Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne: We're the only band "used to playing in space bubbles"

The frontman spoke to Salon about writing the band's "intense" album "American Head" and COVID concerts

By Annie Zaleski
October 28, 2020 9:37PM (UTC)
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Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips in "Assassins of Youth" video (Scott Booker)

Wayne Coyne long ago mastered the art of social distancing — at Flaming Lips shows, he's known for climbing into a transparent "space bubble" and heading into the crowd — so it makes sense that his band would be at the forefront of pandemic-era concerts. Not only did the group record an NPR Tiny Desk performance with band members encased in the orbs, but in mid-October, Flaming Lips played a show with audience members also inside bubbles. 

Such innovation is par for the course with the Oklahoma City band, who are known for unorthodox music delivery mechanisms (a USB drive inside a giant gummy skull) and experimental sounds. This year's "American Head" LP is no exception: Coyne and bandmate/collaborator Steven Drozd used a small incident — Tom Petty's first band Mudcrutch making a pit stop in Oklahoma to record — as a jumping-off point to create an album dealing with serious topics, including the deaths of friends and relatives, people they've known who've dealt with drug abuse. 

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A week before the bubble-heavy show, Coyne spoke to Salon about "American Head" and gave an update on his unexpected 2020 activities, including being at home for the whole summer for the first time since the late '90s and filming a test-run video with bubbles in advance of the concert. However, the frontman also expressed gratitude for his health and ability to spend more time with his young son, who's already into music.

"My wife Katy, though she's not outwardly a musician, has a very musical kind of mind," Coyne says. "[Our son] has the same sort of thing, but he also has my love of things that make noise. We feed the dogs a couple of times a day, and they have these really loud, big tin dog bowls. And in our house, there's a bunch of concrete floors, and we regularly bang around with them for a couple minutes. And I can tell it drives Katy and one of the dogs crazy — but a little boy and the dogs and myself, we love it."

What put you in the backward-looking mindset and explore the themes that you did?

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It comes down to, you write songs. And though some songwriters have an agenda of what you're going to write a song about, for Steven [Drozd] and I, it's never that clear. We start writing a song, and it just is what it is. We feel like we're just a slave to the moment and the motion that is happening, only because that's the way our best songs have happened. I'm not saying that's the way everybody's best songs happen — but for Steven and I, that's a pretty true formula. 

And we started to come up with a couple of songs that had this thing — I guess we'd call it a longing. And then we wanted to attach real events to it. I think we liked the way that Bruce Springsteen would write about being in New Jersey, and I think we liked the way Tom Petty would always infuse his girlfriends and his friends and experiences into his songs. And we've done that on accident before, and we had a couple of songs that went that way. And those were really, really good. That inspired Steven to do more songwriting that is just deeply, painfully emotional. He would play these things for me. It's melodic, it doesn't have lyrics, but it's melodic, and it's storytelling, and it has a pace. And it's really just a fully envisioned piece of music, and we both know we're going to turn it into a song, and then I will give into whatever it's evoking in me. And then we kind of say, "Well, that's where we're going." Once we got five or six of these types of songs, we felt very confident, and just it felt easier to sing songs about our mothers, our brothers, suicides and stuff like that. 

Not everybody in the group's as old as me, but we're old enough for a lot of the people that we're singing about to be gone. There was always a little bit of, you know, when my mother was alive, she would have been very embarrassed if I had written a song about her. 

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Writing songs is just, I mean, the word I use, it's just a motherf***er. You think the more you do it, the better you get at it, but it's not true. It's a mystery as to why these words in this motion with these melodies, why they will affect you. And the minute you think you've figured it out, it's boring. It's like you think you know, but you don't know. 

There's some really serious topics on "American Head," and you're being asked about them time and time again. I wondered if that was difficult for you.

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I think because we've just done it for so long, it's such a great relief that people actually listen and are interested. [Laughs.] I mean, if I got the chance to talk to, you know, John Lennon or Tom Petty, I would ask them, "Who are these people in your songs?" It would be the exact things that I would want to know. And I don't think it's painful once you've put it into a song. I think the song helps you get it out of the depths, depths, depths of your mind, and it can stand out there and be an experience for you instead of this internal stew that you can never quite understand. I think that's part of why so many songwriters will put these horrible, painful things into a song. 

It makes sense, and it's one of those things you need to get out, and it comes out at the right time too. You mentioned that your mom might have been embarrassed — that's a song you could only have written at a particular point in your life.

Steven and I have been doing this podcast for the past couple of years. And even though we always think it's only gonna take us a day or two, it inevitably takes us a couple of months to do just one episode together, because we sit in a room and we talk and we try to remember, "Why did we think of this song?" and all the things that led to the making of whatever song it is that we're talking about in the podcast. 

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[It's] a lot of time spent with just Steven and I sitting in a room being each other's therapist. I would be asking him questions, and then we go deeper and deeper and deeper, and then he'd turn around, ask me questions, and then we'd go deeper and deeper and deeper. And so we just felt like, "Oh, man, we got some good stories here," that we could have never pried out of each other just by working together. 

And that's probably a little bit of the magic, too, because I would start to harken back to stories that he's told me two years ago or so and be like, "Let's talk about that. That's cool," or "That's weird that that's happened," or "What do you think of that?" I think that helped too. 

But it is intense. And I think we wouldn't want to make albums like this all the time. These are the kind of albums that if you're lucky, you get to make them every five or six years, not every six months. We make a lot of music and we wouldn't want it all to be us crying about our brothers that have been in car accidents and stuff all the time. You kind of are glad to be like, "Oh, I'm glad we talked about that. Now let's have some more fun."

