The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne on Tom Petty, Space Bubbles, New LP
The frontman rarely looks back, but 'American Head' is a nostalgic song cycle about childhood pain and longing for home under the "abyss of drugs"
Wayne Coyne never looks back. Every Flaming Lips album since the band’s 1983 inception has logically moved them forward — including collaborative LPs like 2012’s The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, 2017’s Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz and, most recently, the March-issued Deap Vally team-up Deap Lips.
And before the pandemic hit, the frontman’s calendar was already packed: The group barely squeezed in the final sessions of the three-year recording process for their latest LP, American Head; and they announced a slew of tour dates — a precursor to what would have been a June release. But like everyone else in 2020, they found their plans altered.
“By January and February, we were just doing the final touches and said, ‘Well, I think this is going to come out,'” Coyne says from inside the friendly confines of his 2007 Toyota Prius. Then, of course, it didn’t. But it also enabled the Lips to not rush out the ambitious themes that came to define their 18th studio album.
Though he rarely reminisces in his work, American Head evolved from a nostalgic concept — with Coyne inspired by the story of a young Tom Petty and Mudcrutch journeying through Tulsa to Los Angeles in the ’70s. While in Tulsa, Mudcrutch laid down some tracks, and that anecdote helped spark the Lips’ new record.
Picturing them as a young band making their way through town, Coyne realized that Petty and his bandmates might have had received “marijuana, acid or some drugs” from the Lips singer’s older brother and his friends.
“I did sort of fantasize about ‘What would have happened to Tom Petty and the fellas if they’d ran into my older brothers and their really drugged-out friends, and they all got strung out on heroin and didn’t end up becoming Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and instead made some really homesick music?,'” Coyne says. “The more I thought about that, I thought, ‘Man, that’d be a great record.'”
Embodying the spirit of what could have happened to Petty and company during that time, the Lips’ album is full of “cool characters to think about,” with stories of longing for home while under “the abyss of drugs.”
Coyne, armed with a few songs that already explored nostalgia and childhood pain, set the foundation for what became American Head. It’s how a song like “Dinosaur on the Mountain” — which focuses on the youthful longing of a Coyne fantasizing about trees turning into dinosaurs — can fit thematically on this album.
“They’ve gone from being trees that were not extraordinary to being dinosaurs,” he says. “These make-believe dinosaurs that were battling. And now, a long long time later, they’re back to being trees, but they’re as insane and marvelous and crazy as dinosaurs to me now. So that would be why I can sing about them.”
In hindsight, quarantine gave the band breathing room. Had they stuck to that June release, Coyne says, they would have “been very hurriedly putting stuff out playing shows and hoping to not get too exhausted to enjoy it all.” He also says that the deliberate rollout has been manageable during a time when few things are.
That includes shooting videos for American Head and performing in their trademark space bubbles on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “I don’t think anybody could have thought [in] the middle of March that [COVID] would still be going on six months later,” he says. “I mean, even then, we were thinking maybe this is gonna last a couple of months and then we’ll figure up to now.”
Coyne — and, by extension, the Lips — miss touring, especially in the summer. At the same time, the singer says he’s glad to be back in Oklahoma. “It’s the first [time] in probably about 16 years that we’ve actually been home all summer,” he says, incredulously.
Though recent, non-touring months have been “bizarre,” the Lips might have come up with a creative workaround for live shows. Approached by local “venue guys,” they’re brainstorming a way to replicate their Colbert performance with audience members safely moving around in space bubbles.
“That’s gonna be the next phase,” Coyne says. “As the end of September comes along, we’re probably gonna try to do it. As ridiculous as it sounds. I just don’t know how good the concert would be, but I do know the virus wouldn’t be contagious doing it like this.”
And Coyne is still holding out hope for another reason. While some of the Tulsa recordings have emerged on box sets like 2018’s An American Treasure, perhaps there are still some “homesick” gems left to be discovered.
“I still think one of these days someone’s going to show up with some reel-to-reel tape and then say, ‘Dude, you got to hear this.’ This is the Mudcrutch dudes from Tulsa!”