The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne talks new LP, bubble concerts, & more in BV interview
"I'm sitting in my air-conditioned car in my driveway," Wayne Coyne informs me. "That's where I do my interviews. I always just sort of say that as that's where I'm at, at my house in Oklahoma City." It's an unusual location for an unusual year with one of the most unusual bands of the last 30-some years. Yet The Flaming Lips seem to fit right in with this mess that is 2020, fearless freaks who just released American Head, their most personal, satisfying albums in years.
Using a loose concept that involves some imagined Tom Petty alternate history, Coyne and Steven Drozd use American Head to explore their late-'70s youth, be it drug dealing older brothers, going to the movies on quaaludes, or near-death experiences at fast food fish restaurants. It's also a look at a cross-section of America that's not as fringe as some would like to think.
I chatted with Wayne about the new album, where it fits in their discography and this crazy year. Speaking of, Wayne also talks about how the Flaming Lips are planning to do their own socially distanced shows, via technology he's been using for years -- giant plastic space bubbles.
Read our conversation below.
How's it going, Wayne?
All right. I worry about Brooklyn. I know several people that sort of live live up there, and it's like, "Gosh." Is anything getting back to normal?
Well, yesterday they started to allow indoor dining again. Which I'm not sure that many restaurants are actually opting to do yet, at least in my neighborhood. But normal, I don't know.
Well, there you go. Okay. Anytime there's a plastic bubble involved in anything, everybody will send it to me. I've seen that there are some restaurants in Manhattan that have these plastic space bubble things set up outside. But of all the places in America, that seems like the hardest hit. I don't know if Brooklyn was, but it sort of seemed like that up in that area it was devastating.
Definitely. Especially in April and early May, it was kind of a scary time. I have to imagine that the Flaming Lips HQ in Oklahoma City is probably a little more prepared than most places for a pandemic than other places, what with all the space bubbles and stuff.
Well, I mean, if we're not out in the world somewhere playing shows, oftentimes when we'd come home, we would be fairly isolated on our own anyway. We're not welcoming that many visitors and all that, and we're not going out to too many parties and art openings and stuff anyway.
So in some ways, that part of it was a little bit of a welcome relief, because we do say yes to too many things. That's our dilemma. If five people ask us to come to their birthday party on Friday night, we say yes to all of them, and then we try to make it the best we can. So without there being any art openings or any concerts or any parties, we felt quite a relief that we didn't have any obligations to do, and we're just sitting at home. We have a new baby. He's 16 months old and stuff. So a lot of that was just a welcomed kind of isolation.
Right. Well, congratulations on the son.
Thanks. Luckily, none of us have gotten ill, and we're lucky that the way our jobs work, we can go quite a while without it getting too desperate. But it's such a bizarre time to be promoting records and stuff.
What's it like to release, what I think is probably your friendliest sounding album in a long time, when you can't go out and do anything for it.
Well, I think in some ways, it's helped me. I always think everything's going to take five minutes, and it doesn't. Everything takes longer. So for me, it's helped me really just focus on making videos and promoting the album and deciding what stories to talk about. In the very beginning, our record was supposed to come out in June, and all that just kept getting pushed back and pushed back. We were quite embarrassed, really, about having an album out and thinking, "We want you to pay attention to what we're doing," when the world was the way it was. In the beginning, it seemed like a little bit of a disaster. So I think that the longer it went on, the more comfortable we felt, like, "Well, yeah, we'll put out some music."
Buying music and listening to records and stuff, it's not like going to a concert. You can listen to an album on your computer just while you're going to sleep. It really can be this quite a solitary thing. Most of the time, it is. Whereas concerts are a big ruckus, communal thing, listening to music is really quite the opposite. It's like you alone with this other entity. So I think this type of record that we did is probably working perfectly in that way, because it's not aggressive, it's not noisy, and it's not making fun of anything. Steven and I, we're the main songwriters in the group, and both of us just worry about stuff all the time. I think that's just part of being a sensitive weirdo. But I think our music resonates more with the population when the population are a little bit worried too. So I think it's probably just that, that we've made a record that is accessible, but filled with struggles and pain and all that. The world doesn't want to listen to a bunch of aggressive silliness. So that, to me, I'm like, "That seems like great timing, and seems like a nice album to have right now when there's all this stuff." Of all the albums that you could be listening to, it feels like a nice album for right now.
A lot of albums that have come out this year feel like they were meant for this time, they are angry both lyrically and musically. But yours, I think it works both as a mood for where we are now, but it also works as a salve sonically.
