Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne Talks Earth Day, Mars Day and "Exaggerated Optimism"

benjy ferree

On Sunday, Earth Day Network will host Earth Day On The National Mall. The "inventors" of Earth Day have planned a line-up of environmental speakers including elected officials, environmental activists and cause-oriented celebrities (Matthew Modine!). You'll be able to join The Green Generation Campaign in support of renewable energy, responsible sustainable consumption, and the creation of a green economy based on green jobs. You can get info from the more than 50 non-profits, government agencies and businesses that will participate with educational displays at the Eco Roadshow.

And then you can bliss out to the uplifting, psychedelic sounds of the Flaming Lips. For free, of course. Right in front of the Capitol. Los Lobos, moe., and DJ Spooky will also be on hand. Frontman Wayne Coyne called -- seriously, he called my cell phone -- and we chatted about Earth Day, Mars Day, his band's "exaggerated optimism," and that silly little tiff with some Canadian band.

So you're playing Earth Day on the National Mall on Sunday. Are you psyched for this? Is Earth Day a big thing for you guys?
Well, unfortunately, the idea that people only think about the Earth on Earth Day -- for me, I think these types of ideas just make sense and are cool anyway. Every day you hear more and more about [expletive] like wind power, I don't mean to say that it's [expletive], there's just so much talk about it. But you still see so many people driving around in Hummers and you're just like, My God. So the idea of Earth Day, as a concept, sure. But why just have it a day? To me it's kind of like Christmas. Why just have it a day when we're actually kind, decent human beings? Why don't we just make it an idea that we carry around all the time?

But being involved in something like that, yeah, it's cool. Our motivation is probably even more than that. The idea that we get to play right down the street from the Capitol is pretty exciting. It's exciting, I have to say, this year. If this was even a couple years ago, not that it would diminish the Earth Day part of it, but standing that close to George W. Bush, being down the street from W, isn't nearly as appealing as being down the road from Barack Obama. Don't get me wrong, we've played D.C. forever, at 9:30 club and all that. But the idea that we get to play in the recent glow of Obama being president, it sounds like fun.

Are you going to be able to do full stage set up for this show?
Probably not the full thing. We looked at the schematics, whatever you could call the logistical look of the staging. And being that the Capitol dome is situated directly behind us I think the organizers of the show want this image to sort of be part of the marketing that goes out with this. That you'll see groups standing -- not obviously directly in front of it but somewhere where it's in the background. So I think the idea of the Flaming Lips setting up a bunch of lights and video walls and strobe lights and obscuring that, I think they just asked us, Couldn't you just play in front of the dome, wouldn't that be great? So we were just like, Yeah, sure.

You're doing the Earth Day but I was thinking you should probably do Mars Day.
(Laughs.) Well at first that's what we suggested. We said, If we can't make it this time why don't they call us back when there's Mars Day? I always tell people when the International Space Station finally gets off to its big inaugural opening we joke that we should be the first band that plays on it. I say that whenever I'm talking to promoters who might know someone at NASA. But don't you really think that would be hell? Think about getting all that equipment up into space. And using those space toilets and all that.

I never liked carrying an amp up a flight of stairs so I can't really imagine taking one into orbit.
(Laughs.) NASA would say, Well, you can't take your amps, you'll have to play on some small styrofoam rendering of it, or something. But sometimes the idea of what you're doing overrides the reality so we often will buy into our own mythology and think, This will be great! Even though you know the reality of all these shows is you get there and you set up and you perform and that's always the deal. We always think it's bigger and more glamorous and that.

(Much more after the jump.)

You guys have a pretty diverse fan base. Indie people, hippies, rock fans, regular people...
Most of it's probably just because we've been around for so long. If you've been listening to music for a while, even though we may not be a mega-popular band, we're out there enough that you can be interested in what we do, and not necessarily because of one type of thing that we do. Because when you're around for almost 30 years you play all kinds of [expletive] crazy music, because ... well, because you can, I guess. (Laughs.) So I don't know, I really think that people who really love music don't want to just sit there and listen to one type of music. They're curious about all kinds of experiences. It's the same with eating at good restaurants. Anybody who really loves food doesn't just want to eat the same damn thing every day. People get into a rut and they do it, but the idea that you could, wouldn't you want the biggest experience available? The biggest range of things.

