Of 2001, Rope Lights, and the Surveillance State: Wayne Coyne in 2013

This interview was conducted with Wayne Coyne on July 15th, 2013 after the Flaming Lips' performance at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford CT. Wayne talks about art, DIY, politics, sci-fi, and the Future with a capital "F." It was originally pitched to be published by a major tech news source, but never reached publication. I hope you enjoy it.

First of all, great show!

My eye is squeaking! I’ve got a squeaky eye! But thank you, it was a great show. I mean, when you can see the love and feel the energy that's so good.

Well I really dug it and I've been listening to your music since "She Don't Use Jelly." I wanted to talk to you about the other stuff you do that's more visual and more technical.

Well I'll try, I don't know.

I know that the origins of your DIY ethic were those early show where you were setting cymbals on fire and burning out motorcycles...

But I mean back then everyone did that. It was before weirdo bands thought they were going to get signed to major labels. It was after punk rock-- as the 80s rolled along Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses sort of took over. We were sort of resigned to working in a restaurant and in your spare time being in a band and working on your art. Everyone I knew in bands did the same thing. It didn't seem like the world should be any different. We make weird music, and nobody would to give us money to live on.

But I would say by the time we signed to Warner Bros. it was a great relief because you do that thing for a while, and I think it's like anything-- after 4 or 5 years of a certain anything it's like "okay that was cool. What's next?" And right when we felt like we wanted to do something different, Warner Bros came in. We thought that maybe we should take this to the next level ourselves and really think about our recordings and the things that we do-- see if we could spend most of our time doing that. Those records with Warner Bros. got more elaborate, like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

In terms of the visuals and the stage show there was a certain point where I'm guessing you were getting bigger and maybe you had the choice of going with a lighting designer on tour, but you decided to keep it close and go DIY. Why did you make that decision?

In the beginning it was because we couldn't afford anything else, and we liked doing it ourselves. And then we would go out with groups. Candlebox would be one notable long tour where they were a group that had just formed and suddenly they were playing stadiums. Unfortunately for them, they didn't have any idea how anything worked because it was their first record. And what do you do? You're playing these big places, you gotta get lights and stuff, you call people, you pay money, they set it up. So we would see firsthand how stupid and how horrible and what a waste of money, what a bunch of a**holes they were. Everything along the way would be like: if we could do it our way, let's never do it that way.

Even a couple of days ago we were playing shows with the Black Keys and it's a similar situation. They've got to where they're playing big shows rather quickly and they're not really interested in turning on their own lights and stuff. It becomes a giant beast of a production pretty quick. Most of the day is spent parking trucks, and we've been on tours like that enough where we'd just never be into that. To us it's just boring-- it's just not our trip. So, doing it our own way, thinking we like this, but also seeing it the other way. Seeing we don't want that. But we knew there was something in between. The guy doing our video walls helped invent some of that stuff that we're using. He just happens to be a cool motherf*cker who wants to do something cool as opposed to going out with Celine Dion.

It seems to me like in your setup now I can see your tool marks, like the LED rope lights. How did you work with your visual designer to make that stuff work together.

We're all trying to do it together and make something new. Even the idea of having the video wall in front of the stage-- people always put them way behind. I said "no, it has to be way in the front." Playing with the lasers... all this stuff, we own it so we can play with it. It's mostly that. He knows how it works, here's what I want to do, and we figure out how to work it in. Those rope lights are mesmerizing. There are a lot of things those lights do, but that's a program he made. People think they're just coming on and off but it works like watching a waterfall or fire.

Do you know if it's triggered by something specific, like the drums?

No, it's someone hitting it. They're just playing along with the music.

So he's not only doing the visuals, he's like another musician.

Totally! And that makes all the difference because a lot of guys are musicians. They just do all kinds of other stuff and it makes for a really great, intuitive show where everybody's doing their thing. It's just great.

I saw “Fearless Freaks” so got a little picture of what you were like as a kid. It seems like you were always a handy and/or mischievous kind of kid.

No, not mischievous. Not really. That movie sort of condenses a lot of stuff.

So, if you were tinkering on something or building something when you were a kid...

I mean, I would say drawing or painting. When I started to play guitar and play with other people I still to this day cannot play other people's music. I'm not musical like that, but I was just interested in writing my own songs. I didn't know how they worked, but I just wanted to make something up. And in the beginning you run into people and they want to do other people's music. I couldn't really do that so little by little the people I would run into would just be more like punk rock. I can do my thing, you do your thing. But I wasn't tinkering with stuff. I mean, we would use strobe lights, fog machines, and echoplexes.

