"I think one of the great accidents," says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne on the phone from North Carolina, "is that I'm not a very good musician. If it gets too complicated or has too many chord changes, I don't really know what to do. I mean, 'Strawberry Fields Forever'—I could never figure out how the fuck they were playing that!"
But ask anyone who's seen the Flaming Lips live, and they'll testify that whatever Coyne may lack as a musician, he more than makes up for in sheer showmanship. A typical Flaming Lips show features a pulsing spaceship, cannons shooting confetti over the crowd, fans dressed as bunnies dancing on either side of the stage, a constant strobe from a giant rainbow arc and Coyne, now 50, bedecked in full suit and climbing over hundreds of heads of the audience inside a humongous transparent orb.
And that's just in the first song.
The Flaming Lips play the Harmony Festival on June 11, and no band touring today embodies equal parts carefree fun and work ethic quite as much as the self-ordained "fearless freaks" from Oklahoma who've grown from acid-dropping punk rockers to a traveling sideshow brandishing sensory overload. From the psychedelic punk of early albums like In a Priest Driven Ambulance to the high watermark of 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and beyond, the band has been creatively daring and yet personally down-to-earth; it's not uncommon to see Coyne himself setting up his own equipment before every show.
"I saw my own father—I mean a guy who was really badass, who worked and was smart and all that—not being able to work," Coyne says by way of explanation. "I saw him a lot of times, with my brothers, they'd get up at seven in the morning willing to work, and there'd be no work for them. You see that shit, and it's the hardest thing in the world. So I understand that we're going to work for this audience that we have, and work for their love and attention. They're such a cool audience. They believe in music, and they love music and art and ideas, and they're kind and funny and smart. So yeah, we're very lucky."
In a way, luck had nothing to do with it. The Flaming Lips will soon celebrate 30 years as a band, and in that time they've toured almost nonstop, recorded 12 studio albums, conducted experimental parking-lot concerts with attendees' car cassette decks as instruments, poured gallons of fake blood over their heads, covered Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety and, this year, released a four-song EP on a USB drive encased inside a candy gummy skull.
That's plenty to be proud of, and yet the Flaming Lips are only getting stranger with age. Their latest single, "Two Blobs Fucking," was released on Valentine's Day as a dozen separate streaming videos meant to be played simultaneously on 12 mobile devices.
The same expansive mind that visualizes these sorts of projects can also be critical of others. Coyne in the past has lambasted both Beck ("inconsiderate") and Arcade Fire ("pricks"), both for having a sense of entitlement. "I'm more surprised when people aren't slightly stupid and arrogant," he explains of people in bands, "because so much of that goes around when you get to know a lot of musicians and artists. It's like, 'Gosh, you're just tough to be around.' And they're not even famous! It's unexplainable.
"It's better to be honest and be true if you're gonna try to make art and music your life," Coyne sums up. "I mean, who wants to go around with some fuckin' pose you have to put on every fuckin' five minutes that you're out in the world?"
The Flaming Lips headline the Harmony Festival on Saturday, June 11, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. $45. For full festival lineup and ticket options, see www.harmonyfestival.com.