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With 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and this year’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Flaming Lips have hit a career zenith, refining 20 years of freak-outs into rich, experimental pop unafraid to show its emotional side. They’re currently on tour with Beck as both opening act and his backing band. The pairing makes for a fine counterbalance: While Beck’s recently released Sea Change is a plodding opus of mope in the tradition of Neil Young’s Harvest and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, the Lips offer a jolt of insanity. Their live show is known for disco balls, confetti, films of Japanese schoolgirls spraying each other with automatic weapons and more.
As the band plans a special New Year’s Eve show for Chicago, ShinyGun spoke with Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne about backing Beck, the importance of cheerleading and Ted Danson.
SUPER-OFFICIAL SHINYGUN INTERVIEW QUESTION LIST
Subject: Wayne Coyne Occupation: Singer, Flaming Lips Interviewed by: Ted Sablay
1.) You had back-to-back successes with the albums The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi. Is it strange after that to go back to playing the opening act?
Well, we’ve always sort of done that. We like the interesting bill. If you’re reading in the paper about who’s coming to town, we like it if it seems, Gosh, that is bizarre! Our whole career we’ve been presenting ourselves to the world in these absurd situations, whether it’s playing with Tool or the Butthole Surfers or Stone Temple Pilots or Candlebox or, even last summer, that thing with the Hackensaw Boys and Cake.
I like this challenge of going out and saying, “Fuck, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I mean, you gotta have that. It’s got to be sort of exciting. Sometimes people are like, “Gosh, what are you guys doing?” and I’m like, “I don’t really know.”
2.) So what’s your verdict on this tour? Is this experiment with Beck working out?
It seems to be working great. We did Austin City Limits just last night. They taped it and obviously it’s not going to play till January or something, but, uh, I liked it. Beck was very nervous, and we’re never nervous. We’re just like, Come on, let’s go out there and do the show. He took a break and he went to Acapulco a couple days ago, but we just kept doing stuff. So when we all arrived here, he’s kind of waking up again, like, Gosh, I feel kinda rusty.
But people really love the whole camaraderie, the whole idea of us joining forces and doing this thing.
3.) What inspired Beck to tour with the Flaming Lips?
Well, part of the deal is, he really doesn’t have a band. He either goes out and does a solo thing or he puts together a band, which, as you can probably guess, is time-consuming. Every time he puts out a record he has to go through that process. Knowing that we were already a band, and all he had to do was come in and sing, was a relief.
4.) But I hear he did offer some suggestions for additional musicians. Something about a guy from Cheers? What’s the story behind that?
You know…Beck is weird. He doesn’t get to the point. Like, say I asked, “Hey, you wanna go get some coffee?” You’d say, “Yes.” Beck would say, “Coffee! Wow. I don’t know….” I might say, “Where do you wanna meet?” You’d say, “On the corner.” Beck would say — point is, well, with Beck sometimes, you don’t know where his answer’s gonna come from.
So when we were initially talking — probably the second or third time we talked about putting this band together — I kept reiterating that we were going to add musicians other than just three of the Flaming Lips. I’d ask him, maybe on his cell phone, “Hey, do you know anybody else?” So when I asked him one time, he was like, “Well, why don’t we get Ted Danson?” What are you supposed to say to that? “Well, okay, um….” And you move onto the next topic.
So when we show up to play on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Ted Danson is one of the guests. And I go up to Beck and say, “You’re not going to believe it — Ted Danson is here. Remember? You told me to get Ted Danson to be in the band.” So we asked Ted if he’d want to sit in with the band — we sort of told him about this stupid remark that we made months ago and how the whole thing was suddenly coming true. And luckily Ted Danson was just the sweetest, nicest person, willing to play along with anything we wanted to do. He sat up there under the bed with me and played the song with us. How great is that?
5.) On that appearance, you were more a cheerleader than anything else, camping out with Ted Danson under a blanket, giving levity and visual interest to the performance. Is cheerleading just part of the job description on this tour?
There are some songs that I don’t have to do that much on, because I play some pretty minimal keyboard parts and some samplers, and I play guitar and sing. But I don’t feel the need for everybody to, you know, play every second of every song. And, you know, I am the cheerleader anyway. I mean, I would do that for anybody. You try to create a concert atmosphere where people can go crazy if they want to. Sometimes I think people do wonder. They want to be cool and they don’t know: Should we be going crazy or should we sitting here acting, you know, critical and stuff?
6.) Did you have much time to practice with Beck before the tour started?
We got together with him around the middle of September for, I think, 12 days straight, where we rehearsed from noon to midnight everyday. And some of those rehearsals went well and some of them were very lazy, and some of those we got a lot of work done and other days we just walked out and talked about sunsets and things like that.
Then we took a week break and went back to do production rehearsals, in a big theater with all the lights and the PA set up as if we’re doing a show. We ran through that for a week as well. So, you know, a lot of preparation for these shows. A lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of people hassling with it.
7.) It sounds as though that’s not how the Flaming Lips usually prepare for a tour.
You know, the way the Flaming Lips work — I mean, we just rehearse at my house. I set up the gear and we just get together and figure all of these things out because, you know, we don’t have to set up the big thing; we just go to the show and set it up and we’re good to go.
8.) Should concert-goers expect a new spin on Beck’s songs now that the Lips are backing him up?
In a way, I think Beck likes the idea of turning a song that was once a hip-hop song into a country song. I’ve never seen that work that well. I think occasionally an artist can get lucky and take a song that’s really great in one genre and put it into another. But I really don’t agree with that.
Some of his songs, I think, are great, and I think the audience loves them the way they are. If we’re doing anything different, we’re playing them with the intensity of a band that is really comfortable around each other as opposed to a group of musicians who’ve only been playing together for, say, six months or so. If there’s any thing we’ve done, we’ve done that. But to his credit, the bands that Beck’s had in the past have been great, and people have always seen his shows and walked away thinking it was the greatest thing ever.
The worst thing in the world would be for people to know Beck and have seen him in the past and think, Gosh, these shows aren’t as good as the ones in the past. That’s why I work so hard to make sure that these shows are unique and they’re good and that they satisfy Beck’s fans as well. I don’t want his fans who don’t know anything about us to think, Ugh, what is this?
9.) The Flaming Lips show is only 50 minutes on this tour, right?
We always wanted to play a 45-minute set, take a 20-minute break, and then Beck comes out and we’re playing with him. That’s plenty of entertainment. I mean, there’s a reason the best movies are about two hours long. If it goes on for too long, it gets boring. I want this show to be precise enough to where every minute is entertaining as opposed to it being a little bit of an endurance contest. No one wants that. If we’re imaginative and we know what we’re doing, we can give you plenty of entertainment in 45 minutes. That’s our job. You shouldn’t have to worry about that.
10.) In this opening role, do you ever find yourself downplaying what you and the Flaming Lips normally do live to keep from upstaging the main attraction?
No, no. Beck saw our show this summer and that’s part of the reason he wanted us to tour with him. He thought, Gosh, you guys already know what to do, so you do your thing and then come up there and do that thing with me and this will be a great show.
We wouldn’t play with someone if they were like, “Well, we like you but we don’t want to be upstaged by you.” With most of the people we’re playing with, it’s not a matter of competition. We do our thing, they do their thing. And that really is the truth. I mean, even though we may use films and bombast and stuff, it’s not all about that.
ted sablay is a las vegas-based musician.