DFW Music News

Extended Q&A (With Audio!): The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne Talks NX35, Festivals, Midlake and Deep Ellum.

In this week's print edition of the Observer, you'll see some of the fruits that came from a conversation I shared with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne a little over a week ago as part of a preview for the NX35 Conferette, the four-day, mostly walkable music festival that kicks off in Denton tonight. It was a fairly long conversation, too--one that touched on everything from Denton and Midlake to the failures of past music festivals and the pressures that come with having a reputation as one of the more prolific festival performers out there. And Deep Ellum too, oddly enough.

In short: It was far more in-depth than the story I wrote could possible contain.

So, on that note, check the jump for something of a treat. I've posted the full transcript of my conversation with Coyne after the jump. And, with it, the audio from my recorder if you'd rather listen to the talk than read it. Advanced apologies if the quality of the recording is a little off.

Where are you right now?
I'm a couple hours of north of you up in Oklahoma City. That's where I live.

Right. Well, cool. Obviously, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the North by 35 festival coming up.
Yes. North by 35. And what does that mean?

Do you want me to tell you what I know, or are you asking me a rhetorical question?
Well, does it mean that it's north of Dallas by 35 miles?

No, originally, it had to do with a NX35 showcase that was held down in Austin.... [more on the back-story]...
I knew there'd be some reason. But now that I know, it's great.

Well, how did you get involved in this?
I believe we were brought into it, for better or for worse, by knowing the guys from Midlake. And don't get me wrong, we love Dallas. I mean, Dallas was one of the first places where the Flaming Lips ever played, down when Deep Ellum was first starting. We played at Theatre Gallery down there and I still run into people all over the world who saw us at those small shows at Theatre Gallery.

And I keep hearing stories about them too, so they must have been good times.
But as time has gone on, Denton has become, I dunno, I guess it's just a cool little spot now. I don't like to use the word scene because, really, it's just a bunch of individuals trying to make it work and it doesn't work without that. And knowing the guys in Midlake and that there are people supporting these ideas and that they're trying and that it's interesting music and interesting people--all those reasons.

Do you see a lot of similarities, maybe, between Denton and Norman?
Yes and no. Back when Norman was at it's best, I would say, really in the early '80s, this idea that you could form your own band--you could be a punk rock band or whatever--and that was just so thrilling to us. I don't know if it was all that thrilling to the rest of the world, but we needed an excuse to say, 'Look, this is cool. We should do this.' I mean, we would play people's houses. I don't know if Norman was ever that great of a scene, but, back then, if bands came there and played--even if they only played to 20 people. I say that now and it sounds weird that, in a basement, a band like The Minutemen would play to sometimes 50 people. And we thought this was the greatest thing ever. But, I dunno, maybe Denton is bigger and better and more established.

Well, it is a college town with the University of North Texas and its music school. And the Midlake guys all went there.
They're stunning. Their musicianship is stunning, They're unbelievable.

Well, I've spoken a little bit about this with Eric Pulido. Was it he who first approached you?
I think it was Eric. We know the Midlake guys enough that we see them and we're just curious enough about what's going on with them often enough. And I don't know if Midlake does the festival or if...

Well, they're a part of it, I'd say.
Yeah, they're sort of the spokespersons for it or whatever, but they said, hey, we're doing this festival and you guys should try to be a part of it. And it was as simple as that. So it sounds cool. We've been trying to see, well, where could we play? There are some theatres in Dallas, and they're fine, so we said, well, let's see if we can do this. So I think it was just as simple as that.

I know you weren't necessarily sure of the similarities between Denton and Norman, but is that maybe what drew you to this? Because it's a small town community and environment where bands are staying in town and not moving to bigger cities?
When it's well done, yeah. I have nothing against a Dallas or a Los Angeles or anything like that. To me, it's really about the people that are involved in it, the music they want to present. I don't know all the other groups that are playing--at one time, I think, I did--but I don't know what the status is now. In the past couple of weeks, there have been some dilemmas with it. But I thought that what we were doing on the Saturday night was going to be a free show. Now, I think there's elements of the festival that aren't for free. But I thought that what we were doing was going to be for free so, yeah, there's so many good elements. I don't know if that's going to stay true. I hope it stays true. That's what we wanted to do.

