Wayne Coyne on near-death experiences, Ken Burns, and the Flaming Lips' new album American Head
The 59-year-old frontman dives inside the making of his band's 16th studio release.
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne just might be clairvoyant: For years he’s often sung and performed from inside a giant plastic bubble — très socially distant. In fact, for a recent Lips' TV appearance, audience members stood in their own personal space bubbles, making for a quirky and COVID-19-safe concert experience.
Coyne has always been idiosyncratic. He owns an oddball multi-building compound in his hometown of Oklahoma City; he and close pal Miley Cyrus have matching tattoos (of her dead dog); and the vibe of his group's new record, American Head (out now), was partially inspired by a fantasy about Tom Petty (wherein Coyne mused about the late singer back in the ’70s, running into “a couple of my older brothers’ ‘freaked-out, drug-dealing biker friends.’”)
That's pretty much the vibe of the 13 beautiful and wrenching songs on the band's 16th studio album, which Coyne describes as "sad, homesick, naive … written in this f---d-up/wonderful and depressed/ecstatic state of mind." When we reach the singer at home to talk about the project, he's out of breath: "I didn't realize the time; I was cleaning off one of our giant space balls.”`
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The phrase “American Head” is in the song “At the Movies on Quaaludes.” Why did you choose it for the album title?
WAYNE COYNE: In the beginning, we called it American Dead. [Bandmate] Steven [Drozd] and I were sort of blatantly — to ourselves, not in the songs — going to talk about our brothers who were dead, and our mothers who were dead. As [the album] got closer to coming out, Katy, my wife, and Scott, our manager, were like, "why you got to be such a bummer?"I was like, "It’s not a bummer, it’s a cool title." And a split second [later] I agreed with them. I said, "I honestly didn't really even think about it. Change it to American Head?" Now it's all good, because to a lot of people, when they say head, it's like a head shop or a druggie youth person; they used to be called heads.
Speaking of, the album cover photo is pretty trippy…
It’s my brother Tommy. He’s young, his hair is kind of short, and he looks like he’s having fun standing in the summer sun. It’s a double exposure, so it's marvelously artistic by accident. That sort of started me thinking about Ken Burns, the documentary maker; the way he uses music and images and storytelling is uncanny. He knows how to sum up that version of America that's glorious and dangerous and different. I was kinda like, if Ken Burns was going to make some music telling the story of the Flaming Lips — which he won’t do, but I'm fantasizing — it might be something like some of these [musical] passages we use. They're not European scales and they're slightly jazz scales. Slightly gospel. I mean, I only know because I've been talking about these things with [producer] Dave Fridmann and Steven; I wouldn't really know, I’d just say, "sounds cool."
The Soft Bulletin is one of your most beloved and successful albums, and American Head is already getting comparisons to that, as well as to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
The Soft Bulletin was kind of an experiment, like, let's do a record this way and see what happens. We love most of our records, but especially The Soft Bulletin. It’s a mark in time; we started again, we became this band with it. I think part of us didn't want to make anything that could be compared to it for a while. Now I know how we made it; it was a combination of my father dying and the deaths that Steven had gone through. That's a zone that you can really only be in once. A lot of what The Soft Bulletin is about is an accepting of the world being brutal, being harsh, being unfair, and realizing that you're gentle and you're optimistic. Once you know that, you can't really just go back to being innocent again. The Soft Bulletin is... a different type of storm in an unsettled mind, whereas [American Head] is settled minds knowing we're going to go storm chasing.
Even just the song title “Mother Please Don’t be Sad” [off American Head] is sad. But it’s a true story of a near-death-experience at your fast-food job when you were a teenager, right?
Yes, and it was such a shock. I mean, the thing gets so seared into your mind. I do remember laying on the floor, and I really did think "I'm gonna die." There’d been a lot of armed robberies in the city at that time. [Workers] put in the freezer and shot through the head. Here I am laying on the floor. These guys got giant guns, they’re pissed off, they're mad, and they're screaming for the safe to get open. Your heart is pounding out of your chest.
We were about to close up and I knew I was gonna go by my mother's house, drop off my uniform, talk for a little bit, and take my bicycle to my apartment. That’s what I was trying to tell her [in my mind]: I’m not out there driving a motorcycle, drunk. It’s a bad situation. I didn't want her to struggle with that. I remember saying that to myself: "Don’t be sad" — knowing that she would start to worry that I'm not home. Then the cops show up like they do in the movies and ask her, "You have a son?" The whole thing just flies through your mind. This is how I'm going to die. I was resigned to that. I really was. And then we didn’t die. We cried and laughed for an hour; we just couldn't believe that, oh my gosh, we're not dead!
That is super vivid and terrifying!
I’ve hardly talked to anyone who was in a situation like that, you know? Being that young, I think I was full of stupid insecurities and things I thought were right. And this was a shattering of everything that I was about, in the best way possible. I think it allowed me to not feel so bad about not working with my brothers and my dad. I loved them, but I wanted to do music. I always felt like I betrayed them, but after that I didn't. I think they understood; they're like, "You should do your thing." [That incident] gave me a little bit of a superpower. I really knew I was gonna pursue music. I wanted to try to be an artist. Not in a pompous way. I was very glad to work at Long John Silvers, and do my music and art. Not to be famous, not to be a rock star, not be anything other that.