The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne Unveils the Elaborate Backstory of ‘American Head’

For over three decades, the Flaming Lips have turned out tunes that preserve a rock ‘n’ roll tradition of the most thrilling, visceral variety, replete with all the psychedelic subversions of yore, spectacular stage shows that have cultivated a cult of personality, and turns of sequences with every release that no one could have seen coming. Their 2019 album, “King’s Mouth,” was inspired by a sculpture of a king’s head, which had an opening, allowing people to enter another world of music and visuals. Their latest record, “American Head,” has an even more fanciful and captivating backstory. 

While on tour, the band received news of Tom Petty’s death, upon which frontman Wayne Coyne found himself caught in a whirlwind of eccentric ideas. Having known that Petty once stayed in his home state of Oklahoma, in a time when Coyne was only a teenager, Coyne imagined an alternative reality in which Petty and his band bought drugs from Coyne’s drug-dealing older brothers, became strung out, and recorded an album. That isn’t to say that the new Lips record is written in Petty’s voice. The backstory was merely the origin of an idea that assumed various shapes and proportions as the creative juices flowed. And as with all Lips records, it has amounted to something otherworldly. For the first time, the Lips embrace the idea of being specifically American, rather than a floating entity untied to any particular regional locale. It’s a removed concept that becomes apparent to the close listener, attune to the subtleties that Flaming Lips fans should be all too familiar with. Coyne spoke with Entertainment Voice about his wonderfully outlandish ideas, his views on religion, the sounds and lyrics of the album, and his upcoming projects.    

Your latest album, “American Head,” comes with a fascinating backstory: a fantasy stemming from Tom Petty’s stay in your home state of Oklahoma in 1974, when you were 13-years-old. You’ve spoken about how you sought to capture “feelings” that have floated around in your psyche since you were a teen. Expand on these “feelings” that have existed for so long, perhaps giving examples of particular songs. 

I hope that most music is based on feelings, but I just know, for me, with creating it myself, sometimes you just simply create something, and it sounds wonderful, and you say, “Well, there it is, it’s a song,” you know? And sometimes that translates to feelings, but I don’t know if it’s all coming from that. You know, there’s a lot of luck that comes into any sort of creation, from what I call sort of the “inward you” that’s beyond you being able to actually talk to it. So when you’re doing music and singing words and lyrics, it’s a way to sometimes channel, for the good or the bad, whatever the deep internal stuff is, because I don’t know why, whatever music does to you, it touches all elements of you at the same time, or something. But sometimes that’s just a little bit of a song. You still have to come back to just being a normal human, and you have to put the rest of it together. So Steven and I would try our best to know that we want to get somewhere into something that’s a feeling, so a lot of our songs would begin with me singing you know, “Mother, please don’t be sad.” And that seems to be one new way that we probably wouldn’t have done a couple of albums ago. I think we stumbled upon an element of storytelling type of music that kind of tells you what kind of story it is. 

I’ve used this analogy before. You’ll be talking to a friend, and they’ll say, “Let me tell you about my dream that I had last night,” and, for me, I always, in my mind, say, “Oh jeez, I hope this isn’t like a three hour-long dream.” I always kind of say, “Is this going to be long or short? Because if it’s going to be long, I’m not sure I want to hear a long, weird dream of yours” (laughs). So I want music to kind of do that same thing. I want to know, “What are we getting into here?” With a lot of the music on “American Head,” we set it up like, “Oh, I know what kind of song this is going to be, what kind of story this is going to be. I know it has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. We know where we’re going.” So that, I think, helped us a lot, and that would be the element that we think of as this rooted, sort of American, Tom Petty, Heartbreakers type of singer-songwriter kind of vibe.   

Having always conceived of the Lips as a band from Earth in general, you claim to have felt distinctly American on this new album, which is full of your trademark psychedelic instincts. What makes the new record particularly American?

Well, I don’t really know if what I think sounds American really does. These would all be subjective colorings. When you’re creating something, you do just use your own subjective view, because otherwise, you don’t know what to say, really. But we would probably even use the filmmaker Ken Burns, and the music he uses in his American documentaries. Even that would help guide us. I’m a musician, but I don’t really know, you know, American scales versus European scales versus Asian Scales, but I know when it doesn’t sound American (laughs). I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want. 

We would slowly go towards things that were more like, “Oh, it’s that whatever that is!” I think a lot of musicians work that way. And then, probably at only five or six of the songs done, we knew that we were going to call it “American Head,” and that helped us to too, to say, “Let’s hone in on a certain thing here,” and then I think we just got absolutely lucky, because you don’t really know if songs are going to end up being good or boring or weird. You really just have to pray to the gods of music that they give you some songs. It’s that crazy. You just don’t know. So once we had five or six really great, emotional songs, we were like, “I think we can do it,” but it all comes down to the songs. And I think finding the format, the music comforting you, the music loving you, the music helping you to sing painful stories from when we were young and teenagers and I’m almost 60-years-old, so, for me, I wouldn’t really have wanted to sing about my mother while she was alive because it would embarrass her, like, “Wayne, don’t do that!” So now, I kind of feel like, you know. 

