Wayne Coyne comes to the phone late but not rock-star late. “You sound like you’re raring to go, which is good because I’m raring to go,” he laughed, a mere 15 minutes after the polite publicity department’s warning that he might be tardy. He calls in from his hometown of Oklahoma City; he’s working in a studio but knocking off for dinner. Maybe he’s tired, but conversationally the man whose band will convert the Santa Barbara Bowl into a psychedelic Día de Los Muertos Wonderland is off at a gallop, apparently making up for our tragically lost quarter hour. He’s chatty and super nice but firmly denies when I suggest he’s over-booked, an over-achiever.
Yet consider only the apparent evidence: In between releasing 2009’s Embryonic and this year’s The Terror, both brilliant, critically acclaimed self-reinventions, the Lips covered Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, followed by a flock of extracurricular collaborations that included teaming up with Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band and The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, a duet album that was fun and managed to start a great fight with soul singer Erykah Badu. Most recently, Coyne delivered the hyper-viral song “The Perfect Life” alongside electronica maestro Moby, the video for which makes the rooftops of downtown Los Angeles look like the site of the next Aquarian Age dawning.
“I’m always already doing something,” said the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Flaming Lips, who will host Australian wunderkinds Tame Impala at their show this Friday night. “You know the thing with Moby is just like that. He called me up and said, ‘Let’s do a song,’ and we did it, and then next thing I know, the video is everywhere.”
But Coyne, who was touring and recording when we spoke a few weeks ago, was many steps ahead of the news. “We were already doing shows, and I also thought I was going to get back to the Electric Worms,” he said, referencing a much-anticipated prog-rock side project that he and fellow Lips lynchpin Steven Drozd have been teasing fans with. (It’s psychedelic music for real children, not just the flower variety.) “Then some people contacted us to do some music for the movie Ender’s Game. We did some songs, and we liked them, so we’re gonna release six songs for Record Store Day.”
Coyne’s circumspect about the movie itself, keenly aware that its author, Orson Scott Card, drew ire over some dumb homophobic remarks. “They showed me the movie; I liked it. What a music director is really looking for is music to build a scene, and we did that. I like the songs more than I thought I would.” If he’s happy with that project, he’s a little less enchanted with the results of his own film, a thus-far-untitled follow-up to the band’s camp classic Christmas on Mars. “It’s about two people who are equally screwed up in unrelated ways and meet at a Flaming Lips show and follow us around,” he said. He likes the casting but feels he still needs to work on some of the characterizations. I say overachiever.
Coyne does a lot and has been for eons — at least when measured in rock-and-roll years. Most of the kids who go to clubs or show up for the band’s extravaganza shows — Coyne and the Lips are this generation’s theatrical equivalent of Fee Waybill and The Tubes — weren’t even born when the band first took the stage as a punk rock act back in 1983. Eight years later, they had a flourishing surreal sound and a major-label deal. Critics sometimes cite the Lips as a prime connecting link not only between previously incompatible punk and psychedelia but also between the alt-rock and indie worlds. The range of music they play adds to the labeling confusion; big, chunky fuzz-bass rock songs sometimes yield to beautiful ballads and instrumentals. They are infamous for the avant-garde recording Zaireeka, which required listeners to set up four CD players. They played the Santa Barbara Bowl in 2002 as part of a showcase of up-and-coming bands (with Cake and Modest Mouse) three years after their poppy breakout album, The Soft Bulletin, was released. It wasn’t until Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots hit stores that the Lips were cemented in youth and mass culture, mostly by dint of the single “Do You Realize??” The song ended up in Land Rover and HP commercials, a mere nine years — a long nine years — after their debut.
Yoshimi seems like a concept album, but it’s no more conceptual than some of the Lips’ other surreally titled works, like Clouds Taste Metallic or In a Priest Driven Ambulance (with Silver Sunshine Stares). A rumor keeps circulating that a Broadway play based on Yoshimi is in the works. “I always feel like when people say Broadway play, they mean something bad,” said Coyne. “There is a musical based on Yoshimi, and it had a successful run in San Diego, but I don’t know where it will go next.
“What happened was my agent got ahold of me and told me ‘You ought to do this.’ It turns out there’s this guy whose father was dying of lymphoma and he’s driving to his hospital every day from San Diego and on the way he’s listening to Yoshimi.” Coyne means Des McAnuff, the former Stratford Shakespeare Festival director who brought Jersey Boys and Big River to Broadway. He put together a book using the music and produced the play at San Diego’s Old Globe to good reviews. “What’s great about the play is the way he connected it to his life,” said Coyne. “You know I almost don’t care who he is, the guy is so loveable, really a wonderful guy. We would have let anybody who loves our music that much do this. But it’s really a joy.”
Coyne has many homebound activities, too. He never moved to Malibu or Manhattan after scoring a major-label record deal, and he’s been working on the idea of a community space “where artists and other weirdos can hang out” in Oklahoma City. “I’m too young to have been a part of Andy Warhol’s Factory or the Beatles’ Apple Studios, so I’m hoping that’s what we can do here.” The name of his arts and weirdo happening center? “The Womb. It will be called the Womb,” said Coyne.
Meanwhile he returns to the road, heading here for a show that will transform the Santa Barbara Bowl into a strange psychedelic haven — which means giving up the annual transformation of his own home into a haunted house fashioned to scare the bejeezus out of the neighborhood kids. “You know I love that when I’m at home, but we’ll just have to do it somehow on the road.”
Previews of the big scare? “Well you know the show is always evolving, but at that point, we’ll be out with Tame Impala, and those guys are great. We’re going to do three Tame Impala songs, and they’re going to do three Flaming Lips songs, and maybe we’ll play together. They have a great light show, and ours is amazing,” said the man who just recently retired a giant clear hamster ball that he used to use to walk upon his audiences.
This has been a psychedelic summer at the Bowl: New Order, Sigur Rós, old-school geniuses like Robert Plant. Two weeks ago, Atoms for Peace seemed to plant a final stamp on a season of surreal ecstasies. But the Lips and Impala together may yet prevail: a hybrid of old and new, avant-garde and pretty, blazing musical slices. The Lips have stood up to the times, maybe changing a little, but today’s kids seem to have adopted them, too. I told Coyne I couldn’t think of many other bands who have weathered so commandingly — staying themselves and much better than just relevant. “It’s nice to hear people say that. What’s funny is that when we put out our first album in 1984, I assumed we had plateau’d. I couldn’t think of anything else we had to say, and my manager insisted we keep going,” he laughed. “Good thing we did.”
The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala play the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) on Friday, November 1, at 6 p.m. For more information, call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.