Considering the surreal, carnivalesque world of psychedelic wonders The Flaming Lips — with frontman Wayne Coyne’s mad-hatter derring-do and the band’s singular, lysergic Pop, which bleeds bliss and transcendence in equal doses — can there be a better musical act to inaugurate the new Bellwether Music Festival in the small Ohio town of Waynesville (of all town names), one hour north of Cincinnati?
An extravagant, extraordinary band for extravagant, extraordinary times, the Oklahoma veterans have been a subversive outfit for 35 years now. The Flaming Lips’ journey began modestly — young music freaks growing up a half-day’s dusty drive north of Texas in a flyover prairie town in the late ’70s/early ’80s, trying to entertain themselves in a garage with guitars. Within Coyne’s cracked, soulful voice and vision, you can practically hear how both goodwill and mayhem sparked his persona. And how he and his buddies translated those high school musical influences in various ways over the ensuing decades.
After several albums of noisy, epic Post Punk psychedelia, The Lips crept up from the underground by honing a singular, slanted brand of AltRock that was shot through the damaged, hallucinatory lens of some mutant strain of prime Beach Boys and spiked with Pink Floyd in the coliseum of your imagination; they’re space age love songs for the disaffected.
During a recent phone interview, Coyne sketches a scene from a day in the life of The Flaming Lips circa 2018.
"We were working in the studio until about a half hour ago, and now I’m sitting in my Prius in my driveway in the shade in Oklahoma City,” he says. “My car is kind of my office — it’s quiet, has air conditioning and I got a phone charger. My house can be kind of crazy — people, dogs, lots of activity.”
As go-to music festival poster-toppers since the turn of the century, the singer explains the Lips’ approach to such events.
“We do embrace the day, the idea if you’re playing to 20,000 people or 100,000, half of them are there to party and it’s our responsibility to get them more involved, because that will make it more fun. If we do that, this will really be a special moment,” Coyne says. “With (a concert), you’re building that crescendo for a minute and then we sort of do it again and again.”
As we continue talking, Coyne wonders where the name of southwest Ohio’s new “Bellwether” fest comes from. I mention that my only experience in Waynesville, a skydiving hub, is jumping from a Cessna many years ago. With the thought of such a stunt, Coyne flashes his Achilles heel with a chuckle.
“To be that committed to something seems insane, though it’s what we do in a different way,” he says when considering skydiving. “I’m sure it’s an exhilarating mindfuck of an experience, but looking around now, I like being flat on the ground.”
Because of The Flaming Lips’ hardcore fans, Coyne can rely on them to help shape a festival’s tone. Even with a platinum and several gold records on a big major label like Warner Brothers, there’s still a cosmic cult vibe surround the band and its tribe. It’s an intense, reciprocal bond that most other bands don’t share with their fan base. Every Lips’ concert feels like Mardi Gras on Mars to a degree. Coyne revels in being the charismatic Pied Piper leading his band of fearless freaks, including Michael Ivins on bass and Steven Drozd on guitar/keyboard, to deliver yet another epic concert spectacle.
“Our audience kind of set the example of how you can be — if there’s a thousand of our fans in the front surrounded by 2,000 who just want to party, our fans will sort of say, ‘Here’s the way we’re going to be,’ ” Coyne says. “And it works and it brings that intensity which everyone is reaching for.
“And I always try to remind people (trying to be too) cool and to be too judgmental… everything in your life is going to be ruined. That’s never worked. You have to surrender to everything to really enjoy it. Love isn’t about you, it’s about what you’re giving. It’s not about us, it’s about the whole community.”
From the parking lot experiments involving dozens of car stereos playing in sync to create a kind of junkyard symphony to covering both Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in full and collaborating with Miley Cyrus to piss off all the music critics, The Flaming Lips’ career is marked by several “outside of the box” milestones, as the band leapfrogs from one outrageous project to another. But the group’s major recent surprise is the release of the three-disc Greatest Hits Vol. 1 compilation. It’s a somewhat conventional move made less so by the generous inclusion of B-sides, obscure covers and unreleased demos. For a Flaming Lips fan, it’s a flush farrago of choice material.
Compiled with producer Dave Fridmann, Coyne says the idea of issuing a “greatest hits” set originated with the band’s longtime manager, Scott Booker, who saw it as a way to lead fans further down the Flaming Lips’ rabbit hole.
"This has been his dream for 10 years now,” Coyne says of Booker. “He thought if you liked one song then it would lead you to another.”
Coyne himself is also just a fan of the concept in general.
“Some of my favorite records by groups are greatest hits,” he says. “Like Tom Petty, for instance, I wouldn’t really know his albums, but I certainly know many of his hits. I like the idea that we’re sort of curators of a collection of songs. Even though I know virtually everything that The Beatles have done, I’m still a sucker for the latest rearrangement of their hits. In the Flaming Lips’ world, that’s enough of a reason.”
If there’s an inherent Flaming Lips’ philosophy, it can be summed up by one of Coyne’s irrepressible song titles — “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear Part 2.” He describes his band’s music as containing “optimistic melancholy,” and that paradox pumps the heart of The Flaming Lips. While the music pulses and aches with wistful, openhearted vulnerability, the live shows are such kaleidoscopically life-affirming marvels that you can’t help but be overwhelmed in the moment.
Revisit some of The Flaming Lips' video highlights from the past 35 years:
The Flaming Lips headline night two of the Bellwether Music Festival on Aug. 11 in Waynesville, Ohio. Tickets/directions/more info: bellwetherfest.com .