“It’s weird to see an older guy in a suit, covered in blood,” said Wayne Coyne, the 42-year-old singer of pop oddity the Flaming Lips. On Friday, April 25, Mr. Coyne was sitting backstage at the Roseland Ballroom, wearing his by-now-standard white Calvin Klein suit, the kind he wore in a recent magazine advertisement for Hewlett-Packard and on Late Night with Conan O’Brien .
The suit’s tailored sleekness would later be marred by crimson blotches of stage blood that drip from the Lips leader’s face during what has become a concert ritual: Mr. Coyne slathers his handsome mug-he has curly, salt-and-pepper locks and an unkempt, professorial beard-with the synthetic plasma as he sings “Happy Birthday” to celebrating audience members. A miniature camera piggybacked on his microphone projects the Grand Guignol spectacle onto a screen behind him.
“It looks like there’s been some kind of political takeover- a coup! ” Mr. Coyne said. “In these times, I like the idea of that. In these times, if you see someone like that, he’s either corrupt or innocent.”
For Mr. Coyne, a genial, Grammy Award–winning weirdo, ambiguity and contradiction are fine things. And his ability to express the increasing murk of our post-9/11 lives as eerily beautiful-and often adventurous-music seems to be why the world has finally discovered the Flaming Lips two decades into their existence.
The Lips’ last album, 2002′s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots , was one of the most brilliant pop albums of last year because it was a work of jarring contradictions-moving emotional exorcism couched in cartoonish, ephemeral sounds.
Strumming an acoustic guitar and backed by a tumultuous sea of electrobeats and psychedelic warbles-created by longtime bandmate Steve Drozd-Mr. Coyne sounds like a crusty survivor grappling with loss and modernity while singing about a Japanese karate girl who is “taking lots of vitamins” on “Pt. 1″ of the title song. The song is a textbook example of how Mr. Coyne has figured out how to put his love of the Bee Gees and Japanese anime in the service of profound soliloquies about, say, the death of his father, or the transience of existence, all while reveling in pop hooks that subtly-and purposely, he has said-summon Cat Stevens or Donovan.
In doing so, Mr. Coyne has managed to straddle the past and the future: the Pollyannish idealism of 1960′s pop and the icy echo chamber of 21st-century electronica. The result is both organic and completely artificial-like Neil Young backed by the Chemical Brothers-and it captures something of the current cultural Zeitgeist , in which we cling to the warmth of nostalgia while sailing into an uncertain future.
Mr. Coyne’s trajectory as an artist is also full of contradictions. A native of Oklahoma City, he’s the experimental, do-it-yourself pop artist who once orchestrated a concert using the tape decks of 30 cars in a parking lot, but he’s also the no-brow huckster who lip-synched a song on an episode of 90210 in 1996; he’s a fan and acquaintance of Dave Eggers, but he recently invited Justin Timberlake to sit in with the band on the BBC’s Top of the Pops (granted, they made him wear a full-body dolphin suit).
But all this high and low noodling has kept the band from ossifying. While most acts that began recording in the 80′s are playing greatest-hits reunion tours for balding, fat-assed crowds that once dabbled in big hair and shoulder pads, the Lips are still turning on the N.Y.U. and Columbia bedheads who loiter at Kim’s Music between classes. (And their recent work with former Blues Clues host Steve Burns suggests they’ve got a crafty 10-year plan in place.)
To keep the kids coming, the Flaming Lips have issued a follow-up E.P. to Yoshimi , called Fight Test , which contains a remix of “Do You Realize??” from Yoshimi and covers of Kylie Monogue (“Can’t Get You Out of My Head”) and Beck (“The Golden Age”), as well as a tossed-off homage to Jack White, of the White Stripes, called “Thank You, Jack White (For That Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me)”.
The album is far from great, but it doesn’t have to be: It’s the Flaming Lips ribbing the pop moment they’ve entered, taking none of it too seriously.
“We had our picture taken by David LaChapelle just the other night,” said Mr. Coyne. “And you think, ‘Wow! Pamela Anderson, Elton John, Flaming Lips-that’s really insane!’ But you don’t take it that serious, because it’s just a moment . You think, ‘Oh, he’s great and he takes great pictures.’ But it’s just silliness.”
