Interview: The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne Talks ‘American Head,’ COVID-19, Audience Bubbles & More
A few weeks after the release of his group’s 21st studio album, The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne just finished a visit to a local Oklahoma City concert venue where he’s planning to perform for hundreds of people, all hermetically sealed in the kind of inflatable bubbles he’s famous for walking atop his audience in. Now, he’s parked in his car for a FaceTime interview to talk about the new album, American Head.
Like everything else about the band, the career trajectory of The Flaming Lips is particularly unconventional. After years of paying their dues, they hit it big on their 1993 album, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, thanks to the single, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Rather than ride the momentum of chart-topping success, they followed it up in 1997 with the commercially challenged Zaireeka, which had to be played on four CD players at once to be heard properly.
It seemed like they were destined to be one-hit wonders who might have been a bit too far ahead of their time. But between 1999 and 2006 they released a trio of financially successful and wildly influential albums that established them as an all-time great psychedelic rock act that may not make the genre’s Mount Rushmore but absolutely makes the All-Star team. Coyne became a 21st century rock ‘n’ roll icon and The Pied Piper for Fearless Freaks everywhere.
2006’s At War with the Mystics had a few hits but after that, for more than a decade, The Flaming Lips seemed to abandon the verse/chorus/bridge format. They put out a series of leg stretching experimental rock albums, a few complete interpretations of classic records like Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and a guest-filled collaboration featuring the likes of Bon Iver, Kesha, Yoko Ono, Jim James, Nick Cave, and Tame Impala. Their output has been prolific, but for fans of 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, the last few albums weren’t the kind of material that originally turned them on to the band.
That streak came to an end with American Head, a moonlit wave of narrative lullabies breaking on a translucent beach occupied by kids who just ate a handful of psilocybin mushrooms. This album doesn’t have a radio-ready hit like “Race for the Prize” or “Do You Realize??” but after digesting the album over a few complete spins, you’ll find it’s a meditation on mortality that you want to listen to again and again.
With mortality and the daily realities of COVID-19 on our minds, Coyne got on FaceTime for an insightful interview that touched on all of The Flaming Lips’ current operations. He’s an enthusiastic guy which shows in the way he speaks. With Coyne, there’s an authentic enthusiasm in his words that allowed darker subjects to still be engrossing and make it feel like an optimistic worldview isn’t so inappropriate in fall 2020. In these dark times, everyone could benefit from a wellness chat with Wayne Coyne.
JamBase: I’ve been listening to American Head for a few months now and I want to talk a lot about it but the elephant in the room is COVID-19. How are you and your family doing?
Wayne Coyne: We’re very lucky. We started off pretty mellow. [Oklahoma City is] a big city in space but not population so we’re already slightly socially distanced. So it’s never been insane here but I know a lot of people that work in hospitals and they’ve been overwhelmed. We’ve gone down to zero cases a day and jumped back up to a thousand. With school coming back in and the cold weather coming, what do you think is going to happen? I don’t know. It feels like things are getting hairy again.
Anybody who says they know what’s going to happen is full of shit. That’s my hot take.
[Laughs] Yep. I agree, but for us, not traveling around the world or being in airports, it was a great relief for us. When we’re not playing shows we’d have very little time at home. We’d be slightly isolated anyway, so in a way, it kind of came as a relief to me to not have as many obligations, but that’s just me on a personal level. Nobody in my family has gotten sick so we are very lucky. We’re lucky that we can go a little while without work or income and we’ll be alright so my family isn’t really a normal set up but for me personally, having more time since I have a little baby, that’s been amazing and I think I will always have a different appreciation for giving things more time and having things be more normal. This has definitely given me a new appreciation for that.
So American Head … I’m curious about the timeline of when you wrote and recorded it because it seems like thematically, this album is all about the inevitability of death, the death of different people told from different perspectives throughout the album and I want to know if it was written pre-COVID or not. The world that we live in changes the context of our art, right?
It absolutely shapes things! In the end, I think it transcends its own time but these types of human struggles, we come in and out of them all the time and that’s the plight that we have. Even within the COVID being out there, there’s been plenty of tragedy and sorrow before that. But I do think when it’s more of a collective anxiety or worry like this now, I think music like American Head does help because it’s so gentle and not trying to make you dismiss your sadness or concern, it just helps you.
It’s not that we saw this coming, that was just the kind of the musical direction we had started to go towards. I think it was because we were writing those types of songs. We make a lot of records and we wanted the songs to start to feel like storytelling. Even within the first 30 seconds of the song, I want you to know, “This is how it’s going to go.” I always sort of tell people, it’s like, you meet up with a friend of yours and they say, “I had a dream last night I want to tell you about.” You say, “Sure,” but in your mind, you don’t want them to tell you about the dream for three hours, but if it’s a five-minute thing, sure. I like it when a song lets you know what you’re getting into. The more we were able to tell these sorts of stories and connect them and thematically help each other, that’s part of what The Flaming Lips are about. We’ve always dealt with death. I think that’s part of why music was invented and kept getting collectively added to over and over because there’s nothing else that works for you the way music does.
But just to be clear about the timeline, this album was entirely written and recorded before COVID hit?
Yeah, yeah it was pretty much finished by January. It was all set to come out in June. We were done with the packaging and everything by February or so.
Records like this one take a little while to set up. Some of our records we’ve done pretty quickly but this one was an album where we had songs two or three years ago. We’d be working on a song and say, “Let’s get a collection of these going.” It’s not that unlike how we made The Soft Bulletin. We were working on a couple of records while that was creeping out of the work we’d been doing. It’s just a motherfucker to write songs! You have to leave your mind completely open and you don’t know where things are going to go. You can sit down and try to write one kind of song but you don’t get to pick! That’s the part where I felt like we had five or six of these tracks and I said we should make it into this singer/songwriter kind of album, let’s get a few more. That becomes the quest! Once you get a batch, you’re struggling to get more songs. That’s the hardest part. That’s the motherfucker.
