Wayne Coyne Is Still Psychedelic at 60
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Wayne Coyne, frontman of the rock band The Flaming Lips, has started off the new year with a bang as he prepares for a plastic bubble concert, a new album, and a birthday.
The singer, who turns 60 today, is known for his psychedelic inspired visual art and live productions, with some calling The Flaming Lips shows a spiritual experience or likening their stage antics to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. With whimsical sounds, a fascination with psychedelia, and devil-may-care energy, Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips have inspired generations of music lovers and psychonauts alike. They’ve even composed music for a documentary on magic mushrooms.
Their newest album, American Head, takes a more reflective turn. A recent Pitchfork review of the new album states, “Coyne approaches his favorite topics—love, drugs, and death—from a less existential, more personal vantage.”
When asked about the drug references in the new album, Coyne tells Rolling Stone, “We’re not singing about drugs as if it’s a hippie, cosmic, mind-opening, beautiful thing.” Instead, he and band member Steve Drodz are reflecting on their past experiences with mind-altering substances and states – the amazing and the ugly.
Here is a compilation of some of those experiences, and how they shaped Wayne Coyne’s perspective on life and art.
Death: A Lesson on Living
The idea of being a “freak” is threaded throughout Wayne Coyne’s approach to life. Growing up, Coyne and his siblings dubbed themselves “The Fearless Freaks,” a moniker that inspired the name of the 2005 Flaming Lips documentary. Wayne Coyne uses the word often to describe himself, his music and shows, his fans, and even Miley Cyrus. “Miley Cyrus makes you feel good about being a freak and doesn’t punish you for it,” Coyne told The Independent in a 2015 interview.
Coyne’s unapologetic freakiness may have stemmed from his upbringing during the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. “My older brothers brought a lot of drugs, motorbikes, and music into the house. They played The Beatles and Pink Floyd, lying in the dark, getting stoned. Amazing,” he told the Independent in 2019. Coyne has expressed gratitude for his early years, telling Fuse at the 2014 Bonnaroo Festival, “I think I’m really lucky I grew up in a household with a bunch of brothers and sisters and freaks and their friends and drugs and motorcycles.”
While Coyne’s exposure to certain music and drugs growing up is an undeniable influence, a brush with death he experienced as a teen may have also played a role in his commitment to creative freedom, and his experimentation with altered states of mind. When Coyne was seventeen, he was the victim of an armed robbery at the restaurant where he worked. He told Tidal, “I did lay on the floor in the back of this Long John Silver’s restaurant absolutely accepting that I was going to die. It was only 25, 30 seconds in reality, but it felt like hours. When the robbers left, it opened up this world where anything is possible. I wanted to be in a band, write songs, paint. What do I have to lose?”
LSD: An Early Exploration of Acid
Before Coyne had his brush with death in Long John Silver’s, he witnessed a different fast food robbery. In Tales of the Trip he recounts how at 16 he took acid for the first time with some friends. They decided to order cheeseburgers at a drive-up window and, while waiting in line, saw the driver ahead of them try to steal the cash register, shattering the window and cutting himself in the process. When Coyne drove up to the window, blood was everywhere. It was too much for him, with the whole experience lasting too long. “I remember the next day waking up and in my mind thinking, ‘Why did I ever want to do that?’”
In 2010, he told Rolling Stone that he finds acid challenging. “Everybody would say this, but I really do love my senses, I love hearing and seeing and smelling, just having the experience. But when I can’t quite navigate it, I’m scared or I’m frustrated.” In a more recent interview, he elaborated on the experience saying, “When I took LSD, it didn’t open up the world – it made me think of how horrible it is and how painful it is and how unfair it is.”
Coyne has also said that psychedelics help him think differently. “Sometimes when you wake up you have a different perspective. ‘Why did I worry about that so much?’” he told The Quietus. “That, for me, is the beauty of those sorts of drugs.” Speaking with High Times, he stated, “I’ve done some ayahuasca and some mushrooms and stuff. Those, in the right setting, I think are amazing.”
