As I wait for Wayne Coyne, frontman of The Flaming Lips, to take care of business, I remember that when we spoke a year ago, the subject of urine also came up. We were talking about the odd commencement speech he gave via video in 2006 to graduates at his high school in Oklahoma. He had told the story of a friend who'd gotten stung in the face by a jellyfish while surfing in Mexico, and how a local doctor instructed him to treat the sting with fresh human urine (it didn't work). Coyne's point: "As you go out into the world, beware of those inexperienced fools who offer easy, exotic solutions to painful, complicated problems."
"Ahh, much better," says Coyne, returning to the phone. "I think I could have waited a little longer, but I thought, why push it, you know?" He's at longtime Lips producer Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Studios in Fredonia, New York, along with the rest of the band, where they're midway through recording the follow-up to their 2006 LP, At War with the Mystics. As per usual, Coyne is as gregarious and upbeat a guy to speak to as his buoyant stage persona would suggest, and he's got a quarter-century repository of rock 'n' roll stories to draw from at any moment. "You know Mike Watt, from the Minutemen? We knew him from way back in the day — the Minutemen stayed at my house in 1983. But anyway, he still drives around in a van to shows and one of his great, prideful things — you know, he's so 'econo,' he's so efficient — is that he'll be driving down the road and he'll pee in a bottle going 80 miles an hour. That's where we always drew the line. We don't pee in our cars, or in our tour vans. Because that pee — it's getting everywhere. You might get most of it in there, but some of it's spraying all over the place. We have rules — we're not peeing in jars. That's probably why we've been able to stay together as long as we have."
Indeed, 2009 marks 26 years together, and 25 years since the Lips released their self-titled debut EP. The band's been on a huge roll for most of this decade. Their fabled live show really should be on your bucket list if you haven't experienced it already: There are UFOs, dancing Santas, aliens, bears, superheroes, and (sometimes) naked women, gigantic foam fists, portable smoke machines, and so much confetti, balloons, and silly string that Party City probably comes to them for supplies. And, of course, there's Coyne in his giant, clear "Space Bubble." The Lips' last several albums have been critical hits and commercial successes. And just last month, the Lips' 2002 track "Do You Realize??" was named the official rock song of Oklahoma.
"It's a law!" Coyne says. "They showed me the book and they were like, 'It's gonna be written in this book, and these are the laws of Oklahoma,' and I was like, 'Uhh . . . really?'" So how does he feel being a law, after countless years of breaking a few? "Well, I only broke the ones that were silly laws to begin with. That's my defense. Like the marijuana laws — those are silly. You know what I mean? And the people I stole from? On a moral basis, they got what they deserved. And the stuff I stole, they stole it from somebody else, too!"
Coyne starts to explain that the next Lips album, which they hope to release in early September, will be a double album. They began working on it last year at multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd's empty, vacated home (he's still trying to sell it) in Oklahoma before heading to Tarbox.
At this point in our phone call, commotion can be heard in the background. "Can I call you back?" Coyne asks. "We've got this guy calling us from Germany who's going to do a thing over the phone for the record."
Half an hour later, Coyne calls back. "Not only is he this weird, young German guy, he's the youngest German to ever have a mathematical theorem named after him," he says before describing the song in question. "It dissolves into this soundscape that's supposed to be in some sort of strange zoo area, and he's talking in German about one of the control feeders being repaired. We threw all of this stuff together last night — we kept building this atmosphere, and we stumbled upon this one sound effect that sounds kinda like a wolf and a monkey are in a jungle and then your mind just goes. We had [bassist] Michael [Ivins] doing the voice, and even though he was speaking in German, he sounded like a Japanese guy, and we kept going, 'Ahhh that doesn't work!' And so one idea leads to the next, and when no one stops you, this is the kinda bullshit you can get into. We wish that someone would come in and stop us because then we could just claim, 'Well, it could have been so great if you people would have just let us alone!'"
Making the album, Coyne concludes before getting back to work on it, "reminds us of way back when we first began as a band, because what happens is, you're just guys and you think you wanna be in a band and you're making music, but then the minute you realize you're in a band, your whole world is being in a band. With this, we'd show up at Steven's house and it'd be like, it's just us making our dumb little thing, just a bunch of guys. It wasn't like, 'Stop everything, The Flaming Lips are recording!' We really relaxed and didn't care that much, and were just listening to what we did, as opposed to thinking, 'Oh, we gotta make this and make it good,' and whatever. I dunno if it'll really be any good. But I know it's been a lot of fun."