The First Band On Mars

By Jim DeRogatis


SPIN magazine, August 2002


Classen Ten Penn, Oklahoma City's poorest area, features block after block of sad, squat ranch houses with junked-up cars sitting on cinder blocks out front. Babies play in their diapers in the dirt, just a few miles from where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. Then there’s Wayne Coyne's house. The man who has led the Flaming Lips for the past 19 years inhabits a sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright–style structure with stained-glass windows and a gargoyle on the balcony. And it’s the only house in the neighborhood with a space station in the back yard.

A dozen young local artists and aspiring filmmakers are here on a windy spring evening to film a scene for Christmas on Mars, a feature-length film written and directed by Coyne. They’re gathered around a 10,000-gallon white plastic tank some 20 feet long and 8 feet in diameter. Coyne has drilled holes in it, rigged it with tubing, wiring, and discarded computer parts, and attached it to some upended acrylic hot tubs and a revolving darkroom door. It's an impressive display, but Coyne isn't satisfied. “I’ve gotta find this damn light!” he says, rushing past in a paint-splattered orange jumpsuit, frantically searching for a fluorescent lamp. “I know it’s around here somewhere.”

Among those waiting on the director is the star of this particular scene, Steve Burns, best known as the wide-eyed guy in the striped polo shirt from Blue’s Clues, the enormously popular Nickelodeon kids show where he helps a big blue cartoon canine solve puzzles and riddles. He recently quit to pursue more serious roles, but careerism isn’t what brought him to Oklahoma. Burns had never even heard of the Lips, until one night last year at a party in New York City, when someone played the band's gorgeously psychedelic 1999 album, The Soft Bulletin. Burns immediately ran out to Tower Records and bought a copy. A few days later, he called Coyne and the two struck up a correspondence. Burns didn’t hesitate for a second when Coyne asked him to drive thousands of miles to make a movie in the backyard. “It’s not like I drove cross-country just to be in some guy’s gas tank," he says as he dons a glittery space suit. "I drove across country to be in the Flaming Lips’ gas tank/pod/space-shuttle-thing! I’d have driven all the way to California to be in this film.”

Coyne has that sort of effect on people. In the last few years, he’s convinced hundreds of otherwise sane folks to take part in wildly ambitious art projects. These have included an automotive symphony, in which as many as 50 cars were positioned in an enclosed ramp; Coyne then signaled each driver to play a different cassette on cue. Later, he took the concept indoors with 40 boom boxes. He also convinced the Lips’ longtime label, Warner Bros., to release 1997’s Zaireeka!, a four-CD set in which all the discs were meant to be played simultaneously. On the Lips’ last tour, concertgoers were issued headphones that broadcast a trippy mix of the music the Lips were playing. But a feature-length film?

Even before the Lips completed their ambitious new album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Coyne was angling to get Warner Bros. to pony up $100,000 to fund Christmas on Mars, which he hopes the label will release on DVD, along with the Lips’ collected videos. He’s shooting with no script--just a two-page outline. The plot, in a nutshell: A depressed space colonist (Lips drummer Steven Drozd) may or may not be losing his mind when he encounters an alien (Coyne in greenface and antennae), who helps celebrate the first Martian Yule after the astronaut who was to have played Santa (bassist Michael Ivins) commits suicide.

“I think this movie is about the idea of belief,” Coyne says between takes. “That if people around you believe in you, it influences what you do. I’m glad people believe in me, but I earn their belief by working hard. I think they get here and go, 'You know, this isn’t magic. This guy is the first one up, he’s the last one to leave, and if he’s gonna do it, I can do it.'”

But to hear his bandmates tell it, Coyne’s appeal is a bit more complicated. Drozd, a 33-year-old Houston native, is the most talented of the dozen or so musicians who’ve been part of the Lips over the past two decades. Coyne describes him as “of the caliber of a Stevie Wonder." The baroque pop of Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin are unimaginable without Drozd's contributions on guitar, drums, and keyboards. Yet even he defers to Coyne. “I could never do anything on my own that would be as good as what I can do with Wayne,” he says. “He’s just really good at selling an idea--so good that you don’t even know you’re being sold.” Adds Ivins, the other constant since the band’s beginning: “Wayne will say, ‘I have this idea,’ and it’s like magic--he thinks of something and it becomes real. Who knows what he could have been 300 years ago? He could have been a Napoleon or the guy in charge of building the pyramids."

J. Michele Martin has a similar theory. Coyne’s charming significant other is in the kitchen making a giant salad and two dozen turkey burgers for cast and crew. She smiles at her boyfriend as he breezes through the room, still searching for that elusive light. “I think his being curious just makes people want to be around him,” Martin says. “I’ve lived with him for 13 years, and it still fascinates me how he’s able to come up with stuff that makes me think there’s always more about this guy that I don’t know.”

Devilishly contentious, Coyne will take any position on an issue in the interest of a spirited debate, but his Will Rogers drawl is so charming that he never seems argumentative. And he’s so persuasive that most people happily give him the last word. At 41, with his curly hair turning gray, he remains a study in contrasts: an intellectual who works by instinct; a punk primitive who makes beautiful, complex art rock; a firm believer in D.I.Y. who seduces the corporate music machine.

