“I’m mostly a visual artist, I think,” Wayne Coyne told me in a recent phone conversation. That the frontman of The Flaming Lips, one of the biggest experimental rock groups out there, sees himself as a visual creator more than a musician is not too surprising. This is after all the band that’s landed a UFO on stage, made one of the weirdest cosmic horror holiday films of all time with Christmas on Mars, and regularly starts its concerts in a flurry of confetti with Coyne himself rolling in a hamster ball over the crowd. (And it’s not only their recent work, just look at this concert video from 1996 of “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” and watch the swirling DIY light installation pulse on with the crescendo.)
“I’d say that if I would’ve been born in a different time, and I was born in 1961, I wouldn’t be a musician,” Coyne explained. “It was in the late 60s that music kind of became something that if you wanted to do it, you could do it.” He said that although he’s in “a group that has some of the greatest living musicians in it” (with multi-talented Steven Drozd on guitar and other instruments, bass player Michael Ivins, and drummer Kliph Scurlock), he’s “not one of them.” “I’m just a weirdo who likes making my own brand of sound,” he said. “I think I’m a visual artist who is lucky enough to be in a crazy, almost absurdist, art rock band that is endlessly in need of something visual.”
It’s the emotional resonance of their music and its life-in-the-face-of-death mentality that’s allowed The Flaming Lips to pull off spectacles without them (usually) feeling like stunts, and they’ve gone much further into merging their music with visual arts than most any other band. Now Coyne’s transmitting his mind’s freaky visions into an arts complex in Oklahoma City called the Womb, which involves a gallery, store, creative production house, and even a Damien Hirst on the ceiling.
“The way Wayne described it is, [the Womb] is going to be a place for people to come and freak out in,” said Mary Beth Babcock, who opened a branch of her Tulsa-based Dwelling Spaces store at the Womb just before Thanksgiving, focusing on Flaming Lips-related limited edition art pieces (think life-size chocolate skulls with USB sticks of music inside) and works by the artists showing in the gallery. The Womb itself has been standing as a strange monolith of psychedelic colors for a while, opened by Coyne with artist collaborators Rick Sinnett and Jake Harms in 2011 (I stopped by the outside for Hyperallergic that year). However it’s been closed to the public since an incident involving Yoko Ono and acid, when the Plastic Ono Band and Sean Lennon were in Oklahoma City to perform with the Flaming Lips for a December 31, 2011 New Year’s Eve show. Except it didn’t actually involve Yoko Ono or acid so much as a misunderstanding with the local officials. “I was making sort of exaggerated jokes that we were going to have a big party at the Womb and wouldn’t it would be great if we could all go there at 3 in the morning and do acid with Yoko Ono,” Coyne said. It was in the newspaper the next morning and before they could do anything, they were shut down and told that if they had a party, everyone there would go to jail. “We thought it would be kind of sad if Yoko Ono got thrown in jail,” he said.
Since then, the Womb group has worked to get their safety systems and facilities up-to-code and a reopening is projected for sometime in the next few months. Recently, a massive 18 foot by 18 foot painting Coyne made with a friend was installed on the ceiling of the new Womb-based offices of Delo Creative, the production house led by longtime Lips collaborator George Salisbury, which does much of the visual work for the Flaming Lips as well as some diverse commercial work. That the friend is art megastar Damien Hirst, and that Coyne created the piece with Hirst on the artist’s massive spin art machine, is one of the Womb’s more surreal details.
“We got to know Damien Hirst mostly because of his wife, who is a crazy music fan, and it was probably about five years ago that we started to get to know her while playing festivals and shows in England,” Coyne said. “We were invited to a birthday and Damien was there and little by little got to know each other.”
After playing one festival, Hirst invited 13 of the Flaming Lips crew to his studio, and they were able to play around with “this crazy mechanism he uses to create these giant spin arts.” After everyone got to use the machine, the studio assistants put out a gargantuan canvas and Coyne and Hirst both poured some paint in the machine, resulting in the massive co-created (with the machine) work now on the Delo ceiling, possibly the only Damien Hirst spin art ceiling in the world.
Coyne said that he and Hirst are “fascinated by the same things,” and in many ways, Damien Hirst and Wayne Coyne being friends makes perfect sense. They both have an affinity for the imagery of death (Hirst with skulls and taxidermy, Coyne with skulls and placebo head wounds made on stage with fake blood), and they’ve gleefully used commercial success to make some twisted stuff (The Flaming Lips released a limited edition of the collaborative album Heady Fwends in 2012 that included samples of all the musicians’ blood in the vinyl). But it’s not just international megastars like Hirst that are planned to have their work in the Womb, it’s also Oklahoma City artists whose work might go overlooked by more traditional galleries, and national artists, who might not otherwise come to the Midwest for installations and art happenings. “It’s super clear that Wayne supports the local artists,” Babcock said. “He’s always at exhibits and gallery shows and tweeting about local artists.”
So is largely conservative Oklahoma going to embrace the art experiment, a place that’s not just named after the womb, but has a very unsubtle entry to an interior swathed in pink colors? In a way it doesn’t matter, because with Coyne and other supporters behind it the Womb has a freedom that most other Oklahoma City galleries don’t to experiment without worrying about funding from the state and foundations. (And with state representative Josh Cockroft currently proposing a bill to cut Oklahoma State Arts Council funding, which will hopefully be defeated, even that can be in danger.) Instead it can become a beacon for offbeat art, something that’s separate, but inextricably linked to the cosmic, embryonic imagery that’s constantly gestating into something new alongside the Lips’ music. No matter what it produces in the coming year, the Womb is sure to be anything but sterile, just like the Flaming Lips themselves as they’ve grown from fearless freak rockers to an ambitious music force enwrapped with visual arts. As Coyne said: “One to me feeds the other, the second I’m doing something visual it occurs to me there’s a world of sound.”
The Womb is at 25 NW Ninth Street in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.