The Flaming Lips face the nation’s uncertain future with a dose of revisionist history on their most moving release since The sweet newsletter.
Wayne Coyne is alone in the Flaming Lips’ Oklahoma City warehouse, surrounded by the band’s long list of decommissioned stage props. Dazzled unicorns and deflated robots lie lifeless in corners, waiting, like most of the United States, for the pandemic to end.
“All that dusty stuff should be in the back of a truck on its way to a festival in Atlanta or something,” the frontman said, scanning the room.
Indeed, if it was another summer, Coyne and company – fellow songwriter Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins, Derek Brown, Jake Ingalls, Matt Duckworth and Nicholas Ley – would be on the road, taking their circus along. Awe-inspiring psychedelic from city to city. , from festival to festival. âThis is the first summer, in probably almost 20 years, that we just eat barbecue on the patio and drink with our families, instead of doing the same in hotels and airports all summer,â Coyne observes. .
Since their formation in 1983 and their breakthrough years later with hits like “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize ?? The Flaming Lips have long since become cross-genre touring titans. Yet oddly enough, despite leading a group determined to deliver rock music’s most immersive live performance, Coyne isn’t shy about bringing up the fact that he and Drozd are, in fact, natural introverts.
âThere was a time in The Flaming Lips, especially in the mid-90s, where we were contemplating making records without actually playing live,â he recalls. âWe really liked it because we loved making records, but we’ve never really felt so comfortable – and still don’t – in front of an audience. That’s why we have unicorns and lights and all this crazy stuff because it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this crazy stuff to watch!’ It’s not about us; it’s about our music and our unicorns. And don’t get me wrong: I wish that didn’t happen now; I wish everyone in the world could do their jobs and be safe. But for us, the idea of ââplaying never really fails us. I don’t get up at parties to play music and sing.
Yet while their stage show is currently sitting on the ice, The Flaming Lips is still considering unique ways to direct. American head in the world. A press release calls it a “return to form” for the group, recalling their masterpiece of 1999 The sweet newsletter and centered on the idea of ââbeing an “American band”. Compared to the multicolored psychedelia of the 2019 storybooks king’s head, the album features a more sonically refined version of The Flaming Lips, using a healthy serving of live instruments to ruminate on the intertwined nature of drugs, youth and family in America.
âA few of those songs merged together a few years ago and then Wayne started talking about how the theme could grow with our crazy families in the ’60s and’ 70s: Drug Tragedies and Shipwrecks. cars, âDrozd explains. âHe wanted to frame it in this atmosphere because our crazy families are very similar. There’s drug damage and stuff like that. There are a lot of parallels.
Then, in classic Flaming Lips style, Coyne amplified those themes into a fictional reality. He viewed The Flaming Lips in the context of their American Heartland origins.
âAt the very beginning of the creation of this album, Steven and I set ourselves up as characters,â adds Coyne. âI used Tom Petty as an example. “Let’s be like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers!” And none of us are really like Tom Petty, and none of us are really like The Heartbreakers because we’re just not organized that way. But, we love the idea of ââa singer-songwriter. There’s a main guy and he’s singing, and then there’s a great band playing with him. We just sort of made ourselves like that, even though that’s not really how we are. “
Coyne strengthened the connection with Tom Petty by throwing in a good dose of revisionist history, wondering how the rock legend’s recording stop in the early ’80s in Tulsa, Okla., Could have gone wrong.
“My brothers and their friends were all into motorcycle gangs, drugs and all kinds of crazy bullshit, and they could have very easily stumbled upon Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers while they were in Tulsa and sold them acid. “Coyne laughs. “It started to speak to my imagination, sending me on this line like, ‘What if they meet my older brothers and some of their really fucked up drugged friends, and they’re so wasted on their drugs that all of their discs never arrived? What if they made this big, sad record instead of becoming Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers? ‘â
âThere are so many parts of Oklahoma that are just plain flat and there’s just nothing there, and I really hear that in some of our music,â Drozd adds. âOne of our songs is called ‘At The Movies On Quaaludes’. The start of it has that Rhodes piano sound. For me this [recalls] being in the back of a pickup truck in the 70s. The sun is setting and you are in the country getting drunk.
