The phone goes quiet. "Are you there? Hello, are you there?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here," says the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, the journeyman psych-rocker best known for the song "Do You Realize." "I didn't mean to go away, but I was just thinking about what you said. Because it's so right."
What stopped the mentally nimble Oklahoma musician, if only for a moment, was the suggestion that even before his highly theatrical concerts found him rolling out over festival crowds in a big inflatable ball, his band made music that wouldn't allow fans to have a passive listening experience. The specific example was his haunting, album-ending cover of Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World," which seems to surface all wet and weightless from the heady claustrophobic fuzz of the 1990 Flaming Lips album In a Priest Driven Ambulance. "You know, we still play that sometimes at the end of the night," Coyne says. "It's such a good example of how simple and emotional words in the right order can be."
Communicating emotion is Coyne's primary concern. Everything else, he says, is just a means to an end.
Memphis Flyer: Do you have any memory of your first Memphis show at the Antenna club?
Wayne Coyne: Was it memorable? Remind me.
Well, it started out great but it ended abruptly when you guys blew out the sound system.
You know, that's happened to us a couple of times.
You filled the room up with so much fog that nobody could see. And when the music stopped so suddenly, it was like we were all playing tug-of-war and you guys let go of your end of the rope.
Sounds like we made an impression.
People physically staggered. So even when you were playing smaller venues the show was theatrical.
You know, we like all that stuff like the pink smoke — or maybe I strap a strobe light to my chest — because we like it. It's not like, if we didn't do this it would suck. But the music we play is all about emotion. And sometimes you have to get to a certain place for the music to have its full effect.
And the spectacle is all a part of getting audiences to that place?
When you're up close, you can see our faces and our hands. Those things disappear 40 feet away. We become smaller as the audience gets bigger, and we want to let all the people in the back know, "Hey, we're playing for you too!"
When we rehearse, we know we're creating this chaos and exuberance. But the most exciting sound you can hear isn't music. The most exciting sound you can hear is the sound of other humans screaming, because the natural reaction to that sound is, "Hey, I want to scream too!" We start our show [with the volume] at 11 and let audiences know that if you want to surrender, now would be a good time.
Do you write new songs to fit some new visual you've come up with?
You know, it's a nearly impossible task to come up with a song that's worth listening to. You fumble and you fumble some more. People love "Do You Realize." Why? That's a mystery. I don't know how it became what it became. I made it once, I should be able to make it twice, right? But that may never happen. I may never have another The Soft Bulletin.
But sometimes we have these great accidents, and I'm lucky enough to stand in front of it. To me, we're making music, and the audience decides what it is. The audience gives it power. If someone says, "I love this song," it's a great song.
So it all still begins with the song.
Well, it's like how I'm drawing this doodle right now. I'm talking to you, but subconsciously I'm drawing this thing and I don't know what it is. ... I don't like to control a lot of what we do. We want to go into the unknown.
Your catalogue is so diverse. Someone who has only heard "Do You Realize" might think the Flaming Lips are a thoughtful soft-rock band. But "This Here Giraffe" and "She Don't Use Jelly" are almost novelty songs. And the early stuff can be ferocious. Yet it all fits together as a body of work.
Well, I think that's got a lot to do with the fact that we're all just people. You know? We like to laugh at things that are funny. We cry when things are sad. And we pay attention to things that are important.
When you toured with a Memphis band called the Grifters, I heard some of those guys say you were one of the few bands they never wanted to follow.
Ha! Really? Those guys were freaks. At the time they had a different idea of what a concert should be like than anybody else around. We probably learned more playing with them than they learned playing with us.
I have to ask: Is your album Yoshimi vs. the Pink Robots still being developed as a Broadway musical?
Yes. It is being developed as a musical with characters. The guy who's directing [Des McAnuff] is great. Whenever he goes to tell the story of the show, he still gets tears in his eyes.
I'm sure you've heard all about what's happened with Spider-Man the musical. Are you afraid of what happens when this takes on a life of its own?
At first, yes. It seemed scary. Then I decided: You know what? Yeah. I want that.
The Flaming Lips
Friday, April 29th
Horseshoe Casino Stage, 10:50 p.m.