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The art of the gimmick: an interview with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne

Brian Heater

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The Flaming Lips have never done anything small, from the "Parking Lot Experiments" of the mid-90s to this year's Record Store Day album, "The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends." Set for an April 21st release, the limited edition vinyl record features an odd cast of characters, including Bon Iver, Erykah Badu, Neon Indian, Nick Cave and Ke$ha, many of whom have lent their actual blood to the record.

"That is totally a gimmick," Wayne Coyne answers with great relish. "It's a beautiful gimmick. I think all things that we marvel over are based in gimmicks."

He's on the phone for a day of back-to-back interviews, a trapping of the job that would cause lesser, more jaded men to roll their eyes and submit with dragged heels, particularly those who've been playing the game through 30 years and 13 LPs. But Coyne, much to his credit, dives into everything he does headfirst with the manner of childlike wonder that's come to be established with the vast majority of the Flaming Lips' catalog.

At the beginning of our conversation, he lets it be known that he's slightly distracted. His wife is photographing him. And he's in his underwear. He didn't bother putting anything else on, knowing that he'd be running a marathon of phone interviews all day. Maximum comfort is important. It's a hard image to erase from my mind as Coyne settles in to explain the band's decision to embrace Siri on a recent web-only track called "Now I Understand."

"There's so much about music and art, experiences in general, that are just unspeakable," he continues. "And we don't even have a real reason to even talk about them, but luckily there will be this gimmick, this thing that'll happen, that will be the spark that let's everybody not worry about sounding like a complete idiot when we talk about something. I love this voice of Siri. I use her quite a bit. You treat it like it's a real person in there that loves you and is trying to help you."

"Now I Understand" is a gimmick, sure, but it's not the sort of song you anticipate upon hearing that the band has embraced the iPhone 4S' soft-spoken, feminine voice. It's gentle and warm and strangely humane. "Wayne," Siri opens the track with her soothingly familiar monotone. "I don't understand." Coyne's Neil Young-esque falsetto is nowhere to be found -- a rarity for a Flaming Lips song.

"Her voice is like music," he tells me. "It doesn't really have to be a musical instrument. It's evoking other worlds; it's evoking other things in your mind. I've had so many people say this is exactly the 2001: A Space Odyssey technology; this is Hal."

And while he never opens his mouth on the track, Coyne has done his part, gently pushing her off on a cosmic journey, after some trademark Apple beeps, forgoing the standard Siri-fare in order to tackle much grander questions than fast food restaurants and driving directions. "I don't understand," she answers some unknown question, "The moon, the stars and the sun." It's an awful lot for one little piece of mobile artificial intelligence to ponder, but she's got it after a couple of minutes, with a little vocal help from Erykah Badu and a backwards Biz Markie. "Now I Understand," she utters the eponymous phrase, closing out the track.

"I think a lot of people always worry about this idea of gimmicks and serious art," Coyne continues. "It's all gimmicks. Without a gimmick, you haven't done your job. We always have to think of little things we can relate to, all the time."

And in the end, it's not the band's strongest track -- this likely wouldn't be anyone's first choice for a Flaming Lips mixtape - but it's the latest in a long tradition of unblinkingly embracing gimmickry and playing technology itself as an instrument. It's a tradition that can be traced back most notably to "The Parking Lot Experiments" of the mid-90s, a parking garage orchestra performed on the cassette players of dozens of cars, conducted by Coyne from behind a familiar bullhorn.

Mass-produced, the concept morphed into 1997's Zaireeka, a four-disc album meant to be played on multiple stereos simultaneously, a sort of home game version of the "Experiments." A hell of a gimmick, that, and one that would help lay a sonic foundation for future Lips releases, including 1999's The Soft Bulletin, a neo-psych pop masterpiece largely regarded as a high water mark in the band's career. Around Valentine's Day last year, the whole thing took an even more ambitious shift, harnessing the power of YouTube for the delightfully titled "Two Blobs F*cking," music for gelatinous copulation brought about when a dozen different short clips are played simultaneously. Forget the unwieldy car stereo -- heck, forget the outdated CD boombox - this is a spontaneous musical happening orchestrated with a dozen or so smartphones.

