The Flaming Lips
Contributed by ben_conoley, Posted by Warner Music Group Interviews

Oklahoma City's The Flaming Lips have just released their first feature film. Christmas on Mars has been in work since 2001 and tells the story of a colony on the Red Planet and their first Christmas in their new home. Paul Coover recently spoke about the film with the band's frontman Wayne Coyne.

First of all, tell me what happened with your arm - I heard that you hurt it.

Well, it’s silly, but it happens to a lot of people. I believe that about a week ago I slept on it weird, and little by little, this little thing that I thought I was having in my neck I’ve just exaggerated and made it worse by trying to get this crook out of my neck. But Paul, I think you should tell a better story than that and say I was in Mexico over the weekend. Just say I was in some drunken brawl in Guadalajara with the Nine Inch Nails guys and somehow Trent Reznor kicked me in the back of the neck or something. If you’re going to talk about it, you’ve gotta give me a good story.

I’ll make sure to do that! So, tell me about the new movie that’s coming out, Christmas on Mars. Right. Well, it’s been playing all summer at these rock festivals. There’s a tent-making facility about three hours north of Oklahoma City here that makes these big revival tents. So, you know what a revival tent is, where you have a thousand people in there and you’re preaching the Gospel to them out in the middle of nowhere? Well I went up there and bought one of these big, colorful tents and spent about a month in my backyard with it set up here sort of building an elaborate, 5.1 sound system to play this movie through. We took that out and played it in six or seven festivals all summer long -- the last one we were at was Burning Man, of all places -- took it there just to see what the most fanatical of the Flaming Lips audience would think of it. And I’m not really test-marketing, but in a sense, it was, because I know that if the Flaming Lips audience didn’t like it, I probably would have gone back in and changed little bits of it, whatever it needed to communicate. But it seemed to go well. It seems like every time we played it people laughed and cried and cheered and did all the things in the spots that I thought they should. So it all rolled along perfect. The DVD is set to come out on November 11, but it’s playing in a lot of theaters around the country anyway, like the more arty, smaller theaters that some cities have. Oklahoma City doesn’t have one of those, but last weekend I was in Austin and they have like three theaters where they’re going to play it. In Seattle and Portland it’s been playing, so I feel like it’s really doing its thing.

What’s the response been like?

Almost every time it’s played I’ve done a question-and-answer thing if I’ve been there and a lot of times it will be questions about the movie, but a lot of times it’s not -- it’s just Flaming Lips questions in general. But most of the people that I talk to will say, ‘Damn, I was so surprised that it’s a story, and it isn’t just a bunch of abstract weirdness coming at you, and how it was about Flaming Lips-type themes.’ I think people were almost more prepared for a psychedelic freak-out, and it’s a story. In that sense, I think everybody who I’ve talked to, anyway, has walked away thinking it was better, more emotional, more powerful than they expected.

So without giving away too much, could you give kind of a Cliffs-notes summary of what to expect from the story?

Well I can give away the whole thing - I think you’d still have to see it to get the whole experience. You gotta figure it is literally Christmas on Mars. Sometimes I think people are wondering if ‘Christmas on Mars’ is a metaphor for something else, and I suppose it is, but we meet up with this badly-organized colonization of Mars -- a little space station on Mars -- where there is a baby being born. There’s some experimental fetus apparatus that’s allowing this baby to be born in this little strange bubble. And as this space station is trying to move through the night, the oxygen generator breaks, and the gravity-control device has gone haywire. So everywhere that they go around this space station on Mars, different crew members are having hallucinations and seeing things that aren’t really there, so that plays into a lot of the hallucinogenic qualities that Christmas on Mars can kind of have, because sometimes we’re dealing in the freaked-out, inner space of people’s minds. And since they’re hallucinating and aren’t sure of their own perceptions, this Martian character lands. I guess he’s more like a super-being, some extraterrestrial creature, that’s played by me. So I show up on the surface of Mars and I am able to fix their oxygen generator, but they don’t know if I’m real or if I’m just part of their collective hallucination, in a way. And all of this sort of culminates on Christmas Eve, and somehow in their minds they decide they’re going to celebrate Christmas anyway, even though there’s this uncertainty and this tragedy that’s happening at the same time. So it kind of plays out like that. It’s not really like the Flaming Lips are playing music in it - you don’t see the Flaming Lips like, say, you would think of seeing the Spice Girls or seeing the Beatles in Hard Day’s Night. We’re in it, but we’re characters within this bigger story that’s going on.

So is the movie an extension of the Flaming Lips, or is an altogether new thing where you guys just happen to also be in a band?

