As our Annual Report continues, we’ll be taking several looks at how live music changed in a year where most of the world was in lockdown. Today, we share our conversation with Wayne Coyne about his current plans for space bubble shows.
A year ago, no one could have predicted that a trip to the grocery store could be life-threatening and dangerous. But here we are at a time where buying vegetables can be anxiety-inducing and unsafe. Concerts mostly apply, as well, but Flaming Lips vocalist Wayne Coyne devised a way to transform live music into a safe process.
Coyne is no stranger to performing in what he calls a space bubble. He’s famous for rolling out into crowds, but the thought of putting the entire band and audience in their own respective bubbles was a thought that came to him at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Of course, I would think of that,” Coyne says. The psych-rock band has played concerts where an “orchestra” performed on boomboxes, written a 24-hour-long song, sold USB drives encased in fruit-flavored gummy skulls, and released a four-CD album where each CD is meant to be played simultaneously. In Coyne’s words, The Flaming Lips have always done “slightly absurd performances,” and the space bubble show is an adaptive mechanism.
“I feel like our concerts, the way we’re doing it, it’s honestly safer than going to the fucking grocery store,” the singer explains. “You go to the grocery store, and some people have masks on, but some people just act like there’s nothing going on. There’s nothing you can do about that.” Luckily, The Flaming Lips are in full control, and they plan on making their concerts a safe environment.
Consequence of Sound had the chance to sit down with Coyne to discuss the planning process for the space bubble shows, The Flaming Lips’ recent late-night television performances, how their latest album, American Head, will be translated to this new type of show, and what else the band is currently working on.
Editor’s note: The first of The Flaming Lips’ space bubble concerts are scheduled for January 22nd and 23rd at the Criterion in Oklahoma City.
On Conceiving the Idea for the Space Bubble Concerts
When all this started, I think the day was March 16th, we all thought this would be maybe a month, maybe two months. We were in March, and we had shows scheduled at the beginning of June. We felt very sure that by June we would be playing those shows. We didn’t have anything that we were playing in March and April anyway. And here we are, almost a year later. None of this has been anything we could have predicted or even thought about. But that first day we went into lockdown, I made a little cartoon. I drew myself. It was The Flaming Lips in 2019, and I’m the only one in a space bubble, and I’m on stage. Then I drew The Flaming Lips in 2020. I’m in a space bubble, but so is everyone else. Of course, I would think of that, because isn’t this absurd? And then the more it started to happen, it sort of seemed like, “I guess it could be possible, but is this all going to be over in a couple of months?”
But then the talent booker from Stephen Colbert’s late show got a hold of me and asked us to do a play-at-home performance. I said, “Yeah, but I want to do it like this cartoon.” He’d seen the cartoon, and he said, “Yeah, I think we can try to do that.” So, this was at the very beginning of this whole thing. These space bubbles come from China, so there was nothing you could really get from China quickly if at all. Part of me then thought this was kind of a longshot. But between eBay and people that I knew, I had probably seven or eight bubbles, and then we got five or six from eBay. We did the Stephen Colbert show with a pretty big audience. I think it ended up being 19 or 20 people being in those space bubbles.
Then we thought this was going to be over. In the video performance, we shot it here in Oklahoma City in the middle of May. We thought it wasn’t going to air until June, and maybe it would be over by June. That’s how optimistic we all were. Then it kept rolling on, and we had to get these space bubbles made. We had some but not many, so we had 100 of them made. You’re doing this thing that may not really happen. You’re investing work, money, and time into something that may not really happen. But the other side of it is, if it’s all for nothing, it’s because the virus is no longer here. That’ll be great, as opposed to nothing really. If the virus keeps going, we’ll be ready. If the virus stops, we’ll be glad. In that way, I feel like we don’t have anything to lose. I’m hopeful that the vaccine does work, but I still feel like it’s going to be a long time before everybody gets it, probably by the middle of the summer at least.
On Late-Night TV Appearances Making for Good Practice Runs
About a month ago, we did the video shoot where we did the two songs with 100 people in there. Each time we would do it, you’d figure out a little bit more. As the pandemic has gone on, now there are things in place that everybody starts to understand. When we did the Stephen Colbert thing in May, people still were not that aware of the markings on the floor, when you’re standing in line and everybody’s six feet apart. As we’ve gone along, we’ve started to put all those things in place. Now, it’s all becoming second nature. Everywhere you go, you’re waiting in a line with people wearing masks. All of that has helped it move along. Everybody is understanding the same mechanism by which we congregate.
On How American Head Will Translate to Space Bubbles
That part of it is the easiest part. Every live show is, for good or bad, a clusterfuck, but it usually works out pretty good. It’s The Flaming Lips. We’ve got that music shit down. We rehearse a lot. We even rehearse in the space bubbles for our own safety sometimes. If we’re going to get together and spend 3-4 hours working on stuff in a small room, it’s like, fuck, even that’s hazardous. A lot of the guys have small kids and grandmothers. A lot of that is far-reaching. We’re invested in it because of our own caution and our own health.