And the way that the crowd reacts when we play almost goes beyond the idea of the music. I think you could want to be in the Flaming Lips audience and really only know a couple of songs, but that experience of standing in the audience with that kind of exaggerated optimism and energy ... we say it and I don't know if it's scientifically true, but it does feel as though some form of love is being generated and exchanged between us and the audience. And not all rock shows are like that. I go to a lot of shows that I wish the audience was more like the Flaming Lips audience. Not that I wish the groups were more like the Flaming Lips, but for the audience to be more willing to give their energy and give their love. So I think a lot of it is that as well. To stand in the audience you really do walk away believing humanity is wonderful.

"Exaggerated optimism," is that a conscious thing?
Any time you're in a group that is not restricting themselves, whether that's for good reasons or bad reasons ... I suppose that's why riots happen. We really don't want a group of people walking down the street being influenced by hate. Because it will get out of control. But the other side of it is true but for the good. I say "exaggerated optimism" because when you're at a Flaming Lips show you almost can forget about all the struggles and the negativity and the hate that does exist in the world, because you're really with people who believe in a better experience, a better day. Or they're just willing to show that they believe in that.

I think a lot of times that's even the dilemma with people. They don't show you or say yes to anything. They just sit there and takes what comes. And I think a Flaming Lips audience really does push toward the good. And I think our music does that. But I think we're encouraged by the audience as well. And yeah, I think it's good. I think it's great.

I get letters. I don't get them every week. But I get enough letters from people who have seen us who are telling me a little story that accompanies their story about the Flaming Lips. You know, their husband has died recently, or their son had died recently, and standing in the audience at a Flaming Lips show really let them believe that life was still good and life was worth living. And I know all rock groups probably get that. And it's wonderful. But to think that us standing there doing this dumb form of entertainment, singing these dumb songs can have that effect on the audience, and the audience can in turn have an effect on an individual, I think that's a great thing.

Ever look back at your career and just say, Man, I can't believe it actually got to this point. You guys have experienced pretty much everything a band can experience.
In the beginning we formed as just as amateur a punk rock group as really could be. No one ever walked up to us and said, Man, you guys are so talented, you should really be in a rock group! We simply did it because we thought it was cool and was something that we'd enjoy. I think we thought, at the most, we would probably make a record like we did in 1984 and we'd go around and if we were lucky we'd be able to play some of the crazy places around America that we'd read about. Like CBGB's, or some place in Texas or Chicago or Minneapolis. And we'd have that experience and that would be the end of it. And maybe two years later just go back to our restaurant jobs and tell stories.

But it [expletive] never ended! We still to this day feel like, Oh, any minute now the world will catch on and figure out we're a hoax. But I run into a lot of groups who feel the same way, that they really feel lucky that they're able to what, to them, is art and in some ways it really is just dumb entertainment. But to me, the best thing that's happened to us, is that we've had enough success that we get to do what we want but we've not been so overwhelmed by success that we end up going down some path that is really a path that you have to be a dedicated performer and entertainer to enjoy. Something like the way U2 would go around and play 200 shows a year. We don't do that. We go out and play cool places and meet cool people. We don't want to play every night of the week. We want to spend time doing our dumb art. But the way we've been able to exist in the world has let us do that, almost more than any group I know.

I was talking to Pete Townshend; we played with the Who last summer. And you get these little moments where you're talking with guys and you think, If anyone in the world has had the freedom to pursue their art, it would be somebody like Pete Townshend. And he said, So you guys have made 12 records together? And we've probably made more than that because we do a lot of singles and EPs and do whatever we want. And he said, That's so amazing that you guys have just been able to make records like that. You think about it, someone like the Who, they haven't really made that many records. They have these big gaps where they don't really do too much.

