Every few weeks, Wayne Coyne drives the three hours south to Dallas from his home just outside of Oklahoma City, a place he refers to as "Wayne Manor." It's a trip he's been making since the mid-'80s, when his band, The Flaming Lips, took the stage at Theatre Gallery or Twilite Room seemingly every weekend, playing with Three on a Hill almost as many times as guitarist Tench Coxe. The Flaming Lips were such a fixture in the nascent Deep Ellum scene, they should have been included on 1987's The Sound of Deep Ellum, the compilation Island Records put together to document what was happening between Commerce and Elm at the time. But Coyne doesn't come to Dallas with his band much anymore, maybe once or twice a year. These days, when he's in town, it's usually so his longtime girlfriend, Michelle, can visit her sisters. He's more of an outsider when he's in Dallas now, long since removed from the local musicians he once could have been mistaken for.
Coyne still remembers those days, mentioning former Theatre Gallery boss Russell Hobbs and ex-Three on a Hill frontman Peter Schmidt almost as soon as our conversation begins, asking what they're up to. But just as he's discussing the current fates of some of the names and faces from his past, Coyne drops the phone without much warning so he can go outside and help track down Boss Man, his neighbor's pit bull. Boss Man is really a sweet dog, Coyne tries to explain when he returns a few minutes later, unsuccessful in his search, but it scared the hell out of the kids Coyne had hired to mow his lawn when the pit bull escaped from his neighbor's fence, sending the kids scurrying into his house for help. Before long, Coyne abruptly leaves again, this time to explain the situation to Boss Man's owner. When he comes back on the phone, he warns his interviewer he may have to bail out yet again if he sees Boss Man outside.
Right at that moment, it becomes clear that the strangest thing about Coyne is that he's not that strange at all, just another friendly neighbor trying to help out. It's an unexpected image, one that seems totally at odds with the memory of Coyne onstage at Theater Gallery, singing about "Jesus Shootin' Heroin" and the "Hell's Angel Cracker Factory," songs that were at once so pretty and so ugly. Since Coyne formed The Flaming Lips in 1983, he has always been thought of as an Okie from God-knows-where, the man who cracked open his brain and let it all spill onto the tape. His recent experiments with car-stereo symphonies and build-it-yourself albums have done nothing to shake those thoughts, but strengthened them until they became established facts. So maybe at this stage in his life and career, the most unusual thing Coyne and his band could do is be normal.
That's just what The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips' recently released 10th album, is...almost. Then again, a pop record full of lush strings and hushed harmonies couldn't help but sound straightforward after the band's last effort, 1997's Zaireeka, a four-disc set designed to be played at the same time, an album that came with some assembly required. However, The Soft Bulletin isn't a reaction to Zaireeka but an extension of it, the result of a band writing songs after it has learned a new alphabet. It's fuller only because Coyne and the rest of the group -- Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins -- discovered room they never knew existed before when they were recording Zaireeka, sometimes spending three months on a single song. Zaireeka opened their eyes, and Coyne doesn't plan on closing them anytime soon. But he's not sure whether the band was ready to make a record like The Soft Bulletin until now.
"Some of our stuff I don't think actually would be any good, especially some of the older stuff, if you take away some of the more abrasive elements," Coyne says. "It really is part of the song. You can't necessarily take the sound and the song apart. I think with this new stuff, we just went a little further into that, and I think at the time when we were doing the sounds and stuff for The Soft Bulletin, it was hard to say what sounds are going to be considered new or radical or any of that. So we really just threw that thinking away, and just said, 'Well, why don't we just do whatever we want to do at the time?'
"We want to say what's on our minds, so we just started to do that," he continues. "If we want to hear piccolo here, or some timpani there, or a harp here, or a distorted piano there, we'll just do it. If we want to hear harmony vocals or whatever, we'll just do it. And really, it didn't feel as though we were doing something that was going to be accessible or something that was going to be obscure. We didn't even think about it. That's really been our policy, even going back to 1988, just to say, 'Well, fuck it. Let's just do what we like, and hope for the better.' I just know too many bands who feel as though they were forced to do something artistically that they felt compromised what their real ideas were, and then they just bitch about for the rest of their lives."
