Those who believe rock ‘n’ roll is dead need only listen to The Flaming Lips for proof it is far from flatlining. Since the early ‘80s, the Oklahoma City band have continually pushed boundaries, colored outside the lines and broken rock and pop’s perceived rules. During the last 35 years, the prolific rockers have never recorded the same album twice while creating a number of critically acclaimed discs that have been regarded as masterpieces. They continue to outdo themselves, so if an artist is to have only one masterpiece it’s the band’s current release, American Head. Not only a 2020 record of the year contender the album has “all-time classic” potential. Lush, lavish and layered, it is a modern “headphones record.” A complete listening experience, it demands to be heard in its entirety, uninterrupted, akin to classics by Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project, The Moody Blues and The Beatles.
Admittedly, 2020 was a year that will be remembered infamously for the pandemic, political upheaval, the economic downturn and the sudden halting of life altogether. Ironically, the year also included a number of great records. Pearl Jam, Morrissey, Green Day and The Strokes all released albums of note, but with the world in lockdown and the artists unable to tour in support of their work, the records [and so many others] landed with a thud. The Flaming Lips, however, came up with an inspired solution. They drew upon their trademark “space bubble” concept, which in past years featured frontman Wayne Coyne venturing out into crowds in a large clear bubble. During this time of “social distancing,” the band have expanded upon the idea to include the entire band and the audience. The result was not only an innovative way to hold live concerts during the pandemic, but also a bold artistic statement. Introduced in music videos for American Head songs “Assassins of Youth” and “Brother Eye,” the space bubble shows were held late in January at Oklahoma City’s The Criterion.
The shows were applauded around the globe and drew demand for more Criterion concerts. If you live in the Oklahoma City area, you can get tickets for the recently announced mid-March shows now. The band has also rescheduled some of the dates cancelled in the wake of the virus [albeit without space bubbles]. Go to www.theflaminglips.com for more details. The Flaming Lips’ visionary frontman Wayne Coyne recently took time out from his latest creative endeavors to speak with The Aquarian.
Were you surprised by the response to space bubble shows?
Surprised and relieved that people have said such great things about them. There was stress [leading up to the shows] because we didn’t know how people would react. We didn’t know if people would exaggerate about what was good or bad or say the whole thing was silly or stupid. We were relieved, glad and lucky people who came to the shows loved them. And the shows looked great and sounded great.
I wish you could bring the space bubble shows to New York City.
[Laughing] I don’t think [Governor] Cuomo would have us. I love him and I would love nothing more than for him to say, “Wayne, bring the space bubble concerts to New York.” I would do it in a second.
The Flaming Lips have rescheduled tour dates for this summer.
We still don’t know if they will actually happen. We are scheduled to be in Berlin, Liverpool and parts of Ireland, but we’ll see what happens when June and July get here. It is such a bizarre time.
The band are also doing additional hometown space bubble concerts.
The next space bubble show happens on March 11th, exactly one-year after Oklahoma City went into quarantine. We were shooting a video that day and I was in a space bubble walking around a field where we had a controlled grass fire. Later that night was the basketball game where one of the players tested positive. It was immediately cancelled, but it changed everything.
[Note: Moments before The Oklahoma City Thunder were to host The Utah Jazz at The Chesapeake Energy Arena, Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus.]
Given your previous use of the space bubble, some critics have referred to you as “the original socially-distant artist.” I always thought the bubble was your way of getting intimate with the audience.
You are exactly right. It’s like going into the mosh pit and meshing with everyone, touching everyone and being right there in their faces. Being in a clear plastic bubble allows me to mesh with everyone in the crowd in my own way. Ironically, today, it’s become the great barrier between you and a person who might have the virus.
I’ve always called it “the space bubble” because in my version I come from outer space. Now it has become known as the space between you and the potentially infected unknown. I never saw it as a way of saying, ‘Eww, don’t touch me. It was my way of jumping into the crowd and saying, ‘Let’s get together.
I’ve always considered you to be a prolific, passionate artist and not just a singer-songwriter.
I’m not a normal, professional singer, but I do love making up songs—those two things really go together. I just like doing everything, which is the reason why we have space bubble concerts.
