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Inside the space bubbles: How Flaming Lips cheated the pandemic

A photograph of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips performing live on stage
(Image credit: Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

BACK TO LIVE: If the last 15 months have proved anything, it's that humans are adaptable, and that musicians are no exception. While some have been content to take a back seat and ride out whatever gets thrown at humanity, others have shifted focus and tried new ways of doing old things.

We've had thousands of video collaborations that never would have surfaced in other circumstances. Bands have turned to livestreaming service Twitch and crowd-funded platform Patreon, and found new ways to finance themselves and to flourish. 

And live shows? They haven't disappeared altogether. There have been drive-in gigs and socially distanced events. Recently in the UK, the Download Pilot was able to give 10,000 lucky fans their first experience of live music since early 2020. Rock has kept rolling.

In Oklahoma, The Flaming Lips – never ones to do things by the book – performed a series of shows with both band and audience safely encased in dozens of air-conditioned plastic bubbles. And if you seen the videos you'll know it looked like an absolutely joyous affair.   

Below, lead Lip Wayne Coyne tells us how it all happened. 

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Were you able to draw any positives from lockdown?

I feel slightly bad talking about it because for so many people it was horrible. I was scared that the virus might affect my little boy, who had just been born. At first I was glad to be home for a couple of weeks; nobody knew it would be more than a year. It felt amazing, I accomplished a lot of things like gardening that I’d never do.

Back in January the Flaming Lips played two gigs in Oklahoma with band and its audience encased in 100 bubbles, each holding up to three audience members

Back in 2019 I had done a drawing of the Flaming Lips playing a concert and put it on Instagram, except I was the only one in a space bubble. It was a joke. But we started to take the idea of doing it more seriously. I had been on the Stephen Colbert Show [US chat show host] as long ago as 2012 and the two of us got into space bubbles as I performed a song and went out into the crowd. The more we thought about it, it seemed possible.

Where did you get the space bubbles?

On eBay! We scoured around and got six or seven. And then we put together a staged video of us playing a concert in a space bubble. And we didn’t think much more about it. But eventually we reached the conclusion that we could do it. The pandemic started in March but by May of a year ago I was involved in space bubble concerts and it probably saved my sanity.

Suddenly the joke got serious

Yeah, we were very cautious in case something went wrong. And the further we proceeded it became more and more scary. When we did the very first concert, the Coronavirus had just peaked. It was terrifying; nobody knew if it would be this way for a year or even another five years. Our main focus was: How do we get these people into these space bubbles and keep them safe? Will they be able to breathe? How do they get to use the bathroom? All of those details.

The second part was: Can we actually play in the bubbles? But all along there was a big audience telling us: You’ve got to do this Wayne, we will be there. And the fans bought tickets for every show; in the end we did ten sold-out concerts.

How did you establish whether playing within the bubbles was physically possible?

We built a replica of a stage in the warehouse that we use for band practise. Each band member would go from their car to a bubble – inside the warehouse. And it seemed to work. We got very used to playing within these bubbles because there was no alternative. Even so, the very first show was extremely scary. It had felt like do or die, but the response was overwhelming. Me? I felt thrilled that we were doing concerts again. But we were still holding our breath [that nothing would go wrong] right until the very last show.

How did the audience express its approval?

Oh, they were surprisingly loud. They made an extra effort to let us know they were having fun. And I’m happy to say that they were very good at taking care of each other and respecting boundaries.

You had predicted it would be “safer than going to the grocery store”. Did it live up to that billing?

Absolutely. But that’s not saying the grocery stories weren’t trying very hard themselves. I’m not a Trump supporter, but here in Oklahoma it’s a very Republican place and people were standing next to one another. There were deaths every day. These are the times we live in. 

All of us [those at the shows] believed that this thing was real. Nobody was taking their masks off. Everybody that came wanted to participate in the safeties that had been put in place.

You told Rolling Stone: “I think it’s a bit of a new normal”. Will we ever get back to the ‘old’ normal?

I really don’t know. Imagine standing at an airport in Belgium with ten thousand people coughing and sneezing on each other. Should we all wear masks from now on, even if there isn’t a pandemic? Let’s try thinking a little bit more about how much my breath could affect your family. 

The first time we went to Japan during the early 1990s we noticed a lot of people wearing masks on the subway. Theirs is a very crowded society, but maybe we should all be like that. It’s possible that the world will be this way now; there are all types of viruses and they mutate.

The positive is that we’ve been through all of this now, if it happens again I feel like we could do it all over. That could serve us well.

Do you think the politicians supported live music sufficiently?

I’m not really waiting for them to help me, especially with Donald Trump having run the country for the past four years. The politicians should concentrate on not blowing us all up with a nuclear bomb and we’ll work on the music.

Here in the UK we are terrified that on the other side of COVID, with venues closing down and musicians forced to find alternative work, will the nuts and bolts of the industry still be in place?

There will be some casualties, and that’s very regrettable, but economics affect all of us. A year ago who would have thought this situation possible? Nobody.

The Flaming Lips have a run of five UK dates for May 2022, which were supposed to be happening this summer. Are you optimistic they will take place?

Yeah, I am. We are playing shows here in America at the end of this summer, and it looks like they are on track. So… by next May? I’d like think so unless, God forbid, there’s something even more unexpected waiting out there for us.

And you’ll play with no bubbles required

Hahaha! That’s not something we want to be carrying forward. Can you imagine being at Glastonbury with all of the audience in space bubbles?

And what should we learn from the COVID-19 experience?

Let’s take care of our teachers, our hospitals and our medical staff. The concert industry has been running for decades and it’s a well-oiled, smart machine. I hope that in 25 years we can say the same thing of the infrastructures that have taken such a terrible beating from this thing.