Usually when you make a record, you put your blood sweat and tears into it and then you get to take it on the road and play these songs for the audiences. You get to see fans in the front row singing the lyrics and there’s the payoff, right? With live music out of the picture right now, what do you want to do with these songs to celebrate their entrance into the world?
Records are set apart from a concert. I say this all the time but records mostly appeal to folks when they’re sitting by themselves, especially an album like American Head. This is an album you’ll listen to on your way to work. It isn’t a party record you play when all of your friends are around. They’re really very personal introspective songs but those are the songs people want to hear live too. A concert is a big communal get-together but the music is a personal experience.
Every concert we do is a kind of combo of all the records we’ve ever done, mostly The Soft Bulletin and [2002’s] Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and some other stuff put in there, and we love that, there’s nothing better than playing to an audience that really loves a handful of your songs. Then we pick which other new or old ones we play. It’s rare we’d ever make an album and play that whole album. That’s not why people go to see us. Like when I go to a concert, I might not be there to hear the new album. I’m there because I love their songs I’ve liked for a long time. Like, if you went to see The Rolling Stones, I wouldn’t want them to play their new record start to finish. You want to hear all their classics.
Nobody was going to see Lou Reed to hear the songs he did with Metallica.
[Laughs] See, I’m not allowed to say that but I’m shaking my head yes.
You’re a notoriously outside-the-box guy, a psychedelic futurist if you will. You used the bubble before anyone was talking about the bubble. How do you want to interact with your fans in light of the current situation?
I made a little cartoon commentary of a Flaming Lips concert in 2019 where I’m the only one in a bubble and then a Flaming Lips concert in 2020 where everyone is in a bubble on stage and in the crowd. That was at the start of quarantine in March when we thought it would be over in a month. But The Late Show with Stephen Colbert got a hold of me and asked if we’d want to do one of these concerts where you play from home. So we said we’d do it in the space bubbles. It took us a month or two to figure out the logistics so we didn’t even really know if this would still be going on by the time it aired but that was in June, and after that I ordered 100 space bubbles to be made in China. It’s taken a while but I finally have them here, so a half-hour ago I was in a big venue where we set up a hundred space bubbles for 300 audience members to be in while we play a show.
When will we hear more about this?
We, The Flaming Lips, already know how to do space bubbles and we know what people do when they’re in the bubbles. The part that we’re trying to get down is what does the crowd do about going to the bathroom and getting drinks? We don’t want this to be [a super spreader event] like that Smash Mouth [concert]. We want this to be safe and a great experience. Those are the things the venue is allowing us to set up so we can start to figure out how it will work. The part about playing in the bubble, we already have down. It’s how we get the crowd in and out without cross-contamination that we need to figure out, but they’re giving us a few weeks in this venue to figure it out. We’re thinking this will probably happen after the election.
So I’ve got a weird two-part question I’ve never asked an artist but since you’ve always demonstrated a comfort with the abstract, I figured I’d give it a try: If you look at your life’s work, what’s a fictional story you’d compare it to and what part of that story is American Head?
Well, you mean like a story we already know about?
Yeah, a movie or novel, something you identify with or see yourself in.
Well, when The Flaming Lips are at their best, there’s an adventurer mentality to it. I’ve always liked the idea that the way [Ernest] Shackleton went to the North Pole and was so badass and enthusiastic and people went with him to this frozen world, and he survives that new world and brings back these exotic stories and photographs that people wouldn’t have ever seen. Part of The Flaming Lips thing is our audience has so much encouraged us to do our own thing and we sometimes talk about it like that, like they want us to go out and explore and come back to sing and tell stories. But most of what we’re about is that emotional connection.
Even though we all love KISS, we love that they get to dress up and shoot fire and all this stuff, all the [live effects] are just a cover [for us] because we’re such insecure introverted dorks. We do love the emotion in our music, but it’s an impossible and unbearable thing to think, “I’m going to go out there and sing about my mother to 10,000 people.” But then there’s the idea that I get to ride an LED unicorn while lasers shoot people on acid in the face, I get to do that!
I don’t know if it fits into your story but we definitely feel like we’ve become different characters. I’ve been different characters. The way you painted me as a psychedelic futurist, when I talked about the space bubble in the past, previous to this time, I’d tell people I’ve come from the future in this space bubble. Now I don’t even think I should say that because it sounds too real, too bizarre. It’s not too bizarre but if your grandmother just died from COVID and some weirdo is running around in a bubble saying he’s from the future, that’s just going to be repulsive.
It’s an exciting time for your fans with this new album coming out, but as you just hinted at, a lot of people are hurting. People are hurting financially, they have kids hurting because they aren’t in school, people are losing loved ones. I’m passing you the mic, what’s the message you want to send to your fans about the moment we’re in right now.
All that stress and fear of the unknown and feeling powerless, like I said earlier, all these things can happen without COVID being out there and that’s the part we should remember forever. We need to encourage each other and think of solutions and not blame people and say it’s someone else’s problem. When I hear people say, “They haven’t come up with a vaccine,” I’m thinking, “There isn’t a ‘they,’ we are all working together!” I hope that people realize that we can do a lot of things. We are not powerless and we can still be optimistic when bad things are happening. That’s what Flaming Lips music is really about. It’s about saying there are things that will happen to us that we can’t win and situations that won’t work, where you know you’ll get defeated, but you live through them anyway. That’s the motherfucker of reality.