At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic — as concerts and tours were canceled — Wayne Coyne had an inkling that the Flaming Lips were the one act uniquely prepared for this brave new world.
On March 12th, the frontman drew and posted a cartoon to Instagram: A Flaming Lips concert in 2019 with just Coyne in his signature space bubble, and a Flaming Lips concert in 2020 with Coyne, the band, and the crowd also in space bubbles.
Seven months later, the Flaming Lips are trying to make that joke a feasible — and safe — reality. On October 12th, the band played a test-run show at the Criterion, a venue in their hometown of Oklahoma City. The goal was to shoot a music video for “Assassins of Youth” — a song off the Lips’ latest album American Head — but also see what it would take to play a successful show for a small crowd packed into 100 space bubbles.
While the crowd for last week’s gig was mostly friends and family — many of whom participated in a similar, albeit much smaller, bubble concert for The Late Show’s #PlayAtHome series in June — Coyne tells Rolling Stone that the dress rehearsal left him optimistic about the future of bubble shows.
“I got the sense that this thing [the audience] was helping us do was more than just, you come, we’ll play and then you leave,” Coyne says. “It was more, ‘Let’s do this together.’ And I think that could be part of what concerts in America, for now, could be. If you help us, we can all do this. If you just want to lose your mind and not care about your fellow concertgoer, you can’t do this.”
Coyne credits The Late Show with planting the idea that a bubble concert was possible. To pull it off that May performance, the group ordered a slew of extra space bubbles and filmed the video with a small audience of about 20. All the while, the Flaming Lips started rehearsing in the bubbles as well, not only to get a feel for playing in them but because doing so was the best way to keep each member (and their respective families) safe.
Following The Late Show, the Flaming Lips shared additional bubble performances on The Tonight Show and NPR’s Tiny Desk series (sans audience). But as they grew more comfortable playing inside the bubbles, and as the pandemic showed no sign of letting up, they began to consider the possibility of actual shows. They found a willing partner in the Criterion, a roughly 3,500-cap venue in downtown Oklahoma City, and began plotting the logistics, with safety being the top priority.
“It’s like, let’s take care of these motherfuckers — that comes first — and then we’ll play a great show and they’ll be alive to see it again,” Coyne says. “None of it makes sense if it’s just another party where people can spread Covid. So, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick like wearing gloves to protect your hands. I don’t really have a fetish where I want everybody in rubber space balls; it’s just a protection device which, at the same time, is such an absurd symbol of our moment. Hopefully not for the rest of time, but it’s the moment.”
He adds: “The job of the Flaming Lips is to get you in a room, get you excited, get you to forget about the world’s problems and entertain you for an hour. But if we do that without this pretty radical protection, then we’re going to kill you.”
Here’s how the first bubble show at the Criterion worked: 100 un-inflated bubbles were laid out, 10 rows of 10, while the crowd was asked to form a socially distanced line on the large sidewalk outside (and keep their masks on, too, of course). The audience was ushered into the venue to their assigned bubbles, row-by-row, led by a troupe of staffers in masks, gloves, and clearly identifiable uniforms (all so the crowd would know, Coyne jokes, that they were there to help and “not just bossy hipsters”). Once people were settled, the bubbles were inflated with a leaf blower and zipped up; at that point, the person was allowed to take off their mask and the next row was led in. After the show, the audience was essentially led out in the same manner, row-by-row with masks back on.
Coyne admits the entering and exiting process was the most nerve-wracking part of the night, especially because Oklahoma City was in the middle of another Covid case surge. But he adds, “Everybody being aware that this thing has still got us, I think that helped. Just the idea that this is serious. You can’t come in here, get drunk, and take off your mask. Everybody’s masked up. Everybody is paying attention.”
As for the show itself, Coyne and the band knew from experience that people could comfortably spend about an hour inside a bubble. There’s never any risk of someone running out of air, and at worst, things can get pretty hot (a potential cool down option: a staffer comes back with the leaf blower to get some air circulating). Coyne says he was also curious about the extent to which the crowd might need to use the bathroom during the show, and while no one was in dire need during the trial run, he says there’s a reasonable and safe way to have a person briefly exit their bubble and run to the can.
“We did have a couple of girls say if they had to pee, they would just pee in the bubble,” Coyne cracks. “I was like, ‘Don’t do that!’ But I knew we were going to clean them out anyway.”
That cleaning process is extensive as well. After the show, Coyne says each bubble was washed out with about 20 ounces of 70% isopropyl alcohol, hit with the leaf blower until the liquid evaporated, and then scrubbed down by a person in a full painter’s suit and mask. “That seemed to be overkill, but I felt like, when I go into a public bathroom where they’ve used too much bleach, I always feel good as opposed to not enough,” Coyne says with a laugh. “I would rather everybody know, like, ‘You used a lot of fucking corona-killer on this, I can tell.’”
With a successful trial run under their belt, Coyne says the Flaming Lips are starting to think about actual ticketed concerts, and hope to announce some shows after the election for the beginning of December. The aim would be to keep the crowd pretty local, while also giving people from nearby cities like Tulsa or Dallas enough time to quarantine before traveling to the show. Coyne says they’re also mulling drink and merch packages where everything is waiting for you inside the bubble when you arrive. They’re also tinkering with a unique sound set-up where each person would have a Bluetooth speaker that would not only provide better sound than what you might get while listening to a live show inside a bubble, but even what you might get at a normal concert.
“I feel like, if we can start to do this, other groups and other entertainers, other people can add to it, too,” Coyne says. “We could say, ‘That really changed it a little bit, that made it better.’ Everybody keeps waiting for it to go back to normal, and I’m like, it might not. I hope it does, and I hope we all survive and we all stop getting sick. This type of environment where people are very excited, and fucked up, and supposed to be transported from the normal stresses of everyday life — that’s what a rock show is, but that’s where I sort of feel, ‘Well, don’t do that.’ But you can do it as long as you’re in this space bubble. You can do whatever the fuck you want. We’ll clean it up afterward.”