As the United States began to acclimate to potential life in lockdown after the start of March, Wayne Coyne joked that he’d long shown the world exactly how to self-isolate and entertain at once. For years, the pied piper of The Flaming Lips’ fabled onstage extravaganzas had crowd-surfed in a clear plastic bubble, careening above a few thousand of the momentarily happiest people on the planet. “I’ve been prepared for a while,” Coyne captioned a photo of himself, riding a wave of countless outstretched hands against reassuringly blue skies.
“We thought quarantine was going to last a month,” Coyne admits eight months later on an afternoon in late mid-November, sitting in his 15-year-old Toyota Prius in the driveway of his Oklahoma home. “We thought this was just a moment in time, and we’d all be back to doing what we do.”
As the weeks turned into months, it became clear to Coyne that this wasn’t the time for quips — life, and especially Flaming Lips shows, wouldn’t be returning to normal for the foreseeable future. The Lips stayed home in Oklahoma City. They scrapped concert sprees. They delayed the June release of American Head, arguably their most best album in nearly two decades, until September, when its bittersweet reflections on aging out of wonder and the occasional sadness of strange trips felt timely.
But the joke slowly began morphing into surreality, as often happens for The Flaming Lips. They performed “Race For The Prize” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in June, the audience and the band alike clad in bubbles just like Coyne. He wore latex gloves and appeared strangely triumphant, his wife, Katy, and their toddler, Bloom, bound by bubbles and dancing in the front row. More television performances followed, as did a video for dreamy American Head standout “Assassins Of Youth.” Watching the Lips deliver a battle cry for reclaiming innocence from the grip of power and peril amid a pandemic was a balm, a galvanizing reminder of art’s ability to lift us over the shifting obstacles and exigencies of existence.
On January 22 and 23, more than ten months after Coyne’s Instagram tease, The Flaming Lips and their fans will indeed step into the bubbles for two full performances in Oklahoma City, both of which sold out nearly as soon as they went on sale. But it likely won’t be the end of this experiment for some of music’s most beloved pop tinkerers. “There have been a lot of details to figure out, and what if this thing ends in a couple of weeks?” Coyne says. “But if it keeps going, we keep going.”
We talked to Coyne, a new father and new husband, about what he’s learned from staying at home in 2020 — and how he’ll feel about pressing forward when the time comes.
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in 2020?
In the very beginning of the pandemic, there was the fear that people were just going to be dying in the streets. We included ourselves in that. But after the first couple of weeks, that subsided. It didn’t feel like you were going to walk out in your front yard and find dead people. So we got used to not traveling and not having obligations. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to stay home. The Flaming Lips have been successful enough to be pretty busy since 2002. We’ve never really had a minute to do too much other than play shows and make records. It would be different to stay home if the rest of the world was still going 1,000 miles an hour, if everybody else was playing and making lots of money.
Katy, my wife, and I both just say “Yes” to everything, even though we don’t really want to — an art opening, a band, a birthday party, drinks, all at the same time. We always feel like we’re lucky to be invited, but by the time most weeks end, previous to this, we’re wishing someone canceled, because we’re doing too many things. I never like to say we were having a good time during the pandemic, because families are struggling and people are dying. But on that one level — we can’t go anywhere, and there’s nothing to do even if we wanted — we’ve never had that. You don’t realize you’re missing that element of time.
You spend so much of your life traveling. Has it been restorative to have that space and time as a family, especially with a newborn?
We would be doing everything together, anyway, like traveling to Australia with our little baby. We’re one of those families you’d see living up in the mountains, just throwing the baby on the back and climbing across the glacier.
What have you realized you don’t miss from life on the road right now?
You get used to there being no routine — waking up in a different hotel in a different city, going to a different airport. There’s a lot of time spent just getting somewhere. You’re on an airplane. You’re trying to get to a hotel. It’s fun and exciting, but you’re spending a lot of energy just getting from place to place. We had conditioned ourselves to be always on the move.
