On performing in plastic bubbles, making American Head, and cautiously navigating through it all
There’s only one band that can fill the stage with puppets, confetti, and balloons all wrapped up in a fog while taking the senses to another place, and that’s the Flaming Lips.
Don’t get me wrong, other acts have tried to pull off similar feats, but none put on a spectacle quite like the punks on acid from Oklahoma City. Their brand of neo-psychedelia has been part of the band’s sound since the ’80s; in turn, they’re one of the most consistently great musical entities today.
In support of their latest album American Head that came out last year, Coyne and the gang will take the stage at House of Blues on Nov. 15. Particle Kid featuring Willie Nelson’s youngest son J. Micah will open.
Coyne and I spoke about putting on a show with plastic bubbles last fall, the original title of their most recent release, feeling a sort of nostalgic catharsis while making the album, and the current live music landscape.
In October of last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flaming Lips took a trademark of their stage performance to a new level by performing a hometown show at the Criterion in Oklahoma City with everyone from the band to the audience each encased in plastic bubbles. How did the idea of this come about and how were you able to get everyone into their own bubble?
You think about the pandemic and when the lockdown started in March, so by the time we started doing it in October it was quite a while to have nothing else going on while also starting to believe that this wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, so there were a couple factors involved there. I think at the time, we were thinking that a lot of bands and a lot of creative people out there were starting to think of ways to do concerts. That didn’t prove to be true, we were the only weirdos out there doing it. but at the time we didn’t think that.
We thought that we’d do this and maybe someone would figure out another way, but this trademark space bubble thing was just sheer coincidence that thing that we’ve been doing since 2004, and I don’t know if it’s really a solution, but it started to look like some type of solution where people could be in a room together not be forced to breathe each other’s potentially contaminated air. We started to think that maybe we could really do that thinking that during the beginning of the lockdown it could last perhaps a month and then it went on and we thought it was maybe going to be two months; but little by little, we started to realize that this could be a year or two years or maybe longer and maybe this is the end of concerts.
You have to go back and think about Trump being in office and there weren’t any vaccines yet, it was pretty dark days. For us, the idea that you could hunker down and start to really concentrate on this idea of having people in these space bubbles began to seem like we had to try it and see what happens. I think that’s where we were by the time we were doing that one video shoot a year ago in October so we had to get the space bubbles manufactured, we had to figure out how to clean them and there’s a lot of detail to go into once you’re really going to do it. I think by the time we started doing this everybody that was in the audience wanted to be there. We weren’t just grabbing people off the street and saying, Hey, you got to do this. We’re starting with a great group that wants to do this and they’re Flaming Lips fans so two great things.
They’re smart, open, creative people themselves, so us asking them to do this, they’re like Yes! We’ll do that, we’ll help you do that. so those two things were in our favor to begin with. Also, everybody by this time in October were really used to these social distancing ways where you’re standing six feet apart so if we thought we could do it two or three months into the pandemic I’m not sure we would have understood what to do. Doing it after a bit longer of being into it definitely helped us.
Especially with it happening around five months after March when everything shut down so you had a lot more knowledge going into it; I definitely see how that was a benefit.
Yeah, for sure, and it was a very low-key thing. It was only one song so it wasn’t such a commitment where we had people stand in a room for a couple hours and they had to worry about using the bathroom or it getting too hot. This was the very first thing that we did, people came in, we did a song, then we had people go back outside, we had them disperse and then we were going to see what happened.
We were going to see as the weeks and months followed if it did end up being one of these spreader events or whatever, being as ridiculously cautious about it as we could while knowing everything that we could about how it was going to work. We’re very lucky that we stumbled upon the way that these space bubbles work, they zip up from the inside and we found this great way to clean them with this fogging machine. There were a lot of things that happened in our favor that made it seem like it was a lot less dangerous and a lot less scary than we thought it was in the beginning.
Did the sound quality of the show when it came to hearing yourselves on stage sound different because of the bubbles? Did it affect your vocal delivery or how you felt overall? You like to move around a lot on stage while performing so it must have felt a bit constricting.