That thinking is how Coyne and The Flaming Lips have been able to exist on a major label much longer than anyone could have expected when the band signed to Warner Bros. Records in the early '90s -- eight years and five albums, including The Soft Bulletin. Instead of trying to figure out what the label wants, Coyne has always asked what he can do, not what he can't, hoping his ability can match his ambition. No idea is too silly or too unwieldy for the band to try: If it doesn't work, he'll come up with something else, but everything, he believes, is worth attempting at least once, especially if the label is willing to pick up the check.
More than anything else, Coyne has been able to maintain his relationship with Warner Bros. because he knows his credit limit, realizes that many of his ideas aren't very practical. He understands that major labels are more about making money than making art, so he goes into every record expecting someone at the label to talk him down from the ledge. Even after he's finished, he still can't believe they let him get away with it.
It's especially true in the case of Zaireeka. When Coyne came up with the idea for an album in four separate parts, he didn't think for a second that Warner Bros. would let him do it -- he didn't even think he could do it if they let him. Coyne was just beginning to conduct his infamous parking-lot experiments -- disjointed symphonies performed on strategically arranged car stereos -- when he decided to try to capture the concept on a series of discs that would be played simultaneously on separate stereos. When a few Warner Bros. employees paid a visit to Wayne Manor, he laid the concept on them, deciding on the spot that he would need four CDs to accomplish the task.
"And everybody said, 'Oh, OK,'" he says, laughing. "I would look ahead and think, 'Well, even if we got halfway through it and I end up doing two, that would still be true to the vision that I wanted to do something unique in this kind of way.' But that never materialized. It started off four, and it ended up being four, and it actually worked. Everywhere along the way, I'd expect these statements to be made, like, 'What the fuck are you thinking?' Never happened. I think I had just reached a point where people knew that I wasn't insane."
It's much easier to believe in Coyne's sanity now than it was when the band formed in 1983, even as his ideas bounce further off the wall. For instance, the latest incarnation of the band finds drummer Michael Ivins playing live only on a video screen and in the headphones the band passes out before each concert. Ivins is actually there onstage, but he's playing other instruments, filling the gap left when guitarist Ronald Jones left the band after 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic. The band debuted this new configuration in March at Trees after deciding to do it only a few weeks earlier.
The idea was born out of Coyne's contempt for the "ridiculously shitty mixes that come from live bands." He came up with a way to counteract that, buying an FM transmitter and a few hundred pairs of in-the-ear headphones. Ivins' drum tracks, as well as the strings and loops that appear on The Soft Bulletin, are piped through the headphones, creating a new kind of listening experience. Which is exactly what Coyne and the band have been after all along.
"I would always be disappointed when I would take my headphones off and listen to speakers in a room," Coyne says. "I always liked the combination of having headphones on and having speakers on in a room. I think that's a good combination. Of course, you can never tell what's going on outside or anything, but it really isolates you and gives you the impact at the same time. That Dallas show that we did, that was honestly the first time that we'd done it. We didn't even do anything here at home before then. We got all the headphones in about three or four days before then, and we just took them all down there and said, 'Let's see what happens.'"
Coyne and the band have adopted that motto for the last several years when it comes to performing live, bouncing from parking-lot concerts to shows where the only thing being played on stage is a handful of boom boxes. The Trees performance went so well that Coyne decided to make the headphones a permanent part of the Flaming Lips' show. It's a way for him to keep the band's concerts interesting -- for himself and the audience. Of course, at this point, he's a little surprised that anyone is still interested.
"I honestly do think that the audience doesn't care," he admits. "I mean, for the most part, I think we're lucky that we have one, and this is true for any band. You could go to a movie. You could go to a wrestling match. There are so many things that you could go and see as your night's entertainment, it doesn't surprise me that people don't necessarily want to go to a fucking hot, sweaty rock club and watch a bunch of amateur bands play for four hours. It doesn't surprise me. When I go to shows, often times I ask myself why I left the house. If I want people to come to our shows, I want them to be entertained. I want them to go, 'Damn, this is the craziest thing I've ever seen.'
"You know, I think it's always scary," he continues. "But I think that's the best kind of concerts and albums, when you think, 'Oh, the weirdos have gone into space, and when they return we'll see what they brought back.' To me, that's the best spot we could be in, for people to be waiting when we return from these journeys, and go, 'Oooh. Where've you been?'"
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