There’s a vibe of ‘70s drugs and all that that we weave into that, that we’ve never done before, because I think some of the references, now, that we’re using — when I say something like, “at the movies, on quaaludes,” I think a lot of people would have no idea what I’m talking about which I like now. I didn’t like it ten years ago or twenty years ago because I felt like some people would know and some people won’t, but now I feel like it’s so bizarrely of another time that it’s kind of like singing about kings and queens and dragons and things. It’s in another world, and in that way, I like it. 

There is plenty of overlap between the new songs. The lyrics of “Flowers of Neptune 6” include the title of “Watching the Lightbugs Glow,” while those of “Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” include that of “When We Die When We’re High.” Tell us about how the songs relate to one another.

Well, I think that’s what happens to songwriters when they’re given some encouragement and something to aim for. You’re working on one song, and suddenly, three more will erupt, because you’ve just got this theme going, and you start going, “Oh, let’s do this.” So, some of these songs would be just one long song that would go on for twenty minutes, and then we would just say, “That would be better if we made that three or four songs.” You can hear that those songs are actually connected. It is one connected thing to us, but we feel like for the listeners, it’s going to be a lot easier if we just divide it up. It’s not that hour-long dream I was telling you about (laughs). 

“Dinosaurs on the Mountains,” “Mother I’ve Taken LSD,” and “Assassins of Youth” all touch upon, in different ways, the loss of childhood innocence, as one learns about the danger and sadness of life. Why was this such a prominent theme on the album? 

Well, I guess a part of it, I wouldn’t have been able to know it at the time, is probably because we have a little baby of our own he’s just a year and a half old and so, you know, part of you now has accepted that you’re the dad of this little boy, and it does free you from feeling that you’re still a little boy, but being free from that comes with new insight about it, so probably some of that. And there’s just a tone to some of this music, and it’s not all my music. Steven and I, we work a lot together, where he has something very emotional and very melodic, and I try to sing whatever it evokes in me, and sometimes it does evoke these really powerful, sad, but great memories from when I was young, and I don’t try to change them. I try to just be pure to whatever it was that his music evoked in me, but like anything you do, you can change your mind, and you can not put it out. You can change it at the end or something. So I would just try to chase whatever it evoked as best as I could. That thing in “Dinosaurs on the Mountain,” that is just a truism of sensitive, young people. It’s just devastating. And it’s not devastating to me now; it’s just a devastating thing to go through. You don’t realize you’re young until you’re not. You just can’t know you’re young. Being young doesn’t include knowing you’re young. (Laughs) It’s a motherfucker. But I think it is a great format for emotional music. I think that’s why music really was invented. It speaks of a language that you don’t have that language in just words and stuff. It’s just filled with this colorful emotion that you can’t articulate. 

Did Covid-19 and the general bizarreness of 2020 influence this emphasis on a cold, hard world? Did it factor into the music in any other way?

No, I mean we were finished making it by the end of January, but as times went on, it seemed absolutely connected to it. There could have been no way that we could have known that back last year and all that, but I agree, it does feel like there’s something in there. 

Kacey Musgraves features in the wild narrative of “God and the Policeman, and contributes to a couple other tracks. It’s a unique collaboration, although not really, coming after collabs with  Kesha, Erykah Badu, and Miley Cyrus. How did you end up working with Musgraves and how did her inclusion shape the sound of the record? 

Right. I think we worked with Kesha first, and then Erykah Badu, and the Miley thing turned into a big collaboration. I think we probably were more weird, and they were probably more normal than the Kacey Musgraves-Flaming Lips collaboration now. I mean we seem slightly weird, but she’s not all that normal, so there’s a little bit like that’s not that bizarre, definitely not as bizarre as the Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus, you know. And I think we were making music that we felt she could really work on. It wouldn’t seem all that weird. It might seem weird if you just think about the Flaming Lips and Kacey Musgraves, but the music itself, it doesn’t feel that weird that she’s on it. And we really were loving her stuff. Over the past few years, we’ve really come to love her. And Steven’s daughter she’s just 12 now, listened to her just every day, and so Steven knew every bit of every song that Kacey Musgraves had, and so, we started to think, “Let’s see if we could get her to sing on the record,” and she was really the only one that we were trying to get. And we got ahold of her bass player, and then, little by little, we let him know, “Hey, do you think Kacey would like to sing?” and then he gave her one of the songs, and she really loved it, and then she got ahold of me, and it was just, sheer dumb luck, but we really felt like we were making music that would be a great compliment to the music, and would really work. It wouldn’t just be a wacko, bizarre mashup (laughs).

