Wayne Coyne has had an incredible career spanning 34 years as the front man of The Flaming Lips. An artist and endless inspiration to the music industry, he has contributed to Ke$ha’s Warrior, is an influence and friend to Miley Cyrus – most notably with her latest album, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz – and has been the springboard for bands such as MGMT and Tame Impala. Madison Velding- VanDam, the front man of his own rock band in Brooklyn, ONWE, caught up with Coyne in L.A. as he celebrated his 56th birthday and the release of his 17th studio album, Oczy Mlody, to chat about creativity, life, and politics.
MADISON VELDING-VANDAM: Oczy Mlody is out today and it’s your 56th birthday! Happy birthday, I’m honored to catch you.
“I DON’T WANT YOU TO LOVE ME OR HATE ME, I WOULD JUST RATHER YOU PLEASANTLY IGNORE ME AND LET ME GET ALONG WITH MY LIFE” – WAYNE COYNE
WAYNE COYNE: Thank you! It’s my most celebrated birthday ever. Half of the party last night was intended to be just a record-release party, but then it turned into this elaborate birthday party at the same time. I was like, “All right, here we go!” Then I wake up today and it’s going and going and going, yeah… So, thank you.
MVV: You have plans for tonight, too, then?
WC: [LAUGHS.] Well, we’re goin to Miley Cyrus’s house, where she has a giant party planned. Her boyfriend Liam [Hemsworth]’s birthday is exactly the same day as mine, so it’s a double whamo- bamo that we have the same birthday. Miley’s sister Noah’s birthday was just three or four days ago. So we’re doing, like, a triple-decker whamo-bamo-blamo birthday party.
MVV: That’s a lot of Capricorns.
WC: [LAUGHS.] It is, yeah. But what I’ve learned about Capricorns is that when they’re together, they understand each other—no one tries to be the dominant one. Isn’t that weird?
MVV: Are there other signs that you feel relaxed around? Or are you even into astrology [LAUGHS.]?
WC: Well, no. I’ve never really considered it. It would only be in some very simplified version of people that I think those things would work. We’re all so suggestible. If someone suggests something, some good quality in you, you secretly go, “Oh yeah, I am kind of authoritative and powerful,” and all these things that a horoscope suggests. Everybody is vulnerable to that.
MVV: Capricorns are apparently very disciplined and you’ve made so many damn albums in your life.
WC: I do think there is something to the exaggerated, or the simplified, or the honed- down version of characteristics. Maybe it’s because, if you are a Capricorn, by suggesting those characteristics it allows you to exercise them. If I’m supposed to be authoritative and you’re not, then maybe you won’t be! It’s hard to say what it is. I can’t imagine that it really makes that much difference from one person to the next if you’re born in January or born in July. But who knows? It certainly could!
MVV: Self-fulfilling prophecies?
WC: I think a lot of things in life definitely are that, ya know? If people say you’re ugly, little by little you develop some hang-ups about it. It affects you. I think you’re helping all those things along.
MVV: That leads me to another thing I want to mention—your hair!
MVV: I want to congratulate you on being 56 and having such good hair. That’s a blessing. And in my humble opinion, you have one of the most important heads of hair in rock history.
WC: I never thought of it that much until I got older and I realized what a precious, not- that-common thing it is. I agree. For the longest time, it wasn’t something I thought about, but I agree now. I really feel lucky to be the person walking underneath it sometimes. Without even knowing me, it’s like, “Well, let’s see, look at that guy—he’s got great hair, he must be cool.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, of course.”
MVV: Do you think people perceive you more as a hero than villain because of your hair?
WC: In a sense, yeah. I like the mention of the Capricorn stuff. I play into it. I think there’s your self-image that you’re probably playing into more than suggested images. But if they’re the same, you can push for it even more. The things people react to, you probably do those a little bit more and the things people don’t react to, you probably forget to do. All those things play into it. Of course, there’ll be days that you like better than when people come up to you and say, “You look like shit.” You’ll go towards what’s working and go away from the things you don’t think are working. A lot of it is just personality and luck. I think all humans on some basic level are drawn to things like hair, faces, boobs, and butts. I don’t have any shame about that.
