wayne coyne interview

Wayne Coyne Talks Life, Fast Food, and What It Means to Have an American Head in 2020

I have gotten more and more negative as the year has dragged on. I just want it to be Christmas, so we can all have something to look forward to, then draw a line under this bizarre, challenging, and, in many ways, depressing year. I was in this foul funk where I seemed to be viewing everything through a lens of despair and cynicism. So when I was sent the advance of The Flaming Lips’ forthcoming release, American Head (out September 11), I was already in a fairly NIN-style downward spiral of gloom.

I did a once-through listen and was moved by how gentle and thoughtful the tunes were. However, I still was thinking of everything as a comment to my own dour, downtrodden vibe that 2020 has bestowed on so many of us. Was the burning, psychedelic eyes on the cover of the LP a comment on the seeming omnipresent lack of deep thinking and engagement with the world around us? What was an “American head’ in this time of Black Lives Matter, Trump, protest, and a global pandemic? Were the promotional shots of the band posed with the American flag done in the vein of Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” as irony or were they actually saying they were proud to be citizens of the United States at this weird moment in history? Even the video for the hauntingly beautiful single “My Religion Is You” — replete with burning crosses and effigies- – made me wonder if the song was an indictment of worshipping empty simulacrum and fake messiahs.

My angst slowly began to melt as I read through the biography that lead Lip and songwriter Wayne Coyne had included with the offering. It was more of a track-by-track explanation of what had inspired each song than the usual record company-issued overview of band history. Each tune had come from a personal story or experience. Coyne’s openness to share baldly these memories really endeared the record to me, his style of conjuring vivid images in his narrative text arguably as if not more powerful than the musical canon of experimental and truly imaginative work he and the band have been making since their inception in 1983.

Having the chance to talk with Coyne was a transformative experience; it was literally a positive, uplifting, much-needed dose of goodness. Our chat delved into the genesis of several of the tracks, as this sort of interview goes. More importantly, it also illustrated why artists like Coyne are invaluable as leaders, thinkers, and creatives. At a moment when many things seem more divisive than ever, Coyne — and many of the tracks on American Head — celebrate the beauty that is the merging of personalities, experiences, and values, the ability to unpack difficult ideas and explore them without combusting into violent arguments and the communal power that good songs have to pull us together. I hung up the phone at the end of our interview wishing that Wayne would move his family to London so we could be neighbors and set the world right one coffee klatch at a time.

flaming lips flowers cover wayne coyne

Photo courtesy of The Flaming Lips

If you, like me, have been struggling to find the silver lining in this overall shit-acular year, I strongly suggest you get your hands on a copy of American Head. It will not disappoint to provide a ray of hope.

Our chat kicked off with talking about the track, “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad,” inspired Wayne’s own terrifying experience of being robbed at gunpoint while working as a fry cook at fast-food fish restaurant Long John Silver’s in his early days as an artist.

Discogs: Hi Wayne! Let’s jump right into this. I love that you openly talk about your time working at Long John Silver’s. How did this shape you?

Wayne Coyne: With this record, we did sort of unashamedly started to say, “Let’s think about these things that happened to us and see if we can make a good song out of them.” You can really make whatever you want, but you can always reject it at the end if it’s too embarrassing or too corny or whatever. When Steven [Drozd, bandmate] and I are making music, we just go all the way. If in the end, we don’t like it, we just don’t put it out or we just stop working on it. A lot of things in your life are scary. So the song about being robbed at Long John Silver’s and having this sort of internal monologue with my mother was what was going on in my head. It felt like it was a cool, unique thing to think about. For the longest time in my life, I didn’t know if these things happen to everybody.

As time went on, I realized that is was kind of unique. It was, in a way, one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because it really did change my perception of what life was. It really made me rethink and re-evaluate what was important, who I was, and the way I thought the world worked. The best gift ever was to be able to get up off that floor when I knew that I was going to die. I think that’s the thing that people don’t realize. There had been robberies around the city and this was just another one where everybody was going to be rounded up and shot in the head and that was going to be the end of it.

I’m not ashamed of having been robbed, of being scared of working in fast-food. I think it’s a great luxury for anybody to really tell you the truth. So many times, people want to tell stories and they get exaggerated for the good or the bad, or to sound cool or whatever. But for me, the truth is so much more important because it’s got little nuances that you can’t make up.

When you think about the late-70s, early-80s, we were all working at restaurants. Some people were doing music, some people were doing art, but you worked at a restaurant so you could make some money. Then you went and did that thing you’d love to do as a career someday in your spare time. And that was very normal for a lot of people that I knew. Nobody was a “real” musician, making any money. It seemed like that would never happen. I wasn’t satisfied at the time, but I still thought, “I’m living a fucking really cool life.”

