THERE IS nothing like a
concert. Or Lips album. Or even, for that matter, nothing else quite like an interview with the group's singer/composer/conceptualist,
Masters of their own special galaxy, these psychedelic space cowboys often land in a homemade rocket ship, as they're likely to do tomorrow during Captain Morgan's Jam on the River at Festival Pier. Then front guy Coyne is set loose to roll (literally) over the crowd in a clear, giant bubble.
And that's just for starters.
The Flaming Lips' music is a surreal trip unto itself - dreamy, densely layered blankets of prog-rock "absolute sound," often imbued with sci-fi visions of space travel, man versus machine and the humanization of robots.
Though somehow it all leads us to earthy, existential questions about nature versus nurture, the battle of good and evil and the meaning of life.
Born in Oklahoma City, the now 47-year-old Coyne came of age after the first psychedelic rock revolution. But his older brothers introduced him to the music and, um, lifestyle, and he's clearly bought full time into the era's idealism, its make-your-own-reality adventurousness.
Talking recently to the guy about his art and philosophy reminded me of a couple of conversations I had in my youth with another trippy, yet down-to-earth cult hero, Jerry Garcia.
Q: I loved watching your most recent project, that DVD of the Lips concert "UFO's at the Zoo." It really looks like you're taking your life in your hands, floating over the crowd in that clear bubble. Has the stunt ever turned out disastrously?
A: Things happen. We did a show in Manchester [England] where the bubble must have gotten snagged on the edge of a light, because by the time I got out over the crowd it was deflating. So I stopped the show and said, "Let's back up and try this again."
I think the audience almost liked that better. I told them "Let's pretend it didn't happen and go crazy all over again." They like the idea of creating their own fantasy. That's what rock and roll is: Come on, mother-------, let's go crazy. We've got to perpetuate and enjoy ourselves. We're doing this thing together. It's up to us to make life special, profound and powerful.
Q: About a decade ago, you guys put out a limited-edition set of four CDs that were intended to be played at the same time. What were you thinking?
A: We produce our own records and have always had this DIY [do-it-yourself] attitude. That project was called "Zaireeka," like Zaire and eureka combined.
The idea was the anarchy and the freedom really kind of combined. Freedom can be horrible for some people - they need structure - while structure can be horrible for others. They need the freedom.
We were embracing a kind of anarchy in art. It was like an art happening - you have to bring four sound systems together. Sometimes you get great synchonicity; other times, it sounds haphazard. You get to hear music in a whole new way.
We go around in our lives and are so surrounded by music that's overwhelming, that's so perfectly produced and to great effect. But we never hear drummers playing out of time, never hear singers out of key.
When you accept that music doesn't have to be in any one form or time signature, you can fall down in a horrible confusion of what it is, or celebrate a new sense of freedom, the idea that anything is possible.
A lot of art and music do happen with an element of magic and accident about them. But that doesn't mean you don't have to do an incredible amount of work to make it happen.
Hopefully that happens a couple times a year with the Flaming Lips, that we're standing in the right place when the s--- falls on us.
Q: You've got a film coming out. What can you tell us about it?
A: It's called "Christmas on Mars." We're going to show it for the first time at this festival called Sasquatch outside Seattle, inside a giant circus tent that at the moment is in my backyard.
The idea is that we'll take the tent on tour with us and screen the movie after our regular show, though it won't be happening in Philadelphia.
I've been working on the film since 2001. The concept was to come up with another one of those midnight movies, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," that I went to see as a teenager, all toked up, before the days of cable.
The plot evolves around a baby being born in outer space in an artificial birthing device. There are a couple of calamites - a gravity-control thing nobody can figure out, an oxygen generator that gets broken accidentally.
There's a superbeing traveling around the universe who stops and helps them fix things.
Everybody's experiencing different levels of hallucination, because the oxygen is getting weaker. They're seeing strange futures that may be happening to them; in a sense, they're freaking out.
If I was a 20-year-old today, this is just the kind of thing I'd want to go see at midnight or 2 or 4 in the morning. I really made it for them.
Q: Of course you did an original score for the film, too. Is it going to come out as a soundtrack album?
A: People have always thought we were making music for a movie that didn't exist, so finally we did some for one that does. I've come up with a special sound rig for the tent projection. It'll be cranking as loud as we can possibly tolerate. That's the only way you'll hear the music, until we put out a DVD version, maybe at Christmas time.
We're not putting out a separate album version, but the scoring has definitely affected the way we work. It pushed us to make more interesting music.
As our rock albums move on, you'll definitely sense that impact, what it's done for us.
Q: You're a visual artist as well a musician and movie maker. Do you identify with guys like Captain Beefheart - Don Van Vliet - who's also enjoyed a surrealist, mixed-media career?
A: Absolutely. Beefheart has that respect you get from just doing what he wants, not trying to be the most popular artist or even the weirdest. He's just pleasing his inner obsessions.
That's why art has such a hold on me. It's about creating your life, about the decisions you make to make yourself happy. If you do, you're free and rich, even if you don't have money.
For the first decade of the Flaming Lips, we all worked at a restaurant. We didn't even consider ourselves a real band, and if we made a $100 a week at the music, that was lucky.
To tour, we slept on people's floors in the middle of winter, fighting cockroaches for sleeping space. But we picked that life. We were happy and felt lucky. We didn't get successful too early on.
Truth is, we wouldn't have known what to do with it. *