American Head

American Head

As a kid in the late ’60s, Wayne Coyne lived in fear of losing his oldest brother to drugs. “A lot of times, when he left the house on his motorcycle, I just thought, ‘He’s going to crack,’” the Flaming Lips frontman tells Apple Music. “If he didn't come home ’til 4:00, I would literally be up in my bed, scared that he was dead somewhere. That’s a real thing.” The Lips’ 16th studio LP is a haunting exploration of how we see the world as children and adults, high and sober, innocent and experienced—and its cover is a photo of Coyne’s brother in 1968. Featuring guest vocals from Kacey Musgraves, it’s also—by Flaming Lips standards—a song-oriented reimagining of American classic rock that’s inspired, in part, by a passage in the late Tom Petty’s biography about Petty and his band Mudcrutch stopping to record in Coyne’s native Oklahoma in 1974, as they traveled cross-country to make a go of it in LA. “There's never been anybody who’s ever uncovered it or ever noticed it or anything,” Coyne says of the Tulsa session. “But in that little gap, I wondered what that music would have been. So [multi-instrumentalist] Steven [Drozd] and I just took it further. Like, ‘What if Tom Petty and his band would have run into my older brother, if my brother went up there and they all got addicted to drugs and they got caught up in all this violence and they never became Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but they made this very sad, fucked-up, beautiful record in Tulsa?’ And then we said, ‘Let's make that record.’ Here, Coyne tells the story of every song therein. Will You Return / When You Come Down “A lot of music is trying to tell you, ‘Dude, go blow your mind.’ And ‘Being insane is great.’ Steven and I've always been like, ‘Dude, I think I'm insane anyway.’ And I think we're glad to finally be embarrassed enough or old enough or whatever it is to say, ‘Yeah, we're singing about drugs.’ Part of it is our friends that have died from crashing their car. Part of it is our friends that have died from drug overdoses. And a part of the song is survivor’s guilt, while part of me was glad that I wasn't the one who died. But now as you look at yourself later, you’re like, ‘I wish was there with you.’ I think when you're a teenager and your friends die in a car accident, part of you has this fantasy you'll see them in heaven. Or if we live a thousand lives, you’ll be something else and I'll meet you again. And all of these are just fantasies, so you really have to face the horrible truth that you're never going to see that person again. The song’s you singing to these ghosts and hoping that they understand how you feel about it.” Watching the Lightbugs Glow “We like to always leave room for instrumentals. We like that it just floats along. You don't have to listen to it so intensely. Once we convinced Kacey Musgraves to sing on one track [‘God and the Policeman’], I thought, ‘Well, while we're there, why don't we try to do two songs?’ So we came up with another song, and then we end up coming up with a third song [‘Flowers of Neptune 6’], and she ended up liking all the things that we presented. I asked her about the song [2018’s] ‘Mother.’ She talked about this idea of light bugs, and they were floating around in her yard and she got one with a leaf and she put it in the house and she played some music for it and they danced together. All of this was on a very pleasant acid trip, but she did say that not all of her acid trips were pleasant—she understood sometimes they go horribly bad. While we were coming with this thing, I thought, well, let's just have her do kind of a wordless melodic thing, and we would let it be about that story. We could relate to it and she could relate to it and it would be real. And it would be true. I think that's why we put it second. Like, ‘Let's just not be in such a hurry to say more stuff, just let it just float along with the mood.’ But I wouldn't have done it without her. We would have never done it as one of us singing. It was made for her.” Flowers of Neptune 6 “‘Flowers of Neptune’ came from an insanely great demo that Steven made, but it was long enough that we could envision it being a bigger, more epic song. As we started to make it, we were like, ‘I don't think it's as good if it keeps going too long, because it's got such a crescendo of emotion. Let’s just make it two songs.’ One, ‘Lightbugs,’ could be a little bit more fun and kind of floaty and melancholy—but optimistic. The other, ‘Flowers of Neptune,’ could be more powerful and personal. There is some connection to that idea that our older brothers and their friends, they were these characters that we didn't relate to. They were crazy and they were going to go to jail. They were going to go off to war, they were going to get in a fight, they were going to get in a motorcycle accident and we weren’t. And then at some point we realized their life and ours is the same. I am me because of them. You can't really express it, but in a song you can, because it's big and it's crescendos and it's emotional and you find somehow you're able to express this thing that we would never, ever consider saying to our real brothers, in real life. You'd just be too embarrassed. But music wants you to go all the way.” Dinosaurs on the Mountain “I remember being in the back of the station wagon with my family as we were traveling down a highway, in the middle of the night, on our way to Pittsburgh. And seeing these giant trees, pretending that they were dinosaurs, falling over and killing each other. And also remembering that this is like the last time that I felt that I could just see fantasy and not worry that we're driving down a highway, my father might be falling asleep, and we could crash the car and die—all these things you start to think about when you're becoming an adult. The times we went back after, I didn't see the dinosaurs in the trees. They were just trees. You can't get that back. It’s trying to make that into a song that an adult can relate to instead of being like a children's storybook or a Disney movie.” At the Movies on Quaaludes “I only did quaaludes once, and I have to say, I didn't feel anything. There's a line at the very beginning of the novel The Outsiders—which when you live in Oklahoma, you read in junior high and high school because it's set in Tulsa—about coming out of a movie theater. You were so immersed in the movie that you forgot, ‘Oh yeah, this is real life out here.’ My brothers and their friends, they would go to movies all the time in the middle of the day and they would just be so completely fucked up. There was hardly any moments that they weren't on some drugs. And I just remembered for myself sometimes, the shock of being in a movie theater, so immersed in that, and you walk outside and you're back in real life, whereas I think sometimes they never came back to real life. It's just one big, long movie. So there's something wonderful about that. It's like a dream that you know is never going to come true, but the better to dream it and know it isn't going to come true. Or is it worse to not dream it at all?” Mother I’ve Taken LSD “This one is devastating for me. It has to be 1968, 1969—there’s a lot of talk about LSD. It’s in the news every day, and when we would be at school, dudes in suits would come with a briefcase full of drugs and say, ‘Don't take drugs. And especially don't take LSD, because it'll make you think that you can fly, and you'll go to the top of a bridge and jump off and you'll die.’ So all this is in our minds and I'm only seven or eight years old. It’s like, ‘Fuck. The Beatles think it's cool, but the police think it's horrible. What do I do here?’ So my brother and my mother are sitting on the porch and they’re having a conversation. I remember my brother saying, ‘Well, mother, I've taken LSD.’ I just couldn't believe it. My own brother is doing the things that the police are coming to school to tell me about and he’s going to go insane. I'm singing about it like it's sad for her, but really, it was just sad for me. It’s stayed with me my whole life because it was such a blow.” Brother Eye “Steven was like, ‘Why don't you just write down some words and I'll make up a song around your words?’ Which we never do. Usually, he's got a melody and I'll put lyrics to it, or I'll have lyrics and stuff and he'll help me with melodies. I think I wrote out, 'Mother, I don't want you to die.’ And then he was like, ‘Well, you have too many songs about mothers. Let's do one about brothers.’ His older brothers and his younger brother, all of them, his whole family is dead. When his oldest brother died, I know it devastated him, and we really don't sing about it. But in this way of me presenting words to him, I know that he put it in a way of saying we're just doing a song. But both of us knew somewhere in there, we're singing about this heavy thing. When it came time to be like, ‘Well, are you going to sing it or am I going to sing it?’ I just told him, ‘I think you’ve got to sing that.’ And he was just like, ‘Oh shit.’” You n Me Sellin’ Weed “When I was 16 and 17, I started selling pot because everybody around me was selling pot and some were making better money than they were working in a restaurant like I was. But I didn't want to do it for very long, because I did fear that I'd get put in jail or something worse. The second verse is about that. It sounds pretty gentle, but it's really about a friend of ours who was involved in a murder. He owed the drug dealer a lot of money and the drug dealer was threatening to kill his little girl. So he went over to his house and he stabbed [the dealer] to death. He was put in jail for murder and he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life there. And a year or two later, he committed suicide in jail. It's a blissful story about a state of mind for just a moment, before the violence and all these things rush in and kill you. I was very lucky that my experience stayed an adventure. That time could have been where everything went badly and our family destroyed itself. Because we saw it happen and because we knew them and they were just like us, I think it changed us to say, ‘Let's not let that happen.’” Mother Please Don’t Be Sad “When I was 17, there was a robbery happening in the restaurant that I was working in. The guys came in and I thought for sure that I was going to be killed. This song is what I was saying to myself while I laid on the floor, waiting to be shot in the head. I was going to stop at my mother's house after I got off work that night and leave my dirty work uniform there, and talk to her for a little bit. I'm laying on the floor and I know that I'm going to die. And I'm thinking, ‘Mother is going to wonder where I'm at because I'm going to be late, and she's going to start to worry. Then the cops are going to show up like they do in all these horrible movies, and they're going to tell her that I died in the robbery.’ And that line, ‘Mother, please don't be sad’: I said that laying on the floor there because I just knew it was going to be horrible. It was me that was going to die, but I just thought I'll be dead in a second, and it's going to be horrible for her. I wanted her to know that I wasn't doing something dangerous, I wasn't doing something fucked up. I was just at work and this happened, so don't worry about it. This was just the chaos of the world. Sometimes there's nothing you can do. You're just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” When We Die When We’re High “That beat that Steve plays—in the hands of a lot of drummers, it would be flashy and it would be pompous, but he's doing these things that are just so effortless that you don't realize what an insane beat it is. And man, that one note with that beat, that's got a good menacing joy about it. And then to put that title to it. A friend of ours was killed in a car accident, and everybody in the car was completely zonked out. The car hits a telephone pole and part of his head is just completely taken off and he's just dead right there at the scene. This is real stuff. And part of you, what you do to get around just how brutal and how horrible this is, is you do music. Well, he was so high when he died that he wouldn't know he was dead. He's going to wake up later in the afterlife, everything will be cool. We're saying, ‘If you're high when you die, do you really die?’ It's ridiculous, but it's fun to sing.” Assassins of Youth “I think in the beginning, it was intended to be on that Deap Lips collaboration that we did with the girls from Deap Vally, and it just never really went anywhere. Something about it reminded us of ABBA. And what I liked about ABBA is that they're singing about something that sounds rebellious and revolutionary, but it's very sweet-sounding at the same time. And because English too wasn't their first language, I always felt like they didn't quite know what they were talking about, which was better. So we took this ridiculously overused line, ‘assassins of youth,’ and we pretended that we were like ABBA—we’re not quite sure what it means in English, but we know what it means in Swedish or whatever. It's just great, triumphant classic-rock stuff. It presents itself like it's an important message. And then when you dissect it, you’re like, ‘I'm not sure what you're saying.’ That, to me, is wonderful.” God and the Policeman (feat. Kacey Musgraves) “When Kacey heard it, she came back to me and was like, ‘Now, this is the one. This is the one I want to be on, for sure.’ I kept looking at it like Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. I thought it would be perfect for her, a song about a fugitive on the run. On the run from what, I don’t know, but it tied into another drug story, a friend of ours who got caught up in a bad drug deal. It sounds like I've told this one before, but another guy I know, a drug dealer was telling him, ‘Well, if you don't pay me, I'm going to kill you.’ So he went over to [the dealer’s house], and the drug dealer, he thought that he was bringing him what he owed him and he just went over there and killed the guy. And he said, ‘See you later. I'll never see my friends again. Better than being killed by this biker drug dealer.’ I can't talk too much about it, but I feel like enough time has gone by, I really don't even know if he's alive anymore.” My Religion Is You “It still feels like a folk song or religious song or something, but nothing in our life—my life, anyway—was ever so heavy that I had to turn to God. I always had my mother, my father, and plenty of people around to explain the mysteries of pain and all that to me. I remember, when we initially went to school, our first and second grade, we went to a Catholic school. And there'd be a lot of talk about Jesus sacrificing himself for us. I didn't really understand. I would ask my mother, like, ‘Well, what do they mean? Why is Jesus dying? I don't want him to die. Why does he have to die for me?’ And she'd say, ‘Well, these aren't things that most people have to deal with. It's for people who don't really have families and brothers. People don't love them, so Jesus loves them. They don't have anybody that will listen to them. So they need God to listen to them.’ And I said, ‘Well, my religion is you.’ She's like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

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