, and when we approached him, he was already in a studio in Los Angeles doing some stuff. He sent one of his assistants out to get Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, because he’d never heard it.
WC: In a way, I knew that about him. I thought, “You know, I bet Henry is not a Pink Floyd fan, or if he is a fan, he’s probably a fan of the early stuff.” I was right. He said, “I’ve never heard this, but you know, you guys want me to do this, and I think you’re cool, so I’m going to do it.” And for me, that made it all the better. You know, we weren’t trying to do some important homage to Pink Floyd. They don’t need it. We were simply saying, “Fuck, let’s just do our version of this thing, and have as much freedom and fun and whatever as we want.” To me, that was part of the spirit of it. Just get somebody who is so not like Pink Floyd to do it. Truth be known, The Flaming Lips and even my nephew’s group, we love Pink Floyd, and we grew up on Pink Floyd. There are elements of Pink Floyd in what we are about anyway, but that certainly wouldn’t be true of Henry Rollins.
AVC: Have you ever had the chance to see Pink Floyd live?
WC: You know, I haven’t. Of all the groups… I’ve probably seen all the classic groups except for The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
AVC: Who are some of your all-time favorite live acts?
WC: I’ve seen so many. Even seeing Black Flag in the early ’80s—probably 1983—was very inspiring. Up until punk rock became something you could actually go out and see here in Oklahoma, you really just had to rely on these big arena-rock things, which weren’t bad. I saw groups like Ted Nugent, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and all kinds of stuff that was very inspiring, but nothing is as inspiring as seeing real people up close, and so to me, even seeing Black Flag back in the day would have been one. I see groups all the time now that simply blow me away. As much as people would say Radiohead, it’s true. They’re amazing. When you see them, you really do walk away with a firmer belief in ideas and music and how powerful performances can be.
AVC: You’re known for having elaborate stage shows. Are there any new elements you’ll be introducing into the act for the Dark Side Of The Moon tour?
WC: We keep trying to carry around this big rainbow laser and things like that, but sometimes when you’re outside, you can’t always tell what the circumstances are going to be. We’ve also added a couple of musicians to the group. When we play the Dark Side Of The Moon stuff, of course, it’s my nephew’s group and us together, so I think there’s a total of nine people up there. It’s a pretty big ensemble. We have a big, elaborate video show that goes along with everything we do, and of course, for the Flaming Lips shows, I use space bubbles and those sorts of things.
When we did the show here in Oklahoma City, during the segment for “Time”— it didn’t work really well, but I had everyone get out their cell phones and set an alarm. At the very beginning of the show, I said, “set your alarm for 38 minutes after midnight.” We would start the show, and then at certain time, all these alarms were going to go off. That’s kind of indicative of the Pink Floyd mentality, where they have alarms and sound effects going off. It did work, but compared to hearing a very loud concert in an arena, your iPhones are not very loud. [Laughs.]
I’m going to try something at Bonnaroo where we remind people to try to legalize marijuana. There’s a breathing in and breathing out that happens on this track, where it sounds like someone’s running and smoking pot at the same time, so I think I’ll have a minute to say, “What time is it?” And people will say, “Well, Wayne, It’s 3 a.m.” And I’ll say, “No, it’s time that we all band together with as much intelligence and sincerity as we can, and let’s see if we can legalize marijuana before the year’s out.” It just seems ridiculous. I mean, when I was 16, we would talk about how any day now marijuana would be legal. Here it is 30 years later, and it’s still in this stupid, ambiguous, and criminal state. Any chance I get, I talk about things like that.
AVC: Are you hopeful about California?
WC: I don’t know. I think this idea that it’s a real product that people will buy and pay taxes on it—that’s the last hurdle. There are so many people out there that don’t want to pay taxes and don’t think this is a way of contributing to your city or your state or your government. I think they’re wrong. We should be glad that we get to be represented, and I feel honored to be able to make as much money as I do, but I’m glad to pay taxes. There are elements of it that I think we just have to change a little, the mentality of how people think about it. Marijuana is a cool drug, but at the moment, it’s put in this category with all this evil shit. We should change that.
AVC: Have you thought about doing a political album?
