About a decade before the Flaming Lips formed in Oklahoma City in 1983, Wayne Coyne was in his early teens, hanging out with his older brothers and sister and their friends, who were into cool music, drugs and motorcycles. Sometimes they'd see bands and hit the bars. By the time he was sixteen, Coyne had a bike of his own and an apartment where he dealt pot.
"I'm so lucky that I didn't get killed by a drug dealer or thrown in jail or any of that," Coyne says. "Or get in a motorcycle accident."
On the Flaming Lips' new album, American Head, which drops on September 11, the 59-year-old Coyne wanted to revisit those days, using imagery from his teenage years in the ’70s as a backdrop. About three years ago, Coyne and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd began penning a few songs: "Mother I've Taken LSD," about Coyne's older brother telling their mom he'd taken acid; "Dinosaurs on the Mountain," about Coyne taking family trips; "You n Me Sellin' Weed," a nod to Coyne's marijuana dealing days; and "My Religion Is You," about a conversation Coyne had with his mother about religion.
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Some of the songs were mellow and somber, while Coyne says "My Religion Is You" is optimistic but sad — a mood that defines many of the band's releases over nearly four decades. Those four songs set a relaxed and lush tone for what would become American Head, which they worked on between King's Mouth and the live album the band recorded at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony, both of which were released last year.
"I think once we once we found this type of sound and this format that we felt comfortable in, it started to really work," Coyne says of American Head.
Coyne and Drozd went on to write more songs in a similar vein, both looking back at their childhoods. Tom Petty's death, says Coyne, made them look at the "American singer-songwriter tragic drugs/death/suicide thing that we knew were really a part of our life, but we've never really sung about them in such a simple way."
Coyne was always afraid of heavy drugs because he was afraid of overdosing, getting thrown in jail or having a drug dealer kill him. At seventeen, he had a brush with death during an armed robbery at the Long John Silver's where he worked. He sings about it for the first time in "Mother Please Don't Be Sad."
Not long before the robbery, Coyne had heard about a guy who murdered a family and six employees at a Sirloin Stockade restaurant in Oklahoma.
"This guy and his brother and his crazy wife were on this rampage through Oklahoma, and they killed a man, his wife and their twelve-year-old boy up in northern Oklahoma and then came to Oklahoma City and killed six people at this steak restaurant. It was big news, and they didn't catch him for the longest time. And so, this was news, and I think it's always news if you work at a fast-food restaurant. You're always aware of any robbery that's going on in your town. This was horrible to think — they rounded the people up, and they shot him in the head in the walk-in cooler."
When some guys with guns burst into Long John Silver's, that was on Coyne's mind.
"When it was happening," Coyne says, "I just accepted, 'Oh, this is how they died. This is what happened to them.' I just really accepted that I was going to die. It seemed very normal or very plausible or very much like 'Look, this is how those other people die.'"
While lying on the ground during the robbery, Coyne thought about his mother; if he died, she would wonder where he was, because every day on his way back to his apartment, he would take his dirty uniform to her to wash.
"I think because that happened to me," Coyne says, "I really did change the way I viewed life, and it did give me a glimpse as to what was important and what was petty. And to be seventeen and be given such a great gift. I realized, 'Wow, this was an insane, life-changing moment, and it never happened to me again. It's never happened to nybody that I know. I would have never predicted that, but I was right at the time when I probably was being more insecure about being an artist and pursuing music and all that."
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After that, Coyne quit caring what people thought. He just knew he wanted to be in a rock-and-roll band, go places, do crazy shit. So in 1983, he formed the Flaming Lips, the only band he's ever had.
Fast-forward nearly four decades and sixteen studio albums later, and the band would usually be in summer tour mode, having played a June date at the Mission Ballroom, which got pushed back to February 2021 because of COVID-19. As of now, the show is still on the books, but Coyne is unsure whether the band will postpone performances again.
In the meantime, he says the group has done a few gigs, playing just a few songs. The bandmembers perform from within the plastic bubbles Coyne has used on and off for more than a decade. He's ordered another hundred bubbles, and he's considering doing more shows with the band and audience members in them.
"I'll probably do a show and see how it goes, and say we were starting to do shows in a different way," Coyne says. "I mean, I'm kind of at the mercy of what the world decides, but part of me thinks the world could start to think of a new way to do things as opposed to just waiting for the old ways to come back."