At Coachella 2004, Wayne Coyne, frontman for Oklahoma psych-pop eccentrics the Flaming Lips, revamped the long-standing festival tradition of beachball-tossing by stepping inside a giant clear plastic bubble, then having roadies send him out into the crowd, where he rolled around like human beachball, or like a giddy hamster in a Habitrail. This was not only one of the most iconic moments in Coachella history, but a moment that might have unwittingly predicted the future of concerts in the age of COVID.
“I couldn't really tell anybody I was doing that, because back then, people wouldn't let you do stuff. Now promoters want us to do it and beg us to do it, but back then, no one would have let do it. So I said, ‘I'm just going to do it,’” Coyne tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “What was happening is we were making this movie called Christmas on Mars, and I'm an alien in this movie, and my spaceship is like a ball. … But as soon as I did a CGI version of it in the movie, an Italian plastic weirdo guy who was a Flaming Lips fan said, ‘Hey, I've got one of these for you!’ And so I got it literally a day or two before Coachella, and we blew it up in my front yard and I thought, ‘I think this could work.’ … But I didn't even know if people would like it, or if they’d say, ‘Oh, this is stupid, why would anybody do that?’ It's like, I dunno, why does Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire? I didn't even think then that I would do it every night.”
Coyne's matter-of-fact onstage explanation of his stunt that fateful Sunday was: “I had a dream that I would arrive at Coachella in a bubble descended from outer space.” But even a visionary like Coyne could not have dreamed that 17 years later, the plastic bubble, which has since become a signature part of any Lips’ concert, would actually become a concert-safety necessity. On Jan. 22 and 23, the Flaming Lips will play two sold-out Space Bubble Concerts at the Criterion club in their hometown of Oklahoma City — with not just Coyne and his bandmates in bubbles, but every single one of the audience members, up to three at a time, in their own individually sealed spheres as well.
Just like the Lips’ original bubble stunt at Coachella 2004, the idea for these COVID-safe gigs started off as a lark, when Coyne posted a dystopian cartoon of hermetically bubble-sealed concertgoers on his Instagram. But then the talent booker for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert reached out to the band, and conveniently, the Colbert show still had a few deflated bubbles in storage from a comedy skit that Colbert and Coyne had performed years earlier. The Lips then gathered a few additional bubbles for a televised Colbert performance — attended by a small bubble-wrapped studio audience — that quickly went viral. But even then, Coyne thought the performance would be a one-off.
“That was in May, and even when we did it in May, there was a little bit of like, ‘Maybe this whole [pandemic] will be over by the time it airs, and it'll air and it'll seem ridiculous. So, it aired in June — and of course, we all know it was still going on,” says Coyne. “So, even though that [Colbert performance] wasn't like a big-scale concert, I knew that people were seeing it in the world and starting to get the idea that this was already really happening. And then we got tons and tons of feedback from people already saying, ‘I want to come to this bubble concert that you're putting on! … So, it started to seem like a cool idea. We started to think, ‘Well, what do we have to do to make it real?’”
The first — and, of course, most major — concern, when the Flaming Lips started planning the actual public, ticketed Space Bubble Concerts, was how long audience members could hang out in a plastic space-sphere without requiring extra oxygen. “We knew so little about that when I went out on top of the crowd at Coachella in 2004, our manager gave me a sharp pocket knife and said, ‘If you get stuck out there and you're running out of air, you can cut your way out of it.’ Since then, we know I could stay in that for hours and hours and not run out of air. But at the time, we didn't really know that,” Coyne chucklingly admits. “We're probably going to play [at the Criterion] for about 75 or 80 minutes, so we've done test runs where we've put one person in, and then put two people in, and then three people, and they've stayed in there without any need for any oxygen. … There is a lot of condensation because it gets hot in there and stuff, but it doesn't ever really run out of air. I imagine after a couple of hours, it might, with three people huffing and puffing, but what we plan on doing is every 20 minutes or so we'll check on the bubbles, especially the ones that have three people and the ones that are particularly sweaty.”
And no pocket knives will be required: “There's a little zipper that you pull down, and we’ll stick a leaf-blower in there. We blow that air out of there and circulate some new, cool, fresh air, and that works really great,” says Coyne.