It took us a little while to remember that we can’t just go get on a plane and fly to Hawaii if we want. But once we got used to it, it was a relief not to even have that choice. We don’t realize the torture in choices. That is one of the dilemmas of modern life: If you’re not living in poverty, there’s a lot of choices. When you make a choice, part of you is glad, but part of you regrets it. You still want to know what’s out there. Most of us have found a joy now in never having to decide. It’s a little adjustment to get used to there not being anything to do — just cooking at home, watching TV. You don’t realize how valuable that kind of routine is.
What’s something you’ve learned to cook during quarantine?
Actually, Katy is a pretty good cook. We didn’t really do that much cooking out before, but we have a big grill. We do that three or four nights a week now — fish, sometimes steak. We haven’t really gone to any restaurants. If you had told me that back in March, I’d be like, “You’re crazy! How can you live without restaurants?” We’ve gotten all that time back, too. How much time do you spend finding a parking spot? Going in, waiting for food, paying? It’s a lot of time where you’re doing nothing. I don’t know if I want to go back to using my energy for that.
It sounds like you’ve found some new fulfillment in being more concerned with necessities rather than luxuries. Lots of us have, right?
Being concerned about the same things that everyone in the world is concerned about, that’s something that really hasn’t happened in my life. I’ll be 60 in January; suddenly, the whole planet is worried about the same things at the same time. That’s really cool.
Even in the past couple of weeks, there’s been the coronavirus. And we had an ice storm where, in the entire city, all the electricity was out for a little over a week. For the first couple days, it was frustrating, but again, you kind of get used to it. When the power came on, we didn’t quite know what to do. And within all that, there was the election. I remember going to bed a couple nights when I had to get gas for the generators while worried about the election and the virus. I was just very tired at 10 p.m., and I said, “This is really one of the great luxuries of life — that you are completely working and occupied until you are exhausted, and then you go to sleep.”
It’s like you’re reverting back to life as a cave dweller.
A farmer, maybe. It requires a lot of work, maintenance, care, energy, and time. You really are what you get used to.
Are you worried at all about overcoming this newly comfortable inertia when, say, the time comes to get back on the road?
No, because everyone wants to play music and make money. We’re glad to have the great jobs that we have and fans. We’d always be jumping at opportunities — not thousands of opportunities, but enough to keep you doing plenty.
You mentioned finding solidarity in shared anxiety. Given that feeling, were you ever worried that putting out a record would feel like an unwelcome distraction, that you’d be asking people to pay too much attention to you and not, like staying alive?
I like the word you used, solidarity. That is a good way to put it. The record of ours came out in the beginning of September. It was first scheduled to come out in June. March came along, and we were very relieved that we weren’t promoting a record: “Pay attention to us, and not your dying family!” We’d see other artists having an agenda, like, “Hey, my song came out!” Hey, we don’t care. We were glad not to be in that quagmire. But after a couple of months, it didn’t seem that weird. We were very glad that Netflix was still on, that we still had cable and internet. Once we got past watching headline news 24/7, we were glad to be entertained. You already know what the news is — you don’t have to watch it all of the time.
Was there the sense, by September, that people could “use” American Head? There’s a sense of bittersweet longing and a little redemption to it. Did you hope that might come in handy?
We put out quite a few songs before the record came out. We did get a sense that people were embracing them, that it felt good to listen. Steven Drozd and I are the main songwriters, and we’re worriers, anyway. We’re always worried about stuff. That’s just part of being a sensitive weirdo. That’s in our music, whether there’s a pandemic or Trump. When the whole world is a little bit more worried, we’re not so isolated. I feel like sometimes the rest of the world is partying and doesn’t give a fuck, and I feel like our music is sensitive and sad. In these times, I feel like people want something that is true and warm and speaking about real things and real life. That’s the greatest thing that music can do. Music is you. It is reflecting you.
The Flaming Lips are a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.