American Head, the latest release from the Flaming Lips, stands as a marker of time. It’s wrapped in anxieties about the future, whether that future is distant or close, yet it provides the listener with a distinct sense of comfort. The future arrives, then becomes the past, and the fears and frights that seemed to loom like monoliths of panic become memories that give us some sense of resolve.
Like the best work the band have done, there is an honest quality to it, a sense that the music and lyrics arrive from experience and with a sense of empathy. Though vocalist Wayne Coyne’s giant bubble is a hallmark of Lips’ concerts, there is a uniquely human quality to the band’s shows, a sense of unity that prevails over the audience and the group. But that spectacle isn’t on the records, which most people hear in solitude, listening in bubbles of their own. That doesn’t stop their songs, and the music on American Head in particular, from creating a sense of unity, that the world may be outside our window, but it is also in our living room.
Before the record’s release, there was talk of it being a so-called “return to form” or having commonalities with the group’s career-defining 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. It does share a link with that record in that the music arrives on the precipice of change. Just as there was anxiety about a new millennium in 1999, the arrival of a new president, technological advancements that were promised to bring us closer together, there is anxiety in 2020 about global health, the changing of political guards (at least in name and face), and the fear that those once-promising technologies amplify rather than heal divides.
But careful listening reveals a sense of warmth and connection throughout the Lips’ discography. After all, this is a band that created an album meant to be played on four boom boxes simultaneously, inviting listeners to hold parties to embrace all of 1997’s Zaireeka‘s nuance and splendor. There have been digressions, wild experiments, and moments when fans may have wondered if the band had gone too far astray. But those experiments and digressions are part of what makes the Flaming Lips such a beloved act. Like Frank Zappa before them, this is a band that have created their own universe or, rather, a universe that contains a multitude of experiences.
To accompany the record, Coyne penned an essay that reflects on Tom Petty’s death and features momentary speculation about his older brother encountering Petty in his Mudcrutch days when the Florida band momentarily stopped over in Tulsa. He also points out that the Flaming Lips have never been a particularly American band, but that American Head in its way reaches out to those typical American bands, including Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (or Mudcrutch as the case may be). But, most importantly, he writes, the album is created from feeling.
There are flashes of survivor’s guilt (“Will You Return/When You Come Down”), fears that our family and friends have gone too far mental illness or addiction (“Brother Eye”), Coyne’s fears about being murdered in a robbery, and his worry that his mother would be sad (“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad”). There are references to LSD, and the strange, saturated colors of the 1970s hangover the record, though it never sounds like an album from that era.
Speaking from his home in Oklahoma City during a power outage that left many without electricity for long periods, Coyne is expectedly affable and talkative. However, one word comes up repeatedly in conversation: Worry. He says that he and musical partner Steven Drozd are world-class worriers and that some of that anxiety is partially what informed not just the music on American Head but the music that they have made together since the 1990s. If there is a unifying factor in the band’s music, it’s the sense that there are things to worry about and that, perhaps through optimism and hope, we can beat back those worries, even if only momentarily.
I was struck by this narrative that you wrote to accompany the record about this period in the 1970s and your brother. I’m the youngest of six, and my eldest brother is 16 years older than me. In the late ’70s, he lived in this farmhouse in rural Michigan with six other guys. You can imagine all the stuff they got up to there. When I went back home a few years ago, I was struck by how many of those guys from that time had died. I’d say, “What about this guy?” and my brother would say, “Heart attack.” “What about this guy?” “Brain cancer.” So, reading what you wrote and listening to the record was a heady and emotional experience. It’s an elegy for a particular time, place, way of life.
I could see you relating to this record, knowing those stories are attached to it. I’m a fifth of six. I’m not the youngest; there’s, my younger brother, he’s like, a year and a half younger than me, but six of us, you know, same sort of deal. My oldest brother is eight, maybe nine years older than me.
What prompted Steven and me to do this now, I think, is this: A lot of our audiences are going to be people who are 18-25 years old. That’s just the music listening audience. A lot of the audience is all other ages, including people in their 90s. But a lot of them are young people. When you play shows, you always think, “What are these people going to relate to?” I think this stuff is just so old and so otherworldly. And so unrelatable. I could be singing about a great adventure in outer space or something; it’s just so foreign to you if you’re young.
