Under the Cover is a column that reveals the stories behind album art.
The 15th studio album from psych-rock outfit the Flaming Lips began not as a record but as a shiny art installation in the shape of a bulbous head, where fans could crawl inside, lie down, and listen to snippets of music. Then visitors began asking if there was a full-length release in the works to coincide with it all.
“We would be like, ‘Well, no, but I guess there could be,'” recalls frontman Wayne Coyne. So began the writing and recording of what would eventually become King’s Mouth, a conceptual project that the Lips’ singer calls “Beatles’ Yellow Submarine meets Gregorian chants from the future.”
The artwork goes hand-in-hand with the music, and is based on a tale that originated during the exhibit. The installation didn’t initially have an extended backstory but a curator friend of Coyne’s encouraged him to give it one. “He liked that the installation was kind of abstract, but he said, ‘Maybe if you have time, come up with a little bit of a story, just so if people are lingering on the outside waiting to get in they can look at this story.’ I didn’t really have one, and I just simply made it up as I did these drawings.”
The tale Coyne imagined goes like this: A queen dies giving birth to a giant baby. With his mother dead and his dad out of the picture, the son automatically becomes king. The baby turns out to be a gentle giant — a benevolent ruler loved by his people. Then one day, an avalanche hits the city. In order to save his subjects, the giant king holds back the snow, allowing everyone to escape. But the force of the avalanche is too strong and it eventually buries and kills him, with the king dying a hero.
The cover depicts the scene following his death, where the townspeople are preparing to cut off the king’s head and dip it into some sort of soft metal. “In most stories where the king has his head cut off, it’s because he’s a horrible dictator,” Coyne says. “In my story, they cut off his head because as he’s getting into adulthood, his curiosity and his longing magically connects his [mind] to the wonders of the universe. In this picture, you’ll see the top of his head goes up into a tornado of outer space.”
From the town’s perspective, cutting off the head is a way of not only preserving and honoring the king, but of preserving this portal that’s been created between his mind and the universe.
Bright colors have always been an integral part of the Flaming Lips’ history, but Coyne explains the vivid hues on the King’s Mouth cover likely began the same way they always do for the singer. “It definitely starts out as a purely subconscious thing,” says Coyne, who credits the work of psychedelic artist Peter Max for how the rocker approaches color. “I think I’m probably more of a painter and a filmmaker kind of guy than I am a musician. That’s probably why music works at all, because I don’t really know what I’m doing.”