Yeah. Well, I think that is one of the quagmires of intensity and sadness. Sometimes when you're sad, you only want to listen to things that are sad. You kind of want to be comforted in it, as opposed to being removed from it. When I was younger, I would think it would be the opposite, that when you're so worried and so overwhelmed with sadness, you want to just party. But it's not like that. It might be like that with other things, but it's not like that with music. Music can't help but get inside your mind, and it really interrupts all these other things that are going on. It touches all synapses of your emotions, whether you want it to or not.
So I think music is always...it's like that. Whatever the times is, the music has to be a little bit like that, or it's kind of repulsive to you. I don't know, that's the way I've always felt about it. In my saddest, saddest, desperate times, I've always listened to music that was sort of sad and desperate.
When you were putting this record together, did you have it in your mind that you wanted the music to be like this and that you wanted the lyrics to be like they are?
Well, they all kind of jumbled altogether. I think when we arrive at something that we feel like is a good song...usually you have maybe a half of a song that you feel like, "This is good. This is going good." Some of it's lyrics. It's melodic and it's got its chord changes or whatever. That starts to constitute the song. Sometimes it's built on sounds and production, and other times it's just really something very sparse that you are going to build into a production. But it never really has just a singular way. Usually, it's just a little bit of enough stuff that it starts evoking things I'd say mostly in me. I mean, I'm the one, the lyric writer and I'm the singer. But I look towards it being evocative so that it sort of is telling me what the song should be about.
So yeah, it's sort of... It usually is some lyrics, but it's a lot of melody and a lot of chords, and then I fill in what I feel like is the story that's being handed to me or the story that wants to be told. But a lot of this record is storytelling type of music. I think some of the songs, really within the first 30 seconds, you kind of get an idea of what type of song it's going to be. I like that about this record. It kind of sets you up like, "This is how this is going to feel," and it didn't try to trick you or punch you in the face or anything. It's very gentile, helping you to listen to it, and helping you to feel what it's supposed to be about.
I think this is one of your most, at least lyrically, direct albums you've ever made.
Yeah, I would agree. I mean, I think some of the things that we started to sing about, the more that we would sing about this other life when we were teenagers, and my family and my brothers and their friends that killed themselves with overdoses and car accidents. Once you do a couple of those, it's kind of like looking through an old photo book. Memories start to come back to you and you start thinking, "This happened after that. And this happened," and it becomes quite rich in that way. I think that's a cool thing that all songwriters want to happen is if you're brave enough to step into it and say one thing, it kind of rewards you by giving you 10 more things to say. And the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel saying it.
There's so much of what the Flaming Lips do that is...it's me and it's about me or whatever. But I don't really ever think of it necessarily like that. I think of it just mostly as a song. And even though the lyrics might be about my life, words and music, they have a way of exploding in people's minds. And whatever I think it means, it may mean that to you, but you could take it and it might mean something completely different. But that's how all songs kind of work. It doesn't have to really stick to what my literal interpretation was at the beginning... I want it to be a useful, great thing that it's useful in my life and hopefully it's useful in your life.
It's my favorite record that you've done in quite a while. Though I really liked The King's Mouth too. I feel like those records, at least musically, are on the similar plane.
Well, thank you. Yeah, I mean, I feel like some of The King's Mouth was helping us discover this sort of gentle, slightly weird -- more eccentric, I guess, than weird -- and not so demanding on the listener sound. I mean, we do make noisy records. We have made some very difficult... I mean, depending on what you're sitting down to listen to. I would say there's probably a third of the Flaming Lips catalog that is strange music.
So with the direction of these last couple records, had you plotted out the live show for this record when pandemic hit and stuff?
No. We've never really done that, or we've never done it that successfully anyway. Making records is its own world and its own thing. And then playing live is such a completely different thing. I know it would appear as though they're very connected, but when you're making one, it has nothing to do with the other. We would do some of the songs at sound check and stuff like that, and some of the songs, not all the guys around would have known them and we'd play them. Yeah, I mean, you'd get the feeling that they would work in front of our audience. It wasn't something that we felt we have to do a whole redoing of our identity or something.
But then when the pandemic hit, we didn't really... In the beginning, you don't know how long it's going to last or is this going to change everything. Now we're starting to set up a show downtown even as we speak, where we have people in these space bubbles and do a show where the audience is in space bubbles and wearing space bubbles. I mean, it seems absurd, but we at first were just doing it as not a joke, but just as a kind of funny thing, and now it's becoming kind of serious and real. I think that's kind of the dilemma we're all in is that are we waiting for it to go back to normal or are we starting to plot, "What's the future look like?" What is the future of live music?
I hadn't heard that you were actually going to do space bubble shows like that. I remember when you posted a drawing on your Instagram, and then it came to life sort of in that... Was it the Colbert performance?
Stephen Colbert's show, yeah. Exactly, yeah.
Now you're going to actually do it?
Well, I think so. I mean, we're setting it up as we speak. I mean, we have these hundred that were made for us, but they were made in China, so it took a long time for them to get here and we didn't really know if they were going to arrive. I mean, and there are no shows happening. I mean, these venues that we're setting it up in, I mean, we've played shows there, normal shows there a couple of times. I just sort of feel like, "Well, this is..." I keep thinking we're going to do it, but the vaccine will get here and it'll just go back to normal. But I thought that in June, and it didn't happen. I thought that in August, and it didn't happen. So I don't know. But we're starting to get ready to do an actual show where yeah, there's three people in each of these space bubbles, and we play... We think maybe playing two shows a night, and getting a big audience in there each time.
It sounds insane, but it seems doable. Yeah.
So it'll be stationary bubbles? Not like the ones that you go out into the audience with.
No, it's like those. Yeah. I mean, you fill them up and people can be in them for quite a while. I don't think people quite realize that. Since we have some here, we've played with them and messed with them for quite a while. I mean, even back in 2006, I would get in one of the space bubbles at the end of our big Halloween parade here, and I would walk down the street for almost an hour in one. Yeah. You know what I mean? It holds a lot of air. I mean, you can be in there for quite a while. I just don't think people quite realize what it is as a mechanism. But we've just messed with them for so long, we kind of know that it can all work and how it can work and all that.
Yeah, it's a bizarre situation for sure. I mean, I'm not suggesting the whole world should do it this way. I'm just saying the Flaming Lips can try it this way, and if you like our music, you can come see us. You'll have to be in one of these space bubbles, but maybe that'll be a good thing. Maybe that'll be something different.
It seems like the next logical step for the Flaming Lips in some ways.
Well, I mean, I'm only doing it because I think we can. I wouldn't suggest it to people that don't have as much experience or whatever. But I'm like, "I think we can do it." I don't know if people will like it. I guess that's the other part of it.
Three people in a bubble. I'm trying to imagine that...
Yeah, I mean, we've done little things where there has been two and three people in there, and it's... I think it's more fun for people, because then they're kind of in there and they can drink and they can talk and they're not just kind of stuck in there, having their own experience. I mean, they're not jumping around too much. They're kind of put in a spot. Because the bubbles really are... They're quite tight together. I mean, they're big bubbles, and so a hundred of them will fill up a quite big place. The place that we're at at the moment, it holds almost 4,000 people, but it only holds a hundred space bubbles. So it's a lot of space in there.
Wow. Well, good luck with that. I hope it works.
I know it sounds crazy. I was literally just messing with it 30 minutes ago, and just figuring out little things that are uncomfortable about it. There's a zipper that you have to zip and it gets a little difficult, and we have lubricant that we put on the zipper. All these practical things that you would just start to mess with. We've already rehearsed music in them quite a bit. We did it for the Colbert show and we did it for the Jimmy Fallon show. We've done it for the Tiny Desk performance. So we've done quite a bit of stuff where we're in the space bubbles. I guess it's going to happen. Who would've thought.
OK one last thing. In A Priest Driven Ambulance turned 30 this year -- it made our Indie Basement Top 30 Albums of 1990 list. Before that record, The Flaming Lips were more just crazy noise, but this one felt like it allowed everything that followed to happen. Any thoughts on making that one?
You're exactly right. No, I mean, I think that started the whatever Mach three or four would have been. That really set in motion the way we were going to be. Really even the way we are now. I mean, there's been tweaks where it's gotten more dense and more orchestrated or whatever. But there is something in the way that I sing and those quirky little songs mixed with more normal type sounds and more normal stuff. We had harmony vocals. We had played in time. We all played in tune for the first time. It's the first time we worked with Dave Fridmann, and he would assist us on tempos and all these things that would make it... to keep what's charming about it, but make it palatable, so your audience isn't struggling so much.
So yeah, that would be the one. Previous to that, I'm not sure we really would have wanted to continue if that was the way we were going to be going. But once we made A Priest Driven Ambulance, it was like, "We can do it. We love this." And writing songs and all that. Yeah, yeah. You're exactly right.