WC: I don’t think I would do one, per se. Obviously with our “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” a couple of years ago, I think everyone knows that was pointed at making fun of George Bush. I don’t know if we like that or if we just sort of got caught up in it. In some ways, I just don’t think music—primitive, subconscious, freaky music—comes from being too aware of what’s going on outside of your mind. That being said, there are some great songs out there, like “Revolution” by The Beatles and “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I’m not saying that those aren’t great songs. There are a lot of songs that are inspired by frustration with anybody’s system. I have to say, I don’t really want to know what my songs are going to be about. Hopefully, I just start to sing them, and whatever’s in the crevices of my reptilian brain will be what the songs are about. I would be the last to know.
AVC: When you write a song, do you start with an idea, lyric, chord progression? How do you work?
WC: There’s no real method, really. Hopefully, you just hear something, and you think, “Oh, that’s cool. Let’s turn that into a song.” Or you’re just jamming, and you intuitively play something, and it turns into something you’d like to listen to. The only thing you can really do is listen. Writing songs is fun. It’s a great exercise, but a lot of times, it’s done while your brain is engaged. A lot of powerful art and music is done while you’re doing something else. For me, what usually happens is, I think I’m writing the greatest song ever, and I’m working very hard on that. While I’m working on that, something else happens out of the corner of my mind that’s really interesting. I think I’m working on something else, but I’m really doing that.
There’s a Miles Davis song that says “Thinking of one thing and doing another,” and that really does apply. You have to be working. You can’t just be sitting around doing nothing, but a lot of times, the thing you’re focused on is not always the thing that ends up being interesting. I just say that songwriting is a motherfucker because there are so many tricks and nuances to your personality that you’ll just do them over and over again without being aware of them. You want to be creating things that are new, exciting, and strange. That’s hard to do with the front of your mind. It’s like trying to decide what’s your favorite restaurant. You don’t know until you’ve eaten there 10 times. You want to be surprised by your own imagination, which is difficult.
AVC: Have you thought about covering any of Miles Davis’ albums?
WC: Well, a lot of the work of his that I like the best, I don’t think is the kind of music that anybody else could play. He has such a kind of personal power and inertia. Those jams that they do, I don’t even think they could play them again in the same way. They just capture these moments, so anytime I listen to music like that, I think I should do music that has the same power as that. I never think, “Oh, I should do that music.” I just think I should do something that moves me in that same way. That’s difficult. It’s hard to be surprised when you’re aware of what you’re doing. I don’t know what they’re playing to begin with. A lot of those musicians are just playing some fucking freaky shit. I’m not sure they could repeat it.
AVC: Are there plans for a Flaming Lips jazz fusion album?
WC: I don’t think we would know that we were doing jazz fusion, but even on our last record, there was a lot of stuff that our earlier selves would have thought, “This has a lot of jazzisms about it.” I don’t even know if jazz would be the right word. There’s a lot of coloring that you can do with sound and chord changes. You have to have some knowledge of how music and notes work, which is really what jazz is. It’s just musicians who have a freedom about what they play, because they have such vast skill and knowledge. I don’t have that, but certainly between the other guys in the group, we have that capability. I wouldn’t call it jazz, but I’d definitely call it some coloring of music that you don’t hear too often.
AVC: Speaking of new directions, how’s the Yoshimi musical going?
WC: We talk about the Yoshimi musical a lot, since there’s been a lot of these rock operas on Broadway. I’m sort of stuck in this quagmire where I know nothing will happen on it until I dedicate two or three years of my life to make it happen. I don’t really want anyone else to write it and plan it. Unless it’s me doing it, I’m kind of stuck. I keep thinking I’m going to take two years off to do it, and then suddenly I think, “No, we want to go make records and play the world and make movies.”
AVC: What’s Aaron Sorkin’s involvement in the project?
WC: I had a meeting with him, and he was a very cool guy. Very opinionated, and had a powerful presence in the room, but I’m not sure he liked my ideas. He wanted it to be kind of like a 9/11 story, and I said, “You know, I just really hate George Bush, and I don’t want my robots and Yoshimi to have to be up there talking about him.” In a sense, I think he was very brave to say it. It’s hard to be opinionated in front of people you don’t know. I don’t know if that was an experiment that we thought succeeded, or failed, or if it’s an experiment that is perhaps still going on.