I think it’s definitely an extension of the Flaming Lips. I think in that way -- and I believe this is true -- the Flaming Lips audience utterly expected that we would make a film like this. To them, it was no big deal: ‘Of course Wayne’s gonna make some big, freaky, outer-space movie and it’ll incorporate religion and science and all these things that they’re interested in.’ And so that was why I thought I wanted to show it to the Flaming Lips audience exclusively first, just to be like, ‘Is this what we were all thinking?’ Not that I’m waiting for them to give me permission. But I have to say that I made it because people have encouraged me to make this type of film, to give me the freedom and the confidence and whatever it takes to go into this weird area of storytelling. So I think it’s exactly an extension of the Flaming Lips. I think you’d see it and you’d see an exaggerated element of all of our characters playing out in this. But I also think if you don’t know anything about the Flaming Lips you could watch it and just think it’s a tripped-out story that’s loud and strange and funny and sad and all these sorts of things and not really care that it’s done by a band. You can just think of it as a movie.

Getting back to your original concept, was there a temptation to just make it abstract weirdness, as you put it? Or was the story always the driving motivation? Or what were your thoughts going into this? I guess I really thought I could go either way. I always wanted it to be a story that had an arc and you could sort of get to know these characters and stuff would happen to them and you would feel some sort of emotional connection to them. I didn’t want it to just be a constant freak-out. But honestly, I felt like if I wasn’t able to make the story work, it could always just be a fucking freak-out and I could get away with it that way. I think everybody’s expectations were so malleable that you could say, ‘Yeah, of course the Flaming Lips could make a two-hour movie and not have it have any meaning at all, or the Flaming Lips could make a two-hour movie and you could totally understand it.’ So I kind of felt like if one didn’t work, the other probably would. But honestly, I really wanted it to be a combination of both. I wanted it to be a visual, sonic freak-out, but I also wanted it to be a story. My favorite movies are story driven. They’re done well with visuals and music and sound effects and lighting and all that, but in the end it’s the story that really pulls it all along, and so I didn’t want to make just a strange movie. I wanted to make a movie where we all felt something together. In the end, I’m most relieved that we have that, because when I talk to people, like I said, there’s surprise, like, ‘Wow! It really is this heart-warming story. Strange, but heart-warming.’

What have you done in your music career that allowed you to kind of take both directions -- to make a freak-out movie that also has a strong plot?

I think there are some filmmakers where you go to see their movies and you really are watching their ideas more than you’re watching their actual film. I can think of someone like a Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch, maybe Orson Welles, where you’re not really thinking about the movie as much as you’re thinking about them - the person who made it. And I think that would allow me as a filmmaker -- as a member of the Flaming Lips -- to really make whatever I wanted. That would cover the abstract freakiness. If I want to make it as art, the Flaming Lips audience would say, ‘Sure, you can do whatever you want.’ But the other side of that, like I said, is that I really like films that tell a story and I don’t really have to care who the director is, or who the actors are, and I’m just caught up in the story and I care about the people onscreen. I guess that’s just me following my obsessions like I think any dumb artist should. You get something in your mind and you just pursue it. People talk about ‘outsider art,’ or whatever, and usually what they mean is there’s some homeless guy living on the edge of Los Angeles who built a castle out of bottlecaps. Sometimes I think that that’s what I’m doing. I just happen to have a bunch of people giving me money and a bunch of people helping me make my film and helping me make music, but I do think at the end of the day I’m just doing that -- I’m just sort of following these little quirks of inspiration that are only known to me, and a lot of people help me do it. In that sense, if people help me do it, they know that if I do that thing, and I’m doing it exactly the way I think is right, and coloring it exactly the way that I want to, we’ll make some art that if nothing else is unique. At least it’s our own vision that exists now, instead of trying to be a movie that compromises and tries to meet too many expectations of too many different people. It really is my vision. And for better or worse, a lot of people that are helping me do it - they want that. They want it to be whatever this strange eruption in my mind will allow. I’m not saying that’s good, but when we talk about art, I think that’s what we want art to do: to be a true representation of this thing. And Christmas on Mars is definitely that. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying it’s a true representation of some crystallization of story and visual and sound that I’ve had a peek at. I’m not saying I understand it all, but I did have moments where I truly did exactly what I wanted.

And you guys wrote the music, too.

We do all of it. We built the sets, we made the music, we edited it. We do all that.

How was the process of writing the music for a movie different than for a Flaming Lips album? We started to think about this type of music I think as far back as 1996. We were always listening to film soundtracks -- the ones you could get a hold of, anyway. Sometimes the films were horrible but had great music and great composers and had great twists and turns in the music that you would never even consider if you were trying to make a three-minute rock song or a pop song or something. I think we always wanted that. I think when we were younger we thought we’d eventually make music for films. And then as we got older, we thought, ‘Who would do a film that would want us to do their fucking music anyway?’ Somewhere in our minds we just accepted it that it would be real someday. But the more we thought about it the more we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just make a movie. And we’ll be the ones that make the music for it. We don’t have to wait for someone to come up and make a movie that we can do that for.’ And honestly it does allow you a very strange emotional freedom, because you’re not trying to just sum it all up in three minutes or four minutes like the typical pop song. You can really take any strange, abstract route that you want and tell something that’s subtle or something that’s simply like a psychotic state of mind without really having to do anything else. I think especially for musicians, that’s a great experience. You can have the visual thing happening in front of you and you can actually color it in almost endless varieties and endless meaning depending on what kinds of sounds you put to it. Who’s to say how it would sound if [the movie] wasn’t there as a way for us to express ourselves, but having it there has just - well, we’ve never thought to ourselves, like, ‘Damn, we really want to make this kind of music and we’re just not allowed to being the Flaming Lips.’ I think we’ve always just felt that within the Flaming Lips we should just do whatever the fuck we wanted and never feel that we’re restricted. If we’re restricted, it’s because we restricted ourselves. So when we think about film music, we thought, ‘Well fuck it, we’ll just make a film, and then we’ll make the music for it.’ That all seemed very normal, like, ‘Of course!’ It just seemed like the way to go. How have you guys maintained the excitement required to keep trying new things after all the years?

I honestly don’t know. I sometimes think it’s maybe like we’re a little bit retarded, like we keep reading the same storybook over and over and we don’t know the ending, yet we’ve read it fifty billion times (laughing). I really just think that we’re lucky, that we have accidentally gotten into this thing that we truly do love. I know that sounds weird, but I know a lot of musicians, and especially guys in rock bands, and they turn the corner, or they do become bitter, or they do become just burned out by it after a while. And I always tell them, ‘Why are you doing that? Just do what you like and take chances that way, and if you don’t make any money or you don’t get famous, who gives a shit?’ I think we’ve been lucky that we’ve never had mega¬-success. And what I mean by ‘mega-success’ is you’re selling ten million records and you’re on the cover of every magazine and everybody loves you. We’ve had enough success that it’s always encouraged us to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll keep doing that, that’s cool.’ But enough freedom’s in there just to kind of go wherever you want. So it’s probably just been a combination of that. We kind of move along and no one really cares what we do, so we just do whatever we like, and occasionally we stumble upon this thing that I don’t think we could have thought of on our own. I do feel sorry for groups who are so pushed into doing the next big thing that they kind of worry, ‘Oh my God, what if the next big thing fails? Or what if nobody likes it? What are we going to do then?’ So I think in the Flaming Lips I’ve always welcomed these moments where no one likes what we do, because we were wanting to change anyway. But mostly I think it’s just dumb luck. I find myself wondering, ‘Why do we like this stuff so much?’ We’ll show up to shows, like even over the weekend we were down playing some shows in Mexico, and sometimes you’re surrounded by just so many people who are just so burned out and so bitter. And I’m like, fuck, man, we have the greatest job in the world. We’re in this fucking freaky rock group, people throw truckloads of money at you, you’re surrounded by fucking beautiful women and cool shit all the time. What’s there not to like? I almost am on the other side - like, why are people in rock bands such bitter idiots? Don’t they know they have the greatest life there could be?