To hear Mr. Coyne tell it, the band’s success in the last four years has been a series of those dumb-luck moments, in which he and the band were batted around by fortune. Dues were certainly paid: Mr. Coyne has been doing this since 1983, when he was still employed by the Long John Silver’s fast-food chain (where he worked for 11 years) and when the band worshipped at the altar of punk-rock bands like the Meatmen and Black Flag. It wasn’t until Mr. Coyne was in his mid-30′s that success arrived, first in 1994, when the silly punk-pop song “She Don’t Use Jelly” became an unexpected hit-and narrowly saved the band from getting axed by Warner Bros., he said-and then later, with the band’s 1999 breakthrough, the lush, symphonic masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin , that drew critical praise and launched the Flaming Lips’ second act.
“Who knew all that would happen?” said Mr. Coyne. “I mean, I really expected when we put out The Soft Bulletin , that would be the end of the whole thing. Just because people would say, ‘You know, you guys are too weird-we don’t even know what you’re about any more.’ And: ‘You’re old and you’re singing about things kids can’t relate to.’ And I really thought we would be dropped from the record company, our audience would disappear, and we would be sitting at home saying, ‘Yeah, but we made a record that we believed in.’ And really, just the opposite happened.”
Mr. Coyne said that the Flaming Lips were the only band signed by Warner Bros. in 1990 who had survived on the label. Maybe as a result, he was curiously positive about the record business.
“The misconception-there’s always the record-company-versus-the-artist thing,” he said. “From my experience, that has never been true. People at the record company love, love, love music. I mean, they love money, but they love music, too. That’s the way it should be! We have really got lucky. Loving music is fine, but making money is why they’re Time Warner.”
Mr. Coyne has become something of a hipster wise man in recent years, a punk rocker who did his loopy turn with psychedelic drugs-their 1992 album was called Hit to Death in the Future Head -and later navigated the pitfalls of adulthood without blunting his creative edge. He did, however, lose any sense of self-importance: The performance at Roseland included 20 volunteer dancers dressed in furry, full-body animal costumes wielding high-powered flashlights (they were worn recently by a CNN crew, according to a Warner publicist); a giant movie screen projecting synchronized images of exploding volcanoes and naked people; and a dozen giant balloons, which Mr. Coyne punched with two enormous prosthetic fists on either hand, bouncing around the audience.
“You’re Life Will Be Changed Forever!” exclaimed giant words on the screen, as Mr. Coyne, in his white Calvin Klein suit, pumped his fist in the air and threw confetti on the crowd. There was something almost mythological about the whole affair. No doubt Joseph Campbell would have understood the appeal, and Mr. Coyne seems aware of it as well. “To be above humiliation,” he mused, “and not worry about being embarrassed or not being cool-when you see that, you can’t help but to cheer for it. Because it’s hard to walk your own path. Especially in music, where it’s all about shoes and haircuts and what’s hip and what isn’t. In everybody’s life, those struggles are there.”
If Mr. Coyne’s candor and Zen-master maxims-as in the song “All We Have Is Now”-weren’t delivered with a certain goofy chuckle, they might come off as genuinely New Age. But it’s Mr. Coyne’s realistic, almost Darwinian view of life that makes his expressions of sadness and sentimental revelations of love so convincing. Mr. Coyne, who visited the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah building in his hometown not long after the terrorist bombing in 1995, said he gave up on utopian ideals long ago. For him, he said, the world is default evil-which means loving thy neighbor is a sort of sweet anomaly.
“Technology and civilization and all this is great, but we have to remember that love is not a natural thing,” he said. “We have to remind each other that it matters. It sounds hippy-dippy, but it does make a difference. In one person’s life to the next, just paying attention to people is a great thing. But it isn’t the natural thing. The natural thing is to say, ‘Yeah, fuck you, what do I care about you? Give me your money,’ and I gain some power from humiliating you.”
While Mr. Coyne may be above his own humiliation nowadays-liberated from concepts of art and marketability, high- and low-brow, and even narrow ideas of what rock music can sound like-he’s also free from planning for the future. He said he has no idea what his next album will be when he finishes a year-long tour to promote Yoshimi . He hasn’t written any songs for it yet.
“I don’t really have any agenda,” he said. “I just know if I’m curious about the world, I’m curious about sound and about what people are thinking, I should easily be able to write something people can relate to. And if not, I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve had a good run.’”