Interview by Jennifer Van Evra
Jennifer interviewed Wayne Coyne in 2002 for the CBC. “When I picked up the phone to interview Wayne Coyne, the last thing I expected was a conversation about death, ” she said.
The Animated Transcript
Jennifer Van Evra is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about music for over 15 years.
You know we’ve always said as long as we can make more money being in the band than we could, say, working at McDonald’s or Target, then we’ll choose being in the band.
Only because that’s what would be left for us if we weren’t doing this. That’s the kind of skill level of any contribution to society that we would have. Simply because we’ve spent our whole adult lives pursuing this.
I worked at this fast food restaurant in Oklahoma City, Long John Silver’s. Fried fish and french fries and stuff. I worked there for 11 years from the time I was 16 to the time I was 27 or so. I’d be working late at night and it was a reasonably bad area of town and we got robbed a couple of times. Especially in the late 1970’s because the economy and everything really got horrible.
The first time we got robbed I was the only… I’m not saying this because I’m racist or anything, I’m just being pragmatic about it. I was the only white guy. I was working with a bunch of black women. The guys who came in were black and they were pissed off and they had biggest gun I’ve ever seen in my life. Only because it’s pointed at me did it seem so big.
We all laid on the ground. I thought, “fuck, this is… this is it. Here I am, I’m 17 and this is how it ends. You’re just working one second and the next second you’re laying on the ground and some guy puts a bullet in your head.” Obviously they robbed us and left and didn’t kill me. But I remember the elation of just… We all cried. We couldn’t stop crying and laughing and jumping up and down. We were celebrating like we had just won a million dollars. The idea of we are alive and isn’t it a fucking great thing? I think it changed me.
I think the idea of sort of confronting this always present idea that people around you are going to die or you’re going to die or… I think it makes living better, it really does. To me, I hate this notion that I would ever forget of how temporary this whole thing is. You know life is worth celebrating and worth living even though we’re all headed to the same hole at the end of the day. Without sort of coming to terms with it you’re not coming to terms with some of the joys of life at the same time.
I don’t know. I think somewhere along the way music allows you to sing and talk and think about those things, and it can be beautiful instead of being horrible. I remember when my father was dying, I remember listening to Bjork, and listening to John Coltrane, and these things, and I don’t know why but music has the power to transcend your physical being and take you up just a little bit. Because music has a metaphysical quality it gets up there in these things and it really makes your life beautiful.
It’s the same thing for virtually every human that’s ever going to be alive. Things that make them sad are going to be love, loss of love, death, fear of isolation. It’s a really small little corner. So I think any time you sing about those you’re probably going to have a crowd that knows exactly what you’re talking about. But when you’re sing about things that make you happy, which I like to do that as well, you know, you never know if you’re going to hit the mark. That’s why when I sing a song like
She Don’t Use Jelly, people go, oh that’s crazy, what are you talking about, you know? Even though they enjoy it, they don’t understand it. Stuff like when I sing about the Spoonful Weighs a Ton and people understand this is about death and meaning in your life. They go, “oh, I know what you’re talking about.”
So when I go in there and I’m singing about things that seem to be personal, they can be my own exact personal experience, yet if I’m doing the job right I can make it seem like it’s your story at the same time. I’m not just simply pouring my guts out. I’m pouring my guts out so they can feel like your guts at the same time.
Well I should let you go.
All right, well thanks a bunch. I’m sitting in the lobby where the elevators come out. People have all been looking at me in my bare feet, talking existential bullshit with you as they get in and out of the elevators.
Hilarious, that was the odd ding I was hearing in the background.
Well thanks again and I really appreciate you taking out the time on a Saturday.
Well I’m glad you called. Okay.
Wayne Coyne’s Comic Book
When we were putting together the storyboard for this episode, Patrick Smith (the animator/director extraordinare), had an idea: what if we used some of Wayne Coyne’s comicbook as backgrounds for the episode?
A few emails later and Wayne graciously gave us the thumbs up. Here are some of his illustrations. See more here.
“A lot of times I’ll doodle on something while I’m doing interviews, because sometimes I’m on the phone for three or four hours and I want to get something going. I’ll just start from a scribble, or something that someone else already put on the page. Sometimes I think those are the most original. It gets away from the central reoccurring theme that I don’t seem to be aware of. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe there’s some unquenchable question that I keep asking the universe that I can’t get an answer to.” – Wayne Coyne
Talking About Death
By Jennifer Van Evra
When I picked up the phone to interview Wayne Coyne, the last thing I expected was a conversation about death.
