The Flaming Lips‘ Wayne Coyne has enjoyed many personae over the course of his career — from psychedelic freakout artist to “cool uncle” for a generation of imaginative indie-rock bands. But the one he seems to delight in at the moment is his role as rock and roll’s Willy Wonka, finding increasingly creative ways to distribute music to avid fans (often involving candy, naturally). Hive caught up with Coyne to get some insight into what leads a man to encase his latest musical releases inside of a skull made out of gummy, and how the changing music industry is mostly just giving him a bigger and better playground. Coyne, in turn, turned this writer into a cartoon. (Also, naturally.)
Do you think there’s an opportunity to do things like the gummy skull now that might not have existed in the past?
I know for people who love music, the idea that this music that you love, really does occupy enough of their minds. We like this idea that we’re able to do something different. I think people have so much easy access to music, and I don’t want to say that it should be free, but a lot of people are able to download music as quickly as they can press a few buttons. And I think to a certain extent we want that. We like the idea that our music is like the air and water, it’s so accessible that if you want it, it’s there. But the dilemma starts to be – what is the thing that we make a big deal about, that you get to buy and have and hold? It used to be people held onto albums. And now the music is there without any object. It’s just part of your computer. So I like the idea that we’re able to put these [flash drives of songs] inside gummy skulls, and make these elaborate 12-inch vinyl records. I’ve always wanted to do that anyway. I like this idea that these are objects that carry these ideas that are already within the music and within the groove of the people who create the music. I’m not proposing that every group should do what we do. I think that however you want to put your music out there, you should do it. That’s what I’m doing.
Would it have been harder to get a label to put out a recording like the one you did with Neon Indian if you’d wanted to make a short, collaborative EP with someone back in the pre-digital age?
That’s always been difficult for people, even now. I’m very lucky to be in such an inertia-fed situation, where I could literally record something today, put it out tonight and have an object by which you could buy it over the weekend. Much in the same way that John Lennon in 1970, or Crosby, Stills and Nash did with their music – they’d write a song, then three days later you’d hear it on the radio. I would say that would be difficult for a lot of younger artists. There are a lot of mechanisms that you have to understand how they work. But I think that’s what the Flaming Lips audience wants. They say, “Wayne, show us what you can do!” And so I do. As much as the Flaming Lips can give you a sense of ourselves and a sense of our energy – it’s in the stuff. You can see it. And if you like it, it’s because you like us. If you don’t, it would be because you don’t like us. It’s the truest response you could want.
When you’re hand-selling a gummy skull, is it about creating a ritual around the experience of hearing it?
If another group had made a gummy skull that you had to eat into to get the music out of, I would do it. Just to say, “This is something that’s available in real time.” This isn’t something that happened 20 years ago, or some movie that I’m going to watch. It’s happening in real time by current, creative, living people, and I want to be a part of these ideas. I want to be a part of these experiences. We’re going to make this ridiculous candy, in this ridiculous format, you put it in your computer and eat some gut-wrenching weird candy, and that’s an experience that you have with the Flaming Lips. It’s not about candy, it’s about a great sort of other way to see the world. And it is a great-looking object.
Now that the gummy skull is out there, what’s next?
I don’t always want there to be, “Look, here’s another big elaborate object that you must understand!” So every other month is really just a very well-done 12-inch package. I have a guy in Dallas who makes every one of these vinyls himself. He puts the vinyl into the machine and watches what comes out the other end. When we talk about the objects, we have a gummy fetus that’s going to come out in June. It’s beautiful – I’ve put pictures of it online, but I don’t want people to get too caught up in it because it’s not coming for a little bit yet. We have this little stroboscope device that you spin, and it makes these little animations. We’re going to release these little six-inch pieces of vinyl with that. Just another unique experience connected with this unique music. And we believe by October that this stompbox that we’re constantly working and having a couple of companies devise – it plays three of our songs, but also functions as a weird, elaborate stompbox for your guitar or keyboard, or whatever you want to plug into it.
Is it all just for fun at this point?
Yeah, but everybody should live their life like that! We want to do things that are interesting to us. That doesn’t mean that every moment is filled up with fun – even the craziest art still requires some dilligent hard work in the end. But yeah – I want people to think that the people I’m working with here, and everyone involved, is working so frantically to get these things done, that we grab one of these things and just say, “Oh my god, this is what we get to do. We get to make this music. We get to play with these toys.” I want people to think that this is the life that everybody would want to live. I’m having absolute fun. I’m completely exhausted most days, because I don’t just work a little bit – I work all day and all night sometimes, because there’s no limit to what’s going to happen. But I want to. I want my life to be used up. I don’t want to fucking die awake. I want to die because I’m so tired of living that it’s all I can do. [Laughs] I want people to say, “I saw Wayne … he looked like he was about to die!” That’d be good. “Because he was old, and he was fuckin’ used up.”
The Flaming Lips are on tour throughout the U.S. this summer. In the meantime, watch Wayne Coyne personally deliver gummy skulls: