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The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne Talks Pleasing Crowds Versus Free Expression

Wayne Coyne, a musical mad scientist and frontman of the Flaming Lips.
Wayne Coyne, a musical mad scientist and frontman of the Flaming Lips.
Photo by George Salisbury
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The Flaming Lips usually draw a few thousand people when they headline shows, but they're often given prominent festival slots for their reputation as an absolutely bananas live band.

“If you’re playing for 60,000 people, a lot of them aren’t going to know who you are,” frontman Wayne Coyne says. “Maybe a quarter of the people know what you’re doing, but the other 75 percent are just there to party."

The Flaming Lips will take the stage at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival this Saturday, March 3, knowing that many attendees are familiar with the band only because of the song "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1," a cult classic about a Japanese girl training in kung fu to fight an army of colorful robo-warriors. The band has been touring and recording steadily since 1983, though, and most recently released its 14th studio album, Oczy Mlody. In other words, these musicians have a vast catalogue of music outside of "Yoshimi."

Over the years, the band has always balanced free artistic expression with the demands of pleasing festival crowds. "Artists probably overemphasize that 'I'm doing my thing,'" Coyne says. "You can absolutely do your thing within the context of this other thing, and it's not very hard to do. Other artists may say, 'I'm going to do this thing, and I don't care what the audience thinks.' I would say, 'Good luck.'"

The fact is, festivalgoers don't have to be familiar with the Flaming Lips’ music to be entertained by their stage show. Coyne and company typically incorporate any number of absurd props, costumes, and video displays, such as dancing Teletubbies, unicorns, and naked people. Coyne often makes grand entrances via a descending UFO, and at virtually every show he climbs into a plastic "space bubble" and rolls offstage like a hamster in a ball, relying on hands in the crowd to keep him moving.

The space bubble, especially, has become a fixture of the Lips’ live act. Coyne says he’s ridden inside it a thousand times. In fact, he recalls only one show when he didn’t: Before a performance somewhere in South America, a concert promoter was afraid the crowd would try to literally burst his bubble — and stab him.

So he didn't do it that night, but he didn't lose sleep over it. He's prone to pursuing his whims in the moment and feels no obligation to stick with any one thing.

"It's all right to change," he says. "One week, you might feel like 'I have to do this,' and then you do it and the audience throws rocks at you. The next week, you might say, 'I hope they love me and, you know, don't throw rocks.' It doesn't have to be one stance for the rest of your life. If it's important tonight, do it. If it's different tomorrow, that's OK."

The Flaming Lips. 7:15 to 8:15 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee. Four-day passes cost $299 via okeechobeefest.com.

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