What's the latest you've been hearing?
There's been some dilemmas with the city not wanting some of the sponsors.

Yeah, with Camel.
And I can say from my own experience that we've done shows with Camel cigarettes. And I know it's a horrible product and causes cancer, but the shows that we did with them were excellent. And, if anything, the audience got all the benefits from it because the shows were free.

And it's not like you're never gonna find a cigarette at a rock 'n' roll concert.
And they're not gonna make you smoke cigarettes. Maybe that's what people think! You get into the show for free and they're gonna make you smoke cigarettes! I don't know. Some of these politically correct things, you can't really know what's the motivation behind it. And, as I said, I'm not organizing the festival. But it would be a combination. If we can play a show on Saturday night and it's free, that'd be great. And if we can do this thing in Denton and it's with the guys from Midlake and that sort of organization, all the better.

What else do you know about Denton? Are you familiar with the town?
I'm not. I know that that's where people have sort of been playing over the last few years, but I've not been able to go to any of the shows in Denton just yet. So this will be my first stay--other than with the Midlake guys.

Is that maybe part of the motivation? Having a chance to play a community like this?
Oh yeah. Of course. Like, this sounds exciting. And, like I said, all festivals have dilemmas. I'm just more aware of them because I don't just show up and get flown in on a helicopter on my glass castle. I want to know how this thing's going and I'm curious about how it's all working out. But, mostly, I guess it's that we like the people that are trying to put it on. That would be the main reason.

Beyond that, because you've got a big string of shows coming up and this is an outdoor show--I saw you guys last at the Monolith Festival out in Red Rocks--I guess I'm just wondering if you have anything special planned?
Well, we plan on bringing a bunch of blankets and fire because we're worried that it could snow again. Really, it's 10 days away and we're gonna be playing outside. And it's cold here today. Is it cold there?

Not too bad. Like high 50s.
Well, yeah, but usually by this time of year, you're saying it's 75 degrees outside and it's gonna be summer in a month from now. You know what I mean? I'm a little worried that this could be the first time we play in Texas and it could be snowing.

Maybe you won't need confetti then?
Well, I know! No, I would say that every show--and it sounds cliché--is special in its own way. And, if it's a big enough thing and we do, hopefully, a big show, then even if people show up and maybe don't know who the Flaming Lips are and don't know any of our music, they'll stand there with this audience and say, 'Wow, this is some crazy shit that these old guys do!' Even this week, we're working on a couple of new songs, a couple of new things. I have these giant laser beam hands that my tech here has been putting together for me. So maybe we'll see that. I don't know. I mean, sometimes you get there and you just don't know what the situation will be, but we have a couple big truckloads of musical gear and sort of light-show freak-out shit that we can pick from. And I think that's kind of why people want the Flaming Lips to play. There's a lot of groups that just aren't able to do as much stuff as we do. And for us to be the one's at the end of the night to say that this whole festival is like us, only we have a lot more stuff. I mean, to be fair, when you play to bigger crowds--and we're not the Rolling Stones or anything, but we'll play to 10,000 people--you want to do things that everybody, and not just the people in the front row, but people 400 feet away, they're still getting a spectacular experience even they can't really see the expressions on your face or whatever. That's what we want to do.

You guys obviously have a reputation for putting on great shows, especially in a festival environment. Does that maybe add some pressure in this kind of environment?
I don't know if it's pressure. The audience doesn't care that much. They can look at a poster and say, 'I want to see these groups.' And when you're there, if people show up to the thing, they usually are pretty willing to go with the flow and have a good time. It's just a dumb rock show. 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 these songs and I want to sort of create this atmosphere, and I want everybody to like the experience, so it's a little bit of both. I don't want to make it seem like, oh, we have to be great.

But do you relish in that reputation, especially in the festival circuit, that you've developed?
I don't know. I mean, for me, I'm not really a performer. I mean, I know it sounds weird because we do this elaborate show. But a lot of what we're doing is kind of pre-arranged. 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. Here's what I mean by that: 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.

