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An Interview with Wayne Coyne on The Flaming Lips’ 21st Album, “American Head”

An Interview with Wayne Coyne on The Flaming Lips’ 21st Album, “American Head”

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This past weekend The Flaming Lips released their 21st album, American Head (stream below) and performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on September 11th. In the powerful performance they sang “God and the Policeman (feat. Kacey Musgraves)” where each band member performed inside their own signature plastic bubble. 

The dreamy introspective thirteen track album is an impressive one. It traverses through the influence of their previous 20 albums while forging new soundscapes and melodies that audiences have come to love. The album bursts open with “Will You Return / When You Come Down,” an inviting and somber song that sets the mood for the rest of the nostalgic album. At times the album, which is far less abstract than previous ones, seems to be making peace with the past, at other times it wades into playful fantasy like on “Dinosaurs on the Mountain.” Coyne’s mesmerizing voice takes listeners through a sonic journey – one that proudly marks the 37 year legacy of the band. In an exclusive interview we spoke with Wayne on life, love, his new born son, and the Lips’ new music.

Mark Benjamin: Hi Wayne, the last time we spoke with you was on your 56th birthday, actually. It was the release of Oczy Mlody, right? 

Wayne Coyne: You’re right. I mean, now I’m 59. I’ll be 60 coming up here pretty soon. I don’t ever think about my birthday.

MB: You even gave an interview on it. 

WC: Well, I tell you that’s a little bit embarrassing. I’m glad people notice, but it’s like when you get a surprise birthday party, it’s always a little bit embarrassing for me. And yet I kind of remember that interview.

ON FATHERHOOD

MB: So much has happened since then. You got married to Katy Weaver and now you have a child. How old is he? 

WC: He’s one year, two months. I can’t quite remember the way my life was before. I guess that’s probably what everybody says. It seems like such a normal, wonderful, natural thing. I do acknowledge that we are very lucky he is healthy and so happy. We have people helping us and it’s wonderful. 

MB: I can tell you love your family very much from your social media. How has fatherhood been for you? Is it a big change?

WC: I don’t know what the equation is, but there’s probably the instinctual part of you that exists inside. And then there’s the thinking conscious part of you that thinks it’s in charge, and I don’t know what amount of those you really are [in control of]. It’s hard to say, but I think I’ve always been a guy who is about a big family. I was born in a big family. And I think I create, I didn’t think about this until now, I think I created a big family in The Flaming Lips.

It’s not just the members of the band, but even the crew and everybody involved in it. It probably is my greatest strength. That I have a desire to keep this family together and to help this family and to be as useful and as protective as I can be of this family. So, the idea that we have a little baby, I guess it didn’t seem bizarre or that foreign to me. In that way, and he is such a bundle of joy. I feel like a lot of the people I’ve been taking care of for the past 35 years are grown ups and they’re horrible, whereas he is so nice and fun. 

As I get older, it’s probably a part of my personality. As you ease into these things about your personality, it feels like this is what I should be doing. That’s all easy for me to say, because I’ve got like the greatest life you could ever live. I get to make music, I get to do my art, I get to be with my family. It’s amazing.

MB: Who picked the name Bloom? 

WC: I think Katie did, but I think we kind of have a psychic way of communicating with each other. It wasn’t necessarily that we had a list. We would gravitate towards names. We never considered that he would be Wayne Jr., or something like that. 

MB: That’s beautiful, Bloom.

WC: We liked the name. There’s a Beach House album called Bloom and it was a record that Katie and I had listened to when we were getting together probably about 10,000 times. It’s a record when we listen to it now reminds us of that beginning time when we were together. A lot of good emotions, good times, so it seemed like another way of putting that into the world. 

AMERICAN HEAD

MB: This is your 21st album, American Head. 21, that’s a big number. It makes you one of the more prolific musicians and it has an interesting title. You said in another interview this was the first album you included an identity in the title. So, I was wondering, do these songs attempt to capture a profile or a national psyche or something along those lines? 

WC: Well, no, not on purpose. You always accept that it can do that for the good or the bad. You make the music that you make and you can’t really feel that proud of it. You can’t really apologize that much for it. You’re at the mercy of whatever the gods of music give you.

A lot of times we are just sitting there and come up with something. Even the part of the song from “My Religion Is You”, it sounds like something that everybody would have said a million times already. And when I sang that along with the song, I felt this is a great song. If this was someone else’s song, that’d be cool. Many songs that happen when you’re in a zone and you are singing something can easily turn into something that’s about you and mean something, but initially you don’t really know where it comes from.

I don’t think anybody ever in history or in any kind of art can really capture a psyche. I think music does that and I think art does that, but I don’t think you really do it. I think you do your thing. And you’re part of the world and things happen and music is reflected in that and the world is reflected in your music, but I don’t think you could ever really say, ‘yeah, this music was foretold.’ This mood in America right now…some of the music we started to make two or three years ago. It’s not like we put it together last February. 

MB: But surely there’s got to be some thought towards it. Even in the music video, “Flowers of Neptune 6,” you have an American flag wrapped around you. There’s some symbolism in there, no?

WC: We knew we were going to call the album American Head. I love the American flag. I just love the way it looks. I remember loving the way Peter Fonda had it on the back of this motorcycle jacket. I’ve always liked it as a cool looking thing: the astronauts would have a patch of the American flag. I’m never ever putting down America. We’re just doing something we like. We don’t give it much marketing strategy.

I don’t know what it represents when a weirdo like me is singing a song running around in a field that’s on fire. As time went on, we felt that it’s good that it could be looked at as something really cool or it could be something stupid. Most things are like that. You don’t really know if it’s great or if it’s just absurd. You can’t worry about it too much.

MB: I also want to mention, I don’t know if you heard MGMT’s last album, Little Dark Age? There was a song on there called “When You Die.” That was my favorite song on the album. 

WC: MGMT? I know those guys. 

MB: Yeah, and then last night I listened to American Head and one of my favorite songs was “When We Die, When We’re High.” It probably says more about me than the music, but I was curious how that song came about?

WC: That little song is a connection to the song that comes before. We do go off on these tangents. They’re kind of instrumental things, and we always know part of us thinks we’re going to turn it into a song or turn it into things that have lyrics.

It really is all about music. It really is all about sounds. I know a lot of it feels like it’s about singers and songwriters but to us, it really is all the same thing. Sound versus melodies, one would never seem more important. I’m glad people accept us as singers and like listening to our songs. We wanted to get out of that mood of the song that’s before it. You’re listening to four or five songs in a row. Not many people do that anymore, but we kind of still work that way, and we liked the idea of a transition. It quickly left into this more abstract, upbeat thing. 

MB: I think one of those songs is “You n Me Selling Weed,” which is a narrative about a working class couple who are struggling and dreaming one day they’ll get out of this scene and to the magic trees. I can imagine a lot of people could relate to that right now, where did that song come about for you? 

WC: Part of it is autobiographical. When I was like 16 and 17 years old, I sold weed. All my older brothers and friends were small time, little drug dealers. In a sense, we looked at it like we were free to have this crazy life and all that. 

But as the song goes on, I’m talking more about a friend of mine who ended up being involved in a drug deal; he was involved in a horrible, violent murder. And he ended up going to prison for the rest of his life and ended up committing suicide in prison. So it’s all in there. 

It’s a song that is gentle and it’s beautiful, but it’s also telling this horrible truth about the other side of selling drugs and selling weed. I was very lucky that I got out of selling any kind of illegal stuff before I got caught or someone killed me or something…we all romanticize about the good bits.

Seeing up close the worst things that can happen to you, I was very glad not to ever be drawn back into it again. Pot is legal now in Oklahoma; it was legalized in 2019. I’m talking about a time from 1977 to 1978 where we thought it was going to be legal any day now, back then, almost 40 years ago. 

“It’s taken the whole world stopping for me to know that I’ve been so stupid for so long. Now I see it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, if you don’t have enough time to appreciate it, it doesn’t have the same value.”

We never really considered that we would have jobs either. When we were teenagers, we would have conversations about what we would do in the future. My older brothers and their friends were just like, ‘Dude, you don’t need to have a job in the future. We’re going to be living on Mars.’

We thought we’ll be living in outer space and listening to The Beatles. I think the beginning of that song is still in the glaze and the haze of that type of thinking. Whereas this seems fun and cool and mellow, but then it quickly is a dream that you wake up from. That’s not going to keep going in a good way, you know?

MB: That’s interesting, those memories are still so strong for you. 