The Lips leader readily acknowledges the preposterousness of the entire situation. “Yes, it's just utterly absurd that the thing that we were doing [since 2004] is the thing that everybody now must do,” he says. He also understands why some people might be skeptical that the band can pull off these shows without a hitch. “It really seems too dangerous to leave to, you know, a bunch of stoned freaks. That's why I think people are concerned that the Flaming Lips are doing it,” he quips. But Coyne is confident that the Lips are “very capable of doing stuff like this, as we've been the only people in the whole world that's messed with these space bubbles as much as we have. … I want people to be able to trust what we're doing and be able to believe that it's going to work and that we haven't just jumped into it. This isn't the first week that the pandemic has happened; it's going on almost a year. And so we've done it in these stages, where we know what to do. We know how to handle it, and we know what to do to make it better.” (The Lips did a two-song test show back in October, also at the Criterion, before moving ahead with their full concert plans.)
The Lips will cleaning out the 100 reusable bubbles, after the first Jan. 22 show, with what Coyne has dubbed the “COVID Sanitizing Fogger”; making sure audience members only take staggered, socially distanced bathroom breaks (“The zipper is on the inside, so any time you wanted to get out of the bubble you could just unzip, but we don't want you getting out without your mask on”); and figuring out the concessions situation. “We're not serving the liquor — we don't know how we would do that! That wasn't the paramount thing to conquer in the beginning, but I think if we do more of these shows, then yeah, it would be nice to have stuff to drink and eat in there. I don't know if you'd be able to eat, like, a Frito chili pie in there, but we'll work on that,” Coyne laughs.
More seriously, Coyne says all of his team’s “energy and creativity is going into making sure this is safe and it's going to work.” They even delayed the Space Bubble Concerts, which were originally supposed to take place in December 2020, as a precaution when COVID started to surge in Oklahoma City. “In Oklahoma City right now, we really are torn between half of the people who don't think that the coronavirus is even real, and the other half are dying. Oh my gosh,” Coyne sighs.
Coyne actually insists, “I would say these types of shows are safer than going to the grocery store — if only because some people at the grocery store don't think that the virus is very hazardous. But if you're in a space bubble at our show, whether or not you believe [the coronavirus] is real, whether you believe it's the worst thing in the world, it doesn't matter — you're in a space bubble, so you can't affect anybody else in the way that you would [elsewhere]. Whereas, at the grocery store, 70 percent of us are six feet apart and masked and acting like this is a serious endeavor, and then there's three or four people that just want to come up and be right in your face and talk. It’s awkward to have to say, ‘Dude, you can't talk to me. This isn't the way we do things now. You can't just come up and be in my face, you know?’ I don't like that. It's just an awkward position. But at these shows that we're doing, we will have ushers and monitors set up, so you can't do that. All these people are in bubbles. You can't just go have a little party because you want to.”
Coyne certainly thinks the Lips’ Space Bubble Concerts will be safer than other artists’ controversial regular live shows that, despite plenty of scientific evidence that large gatherings are risky, have gone forward during the pandemic. “What I've seen is that people are doing concerts anyway,” he says. “And so when people say, ‘Why aren't you doing concerts?’ I'm like, ‘Well, I'm doing a concert that I know is absolutely safe. It's absolutely safe, unlike a lot of these concerts where people are supposed to be spread apart, but once people get drunk and get excited, all bets are off. I don't want to do to those. That's just not worth it. And that's not the vibe that the Flaming Lips want to put out.”
Since Coyne never even thought space bubbles would be a regular part of the Flaming Lips’ stage act, he’s hesitant to predict that the band’s bubble technology will the future of live music in general in the coronavirus era. However, he ponders, “Let's say this [pandemic] is going on for the next five years — yeah, I think there would be a lot of other bands that would want to do this, because it would be better than doing those other types of concerts and putting people at risk.” Coyne also isn’t sure if the Flaming Lips will take their Space Bubble Concerts to other areas of the country, but he’s open to the possibility, if this month’s Criterion concerts go smoothly.
“[Touring] involves us not just as a band, but as fathers and husbands and just normal people too. And us traveling as a group, that part of it doesn't appeal to us, out there in the world right now. But if [the pandemic] goes on long enough, I think we would try,” says Coyne, who became a father in June 2019. “I think we would pick places and make it a hub, like we'd be [in one major city] four or five days in a row. We’d try to get away from the insanity of being a traveling band; that's just too many people, too many places, too many weirdos, just too much. … But if there is any way that it seems safe and doable, we would be more than glad to do it.”
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The above interview is taken from Wayne Coyne’s appearance on the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.
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