Like an installation on stage.
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 ten years while you have laser beams shooting out of your hands. [Laughs] I mean, it's wonderful! Don't get me wrong! I have the best job in the world! But it's a little bit of a weird dilemma.

I know that at some of your performances coming up,, you're going to be doing some of your Dark Side covers, But that's not the case here, right? Or is it?
We may play a song or something, but we're not contractually obligated or anything. We can play whatever we want, really. But to take on the Dark Side of the Moon thing, it wouldn't be something that we'd just jump into spontaneously, because there's a lot of equipment and a lot of musicians and stuff. But we may play a song here and there.

Well, this is the second year of the festival. And it's a much bigger festival this year... there's almost twice as many bands this year. They're trying to do a walkable festival. I'm wondering what your thoughts are as we've seen a bunch of festivals fall to the wayside in recent years because of the economy. What do you think maybe of the gall that it takes to put on a festival like this in the wake of all the others falling?
We speak about this, really, all the time. There's the audience and what the audience thinks is going on, and there's the real deal. Putting on these shows is no small feat. And, a lot of times, it's a finickle attitude and an element of it is true. A lot of people say that the only reason people put on these shows is for money. And I can say that that isn't the only reason. A lot of the best promoters that we've ever worked with--the people who do Lollapalooza and Bonnaro--if you don't think about money, nothing's going to happen. Nobody is going to do a festival for free. Everybody that works a festival is going to get paid. Sometimes, we'll play a festival and we don't get paid--yet we still have to pay the people that bring the trucks in and the equipment in and the people that clean up the toilets. Everything about it is has someone working and someone doing it. Sometimes, I think, festivals get put on by people who want to make it seem like we don't care about money, it's the music and it's the community and the people and all that. But, for me, I mean, I want to work with sensible people. And you have to say, yeah, it's a lot of things, but it's also about the money. And if you're not worried about the money, none of this will happen. We've played a lot of festivals that aren't very organized and they're not thought-out very well. I think the audience loves it, but they fall apart for those reasons.

Is that worrisome, then, heading into a festival in its infancy?
It doesn't worry me, no. I mean, not in that way. The Flaming Lips could come down there and probably play a month for free but it doesn't matter as long as people show up. There's a lot of reason we play shows, but one of which is, well, will we enjoy it? I know we'll enjoy it. We'll have a good time because we want to be a part of that thing. Will we make any money? I don't know. A lot of times we play shows and we know we're making tons of money. But we also say, 'Will the audience enjoy it? And what will the audience get out of it?' The audience doesn't know how the toilets are getting cleaned out and they don't give a shit. And they shouldn't. If I think we're gonna enjoy it and the audience will enjoy it, then good enough. And if, five years from now, the festival is still going on, we'll play it again and be like, "Wow, cool!" If it's viewed as if we helped this thing get established, I'll be proud of that. Or it could be that the whole thing is a debacle, that, by the time the Flaming Lips played, we were all glad the damn thing was over, well, OK, we'll take that risk. I don't mind. I'm in it with the guys from Midlake and all that and I'm satisfied enough with that. If we're all in it together, I'll take what comes from that.

I know you know those guys from touring with them in the past--
And just being fans of their music, yeah.

Can you tell me a little bit about that relationship?
Their titles are so hard to remember and they have a brand new one out, but we were touring with them on....

I think before even Trials, right? Bamnan and Slivercork?
Yeah, yeah! The sliver one! I know! I was just a fan of their music. So little by little you go, well, who are these guys. And I think we played a couple of shows just here and there somewhere in America. And you don't know what people are going to be like. I think we played a South by Southwest show and they were part of the show. And we played something in San Francisco at another festival. And we would sort of quietly acknowledge, 'Oh, hey, you're Midlake, and that's cool.o And then you watch them play and you go, 'Oh, wow! Very cool!' And you like what's going on there. Sometimes you can like a band's record and not like them at all when you're in front of them. And then it was just their willingness when we said, 'Well, we're gonna do some shows. Do you wanna come do some shows with us?' Then you really have to work with people and show up and do this and that. And that makes all the difference. When you're talking with people back stage and those sorts of things--that's when you start to say that, 'OK, your music is why you're here, but the reason you've stayed is because you're cool, caring people.'