Definitely. On sort of a similar note, tell me about the March of a Thousand Flaming Skeletons you guys put on (The parade the Flaming Lips organize in Oklahoma City). Well that’s going to happen on the twenty-fifth. When we started doing this thing, we had a campaign going for a couple years where we were trying to get some of the city organizers to put on a big, elaborate Halloween parade. The neighborhood I live in is probably one of the worst neighborhoods in Oklahoma City. The community organizers do absolutely nothing. I have always done a big, elaborate Halloween thing in my front yard just because all the kids in my neighborhood have parents who just want to smoke crack and do nothing all the time. So we’ll have this big, elaborate thing in my front yard, and that’s been going on since 1992. So little by little me and our manager started to get with the city -- we know the mayor and some of these people around here -- and we were like, ‘We want to put on a big, elaborate Halloween parade, and we want you guys to sponsor it and get everybody involved so we can invite the whole city to do this.’ Well, we kind of thought it was moving along, but all of a sudden they said yes. And they said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the Flaming Lips were the ones who headed this whole thing up?’ We were kind of caught by surprise and we said, ‘Um, yes, that would be great.’ It was exactly what we wanted, we just didn’t know if it was going to happen. We thought five years down the line something would happen and we’d be ready for it. Well, they just kind of surrendered immediately and put us in charge. Me and Scott, our manager -- we had thought about this idea of having thousands of skeletons with flames walking down the middle of downtown. We’d talked about it for years thinking, ‘What a great spectacle.’ Because there’s a part of the Flaming Lips that really is about death. I mean, our publishing company is called "Lovely Sorts of Death," because I think there’s an emotion and there’s a power that I think just embracing this idea of death giving meaning to your life - has always been a part of the Flaming Lips’ music. There’s hardly any song that we’ve ever done that doesn’t go back to this idea that you’re gonna die, that you may as well tell the people that you love that you love them; or this think you want to do with your life, you should do it; or this way that you want to be, you should do it, because death is waiting for you. But not because death is a bad thing, it’s because death is a part of life. This embracing of death, this idea that kind of gives you this energy that pushes you through your life is a wonderful thing. So I thought we’d do this parade that kind of symbolizes that, and so I thought, ‘Well, what the fuck could that be? I don’t know what that could be.’ So I thought of the marching with the torches kind of idea. There’s a group of Spanish people that go through my neighborhood that do this thing around Christmastime where there’s a big group of them carrying candles down the street. Sometimes there’s a couple hundred of them, and they walk really slowly with these candles lit for a couple hours. They’ll stop traffic, and it’s a powerful moment. So I thought, why don’t we do that, only our flames will be giant, because we’re the Flaming Lips, and our people will be like skeletons. And instead of it being quiet and somber it’ll be fuckin’ loud. So we try to get a thousand people each year to do this march with us and we have this elaborate sound system that they carry with them - these four big stages of speakers and generators and all this sort of stuff -- and it covers about two whole city blocks by the time you get everybody marching along with the sound systems and the fire and everything and it’s quite a spectacle, I have to say. When it goes by, and you’re in the audience watching this thing, you can feel the heat, the smoke is in your face, it’s fairly dangerous, it’s fairly loud, and it’s intense. On some level it’s very silly -- it’s a bunch of people in skeleton costumes holding torches, but on another level, altogether it does kind of create kind of a powerful moving spectacle, which I think is what people what from a Flaming Lips event. They want to be part of it, but they want the thing that they do to be bigger than them, which is what the Flaming Lips audience does at a show. We all know we’re just seeing a dumb rock band, but we can turn it into something bigger than us. So that’s the gist of it.

Last question: What does it mean to you to be able to do what you’re doing -- things that might potentially help a community or provide it with a cultural experience, but also done do it in ways that use themes like death that have been a part of the Flaming Lips for so long?

It’s awesome. Sometimes I do wake up and I’m shocked that I’ve made a movie and people have allowed me to do it and people have come to help me do it. Even doing this parade - these are simply ideas that I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ Then it surprised you when people say, ‘Yeah, Wayne, if you’re doing it, it would be great.’ So I do take it as a great obligation, in a way. If they believe in me, and they let me do this, I’ll make it worthy of them encouraging me to do it. And then the city has allowed us to do this big New Years Eve show every year in this big arena downtown. Same sort of thing. But I have to say I’m doing it mostly because I like it. I know it does these other things where we get the community involved and [it benefits] artists here in Oklahoma City. But mostly I think I’m just doing it because I like it, and I think that’s the true spirit that we want all art to be done in. We want some freak to not give a shit about what people think and just be themselves. And I think Oklahoma City and the Flaming Lips fans in general have said that to me: ‘Wayne, it doesn’t matter if you fail. We’re there.’ If you fail, they’ll encourage you to do the next thing, and that really does change people - the idea that you’re free. It doesn’t have to be the greatest thing in the world; it can almost be the greatest thing in the world and still be fine, or it could be the worst thing in the world and still be fine. But this idea of saying, ‘Go for it, try it, see what happens,’ I think is a part of the Flaming Lips philosophy. We’ll try a hundred things and 60 of them will suck, but 40 of them will just be fucking amazing because we’ve been given the freedom to think anything is possible. I want to do it, and I have amassed a bunch of people who will help me do these things. Who knows how long that will last? So I just embrace it and say let’s fucking do it. We have the people, we’re kind of drunk on our own ideas. Fuck it, let’s just do it.