MVV: You’ve cultivated a very positive persona in The Flaming Lips. I watched several decades of your interviews and you’re so consistently positive. Of course that must indicate you’re a very truthful person!
WC: [LAUGHS.] Why, thank you.
MVV: Do you also feel that you’re good at dealing with media and publicists?
WC: I think that my experience doing interviews is unique because I’m not usually talking to anybody that doesn’t already love me. That’s different from the people we’re partying with tonight, like Miley or Liam. They’re talking to people who may care about what they’re doing, but may not care about them and it’s their job to have a take them on. Most of the people I’ve talked to in the media— forever!—wouldn’t be talking to me if they weren’t fans, weren’t interested in The Flaming Lips and loved our music. So I think that’s probably why, when I’m saying things in interviews, the interviewer is giving it this slant that makes things cooler.
MVV: Is there another side of you that you keep personal or out of the media? In Oczy Mlody I hear a lot of pensiveness and introspection that is distinct from your other work. Are you exploring a different part of yourself on this album?
WC: I don’t know what you mean when you say “pensive.” Where are you thinking that’s happening?
MVV: There’s a calmness and introspective pace to it. The instrumentals are a bit longer and have an aura of calm and melancholy that’s not in other Flaming Lips music.
WC: When we relax there is a leaning towards melancholy. Sadness has a power to it. If there’s an overreaching thing that Steven [Drozd, fellow Flaming Lips member] likes, it is something up from despair. It’s not sadness, but it’s definitely in that range. I know he likes that. Sometimes when we’re working together, he’ll present a really great melancholy melody and chord changes. And he knows it has an effect on me and will make me inhabit that feeling. I think this works really well. Other times I write something that’s more simple or optimistic and then he can put more color and shadow into it, which takes it somewhere more complex rather than being overly cheery. We like that about each other, we pull it to this other realm.
MVV: It seems like Miley Cyrus is an ongoing component of your creative life. How’s your relationship with her as an artist evolving?
WC: We’re best friends and there are a lot of commonalities about the way we are and that makes it very easy to be friends in the future and do all these sorts of things that we do. We’ve known each other and worked pretty intensely with each other for over three years or so. You do always think, “Is this just a moment?” You’ll be around her and there will be people who have been working with her since she was 11 years old or so.
If I become friends with somebody, it is as if I will always know them, unless they die or something happens that doesn’t allow us to want to know each other. I think that’s just a truism of our personalities. It wouldn’t be something that we would be able to know about each other before we knew each other, but I see that more and more. And it would take a great effort for us not to be interested in each other now. So it really is all those things combined. She’s smart and mature and fuckin’ crazy and fun and all those things. She is a lot of fun to be around. For me,
I’m not really doing anything other than, “Let’s do this,” or “Let’s try that.” All the little nuances of navigating the things that could go good or bad, we just don’t think about that much, we’re mostly having fun.
MVV: Yeah, and—
WC: And my girlfriend and her are absolutely best friends, ya know. Absolutely. There’s no one in their lives that they know more deeply or relate to more. And that’s just a lucky, bizarre coincidence of personalities again. So all that pulls it along to where there could be times where Miley wouldn’t want to be around Wayne and The Flaming Lips making music, but then there could be those times where I’m just around because I’m Katy [Weaver]’s boyfriend and we’re all just hanging out together. So there’s a lot of crossover of experiences.
MVV: Have you felt stressed out by how the media has portrayed your relationship with Miley?
WC: No, no. It’s just really not that big of a deal. Miley is the most thick-skinned human you’re ever going to meet. She’s more than used to people throwing hate her way and laughing it off. When people around us are saying bad things, there’ll be times when we see if we can deflect it a bit. I’m used to it and Miley’s used to it and most of it is funny. I wouldn’t say I stress out about it at all, but nothing insane or tragic or bad has really happened.