Have you been impressed with their work ethic? That seems to be what you're talking about there. It's weird, because they used to be compared to you guys, almost to a fault.
I don't think that the thing they just put out--I don't think there's any comparison now. Touring with the Flaming Lips will usually destroy you. That's what happens.

How so?
I don't know. Maybe it inspires groups to say 'Maybe we should just follow our instinct and see where it leads us!' and I say more power to them. I think that whatever they're doing doesn't sound like what they were doing in 2006. They've gone on their own trip. But, yeah, I think it's all that. And just liking the guys and having those experiences together. But that's what we want and what we think happens with groups. People think that when you're at something like the Glastonbury festival or Coachella and you're backstage with Radiohead and everybody's just talking amongst themselves about when they first played guitar or the first time that they had sex with some celebrity. I don't know. People think that that's what's happening, but it really is not. Because it's just so busy and you don't really know what's going on. You don't just go around. I mean, I do. I often just go into people's dressing rooms. That's how we met Coldplay. That's how we met Creed. I'll just go in and say hey. I don't care. I just go in. And if they don't like us, oh well. But, to me, it's more interesting than just sitting on the bus, playing video games or something. And I think we ended up having a couple of days off where us and Midlake--I remember, my wife was talking about it just the other day--went to the Eiffel Tower together. And when you do things like that together, as a group, you're not in a group, you're just guys having an experience together. And, those things, they're priceless. People talk about being on the road as being some form of torture, and it's not. I do it because I like it. But those days. They're just cool experiences. And, y'know, you can only know so many people in your life. And if you're friends with people you give them your time and your energy. And there's only so much of that. So you want it to count. You want it to be with people that deserve it and that enrich your life, too. So it's a tradeoff. And, as you get older and time does become shorter and you have to decide, well, do I want to spend time doing this or not, I want it to be with worthy humans.

Last question, and I very much appreciate your time here.

Given that this is all in close proximity--Dallas, Denton, Norman and Oklahoma City--you see a lot of bands going back and forth and coming here and there. Like recently, with Stardeath and Evangelicals and Starlight Mints and all them. They're here a lot. Does that add to your interest, because of this corridor?
I think so. But, for us, it's more than just about those groups. I mean, I speak about it all the time. Dallas allowed us to play even before Oklahoma City and Norman would let us play. We would play peoples' parties and things like that, but never in venues. I think we went to Minneapolis and Chicago and Dallas and people in Oklahoma City would read about those shows and say, 'Man, you guys are cool! We should let you play.' So our connection--and we already spoke about this, but even with the Butthole Surfers from Austin--is that we are definitely brothers doing these things, Dallas and Austin and Oklahoma City. We've always felt like this was us. We're Midwest. Oklahoma City gets lumped into the Midwest category and it is, but it's right on the verge of being the South. It's the Wild West, if anything--it's not just Midwest. But it's also Midwest, South, Wild West, and this kind of nebulous thing, where if you drive 200 miles to the west, you're in the middle of the fucking desert. And it's fucking weird. And it's weird that there is a version of what people think. If you're a musician from Oklahoma, there's a version of that that people have in their minds. 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 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 f nowhere. There are other group's 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.' And I think that happens now more than ever. Because everyone can connect to anything in the world so immediately that, sometimes, it's great to think that the world I'm actually living in, the world I can actually walk around in and touch and all that, it sometimes almost means more than the abstract Google version of the world. And that's very cool that we're thought of as being able to come into that thing and feel like we're part of it instead of being like, 'Oh, the Flaming Lips are this big bullshit commercial band that has commercials on TV!' No, we're the cool salt of the earth indie rock thing, and I think it's great that we're able to have a little bit of both. And have all those experiences.

Funny that you bring up The Buck Pets. They're having a reunion show at Trees next month.
That's weird, isn't it? My only worry about that was if Trees is still around. It must be, huh?

Just reopened recently, yeah. It was closed for a few years, but it reopened this past year.
And, you see, y'know, these things, they don't last forever. I mean, it seems like they're going to last forever, but they don't. These areas of town that were 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. So let's hope this thing in Denton, y'know, let's hope it's at least good until next week when we play. 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.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman