29 Jun 2003: He calls Richard Ashcroft a ‘pompous fool’, finds Beck prissy and Radiohead dour. But Wayne Coyne, frontman of The Flaming Lips, knows a good tune when he hears one. Just ask him about Cat Stevens.
Hyde park, one glorious June morning. Through the heat haze, a man in a crumpled linen suit strolls through the grass. Neat, curly hair with grey streaks, a trimmed beard, tan slip-on shoes with bloodstains on them. By his side, a tall, skinny, blonde woman in short skirt, wedge heels and huge pink sunglasses. Wayne and Michelle Coyne arrive at the Serpentine Gallery, offer firm handshakes and relaxed smiles. She wanders off to the exhibition. He sits down in the outdoor café and orders a ‘sloppy, milky coffee’. By rights, he should be jetlagged after a nine-hour flight from Oklahoma City. Instead, he is excitable and chatty.
But then, Wayne Coyne has every reason to be happy: life is good for him right now. He grew up in a poor part of Oklahoma City with four brothers into drugs, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. Abandoning all drugs in 1979, he embraced punk and new wave. In 1983, he and one of his brothers formed The Flaming Lips.
The band spent years playing to small audiences, earning no money, wondering if it was worth carrying on. By their own admission, what they lacked in musicianship they made up for in eccentricity; one album, Zaireeka, only made complete sense if its four discs were all played simultaneously. Everything changed in 1999 with the release of their ninth album, The Soft Bulletin, which elevated them from psychedelic art-school oddballs to one of the most celebrated bands of the end of the century.
Their live shows were also becoming famous: they’d used smoke machines and lasers from the outset, but as they evolved musically so the performances became more extravagant. Coyne used hand puppets, covered himself in fake blood, let himself go in a way that suggested ‘cool’ wasn’t a word that figured in his mind. By the time album number 10, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, came out last year, the gigs involved two dozen people in animal costumes bobbing around at the side of the stage; giant balloons, confetti, huge glitterballs and, on occasion, more fake blood.
Yet The Flaming Lips are so much more than a panto band; the songs are magical mystery tours into Wayne Coyne’s mind and the music a fragile, beautiful and melancholic soundscape.
Coyne wobbles on his bright yellow café stool and smiles. ‘Right from the start we took Pink Floyd’s approach that someone’s gotta be doing freaky stuff on stage. We really are trying to present a fantastic show for the audience but at the same time I’m hoping the songs sound sincere. I want people to be ecstatic but to cry at the same time. Yeah, I have a thing about glove puppets and pouring fake blood on my head, but I’m not pretending. I do it because I like it.’ He giggles. ‘I embrace the idea that I’m an entertainer.’
Five or six years ago, Coyne had an epiphany. Hurtling towards 40, he was beginning to think about the bigger picture. He looked at younger bands who were pretending they had no interest in success, fame or money (‘Really, you don’t want to be a rock star?’) and made a decision. ‘When it comes to music, the most powerful thing is to be honest. I realised that I had nothing to lose by telling the truth. I stopped caring so much about what people might think if I sung about love and humanity. I thought, fuck it – I think those are my strongest songs, too. And it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.’
Coyne has always loved the poignancy of sad songs. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, named after Yoshimi P-we, drummer with Japanese band The Boredoms, has a futuristic, mythical quality. The title song has memorable cartoonish lyrics: ‘Her name is Yoshimi/ She’s a black belt in karate working for the city/ She has to discipline her body/ ‘Cause she knows that it’s demanding to defeat all those evil machines.’
Yet the album is tinged with sadness, too. Before the band went into the studio, a Japanese fan who had travelled the world to see them died of a mysterious heart disease in her late twenties. ‘Do You Realise??’, a response to the girl’s unexpected death, is a deceptively simple song about life and death: ‘Do you realise/ That you have the most beautiful face/ Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die.’
Coyne lost his father in January 1997, his oldest brother is a crack addict and band member Steven Drozd was a heroin addict until two years ago, so he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility and inevitability of death. ‘I confront my feel ings in songs. OK, we sing “Happy Birthday” every show as it’s always someone’s birthday and it’s a song everyone knows. But I also have to deal with death. You can’t skirt round it. It’s a struggle and you really don’t know if you are going to come out the other side. I try to make the songs universal so people can connect with them on different levels. Rarely a show goes by without a fan telling me how important “Do You Realise??” was to them at a time of crisis.’
He pauses, swirls the coffee round in his cup. ‘Music is amazing. There’s some metaphysical comfort where it allows you to be isolated and alone while telling you that you are not alone… truly, the only cure for sadness is to share it with someone else.’
He smiles. ‘Which is why music, movies, books are so important. With out art, without communicating, we wouldn’t live beyond 30 because we’d be so sad and depressed.’