I think about hearing the Beatles singing “Strawberry Fields Forever” when I was seven or eight years old. People say a lot about the Beatles’ music. You find that “Strawberry Fields” is a place that John Lennon remembered from when he was a child. But at seven or eight, I didn’t care. I didn’t think, “Is this real or not?” Whatever it meant, it was something that exploded in my mind. It didn’t have to be real.
So, part of what we liked about us delving so far back is that some people would relate to it. And you’re definitely one of them. Because it’s part of your life, but other people would be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But it sounds like fun. I wish I were there.”
There’s this element here, things that come through in the lyrics that are like memories. But maybe they’re memories that come from childhood. And in childhood, sometimes things are happening, but you don’t fully understand. Something isn’t right, but you don’t have language for it or the experience to know what it is.
Stephen and I share this kind of position in our families as probably being awarded the top worrier in the family. My oldest brother doesn’t worry about anything. Never thought about anything. Just said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do it.” Then my mother and I would sit up at four o’clock in the morning worrying about whether he was going to be in a motorcycle accident, if he’s going to die, be killed by a drug dealer. We would have these sorts of nights. Steven is in the same boat. And it’s only because Steven and I know each other so well and that we’ve known each other for so long. We delve into each other’s stories. There are things we’ve both dealt with, and then you say, “What did you feel about that? What did you do about that?”
We do a lot of crazy music, but sometimes we try to hone in on emotional and powerful music. I think our most powerful stuff is connected to that. Being a teenager and having this stuff happening that you can’t do anything about. You can’t stop your brother from going out at two o’clock in the morning, riding his motorcycle around, and you worry that he’s going to die, something’s going to happen, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
As you get older, those sorts of relationships aren’t as deep because you don’t hang around with people like that. They’re just too crazy. You say, “I don’t want to be around you. You’re too weird.” But when it’s your older brother, it’s different. You have a choice when you’re older, but when you’re young and deal with these situations with your parents and siblings, you don’t think, “Oh fuck it, I’m gonna move.”
Music is an escape, and I think especially this type of songwriting, where you’re singing about these things that still haunt Steven and me, and I think they haunt a lot of people. I think that’s what deep emotional songs and things are; they’re connected to this stuff that’s happened to you. Some of it’s horrible, and so it does not turn out good. I think that’s part of what makes finding music great. Finding music is sometimes singing about a situation that is not going to work out, not going to be good, and there is no solution. Yet, you still have to live through it and hopefully be optimistic through it. I think that’s part of what we think about. I think that’s in my life. And I think that’s in Steven’s life, and especially with a lot of these songs.
You mentioned being a worrier, and I wonder if becoming a parent eased any of that for you.
I’ve thought about that, only because I’ve done a lot of interviews, now that my son’s 16-17 months and it comes up a lot. So I feel like I’ve come up with some solution where our little boy needs people to worry about him. He needs someone to take care of him; he needs someone thinking about what’s going to happen to him on a daily basis. That’s my job as a parent. I know how to do that. I will make sure I can do that.
And then I think, by contrast, it shows you things that you don’t need to worry about things, you don’t need to fuck with things. “This person needs my help, but this dude over here does not need my help.” I’m not going to waste my time and energy and love on this person when somebody over here needs it more. That takes time and power and energy away from my little baby.
I think that probably all normal parents do that. Suddenly you go, “This is important; this isn’t.” There’s a lot of decisions to be made in making art and making music and being in a band. Because you’re working with other artists and other musicians, there’s always a few feelings involved. There’s hardly a decision you can make where everybody walks away happy.
But in the big picture, all that is very petty compared to, you know, having the responsibility of making sure this little baby stays alive and taking care of it.
We’re in a mess with this pandemic, and it’s shown me some strange things about time. Since March, I’ve been working from home, and I’ve found that I was really engaged with workaholism before that. Suddenly, I find myself saying, “Some of this stuff I worried about and some of this stuff I threw my shoulder into doesn’t matter.”
