The Flaming Lips have been thrilling fans with their lush, transcendent space rock, eye-popping psychedelic videos and over-the-top, mind-burstingly ecstatic live shows since they formed in Oklahoma City back in 1983. Their latest release, Heady Nuggs: 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic, 1994–1997, is a three-disc reissue of their (now-midcareer) classic 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic, with bonus EPs and a previously unreleased live recording of a 1996 show at Moe’s, the famed Seattle club.
Even as the band looks back on more than 30 years of experimenting with all sorts of sounds (and outfits), they have simultaneously accelerated into a brand-new era with a significantly younger audience, collaborating with the one and only Miley Cyrus on her album Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, and touring with Cyrus for a colorful series of intimate club dates.
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne is clearly enjoying his friendship and artistic partnership with the pop star. The singer cites Miley’s creative energy as an inspiration to keep pushing the boundaries in music, art and life—as if he ever needed any added incentive to let his freak flag fly. Coyne is having a wonderful time, and he wants the world to know it no matter what the haters say. He just doesn’t have time for folks who don’t know how to have fun.
HT: Where did the Heady Nuggs title come from? Is it a weed reference?
WC: It is. I think George [Salisbury] said it in a joking way—he’s the guy I design stuff with. He may have said it, and I just liked the way it sounded. People took it as this weed reference, though we’re really not that much of a weed band. I didn’t know that it was a weed reference, but after I found out, it still sounded cool. Part of it is that there were these early-’70s compilations called Nuggets; I think I connected it to that and wasn’t aware of the other stuff. So it had its own meaning for me.
When did you first smoke marijuana?
Gosh, I’m trying to remember. I have older brothers and an older sister—I was born in 1961, so they were already getting to be teenagers as the ’60s rolled along. I remember we would have these boxing matches and sandlot football games with all of my brothers’ freaky friends. There would be a lot of pot smoking amongst them, even when I was 6 or 7 years old. It never did anything for me, though—I mean, I never liked it. But I didn’t realize how much I didn’t like it until, really, just about a year ago, when I tried some of Miley Cyrus’s completely, completely badass pot. And I realized: “Oh my God—that’s the weird, psychotic, depressed paranoia that I felt when I was young!” I just thought I was going crazy, and I realize now that my brothers and their friends would smoke so much pot that I was getting a contact high—not knowing it was a high.
Even though it’s not for you, you’re an advocate for marijuana legalization and recreational weed?
For sure. I can definitely see that a lot of people like it, and the idea that it should be illegal, I mean … I sold marijuana when I was 15, 16 years old. My thinking then, you know—it was the mid-’70s—was that it was going to be legalized any day, so I may as well make some cash on it while I could. Now it feels like within another five years, it will seem strange that [marijuana] would be a problem with the law.
You’re probably around quite a bit of weed on tour with Miley Cyrus.
Yeah. I mean, there are times when you’re around it 24/7, but I don’t get a contact high now; I would only get high if I purposely tried to smoke it. I think, back then, it wouldn’t take as much or something.
It’s weird—I could never figure out that shift in my mind until I got way, way, way too stoned. About a year ago, at Christmas, Miley came here [to Oklahoma City]. We took one of her mom’s Winnebagos and went to the Grand Canyon and did this long trip there for our Christmas party. The first night we were traveling down the road, we all were just collectively non compos mentis, and we decided we’d all try Miley’s pot. By the end, we were all cowering in the back bunk. I had some regret about it—but, you know, what can you do?
The Flaming Lips’ collaboration with Cyrus has been heralded as bridging a generational divide. Do you sense that?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t think my generation and her generation have a divide. I think the divide is between her being a crazy 23-year-old and the people who are probably in their early 30s—that’s where the divide is. I mean, people who are old like me, they could see [the collaboration] as fun and ridiculous and creative and all that. I think if you were young while she was Hannah Montana, you’re probably going to have a little bit of a hard time embracing her music for a while. But I never had that issue—I like her in the current state that she is now. I met her when she was … I think I met her when she was 20, and she’s now 23. So it’s not very long.
But I didn’t know her when she was 15, 16. Maybe that’s why some of the leftover [Hannah Montana fans] are just not going to accept her, which … that’s fair. But I don’t think the divide is between my generation and her generation. It’s somewhere in between.
You have a unique ability to perform for a younger crowd and relate to them on a vital, exciting level. Where does that energy come from?
I think it’s just that—I think it’s just the energy. I don’t know why I have it, but I’m lucky that I do, and that energy is what I think bonds me to people. It’s not that they’re young or old; it just bonds me to other people who have that energy. Certainly Miley Cyrus has that level of love for life, that love of being creative, and she attacks it. I think if I didn’t have that sort of energy, I wouldn’t want to be around someone like that—I’d be too tired. I don’t think it has to do with age.
When we play festivals, it’s a good combination, too. Certainly, it’s mostly young people [in the audience], but there are some weirdoes there that are kind of ageless because they just like being around that stuff. I think we’re really lucky that we like that and feed off that. It helps us, and it makes us happy to be around that kind of energy. So, really, it’s mostly that. I mean, I know some people that are in their 20s and don’t have any energy. I don’t like being around them that much.
Can you relate it to a kind of elevated consciousness—like tripping?
Not to me. I mean, it’s really … I don’t know, it’s more like a drive. I get to wake up every day and do my art and do my music and do my thing. I don’t ever dismiss that. Every day, I’m just like, “Fuck, this is cool—I’m going to go for it. I don’t feel any reason to lay back.” Which is what I think our audience wants. Our audience, they’ve given us this great, wonderful life, and I take full advantage of it, which you want me to do. So no, I don’t think it’s like tripping. I mean, it’s … I don’t know if I would enjoy tripping like a lot of people do. I’ve had some trips that I really liked, but I don’t really take acid. I’ve taken it a couple times. I’ve done some ayahuasca and some mushrooms and stuff. Those, in the right setting, I think are amazing.
You seem to be positive about psychedelics in general.
I guess—to a point. I mean, a lot of people that I know that take them, they’re just really nice, optimistic people. But drugs in general are … they’re a hazardous thing. Luckily, I don’t really have an addictive personality when it comes to drugs. I’m addicted to art, and music, and that side of me … I think I’m more addicted to that than I am to any illegal substance.
But some people can have a harder time with them. I mean, all of my brothers and my older sister, they’ve all been addicted to drugs at some point in their lives. Especially when I was young, I didn’t like it. I saw how destructive it was. I saw how much regret they had about it and all that, so I think I’ve been cautious about it happening to me.
You’re in Oklahoma City. That’s considered the heartland, right?
[Laughs] Well, I think there’s a lot of heart, yeah. You know, you could probably say Nebraska and Kansas and all that could be “heartland” too … but yeah, I’d say so. Yeah.
What’s the culture and current political climate like there?
Well, the current political climate in Oklahoma is probably a little bit more of a step backwards than it has been. Maybe go back eight years or so, and it would be a bit different. But I don’t really think about it that much; it’s never really scared me or stopped me from living my life. So I never want to make that big of a deal about it. I’ve never felt as though I grew up like a normal person in Oklahoma City—I grew up with my mom and my dad and my brothers and their friends, and that was the life that I still have. I don’t think it would be what people would think of as a typical Midwestern life.
The more I see it now, the more I think everything is [happening] all at the same time for everybody. You’re not really isolated—it’s hard to have your own version of what your life will be. Everybody’s life is available to all of us all the time now.
You’ve said that getting robbed at gunpoint in Oklahoma City many years ago changed you. How so?
