Flaming Lips Frontman Wayne Coyne Talks Space Bubble Concerts & Living The American Dream

The Flaming Lips
Alexa Ace
– The Flaming Lips
debuted the “World’s First Space Bubble Concerts” Jan. 23-24 at The Criterion in Oklahoma City, Okla. More shows are booked in March.

With a series of shows that are being touted as “the World’s First Space Bubble Concerts,” The Flaming Lips have found a way to bring some much needed joy to this dreary, monotonous moment in our history. 

Frontman Wayne Coyne has been crowd surfing over fans in his own hamsterball-like bubble for more than 15 years – starting with The Flamings Lips’ 2004 appearance at Coachella. But the coronavirus pandemic inspired the psychedelic rock band to get inflatable bubbles for the audience, along with the rest of the band, to safely rock out together. 

The Lips debuted its first COVID-safe bubble concerts Jan. 23-24 at the 3,500-capacity Criterion in the band’s hometown of Oklahoma City featuring a reduced-capacity audience of 100 fans in bubbles, following a trial run in October and a June appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”  

The “Fearless Freaks” will bust out the bubbles once again for a run of shows March 11-14 and March 19-21. Each bubble has a capacity for up to three people and tickets are sold per bubble, priced between $200 and $400. Attendees must sign a COVID waiver before attending the concert and face masks are required when not in the space bubble. The shows aren’t about making money. As Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker previously told Pollstar, “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.” (Comparatively, the Lips have an average gross per show of $63,000, according to reports submitted to Pollstar Boxoffice.) 

Coyne talked to Pollstar about how the shows have brought fans together – safely – to once again share in the love of live music. 
Pollstar: Let’s talk about the first time you debuted the space bubble. That was at Coachella in 2004, is that right?   
Wayne Coyne: It was indeed. At the time it was just nerve-wracking. We were making a movie that ended up coming out in 2008, a movie called “Christmas on Mars.” It was our movie that we made ourselves, our little homemade Christmas science fiction movie. In the movie, my character is an alien landing on the surface of Mars. The spaceship that I was imagining my character’s in was based on the bubble that the Good Witch of the West in “Wizard of Oz” comes down to the land of Oz in – it’s like a bubble that floats down. I was trying to find a plastic, see-through bubble to use in the movie, but I could never find one. And then by the time I went to shoot the scene we just did it using computer animation because we didn’t have one. 
But lo and behold, just a little while after we shot the movie, this guy from Italy says, “Hey, I heard you were looking for one of these things” – we didn’t call it space bubbles back then but it was one of these big plastic balls. I got it just a couple of days before we were set to go to Coachella, and I just thought, “Well, I’m going to do this there. I’m gonna try it, and see what happens.” And didn’t really tell anybody because no one would let us do it. I mean, Coachella might let us do it now. But back then, if I would have told them they would have said, “You can’t do this.” So I just did it, and I thought, well, we’ll see if they hate me or if I suffocate in it or whatever.
A lot of people went crazy and all that, but they’re kind of going crazy all day and all night [at Coachella] anyway. But then starting the next day we saw quite a bit on the internet – you know, it wasn’t the internet quite so much as it is now – but a lot of newspapers [were reporting on the bubble]. And I think anybody that was there had an opinion of it being something insane and great.
The Lips got to debut the full-fledged space bubble concert in January.  Was it surreal to look out in the audience and see everyone in bubbles?   
[At the beginning of lockdown] I had made a cartoon I put on Instagram around the idea that in 2020, I would be in the space bubble, along with the band and the audience – a commentary on our time. And none of us knew last March that this would still be going on a year later. I think I speak for everybody, we thought maybe this is going to be a month or maybe two months at the most and it was all going to be over. So there would have been no real long-term plan and we wouldn’t have even considered that we would actually do a real space-bubble concert because we had concerts planned in June and July that we were getting ready to go do.  
Once we did the Stephen Colbert show, I think the world saw it and thought it was already a concert. We’re shooting it as though it was a real concert but it was a very small scale video shoot. The feedback that we got from doing a big show like the Colbert show … and then social media has a slow week and just went insane. As the story grew, people started calling it a “Space Bubble Concert.” It did make us think that the world kind of wants this, or they like this. 
This was June and we wouldn’t even know if [COVID] was still going to be going on. … Now the audience is used to waiting in line outside. Everybody’s been doing it now for almost a year, everybody’s used to standing in these social distance dots on the floor. Everybody’s used to everything taking time. So I think in that way, it really has made it wonderful because everybody has to wait outside [to get into The Criterion] but they do that anyway, trying to get into Starbucks. And then it’s a lot of hassle getting in and out [of the bubbles and safely exiting the venue] but it’s better for it to be a hassle to be safe than to be going to some of these restaurants and grocery stores like I’ve been where people treat it like nothing’s happening. At our concerts, everybody is a firm believer in being as safe as you can. If you don’t wear a mask, if you don’t take it seriously, you’re just not allowed in there.
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne
George Salisbury
– Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne
Will the band continue to add more dates? Do you see the show possibly going to other cities?   
Well, we think we’ll have more dates … might be the next weekend. [Three more shows scheduled March 19-21 were announced after this interview took place.] We’d probably start with that and see how those go. More shows is accommodating our fans. So that part of it is really great that we get to do more, but I don’t think we want to take it anywhere. 
The mechanisms of putting things in trucks and unloading it … and hotels and airplanes and all that we just don’t want to do because we’re all at risk [for COVID] as well. It’s not just for the audience. I mean, we’re in the space bubbles up there, too.   
People that don’t travel and unload equipment and all that don’t realize how many people are involved, how much work it is. And it’s a lot of humans breathing on each other. The way we’ve worked it out, there isn’t this giant crew. It doesn’t all have to go in and come out in one day like most shows. There’s not a backstage party. There’s not a giant guest list of people that you’re going to talk to. 
We’ve really gotten kind of used to it, because we haven’t played a regular concert – the last time we played was in December of [2019] – in a long time. And so everything that we’ve done since the pandemic started, we’ve been doing it in space bubbles. We’ve done quite a lot of video shoots and even programs in these bubbles. 
And when you get to see the audience react – us looking out through our space bubbles into their space bubbles, when you see them react and all that … at some point we’re just playing music. You just happen to be in a space bubble. Most of the time that we talk about these shows, it really is all about the bubble; it’s all about the mechanism that’s going to keep you safe. But the minute the music starts … then it’s just a Flaming Lips concert.
And then there’s another 20 minutes at the end where you have to go outside the venue before you get out of your space bubble and all that. But the Flaming Lips audience really are just the greatest, smartest, coolest, most patient, energetic people ever. And everything that they have to go through, they are doing it with love and energy and laughing. So we’re very lucky that our audience is like that. I don’t think every band’s audience would be so willing to try something so bizarre.  
Dealing with so many changes during the pandemic, I think it’s shown how resilient humans are and how we can adapt.
The people that are working in hospitals, in the intensive care units, the scientists, they’re all working so hard to help us. I feel utterly useless in that way. You know, like I’m just a dumb guy who sings songs. I feel very much like we should contribute. We should do something… If the space bubble brings joy and brings a sense of hope and brings, just an excitement into people’s lives, that would be enough reason for me to say, let’s try to do it – not to do it if it’s too big of a risk for everybody but try to figure out a way to make it work.  
This is a call to service. It’s not a time to say, “Oh, it’s too much hassle.” I’m sure it’s a lot of hassle to come up with a vaccine. I’m sure it’s a hassle to work for six months straight at the ER. So I don’t feel like what we’re doing is a hassle. It’s beautiful that we get to try to do something and it can bring joy to people and give them a sense that there’s good reasons to still be creative. And still a good reason to celebrate life. 
The song “At the Movies on Quaaludes” from your new album has a lyric that references the American dream. What are your thoughts on the American dream?
In a sense, I feel like I am the living embodiment of the greatest thing that the American dream could stand for. A self-made guy that comes from just normal life, my parents – I mean, great parents and loving parents – but normal, hard working people. And here, I’ve been able just to live my whole adult life just doing crazy music and art and stuff. I’m living the American dream at its greatest. 
When we sing about the American dream, I think part of what we’re singing about is this world that my older brothers thought was going to happen. They didn’t want to go to college because by the time they were teenagers, college seemed like it was stupid, it was for squares. And to have a profession, I think in their time, it was pointless because everybody thought the world was going to blow up by the late ’80s or something. There was a lot of doomsday, temporary living built into their situation. And then I think little by little, they were sort of thrown out into a world when they were in their 30s without any sort of thought of well, what do we do now? …. 
Steven [Drozd] and I are songwriters. Singing about when we had older brothers and everybody was doing drugs and everybody’s riding motorcycles, people were getting killed in car accidents and overdoses and all this stuff – we just didn’t really like singing about before. And now we find that it’s part of us and that we’re able to sing about it. … When I think of my older brothers, I mean, they were selling drugs when they were 22 and 23. That’s the American dream that they thought was going to get better and be more real and be normalized or whatever. And it never did. And it shouldn’t have been. None of us knew what we were doing, so that’s kind of what we’re singing about – not to ever put it down or not to see any irony in it or any of that. It really is a tragedy of our states of mind, mine included.
That’s significant that you’ve been able to reflect on and process those tragedies. And yet, you’re still optimistic. You’re living the dream being able to dedicate your life to music.
Yeah. I mean, I’m the luckiest. Since I’ve been 18, this is what I’ve been able to do. I keep thinking “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get old.” Now I’m already old and I’m like, “Oh man, I’ve really been able to keep doing this.” I think the American dream could be different for different people. One version of it would definitely be this life that I’m living. I’m living in almost the exact same place where I grew up my whole life. I’m able to travel all around the world and do all kinds of crazy, crazy things. It’s just insane.