Kaotican Alphabet

Flaming Lips interview

We chat to Wayne Coyne about playing with Coldplay

We called up Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips just before the band (one of Coldplay’s all-time favourites) played their final show on the Viva tour.

Hi Wayne. How are you?
I’m good. We’re backstage here at Nijmegen.

Crikey, you know how to pronounce it.
Well, I only know because back in 1988 we stayed at an abandoned church full of nuns. It was at the end of our tour and we had three or four days before we had to go home. They didn’t want to put us in a hotel, so they put us in this makeshift youth hostel thing. It was weird. I remember it was that Christmas when the Lockerbie flight went down, so everybody was afraid to fly home from Europe for fear that they’d be shot down. When we landed in America, people stood up crying and applauding. It was pretty weird.

And the church you stayed in was in Nijmegen?
Yeah! So while I’m no expert on Dutch things, I do know how to pronounce that.

What’s the venue like?
This one is more of a field than a stadium. It looks like a giant Coldplay festival, only instead of it being 20 bands, it’s just a couple of us and Coldplay.

Have the gigs in Barcelona and Paris felt similar to playing at a festival?
No, because – and this is in no way a reflection on Coldplay – there is just a mentality that when you go to see your band play a stadium, it’s different than going to a festival. At festivals you could be the first band on that day and people are ready to greet whatever’s on stage. But for these fans to come and see Coldplay – the ones who rush the stage as soon as the doors opened – they really can not be bothered by anything that isn’t Coldplay. They’ll think, "Oh, Bat For Lashes, you’re great, but where’s Coldplay?" And then the Flaming Lips will play and they’ll think, "OK, you guys are weird and you’re old and this could be cool, but where’s Coldplay?"

Ah. Tricky.
But I can only speak from my own experience when I saw the Rolling Stones in, I think, 1981. I saw them play in a giant stadium in Dallas, Texas and Billy Squier and ZZ Top opened up for them. And I stood in that stadium and thought, "Get the fuck off the stage, where are the Rolling Stones?" I can say for sure, if I’d seen ZZ Top even a week later, I would’ve thought they were great. It’s just a mentality that sort of takes over when you’re standing in a stadium full of people, who are just there to see this one group. But, y’know, we expected that coming into this. We’re really doing it because we like the guys and we know a lot of their crew. And, y’know because they asked us. And, of all the giant groups out there in the world, they probably are the coolest as far as people and the way they treat their audience and their crew. So we kind of knew going into it that we’d have a good time, even if the audience didn’t understand us.

Did they not understand you?
Actually, I think they respond good enough. I beg them to respond, and they do! We’re like, "Look, Chris sent us out here as the opening group, we’re supposed to warm you up. So if, by the time they come out, you’re not fully charged, I feel like we won’t have done our job!" So, in that sense, I’m really just pleading to them from a Coldplay point of view. I think they respond to that best! But I certainly don’t want to make it sound like it’s been a horrible experience. It’s just you know there are times while our set is going on that the audience is actually singing a Coldplay song. You can be tricked into thinking they’re singing your song, but it’s the Coldplay chant they do the whole time. But that’s great. I want them to enjoy this spectacle that Coldplay is putting on. It’s pretty unbelievable. And we don’t mind – we find a way to make every experience we have happy and good.

You’ve had a pretty crazy summer – playing big festival slots all over the world. This is presumably just another part of your summer 2009 experience.

That is exactly the way to look at it. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t gonna find a way to say, "Oh this is interesting and different". That’s part of what’s great about doing all these different things – you jump from one thing to another. We’ve been in Australia and Japan and America, we did Coldplay and then we jumped to Ireland for a festival and now we’re back. So sometimes you don’t really know where you’re at. But you make the experience what you can. That being said, everything around Coldplay and their organisation is top notch. It’s a great spot to be in.

How did you come to be on the Coldplay tour?
When Coldplay played in Oklahoma City, where we’re from in America, last November, Chris called me about a week later and said, "Hey Wayne, do you guys want to do some of these shows with us, playing these giant stadiums in Europe next summer?" I just said, "Sure, sounds like fun!" Then I didn’t really think about it again until we arrived in Barcelona! And that’s what made it fun. I’m not really doing it from a marketing point of view, I’m doing it cos Chris loves us and we like them.

Did you go to the Oklahoma show in November?
Yeah. Luckily almost every time that they’ve played there I’ve been home. The previous time I went down there in my truck and Chris and Jonny jumped in the back and I gave them a tour around Oklahoma and some of the significant places that are important to Flaming Lips folklore, like the first place we played and where we filmed Christmas On Mars. It was a lot of fun.

What did you make of Chris’s Flaming Lips cover at the November show?
Oh, he always gives us the greatest shout outs. For days afterwards I’ll run into people at the malls or whatever in Oklahoma and they’ll say, "Chris Martin talked about you at the Coldplay show!" I think he did Superman and, y’know, when you’re sitting there and there’s 15,000 people in Oklahoma City thinking, "Wow, according to Chris Martin, Wayne is the coolest guy in the world", that’s pretty hard to beat!

When did you first meet Coldplay?
I have to say that we’ve been connected from the very beginning. We both played at a festival in Scotland around the time that Yellow went into the charts in the UK. I remember we were standing there with them when they came off stage and we all talked about each other’s music and I think we’ve just had a connection with them ever since. For whatever reason, we’ve just stayed real casual and real friendly, admiring each other’s ways of doing things. It’s mostly just cos they’re cool people. There’s a lot of musicians out there in bands that are popular but you simply don’t like being around them that much when they’re doing their thing. I think now that they’re so popular they can obviously pick and choose whatever they want. They stick to these hard-fought priorities and think, "We like these bands and this music" and they prove it by inviting you along, it’s wonderful! And you can tell the kind of effect they have on their organisation because everybody they work with is really respectful and nice and tries as hard as they can. And that’s simply because of the way they are. There’s a lot of other groups out there that you travel with and their organisation isn’t nearly as nice to be around.

