By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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In a pretty big reveal—before he really starts riffing on the pressures his band The Flaming Lips feels now that its reputation as music festival heroes has been cemented and the connection he feels to Dallas-Fort Worth thanks to Deep Ellum's embrace of his band in its early years—Wayne Coyne asks a question to get things started.
"Does North by 35 mean that [Denton] is 35 miles north of Dallas?" he asks.
He's being serious. He doesn't know. (For the record? It's closer to 40 miles.)
When the backstory is revealed—NX35 organizer Chris Flemmons originally used the moniker as the name of his annual Denton-centric South by Southwest showcase in Austin while knowing that it'd eventually become the name of a music festival that would take place farther up Interstate 35—Coyne simply laughs.
"I knew there'd be a reason!" he says. "And, now that I know, it's great."
Because, as Coyne explains over the phone from his home in Oklahoma City, located some three hours farther north along the highway, he thinks there's always been something pretty special about the corridor that runs from Austin through Dallas-Fort Worth and right on up to his hometown.
"If you're a musician from Oklahoma, there's a version of that [idea] that people have in their minds," he says. "And we're not that. And we found the same to be true of the groups from Dallas. Even back in the day—like Three on a Hill and The Buck Pets. I mean, there were a lot of groups that were just saying, 'Fuck it. We just play our version of rock music.' And especially down in Austin with groups like the [Butthole] Surfers and groups like The Big Boys. There was all kinds of crazy shit happening in the '80s that made us think, 'Hey, we're not just hillbillies from out of nowhere. There are other groups doing the same things in these other cities.' And we've always been encouraged by that and said, 'Yeah, that's what we're doing!' I don't know if we were doing it as good as they were, but we always felt like, 'Yeah! We're all doing this thing, and it's cool.'"
Coyne, of course, is just being humble. Perhaps, once upon a time, his band may have been viewed as being on an equal playing field with The Buck Pets (who are reuniting for a gig at Trees on April 10) and The Butthole Surfers (who reunited with its original lineup in 2008 and again in 2009 for short tours that included stops at the Granada Theater), but the Flaming Lips have since surpassed those acts, if only through longevity and perseverance.
Indeed, the Lips have come a long way since forming in Norman, Oklahoma, back in 1983. Placed side-by-side, there's very little comparison to be found at all between that original, punkish Lips incarnation and the festival circuit demigods that the band and its members are viewed as these days. Now, boasting a more psychedelic art-pop sound than anything else, the band has become almost equally as well-known for its large-scale concert antics as its music, thanks to its elaborate onstage use of lasers, costumed back-up dancers, confetti cannons, human-sized gerbil balls and mock (we think) spaceships. More often than not, Coyne admits, his band's live performance reputation precedes it.
"It's just a dumb rock show," Coyne offers almost dismissively. "We're not changing the world here. So, in that way, I don't look at it as pressure. But I want to do things. I want to sing songs, and I want to create this atmosphere, and I want everybody to like this experience, so it's a little bit of both. I don't want to make it seem like, 'Oh, we have to be great.' I'm not really a performer. I mean, it sounds weird because we do this elaborate show. But a lot of what we're doing is kind of prearranged. We're not doing a sort of spontaneous jam up there—because I'm not that kind of musician. I'm not even that good of a musician, honestly. I come from punk rock where, look, I can play my songs my way, but I can't do a lot more than that. But, yeah, it is a weird dilemma sometimes because we know that people are coming to see this big show and yet, sometimes, the thing that we're really into is a very sort of intimate little arrangement of some silly sounds that really don't have anything to do with one another."
The ever-loquacious Coyne is quick to explain himself: "Sometimes when you're doing art—and this is what this is. It's music and all that, but it is art for whatever good or bad that term implies. But when you're making it, a lot of times you're just doing it in isolation—like two people sitting in a room, doing something that's very inside their minds and a private thing. Like, 'Oh, I love this. This means something.' But then, when you're done, you play it to the world and all it is, is crowds and excitement. And it's the exact opposite of the way that it's created. So it's a strange world to say you take these little songs about these little moments in your life and yet you're going to play them for 10 years while you have laser beams shooting out of your hands." He laughs—mostly because he's not kidding. An engineer of his has been working on gloves that shoot laser beams, and it's likely, he says, that those gloves will be employed at this week's free, Saturday-night NX35 showcase. "I mean, it's wonderful!" he continues. "Don't get me wrong! I have the best job in the world! But it's a little bit of a weird dilemma."
But, for the Lips, Coyne explains, it's always been this way. Because of its non-standard approach, the band had trouble scoring gigs in both Norman and Oklahoma City in its early years. It wasn't until venues in Deep Ellum—which he speaks of with great reverence, chief among them the Theatre Gallery, the first Dallas venue The Flaming Lips played—gave his band a chance that venues in his own area gave in. He speaks of Deep Ellum in particular with praise—but not nostalgically, he's quick to point out.
"You see, these things, they don't last forever," he says. "I mean, it seems like they're going to last forever, but they don't. These areas of town that were at one time the mecca of where all the cool people went? It changes, and things don't work—and sometimes it just takes one person leaving this little spot and suddenly it's not organized at all. So I know that, if something good is happening, it's hard to do."
As such, he's quick to praise Denton for the status it's currently achieved—regardless of how long its current shine lasts.
"Let's hope this thing in Denton is at least good until next week when we play," he says with a chuckle. "And if it keeps going, and it can be looked at as if we've helped it, that'd be a great compliment. But even if not, I'm glad to be a part of it, just doing this thing the way it is."