Rather than “Waitin’ for a Superman” to restore some normalcy to these COVID times, the Flaming Lips realized they could use the famed plastic space bubbles that the group often performs inside during concerts as a way to protect themselves — and their fans as well.
The bubbles have been a part of the Lips’ onstage repertoire since Wayne Coyne and company first appeared in the inflatable spheres at the 2004 Coachella festival. In June, the band staged a musical performance for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” featuring about 20 audience members in similar bubbles.
That led to last week’s performance in Oklahoma City at a local club called The Criterion, where the Lips played a mini-concert for more than 100 fans while also shooting a music video for the new songs “Assassins of Youth” and “Brother Eye.”
“It turned out more spectacular and more positive than I could have ever thought,” Coyne told Variety. “I worried mostly that something embarrassing would happen or it would look like it wasn’t safe. Now it feels absolutely wonderful.”
Coyne said the event this month was a dress rehearsal for perhaps a full concert that he’d like to do December in the same location. Among the logistical issues the band was looking at: How to safely assemble the audience outside, without it becoming a tailgate party; getting the crowd inside the balloons and blowing them up, without it becoming a super-spreader event; and even figuring out how many people might need to unzip and go to the bathroom during the show. (For the record, none of the 116 attendees needed to go during this show.)
“Part of the dilemma of doing loud concerts is that it gets people excited,” Coyne says. “They’re getting drunk and they’re losing their minds and before you know it, they’re grabbing onto each other and they’re screaming in each other’s faces.”
Next up, because the bubbles are so big, Coyne is figuring out how many people to allow inside (there’s room for three) and whether, during a longer show, there should be a break to allow for air refreshing and restroom visits.
There’s also the question of how big the crowd should be. “I thought even the amount of audience we had for the video shoot was a little scary,” Coyne admits. “Let’s start with a little bit of an audience, and if we have to spread it out and play multiple nights, well, great. That’s better than doing no nights. And I think the Flaming Lips audience is the perfect audience to say ‘We’ll help you do this, we can make this work,’ because they’re a very smart, caring, giving kind of an audience.”
Coyne said they’ll announce the next show in November, with a December date, in order to give them a few weeks to figure out how to do it.
“Do you buy the front row? Do you buy by the row? And would people even know what a row is? It’s such an unknown world,” he says. “I feel like we would put one show on sale, and see if anybody wants to go. And then if they did, we’d try another one and go from there.”
A space bubble tour is possible, but Coyne said it would have to be on a very small scale. “I think we can definitely take it to other places,” he said. “I don’t think we’d want to take it on a fly-by-night tour like we’re used to doing before COVID. That’s just too many people having to help — too many flights, too many trucks. But I think we could do something where it’s in the new world, where we go a little slower with a little less people, and be a little bit more aware of who’s breathing on whom and stuff like that.”
Thanks to the band’s nearly two-decade use of them, Coyne has become quite an expert in space bubbles — and by the time of the Criterion show, he had a pretty good sense of how and where to procure the ones that make the most sense for an audience. But then there’s also the issue of keeping those bubbles clean.
It’s an intense disinfectant process. “The next day we pour 20 ounces of the 70% alcohol right into the bubble and then blow it up,” he explains. “We slosh it around, and it coats it pretty well. You can see it dripping up and down the sides and you can kind of get an idea that you’ve covered every surface in there with a good amount. We let that sit for about an hour, then we go in and we blow it up again with the leaf blower. Let that sit for about an hour, and then we empty it of all the liquid that’s left. A lot of the alcohol will kind of evaporate, but some of it doesn’t. It gets caught in the plastic folds and stuff.
“Then,” he continues, “someone with a with a pretty good suit on — so they’re not putting germs in there — goes in and wipes it down. I looked at the bubbles the day after to see if they looked any different or were cloudy, but they look they look pretty close to brand new.”
Even though Coyne and the Lips are used to playing in bubbles, playing to a crowd also encapsulated has been a new experience.
“I started to kind of jump up and down in my space bubble on stage, which I hadn’t really done before,” Coyne recalls. “And the audience started to bounce along with me. I’d be pushing my bubble from left to right, like you would if your arms were up in the air but you’re trapped in there, and they’d be pushing their bubbles, side by side. And then when I would bounce, they would bounce. It felt like something utterly new, but something utterly, ‘Of course we’re going to do that, we should have known everybody was gonna do that, because it’s a concert.’ Of all the groups in the world, we’re probably the only group that wants and likes to do it. I think for a lot of groups, it would be just too weird.”
But for the Flaming Lips, a video of their audience in space balloons seems very on-brand — and would have just been considered an absurd, slightly sci-fi moment.
“But now what’s absurd is that it’s real,” he says of the actual need to be in the bubbles. “And as far as it being safe, that’s the part that we really been focused on. None of it’s worth anything if it’s not going to be safe. If we’re doing our job right as the Flaming Lips, we want you to go as crazy as you want — we want you to be happy, screaming and lose your mind a little bit. Losing your mind means you forget that there’s this virus going around the world, killing people. So, for me, you’re in a space bubble, you can get as f—ed up as you want, you can scream and you can go crazy, but you can’t infect the people next to you.”
Coyne noted that the Flaming Lips shot the video in Oklahoma City the same week that the area reported its highest level of COVID-19 infection rates yet. He knows that he’s taking these precautions at the same time a portion of the population doesn’t believe the virus is a real threat.
“We’re not out of this, and I think that’s part of the dilemma as well,” he says. “You’re starting to run into people that are like, ‘I’m just tired of it.’ You’re like, ‘Yeah, we are too, but it’s still here.’ That’s the part that is scary as well. As it gets to be winter and you’re not able to be outside as easily, I think the space bubble concert is the trick.”
But this is the new normal — and Coyne isn’t so sure things will go back to the way they used to be, at least any time soon.
“I really do love being able to do something that isn’t just waiting for it to be over,” he says. “I do think eventually we will be doing concerts again. I don’t know if they’ll ever be back to normal or back to what it was, but I’d rather be a little restricted and know that we’re not harming each other.”