The balloons that Coldplay put out during Yellow are, in a sense, a tribute to the Flaming Lips.
I wouldn’t want to say we were the first group ever to use balloons! But I think we were the ones within the past decade who made that famous. There’s been times when me and Chris will go back and forth and he’ll say, "I’m gonna do the balloons and the confetti as a tribute to the Flaming Lips" even though we all know it’s just stuff. My suggestion was instead of using confetti they should just let it rain down dollar bills. That would really one up the Flaming Lips. And you wouldn’t need to hire a clean-up crew, because the audience would just clean it up themselves.

Having known Coldplay since the start, do you think they’ve developed as a band.
Well, I really think that there’s an authenticity and a truth in Chris in the way that he sings to the audience. And even though you’d have to think there has to be some difference between playing to a couple of hundred people when they started and playing to literally tens of thousands of people now, I still see that in him. That’s why I like them so much, because he is the real deal. He’s not faking it when he gets up there and that enthusiasm still effects him. So in that way, I think they’re virtually unchanged. They haven’t become these unapproachable mega rock stars, even though they’re arguably the biggest band in the world right now. If they wanted to they could just walk around and piss on everybody’s head. But I just don’t get the feeling it’s of them. Obviously their stage show has taken over this corner of Holland, but I think that’s all fun. That’s probably one of the reasons why Coldplay and the Flaming Lips like each other. There’s just a sense of "Fuck, let’s go for it! Let’s get 50 laser beams and 20 tonnes of confetti and let’s throw this shit at the audience and sing songs to them". I think we both relate to that a lot.

Flaming Lips have got a new album coming soon.
We do. I think it’s coming in the second week of October. So we’ve been playing new songs and trying new things. I think when bands have new stuff, it has a different energy to it. You feel like you’re living in the now instead of singing a song that you did in 1990 or something. It’s exciting.

Have you got any big plans up your sleeves for the new campaign?
Actually, when I get home from this I’m going straight off to Portland, Oregon where I’m shooting a video for a couple of days with a group of bicyclists that cycles through town nude three times a year. I’m gonna grab them and use them in my video, doing various things around Portland. They’ve promised me anything between 500 and 5,000 naked people. I should ask Chris if he’s ever had any experience with 5,000 naked people and see what he would do.

It’s been 23 years since your first album. It’s pretty amazing to have a career that long.
Well, it seems like it’s getting more and more normal. We played in Japan a couple of weeks back with Sonic Youth, who’s actually been around longer than we have. We’ve played with Red Hot Chili Peppers who have been around longer than we have. U2 has too. If you stop and think about it, there’s quite a few groups that are still going. Beastie Boys have been around longer than us. So as time goes on, it doesn’t feel as impossible to keep trudging along.

But it’s tricky to stay relevant. People half your age still love your band.
That’s just dumb luck. In a way, that’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us, that we’re still viewed as a band that’s making music now, that matters. I think when it was 10 years, it shocked us. We were like, "Well that seems old for a weird group like us". Then at 15 years, it almost felt embarrassing, like "Oh my God, we should break up or something, this just seems pathetic". But then it got to 20 years and we started to feel like, maybe we’re one of those "classic" groups. You saw how I lumped myself in with Sonic Youth, U2 and all these cool, old groups out there! But I guess we’re just lucky that this has really become our whole adult life now.

Do you enjoy it as much as ever?
Yeah, I think really that’s the key to being able to do it. If you weren’t able to enjoy it, gee what a torturous existence it would be. Because it really demands every bit of your energy and time. You can’t do this half asleep. And that’s why I applaud groups like Coldplay. When we showed up, they’d been doing this tour for 18 months. And yet their crew and them are still pleasant to be around. That’s an achievement. So, yeah, I’m lucky because I’m more obsessed with it than ever. I find more opportunity and more stuff that I like about it all the time. I think that’s got to be the secret.

You can be a wise uncle for younger bands.
Well, I don’t know if it’s "wise", but certainly "experienced"! But I can tell them, here’s how it was for me. And really that there is an element of being out here, seeing the world and just being able to be around people who love music and art all the time, that’s a joy in itself. There are stresses and pressures of being out there every day being a performer, but there’s a lot of other things about it that are really wonderful and you gotta hope that the wonderful things outweigh the horrible things. But that’s true in life. Everybody’s life has stress in it. Even people who work just an 8 to 5 job seem to have more stress than doing this. So I think we’re all lucky. Who knows how long the world will let us do this thing?

Finally, what is your favourite Coldplay song?
I like a lot of their songs, but there’s a song on the album before this one that kind of reminds me of Johnny Cash. Where he says "I don’t know what I’ve become".

‘Til Kingdom Come.
Yes, that’s the one. I don’t think they’re doing it at these shows, but they used to do it as part of their acoustic part and I saw that several times. I just felt like Chris was saying that to himself like, "What is this?" Especially with what was happening with them during that time, where they went from, "Are they really gonna be the biggest band in the world?" to being, "Fuck, they’re really taking over!". And I thought that was a cool thing for a guy to sing about, like "I don’t know what this shit is, what’s happening to me?" And not necessarily struggling with it in a bad way, but just looking at himself like, "What am I gonna become?". They’ve got a lot of great songs, but that would be my favourite for now.

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