And he really envied us. He's like, Wow, that's so amazing, to just be left to your own devices and be able to recreate yourselves. And frankly, I had never thought about it. But for someone like him to point it out like, Wow, you really have the life. And here I am telling him, You're Pete Townshend! You've had the [expletive] life! And he's telling me, No, Wayne, you've really had the life and you didn't know it. So in some ways I don't think we would have handled mega-success very well. We're kind of just retarded people from Oklahoma, you know what I mean? But luckily all this stuff has happened to us so slow, a little at a time, even meeting someone like Pete Townshend you just feel like, Damn, this is cool! Instead of being overwhelmed by it.

There are always celebrities at these cause benefits, you know? Chevy Chase is going to be there on Sunday, anything to say to him?
Yeah! I wish it was 1977 and it was Chevy Chase. I don't know what he'll be like in person. I don't know some of the "Fletch" routines as well as Steven [Drozd, drummer/guitarist] and Kliph [Scurlock, drummer -- thx commenter smolovinsky] do, but I'm sure if we do we'd all have some routine that we could remark up from "SNL" or one of his "Vacation" movies or something. And he's probably so sick of that [expletive] that he'd just say, "[Expletive] off!" And that would be great. (Laughs.) We take whatever experience we can get! I think the worst thing is just to avoid them. I'd rather have someone say "[Expletive] you" than to not say anything. He's got some classic stuff, I think it'll be great.

The Lips existed well before the Internet, and you've been around as it has become the main way people get information, especially about music. Do you like that, even if it can lead to some controversy when you maybe, I don't know, say something not so nice about another band?
Well, that whole thing with the Aracde Fire -- I just thought of it as a joke. I never took it serious. I may have said something casually to somebody but I never said anything in any kind of statement. I just look at those things as a joke. You read something and think, Why would someone care about that? But people do. People latch onto silly little things. To me it's not real. I may have said something casually, but I would have never said anything "for real." Like, Someone should know this about them and it should come from me!

But I think everybody gets that. Especially bad gossip. Bad gossip really [expletive] makes the news more than casual, good news gossip. And I don't care. People say [expletive] all the time. Good things or bad things or whatever. I just thought it was funny that people would take it for real. We didn't go online and speak too much about it but I told everyone I could, It's just a joke. It seems to go on forever. What are you gonna do?

But the benefits of the Internet are so awesome. Everything about the way the Internet works, it's changed everything we do. You have a fanbase that you can think of something and 10 minutes later everybody that you want to can be aware of this thing. And people can talk to each other and know when you're playing and know what happened 10 minutes after it happened. I think a lot of people get frightened with the way people can download music and all that. But I never really worried about it that much. I think that if people like your music they'll download it and they'll buy your records and buy your t-shirts and buy your concert tickets.

For some people it's probably made it easier to hear music as opposed to always having to buy it. For the small little inconveniences that happen once in a while, the benefits and the joys of the Internet will [expletive] crush that by comparison. And anyone who wants to speak about the Flaming Lips? I don't care. To me it's all funny. I think it's laughable that people will give any of that that much time and energy.

By David Malitz |  April 17, 2009; 4:15 PM ET Activism , Beef , Hippies , Interviews
Previous: Ratatat: Live Last Night | Next: Pat Green: Live Last Night


Please email us to report offensive comments.

"Cliff Skirlock" is actually spelled "Kliph Scurlock" and he is no longer a road crew member. He is the drummer.


Posted by: smolovinsky | April 17, 2009 4:56 PM

Where's the beef? Or are you referring to the little feud?

Posted by: Hemisphire | April 17, 2009 4:57 PM

You're welcome :P

Posted by: smolovinsky | April 17, 2009 5:32 PM

Does anyone know what time they're due to go on, or how long their set might be?

Posted by: daverambles | April 19, 2009 8:54 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company