By the time we were thinking about rehearsing and doing all these things inside the space bubbles it had been a long time since we had done a show anyway, so I think none of that occurred to us in the beginning. You’re just trying to run cables out of the zippers and we devised a monitor system where we each had headphones and our own little monitor system inside the space bubbles. Personally, I don’t need a monitor system. I can hear the group in the way I want to hear them just by moving around and I didn’t even have an in-ear device but for me being inside the space bubble. I’ve done it a lot anyway, but I would be inside the space bubble the entire day during the whole show so I actually could sing better because it wasn’t so loud and there wasn’t so much sound going into my microphone. It was really something I had never thought of before, so standing in one place actually helped my singing, as bizarre as that sounds, and it helped me sound better to tell you the truth.
It was a lot of struggle to do it all, you got to think of a lot of new ways to do stuff but the sound of my singing was actually a lot better. The sound inside the space bubbles for the audience, we knew from doing things at our rehearsal, was going to be compromised, but back in 1996 we started to do this stuff where we were broadcasting a radio signal to the audience where they would wear headphones and we would broadcast a stereo signal of what were playing on stage back then during the late ’90s. They could wear headphones to have a clearer version of it and they could move around in this great stereo image which would be wherever they stood in the room. Luckily we already had a lot of experience with this sound, and so the stuff you can get nowadays with the way speaker systems and all that stuff works is like everybody is used to having a kind of mobile system like the Alexa and similar things in the house and they sound absolutely amazing.
Back when we did it in the ’90s, it was just some shitty high-end, but nowadays it sounds really good so we were able to transmit this stereo fm signal to the audience inside the space bubbles.
Yeah, it’s another leap that worked in our favor because we’ve done it before and we have our own fm transmitter. Nobody in the world has their own fm transmitter but we do and so all those coincidences would add up to us being able to do it while not having so many overwhelming dilemmas.
A month before that show at the Criterion, you guys put out your sixteenth album, American Head. The album has this theme of a return to the band’s American roots, so what inspired this artistic approach?
A lot of times we are kind of slaves to whatever it is the songs are doing. I don’t think Steven Drozd and I really pick and say we’re going to be this kind of band now, we’re sort of at the mercy of the gods of the songs. Whatever songs happen to come our way, that’s what we become, that’s what we did when we made Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, that’s what we did when we did The Soft Bulletin and all these things that we do are all just the music that we’re inspired by and we’re following at the time. I came up with the song “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” and Steven quite liked it and our co-producer Dave Fridmann quite liked it as well. We had a shape to it, it didn’t have all the bits but we had a good vision for it and then we came up with the song “Dinosaurs on the Mountain” and Steven really liked that one and after we shaped it up Dave also liked it.
Then we had the song “You n Me Sellin’ Weed” but it wasn’t called that in the beginning, it was called something else but it has a story about me being 16 and selling weed. We started to think that maybe we have an album that’s about our collectively strange teenage years of doing drugs, our friends dying in car accidents, people committing suicide, violence, being arrested and these things that play into us being who we are today. I think we never really hunkered down and sang about these experiences, this beginning batch of songs sort of encouraged us to make a record about it. We maybe had six or seven of these songs and I originally wanted to call the album American Dead because we were singing about our friends dying in motorcycle accidents, dying of drug overdoses, or being killed by violent drug dealers. We went on for a while like that and I think the original album title really appealed to Steve because of the crazy shit we were singing about so that was inspiring.
At the very end, I think our manager and our a&r guy at Warner Records thought that this record is such a great, gentle, loving, beautiful thing that if you called it American Dead. People would wonder why you’re being so mean, which they were right about. In one second, I figured we’d change a letter and call it American Head but I think Steven and I got a lot of use and a lot of inspiration from the original title which pointed us in the right direction because it allowed us to sing about our families, our friends, and these people that we loved who we didn’t know what to say about them in the younger incarnation of our way of writing songs.
Steven had the song at the beginning of the record, “Will You Return / When You Come Down,” and I don’t think he had a meaning for that, but when I heard it I thought it meant these people in your family and your friends who’ve died of these drug overdoses. I remember when we were teenagers we would always ponder this idea that if you died while you were fucked up on drugs what happened to your soul? Where are you now in the netherworld? I don’t think that now but I sort of interpreted that as this longing of wanting to talk to your dead brother again and wonder if he knew he was dead.
One of my brothers died of a drug overdose and I would ask him, “Did you know you died?” There would just be bizarre things like that you could put into songs and they feel real and you feel like you’re really expressing something. In real life, I’m not sure it would seem so believable, but I think a lot of those feelings. And mostly getting very, very lucky that the gods of music were shining down on us and saying, “Here’s another song.”
