With a seemingly endless ability to make lemonade when life gives them lemons, The Flaming Lips rose to the challenge of a year that featured a pandemic, murder hornets, bushfires, forest fires, a record-breaking hurricane season and a worldwide concert industry placed on pause.
After its spring and summer tour plans were scrapped, the Lips finally released its 21st studio album — three months from its original date. Titled American Head, the album presented a conceptual theme of sorts that revisits Wayne Coyne’s formative years.
In the press release for the album, Wayne Coyne described his fantasy idea of Tom Petty, while in Mudcrutch, performing in Oklahoma City and never leaving town. Petty would not only never move on to front the Heartbreakers but he’d get involved with Coyne’s brother’s druggie friends and bike buddies.
Through that vision, Coyne moved on to memories of his teen years – drugs (“Mother I’ve Taken L.S.D.,” “At the Movies on Qualudes”), mortality (“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad”), personal spirituality (“My Religion Is You”) and local dealers (“You N Me Sellin’ Weed,” “God and the Policeman”). The result, which includes guest appearances from Kacey Musgraves and Micah Nelson, becomes some of the Lips saddest yet satisfying material.
“The music and songs that make up the American Head album are based in a feeling,” Coyne said. “A feeling that, I think, can only be expressed through music and songs. We were, while creating it, trying to NOT hear it as sounds… but to feel it. Mother’s sacrifice, Father’s intensity, Brother’s insanity, Sister’s rebellion…I can’t quite put it into words.
“Something switches and others (your brothers and sisters and mother and father…your pets) start to become more important to you…in the beginning there is only you…and your desires are all that you can care about…but…something switches…I think all of these songs are about this little switch.”
With the extra time allotted by the band’s unplanned summer vacation and release delay, the Flaming Lips created six music videos to accompany American Head.
Following years of Coyne crowd-surfing in his Space Bubble, the COVID-19 virus caused the other six members of the band to perform in their own enclosures on “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and NPR’s “Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.” Once they became comfortable in them the next step brought audiences into their individual bubbles for a socially-distanced event. That happened last month when the Lips played a concert that included the filming of the album’s seventh and eighth videos, “Assassins of Youth” and “Brother Eye.” The successful experiment led to announced concerts on Dec. 10 and 11 in the band’s Oklahoma City hometown with the possibility of a tour of other cities. (This interview took place prior to the Bubble video shoot and scheduled performances.)
My conversation with Coyne, discusses the themes of sadness and death in the Lips’ music but overwhelming joy in the live performances, Musgraves’ contributions to the album, the role of instrumentals on the band’s albums and more.
We talk on a beautiful autumn day in his Oklahoma City hometown. “We’ve got a nice cool Fall day going here. The leaves are turning yellow and it’s not a hundred degrees. So, I’m doing great.
“I never realized how long and hot the summers in Oklahoma are because since 1998, I’ve never really been here all summer. I’ve been in and out but I wouldn’t have been here the whole summer. Man, it’s hot here.”
JPG: In all my recent interviews I check on how each person is dealing with the changes that have happened since March due to the pandemic. How has the experience of being home been for you?
WC: For us, if you do a week’s worth of traveling, it feels like you’ve been traveling for a year. That’s just the way it is. But when you’re sitting at home, you can sit at home for three weeks and it only feels like a day. It all gets flip-flopped. In the very beginning, we didn’t know how long it was going to go. I remember talking to people at the beginning of March saying that we would still be playing shows at the end of May and June. So, in the very beginning, it was like, “Oh, okay, we can’t do anything even if we wanted to.” It’s a forced vacation, which in the very beginning was fine.
But then we did worry that everybody’s going to be dead in the streets and what are we going to do? Once that didn’t happen…it was happening in New York and was happening in some parts of the world but it wasn’t happening here. It didn’t seem like everybody was gonna die immediately. It felt like a little bit of relief. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it, and maybe this is a month. Maybe this is two months.” I would not have believed you if you said nothing is going to be going on ‘til the next year. I would have said, “There’s no way.”