I think in the beginning we were really focused on, “How do we get these people in there and make sure they’re safe and make sure it’s fun and make sure it works for everybody?” I think we know we can do this music. We can do it in the fucking rain, we can do it in the water, we can do it in outer space. That shit we can do. Making sure the audience is OK is the hard part, really.
On What It Feels Like to Put on Concerts When Live Music Is Scarce
I still wake up and don’t quite know that this is really happening. I get so immersed in all of the details, all of the things that it takes to do it. You rarely do come up for air and say, “Wow, this is really fucking crazy.” We’ve done shows that are absurd, fun, wonderful, and bizarre. I’ll come across a video online or on Instagram, and I’m like, “What the fuck is this? This looks cool!” And it’s us! I have to see it by accident, or I’m too in the middle of it. But in that way, when the shows went on sale last week, I was still like, “This is really happening. This is really going to be a show.” It sold out so fast. I realized people are excited about this. That helped it all feel like we were doing the right thing and doing it the right way.
On Hoping More Artists Are Able to Play Live Soon
Yeah, I do, but I feel like it is such an undertaking, and I think as The Flaming Lips, we’ve always done slightly absurd performances where we have people in the audience dress up in costumes and come up on stage. We’ve done boombox concerts. We’ve delved into this area without so much being at stake. We’ve done that as long as we’ve done concerts. If you’re a musician who’s used to having your guitar tuned up, plugging it in, and playing, this would not be fun. I myself have been in the space bubble a lot, but even the guys in The Flaming Lips, they’re not defeated by it. But if you don’t know how all of this stuff works, it would be overwhelming and it would be dangerous. But I do have high hopes that other groups will find unique ways to do stuff. For me personally, I just don’t think that the streaming works very well. It doesn’t fill the void of going to a concert. Yeah, it’s another thing, but it’s not like being at a concert. The things that I’ve streamed have been clunky, they haven’t sounded good, and I couldn’t tell if it was working. It would stop quite often, and it would be frustrating. I don’t think streaming is that good of a solution, but for some people it is.
On Planning the Space Bubble Shows
It’s not overwhelming if you have a long time to work on it like we have. The very first things we did, there were fewer people, and it was just one song. As we’ve gone on, we’ve conquered some of the difficulties, and now it’s an audience of 100 people and we’re playing a whole set of 75-80 minutes. If we had to do all of that in two weeks, it would be overwhelming. But we’ve gone on almost a year now. We’ve had a lot of help and a lot of encouragement and people wanting to see something happen. The venue that we’re working in, we’ve been able to go in there and set things up and try them. They’ve helped us a lot. That part of it I think is rare. I think people really believe in it, and I think it can really work. Like I said, I’ll be glad when we don’t have to be in space bubbles. I can be in a space bubble, but you can do whatever you want.
On What He’s Most Excited About for the Shows
Just that they’re happening. There is some kind of communal adrenaline. Same reasons for going to a concert previous to this was exciting. You get to be in that element again. Part of it is us saying, “We have to do something.” Doing nothing to me is full of anxiety and worry, and doing something is full of anxiety and worry. But to me, doing something is less hell than doing nothing. For me, I’m doing it because I must. I feel like I have to do something, and if everybody had to do something, maybe there’d be a lot of concerts going on that would be safe. I’ve seen other concerts going on right now, and I just wouldn’t go to them. Sure, people have to be socially distanced, but people get drunk and will start to get rowdy. If those barriers break down, then I don’t want to be in that situation.
On the Space Bubble Shows Being Safer Than the Grocery Store
I mean, I would say that they’re safer than going to the grocery store. We have people that will make you put on your mask and make you leave if you don’t comply. That doesn’t happen at the grocery store. A guy could be standing next to you and not think the coronavirus is real. I don’t want to get in a fight at the grocery store. So that part of it, I believe that we’re in control, and we would be the ones who say you have to put on a mask. It wouldn’t be up to another concertgoer. It would be up to the ones running the show. I wish more places were like that. I wish more places took control. I was in a convenience store the other night. On the door it said you couldn’t come in without a mask, but four dudes walked in and didn’t even care. And nobody did anything about it. I just stay away from it and keep my distance. It’s a struggle. We do all want to care about each other. We do all want to help each other. That just makes it difficult.
On What The Flaming Lips Are Working on Right Now
The music videos we’ve done to promote American Head … everything that you do is full of caution. In Oklahoma City, we’ve gone through times where it’s very intense, like it is right now, and other times where it’s more relaxed. For me, it’s really all that. We have a little baby who’s just 18 months old, and we have a grandmother who’s almost 70. Everything that we do is about making sure we’re all going to stay alive and not contribute to the suffering out there and try to help people as much as we can.
I mean, we’ve done a couple of things. We’ve done the Tom Petty Birthday Bash, where we contributed a song to that. We’re doing a Bob Dylan song for a compilation that’s coming out. All that’s fun. All that stuff is just what we wanted to do anyway. We’ve been working on a record with a girl called Nell. She’s a 13-year-old Canadian gal who’s doing all Nick Cave songs. She’s doing nine Nick Cave songs from different times in Nick’s career. That’s about finished. There’s still a lot of cool things going on, but not as much as traveling around the world and going to weird places and meeting weird people. But there’s plenty of good music and recording.