The flustered clerk stood there with slack-jawed confusion, as if someone had just asked him whether he could mow the linoleum in the store.
"You mean, you're supposed to play them all at the same time?" he asked, still not fully grasping the concept.
Yes. That's the idea behind the Flaming Lips' new "release," Zaireeka: four separate CDs intended to be played at the same time on four separate CD players. The logistical problems inherent in such an arrangement led me and two friends to the boom-box department at Best Buy.
With a bemused shake of his head, the clerk allowed our impromptu listening party to proceed as planned. After a few false starts (mostly involving one of us pushing the wrong button), the event went off without a hitch, save a few dirty looks from a helmet-haired housewife pricing new stereos for her son and an announcement over the store's loudspeaker asking for a manager to report to the boom-box section immediately.
Fortunately, the request for backup came during the last song, and we were able to escape without hassle from The Man. The listening party proved a couple of things. One: You can get away with just about anything at a Best Buy store if the clerk doesn't know what you're talking about. And two: Zaireeka works not only on a physical level, but on a musical one as well, containing actual songs -- not just noodling, self-serving crap.
A more conventional listening, a few weeks later, in my living room, confirmed the last part of the theory. The fact that the release is listenable -- enjoyable, even -- is probably the most unexpected aspect of this project from one of modern music's most unpredictable bands. Guitarist/vocalist/mastermind Wayne Coyne, calling from his Oklahoma City home, says that the band doesn't want people to get any misconceptions about the album, despite its unwieldy format.
"We don't want to come across as this being a silly, experimental thing," he says. "We really are trying to take our ideas and do something new, as opposed to whatever 'experimental' means to people. On an emotional level, whatever songs are supposed to have about them, whatever they're trying to express, we didn't want to sacrifice that to do some experimental thing.
"It truly is experimental," he adds, "but I think people get the wrong idea when you speak of it as experimental music, because usually they think of John Cage. I mean, I love his ideas, but I think as music, it's very boring to listen to. I want people to know that it encompasses those types of concepts, but at the same time we are trying to have the same things that music has always represented, yet having it be in basically a new format."
It's that new format that makes the album truly something special. Mixed onto one disc, Zaireeka would just be another in a long line of criminally ignored, twisted pop albums the band has released; as a four-CD set, Zaireeka is an event, an experience. It's the kind of thing people will still be talking about five years from now.
"Anytime you have to get somebody to come to your house and help you do something -- even if it's to fix the plumbing or something --it's an event of some kind," Coyne speculates. "That's part of it, because you have to have people to help you do it, to get the full effect of it. Whether people think that's a good thing or not, well, we're gonna find out."
Surprisingly, the band ran into little interference from its label, Warner Bros. Records, concerning the unique project. "They think all of our records are pretty weird, so I don't think this really came as a big surprise to them," Coyne says. "They've always had confidence in us. If we said that we could do it, they never questioned that we could. I mean, we're the Flaming Lips. We're not a typical, mainstream band. This coming from Michael Bolton might seem pretty bizarre, but I think coming from us it seems like, well, I think people expect that we're going to do something a little left of center."
"Left of center" doesn't even begin to describe some of the songs on Zaireeka. "The Big Ol' Bug Is the New Baby Now" is a warped bedtime story that begins with Coyne speaking in a wizened, grandfatherly voice about one of his dog's chew toys and ends with a chorus of children sweetly singing the song's title over and over. Over the course of the song, Coyne's voice slips in and out of what could best be described as the sound depressed teenagers hear when they play old death-metal albums backward. Truly frightening, even in the middle of Best Buy.
Other songs, like "Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair" or "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (You're Invisible Now)" sound like classic Flaming Lips-style pop songs, given added weight with the addition of six more speakers. Coyne says that was part of the original goal for the project, which included recording yet another disc's worth of material as a kind of safety net.
"We make up songs all the time. The challenge was to take these songs and give them this bigger dimension with the four CDs," he explains. "With some songs, that worked out fine, and with other songs it didn't work out at all. The idea going into it was that we were going to record this four-CD thing, and at the same time try to make a proper record -- I say 'proper' -- I mean something that comes out of two speakers."
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Zaireeka began as a series of "parking lot experiments" that Coyne conducted in and around Oklahoma City during the fall of 1996. The idea was simple: Strategically arrange 40 or so cars, give each car a tape containing a different instrumental part and have all the participants blast their respective tapes at the same time. The "experiment" debuted to the music community on a large scale at last year's South by Southwest Music Festival.
"By the time we got to the thing in Austin, it was becoming more of an event than even a concert," Coyne says. "It was crazy that people wanted to come to this parking lot and see what this thing was going to be. I thought that it worked out fine. I was really glad that no one got run over. For the most part, it really becomes so chaotic in some ways that I think that's part of what makes it exciting...."
The element of chaos contained on Zaireeka is part of what makes it so interesting, and, if nothing else, Coyne and the band have succeeded on that level. Whether the world at large is ready for an album like this remains to be seen. Coyne doesn't think a clear-cut answer is coming anytime soon.
"It's ended up being almost a couple of years in the making already, and I feel as though it'll still be a couple more years before we really know whether the world can wrap its head around this idea of playing a couple of CDs at the same time, or whether it's just some sort of ludicrous novelty thing that we're doing. It's really hard to tell. I think that every day.