Ayahuasca: Drinking the Brew With Miley Cyrus
In 2015, Coyne and the rest of The Flaming Lips attended an intimate ayahuasca ceremony at Cyrus’s home. Coyne had never drunk the brew before, but found that, similar to his mushroom journeys, everything about his ayahuasca experience made “absolute sense on such a deep level.” He told Rolling Stone, “Because it’s in this absolutely controlled environment, and you put your trust in [the shaman] … he’s aware of the levels that the drug is having. He’s always going around. By singing the songs, he can judge your reaction to it and how much you’re fighting and struggling. He lets you figure out on your own how much you can dissolve into it.”
When asked how the experience affected his life, Coyne said it helped him become more accepting and less bitter, and helped him overcome the mental rigidity that can come with age. ”I think [the experience] is still with me now.”
Addiction: A Family History
“Luckily, I don’t really have an addictive personality when it comes to drugs. I’m addicted to art, and music, and that side of me … I think I’m more addicted to that than I am to any illegal substance,” Coyne told High Times. “But some people can have a harder time with them. I mean, all of my brothers and my older sister, they’ve all been addicted to drugs at some point in their lives. Especially when I was young, I didn’t like it. I saw how destructive it was. I saw how much regret they had about it and all that, so I think I’ve been cautious about it happening to me.”
Coyne not only witnessed the challenging side of these substances with his family, but also within his band. Longtime Flaming Lips member, Steve Drozd, struggled with heroin. His path to recovery heavily influenced the band’s album The Terror.
To Coyne, not all drugs are equal. “Heroin, cocaine and crystal meth: Don’t bother with them,” he told Pop Matters in 2006. “If you’re young and you’re seeking some intense experiences, there are things like LSD and ecstasy and peyote and marijuana that let you have a subjective, personal, intense moment, and they let you get a little bit braver or have a different mindset. If you don’t want to [do] them, you shouldn’t do them, but there’s elements of experimenting with yourself that I think are wonderful.”
Music: A Mind Altering Substance
When asked how The Flaming Lips creates their psychedelic sound, Coyne told CannabisNow, “It’s not because we’re trying to re-create a drug experience. It’s the kind of drug experience that I wish I could have — you’re absolutely aware and able to concentrate. A lot of times drugs, although they’re wonderful, they rob you of your focus and concentration. It’s a dilemma.”
Coyne is a believer in the power of sound to connect and inspire, and create altered states without any chemical aids. As Coyne explained to CannabisNow, The Flaming Lips album Zaireeka was specifically written to trick the brain into “a meditative little trip.” The human brain is an expert in pattern recognition, so when a musical beat wobbles, the brain begins searching for a resolution: a time signature change or a return to the beat. According to Coyne, when the brain can’t find a pattern to latch onto, “You lose all balance of what’s happening because your concentration is on a deeper level. […] It’s exactly what we hope to create with music; the ability to take you out of your own world.”
During The Flaming Lips “Oczy Mlody” tour, which involved exaggerated bass and waves of light, he warned fans, “Don’t do too many drugs beforehand.” According to Coyne, the show itself was sensational enough. “Drugs are just one small portion of what I hope is just a bigger awakening to ideas and music and art and expression and all of that,” he told Inside The Story.
Aging: A Fresh Take
Wayne Coyne doesn’t intend to slow down just because he’s entering a more mature decade of his life. “In my 40s and early 50s, I was always worried about getting old,” he told The Guardian. “Then one night I was a little drunk and thought: ‘Hang on, you’re already old, so stop worrying about it.’ And suddenly those insecurities melted away.”
His most recent artistic vision involves a Covid-safe live concert. Those who have seen him onstage already know he has been performing in a plastic “space” bubble for years, but Coyne recently decided that everyone, including audience members, could also don the zorb-like bubble to protect themselves from Covid-19 while gathering for a live show. “I would say that they’re safer than going to the grocery store,” he told Consequence of Sound.