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'Music Is a Truth Serum': Wayne Coyne on The Flaming Lips' Latest Record

October 24, 2020

By Adam Swiderski, October 24, 2020

The Flaming Lips hail from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which ostensibly makes them a band from the United States of America. That being the case, one might wonder why a lot of the promo material around the release of their latest record, American Head, cites this as the first time they’ve put themselves out there as “an American band.” Then again, given that they’ve spent the past couple of decades making music about why there should be unicorns, anime-style battles against giant robots, and wizards, one could be forgiven for overlooking their roots.

American Head, however, brings it all back home. While still distinctly Flaming Lips in sound and tenor, it’s grounded in the memories and experiences of frontman Wayne Coyne and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd growing up in Oklahoma City. There are songs about family. There are songs about love. There are songs about death. There are songs about drugs. What could be more American than that?

With American Head having arrived in an America thrown into upheaval by a global pandemic, political unrest, and a massive civil rights movement, Wayne Coyne took some time to chat about the birth of the record, what it means to be an American band, and creativity in a time of crisis. 

I guess my first question is about how you're holding up as we enter the last quarter of this insane year.
In the very beginning, I think we were all just paralyzed that this was going to kill everybody and you really did just hole up in your house waiting for death to come knock on the door. But after a while, especially here in Oklahoma City...we're a big city. We have a lot of area, but not very many people in it. We're already used to social distancing. It seemed like, in the beginning, that we escaped that. Our mayor was very quick to go into quarantine, which we all agreed with and we were like, "Yeah, this is going to be good."

And then I think you hunkered down for those couple of months, but then after a while, you're like, "Well, what do we do now?" And I think by June or July, you're like, "Well, is this..." My job, the way it works, I'm pretty insulated. We could go a long time without making very much money and be fine. But a lot of people that we know don't have jobs and that alone is a devastating thing. But then we started to know more and more people that would be ill or their grandparents would be ill or something. But not overly devastating, not too many bad things happening at the same time.

I never liked saying that we were doing great because it sounds like, "Well, you're doing great. We're all out here. We're all fucked." But we are doing absolutely great. We were relieved to not be traveling around. We would have been going to Asia and Europe and even Australia or something all summer long, and we have a little baby, which we gladly would have taken with us and all that. But this quarantine has given me a new perspective to spending more time with people, spending more time with your arts and music and all that.

Also, the Flaming Lips were not one of these groups that have to, have to perform. We're introverts that love to create music and make records, but we're not performers who have to get out there in front of people or part of us isn't satisfied. We're always a little bit reluctant to stand in front of people and go, "Oh, geez. They're all here to see us do our songs." I think that's why we have a crazy, giant show and all this stuff, so we feel like it's not about us. It's about the music, and it's about the lasers and all that. Yeah, I think in that way, I think we've been really lucky so far.

Photo courtesy of Warner Records.

Is there anything you've been drinking to ride all this out?
Not a big drinker. I mean, we have been quarantined with my wife's mother, so she's with us most of the time and she likes to drink, but if she drinks, she goes crazy. We try to hide it from her. But we're not against it. I mean, when we've been around friends where it all feels like it's workable, we do, but I've never been a big drinker. I think I just get too mean when I start to get drunk, and I always regret, "Oh, I've gotten drunk." I always kick myself. 

Many of the themes explored on American Head are rooted in your past, and your younger years. I was curious if, now that the world has changed as dramatically as it has, with the pandemic, with the events that sparked the biggest civil rights movement we've had in this country in a long time, if that's changed your perspective on this particular record.
I think part of why an album that we would make could feel right for these times is because we worry about everything all the time anyway, even before there was a pandemic or any of this. We're always just too sensitive. And so, I think sometimes in these times, everybody gets a little bit more worried and a little bit more sensitive and a little bit more aware of how you can help people and how you can be kind to people, how your optimism is helping your community. I think that's probably why our music can feel like it works in a time like this, because it's not just crazy party music. It's not saying, "Hey, fuck everybody. Let's just go party." 

If you're doing it honestly, and you're doing it with some love, I think you'll reach some people, because just no one ever really talks about that. Most people don't ever want to talk about it, and most people won't talk about it, honestly. Music is a truth serum. It can get in there and it can say things that you wouldn't dare say if you didn't have the music with you. I think when we're singing about our regrets and our pain and our uncertainty and our being scared and all that, that always resonates with people.

The record deals a lot with your past and moments with your family, things like that, but I wouldn't characterize the feeling of it as nostalgic, necessarily.
Right. When I was seven or eight years old, I would hear the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and people would know, "Oh, that's a park that's down the street from where John Lennon lived," or whatever. But when I was eight years old, I didn't really care. It just sounded like some cool shit, and I didn't think about it being real or fictional or anything. Within the song, I made “Strawberry Fields Forever" mean something to me, regardless of what it actually meant to John Lennon.