I think that is exactly what I would say. Right there with you. This element of time and this serious thing that hangs over us. It’s there all the time. It’s not just a day, and it’s not just a week. It’s there all the time, and it’s touching virtually everybody’s life. Like I talked about with my baby, it sheds light on what’s important and what’s not. And I think you’re exactly right.
For lucky people like you and me, it’s given us a view of something that we would never have had because it would be, like, “Well, there’s work available, and I can do it. There’s not very much time, but I can do it. I can make it work.” I don’t regret that, but I’m so glad that I got to see a different way because I think that I will probably never go back to the way we were working before. Maybe that way shouldn’t ever come back.
It’s just too mobile, too easy, too convenient. Maybe that’s why this Coronavirus is so devastating here in America because everything is so easy. Everything is like, “Yeah, let’s all get together and have a party. Let’s all drink about it. Let’s talk about it.” I think we didn’t realize what a great world we were in but also a world that never stopped. A world that didn’t value taking your time and giving your mind a little space to make a decision and to think about something. That’s definitely what’s changed for me.
The record came out in September, but it was originally scheduled for the beginning of June. We kept pushing it back. We didn’t even know if we were going to stick to the September release for a while. Right now, we would have been playing all around the world. I’d be spending the summer playing in Japan and Australia, flying through Europe and just going 100 miles an hour, like everybody was doing and being exhausted and saying, “Oh, well, that’s all the energy I have.”
I can’t make it any better, but having all this time and all this [has] let me do so much great stuff. I’ve made videos where we’re putting on these space bubble concerts; it takes time to organize and for everything to work out, but we’re making great strides. The other way was great too. But it’s chasing money; it’s chasing a career, it’s chasing interesting things around the world, exciting places to be, exciting people to meet. But that’s not the same as having time and relaxing.
At the very beginning of this pandemic, go back into March and April, we couldn’t believe that. We were lucky that nobody [in our circle] has gotten sick yet or that nothing horrible has happened. But we’re relieved that we didn’t have to go to a concert and then go to an art opening and then a birthday party. This would be virtually every night for us because we would say yes to everything.
So, for the first couple of months of the pandemic, there was nothing to do. It was so amazing. Now, it’s getting to be where there are some things to do and things to say yes and no to again. But early on, it was mind-blowing. Before the pandemic, I thought, “there’s no way we’re going to do this”, and now this is the new normal for me, and I’m completely changed by it.
People seem taken with “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad”. I think we hear it through the prism of 2020: There’s the murder of George Floyd, protests, etc. And this sense of worrying about the people we love, about the future. That song was written before any of these things took place. As a writer, is it strange for you to think about the significance songs take on for people, how songs have unintended consequences?
That song highlights something I went through. Here I am, 16-17 years old, and I’m about to get my head blown off, and I’m worried about my mother. “What’s she going to think. It’s going to be bad for me. But I’ll be dead in a second. Then she’s going to be very sad.”
It’s probably that the times we’re living in now are uncertain. I’ve been uncertain for a long time. It’s kind of letting everyone in on the fact that I’m a worrier. Everybody else is at a six in the worrying zone where before they were at a zero. They didn’t give a fuck. Let’s make money, let’s party, let’s tour. Everybody’s joined in a little bit on the worrying about what’s going to happen to us. Maybe it’s that you hear music that fits with your state of mind, as opposed to getting in a car and hearing music that’s about partying and not giving a fuck anymore.
I think you hear music that says, “I’m concerned. I don’t know how this is going to go, and I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.” I think that’s just the nature of a lot of Flaming Lips music, and I think it’s the nature of a lot of people’s states of mind right now.
Sometimes I think you just have to say these things. You don’t know why. I think that’s part of being a creative person. Ten of the things you’re going to say will be stupid and embarrassing, but one of them will be spot on and so right. You wouldn’t know which one, so you kind of have to just blindly go in and say, “I’m going to say these things. That is true for me, but maybe it’s true for you.” Sometimes, this type of music that we’re doing on American Head is so warm and living and encouraging. It’s telling you that you can really say these things.