You often denigrated your musical abilities, which I have find ironic, especially give The Flaming Lips’ recent releases.
I am lucky that I’m in a group with [multi-instrumentalist] Steven Drozd. He is one of the best musicians alive. He is so skilled, so talented, so smart and so advanced. That he and I are a team that says, “We will create things together” [on the surface] should not appear to work—a master of his craft and an insane amateur. But having the personalities we have absolutely work. You couldn’t write it out as an equation on paper, but Steven knows so much about how music works that he loves that I know absolutely nothing about how it works. He cannot forget the rules of music, which is how a musician’s mind works.
Sometimes when we are driving down the street, we will hear a car horn honking and I know Steven, in his mind, knows what note it is. He just can’t escape it. Like our eyes see light, his ears hear sound and music.
What makes the collaboration work so well?
I am not a good musician, but I am passionate [about music] and I’m determined. I am not going to stop. I am not going to take no for an answer. I am going to create situations where our collaboration will work. And that is what Steven is drawn too.
For me, being creative and being determined is better than being talented. If you are talented, but not determined, it’s not going to work. If you are talented, but not crazy creative, there is no reason [to develop your talent]. I think I am lucky that I’m so curious about making things and creating things—like songs and space bubble concerts. So, I can see why the combination of my inability mixed with his master ability has a charm to it.
Do you see art in everything? The space bubble concerts are the perfect metaphor about the pandemic.
The day the pandemic [took hold of society], I happened to be in a space bubble. It wasn’t a joke, but it was commentary about what we were in for. At the time, I don’t think anyone thought that it would go on any longer than a month or two. I didn’t think we would ever do space bubble concerts. I did, however, create a little cartoon on March 12, 2020, where during a 2019 Flaming Lips concert I was the only one in a bubble and a year later the entire band and the audience were in bubbles.
Creativity, for me, is always torture and stressful because you don’t know how it will come out and how people will react. Not being creative is also torture. Not creating would be worse. I would go crazy if I did nothing. When people ask, “Why are you doing this?” I say, “Because this is what creative people do.” Especially when all of these healthcare workers and all of these scientists are working so hard to help us during the pandemic. I can’t help them in that way. I am not a scientist and I am not a doctor. But if I could do a concert that entertains people, that was safe, maybe I could do that. A year later, we finally figured out how we could do it.
For an artist who is so prolific, you certainly use the term “torture” a lot.
[Laughing] That’s the nature of it. If you really care, really want it to work, when you create something it can be stressful. You don’t know, it may not work. I [am certain] to get obsessed with it. And that could become a problem. I don’t want to argue with anyone. I don’t want to cause fights. I don’t want to cause stress in anyone else’s life.
That’s just the way I am made. There are plenty of people who don’t have the desire to do a space bubble concert during the pandemic and I totally understand that. A lot of people are just going to wait until normal concerts come back and that’s fine. For me, not trying to do something feels like I am not trying to do something for humanity in this time of crisis.
Another key to The Flaming Lips’ genius is the band’s determination to color outside the lines; continually break the rules.
I am often the last person to notice that is happening, though people have pointed it out to me. I think all artists and all creative people feel encouraged to do something free [from rules]; something that he or she loves. Eighty percent of the time, I am just doing something because I like it.
The Flaming Lips have never recorded the same record twice.
[Laughs] Some people say we don’t have the ability to do that. We just prefer continually doing new things. Creating things that are fresh.
The band will soon be releasing an “odd and sods” collection.
Ironically, our manager, who is a big Who fan, also referrers to it as that. It is still untitled, but it will include a host of rarities and previously unreleased [tracks]. I was recently listening to a lot of the stuff from the ‘80s and [remarking], “Wow, this sounds [remarkably] good. It still holds up. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. We hope to put it out later this year.
Although The Flaming Lips’ 2006 overtly political classic At War With The Mystics was released during President George Bush’s second term, how do you think people would have reacted if the band had issued it during Donald Trump’s presidency? Some people say you prophesized Trump’s election in the song “Free Radicals.”
[Laughing] I don’t know. I was thinking about taking [the direct references to him] out of [“Free Radicals” when we perform it live]. ‘Cause even though it’s negative, Trump probably wouldn’t mind hearing his name in a song. He’d probably like it.