Wayne Coyne is used to being around celebrities drawn to his apparent strangeness (although he always protests that while the music might be weird, the band lead normal lives). Some of the people he meets ask to dress in those furry animal costumes and dance alongside the band. On a recent Top of the Pops performance of ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’, the band were joined onstage by Justin Timberlake who played guitar in a dolphin suit, taking his head off to reveal himself at the song’s climax. Actors Juliette Lewis and Elijah Wood have both chosen a favourite animal and appeared incognito.
The Flaming Lips don’t really care who dances on stage with them; as long as the audience is entertained, they’re happy. Coyne’s philosophy is simple: if he didn’t want to be in a band touring relentlessly, playing the same songs night after night, he’d stay at home. Playing before Radiohead at Glastonbury last night was always going to be ‘wonderful’, but he doesn’t understand their ambivalence towards success. ‘The Radiohead thing – we’re famous but we don’t want to be famous – is odd. We love playing music but we’re too weird to play music.’
When The Flaming Lips supported Beck on his US tour last year, they expected him to be as chilled as his records suggest. But ‘Beck had issues… don’t print anything bad – actually, I don’t care’. He laughs. ‘I just don’t get it when the slightest thing goes wrong before a gig and the artist is, like, fuck this.’
It must have been disappointing to discover that Beck was a bit… prissy? ‘Honey, it was totally disappointing. It’s a total devastation to know that he’s not a relaxed Californian stoner. When you hear his songs, you think he must really have some tender feelings, but then you find out it’s a made-up thing.’
Isn’t the challenge to listen to the music without thinking about the persona of the artist? ‘Right!’ He bangs his fist on the table. ‘I have had to learn to do that. The worst example was Richard Ashcroft. We played with The Verve at Lollapalooza [an American festival] in 1994 and in person they were atrocious, egotistical fools. And I didn’t care for their music that much; they played these long, psychedelic jams. They acted like they were The Rolling Stones.’
He pauses for dramatic effect. ‘Then they put out “The Drugs Don’t Work”. I heard it and thought, man, who’s that? Then I heard “Bittersweet Symphony”. Such a great track! I especially don’t like Richard Ashcroft because he’s a pompous fool, yet I’m loving that song. So I had to say, “Who am I kidding?” My hate for them cannot stop me from enjoying this great music.’
As The Flaming Lips’ shows are a mix of showiness and sadness, so Coyne himself is a combination of flippancy and sincerity. While he loathes the likes of Richard Ashcroft and Beck for taking themselves too seriously, he is unable to imagine a world without music. He calls himself an entertainer but says that gigs are a routine and he doesn’t feel guilty playing the same songs night after night. He writes thoughtful lyrics but he writes them quickly and knows that some are great, others average.
When the band recorded their new single, ‘Fight Test’, they were aware that part of it sounded like the Cat Stevens song ‘Father And Son’ but didn’t think to get clearance from his record company. As soon as the subject is raised, Coyne politely interrupts: ‘I want to go on record for the first time and say that I really apologise for the whole thing. I really love Cat Stevens. I truly respect him as a great singer-songwriter. And now he wants his money.’
For the first time he is perplexed. ‘There was a time during the recording when we said, this has a similarity to “Father And Son”. Then we purposefully changed those bits. But I do regret not contacting his record company and asking their opinion. Maybe we could have gone 50-50. As it is, Cat Stevens is now getting 75 per cent of royalties from “Fight Test”.’
He looks a little glum but then perks up – and immediately contradicts himself on whether or not the tune was changed: ‘We could easily have changed the melody but we didn’t. I am really sorry that Cat Stevens thinks I’m purposefully plagiarising his work. I am ashamed. There is obviously a fine line between being inspired and stealing. But if anyone wanted to borrow part of a Flaming Lips song, I don’t think I’d bother pursuing it. I’ve got better things to do. Anyway, Cat Stevens is never going to make much money out of us.’
A little later, Coyne is flying through the air. At the photographer’s behest, he climbs on an old bench in Hyde Park and jumps off as high as he can. His brow is soon beaded with sweat. His stripy shirt keeps untucking itself. He peers at his scuffed shoes. ‘Oh dear, fake blood never washes off.’
Michelle, who met her husband almost 15 years ago, shakes her head at his willingness to leap off the bench again and again. She explains how he sings ‘Happy Birthday’ on family occasions with the same enthusiasm he displays on stage. Aware he is being discussed, he comes over. He talks about recording ‘The Golden Path’, a weird but wonderful collaboration with The Chemical Brothers. ‘I love that band; they are one of the greatest inventions of our day. We recorded our part very quickly, almost flippantly, like we’d get a second chance. Then Tom and Ed left a message within 20 minutes of receiving the tape. You could hear them jumping up and down in the background, shouting “We’re ecstatic”. ‘
Coyne wipes the sweat from his forehead and smiles. ‘Apart from being sorry about the Cat Stevens thing, I’d like to say this: my life is so great because of music.’
· Fight Test (Warner) is out now. The Golden Path is released on Virgin on 8 September