But at some point you were making your own movie sets. So there must have been a change at some point.

Well, it was never just music. Even when the Flaming Lips started we came up with MTV doing videos and we did our own album covers, stickers, gig posters, videos, movies, and visuals for when we played. We just wanted to be the ones that did it. It wouldn't make any sense for us to bring someone in. That just didn't occur to us. I think we were lucky to run into people that wanted to help us do things our way. Jonathan Donahue, Dave Fridmann, and even our manager Scott. They said "I like the way you guys do your thing and I can help you." Once that has enough momentum and you prove that you're not insane or something, that's really attractive to people, especially someone like Steven [Drozd]. He's a genius musician. He's such an advanced musician but he doesn't want to play just normal music. He wants to be involved with something original-- he wants to go somewhere. I think that makes all the difference. I think if he had met me fifteen years earlier he would've said "You're retarded. You don't know what you're doing." But I think you meet people at the right time where it's great that you don't have any rules and you don't follow the logic.

There are a lot of people out there right now who are doing work with microcontrollers, 3D printers, and laser cutters. There's a whole wave of people doing their own thing. They're tiny computers so you can program it to make a motor move. I could put a microphone on a bass drum and make that trigger all your rope lights, which is a different way of doing things. So people are doing this and it's very cheap. It's a new version of what shop class was, and it's really interesting.

I mean that's exactly what my guys are doing with the laser. I mean that laser we're using is a 60 watt laser. You can't just walk in and turn this on. People get pretty upset. He's just a friend of ours who figured out how to do it. He's not some laser tech from laser school.

And that's what's so exciting about this. The lay person can learn this.

They're literally giving away these medical lasers. Our guy turns it into a 60 watt laser and if you see it it's this thing that people used to use to shoot into breasts for radiation treatment. It's weird, but a lot of people are doing that. They don't have a big show to put it in, but people are doing it. It's stuff that we know to get.

We rented video walls. I know the bullsh*t. I rented a video wall and paid a guy $70,000 per week. Almost every show that we did he'd wake up and he'd say "we can't use the video wall today. It's too windy." I said "I'll do it myself. I don't give a f*ck." He was so lazy and we did it ourselves even though we paid him. By the end of the tour we didn't need him anymore. We knew exactly how to do it ourselves. You get to where you want to do this for yourself. So I think I'm stubborn like that. Plus I want it to be a f*ckin' cool show! I want it to be something people haven't seen before!

In a lot of your lyrics you talk about the future, robots, and space. Those seem to be your muses for a lot of your tunes. Where does that come from, and what are your thoughts on the future and futurism?

When I was very I remember sitting with my brothers about a year after this movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it would play on television. I remember sitting with them and thinking about the actual year 2001 and what it would be like. We had just landed on the moon. I remember sitting in our backyard and thinking, "there's guys on the moon! There are people up there!" I thought, in the future we would be living in outer space, listening to the Beatles, and the rest didn't matter much. For the longest time that seemed like it would be true, but little by little we realized it wasn't going to be true.

When I think about the future now I think it's going back to people just doing their own trip. When I talk to young people now, the idea that you're going to pursue some job that you don't like but it's got benefits and you can get things that you want. More and more people I talk to are just not into that. They'd rather make sh*t for money and do what they like to and take the chance of gaining experiences, learning about the world, learning about life, as opposed to getting up every day, going somewhere that I know they hate. I knew I hated it on the first day, and I'm gonna stay just for the benefits. And that's different from when I was growing up. The guys that I knew from high school-- they wanted those jobs. They wanted a job, they wanted to get a car. That's a cool twist instead of people becoming more about security. Let's make sure we live, let's make sure we're happy, let's make sure we like what we're doing.

There's a sea change in the sort of things people are thinking about. At the same time we have things coming out like Google Glass or the NSA Eric Snowden issue. People are scared about these things, but this is the future that we're seeing.

