Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips have spent most of the past year in a state of musical hibernation, avoiding the spotlight and living the good life in their home base of Oklahoma City. In fact, aside from the occasional contribution to a movie soundtrack or tribute album, it's been almost three years since the art-rockers-turned-orchestral-popsters have released a note of music. And the funny thing is, neither Coyne nor his band have ever been bigger.
"Yeah, it's weird, isn't it?" Coyne laughed. "I swear, since last May we've been trying to do nothing, but we're more popular than ever. Maybe it's because there's nothing exciting happening out there."
In the past few months alone, the Lips — and Coyne in particular — been namedropped in an expansive New York Times feature and received a hero's welcome down in Austin, Texas, when they appeared at the premiere for "The Fearless Freaks," a documentary that lovingly details their up-and-down career. And the Internet is constantly abuzz with talk of their long-delayed "Christmas on Mars" movie and their long-awaited new album, At War With the Mystics. All in all, it's pretty exhausting to be Wayne Coyne. Which is basically the way he likes it.
"I always have my hands in a lot of things, because sometimes within the context of new projects, you find a new way to do things," he said. "But I do mostly what the times call for. If we have to record some new stuff, we'll do it. If we have to work on our movie, we'll do it. If we have to do interviews about 'Freaks,' we'll do that too."
OK, then. In "Freaks," (which is available on DVD this week) director Bradley Beesley documents the long, strange trip of the Flaming Lips using footage from the band's entire career, including footage of Coyne as a longhaired teen, interviews with friends and family, and one seriously disturbing interview he conducted with the Lips' Steven Drozd while the (now-recovered) multi-instrumentalist was in the depths of heroin addiction. It's an extremely personal look at the backstory behind the band, which only someone like Beesley could create. After all, he's known them for almost 13 years.
"We started having a working relationship back in like 1992. So he knows us really well," Coyne explained. "He had all this footage of us. Like, he has footage of me and my brother and his druggie friends playing football. That's where the title of the film comes from, because me and my brother and our longhaired friends would call ourselves the Fearless Freaks, and we'd challenge these jocks to games. And determination and sheer hatred for your opponent can really do a lot, because my brother and I and the fearless freaks would just stomp the hell out of those guys — which is kind of like a metaphor for our band."
Now that "Freaks" is out on DVD, Lips fans can turn their attention to the other Lips' film project, "Christmas on Mars" (see "Flaming Lips Spew About New Album, Martian Christmas Movie"). The release date for Coyne's long-promised film has become something of an industry-wide punch line. (The band's Web site still says: "The Flaming Lips' first feature film, 'Christmas on Mars,' will be available in time for Christmas in 2003." Whoops!) But he swears that it's almost finished and fans will be seeing it on the big screen really soon. Honest.
"It's about 75 percent done. There's some spots we need to fill in, and some of it is waiting for actors to play parts. I talked to Elijah Wood down at South by Southwest, and his schedule for April was open for a little bit, but now it's not." Coyne explained. "By the end of the summer all the filming will be done. And then we want to do the 5.1 [stereo mix], because if we play it in theaters, we want it to be a big deal, with big speakers and sh-- falling from the ceiling and smoke machines."
And then there's the matter of At War With the Mystics, the new album that the Lips are slowly but surely piecing together with longtime producer Dave Fridmann. Coyne said there are "three or four" completed songs, with an equal number close to completion.
"We have a song called 'The Wand' and a song titled 'Mr. Ambulance Driver' and one called 'My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,' " he said. "When I play the songs for people around here, they have said that it sounds like a cross between Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Devo."
Fans can expect the new album sometime in January, and they might be surprised by what they hear. The band plans on featuring a guest musician or two on the new disc, including Cat Power's Chan Marshall. But, as with everything the Lips do, it won't just be your average collaboration.
"We want to get Cat Power to come on into the studio with us. We tend to veer away from guest musicians, but I'm always up for someone who's a bit of a weirdo," Coyne laughed. "She's kind of known as a folk singer, so maybe we'll give her a keyboard to play or something like that — change things up a bit. That's how we've always done things."