Photo by Steven Dewall

For over 30 years as front man for the Flaming Lips, Wayne Coyne has remained in constant pursuit of creative possibilities. And thanks to his heroic determination, he almost always catches them, from parking lot orchestras to sci-fi Christmas flicks to collaborations with seemingly any artist who enters his sphere. Here, Coyne takes a pause from working on a deluge of new projects to share his theories on creativity. “You just have to do the work all the time,” he tells Jason Pettigrew.

Photo by George Salisbury

In this entirely too short mythology we call “life,” some of us have a moment of clarity that sets us free to pursue our true calling. For Wayne Coyne, front man of Oklahoma-based alt-rock avatars the Flaming Lips, that moment arrived at age 16, as he was being held up at gunpoint at the Long John Silver’s restaurant where he was working as fry cook, completely convinced he was going to die. “The things I used to worry about didn’t matter to me anymore,” Coyne told Mojo magazine writer Tom Doyle. “I was like, I’m going to do my thing and if people think I’m an idiot, fuck them. And that’s freedom.”

Indeed, Coyne not only talks the talk, he’s spent the last several decades expanding the parameters of how A Really Cool Rock Band™ should conduct itself artistically. He’s ignored cries of “sell-out” by appearing on the spoiled rich-kid television drama, Beverly Hills 90210, just for the absurdity of it. He’s created avant-garde “happenings” using car stereo cassette players and boomboxes. He’s co-directed his own feature-length film, Christmas on Mars, shooting it in his own backyard, on handmade sets. He’s buried USB drives of music in gummy-candy skulls and personally delivered them to fans. He’s written and drawn an adult-themed comic book while doodling during interviews like this one.

All told, Coyne has accomplished more in his 52 years than most artists accomplish in a lifetime, simply by asking “what if…?” and “why not?” and then—the hard part—plunging forward to make it a reality. We caught up with Coyne between tour dates to hear his perspective on all things creative, plus a variety of tangents, including the ubiquity of bananas and how he wound up on that Verizon commercial, imploring us to “retrain our brains.”
Some people may not realize the Flaming Lips were signed to Warner Bros. over 20 years ago, around the time Nirvana introduced “alternative rock” to the mainstream. Since then you’ve achieved the status of “rock elder statesman,” yet you’re still creating vibrant work. How have you remained ahead of the curve for so long?
Well, first, that’s a cool thing to say—thank you for saying that. At the base of all that stuff, really, you have to be driven by liking what you do. It wouldn’t make any sense for me to try to be hip or “cool.” I am lucky that the things I like and pursue more often than not fall in with new things that are happening now. I don’t know if that’s just dumb luck.

I know a lot of guys [in bands] who work hard, do their thing and it just doesn’t feel like it’s moving on or doing something new. I was talking to Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse recently, and he told me that part of his problem is that “I still sound like the same old Modest Mouse.” To a lot of people, that might be really great, but if that’s not what he wants to do, I can see where that would feel like a struggle.

I bring this up because we [recently played] with the Black Keys, who are having an insane amount of success. The Flaming Lips aren’t a mega-successful band, but [some artists] would be tempted with [the Black Keys’ level] of success to say, “Let’s not mess with the brand.” We do great for what we do. The main reason we exist is because we keep getting to do our thing. If we tried to market ourselves in any other way, I don’t think we could stand each other. But once you’ve gone into the unknown and explored that, you’ve determined whether it’s something you can thrive on or if it’s just too much stress. I like it when we do something freaky and new and we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Wayne with bandmates (l. to r.) Kliph Scurlock, Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd. Photo by J. Michelle-Martin

So here’s a theory: everyone is born creative and his or her environment either encourages or discourages that trait. True or false?
I think that’s false. Having said that, society puts this great value on being creative. If you’re born creative, it’s like, “You’re a little bit cooler than someone who’s born to sit around and watch football.” I don’t believe that’s true.

I grew up in a house with three older brothers, an older sister and a younger brother. We had basically the same experiences. My brothers and sister don’t do art or music, but they do like it, they’re just not obsessed with it like I am. I think creativity is a characteristic of personality. I’m not saying I’m superior; I’m just saying I do this thing and they don’t.

There are things that accelerate creativity—like environment—but I think it really starts with personality. Actually, I think it’s stubbornness. That’s why we don’t give up when we think we should. If you’re stubborn long enough, you’re considered “determined,” and when you’re determined long enough, you’re considered “bad-assed.” [Laughs.]


You’ve orchestrated a lot of complex projects that involve coordinating the schedules of a lot of people outside the band’s inner circle. In those situations, does working on a deadline help or hurt the creative process?
You just have to do [the work] all the time, because if you’re doing it all the time, you will occasionally get really lucky and something will hit. If you’re not doing it all the time, something will hit and you won’t notice it, or you will notice it and you won’t know what to do with it. Some projects require a great deal of intensity, because if it doesn’t [have that intensity], it could just drift along forever.