We’re very lucky that we can go a year or two and not have to make money. We are alright in that way. I don’t want to say anything that says it’s good because my situation is really great and a lot of people’s situations are really bad but we also have a new baby and he’s just a year and a couple months old. Being able to be with him, have your routines that you do every day in your own house and his own bed…and airports are great. I love airports and I love airplanes and hotels and all that, but nothing is as wonderful as being in your house doing your thing.
JPG: Various artists do things in different ways. I think of The Flaming Lips like Andy Warhol’s Factory, where something creative is going on almost every day. Besides family time, are you and the band working on stuff?
WC: That’s the part of it that I’ve probably enjoyed the most. I hesitate to say “enjoy” because for me so many things I do is a collaboration. I’m very lucky to have so many guys around me and we’re always doing stuff.
But, for the first three months of this we couldn’t even go to each other’s houses. So, I’m painting in my front room. I’m making up songs in the studio but I’m just there by myself, which I would do here and there, but I wouldn’t do it day after day after day like I’ve been able to do in this. So, you’re exactly right. And it’s given me more time, which I didn’t realize I didn’t have before. In this way, I hope that I’m forever changed by this.
I keep in mind that to really enjoy anything in life you do have to spend some time with it. You can’t just glimpse at it and say, “Okay, on to the next thing,” which we’ve been doing the best that we can. We’ve been given this wonderful, wonderful life and a lot of exciting, great things but one of the things that is sacrificed is your time. You spend a lot of time in airports and soundchecks and things.
I try to make every situation wonderful and love it all but not having any time to do anything whereas this has opened all that up and I’m like, “Oh my gosh! I’ve been a fool. I didn’t realize it.”
JPG: The band has either been on the road or recording. You’ve been quite prolific with recordings coming out on a consistent basis. So, at least you still have the ability to record for what could be a next Flaming Lips album or some future collaboration…
WC: And ‘cause people don’t realize that when you travel so much even though you may just play a couple of shows, it takes you two weeks to do anything. Then, to get back home. It sounds dorky to say that but I love creating stuff. It doesn’t mean everybody has to see it or hear it or any of that but even just time to contemplate ideas, to go over things and to change things and all that. Less, less tired, less stress but very lucky that our family hasn’t gotten sick and that we can go awhile without making money. So, in that way, probably different from a lot of the world.
JPG: You were talking about the time at home and thinking about things has changed you. Connecting that to reading your introduction to American Head in the press release and listening to the new album, its lyrics, stories and themes have a fantasized version of your past reality, past memories. I don’t recall you being that personal with your work. What brought that up?
WC: I agree. Once you delve into your own world but you’re still mythologizing your own reality, some of the things that we’re singing about are so long ago. All you have is a faint feeling about it and the rest of it is quite blurry. But music and melodies, they do have a way of evoking mysterious things in you that there’s no way you could ever even talk about it but, sometimes, you hear certain phrases or you hear certain tones and something in you is brought back to life. That was starting to become something that we felt like we could do, the more of the songs that we would get. We started off with just a couple. These songs would be two or three years old now.
With the song “Dinosaurs on the Mountain,” that one started to really evoke or encourage us to go deeper. Be more fragile. Be more broken. That one and “Mother I’ve Taken L.S.D.,” that was about three years old. That really began with me singing, “Mother, I’ve taken L.S.D.” and trying to evoke this horrible sadness in the song. And it’s not like a joke about acid. Once Steven [Drozd] and I pushed a little further into that, we felt like, “Well, maybe, we could do a whole album like this.”
Our model would have probably been something like the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” where he’s singing about a real place and the things that he’s singing about are real things in his life but yet when I was eight years old and I heard it I wouldn’t have cared what Strawberry Fields really was. To me it was such a cool thing. It evoked plenty of things to me even without me knowing what the real thing was. So, we felt like, maybe, our songs can have that happen, too. We could be singing about something that’s real to us but to the listener it could just be another thing that there is they’re connecting to their life.