The Flaming Lips had developed a cult following for their single “She Don’t Use Jelly”, and for their critically acclaimed album The Soft Bulletin — which did tackle life’s unavoidable dead end, and far more gracefully than most.
But at the time, the Oklahoma natives had just released their gleeful album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — a brilliantly quirky sci-fi soundtrack for a movie that didn’t exist — and had become known for their rapturously happy live shows, which featured dancing animals, Coyne crowd surfing in a giant plastic ball, and a seemingly endless supply of confetti and sparkles.
This was not a guy who seemed trapped in a snare of existential angst.
Still, underneath all of that glow, there were still hints of darkness — reminders that you had better enjoy the big lights because one day that switch would be flicked off. Even their life-affirming, darkness-be-damned hit “Do You Realize,” which has since gone on to become one of their biggest hits, reminds us that everyone we know someday will die.
At the time, I had already had my share of close scrapes. Nothing grand or romantic — just bee stings, peanuts and shellfish, combined with an immune system that can’t tell good from bad, had landed me on a host of hospital gurneys in anaphylactic shock, looking up at doctors who looked worriedly back. I had also become intimately familiar with how surviving a brush with death can turn life Technicolor, at least for a time.
So when Coyne started talking about how, coming out of The Soft Bulletin — inspired in large part by the death of his father and the downward spiral of a heroin-addicted bandmate — the group wanted to create an album that leapt back into the sunshine, I could relate.
“We purposefully veered into a more colourful, cartoony, philosophical, still death-oriented but I think a very colourful, sunshiny kind of death type songwriting,” said Coyne with a laugh. “That’s the best I can describe it.”
I asked him what he thought drew him to those themes. He said he was older, 41 at the time – which did actually seem old – and that being aware of death makes living better, because it reminds us that life is worth celebrating, even though we’re all headed to the same hole at the end of the day. Music allows us to sing and talk about those things, he said, and it can be beautiful.
“Still, there are still so many people who can’t talk about it,” I offered. “They can’t,” he answered. “They do that thing where they plug up their ears and go ‘La la la la. I don’t want to hear it.’ And I think they’re missing out on the value it gives to being alive. Without coming to terms with it, you’re not coming to term with some of the joys of life at the same time.”
Now, when you interview a musician, or just about anyone, the last thing you want to do is talk about yourself. It’s not why you’re there, time is limited, and usually the stories they have are far better than yours. But in that moment it made sense to tell Coyne about the time I was sailing off the British Columbia coast on a picture-perfect summer day, and a wasp came out of nowhere and stung me on the wrist.
Because there was little chance I could get help in time, my first thought was, “I’m going to die.” But then a wave of calm washed over me, and my second thought appeared: “And this is a pretty great place to go.” (Thanks to a nearby Coast Guard station, a fast-moving Zodiac, a couple of incredible EMTs, some savvy emergency docs and modern medicine I made it through in one piece.)
At the time, I had no idea that Coyne had almost died as a teenager working at a Long John Silver’s, or that he, too, had felt that same sense of calm and later elation for being given a free pass; it was not a story he had told widely, if at all publicly. But when he told it, sitting in a Los Angeles hotel lobby in bare feet and a big hat he used to control his unruly curls, somehow it all made sense — how he could mix the macabre with almost ecstatic joy, and not only get away with it, but get millions to join the parade.
When the Flaming Lips came through Vancouver shortly after, they were opening for Beck at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a plush, elegant hall that’s normally home to large opera and ballet productions. At some point in the show, amid a blur of dancing pandas and glitter explosions, Coyne asked everyone who had a birthday that day to stand up.
It happened to be my birthday, December 1, so I stood nervously, unsure of what the small handful of us dotting the concert hall would be asked to do. But Coyne didn’t ask to come up on stage or dance in the aisles or sing into a microphone. (Whew.)
Instead, he led the band, and the entire sold-out crowd, in an incredible rendition of “Happy Birthday” — and in that moment, with over 2,500 people singing along, I couldn’t have felt more alive.
The Flaming Lips
“She Don’t Use Jelly”
“A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”
“Do You Realize”