I think the same can happen with anybody's music. I can sing about my brother or my mother, but the listener can really interpret that into an abstract, emotional situation. It doesn't really have to be literally what I'm talking about, and that's just from doing music and music and music. We write songs all the time and sometimes you just feel like you have to sing about this thing, but by singing about it, you really are singing about a big universal thing. I'm not singing about my life. I'm singing about everybody's life in a sense, and that's how music makes it all work.

You’ve said that this was the first time you characterized the Flaming Lips as an “American band," in quotes. I'm curious, what for you defines that, and why now was the time to make that distinction?
I think if all this stuff that’s going on now was happening and we were getting ready to name the record something, we probably would be second guessing, "Is that good? It is good to be proclaiming to be an American band?" But since it was all done...we finished most of it probably by the middle of February, and we didn't ever think that we should change it. You don't really know what's going to happen from week to week, and we've made enough records that you don't think of it in that way.

But for us in the beginning, I think we always like to latch on to some type of identity, just so we can hone in on it. Otherwise, I think we just have such a big, fucked-up imagination that it just can go off the rails. I think for Steven [Drozd] and I, we thought of ourselves as being a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-type of group, which we're really not. We really are just some weirdos who like to record music, but we thought to ourselves, "I'll be the singer-songwriter and the Flaming Lips will be the Heartbreakers." 

I think the more that we did that, especially when a song would go really well, it would encourage you to go, "Well, go deeper into that. Let's see how that goes," and I think that's how you want an album to go: You begin to make it, and if it goes too bad or too boring or something, you just lose hope and you go on to something else. But when you begin to make a record and some things really, really work, it pushes you to go, "Ooh, try more, try more." And so, once we got five or six of these singer-songwriter, baring-their-soul-about-the-regrets-of-their-past-and-people-in-their-past-that-have-died-and-died-of-overdoses-and-car-accidents-or-whatever songs, it's like looking through a photo book.

Sometimes, I'll just sing the very beginning of a song that I have. I remember singing that song to Steven, “Mother, I’ve taken LSD. I thought it would set me free, but now I think it’s changed me.” And I could just tell when he heard it, he was like, "Dude, we got to fucking do it. We got to do that song. You can't just sing that and act like that." If I sang that to him and he thought it was stupid, I would gladly go, "Oh yeah, it is. I'll just do something else." It's not that precious to me, but I try to just sing whatever is in my mind. But it definitely is through Steven and through Dave Fridmann and everybody encouraging me, saying, "Well, keep going on that. What happened after that?" It's that. You have to bare your soul and hope that it's not too embarrassing to go on.

When you think of Tom Petty or these classic Americana bands, is honing in on experiences or memories or moments with family something that you latched onto as characteristic?
Yeah, and part of it is that we've been a band for a long, long time, and Steven and I do have a secret code of what things can mean to each other. And when I wanted to use that's my oldest brother that's on the album cover. It's a picture from 1969, I think, when he was in our backyard. It's a picture that my sister-in-law had. I'd never seen it before, and when I saw it a couple of years ago, I wanted to turn that into an album cover. When Steven saw it, it reminded us of a Ken Burns documentary.

And so, we started to think that we would make this seem like a Ken Burns documentary, parts of it. Some of the string arrangements and some of the tonalities and stuff that we would use would be more like that. It's Americana, but it's a very specific thing, and we have our own language of what we think sounds American. There are the harmonies that a group like the Carpenters would use that are very specific to them. You hear other groups do things like the Beach Boys, but no one does it like these original American groups. 

And it doesn't mean that we don't like English groups or Spanish groups or Japanese groups. I mean, we love all music. This was just a way for us to say, "Let's see if we can make it like this." I feel like the more we did that, the more we found ways to make that work. And then we didn't realize how many of our stories were about death and drugs and people doing crazy shit. And then you look at the record and it's all a bunch of people taking Quaaludes and selling pot. But I mean, that's what we are. We're singing about who we are.

I was curious about Kacey Musgraves’ contribution to the record, how she came to be involved, and what the process of working with her on this record was like.
Well, and I think her being a quintessential American singer-songwriter, once we knew she was going to be on three of the songs, that helped us even more be like, "Let's make it be this type of record." We were fans of hers over the past couple of years, and everybody would always mention, "She has things that she does that are like the Flaming Lips," even in her stage show. But we didn't really know her. 

But Steven's daughter I think was 12, so a couple of years ago, and she was listening to Kacey's last record just nonstop. Steven would drive to school, and that's all they'd listen to, and then they’d listen again coming back from school. Steven knew this Kacey Musgraves record better than anybody, because his daughter was stuck listening to it all the time. He was loving Kacey Musgraves and we were starting to think we'd like her to sing on a song or something if we could, but we didn't really know her and we didn't really know how we could make this happen. 

Then, not this last summer, but the previous summer, when she played at Bonnaroo on her big, Saturday night headlining show, for an encore, she did our song, “Do You Realize?” After that happened, everybody sent me texts and said it was wonderful, and we had some inkling that she would maybe want to do a song with us, because she did this song but we didn't really know. But then we started to reach out little by little. I knew the bass player in her group and I sent him a track and I said, "Hey, do you think you could get Kacey to listen to this and see if she would be interested?" And he said he would try, and she did, and then little by little, she got a hold of me and was like, "Hey, this is a cool song. I'll do that."