"I was just at some shows over the weekend, where it's a giant communal experience," Coyne tells me. "I don't know if we're ever thinking that technology is gonna be the thing that makes that. For me, it isn't really just about music, it's about energy and about being near people that like the same things, and the possibility of sex, all these sorts of things come into it."

But for all the talk of technology's tendency to isolate users, it offers a faint glimmer of hope, providing a musical experience that can only truly be created with several humans, gadgets in hand. Sure, it's not quite a live Flaming Lips show, with Coyne rolling over the heads of audience members in a giant inflatable hamster ball, but it's a break from sitting alone, at home, beneath a pair of headphones.


"I really don't think technology is forcing us apart," he explains. "I think we're lucky that we get to travel on airplanes now and instead of being forced to deal with the people that are sitting next to you, we all are allowed to have the luxury of our own little piece of entertainment. Even now, when we're having a conversation in a restaurant, we all look at each other and we know, we're gonna have a little bit of phone time - I've got some texting I need to do. It's no longer this barrier, and in the time when we're not on the phone, we say this is our time together. Let's talk and look and embrace each other, whatever, but if we didn't have that option, that would be a strain as well. I think we like the idea that we're gonna be connected all the time, but we're connected right now too. We can do both. I think the human mind is so much more capable of so much more than we think it is."

And what about the great rock record? Technology is doing away with that too, right? With iTunes culture returning us to a pre-Beatles era dominated by singles. Certainly a bit more of the Lips' focus has shifted in that direction, as the band embraces technology on a song-by-song basis, be it Siri, YouTube, or, say, "Drug Chart," "In Our Bodies Out of Our Heads," "Walk With Me" and "Hillary's Time Machine Machine," which were bundled on a USB key and housed inside a big gummy skull (not to be confused, of course, with the band's gummy fetus offering) - one that had to be eaten in order to liberate the music inside. The band will also be commemorating this year's Record Store Day (Saturday, April 21, 2012), with the release of a limited edition colored vinyl pressed with the blood of a number of its diverse collaborators, including indie darlings Neon Indian and, oddly, pop princess Ke$ha.

But the band hasn't been entirely swept up in such one-offs. 2009 saw the release of "Embryonic," a hard-psych tour de force, one of the most cohesive LPs of the Lips' career and certainly its most critically acclaimed since 2002's delightfully apocalyptic examination of the struggles of man vs. machine, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.


"There's still a part of me that loves this idea of sitting there with nine or 10 songs and having it be an extended moment of mood and atmosphere and sounds and melodies, so we're probably gonna do both," Coyne explains. "We're embracing songs when that works for us and we're also embracing these bigger movements of music when that works for us too. It's all available. Technology suggests that the new thing should throw out the old thing. Art isn't like that. It's just another thing that you can do."

Things like tossing musical ideas into the cloud as soon as you've birthed them from your head -- a constant stream flowing on the web, 24 / 7.

"My guys are always working," says Coyne. "We have a couple of 24-hour streams that you can always just go to and download. We have one that plays our 24-hour song. Anytime you go to it, it's a stream that's always playing. We put up a new one at the end of last week that plays an hour-and-a-half-long sound documentary about one of our albums that came out 20 years ago and you can just go to it anytime."

"You press two buttons on your phone and you've got this great thing," Coyne explains. "For me, I think that's the way a lot of our things will be moving; that we'll always just present them. They'll be going anytime that you want to go there; you can go there and it's playing something we're doing. It's not marketing, it's not promotion, it's just another way that you're gonna be able to hear music, hear our ideas, hear what we're doing, hear what we're into."

And really, if it means unfettered access to Coyne's strange and ever enlarging brain -- gummy or otherwise -- long live the gimmicks.

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