A couple of things have led me to think about Wayne Coyne, the leader of the psychedelic band The Flaming Lips. The first is not as consequential as the second.
You would think that the firing of Kliph Scurlock, drummer, would be the second given that build-up, but it isn’t. Neither is the subsequent bad blood being spilled in the press. I feel badly that this has happened, but a band without internal strife is a band that has only interacted with each other on the Internet. Like all relationships, things change, thinks sour, people get coarse and dry out, rub up against each other and start fires. One hopes this might be a situation in progress versus a conclusion, but if not, it certainly isn’t abnormal.
No, I’m recalling a conversation with some friends about a week ago, but I’ll preface that with a conversation with those same friends a few years ago. I had just published a negative review of Embryonic (on this same website, not coincidentally) and they excoriated me severely. I was overlooking Coyne and Steven Drozd’s vision, I was limiting them at a moment when they were exploring the dark side, after a handful of relatively “happy” pop records. I was being a bully critic who was angry that the band was changing in ways I didn’t want them to, and not appreciating the album for what it was.
Cut back to a week or so ago. Everything is chummy and amiable. Everyone’s having a good time. They’re drinking beer. I, as is my custom, am not. I carefully wade into the question that might get my ankles chewed off as if I was a crocodile tamer in a hungry swampful of critters. “So, what did you think of The Terror?”
They looked at each other, this married couple, and both he and she said nearly in unison, “We don’t listen to Flaming Lips anymore.”
“Why?” I asked. I left out all the defensive stuff about artistic freedom and the right to go dark and hang one’s self over the edge of the cliff.
“There’s no joy anymore. Even in the early, weird, noisy stuff from early on, there was some kind of joy in what they did. This felt like an obligation, and one they hated.”
By “they” I had to believe they meant Coyne. This couple went on to also take issue with the stuff on the USB stick that came inside the bong water-flavored gummi-skull, the Heady Fwends project, and on, where I was focusing solely on the Warner Bros. things, an arrangement Coyne has been more and more critical of in the music news. They said how everyone has had the experience of being with the co-worker who has had it, has mentally checked out, and could not care less if they get fired or not. They speculated that Coyne is trying to get fired.
Or rather, he is grating against what the public has decided Wayne Coyne should be and is miserable for the box he has painted himself into — the technicolor cage of the performance artist, part merry prankster, part sinister showman, part Rip Taylor with a hatful of confetti. I suppose I was taking a little bit of self satisfaction that they were somehow confirming the argument they once had slammed me for, but it was only a very tiny bit.
In the end, we all felt sad about this. The Flaming Lips became the most unlikely pop stars. The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots are nearly perfect pop records. No one expected this eccentric, weirdo bunch who gave us “She Don’t Use Jelly” to then give us music that would be used in a commercial (that would be “Do You Realize??”). Those who did hear that song in that commercial had to run out and buy Yoshimi. Upon doing that, the staff at the store invariably would say, “Aw, man, if you like that, you’ll LOVE The Soft Bulletin.”
The Lips were always a little dark. The Soft Bulletin was originally The Soft Bullet In, which conjures up all manner of penetrations. “The Spiderbite Song” centers around the fact that Steven Drozd had a huge infected wound on his arm where a spider bit him. The flesh was becoming necrotized. Coyne felt bad and wrote the song, all the while probably realizing the spider bite cover story was B.S. Drozd is an I.V. drug user. He had a dirty needle. The body frowns upon such things.
Drugs are the electrons that always seem to orbit around the Lips. I have to wonder if that is leading to the slow but very present shift in Coyne’s demeanor. He seems to be a genuinely unhappy person lately, at least in how he is portrayed in interviews. He has had marital issues, and it is unfair to unpack all of that in this speculative form, and so I won’t. But there has to be a certain amount of dread that hangs over Coyne whenever he embarks on new projects. Drozd is no third stringer — he’s an equal, an integral part of what the Lips are, and at any day’s notice, Coyne could find out that the big spider bit a little too hard this time. That’s a hard burden to carry. It is hard on a friendship. It is hard on a working relationship.
