Wayne Coyne, front man for the Oklahoma City-based rock band, The Flaming Lips, remembers being in the green room at a show with the once-infamous group, Creed. He remembers the anxiety Creed’s band members were experiencing. At the time, the band was one of the most well known in the world. Their songs were topping charts but, nevertheless, the members continued to fret. And Coyne, surprised, kept wondering what was eating them? How can you be so successful and yet so worried? But it’s that type of buoyant behavior that marks Coyne and the way he navigates the world. It’s not effortlessness. Rather, it’s lightness. Like the bubbles The Flaming Lips often shoot into the crowd during shows, there’s jauntiness to Coyne and that energy is ever-present on his band’s new record, American Head, set for release September 11th.
“Being backstage with Creed, there was so much frustration,” Coyne says. “So much discontent. I was like, ‘You guys are the biggest band in the world. Just be happy, who cares?’ But they were worried that people didn’t think they were real or authentic. I just thought, ‘Well, okay.’”
Coyne’s point, of course, was: what does it matter? Contentment is not borne from what other people think about you. If you’re making what you want to make and you have the continued opportunity to do so, then happiness should follow, right? Or, at least, some sort of satisfaction. If you want to be in a band and you’re backstage on tour at a major venue, why fuss? But not everyone is like Coyne. Few can pull off outfits that look borrowed from Sgt. Pepper’s and sing songs that sound like the soul transcending to some purple candy cloud heaven. The Grammy-winning Coyne is not self-conscious, not in any particular debilitating way, anyway.
“I don’t think it could work at all if I was too upright or too insecure,” he says.
The Flaming Lips, which formed in 1993 and has released (“at least”) 21 studio albums to date, has produced several hit songs and amassed millions of video views, streams and tickets sold. But the band began from rather modest beginnings. Older siblings first introduced Coyne, born in 1961, to music. In the 60s, music was everywhere. Psychedelic rock was everywhere. He bathed in it. Later, at 16-years-old, he began dreaming of rock star fame. A creative person by nature, Coyne was always doodling, painting and penning something, including lyrics.
“I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know,” he says, “which is probably a good thing.”
As the group began to rise in popularity in the early 90s with songs like “She Don’t Use Jelly,” people began to pay them attention, recognize them at shopping malls. But it took some time for the band members to get used to it. Some people want the attention, some worry when they aren’t awash in it just the right way. But Coyne never particularly needed it, he says. Instead, what he wanted from the glitz was just the chance to make more art.
“I think I’m just a creative person,” he says. “And I don’t say that as a good or bad thing. I just know I like creating stuff. I’m lucky that enough stuff we’ve done has hit an audience and that allows us to keep doing it.”
If you ask Coyne about his singing voice, which many people, of course, adore, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t think it’s all that exceptional – nowhere near all that and a bag of chips. In fact, he’ll say that he has to try very hard to get anything out of his vocal performance. But in so doing, in trying, working, offering, the fans of The Flaming Lips respond to the sincere effort.
“Here I am with this amateur kind of warbling voice,” Coyne says. “But I’m trying very, very hard. I’m working very, very hard. I do want it to sound great. And I think that trying makes the audience say, ‘We’ll forgive him. He can’t do it, he gets an “A” for effort.’”
On the band’s latest LP, the group gets both an ‘A’ for effort and for execution. Songs float, accelerate, rise, achieve high and low ground and spring forth colors in various sonic waves (“I think music unlocks something in you that nothing else can,” Coyne says. “It swims around the portholes in your mind and opens them all up.”). But while the band’s new record prominently includes the word “American” in the title and will be made public on 9/11, that doesn’t mean there’s any inherent or intrinsic political statement in the mix, the front man says.
“I think most creative endeavors, they just begin,” Coyne says. “There’s nothing better than having your song intersect with the times and the feelings out there in the world, but there is nothing you could do to plan for that. That is all just chance and good or bad luck.”
Regardless of luck and regardless of the way the world finds the band’s new songs, Coyne operates with at least one tenant tucked closely to his chest, one idea that comes through in both his aesthetics and his work. And that is: don’t come up short. Don’t leave anything on the table. Don’t forego an opportunity.
“Don’t hold back,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned, don’t hold back. We all know when an artist went all the way.”
Photo credit: George Salisbury