“The Sadness and the Love”: A Conversation with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips

The psychedelic frontman on the Lips’ majestic, melancholy new LP, American Head, the adverse effects of LSD, a teenage near-death experience and more.

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The Flaming Lips, with vocalist Wayne Coyne at center. Credit: George Salisbury.

Before the pandemic hit, Wayne Coyne, the charismatic singer of veteran psychedelic pranksters the Flaming Lips, had practiced social distancing at rock shows for most of this century — every time he rolled off the stage and into the crowd, sealed in the huge see-through orb he calls his “space bubble.” Now Coyne, who also rode a unicorn into the audience on recent tours, is plotting a return to tripped-out performance in the Covid-19 era by putting every band member and fan in those bubbles. The Lips have even done a test run that can be seen in the video for “Dinosaurs on the Mountain,” a song off their new album, American Head; in the clip they play for 30 friends, each grooving in a personal sphere.

“I have 100 space bubbles coming to my house, manufactured for us,” Coyne says excitedly from his home in Oklahoma City. “I am going to put on the first concert here at one of the big venues where we know the people. Most people are holding on to what used to happen, saying, ‘Let’s hope it comes back.’ But if someone doesn’t try something new, then nothing will happen.”

American Head, the Lips’ 16th studio LP, is an eerie, seductive complement to that hopeful foresight — reflections on mortality, ghosts and bad trips set to majestically scored lysergic pop, with guest-vocal rapture from country and pop star Kacey Musgraves. “We do lots of records, and some of them are more purposely weird than others,” Coyne, 59, admits. “But this one, it’s trying to communicate. It’s easy to feel what we want you to feel. It’s not trying to fuck you up too much.”

You have been walking into the audience in that bubble since Coachella in 2004. Does that feel weirdly prescient now?

I don’t know why I had a desire to do it. We were making our movie, Christmas on Mars [released in 2008]. I’m the alien. I arrive in a giant bubble like the Good Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz — simple and pure. When I get out of my spaceship, I shrink it down and swallow it like a pill; I carry my spaceship within me. I thought that was a great metaphor. I ended up using computer stuff in the movie. Then a guy in Italy got me the bubble I used at Coachella. I thought, “Fuck it, I’m just going to do this on top of the audience.” I didn’t think it was the greatest thing ever. You come up with your dumb gimmicks, then it works for the show.

Coyne debuts the “space bubble” at Coachella in 2004. Credit: John Shearer/WireImage.

The new album’s title sums up the Lips perfectly. Coming from Oklahoma, you couldn’t be more Middle-American. But you are a million miles away in sound and vision.

The album was originally called American Dead. We felt like we were singing about our dead mothers and friends from when we were teenagers. We made the album cover, and I thought, “It looks cool, but it’s such a bummer, the Dead part. Why don’t we change it to Head?” It said the same thing but didn’t have to be so one-dimensional.

“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” is based on a real near-death incident, an armed robbery at a restaurant where you worked as a teenager. Why sing about it now?

The opening line sets you up: “Mother please don’t be sad/I didn’t mean to die tonight.” I did lay on the floor in the back of this Long John Silver’s restaurant absolutely accepting that I was going to die. It was only 25, 30 seconds in reality, but it felt like hours. When the robbers left, it opened up this world where anything is possible. I wanted to be in a band, write songs, paint. What do I have to lose? I’ve already died on that floor. Now that I have a little boy [Coyne’s son turned 1 year old in June], I tell people this is my third life. I had the first, then I got a second when I was 17. Now I’ve got my third.

Another song is called “Mother I’ve Taken LSD.” Did you actually tell her that?

My oldest brother said it. At the time, everybody was talking about LSD. We would have people come to school, saying, “Don’t take LSD. It’ll make you think you can fly; you’ll jump off a building and die.” Then you have Timothy Leary and the Beatles telling you, “It’s the coolest thing ever.” I remember sitting on the porch, the sun is going down. My brother and mother are talking about this, and he said, “Mother, I’ve taken LSD.” I couldn’t believe it — my own brother!

I only took it a couple of times. I didn’t like it at all. Instead of enlightening me, making the world seem more vibrant and colorful, it showed me how much death, decay and sadness there was. That title — it’s not the Grateful Dead taking LSD. It tricks you: “Maybe this is a party song.” No.

The Lips often work with women singers in featured roles: Kacey Musgraves, Kesha, Yoko Ono, Miley Cyrus. Your own voice is certainly angelic, especially in the higher registers.

I have fun being this burly-looking Oklahoma dude and having this dorky, girly voice. It’s from listening to the Beatles and the Bee Gees, even Led Zeppelin, where it’s dudes, dudes, dudes, but they sound like their mothers.

We make music that calls for a voice like that, and Kacey definitely fit. Collaborating can be such an ego thing, awkward and weird. But I know the way Kesha works: “You guys write a song and produce it.” With Erykah Badu, I said, “You give us what you want and I’ll work with it, make sure it’s great.” It isn’t a competition.

To what do you owe your longevity? You were going for nearly a decade when you had your first alternative-rock success [the 1993 single “She Don’t Use Jelly”] and have outlasted all of the biggest bands from that time except Pearl Jam — on your own terms.

I say this because we’re friends with Miley. We’ve been through a lot of stuff with her, and I’m reminded to be patient with her because she’s suffered a great success [laughs]. You can’t predict how much being young and successful is going to fuck with you. But we never wanted to get the hip, new producer and be rock stars. We wanted to make records and do weird shit.

It is a lot of luck that people like our songs. You have to have songs. The stories within them can be brutal and violent. But you’re reminded of the joy of life and the real people in the stories. When Black Sabbath do “War Pigs,” they’re singing about the horrors of war, but I never feel horrible about it [laughs]. These songs on American Head, we want to feel the sadness and the love and warmth in there. We’re making the music so we can get to that.

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