People will like parts and ignore other parts of it. I mean, who wants to record their whole life? I mean, I have 10,000 pictures on my phone and I get rid of them all the time.But even if I lose my phone, it's like "hold on!" For me it's like television. Some days if I have a night off in a hotel room I'll text with 300 or 400 people. I'll just say hello and say what I'm doing. I'll just go back and forth with my people. To me, the idea of sitting and watching Anderson Cooper or NPR about some Toyota recall, it just seems so petty. It seemed like every five minutes they had something important to tell me. I sort of took it like "if NPR is telling me it must be important," but after a while it's like "Jesus Christ! You're really gonna report on this, and the president's shocked?"

Little by little I just went  and I thought, you know, if it's important I'll read the New York Times on Sunday. If it's in there I'll act like it's real news, and if it's not I'll act like it must not have mattered. I just don't care that much. I still think that if it's true we'll know about it. I spend more time dealing with my local stuff. I care, but I know it's an abstraction to think on this world level. I really do work with my own mayor in my community and I call and text him. We were flooded a couple of weeks ago after the tornados and I showed him the gutters that were still blocked. It's petty, but it's my own world and I can do something about it as opposed to thinking I should think about these things that I really have no power or control over. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't think about those things. I just decided I'd spend my time doing that. Where do we think the Google glasses are going? I would definitely try them and have them and see what fun could be had from them.

You should talk to Google!

Anybody who naysays that stuff, I mean "C'mon man!"

Yeah, some people think we're going to be in a surveillance state, but do you think we have bigger fish to fry than that?

Well it's just a matter of ego. If someone really surveilled most people, most of their life would be picking their nose in front of the TV. Do you really think someone's going to care what they're doing? The truth of it is that nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear that. You're not dangerous, you're not anything. Most people want to think...when we got audited the first time (we get audited quite a bit) they were like "what are you guys doing?" When you first get audited you realize how it works. This month you make 300,000 and the next time you make 1,000,000 so they say "let's put a note on there. What are they doing?" And you can understand why they care, but once they understand it's ok.

But for most people they don't care what you do. You have a job, you make ninety bucks every three days. But if you told people that nobody cares they would be devastated. The truth is everybody secretly likes that there's Big Brother, if it really existed. Who would have the time, energy, and storage space. The idea that we have these cameras on these busy streets...it's wonderful. Every once in a while something happens and we can go back and see what happens. But the fact that everybody's life is going to be watched?

So it's not going to be Orwell's future?

People secretly like that because they think "my life is important."

Right. I deserve to be watched.

Yeah. Exactly. It's just not true. Even this idea of the internet...we've totally bypassed the idea that we even need television. We go right to the source. We make videos and news, we just go right to it. I think it's beyond amazing. I can't even imagine a world without it.

It's not the future of 2001: A Space Odyssey but it's its own brand.

There's a lot of vagueness about what you would really do in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We skipped the whole middle part of it-- what was going to happen in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. As we got into our 20s and 30s we saw our parents do things and I know people whose Dad showed them how to do things and maybe they got a little better at it and it just goes on. The way we worked, we loved our Dad, but we didn't really want to do it because he worked his ass off and didn't seem to make very much money.

What did he do?

If you go into a big office building downtown, it's full of all this stuff. Desks, lights, partitions. Someone puts this stuff in and that's what my Dad would do. Building electrical things and covering it up with this plastic stuff. And it's a great job if someone wants it, but we didn't really like it. He didn't even seem to like it.

But was he handy in the house or the yard?

I know it would seem like that, but it wasn't. When we were all very young we would withdraw to art. I think since I was so influenced by my older brothers I would sit down and draw with them. I was really drawn to that, but they weren't, so I found a way to do that by myself, but they always encouraged me. I can't tell people how much that mattered. These older people could say what you're doing is stupid and you'd be self-conscious about it and not do it, but my siblings would say what you're doing is cool and you should keep doing it.

And even when I started to do music everyone around me said "Man that's cool! You should keep doing that!" It didn't matter what it meant. Being 15 and 16 and hearing people say that, that's a big deal. And then you pursue it and then you'll always run into people who will naysay you, but to be young enough to have them around you makes all the difference. It didn't matter that much what people thought because I was obsessed, a freak, and would just do my thing.

That started when I was young, but not really from my Dad. What I think I got from him was that he's so determined, and he's a strong, bad-ass dude. He would get up early and work, but he couldn't find work sometimes. My older brothers and him were willing to get up and do anything, but sometimes there wasn't work. That part of it got in me-- this idea that you gotta work. Even to make music, people think that being in a band is something that's lazy and easy. The bands I've been around that are cool and making music... they're working!

