Wednesday 18 October 2017

With sealed lips

Ed Power

Ed Power

Wayne Coyne can't understand what all the fuss is about. "It's so silly. People say things about The Flaming Lips all the time and I don't give a shit. For Arcade Fire to even think that what I would say would have any impact on their egos... it's all silly," says Coyne. "Who cares?"

But people do care. We're talking about the, well, 'feud' is probably the best word for the unpleasantness that bubbled up this year between The Flaming Lips frontman and everyone's favourite orchestral pop moochers. The row kicked off when Coyne, chatting casually (or so he believed) to a reporter, suggested Arcade Fire weren't the most agreeable people to be around off stage.

"I'm a fan [of Arcade Fire] on one level, but on another level I get really tired of their pompousness," Oklahoma's pre-eminent weirdo rock star told Rolling Stone. "We've played some shows with them and they really treat people like shit. Whenever I've been around them, I've found that they not only treated their crew like shit, they treated the audience like shit. They treated everybody in their vicinity like shit. I thought, 'Who do they think they are?'"

Just in case the journalist didn't get the message, Coyne added: "They have good tunes, but they're pricks, so fuck 'em."

Quicker than you could say 'rock and roll smackdown', the Arcade Fire's Win Butler issued a statement in which he explained that, while he was a Flaming Lips fan, he didn't know where Coyne got off criticising a band he barely knew: "Unless I was way more jet-lagged than I remember, I hope I was less of a 'prick' than telling Rolling Stone that a bunch of people I don't know at all are really a bunch of assholes."

The brua-ha-ha was all of six months ago, when the Flaming Lips were knee-deep in the recording of their 12th album Embryonic (to be released at the end of the month). Looking back, Coyne is, if not quite contrite, then at least vaguely conciliatory about the affair.

"In my defence, I would say it was a casual conversation with the reporter. I don't care. I know what I said was absolutely the truth. I run into people virtually everywhere we play and they're like, 'Wayne, you're the only one that says anything'. I would say in their defence that perhaps they have changed. But I don't care. A lot of silly gossip gets built up into epic proportions. I can understand people who loved their music thinking I was out of line for saying it."

Coyne recounts all of this so sweetly and without annoyance that it's impossible to imagine anyone, even the perma-scowling Butler, holding a grudge against him for very long. At 48, there's something of a carefree flower-child about the singer. Coyne is sufficiently long in the tooth to remember the 60s first hand (he wryly notes that he's older than the current US president) and though he hasn't touched hallucinogenics since he was a very young man, he converses in the dreamy 'gosh-wow' tones of someone for whom each new day is one long trip.

It's a world view he puts front and centre of The Flaming Lips live experience. Headlining Electric Picnic in 2005, Coyne goofed around inside a giant hamster ball, got spattered in fake blood and brought a troupe of animal-costumed backing singers on stage. For those who have never dabbled in psychedelics, it was the closest they were likely to come to an out-of-body experience.

"This year, it will be even more spectacular," he says, looking forward to the band's performance at the 2009 Electric Picnic. "We've been honing this thing for a couple of years now. Sometimes people think, 'are The Flaming Lips going to come and not do a big show?' I would say 'no'. Part of what we do is bring this sort of circus of enthusiasm with us. So if you saw us a couple of years ago, and you were to bring a friend and you've been saying 'The Flaming Lips do all of this amazing stuff', we would never make you look like a fool."

The confetti, balloons and hamster balls are intrinsically whimsical, but Coyne insists there's a real seriousness to what they do on stage. "I know a lot of it seems silly. I think you have to do big things at festivals, there's a lot going on. It allows us to do subtle emotional things within the context of that. I don't think you'd invite The Flaming Lips to play a festival if you wanted us to be small and quiet and play in a corner."

The advance word on the new album is that it's somewhat darker and, by design, more disjointed than the band's last few records. After a decade of mainstream success, Coyne, with bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Steve Drozd, have by all accounts set out to re-assert their underground credentials. Certainly that's the impression created by taster single Convinced of the Hex, which sounds as if it was put together by synthesiser-abusing troglodytes in an underground lair (that's a recommendation, incidentally).

If nothing else, the LP pays testament to the might of Coyne's Rolodex. Among the collaborators he's lined up are the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O and fellow Picnic headliners MGMT, who, apparently, recorded their contribution in the midst of some manner of pagan orgy.

"They were working in the middle of the night," reports Coyne. "I got the feeling they had a bonfire going on outside the studio. They claim they were roasting Barbie dolls and then they would run into the room and chant into the mike. I don't know, but the track is wonderful. Karen O we got to know through being a fan and playing different festivals and getting to hang out with her. We were doing a track called Watching The Planets. I don't know why it occurred to me, but I thought 'hey, that sounds like Karen O'. So we thought 'why don't we call her and see if she wants to to do it?'"

When not provoking the ire of Arcade Fire or palling around with Karen O, Coyne has been finding a multitude of other ways to keep busy. Several month ago,Tthe Flaming Lips were honoured in their native Oklahoma City after their song Do You Realise was voted the town's official rock song. While the band was deeply flattered, there was a downside, as they found out upon agreeing to ride a float with Oklahoma governor Ted Strickland on New Year's Day.

"New Year parades in America are a big deal," says Coyne. "We were up on this damn float for five hours, with the governor, his wife and his kids. It was the most brutal endurance contest we've ever been part of. I think we bonded forever with the governor during that. Pain seems to bring people closer together than anything else."

The Flaming Lips play Electric Picnic on Sunday. Embryonic is released in late September Comments Facility

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