- PHOTO BY DEREK BROWN
- Led by frontman Wayne Coyne, seated at left, The Flaming Lips have been in the vanguard of quirky indie rock music for nearly 40 years.
The band’s colorful shows have at various times featured inflatable robots, suns and frogs, people wearing assorted animal costumes, a singing nun hand puppet, and Coyne crowd-surfing in a giant bubble.
Coyne says that when the Lips appear on stage to headline the Borderland Festival in East Aurora on Sept. 18, he'll perform most of the band's set in another large plastic bubble.
In 2021, the band — Coyne, multi-instrumentalists Steven Drozd, Derek Brown, and Matt Kirksey, and drummer Nicholas Ley — put on special “space bubble” concerts at The Criterion in Oklahoma City, at which band members and concertgoers alike were in separate plastic bubbles as a way to participate in live performances safely during the pandemic. The resulting concerts were documented in “The Flaming Lips Space Bubble Film,” which premiered in July.
The Borderland Festival, now in its fourth year, was founded in 2018 by entertainment producer and East Aurora native Jennifer Brazill. Having produced festivals in California and Colorado, Brazill turned her attention to Buffalo and western New York.
“This is a western New York regional festival,” Brazil said. “It’s for Rochester, it’s for Buffalo, it’s for Erie, P.A. We want people to all come and own this as theirs. We want to be that festival for everybody in this region, because nothing like this exists here. There’s one-off shows all over the place, which are awesome,but this is a full, curated, two day immersive experience.”
In addition to performances by national acts such as The Flaming Lips, Portugal. The Man, Michael Franti, and Keller Williams, Borderland features several regional bands familiar to Rochester audiences — including Folkfaces, Donna the Buffalo, A Girl Named Genny, Driftwood, and Miller & the Other Sinners.
CITY caught up with Wayne Coyne to discuss LSD, death, and The Flaming Lips’ secret ingredient in advance of the Borderland show. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CITY: Does the creation of visual elements for your live concerts require a similar kind of consideration and inspiration as your music does?
Wayne Coyne: The secret ingredient in The Flaming Lips, that I don’t think the world could really know, is that we all love KISS. I mean, we don’t love them exclusively, but I mean, you know, for as advanced a musician as Steven [Drozd] is and as advanced a musician as Derek [Brown] is, they love KISS, and they love the idea of putting on makeup and wearing crazy stuff, fire and explosions and all that. Because it allows you to be a performer, but you kind of can become a character. Our dilemma is always, we love making records, we love being creative in the studio, and just sort of doing whatever that is.But then, at some point, we cross over into being these entertainers who have to go out there and be these show-offs, or whatever.
It’s just a very strange twist of fate. You know, the more determined we were to be a studio band and just create records, the better our live show became, because we just did whatever we could think of, you know? We didn’t have any rules as to the way we should be. So we just made up stuff, which is kind of the way we are now, but the world keeps catching up to us. I think the things that we were doing 20 years ago don’t seem odd at all now.
Do you think your reputation as a psychedelic band comes as much from the live performance and the visual side of things as it does the music?
We've done a cover record of “Dark Side of the Moon,” we've done a cover record of Beatles. So I think it's just a way of kind of quickly getting to where, like, “Yeah, these guys, they'll do long instrumentals, they have a freaky light show, they have long hair, they do drugs. That sounds close enough.” To me, there's a lot of fun in categories. I mean, I always think that we're probably more punk rock, like a punk rock version of a prog rock band than we are a psychedelic band. But you got to know a lot about music to tell what that would mean, you know? And I think to a lot of people, psychedelic music is a wonderful term for it. So I think it's probably right, but it's not — you know, I mean, there's good examples and bad examples of that. But I think, yeah, we're a band that you could take some acid to while we play our concert, and you'd have a great time.
As I understand it, though, you personally don’t do drugs very much, right?
No, especially not those kind. I'm on the verge of going insane anyway, you know? And growing up, I definitely grew up in a time where my younger brother was 12 or 13 years old, he took acid every day, and I was just scared of it. And the times I took it, I didn't like it at all. And I think the mechanism in my mind would be like, I would see some freak out there that's babbling incoherently and whatever, and I'd be like, “I don't want to be that person.” And I don’t know, I think I just worry too much. And I do like my mind. I don't mean that in a cocky way, I just like that I am drawn to music, I like that I'm drawn to art, I like the things I listen to. And I like trusting my senses.
So I didn't like the idea of whatever the Timothy Leary line would be, you know — “Drop out” — it's like, I wanted to be in. I don't want to be out, I don't want to be zonked out, I don't want to be brain-dead. I don't want to be brain-damaged. And so anytime I would take anything — still, even today — I would just be like, “Oh, my gosh.” The minute I take something that might alter my ability to be responsible, I just freak out. I always think I could do some acid, it'd be fine. Then as soon as I would do it, I would think, “What if the house burns down and I don't get our dogs,” you know? I'm always worried, so no, that doesn't work for me. I mean, I would do other drugs, drugs that don't fuck with your perception so much. But none of us really do. None of us are big LSD people.