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I love the Mudcrutch anecdote that also really inspired the album, because  I'm a big Petty fan, and I think that era of his career is so fascinating. 

He really is such an inspiring, purely American kind of dude. He's not really like, the man — the alpha male man — but he's put in the position of like, "I'm kind of the kind of the leader of this group, and I'm the singer." And I like how he looks at them as a group, and they're called Mudcrutch. But then the record company's like, "We don't care about your group, we just want you," so he says, "Okay, it'll be Tom Petty, and a group." I mean, no one can come up with that on their own. It usually is a guy that's in flux does feel slightly insecure about doing it all, but you still have to do it. 

And so I think Steve and I, we really do relate to that sort of thing. We're not really a singer-songwriter group. We really just make records; we're not really set in any certain way. But sometimes we do think about like, "What kind of group are we?" And we like this vibe of being a singer-songwriter group, even though I don't really think we are, but it's the way we seem like we are. We like that, kind of like Tom Petty or like the Eagles or something — or even like the Grateful Dead. I'm not quite sure if all those groups are similar, but the way that they're similar would be the way that the Flaming Lips are like them. [Laughs.]

When you look across the Flaming Lips catalog, there's a diversity of sound. There's the core — like, here's what we do — but individual albums go in different directions. And I think Petty did that, too. You look at his career, and he had all these little detours. I can see the similarities.

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Oh, yeah. I mean, I think the worst thing that artists can do is feel like, "Okay, I've got my thing. Now I just need to repeat that." That type of boredom I think would just destroy us. I mean, we've tried to make records where we thought, "Okay, we know what our formula is. Let's try it." We're just not good like that. I think we're either insanely inspired — or it's nothing. Inspired means we're going where it takes us.

We've been very, very lucky that our audience and our record label and everybody around us, really does say, you know, "Go where you got to go, fellas. We're here with you. We can't wait to see what comes of it." And I think often enough, you know, it does make songs that are relatable to people and all that, but I don't think it always does. We probably always think it's the greatest thing ever. And then sometimes you're like, "Maybe that's just too weird." 

You know, we spent a good half-year making a song that was 24 hours long. When I step back from some of the things that we've done, I'm like, "We are f***ing insane. What the f***? How the f*** do we get away with all this stuff?" [Laughs.] But at the time when we're doing it, we really aren't…you know, it's not a gimmick, it's the kind of thing we want to get immersed in and figure out and have the freedom to experience it.

You're shooting a video on Monday. What else do you have planned in the coming months?

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The ["Assassins of Youth"] video shoot is letting us do a little bit of a dry run with our friends for free. And so we can tell them what to do and where to go and all that. And it gives us an idea of like, "What is this mechanism to get a big group of people into a building and get them into these bubbles?" And then at the end of the show, get them out of the bubbles and get them out of the building, and using the bathroom and getting drinks and all these boring things that you don't really ever have to think about. 

And the video I think will look great. And we can we can do two or three takes, get the lighting right and all that. But it really is to help us decide, "How are we really going to do the show?" The place where we're doing it is where we're going to do the show, and it's letting us sit in there for a long time because there's nothing else going on in this giant venue, you know, because of this pandemic stuff. 

It's a bizarre situation that we can be in this giant room doing this thing that really isn't about music. The music part of it hasn't really changed. I mean, we're in space bubbles. Of all the groups in the world we're like the only band that would be used to playing in space bubbles, as ridiculous as that sounds. That part of it is not new or difficult for us. It's really just getting that many people into the space bubbles, and then taking care of them and then getting them out at the end of the show. 

So it's a strange quagmire. And, you know, it's always the detail. The big picture is always, "Oh, yeah, we know what to do." But it's the details of, "How do we do this? How we do that?" that will drive you crazy. This lets us do it without people spending their own money and giving us their entire night and all this sort of stuff. It can be a little bit of a calamity — but it's all in good fun, because we're just making a music video. And at the most, you know, people are there for maybe an hour or something. It's not a giant commitment of three or four hours, like a show would be.

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What a bizarre thing — when you start a band, these are things you never would have foretold you would have to navigate.

I say this all the time. I mean, you know, it starts off, you just want to be a rock star up there playing guitar and singing. And then it's not that. But I have to say, I'm very relieved. For us, we're glad that there is some earthquake movement that's always happening, and every five or six years, whatever you were doing now is shifted into something different. 

And so I'm not in any way glad that this happened. But I'm glad to sort of do my part to say, "Well, if we can do this, then maybe this would inspire someone else to do their version of how we play shows during the pandemic," or whatever. In that way, it's great because it's like, "Well, this this is really happening." I think that's what creative people like: They like there to be a purpose too. Entertainment is great, but the purpose too gives you a lot of motivation.

When you have something where you can be like, there's a goalpost ending — absolutely.

Yeah. And it's working, and I think it will make people happy, and it will be different. I mean, there's no other time in the history of the world ever that you'd have to be in a bubble at a concert. I mean, it's something out of a science fiction novel, you know — and now it's really happening. Even when I talk about it, I really can't quite believe it's happening. Like, "We're really going to do this." I think it's really going to work. You know, I don't think it'll be like a normal concert. But I do think it'll keep everybody safe, and it'll let everybody have a crazy time.

"American Head" is available now, and the video for "Assassins of Youth," featuring the space balls, will be released Oct. 30.


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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American Head Concerts Interview Music Social Distancing The Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne