Flaming Lips' frontman Wayne Coyne on drugs, showmanship and working with Miley Cyrus

Sometimes the entertainer is probably too open for his own good, says Ben Walsh, but his natural exuberance makes him good company

Ben Walsh
Monday 01 June 2015 18:11
The Flaming Lips' frontman Wayne Coyne
The Flaming Lips' frontman Wayne Coyne

"Miley Cyrus makes you feel good about being a freak and doesn't punish you for it," says Wayne Coyne. The "freaky" frontman for the Flaming Lips brings up the diminutive 22-year-old pop star in conversation, unprompted, quite a bit. Is it a tactic to avoid discussing other more personal things? Probably not, as the 54-year-old is a dream interviewee, unfailingly polite (apart from the expletives), considered in his answers and full of enthusiasm. A good egg, then, with a tiny fixation over a younger woman.

Coyne lives in Oklahoma, in the same neighbourhood where he grew up. He is childless and recently split with his long-term partner, and considers his space-rock outfit, a going concern for 32 years, as his "family". He's been friends with Steve Drozd, Lips co-writer and guitarist, for 25 years.

"Some bands don't really care for each other and that's really strange for us; why would you spend all this time together and struggle with people you don't really care about?" says Coyne. "We get to travel around and do all these adventures together, like Sinbad and the sailors."

Now Cyrus, who has long been a Lips fan, has been embraced by this psychedelic crew, too. "We really have a spark," Coyne says of the "Wrecking Ball" singer. He loves her energy, ideas and encouragement, and just announced an as-yet-untitled seven track LP with the former Disney Channel star. They debuted a potential new track from the album, a trippy number called "Tiger Dreams" in New York earlier this month. Cyrus wore butterfly wings.

"If I have the mindset that I'm making songs for Miley Cyrus I make the best freaking Flaming Lips songs they could possibly be," he enthuses. "You can get bogged down trying to write a Flaming Lips song, but if it's about lesbian sex and doing drugs for one of Miley's songs, it frees you up."

Being free to experiment is vital to the Flaming Lips. Last year they released a track-for-track remake of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, titled With a Little Help from My Fwends, with Cyrus singing on "A Day in the Life". (Their "cosmic" performance together on Conan O'Brien's talk show, where Cyrus emerged from Coyne's giant, billowing cape is unforgettable.)

"Most artists with a just slight hint of curiosity are always experimenting with music," Coyne maintains. "Most good things in the world are probably a reaction to an evolution of experiments. And then we end up with a cheeseburger, you know."

Coyne admires artists who have the courage to unsettle and alienate their audiences, those such as Miles Davis, Bjork and Neil Young, whose experiments "make their ideas and catalogues richer". And Yoko Ono. "We have done quite a few things with Yoko and she's such a passive, little, kind, squeaky person and then to have her art and her music being such an 'Arghhh!'..." Coyne bellows.

The Lips' popularity has plateaued slightly since the giddy days of their masterpiece The Soft Bulletin (1999) and the successful Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), two albums that blend catchy euphoric pop with experimental rock. More recently Coyne has had some verbal spats with artists Erykah Badu, Beck and Arcade Fire ("I get really tired of their pompousness"). He's also had a public feud with former Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock and in 2012 he tried to clear Oklahoma City airport security with a (disarmed) hand grenade, sparking a lockdown. He attracts controversy, then, and is very open about his drug-taking too.

"I sort of love all of it [drugs] as long as you don't have to lose too much control," he laughs. "I can do some drugs and no one would really know, I wouldn't get arrested for it."

Sometimes he's probably too open for his own good, but his natural exuberance makes him good company, whether he's enthusing about Bob Dylan "changing the world" or Miley Cyrus. "Some of the hardest things in the world are the things that Miley talks about," he claims. "Like if you're 15 and you think you might be gay and your friends are going to hate you for that, and you're looking for someone to talk about or sing about that, someone to represent your thoughts and Miley does that."

He appears to have cheered up since the bleakness of 2013's The Terror, which bodes well for Flaming Lips' forthcoming UK shows. A recent performance at Liverpool's Sound City festival showed a return to the group's heady concert experiences, with Coyne dressed as a sort of butterfly, the stage strewn with glittering streamers, smoke and confetti.

At heart Coyne is an entertainer and doesn't take it too seriously. He once toured with an "anguished" Beck who couldn't understand why the audience weren't "getting" his new record. "Don't worry about it," was how Coyne responded. "As you go along there's a sense of people thinking you know what you're doing, but, no, I don't know what I'm doing."

The Flaming Lips play Magners Summer Nights festival in Edinburgh on 27 Aug and the Victorious Festival in Portsmouth on 29 Aug

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