MVV: You’ve done a great job creating or playing into mild controversies at opportune moments. I’m thinking as far back to the “boom-box experiments,” when you got 40 cars to play your cassette at the same time and a thousand people show up. Is that part of your album ramp-up strategy or who you are regularly?
WC: I think it’s mostly a coincidence. It’s just something we want to do. It does seem like something that, regardless of what you know about music or art, or anything like that, is, “Well, that seems, dumb, or funny, or interesting, or weird.” And I think a lot of the things we do falls into one of those categories. Since we’re pursuing it anyway, sometimes it’s very easy to say, “Well, I don’t know what you actually think of it.” I could see how somebody from the outside… how people could think, “What the fuck?” about The Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus. I think that’s a good thing. It doesn’t really seem that way to us, but I can easily understand why people would think that and we could easily play into it, saying, “Yeah, we are weird.” We may not have that much control over it. On a slow- news day someone may be like, “Look how weird Miley Cyrus and The Flaming Lips are.” You can always go back to that.
I think for the most part, if you don’t really like our music, you could be like, “Well, a lot of people think it’s cool, but I just really don’t care.” I think the music helps it stay more as an “oddity.” If I don’t like someone’s music, I’m just not really that interested in their life. But when you like their music, everything about them makes me go, “Why? Huh, that’s a little weird,” or whatever. It’s probably a little bit of both. And Miley is an energetic freak and she is an easy target for people who want to take things too seriously.
MVV: You’ve cited A$AP Rocky’s music and ethos as an influence for this record. Are you more influenced by hip-hop culture now that you’re immersed in it with Miley?
WC: I like what I like and I wouldn’t really know if it’s cool, uncool, popular, or not. It’s very easy to be interested in the thing you’re interested in and there are plenty of ways to indulge that without really knowing whether it’s relevant or not. We do sometimes insulate ourselves, not on purpose, but you’re just into what you’re into. And you kinda feel like, “Isn’t everybody into this?” Especially being around Miley and going to lots of parties and having lots of times when we are playing lots of rap music. I think I grew to have more of a love of it.
I think this record has a lot more subby low end and a lot more funny little high-end glitchy things. We’ve never had a record that had this much subby stuff on it. And I think that’s just one of the marvels of the way technology has pushed music along. It’s not easy, but it’s not overly difficult to get that much rumble into songs. I think it’s just something we’ve never done, and once we started to do it, we were intrigued by it. The more we did it, the more we heard it in other people’s music. The more we were able to do it, the more we liked it.
A lot of it is just based on new sounds that you are intrigued by, and how they work, and how you can use them, and how they can use you. I think most musicians or artists or most people who are used to using lots of tools to create stuff want to use new and weird, fantastical tools. Who’s to say how much of it is the tools and how much of it is you? I don’t really care. I would never say it matters—if you like it, you should enjoy it, not worry about, “How’d it
get the way it got?” But when you’re the one making it, you want something that’s exciting you. “What the fuck are these buttons doing?” “How’d we get that?” As music has gone along, it’s almost always the newest invention that gets quickly grabbed up by all the weirdos out there and we see what they do with it.
MVV: I have a mild conspiracy theory—in addition to being Polish for “eyes of the young,” Oczy Mlody is a reference to Oxycodone. And this record has such a “lean” vibe. Do you know that drink?
WC: I have heard of it, but I’ve never had it—I’d like to [LAUGHS.]!
MVV: [LAUGHS.] Well, that answers that. I also hear the Syd Barrett influence, especially on the track “Galaxy I Sink.”
WC: [LAUGHS.] That’s definitely the track where our Syd Barrett influence is most pronounced, you’re absolutely right—
MVV: You’ve also got the snares that sound like trap hi-hats!