It’s nice when they fuel the creative fires. Do you think while making the record and when it came to your headspace there was a mix of nostalgia, reflection and catharsis going along with the subject matter you were covering with the songs?
Yeah, one of my older brothers started to help me at my house in Oklahoma City around three years ago or so, and he’s the one who has all the home movies, photos, and everything from when we were teenagers together. We’d talk about things that happened and reminisce about friends and family while remembering little stories. It wouldn’t have been that interesting without someone else there helping me remember and triggering this and triggering that.
Steve and I have this podcast we put together called the Sorcerer’s Orphan and we do the same sort of thing, we’d pick a song and we’ll reminisce about where the idea came from, what happened to us, why we wrote it and stuff. I think that helped a lot too while unearthing ways of telling these things about our life but they would be interesting to the world.
I always say when you’re being very specific, honest, and emotional about your own life it feels like it would be just about you but the more honest you are about it and more revealing you are the more universal it becomes. It sort of encourages you to tell the absolute truth even if it’s embarrassing to say this is true and this is what I really feel. In that way, it does become universal, but if you try to hide, try to sound cool and try to make up something that isn’t real, it doesn’t really work. That’s what I mean by getting very, very lucky and singing about this stuff along with having a lot of experience making records, having Dave Fridmann really loving it and all these factors playing into it. That helps it roll along and it helps you feel less vulnerable about the ridiculous things you’re singing about.
There’s a lot of genuineness that comes with it because it’s real storytelling. After this year’s schedule of shows that concludes on New Year’s Eve at The Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee, what are you and the Flaming Lips’ plans for 2022?
Next year is going to mark the 20th anniversary of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots so we’re probably going to do shows where we just play that album in its entirety. We’ll probably do one night where we do a regular show with a big variety of songs followed by a second show where we play the album. That will probably be some of what we do but some of it I don’t think anybody really knows. If the winter turns out to be a coronavirus disaster I think we won’t do anything until March or April so it’s hard to say. My wife and I have a little baby and she has another one on the way and we’re always doing tons of stuff anyway. In the big picture for me, six months to a year is not very long and I’m 60 years old.
There’s a lot of other things that we’re always doing so I don’t think I would really notice if we’re playing lots of shows or if we’re not because I’m always doing stuff. Even during the lockdown there were things we were doing in the recording studio and all that on a daily basis and I was thinking how I didn’t have to sit in an airport for 12 hours and I get to stay home and work on things. I just roll with whatever it is that’s going to happen and I think the world has already shown us that concerts, as great as they are, they’re not as important as grocery stores, hospitals, and places that have to be going. I am very glad and I’ll be the first one to stand up and say, Yes. Let’s not put anybody at risk and not do any of these unnecessary shows. If it comes to that again. We’re playing shows because we kind of feel like it’s what everybody does, everybody has kind of gone back to work, but if it went the other way for a little while again I would be the first to speak up about it.
It’s never a bad thing, I’m more than happy to be at home and do painting, make videos, record more music and stuff like that. For me, I’m on the side of let’s make everybody healthy, happy, and safe and help the world get rid of COVID-19 and whenever it’s all good to go we’ll go again. I don’t really have any agenda that makes me happy or sad, it’s all the same thing. As much as we love playing shows, it’s a full-time job to be a rock star and travel around and do soundchecks and all that sort of stuff. It takes a lot of your time just to play two hours of music a few times a week so as great as it is, we don’t want to live our whole lives doing that while spending time in airports because it’s a lot of time and energy.
Even with the shows we’re doing on this tour, they are a lot more effort than they used to be and it’s a lot more effort for the crews at the venues we’re playing at. A lot of love and a lot of care is going into these shows and not just our shows, I think most people’s shows. It’s not this crazy drug-fueled party people used to think it was 10 years ago, it’s not. These people are doing shows because they love music, they love this community and this communal thing that can happen through music, but the bottom line agenda of that is that we care about each other and we’re not just throwing a concert where we lose our minds, go crazy, and end up being sick for two weeks afterwards.
This is a new world where we say we’re going to have a concert and we’re going to let each other know that we care about each other, we love each other, we’ll take care of each other, we’ll help each other, and we get to listen to music at the same time. That to me feels like that’s the great new world COVID-19 has allowed us to create.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.