The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne Explains His Wild Fans, Good vs. Evil, and Karen O’s Animal Talents

As its title suggests, the Flaming Lips’ new double-disc set, Embryonic, truly sounds like it’s still in an early stage. In many cases, these new songs evolved from in-studio jams, where the Oklahoma band chose to title the more jammy tracks after astrological signs, simply to set them apart from each other. Although produced again by Dave Fridmann, this work markedly strays from the orchestral beauty that drove “prettier” albums like The Soft Bulletin. Instead, many of these songs might remind informed music aficionados of Miles Davis’ late ‘60s/early ‘70s jazz-fusion experiments. And while it’s deadly serious, lyrically, in many places, listeners will nevertheless laugh out loud with Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O as she makes various animals sounds during the call-and-response track “I Can Be a Frog.”

We recently caught up with the Flaming Lips’ vocalist and master of ceremonies, Wayne Coyne, and the fearless bandleader proved to be just as engaging in conversation as he is while creating contained mayhem on stage.

Flavorpill: The new album, Embryonic, sounds very spontaneous and experimental. Is that what you wanted to get across?

Wayne Coyne: Well, I don’t know if that would be the main thing. I hope, within the context of those adjectives, that it’s fun to listen to and entertaining and it’s all that as well. All groups are always trying to do new things and have new sounds. But I don’t think we wanted just to be experimental, just for experimentalism’s sake. I hope that it’s fun to listen to, or enjoyable or interesting at the same time.

We didn’t have an idea of exactly what we were going to do. We started to do some more, I guess, jam based — where everybody is sort of playing at the same time — sort of sessions in Steven’s [Drozd] house here in the city, not knowing where they would go. There were a lot of moments when we were playing where it didn’t sound very fresh and it didn’t sound like anything. But there would be some moments where we said, “Oh yeah, that sounds like something different or something exciting.”

FP: The concept of good vs. evil comes up again and again on the new album. The older you get, are you closer to understanding why there is evil in the world, or does it seem even more confusing the more you study it?

WC: Well, I wouldn’t say I study it, as much as I know that this is a conscious choice I believe only humans are able to make. There probably are some animals that are able to make it. To say you’re going to be kind — that’s a big leap. To me, that’s a great humanistic quality, to be loving and to be kind. But I also think that it comes from the exact same place that allows you to be horrible and evil and self-centered and mean — you know; all the things that are bad. But to me, I believe they are the same bundle of molecules and energy, just you’re choosing what to do with it.

With some songs on this record I feel like we’re delving deeper into ourselves and saying, you know, “I’ve never really done, I guess, anything that I would consider to be overly horrendous or evil. I’ve never really killed anybody. I’ve never really considered it all that much.” But I’m not really in situations where killing people comes up that much. I’m in a band. I get to play music. So we don’t know. But I’m also not in situations where I’m forced to be kind and to be loving, against my other judgments. You know, I’ve got a great life. I’ve got a great family.

FP: So what’s caused your latest focus on the concept of evil?

WC: I was intrigued by this movie, The Night Porter — I don’t think it’s based on a true story, but obviously there is truth in it — about this Nazi guard sadistically sexually molesting this Jewish teenage girl. I watched this movie because I couldn’t get the sound to work up at Dave Fridmann’s studio on his laser disc. I watched it three or four times without any sound on it, and I didn’t understand exactly everything that was happening, but I think this silent version of this movie made me sit there and think, “What is going on here?” And so, this movie has a twist in it. Even though she’s being sort of molested by this guard, as the movie unfolds, we find that she’s really become obsessed with the guard and really loves the guard and loves this submissive, dominating sort of relationship they have. And, you know; what was pleasure, and what’s cruel and what’s pain and what isn’t and what’s kind, all gets kind of mixed up.

FP: So, on a lighter side of things, I really love the “I Can Be a Frog” song with Karen O. Did you take it as a challenge to see how many of these different animals she could imitate?

WC: I wish I could say I was being Sonny and she was being Cher, and I would say, “Can you do a helicopter?” And she would just laugh and think I was silly. I wish I could say that because it paints this picture of us being around a microphone and being very playful. But in honest truth, we were doing a vocal session for a song, “Watching the Planets,” and she sings on that song, as well. We were doing a vocal session for that, and she started to make all these crazy noises. She made them throughout these 45 minutes that we were doing this thing. Toward the end of it she said, “You know; why don’t I do a take of this song where I just completely freak out. Would you like that?” And I said, “Well, yeah! I think that would be great.” When Karen O says something like that, you just brace yourself, like, “Oh, well this is probably going to be pretty extraordinary.” So she started to do this thing, and the song goes on for about five minutes, so as she was doing it, in my mind I thought, “You know, I’m just going to make another song out of this.” So I didn’t even have the song “I Can Be a Frog.” It was mostly inspired and brought on by her performance.

FP: Is it a song you’re even going to try to replicate live?

WC: Oh, I think I could do it easily. I would just have the crowd do the noise back to me. We do that sort of stuff all the time.

FP: You seem to have a special relationship with the audience, and it is a collaborative effort when you perform. You can’t imagine yourself just getting up onstage and singing your songs, right?

WC: You know, we played some shows opening up for Coldplay. They were these giant stadium shows in Paris and Barcelona and around Europe and stuff. And you’d think that if you were playing to 60,000 people, they’re bound to respond. Well, they don’t at all. And we kind of knew that. We’ve opened up for big groups before, and these things that our audience is ready to do, these other audiences don’t know what it is. And we would go up in front of the Coldplay audience and we would just simply play. But we do that often enough that we know it still has to be a performance. It still has to be about music. It still has to be about something other than this familiarity that our audience has with our personas and stuff. Actually, I kind of like it. Me and the fellas all sort of remarked after those Coldplay shows of how you really do play for yourselves sometimes. We’re playing sometimes just to interact with each other up there.

FP: How did that special relationship with your audience begin?

WC: We were doing this song — it was one of these weird little songs off of one of our weirder little albums, Zaireeka. I asked the audience — this would be kind of late in the set… I asked the audience to just start to go crazy. And we were gonna play this song, and their applause and them going crazy was just going to be another sonic element. I told them, “This doesn’t have to be real. Let’s just make this sound while we play this song.” And on the video behind us, there was kind of a rocket ship that takes off. And I told them that about a minute into this song, when this rocket ship takes off, I just want you to go apeshit. Just go, whatever level you’re at when you see this rocket ship, just go completely, 100% ballistic. This is all completely contrived. I’m telling them to do it. We would do this song, it would last about two-and-a-half minutes, and at the end of this, you could see in the room that the atmosphere was completely changed. And people after that would just be alive for the whole rest of the 20 minutes.

FP: Are you really the extrovert you portray yourself to be onstage?

WC: I’m not really a musician. I do this “thing,” but I don’t think it could work in any other context. I don’t think I’m really a performer at all. I’m not proud of this, but I know I’m more of an artist. I like creating stuff, and presenting it to the world. And I think part of what I’ve created now, is that persona of me up there on stage.