That doesn’t mean that when there’s a deadline, something good comes of it. The amount of time you are going to do something is part of the conceptualizing. The Flaming Lips have certainly suffered from that scenario. I’ve learned that you don’t get to control the great inspiring moments. You don’t get to “have” them—they happen to you.

About six years ago, you told me the best time to be a musician was not back in the ’70s or whatever “good ol’ days” people choose to cite, but right now. You said recording technology was far enough along that you could make an album in your bedroom that would have cost a million dollars 30 years ago. But does technology bring new creative hazards, like the option paralysis that can come from having unlimited tracks in the studio? Can limitations actually make for more interesting results?
When I was growing up, there were always great musicians who acted defeated right away: “I can’t get a band together; I can’t get a label to sign us; I can’t do this, I can’t do that….” When I was growing up, I just explored things like drawing, painting and making music. It didn’t occur to me how lucky I was that people didn’t discourage me. It’s all the same thing.

So if I get some new gadget that has beats and things on it, I’m on it, because I can do things right there. There are all these personalities in the band with different intensities and we all feed off each other. That’s why I think our best music is that where the collective was pushed somewhere. We have a huge [state-of-the-art] Pro Tools studio in my house. I walk in there every day I’m home and dick around with a couple things. It’s wonderful. I’m not saying it makes the best music in the world; I can’t remember the days before we had access to this stuff.

I compare [access to new music technology] to people eating bananas. I don’t even know where bananas grow. They might as well grow at the supermarket, because I don’t even know what time of year they grow, but they’re in the store every day. I know they don’t grow here and that someone is going to a lot of effort to make sure bananas are in the store. And I think music is like that—people love it so much and it keeps getting simpler and simpler to get out there.

Photo by John Shearer
Photo by John Shearer

Last year the Lips issued Heady Fwends, a series of collaborations with everyone from Yoko Ono to Nick Cave to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to Ke$ha. How do you take such a disparate group of personalities and get the best out of them?
When I tell someone I want to collaborate with them—like Bon Iver or Ke$ha—I already love what they’ve got going on. I kind of go at it like, “You don’t have to worry about anything.” Ke$ha literally sang into her laptop and sent me the track 20 minutes after we talked on the phone. I never thought the collaborations had to be the greatest thing ever; I just thought it would be fun to use a little bit of their trip and mix it with ours, and the best thing we could do would sound like us and them. I didn’t want the participants to be blended with the Flaming Lips’ sound. Most of the participants had the attitude of, “Here’s what I got, hope it works.” I felt all of them would have done more if we felt [their initial contributions] didn’t work. Those kinds of things bring a different energy into what we do. And let’s face it—you do really get sick of being the star of your own show.

You’ve been creating art and music on your own terms for ages, yet artists can sometimes benefit by infiltrating other mediums, like your recent appearance in Virgin Mobile’s “Retrain Your Brain” ad campaign. This far along in your career, have you found that art and commerce can peacefully coexist?
[Laughs.] Well, that particular thing is just absolute dumb luck. We made a video with a company called Traktor in Los Angeles. Once a year, they collectively pick a cool group and say, “Hey, we’ll make a video for you.” It’ll be a video that should cost a million dollars, and they’ll do it for $100,000. We sort of came up with the concept together. They’re really like family; I just love them as people.

Occasionally, I would say to them, “Hey, if something were to ever come up, I’d love to help you do something.” They were doing the commercial and they needed a weird old guy. I had a free day and they asked me if I wanted to come to LA. I thought I would just be in it for five seconds and they would be like, “Hey, we finally got to work with Wayne,” and that would be it. Well, the producers and people from the phone company were there and they were like, “Well, he’s kinda weird and has a cool-looking suit on. Have him do more.”


But the only reason I did it was because I like those guys [from Traktor], I really didn’t think I was going to be in the commercial. I like hanging out with them and they do a lot of really cool stuff. I didn’t care. The reason I got in the brain chair [featured in the spot] is because they told me I’d get the chair. I said, “Well, I’ll do it if you give me the chair.” And once I wanted the chair so bad, one of the producers said, “Well, I want it now.” [Laughs.]

The reasons I did [the commercial] were for all these stupid, personal reasons. I didn’t expect to be in it, and now I’m the voice and the main character. There is no way I could have manufactured a reason to get people to put me in a commercial. When it got something like five million views really quickly, I was immediately like, “Well, that ain’t because of me. You guys know how to make a great commercial.” And their way of making a commercial makes it look perfect to me. That’s the moral to that story.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.