WC: You’re right. That throb and that relaxation are definitely in this record. I don’t think that’s always easy for us to do. I think we’re better when we’re relaxed. When we’re uptight it’s like, “Ugh.” It’s hard to take. I think when we’re in a more relaxed mode, we feel like, “Aahhh.” [LAUGHS.]
MVV: [LAUGHS.] I hate to change the subject, but before you go, I’d like to ask a bit about politics.
MVV: We’ve arrived at such an interesting and challenging “precipice” in our culture. I’m curious about what you think is going on? What are you seeing?
WC: I think it’s easy for everybody to have an opinion about what they think a “Donald Trump” is going to do. He hasn’t really done anything yet. I mean, him being an asshole and someone you don’t like doesn’t really matter. If you didn’t vote for him, it’s a little bit like your favorite team losing in the Super Bowl. You’ll just complain about it and think it was rigged and the referees were stupid and you’ll go to any length you can to stand on your side. Us saying we don’t like Donald Trump is not going to get anything done. And if we really are serious about our complaints, we need to wait for him to do something and then decide where it was right or wrong. Or what our actions should be.
It seems ridiculous to think, “He’s going to do this and he’s going to do that, but before he does it we should do something!” That’s just childish. It’s just not what real grown-up people do. It’s easy to talk about it and throw stuff around and most everybody has an opinion about it and most nobody is going to do anything. Talking is the easiest thing in the world and doing stuff takes strategy and time and energy.
But it’s easy to talk on the internet and have opinions. And no matter what you do, if you do art or politics, whatever, there’s a huge, huge onslaught of people who aren’t going to do anything besides tell you you’re stupid and you just have to accept that. I just don’t really care that much about Donald Trump. It doesn’t really consume me. When he does something that I feel like is affecting not just me, but affecting the people that I feel like, I can help. I wouldn’t even talk about it, I would jump into action and try to do something about. I just feel like it doesn’t matter what we say if we’re not going to do something about it.
MVV: A lot of people in my circle are very concerned about what’s going to happen and we’re considering ways that we can jump into action. I know, certainly for myself, that artists can find it difficult to decide how to be effective in standing for our politics and involve ourselves.
Just use the power of your mind and your opinion. You really have to do things, be involved—it’s not an abstraction. It’s fun to make fun of stupid politicians, it’s always going to be fun to make fun of these people in power. Most people would say, ‘Oh, well, no. I just wanna sit here and complain, I don’t wanna do anything.’ People get what they deserve
WC: I think that when Meryl Streep said, “Here’s the way I feel,” she was saying that this is the way to express yourself without going against anyone else. By virtue of what it is, we would know what it isn’t. I love that she spoke so simply—“Disrespect invites more disrespect.” If you went up to Donald Trump and said, “Let me tell you straight off, fuck you,” why would he listen to you?
Why would he even want to consider your opinion if that’s how you openly feel about him? And that would not be the way that you would want to change the world—to go up to everybody you don’t like and say, “Let me tell ya, fuck you, dumbass.” That’s not going to sway them, that’s not going to get them to listen to you. I wouldn’t do that to strangers
I saw on the street. I think we all owe each other a certain amount of indifference. For the most part, I don’t want you to love me or hate me, I would just rather you pleasantly ignore me and let me get along with my life. And that’s what I would say with him. Unfortunately, with everyone in that campaign, we know more about them than we do our own fucking families!
So it’s very easy to sit there and think, “Well, he thinks this and he thinks that.” Yeah, well, they’ve allowed us to know all these things, they’re on TV every day letting people having opinions about things. Most people don’t have any opinion about anything ever, yet they complain about someone standing up and saying something. And though I don’t like Donald Trump, this is the way of the world. And if we do think tolerance is important, let’s tolerate him. We don’t throw him in jail before he’s committed a crime, but that’s what a lot of people think we should do.