WC: I think there are things in my life that trigger them all the time. I still see my older brothers and their friends and a lot of them are still alive. I think that time in your life, the time between 16 and 25 is huge. I say it all the time, even though I’m almost 60, I kind of feel like I did when I was 25. Then you look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘oh shit, I’m old now.’

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

MB: I want to ask you about something I’ve seen people posting about. I think it was Troye Sivan that posted about how he liked the album you produced with Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. It’s become very influential for a lot of people in pop music. I’ve got to say it’s aged really well. I still listen to it a lot. “Space Boots,” all those songs I think are instant classics. Would you think about producing another album like that, maybe with someone else?

WC: I’m glad people said it. When we were working on that music with Miley, I think she did want to make an album where she wasn’t being pressured to make a pop record or a pop hit or to be someone who’s going to be on the cover of every magazine. 

She liked the idea that she’s making the record the way The Flaming Lips do. When it came out, I think there was an air of ‘what the fuck is this?’ People were expecting her to release her next big hit. I always thought it was very brave of her to be like, ‘let’s just do this.’

When we were making it, we didn’t really know when we were finished with it. Then, suddenly it’s out. The world does decide what they think of it, but in time, all music gets its due and I know musicians love it. I would have people tell me that even when we put it out and because it’s a cool thing. It does have some great moments on it that we got lucky that we were in the vibe. 

Even being able to work with Mike WiLL Made-It was just utterly amazing. That people are getting something out of listening to it, I’m like, ‘yes,’ because I agree, I think it’s something really great, cool, long lasting. There are some beautiful moments

MB: I don’t know if you heard Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore. She’s now entered the indie artist arena. She did a song with Bon Iver and I wonder if more pop musicians are going to go in a more alternative sound?

WC: Creative people never run out of somewhere to go. I think that’s just the way it is. If you’re used to making slick pop albums, it’d be nice to make something that isn’t, no matter what it is. I don’t think everybody will do it. I never really care. I think if it’s cool music, I don’t care. Billy Eilish, I listened to her record a couple of years ago, and I was like fuck this is cool, where’d this come from? 

I would be listening to it thinking who is this? And then I’ve run into people that are like, ‘Dude, she’s the biggest thing in the world. Didn’t, you know?’ I didn’t know. I just liked it. 

ON TIME

MB: I know performance and live shows are a big part of The Flaming Lips. Those reading this that haven’t been to one of your shows, I encourage them to or at least look them up on YouTube. I think your music is also meant to be experienced, but how have you been channeling that energy into other things during the pandemic and quarantine? 

WC: I’ve been doing more painting and I’ve been working on this record, doing videos and stuff that pertains to this music that we have right now. I would have tried to do that anyway, but, I probably would have run out of time. This has given me a real appreciation for the element of time. Time is part of everything that you do. Time is the difference between enjoying something or hurting through something. 

I would say the meal that I’ve eaten since 2002, I’ve rushed through it to get back to doing something. In the past couple of months, I really am eating the food and enjoying it and sitting there and not thinking, ‘as soon as I’m done with it, I’ll get back to my shit.’

So, it’s taken the whole world stopping for me to know that I’ve been so stupid for so long. Now I see it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, if you don’t have enough time to appreciate it, it doesn’t have the same value. You’re just flying through it and you do have to hurry sometimes in life, but we get used to hurrying all the time and that’s something I think I need to change. 

MB: Do you also feel an interconnectedness to people that you didn’t feel before?

WC: That sounds hokey, but I totally agree. We were all living our own lives and it didn’t matter what anybody else was doing.

Between Covid-19 and Trump, you feel like we all have the same joys and the same pains and the same dilemmas. I think it’s wonderful. Occasionally here in Oklahoma, we’ll have a tornado or something where we are all vulnerable to the same destructive chaos of the world, but this is something virtually everybody you’ve talked to in the world is doing the same thing. I think it does help you decide what’s important in your life and what isn’t. 

It really is a horrible, serious situation. I know people that are working in the hospitals here in town and the hospitals, all the ICU units are filled up, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. And God forbid that anything has to happen where you have to go to one of them.

The idea that The Flaming Lips aren’t playing shows, it’s just not that important to us in that way. You know, we’re not extroverts that need to be out there singing and dancing in front of people. This is more important than going to a show and having that interaction. Whenever all this is over, we’ll be very glad to go out there and play and celebrate with everybody. 

Instagram: @waynecoyne5

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