I know people that have seen Kacey Musgraves really for a long time now, and people have always told me that there’s a little bit of the Flaming Lips in what she does, and I knew that, and really, once we met her and talked to her and stuff, it’s very true. Some of the songs we made just for her. By the time we got to the “God and the Policeman Track,” that was made knowing that she was going to sing on it. We sent it to her, she loved it, and so we were kind of off, like, “Oh alright, we’ve got some great tracks here.” Having someone like her love your songs and being so generous and being so encouraging, it makes you feel pretty great, you know? 

Flaming Lips records always abound with thrilling, mend-bending sounds. Tell us a little about the sonics of this album the musical direction that you see it representing, and particular musical moments that stand out to you.

Right. We don’t really have anything about being authentic or being pure or any of that. We don’t really care if it’s made on computers or tape machines. We don’t have any stance on that. Whatever sounds cool, we do it, you know? But we do know that some different tones and those different textures, they affect the way the story is being told. We like being bombastic, and we like being gentle, and it’s hard to put those two together at the same time. So some of the drum tracks are just a strange combination of a really loud drum kit being slowed down. We would put it on a tape machine, and then that would go really fast, and then, when we would play it at normal speed, it would all be slow. And then, for some of the beats, we did the opposite. We would slow the tape down, play the drums to it, and then, when we’d play it back at normal speed, they would be really sped up. They would be at the speed of the song, but they’d be very small, little sounds, so a lot of different ways to try and get this bombast and this really gentle, storytelling, kind of classic rock, but not sloppy classic rock, you know? And some of it is electronic, and some of it is real, and some of it is just a strange combination of both. But almost every cymbal that you hear on the drumkit is a cymbal that we recorded back in 1997. It’s a slow crash cymbal that has just the right amount of this sonic distortion on it, and we just have never found a better crash, so even when we’re playing drum kits a lot of times, we don’t really use the cymbals, because we replace it with this sample that we made a long, long time ago. So that’s always kind of fun, to know that you’re working in a bizarre world. 

And then, we do sometimes say we’re not going to use acoustic guitars because they evoke a kind of singer-songwriter vibe, but with this, we use lots and lots of acoustic guitars, almost every song, I think. We use real acoustic pianos. Sometimes we use more electronic keyboard sounds. And the orchestra patches, a lot of them are just a construct of us using different keyboard patches and apps, and overdubbing. And those have really got refined over the past ten years, to where they’re just absolutely gorgeous. You can really play like a hundred-piece symphony orchestra and not trying to sound futuristic, and not trying to sound old-fashioned, just really trying to sound authentic even though we don’t really care about being authentic or pure. It really just is in the sound. A lot of times, people think that we record with real orchestras, and we have little pieces here and there, but we’ve never made albums with whole orchestras. It’s just samples and us playing it. And Steven and Derek, their music abilities are really so insane that you can pile on these harmony vocals that really have just a lot of nuance sevenths and ninths, and all these little pieces of tonal stuff that you know, it’s ornate, in a way, and sometimes we don’t want that. It sounds like singers. Sometimes, we don’t want to sound like singers. Sometimes, we don’t want to sound like singers; we want to sound like a volcano. 

“Brother Eye” seems to revisit a theme of survivor’s guilt, expressed in the opener “Will You Return When You Come Down.” It builds along a tone, repeating a bit like a wavering heartbeat, and mutating as if to suggest uncertainty. Was such a connection to the lyrics intentional? Also, expand on the thread of survivor’s guilt.

You’re exactly right. It was one of the last songs that we came up with, and it was based on these things that we had already recorded, and we kept having this desire and this feeling that, “Let’s put a song to this minimal type of vibe,” like you’re saying, the heartbeat-sort of sound. And that really drove what the song was going to be. So it really is based on the feeling. The music is giving you a feeling, and you can keep trying to understand what it’s saying. So that would be a song that we wouldn’t have had at the beginning, while we were creating the songs, but once you create a good number of songs, some of them keep resonating again, and it would go back to being a song that should be a twenty-minute song, and we then, we just divide it up. So there’s definitely some of that happening, where we just keep finding another little way of expressing this thing. And melodies and little words, you just don’t know what that explosion is going to do in your mind, and sometimes that’s really just what’s happening. You said these words, and this chord changed, and this tempo went to this, and you just hope that you can do it — because I’m not really a very good musician. I could never really just improvise and make stuff up, but you have to. You kind of have to make stuff up, and hope that it works. And sometimes, just making up a melody and words all at the same time, you really had so little control what’s blurting out of you, and sometimes it really is amazing, (laughs), so hopefully, you listen to it back, and you think, “Oh, that’s great,” instead of it being embarrassing or whatever. 