You haven’t really shied away from death in your lyrics. What is your current relationship to death, and have the songs that you’ve written and performed over the years changed your views on that in ways you didn’t expect?
Part of Steven and my promise to the gods of music is that we would follow our hearts. I mean, that's really the bottom line with us. We have no idea what would work in the music industry, we have no idea what would be a hit, we have no idea what would make young people adore us. So what we do is we just sing from that place in your mind, that place in your heart that only music can talk to. And Steven being a master, master musician with a lot of pain in his life — I mean, Steven is the only living person from his family — he comes from a big family and he's the only living person, lot of tragedies. And I would have known of death, even when I was very young, very young. But I always felt like music was about that.
I think singing about pain helps you understand it. I don't know why. That's why when we find that we're doing that, we're just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can't believe it. Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ whatever the heavens are, whatever our God is, whatever this mechanism is, that lets you communicate this thing that is just so unspeakable. I think that's why people make music. I mean, all kinds of music is fun. But nothing is as precious as that sort of music that speaks to that grief, and that horrible pain. And so Steven and I, for both of us in our lives, music would have helped us in those times. So I think there's just something in that, when we get to create that. We don't always do it even on purpose. Sometimes it's just something that happens. We really cherish that as the special gift from the gods, you know, like, oh, my gosh, we get to sing this song.
But we do love all kinds of music, and we make all kinds of stuff all the time. But that special thing, I think that's probably the thing that we're most rewarded by is singing about that pain and that strangeness, that loneliness, whatever that is. I think music probably is the language for that. Some things are so deep that you can't even use words.
Is there a transformative fan experience you’ve witnessed that stands out?
We probably have five or six of those heavy songs that we do every night. That, you know, someone's mother has died, someone's brother was in a car accident, someone's father is in the hospital that night, and they're at our show, knowing there's this, something gets to happen while the music's going, while you're standing in there, with The Flaming Lips audience. It's not a party, you know, but it's still a different sort of party. And we want that. I mean, that's a great, great feeling to be connected to.
There's not that many people in your life that can die, so if you're connected to someone when their mother’s died or their child has died or something, that's a deep, heavy, lifelong connection. It may be through music, but you get connected through that. So, you know, to us, it's a great honor to stand there and say, “I know that pain.” And so when I say that we're lucky enough to sing these songs, I think every artist would love to be able to address those things, and I think artists try and try and try. It's just a hard, hard thing to do. And for us to be lucky enough to have a handful that really, really say something in that way, it's great.
Life is beautiful, but it's full of brutal, brutal things. I think that's just part of The Flaming Lips — you know, the world. If you like The Flaming Lips, you know that. You know that life is beautiful, because your heart is open. If the more you have an open heart, the more sensitive you are to the world, the more beauty you see, but you also see more pain. And that's why we sing songs.
Is there anything that The Flaming Lips still have to accomplish?
I don't think we think of it that way. The way that we do music and the way that we like being in a group and being in this family, I think it would probably be like saying, “Since you’ve eaten all these great meals in your life, do you think you need to eat any more meals?” I'd be like, “Well, yeah.” I mean, it's our life. We've done this our whole adult life, and we like doing it, we like what it does, and we like the living that it gives us, and we love traveling the world. Just last time we were in England, we met Peter Gabriel. I mean, my gosh.
I mean, there's another side of it. It’s a crazy, crazy life, which to some people is horrible. But for us, I mean, we've come through a lot of that, and it's great. Part of it is just exhilarating. You know, it's exciting. I'll probably do it ‘till I die. I'll die on stage somewhere.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Definitely the song, “Do You Realize??” When we made it, we would have never been able to purposely say, ‘We're going to make this song, it's going to stand for these things that we're all about, and it's going to be a song that people play at weddings, and it's gonna be a song that people play at funerals and the births of their children.’ We would have never even wanted that, in a way. We're just writing songs to please ourselves, you know, but as time has gone on, I think that song has really, we've become that song. I think that's always happening in our music that we make. It tells our own future.
I was listening recently to Chris Thile, the mandolinist, give a talk in which he said songs just sort of enter the public consciousness. When they really do that, and they’re really effective, the authorship sort of slips away and it becomes this sort of anonymous tune that just belongs to everyone. And that seems similar to what you’re describing.
I've always said I wish that The Flaming Lips had written the song “Happy Birthday.” I mean, what a great, useful, precise — what is it? Six words? And one of them is you add in the name, and everybody knows it. It's so easy to sing, even though everybody sings it in a different key every time. I mean, that's what you want, you know? And to know that it’s your lyrics and your music and your song. But people take that and they can make it into something that really does help them, and that's not you doing that. The song is there, and then they get to take it and make what they want of it.
Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.