I was in a band for a while, and a guy I knew told me that when you're in a band playing clubs you're basically a glorified moving company, because you're schlepping amps and drums every night.

To me, I wouldn't begrudge that as being that bad. The truth is though, if you're going to be in a band, which is different than being a musician, if you don't like traveling, loading in, meeting people, flying in airplanes, sleeping in hotels... If you don't like those things, you don't want to be in a band. Playing music is a little bit of it, but that other stuff is a lot.

You said you were interested in art when you were a kid. You've definitely done this artistic stuff like the Boombox Experiments. Now you're doing the Gummy Song Skull, the Gummy Song Fetus, the tour poster that you silk-screened with your own blood.

And we did those blood-filled records...

So there's something completely separate from your music that's artistic.

I don't look at it that way, no. Being in the Flaming Lips is a vehicle with which you get to do whatever. Any group out there has had a team of people putting together all these things: t-shirt designs, posters, videos, and all that. Someone's doing it. In our group it's not just me. I have a lot of people helping me. It's a visual aesthetic and without that there are too many things to do. We have a song, you gotta make a video, you gotta make posters, you gotta make covers, you gotta make websites. Everything has to have a design and if you're not into that you can get someone. I saw a recent biography about Black Flag and Raymond Pettibon, the guy who did the covers and the logo... without him you wonder would it have worked so much. All that visual stuff becomes iconic.

Or with Radiohead and Stanley Donwood.

And it's stellar. It's a part of what they are.

Are there any artists and designers specifically that you draw from?

Well, no. We see stuff all the time. A week ago I saw Beyonce and I was interested in what she would do. She owns the world, she could do whatever she wants yet there is this mega production. She doesn't just sing and say "See ya later." Every song is a costume change. I was interested because a lot of the same lights that we're doing their crew is doing. We know because they told us. It's interesting because you want to see how they're doing it. How do they make twenty songs and have each of them different. But it's also about trying to do your own trip and seeing what we can do. You don't know what's available, but if you're not interested you just sit at home. I don't know if there's any one thing.

I was probably mostly influenced by things like heavy metal magazines when I was 16 or 17. Just stuff that seemed more adult with no rules. I liked things without any rules. It could be Walt Disney crossed with XXX. Who cares? I think part of that shows in what we do. It's outrageous, it's too bright, and the bands we were hanging out with the early 80s like the Butthole Surfers, when we were hanging out with them they really changed us because they just didn't care. They just did what they wanted to do. If a group isn't doing what they want to do I just don't see the point. If you're in this kind of rock group playing this kind of music, what are you doing? We talk about getting a 3D printer but I think I need a big one. We talk a lot about making our own toys. I think a lot of toys I see on 3D printers are small so they have to put them together a lot. At the moment I'm working with a guy who was doing the gummy skulls and the gummy fetus. He runs a gummy corporation. He's the guy known for making the five pound gummy bear. So to run into someone who already knows how to do it and take your weirdo idea and say "Hey I can do this." There's a woman I ran into in Dallas who's making a white chocolate life-sized skull with a life-sized brain on top. But they're weirdos who want to do this stuff. She made a life-sized human heart that we sold for Valentine's Day.

Well all the weirdos who do stuff like that come to a place like Maker Faire and they cross-pollinate.

Maybe I should get more involved in that. I see the way I work is I'm just on the top of it. I like this and I like that. If you really want something unique you gotta know what you're doing. Even when we did the vinyl: we spent the whole of 2011. We were out of our contract with Warner Bros. We spent all of 2011 through 2012 doing whatever we wanted to do because we had no label. Especially being on a label like Warner Bros., because it's so big, everything has to go across someone's desk and sit there for three weeks.

We started making this vinyl at the very beginning with a little company out of Dallas which is a couple hours from where I live. We'd drive down there for a couple of days and come back with a couple thousand records. We had this guy that would be there making them all the time, getting different colors of vinyl, trying different concoctions of it going into the machine, getting glow-in-the-dark vinyl, getting black light vinyl. I thought at the beginning we were making cool sh*t, but by the end it was just getting better and cooler. It shows you that if you ain't doing it, you probably ain't learning from it. And that's really what I like, you're getting into it, you're f*cking with it, you're failing, you're failing.

Failing's important.

Succeeding really is just that: failing over and over and not letting it get you down. I love that! Just doing it!


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