August 21, 2009

Interview: Dennis Coyne of Stardeath and White Dwarfs

Before Oklahoma City quartet Stardeath and White Dwarfs took the stage at Edgefield in Troutdale, Or., I got the chance to sit down with frontman Dennis Coyne, the nephew of the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. The band recently released their full-length debut, The Birth, via Warner Bros. and are currently touring the States and Europe opening for Built To Spill and the Lips. See pictures from the show here.

Let's start from the beginning. How did you first get into music. Do you remember the first song that made you want to play?
Well, I remember the first song that I learned how to play. It was "The Long and Winding Road" on the keyboard. But the first song that got me loving music was probably also something by the Beatles. My dad was a huge Beatles fanatic. He had two giant PA speakers from the 70s I guess he had bought or stole off some train and he used to turn them inwards like two gigantic headphones. He'd sit me in the middle of them, crank it up and make me listen to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin all day. I think that’s got to be what did it.

Your first instrument?
I think it was keyboard first and then guitar quickly after. Once I started trying to play music I played whatever I could find.

First concert?
First concert was the Flaming Lips when I was about 9 months old. I don’t remember much of it because I was really high. [laughs] I think the first non-Flaming Lips concert was the Eurhythmics in like 1983. I was a year and a half old.

Were you in bands growing up?
No, this is my first band and I hope this is the only band I’m ever in.

How did Stardeath and White Dwarfs first come about? Did you always know you wanted to form a band?
I used to be a part of the Lips' road crew. Since I was about 18 years old. Around that time I was working on Christmas on Mars with Wayne and I started to write some music. I think through having my own songs and watching them play and working with them, it was just sort of this natural thing to start to want to do that myself. It was just kind of an evolvement that made me want to start forming a band.

Was the rest of the band on the road crew as well?
The way that worked was almost the opposite. We formed our band and then Wayne and the guys decided to hire us as their road crew. He’d just grab us so that way we’re out together and learning how to do things. Then when we’re home, we don’t have to split up to work jobs because we’re making money. Instead, we have time to practice and work on music.

I have to ask where the name cromes from?

I know, everybody does. And I wish I had a better answer. Our name probably is like how every band comes up with their name. Some friends of ours were playing a record release show and they asked us to play with them. And we hadn’t even thought about playing a show, but we said “yeah, we’ll play.” We had songs recorded, but we didn’t have a name and they started calling us everyday because they were making flyers and were like, “dude, you’ve got to have a name for these flyers.” Me and Casey, our bass player, got together one night and I’m sure we probably had a half ounce of pot, a bunch of booze, and every fucking sci-fi book you could want and had a night of pure debauchery. When we woke up in the morning—I don’t know how it got there—but there was a piece of paper that had four or five names on it and the wickedest one was the one that we used. We don’t know where it came from—some existential miracle.

On The Birth you guys sound like you have a really fully formed sound and style. I understand you made it over the course of four years. How do you maintain that type of consistency?
It wasn’t really worked on solid for four years. We made our own EP first. And I think immediately after we made it up and printed it—nobody was putting it out or anything—we started to record some new songs. You know, you stop working when you get busy and play shows and during Lips tours that all breaks it up. I think we had about half a record ready when we started to talk to Warner Bros. And then it really started to come together over the last year. The bulk of the stuff got rerecorded and remixed. So it wasn’t a constant barrage of working on something; it was really bits and pieces at a time and the last year and half it really came together.

And you worked with producer Trent Bell?
We did. We recored with Trent Bell, the guy from the Chainsaw Kittens. I’ve known him since he was hanging around the Lips guys when he was 16 years old. So he’s like a brother to me and a close friend to all of us. He’s really easy to work with and a lot of fun.

I wasn’t able to find the EP, but I was wondering how much the band's sound has evolved since then?
I think if you listen to the EP you’d probably say it’s the same band with worse microphones. The EP was recoreded in someone’s garage. Our lineup has also changed since then. Only me and the bass player, Casey, are left from the guys that were in that. I don’t think it's changed drastically. We’re just more dynamic now.

I wanted to ask about the songwriting process. Two of my favorite songs off The Birth are “Keep Score” and “Smoking Pot Makes Me Not Want To Kill Myself.” They’re really sparse acoustic songs and I was wondering if a lot of your songs start out like that and then you start collaborating?
It goes back and forth between me and our bass player, Casey. Both these songs are good examples because a lot of times he’ll make a quick little 30 second piece of music and give it to me and I’ll start to compose something over it and put a melody on it. Sometimes he gives me a piece that’s already completely finished. “I Can’t Get Away,” he gave me that piece of music, and that was almost the way it is now. I just put a melody on and put some words into it. But “Keep Score” I think he gave to me as a 30 second drum loop with a bunch of instruments over it and I slowly picked through it and put a bridge in. On the other end, “Smoking Pot Makes Me Not Want To Kill Myself,” I had the whole song done and came in there with the other guys and they put stuff on top of it.

Wayne directed your “New Heat” video and helped contribute to the album’s artwork. What kind of energy does he bring to the band?
Our graphic guy, who does the Lips artwork, also did most of ours, but Wayne is always around and I think just his spirit and enthusiasm for everything risky and taking chances is what helps drive us to take chances and be bold and fearless.

How did the cover of Madonna’s “Borderline” come about?
That one was just kind of a chance. We were on tour with the Flaming Lips at the time. We always play a cover song because no one knows our songs and we like to play songs people know. We had been messing around with the idea of playing this different version of “Borderline.” We all love Madonna, especially that old shit. We had been working and talking about doing the cover live. Around that time the Lips were slated to do a song for Warner Bros. 50th anniversary. We were just signing at the time. They were supposed to do Prince’s “Purple Rain,” but something happened and Prince said they couldn’t do it. So at the same time we were talking about doing “Borderline,” Wayne just suggested we do it together because it would help us get on this record and give us a chance to let people know who we are. They were in their studio and we were in ours and we sent it back and forth for a day and ended up coming up witht that version.

Is there ever a desire to separate yourself from the Lips?
I think we are separate in many ways. We don’t consciously make a decision to go one way. I think with our influences the Flaming Lips our involved, but maybe no more than the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. I would be a fool to say they weren’t an influence because I’m around them all the time, I’ve grown up around them. But at the same time, I think we’re around each other so much that we’re all influenced by the same things. And I love the Lips. We’re probably always going to sound a little like them, but we don’t make a conscious effort to sound one way or the other.

Every musician starts out as a fan, so I was wondering if there was a moment making this record or touring sometime when it hit you that you could really make a career out of this and be successful?
[laughs] I think we’ve yet to find whether we’re going to make a career out of this. When we finished our first EP and I played it for the Lips guys. The fact that they liked it so much made me think, “I trust what these guys think. Maybe we’ve got a shot to be in a real band, go out on tour and make records.”

My last question is something I ask at the end of every interview. If your band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, were an animal, what would it be?
We would be… [contemplates for a minute]… I want to say black panther but that’s a little controversial. I think a black panther cause were going to be radical and change the face of music.

Stardeath & White Dwarfs - "Toast & Marmalade For Tea" (from Toast & Marmalade For Tea)

Stardeath and White Dwarfs

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