“I’m not that different from a lot of weirdo guys who make movies, in that I started out as a painter,” he says. “I make a lot of things--records, my life--sort of like they’re paintings. I have an idea of what I want to do, but I do a little bit, stand back, do a little bit more, and one thing leads to another.” Coyne, who spent 11 years working as a fry cook at Long John Silver's before the Lips became successful, pauses and offers this culinary explanation: "I’m making chicken, and you like chicken. You think I’m making chicken because you like it, but I’m just making chicken because I like to make chicken.”


The youngest of six children, Coyne grew up in a Catholic family surrounded by Baptists inthe heart of Oklahoma, a region that's often called the buckle of the Bible Belt. “When people want me to describe Wayne,” says Lips manager Scott Booker, “I always think of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. The book is about this guy who was an Earth person raised on Mars. Wayne comes from a very generic, lower-middle-class, American family—I don’t want to say 'white trash,' but his family wasn’t big on the whole school thing--and here was this guy who’s basically a genius in their midst.”

Coyne never went to college, but he spent plenty of time in the early '80s hanging around the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman. He promoted shows by the likes of the Meat Puppets, and his own band often opened. The earliest incarnation of the Lips was essentially the Replacements on drugs, with hints of Sonic Youth’s skronk and Pink Floyd’s interstellar overdrive. In 1989, Coyne and Ivins linked up with guitarist Jonathan Donahue, who stayed for two albums before splitting to  form Mercury Rev. The next version of the Lips was the psychedelic pop group that recorded Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. The 1993 album remains the Lips’ most popular, with 300,000 copies sold worldwide thanks to “She Don’t Use Jelly,” a surrealist pop song about tangerines, Vaseline, and toast. The Syd Barrett–style ditty became an unlikely hit on alternative-rock radio, and MTV played the goofy video that the band’s label initially rejected because Coyne had made it for a mere $15,000. The Lips found themselves touring with Lollapalooza and, thanks to professed fan Jason Priestley, performing at the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210.

Today, Coyne and crew are as much a theater troupe as a rock band. Onstage, Drozd and Ivins augment taped backing tracks while Coyne sings, pours fake blood on himself, and talks to a hand puppet. On The Soft Bulletin, the band replaced its familiar gonzo guitar rock with a brilliant new brand of lo-fi orchestral pop. Coyne also veered away from his old Dadaist lyrics to express heartfelt sentiments about love and devotion. Friends say the change was inspired by the death of his father, and  Yoshimi's "Do You Realize?" tackles the issue of loss in terms far removed from Coyne's usual psychedelic spiel. “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes / Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last," he sings.

Yoshimi builds on the lush, studio-savvy breakthrough of The Soft Bulletin by adding a giddy electronic underpinning, and  with Christmas on Mars, the band is going multimedia in a big way.

But unless Coyne finds that elusive lamp, today's shoot may be a wash. Darkness has fallen and Burns, the amateur film crew, and numerous friends and family members are eager for some action. Standing beside the space station, Booker just rolls his eyes. The Lips’ manager is the designated realist who’s in charge of securing money for Coyne’s schemes. Booker convinced Warner Bros. to fund Coyne's movie by arguing that the Lips sold 20,000 copies of Zaireeka! for a profit of $120,000. As strange as the proposed DVD may be, surely the band's cult alone can make it match or exceed that figure. "When Wayne comes to me with, ‘I want to make a movie,’ I’m like, ‘Whew! That’s easy!’ he says. "At least that’s a sane idea I can go to someone with. I mean, he’s just as likely to come to me with, ‘I want to be the first band to play on Mars,’ and he’ll really mean it.”

As if on cue, the Lips’ leader emerges from a storage room, grinning widely. He's found the light. “All right, everybody, let’s do this!” he commands, holding it aloft triumphantly. "Let’s make a movie!”





So you loved The Soft Bulletin and can’t wait to hear Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots? The Flamings Lips have a long history, and there’s a lot more music to explore!


* Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid (Restless, 2002)

This three-disc set (out Sept. 3) collects the the first three albums, adding demos (“The Batman Theme”), live songs (the epic “One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning” and “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin”), and compilation tracks (covers of Neil Young, Sonic Youth, and Led Zeppelin).


* In A Priest Driven Ambulance (Restless, 1990)

The gonzo acid-rock masterpiece from the Donohue era will be included along with more rarities on a second new comp, The Day They Shot A Hole in the Jesus Egg, due Sept. 17.


* Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (Warner Bros., 1993)

Psychedelic pop at its most playful and twisted. Ronald Jones’ guitar evokes a squadron of insects dive-bombing Jimi Hendrix jamming with Genesis on Mars.


* Zaireeka! (Warner Bros., 1997)

Round up four boomboxes, hit “play” at the same time, and hear the Lips in a whole new way, with odd pop songs, freaky instrumentals, and Wayne Coyne’s funny parable, “The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now.”