That turned into one song, and that turned into two songs, and then by the time we knew that we were going to record with her, only just a couple of hours in one night in Nashville, I was desperate to prepare three things, just so if we got lucky and one went good, we had more time, we could do two, and then if that went good, we'd do three. I was just being very proactive about being prepared to have her give us a little bit of time. But she's such an amazing singer and she's so good and she was very well-rehearsed. Sometimes you run into people and they don't even listen to the music before you go to do it, but she had listened to it a lot and she knew exactly what she was going to do.

It all happened really fast, and then she really liked it. You don't always know what's going to happen, but then she ended up really liking it. I think it's mostly that she probably was tired of me bugging her to be involved in our music, and she thought, "It's probably easier just to be on one of their fucking songs than it is to keep telling him, ‘No.’” That's probably more what happened.

Photo by George Salisbury.

In the press notes that came along with “Flowers of Neptune 6,” it sounds like she contributed a little spiritually too, as well as musically.
Yeah, the conversations that we had previous to recording with her did set that up. The part about doing acid and watching the lightbugs, she related a story of that. Once that was in our lyrics, she said, "Did you write this based on a story that I told you?" and I said, "No, it's just a story that Steven and I were just talking about." And she said, "That exact thing happened to me. It's like you already have a song about this thing that happened to me," and then she told me the story where she took acid and she got this little lightbug and took it inside and danced around with it. And then we made the other song, “Watching the Lightbugs Glow,” from her story.

You start creating something, and then it creates itself, and it's her and it's us and it's all a big mesh, which is really what you want. I think that really is the perfect definition of being inspired. When people are honest with each other, you do discover that you can be very like-minded.

And so, in the beginning we would talk about taking acid and then I would just say, "Man, I can't really take acid because it's too much of a freak-out." And then she said, "Yeah, I understand I've done that a couple of times and I just thought I was going to go insane." And when people are being honest with each other, it can go a long way really quickly. And so, I think we were discovering that we were a lot alike, even though we didn't really know each other, just by knowing that we're going to do a little bit of music together. So, yeah, I think I'll probably be friends with her for the rest of my life..

You’ve said in other interviews that a lot of this record was about coming to grips with the feeling sparked by memories of life in Oklahoma, your past, your family, etc., for you and Steven. Now that you've done that, have you given any thoughts to where you and the band go from here?
Well, yeah, in my moments of panic. I think whenever we get finished with an album, even during this, I still feel like we're still finishing it because we're all still talking about it and thinking about it. I never think that we'll ever do another album again. I mean, I said that in 1983 when our first record came out—like, "Fuck, how are we ever going to come up with another record again? I have absolutely no ideas." Now, we've made 30 records. Part of what makes us excited about music is, "OK, we've done this. We've done this and it's given us a platform by which we can do more music."

It really all just comes down to songs. I write songs all the time, and so does Steven. And so, we'll get together before too long and I'll say, "What do you have," and he'll say, "What do you have?" And we'll start to put things together and if we feel like we have a couple of really great things, we would start to move on it and say, "What's this going to be? What's this going to sound like and what's it going to feel like?" And once that happens, you really just give in and say, "Well, all right. Now we're doing it." But that's always the dilemma. Once you start to do it, you're doing it. But before you start to do it, you just don't think you can ever do it again.

For me, it's like, I'm sure something will start to happen, but I don't really want to be obsessed with another record just now. Once I get obsessed with it, it's like I'll kill someone that gets in the way and I didn't really want that right now because it's an uncertain next eight months or something. It's like, "What's going to happen here?" I'm holding off getting too involved in something because it just kills everybody. Everybody's got to be on board and everybody's got to be doing stuff. I think everybody's relieved that the moment that we've all survived COVID and people like our record, and let's just not get too insane real quick yet.

A lot of creative people I know have talked about this moment in time being a damper on their creative energy. Have you felt that, or have you found it a creatively fruitful period?
For me, it's just been the opposite, but my place is set up so everywhere that I go in my house where I'm locked in, I can do a painting or I can do some music and I can play an instrument and I can record and I can do a drawing. For me, being locked in my house is just a thousand opportunities to do stuff. That's just the way I've set up my house. I don't want to have to go somewhere where I have to be to make music. And so for me, it's just been that here's so much more time to spend here at your house as opposed to being in hotel rooms and airports and doing soundchecks, which is a lot of time.

Being a singer in a group, there's so much time spent traveling and doing stuff, which, I try to embrace all of it and it can all be wonderful, wonderful, great experience. But it's not the same thing as that internal time when you're creating and it's just you influencing the next thing, you doing it again, you trying it again. I mean, it's not great that everybody is worried and everybody's sick and everybody's losing their jobs, but it's been great that I've had lots of uninterrupted time to just do whatever I want to do.

Top photo by George Salisbury.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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