Worse, because drugs are so much an element of their ethos, what happens when the drugs are no fun anymore, when they just bring you down, when they’re a harbinger for bad stuff to come rather than just experiments in getting out of your head? If you have made your artistic mark with the color blue, and you find you’re starting to dislike the color blue, but that your identity is so wrapped in it that to break free is like calling it quits, that’s a bind. It is oppressive. It’s the kind of recipe that cooks up dishes like Embryonic and The Terror.
The chemical trail can cause one to feel like they’re delaying that “awful responsible adulthood,” but just because one isn’t growing up emotionally doesn’t mean they haven’t stopped getting old. I’ve known plenty of folks who walked that trail and I thank God I never got into it. They tell me things like, “I was an invincible teenager right up until the moment I learned I was a gray-haired old junkie.” Coyne has always come across as the recreational experimentalist in this respect, but Drozd needs it. In a documentary about The Soft Bulletin, he is lucid and forthcoming, but his sallow raccoon eyes betrays just how bad this guy has gotten with the junk.
I assume an awful lot at this point, perhaps far too much. It might be that Coyne is perfectly at peace with where the Lips are today, and if that is the case then nobody from Pitchfork, Stereogum, or Popdose really has much to say about it. But Coyne has perennially been one of those alt-rock weirdos that critics gravitate to, mostly because he’s so gosh-darn likeable (for the most part. The Arcade Fire’s Win Butler might disagree.) Coyne seems to be at his best when he is happy, when he has a challenge ahead of him, and when he isn’t being made the bearer of expectations. He’s clever, too. The 4-CD Zaireeka is the same album four times, with distinctly different mixes on each. It is meant to be played in four stereos simultaneously, meaning in order to be played right it has to be a communal effort. It is your own art happening in a box. And because people are not accurate like a digital time code, each time played can be slightly different depending on who was slowest on unpausing the disc. That’s rather brilliant, even if the music itself isn’t recalled as readily as that on The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi.
The thing that separates the USB sticks in the gummi-sculpts is that the crux of Zaireeka seemed to be the music, drawn into a bigger opportunity. The USB deal seems only a marketing ploy, and there still isn’t a lot of conversation about what was actually on the stick. Was it music, good or bad, or just noise? It’s a concept, but it misses the impish “let’s create a party” vibe. That is Coyne the performance artist who concocts elaborate, gonzo concerts and bizarre films with equally bizarre soundtracks. That is him when he’s happy, it seems. When he’s not happy, he looks at the abyss and makes music about what he sees. At least it is a creative output, but does he like what he’s made or is he only picking at his own infected, emotional “spider bite”?
Maybe it is time to walk away from the Lips, at least for a little while. I would never advocate any band break up, but it just keeps pinging back that he wants to outgrow the fluorescent cage he’s made and do something else. Maybe it is a movie, a narrative movie, not a tripped-out lark. Maybe it is scoring for other people’s movies (he’s done that too, in ways). Though the individual musical forms are vastly different, if you look at the Lips as a performance art outfit alone, it’s in the same park as (The Mystic Knights of the) Oingo Boingo, and Danny Elfman migrated to the orchestral soundtrack world with greater ease than he could have. (In interviews, Elfman has stressed that “ease” was hardly so, but he’s now one of the most respected film composers. This is not a stretch.) Maybe Coyne wants to do an acoustic folk record that is everything his current persona is not, and he chafes at how his no-limits collective has, nonetheless, imposed just that.
Maybe he’s worried that Drozd, left to his own devices, will reach the cliched conclusion and that the Lips remains a tether, a lifeline. Maybe he feels this is necessary to keep his friend and collaborator together, and maybe he resents it, and maybe, maybe, maybe.
There’s way too much speculation going on here, too much guesswork and unwarranted coloration. What is certain is that the once vaunted Flaming Lips, who produced two peerless examples of the pop form (and one that signaled the change now faced, At War With The Mystics) seem miserable. They seem unhappy and morose, and are making art that reflects that. If they want that to be so, so be it. Why does it feel then like they don’t want it to be so?