D: Let’s talk about another song from American Head. The track, “My Religion Is You,” reminded me of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. At first, it seems like a love ballad. But after watching the video and listening to it more, for me it took on a totally cautionary tale, a warning against believing in fake messiahs. It had a bit of a sinister tone. Is that what you guys had in mind?

WC: I’d say no because I would never insert something that I don’t like into something that’s so cool. When I do these types of songs, I’m singing from a place of love and sacredness. I’m not trying to put down religion. My wife, Katie, and I went to a psychic reader not too long ago. She likes visiting them — she’s probably gone eight or nine times to see one. I was just a skeptic and went along just to be entertained. We were there at the same time as {another] family. Their 14-year-old daughter had disappeared and it had been about five or six years since anyone had seen her. They never knew anything, of what happened to her — she was just gone. There’s nothing to know. There’s no death. There’s no life. They’ve never ever known anything. That’s a pain that nothing’s gonna solve. Nothing can get you out of that. I saw them there, desperate to be told something, anything.

I was standing outside. You can think, “Well, yeah, the psychic’s just telling what they want to hear.” But I saw those people change. I really did. I saw it help them. I saw whatever it was that she said to them — it made them feel better. She offered them just a little bit of hope. You can think of it what you want. But she let them know that it’s going to be alright. What choice did they have? I think I’m partially thinking about whatever it is that got you, some unfixable bad dilemma that there is no answer for, if you need God to get you through that, whatever God you choose, that’s fine.

I would never use any religion to be superior, to say I know something you don’t, or to judge people. Its greatest power is that it helps people figure out how to stay alive, not be destroyed. I go back to my mother talking about it. As a child, when I asked her, “Why did Jesus have to die for me? I didn’t want him to die for me.” She would just say, “Don’t worry. That’s for people that do not have families, that are alone – he is someone for them.” We did have a family and we can talk to each other, love each other. It made a lot of sense to me. If it that gets you through, fine.

D: Changing gears a bit. I think I’m very much looking at your new project as someone that does not live in the U.S. anymore. I live in London. I had questions about the images you did — the fact that you wrapped yourself in the U.S. flag. By doing that, are you trying to take back or examine what it means to be American?

WC: Part of the idea came from living in Oklahoma. As we traveled around the world, there would be cliched, simplified versions of what it must be like to live in Oklahoma. I don’t think we are sitting there saying, “We’re proud to be Americans” or “We’re not proud to be American.” It’s just we know that this place has an intensity and a freedom — but it’s hokey to talk about it that way.

flaming lips american head george salisbury
Photo by George Salisbury

I am exactly the quintessential American in that I align myself with people like Jerry Garcia and/or Tom Petty. Our group is made up of musicians, but it’s mostly a kind of working-class family. We didn’t calculate it out to, “We’re going to market ourselves to be a certain way.” America doesn’t necessarily stand for just one thing. To me, hippies feel like America. My older brothers and their druggie friends were hippies. As it went into the ’70s, they were more like gangsters: drug dealers, bikers, all these things. It’s like that.

When I think about the late-60s, early-70s, some of the music that we’re harkening back to [with American Head] are those American freaks that just were so, so intense and so confident and so unique. They said, “I’m just gonna be me.” I really like that; I think I’m able to think that I’m like that, now that I’m almost 60 years old. I really like that about American. That’s the vision. It’s the family. It’s me. It’s intense. It’s violence. It’s loving. It’s all these things.

So having an “American Head” is all those contradictions together. At first — like last October, November — I think we called the album American Dead. We were thinking about a lot of people in our lives that had passed away. It just had a cool vibe to it. But everybody said, “Man, why are you being a bummer?” I think that Steven and I had a different reading than everyone else as to what it meant. Changing one letter drastically changed the meaning. None of it changed for me, but it did for everybody else. So that was how we arrived at it. Then I get kind of stuck with thinking about the importance of words. This is America in that way, if that makes any sense. The record sounds hopeful and melancholic at the same time, which I think that the name actually reflects.

Our favorite music is longing and it’s sad, but it’s also positive and it’s optimistic and it’s about death and it’s about life. It’s emotion that can only get sort of unhinged by music. Most of the time, we’re not sappy emotional humans. We’re just doing our stuff and trying to get by. Music has a way of going deep inside. Sometimes things will have different value. We’re not cool. We’re not smart. We’re not clever. We’re a channel for these things to come out.

American Head is out on September 11.

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