Beside the nostalgia of classic rock it’s hard to listen American head and not consider how its title, sound and images are relevant in the current socio-political era. The music video for “Flowers of Neptune 6”, for example, shows Coyne wrapped in an American flag, walking through a burnt-out landscape in his famous plastic bubble. As fires burn at the singer’s feet and the bubble deepens his isolation, it’s easy to see the clip as a symbol of America’s endless distress in the era of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. When these symbolic alignments are brought to Coyne’s attention, however, he explains that the “Flowers of Neptune 6” video was filmed before the COVID-19 crisis turned disastrous. Even the album itself was written long before the world started to fall apart.
âWhen things like that line up, it’s really just a good coincidence, a bad coincidence or indifference,â he says. âI’ve always been out in a space bubble making videos and doing shows and for a very long time we’ve been trying to shoot a video in a grass fire. When we did [that video], it was the first night of confinement, around March 12. So we did all of this in a world that still seemed pretty normal. In March, we thought, âWell, this will happen in March and April, but by May everything will be back to normal. And then all of that stuff started to get more intense with Black Lives Matter; demonstrations were taking place two blocks from my home. You could never have made music that reflects that on purpose. I think that’s exactly what music can do; music can accompany you in almost any situation. Sometimes I really feel like “this music is perfect for this situation”. But I wouldn’t make a statement like that on purpose. I think sometimes you make even more important statements by accident.
Elsewhere on American head, the misguided innocence of “You n Me Sellin ‘Weed” juxtaposes the feeling of a young love with the hardness of working in a slaughterhouse, offering images of blood-filled shoes alongside the burning desire to escape a planet condemned.
Later, “Will You Return / When You Come Down” highlights some scary lines: “Shooting star / Crash in your car / What went wrong / Now all your friends are gone / And they’re screaming / Screaming from beyond / Hear their song / Now all your friends are gone.
âWe weren’t thinking about these things because we didn’t know they were going to happen, but it seems like there is this weird correlation somehow,â Drozd said of the themes. strangely relevant to the album. âI don’t know if I would really call it a happy record; it’s not totally depressing, but it does seem like a soundtrack for how weird every fucking thing is now.
According to The Flaming Lips longtime label Warner Brothers, American head is the band’s 21st studio album. Coyne, however, isn’t so sure.
âIf I count all the new music we’ve done with Miley Cyrus and all these other weird projects we’ve done, it’s probably over 30 or 35,â he laughs.
American head Also includes some contributions from Kacey Musgraves, who nodded to The Flaming Lips at Bonnaroo 2019 by closing his Saturday headlining set with âDo You Realize ?? After Coyne’s phone exploded with text messages from friends sharing the news, he immediately reached out, wishing to collaborate with the Nashville singer, whose own trippy tendencies seemed to align perfectly with his.
â’God and the Policeman’ was specially designed for her and I to sing together, and ‘Watching the Lightbugs Glowâ was also designed for her. Once we knew she would, we just made it up. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, damn! It really happened! I can’t really believe it.
And it’s that excitement that continues to drive The Flaming Lips year after year. Yes, American Head marks the beginning of a new era for the Oklahoma group. But, without a doubt, their next album will usher in a new metamorphosis.
But with equal parts of abstraction and clarity, American Head mixes psychedelia alongside Americana, unwittingly immortalizing this eerie moment in time. With live music in absentia, 2020 is a big cultural reset, and The Flaming Lips are here to make it the soundtrack every step of the way.
âI’m just a creative person,â Coyne concludes. âSo if I get the chance I’ll do something, sometimes it’s a painting, sometimes it’s a song and sometimes it’s an album. Whatever the opportunity, I just say, ‘Wow, OK! I’m happy to do something.