Your single “My Religion Is You” features lyrics like “Buddha’s cool / And you’re no fool,” and “If Hari Krishna maybe is the thing for you / Hey that’s cool,” building up to the titular line. Do you aspire to be the ultimate hippie? 

Well, yeah — but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing (laughs).

(Laughs). On a more serious note, tell us about the song’s harmonious message.

Well, I don’t like a word like “atheist,” and I don’t like “vegan.” If I say I’m an atheist, I feel like it implies that I think you’re stupid if you believe in god or religion, and I don’t think that. I can think one thing from my own experiences, and you can think whatever you want that you feel helps you. My older brothers and I went to a Catholic school, and there would always be a lot of religious stuff. I wouldn’t really know what they were talking about. I would ask my mother, “Why did Jesus die for us?” Like what is that? I didn’t want Jesus to die for us. And she would explain it like, “It’s just a story for people that don’t have someone that really loves them,” and I knew in my family, my mother and father and all my brothers and sisters, we all loved, loved, loved each other, and just took care of each other. So she would just say, “It’s not really for you, because you have all these people that love you, but a lot of people out there don’t have anyone that loves them.” And I thought, “Well, my religion is really you.” I didn’t like going to school. I liked being home with my brothers and my mom and dad. I was glad I went after a while, but I didn’t like it when I was really young, and I would just be like, “Why do I have to learn about that religion when you’re my religion?”

We would go to things in town where there’s a psychic reading, and part of us would be skeptical, and part of us would be entertained, and part of us would just be like, we’ve just got to go see what the fuck this stuff is. And we went one time, and the psychic tried to include everybody, so you write a story, and she picks the one that she’s going to address, and a lot of it would be silliness or whatever. But one time we went, and there was a family that was absolutely distraught, and their 14-year-old daughter had disappeared, four or five years previous, and they never found out anything. And they were in their psychic reading, and they asked the psychic woman if she could reach their daughter and tell the family what happened. And I’m sitting in there, and this is like the heaviest shit there could ever be. And the psychic comes back, and she says, “Yeah, I’ve talked to your daughter, here’s what happened,” and that everything’s ok, and not for you to be grieving so horribly anymore, that everything’s ok. She really said that, and they really felt great about it. I saw them transformed by this thing that, to you and I, maybe seems like it’s ridiculous, or whatever. And that’s what I mean by it. I don’t care what it is. If you have that type of psychic pain going on, I don’t care what you call it that gets you through it. That’s cool by me and that’s why I say anything if it’s Buddha, if it’s Hare Krishna, if it’s Jesus, if it’s Satan, I don’t care. It’s all the same thing to me. 

You released “King’s Mouth” last year, the “Deap Lips” collab earlier this year, and now “American Head,” producing music at a rate unmatched since your ‘86-’90 period. What’s coming next, and has lockdown at all put a dent in your productivity? 

Well, the “King’s Mouth” record, I probably thought it was going to be finished three years earlier (laughs). Sometimes, something is almost done, but it remains almost done for like a year. And, yes, we did the “Deap Lips” album earlier this year. We just do an insane amount of stuff. And the lockdown has helped me get some of them done more in time. We did a bunch of country music covers for a movie. What the lockdown has done is helped me just finish things in the time that we’re making them, as opposed to, (laughs), too many things overlapping at the same time. And we do a lot of stuff. We are insane that way. If someone wants to do something, I just fucking go for it. I don’t know if we’ll have another record out in another year — hopefully not, because this record, there’s a lot to promote, and a lot to do. So in that way, I hope that I don’t have too many projects happening. But we do have one other thing that we’re working on. It’s a Canadian girl that just goes by the name of Nell. She’s a 13-year-old singer-songwriter that we just have come to know over the past couple of years. We just got finished doing an album where she’s the singer, and the Flaming Lips are kind of a group behind her, and it’s nine Nick Cave songs. I know. 

Nick sings so baritone, and she’s quite a high singer, but for her to interpret the Nick Cave stuff, it’s not so, so high. It’s in a comfortable range for her, and yet, it’s the exact same music, just she’s up an octave. It’s just amazing. I would never have put those two together, but once she started to do it, I was like, “I think it’s really going to work,” and to her, this is not a joke. It’s just beautiful, cool songs to sing, and really exploring the lyrics and the stories behind it. Everytime we would get a song, she would talk a little bit about, “Yeah, this is what was happening to Nick, and he was singing about this,” and just really in-depth, cool stuff. I don’t know when it’s going to come out, but I know it just got finished. So that’s a great product of the Covid lockdown. 

American Head” releases Sept. 11 on Apple Music.