Bubble Concerts: The Flaming Lips Make Sanitization Fun & Trippy


The Bubble Concerts

The Flaming Lips Make Sanitization Fun & Trippy

From the early days when The Flaming Lips strung hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights to frontman Wayne Coyne appearing at Coachella in a giant bubble, the band has always been on the bleeding edge of performance innovation. 

Now, in the age of COVID, The Flaming Lips are taking the bubble to the next logical extension by announcing  a Dec. 11 concert at The Criterion in Oklahoma City in which not only will the entire band be ensconced in plastic bubbles, but so will 100 lucky concertgoers in an attempt at ultimate social distancing. The gig quickly sold out, prompting the band to announce a second show at the venue on Dec. 10.

Pollstar spoke with Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker and road manager/guitarist Derek Brown about not just the upcoming “bubble shows,” but the band’s history of seemingly wacky, but always innovative, performances.

Pollstar: To start from the beginning with The Flaming Lips, innovation has been a part of this – well, you tell me. Is that just part of the DNA of the Lips?

Scott Booker: It was part of the DNA of Wayne [Coyne]. What was great was we played Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., and every single inch of that room was covered with Christmas lights. And we had five gas-powered generators outside just running Christmas lights. But that moment when he hit the guitar and the Christmas lights came on, there was nothing more magical. 

The bubble concert idea was posted on Instagram in April. Fans were into it, and Wayne decided to do it?

SB: It was in April or March, really early in the pandemic. The process was, “Well, how many bubbles?” I think the next phase was when we did a video shoot for Stephen Colbert’s show. We had about 20 people in the audience in bubbles because that was all the bubbles we had. 

You don’t have to have a lot of bubbles for Wayne. We did the video shoot and they showed it on “Colbert” and it, like everything, was like, “OK, well, let’s see if this even worked.” We feel like it’s safe. Wayne’s never in the bubble more than five or six minutes, I think. Can you be in the bubble for a long period of time? How many people can be in the bubble, and so on? 

There was some experimentation of how this is going to work. That was kind of the first step and then it was like, I think you put three of our road crew people in a bubble for a couple hours and they didn’t die. [laughs].

But then, a couple of months later, you put in the order for 100 plastic bubbles with China.

SB: There’s several firms that make them in China and India. And, of course, I mean, this sounds crazy to talk about, but you do have to consider that we’re in a trade war with China. Am I going to order this stuff and then they show up three years later or get stuck at customs and there’s double the tariff on it? 

But there’s even a philosophical built-in language issue when you’re talking about stuff like this because I don’t think they quite understood what we were trying to do. Trying to explain we’re going to put 100 people in bubbles to watch a rock concert and they’re like, “You’re going to put rocks in bubbles?” And we’re like, “No, no [laughs].” 

We’ve worked with them before we knew that they were reliable. And so we got it down to a price. 

And the price is one thing. But then the shipping, getting it here, how long is it going to take to get here? Then, what’s going to happen with the pandemic between now and then? There were all these questions. But it was an investment in ourselves. Like everyone, during the pandemic, we’re struggling for money. We don’t know if we can make a nut to have everyone be able to pay their mortgages or whatever. But fortunately, we live in Oklahoma. And the thing about Oklahoma is it’s inexpensive to live here so we can. 

I’m also the band’s accountant. So we sat there, Derek and I and Wayne, and we talked about it. “Okay. This is how much it’s going to cost for the bubbles. If it turns out we can’t do a show, are we going to hate ourselves for buying these bubbles?” And we came to the conclusion we’d always figure out something to do with the bubbles. So we bought the bubbles. 

Then, how are we going to space people out to where people are apart from each other? 

The good news/bad news is that this has to be done in a big venue, because the bubbles take up a lot of space. The size of the floor would have to be a minimum of what might have – probably a 2,000-cap room, really.

So, you need about 1,600 square feet to do this?

SB: You’re looking at a 2,000-cap floor, really. And no one’s making money. Even at the price tier we have, our gross is $31,000. Insurance is going to cost a couple grand. You just go down the list of everything. It’s not like anyone’s making real money. 

You can see there’s four rows of bubbles times 10, at $400 a bubble. There’s three rows of bubbles times $300 a bubble. And there’s three rows of bubbles times $200 a bubble. You’re in a room that normally holds 3,500 people. 