I’m only going to worry about it if it’s something to worry about. I’m not going to sit here and worry about what he might do or what he might think. And I think we all wished the election had gone the other way, but a lot of America simply doesn’t care about politics. And we’re stuck in this ridiculous middle ground where some people absolutely care—they care almost too much— and fucking weirdos think Donald Trump and Ted Nugent should run the country. And it’s a small group of people, so it makes it all seem a little bit scary.
The way I play it all out is that I vote locally for the most part. I’m concerned about what is going on in my neighborhood, about the way I can change it. In that way, if everybody did that, it wouldn’t really matter who was president. It wouldn’t really matter who is the king of all this, because your own little community is run by you and your little community around you. That’s boring and no one wants to get that much into it, but that’s what I do in my neighborhood. I’m not saying that’s for everybody, but for me that’s what I do.
MVV: Damn, Wayne! I appreciate your stab at levelheadedness.
WC: I’ve been through a lot of elections. And I’ve seen my neighborhood change because of the things that I wanted to have happen. It would have been very easy to look at my neighborhood and say, “Aw man, these people are getting fucked over,” and not have done anything about it—“Oh well, I don’t have any control over it.” I know that it doesn’t take that much to have a little control. One of the education supervisors in my district won by less than 20 votes—and one of those was mine. And I’m glad he won!
MVV: Have you seen an evolution in your Oklahoma community? How has that played out in your life, because Oklahoma is a notoriously conservative place?
WC: My neighborhood is mostly low-income, mostly Hispanic workers. Most of them are peaceful, hard-working people. I don’t really know them, I don’t speak Spanish. And we all kind of exist, in that we would take care of each other— if your house is burning down I’ll come over and help you. Other than that, we don’t really know each other besides the fact that I’m stable and they’re stable and I don’t want that to change. And so I try to be as aware of my influence with the mayor and my local little guys there and look out for them. Sometimes my silly influence changes it for, I don’t know if it’s for “the better,” but it’s what I want, so it’s better for me, ya know?
When I do that and it works, I say “Good!” Without being involved I would feel like, “Hey, I have this little bit of power, why aren’t I using it?” I’m going to try to use it—it doesn’t always work my way, but why not? But it is on a local level, it’s in your neighborhood. A lot of people want to change Washington, but they don’t want to fuckin’ go next door and see what’s going on. That’s just never going to work. You can never really do anything in the abstract. You can be happy and you can be sad about it, but it doesn’t really work. Just use the power of your mind and your opinion.
You really have to do things, be involved—it’s not an abstraction. I don’t know. It’s fun to make fun of stupid politicians, it’s always going to be fun to make fun of these people in power. But we do have some power! Barack Obama basically said this the other night, “If you don’t like it, fuckin’ run for office yourself, dude!” Most people would say, “Oh, well, no. I just wanna sit here and complain, I don’t wanna do anything.” People get what they deserve.
MVV: Do you feel powerful?
WC: No, but I’m not really seeking that kind of “power.” I don’t want to be a politician.
MVV: I mean in a more general sense of power, like in your own way that you may seek power.
WC: If you’re using power to help people who wouldn’t otherwise have as much help, I would say yes. If you’re using your power to avoid violence and pain, even if it’s not your own—if that’s what you mean by that, I would say yes. “Power” always seems to imply some sort of “I’m stronger than you” attitude and “I’m going to prove that to you.” I think when Barack Obama had a tear in his eye the other night, to me that showed he was a very powerful man. He knows what’s worth crying over.
And someone like Donald Trump wouldn’t cry because he’s so egotistical and caught up in his own stupid ideas that he wouldn’t know what’s worth crying over and what’s worth laughing over. For me, Obama’s a more powerful man because he has the ability to cry. He cares! He cares deeply! That’s the only reason you should have power. Sure this all scares us, but like it or not, we do have to wait before the crime has been committed before we throw someone in jail.
Oczy Mlody is out now on Bella Union
Interview by Madison Velding-VanDam
Photography by Raul Romo