Well, I don’t think at the time you know how much it’s going to change you. I was only 16, and I remember that I really did, in the heart of my mind, believe I was going to die. There had been a lot of robberies in the area, and people had gotten killed, and this seemed very much like the way it was going to go. These guys had guns and they were completely pissed off, and, you know, we laid on the ground … it was just very much like [being killed by them] was how this was going to go down. And then they left—and I’m still here. But for a little while after that, I think all the little insecurities and all the little fears and all the little stupid things that you worry about [disappeared] … I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I was able to be an artist and be in a band and do these things, and I was able to … not break free—I loved my family; I loved my mother and my dad and my brothers and all that …. But this idea that I would just do what my dad did and work with my brothers and do that sort of thing—I think that was the moment when I didn’t feel like I had to do that anymore. Or I understood that I didn’t need to do that.
I think without that [experience], I may have not had such a moment of brazenness, or selfishness, or whatever it is that you call that. It had to be pursued: I wanted to do art, and I wanted to do music. What it did is, it [helped me say], “I don’t care if people think I’m stupid—I’m alive, and I should be dead. I don’t give a fuck.”
It was the beginning of “I don’t give a fuck.” But that comes back after a while—I mean, you do give a fuck again—but it got me a little bit ahead. So I think that it utterly changed my life. I wouldn’t have had such a thrust to do my thing, because I probably would have been too embarrassed.
Given your penchant for controversial projects and bold moves, is there anything that you would consider to be too embarrassing to do?
No. I would regret if it hurt someone’s feelings or something like that, but I think in the name of art, those are the things that probably hold people back the most: They’re afraid that they’re going to look stupid or they’re going to be embarrassed. And that’s just one of the things I don’t really consider. You do your thing, and what people think is outrageous or stupid this year, eventually they might think is the greatest, most original thing ever. You just don’t know. But you can’t think about it.
I always run into people who think that they’re smart: “I’ll go out there and figure it out.” To me, that’s boring. I’m not here to “figure it out.” I’m lucky that I’m a slave to this thing, and I get to make music and art and be me. I’m the slave to this stuff that I think are my ideas. I hope I always am. I’m very nice and optimistic—I think that comes across more than anything else.
That energy radiates from your art and your music and, most of all, from your live performances. One of my favorite nights in New York was seeing the Flaming Lips at SummerStage on mushrooms. It was magical.
Thank you. I think that’s part of it: that people are willing to surrender and just go with it and not be so cool. Being cool is the enemy of really having a great experience at all times. You meet people who … they have an idea of what’s cool and what isn’t, and I’m like, “I don’t know—just do the maximum and try to feel things.”
I guess there are things that you can say, “Man, that's cool.” But to know what’s cool and try to be cool and all that just seems to limit people.
Your collaboration with Miley Cyrus seems to be pushing a lot of people’s boundaries.
Well, I understand that. Even when we did our Pink Floyd cover album eight years ago, or whenever it was, there’s an old guard of music listeners that think they own the thing, and that they’re right and everybody else is stupid and wrong. And then last year, when we did the Sgt. Pepper’s cover record and Miley Cyrus was actually on it, you get people threatening to come to your house and kill you: “How dare you do this?” To me, it’s just logical. But I understand that they’ve got this thing, and “How dare you mess with it? We made the whole world, and how dare you mess with it?” I just don’t see it that way. I don’t see why we get so upset about it. Those people are never going to have that much fun in life.
It seems like the sky’s the limit for you. What dreams do you have for upcoming projects?
We don’t have too many dreams; we don’t have too much time to think of what might be, because there are so many things that are just actually happening right now. We’re doing these shows with Miley, and when you’re there, it really is a great night. I think she’s seeing how much of her audience are people that love music and want the whole experience and don’t judge it as much as I think she feared they might.
I have a studio at my house, and I am always, always doing stuff, and we have so much—we have ultimate control over all of the older Flaming Lips material. That’s why we’re always doing these cool reissues of things. So I don’t know if I have any grand ideas at the moment; I think we’re barely holding on being able to do what we’re doing now and not be overwhelmed by it. But I’m sure I’ll think of something…
Photo c/o George Salisbury