This is another one of the great things about being in Oklahoma. We have a great relationship with The Criterion and the people that run it. And they were like, “Let’s do it.” And so we did the video shoot, and we got people in the bubbles. 

I timed it – in 21 minutes we got all 100 bubbles full of people. And then we spent about an hour working on the two videos because you had to do it multiple times. It told us that “OK, this works.” 

 I think there was one person who had to get out of the bubble, and even that, it’s not that big of a deal. You get unzipped. You leave and  you go do your thing, and then you come back, and we blow back up. It takes something like 20 seconds to blow up the bubble with a leaf blower. 

So you have to go in the bubble, and then you add air to it? You have to blow it up?

SB: Yeah, you get in the bubble when it’s deflated. And then there’s a zipper that’s about two or three feet long. It’s a reverse birth, and you’re going back into the womb. And then we blow the womb up, and you’re in there. 

We put a couple bottles of water in there and a towel in case it gets too hot and sweaty. You can wipe it off. We felt like the sound wasn’t great, so we’ve set up an FM transmitter. So we’ve got these little extra speakers that people are going to be given, too, and carrying around their neck.

Oh, cool.

We’ll see what they do with it. But we add some high end into the bubble. It’s plenty loud in there. It’s like a regular show. 

If you’re up close, you see great. If you’re further back, you don’t see as great. But hey, if you’re 5’ 4” and in the back of the room, you don’t see great, too. So I mean it’s very similar to a rock ‘n’ roll concert experience.

Do the bubbles move? Are we rolling around in a bubble?

SB: They move, but you’re not moving around the room. It’s 10 rows of 10, you’re surrounded by other people who all want to be as close to the stage as possible, but you’re limited by what it is. So at the end of the night, when everyone leaves, we’d released one row at a time so that’s done in a way that’s safe. So it’s not everyone leaving all at once.

During the bubble show, are you going to be in the bubble, or are you going to just be out on stage? 

Derek Brown: The band will all be in bubbles. We have two drummers. They’ll be in one together. We’ve ordered this bigger bubble.

For two drum kits?

DB: It’s like an igloo. You’ll see some restaurants where they have seating outside or whatever and use them. But yeah. At this point, we’re a seven-piece band live, so we’ll all be in bubbles

The bubble show sold out, and then the second one was added. 

SB: Yeah. The second show is going on sale Monday at 10 a.m. We had no idea if the first one was even going to sell out. I mean, it’s a lot of money for a bubble. And we struggled with that. I think the second one will sell out pretty quick, too, considering how quick this one did and how many people have been like, “Oh, I need them.” 

The idea is we want to do a series throughout the pandemic. As many as we can in Oklahoma, with possibly going to other cities. But my vision is more along the lines that maybe we pick four areas of the United States and we go find a venue that would let us sit there for a week or two and do multiple shows.

Do you think you’ll do a tour or not with these?

SB: Not a tour in a regular way. I think that’d be really difficult to do. Right now, we couldn’t play in New York if we wanted to but maybe we can in Providence, RI. And people from the area could come there. 

Are you guys taking other precautions? You mentioned masks. Is there anything else with sanitization?

SB: The bubbles are cleaned with these blowers, and a CDC-approved cleaner. It kills the virus. There’s a fogger called Pest Monster. And it comes 500 parts per million. And we dilute it to a certain amount that is safe. 

Are there other things at all with testing or just hand sanitizers or?

SB: Outside, their temperatures get checked. We’ve put circles outside where you’re supposed to stand to get in line. We only let one row in at a time. So there’s distance between everyone. Even at the end of the show, we would purposefully let people out of the bubbles at a pace so there’s not 100 people all at once just leaving.

Has the band practiced inside the bubbles together?

SB: We’ve done some stuff. We did a NPR Tiny Desk in all the bubbles. To do a full-length set on a big stage with full production – we haven’t done it yet. But we’re going to rehearse it before this happens. 

It’s going to be a full production show with confetti and balloons and the video wall and all the things that a Flaming Lips show is. 

Which is weird and wonderful. 

SB: With Wayne, the funny thing about how The Flaming Lips shows work is the process to do it is painful and mundane. Preparing 100 bubbles, deflating them, putting them in a certain spot, getting them ready – all that kind of stuff is boring. 

But then when it pays off and happens, there’s nothing like it. And that’s the gift Wayne has of being able to convince a group of people to weather through the mundane part to get to the magic.

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