Wayne Coyne is sitting in a hotel lobby in Indianapolis, polishing off three espresso shots from the adjacent Starbucks kiosk. “I always say, energy is happiness,” he muses after taking a sip.
Doling out fortune cookie philosophies about something as mundane as caffeine intake is what you hope for from The Flaming Lips frontman, who deals in absurdity and keeps audiences on their toes night after night. In a 30-plus year career, the Oklahoma band has become known for its experimental art rock and cosmic live performances, complete with oversized hamster balls and furry animal costumes. Through it all, Coyne’s been at the helm—the ringleader in a circus of confetti, rainbows, and glitter—with a sense of innovation that continues to take things to the next level.
“I’m always doing too much and I don’t really know what of it is good and what of it is ridiculous,” Coyne says. Take The Flaming Lips’ 1997 release, Zaireeka. In order to hear the intended sound, the listener has to play four CDs at the same time.
“I was a very rational, normal person thinking that we could do that with 100 CDs and we would actually make these, you know, there would be 100 different pieces of music,” Coyne recalls. “Luckily our manager [is] practical and he said, ‘Well, Wayne, would you consider 20 CDs?’ And I thought, ‘Who wants that? That just seems too normal.’”
The label ultimately went for it, but capped the project at four CDs. “I think about it now, it’s the most insane thing anybody’s ever done, but they all helped me make it,” he says. “I think they would rather I walk in with way too much and then we all sort out what’s good about it, as opposed to me walking in with not enough.”
It’s that approach that has solidified The Flaming Lips’ status as psychedelic juggernauts turned pop culture icons (the group’s activities in recent years include palling around with Miley Cyrus and making cameo appearances on the comedy show “Portlandia”). The Lips’ latest offering, King’s Mouth, is another installment in atmospheric creativity. First released on colored vinyl on Record Store Day, the band’s 15th studio album is a companion to Coyne’s traveling interactive art installation by the same name, currently on view at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale, Arkansas.
“When you see pictures of the “King’s Mouth,” it looks like this metallic, drippy head, but the real show is on the inside, you know, once you go in through his mouth, the idea is that you’re laying inside there and you’re peering up to where the inside of his head used to be and you’re peering out into the universe,” explains Coyne. “There’s nothing like sitting in there because of the music and the way the lights are; they’re almost like liquid lights and it’s almost like a hologram hovering above you, it can kind of come at you or around you or through you…it’s meant to be an experience.”
The King’s Mouth album is an expanded edition of what exhibit-goers hear inside the installation, with an added bonus: the oration of The Clash’s Mick Jones.
“I sometimes still think that it’s just some hallucination that I’ve made up,” Coyne says with palpable excitement. “And Mick Jones’ voice is so perfectly eccentric and gentle and warbly and honest. There were some words I’d heard him say in interviews that made me think, ‘I hope he says those words with the exact same inflection,’ and when it came back, it was as though he read my mind.”
The “King’s Mouth” installation isn’t out of Coyne’s wheelhouse. He grew up in a family that valued the arts, and started out drawing and painting.
“The dilemma with really all art that isn’t music is that you eventually want to hear music with your art; with your painting or with your movie or with your sculpture,” he says. “So I just started to make music because I wanted it to go with my other stuff.”
Coyne formed The Flaming Lips at a time when the DIY punk ethos was on the rise in the U.S., and he looked to contemporaries like the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers for inspiration.
“These were people that we knew in real life and it was something more on our level,” he explains. “We would go to see Sonic Youth play to 50 people and we would say, ‘Well, maybe we could play to 50 people,’ whereas seeing Led Zeppelin play to 10,000 people, it was like, ‘How are we ever going to do that?’ So I think we were very lucky that what was happening in our world of music was very encouraging to us.”
Even though he had no musical training and, as he tells it, couldn’t play other people’s songs, he enjoyed making up his own.
“I still don’t really know how music works. I definitely know how to record music, but sitting with Sean Lennon and Les Claypool even yesterday, they start talking about chord structures and key changes and I’m really lost pretty quickly,” Coyne says. “So I’m not really a musician, but I create music. I don’t really know if it makes sense in a mathematical musical sense, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like anything; if you like it, then it’s worth it.”
The Flaming Lips take Charlottesville on a wild ride Tuesday, August 6, at the Pavilion.