Quadraphonia

The Flaming Lips want you to play all four of their new CDs -- at the same time

It all started at the most unlikely of places: a concert by Kiss and Uriah Heap many years ago at an Oklahoma City enormodome. An impressionable teen named Wayne Coyne was milling about the stadium parking lot (as impressionable teens are wont to do). As he walked among the pre-show revelers, he began to notice something -- the strange audio effects that result when different speakers in different cars blast the same tune at the same time.

Fifteen years later, Coyne is the guitarist and vocalist of the Flaming Lips. As with so many things in the unique universe of the Lips, this simple observation became an idea. Then the idea became the so-called "Parking Lot Experiment," a series of makeshift performances involving dozens of cars simultaneously blasting cassettes recorded and produced by Coyne. And now, against most any odds, everyone's favorite cult band from Oklahoma City is making recording industry history (certainly in the marketing sense, and arguably even in the artistic one) by releasing a set of four CDs intended to be played simultaneously on four separate CD players.

With a title that combines "Zaire" and "eureka" (it's all explained in the vastly entertaining liner notes), Zaireeka (Warner Bros.) arrived in stores a month or two back in a limited-edition set priced at 24 bucks. If you're thinking it's some sort of superserious John Cage- or Metal Machine Music-style avant-garde experiment, think again. The thing costs slightly more than Milton Bradley's Twister, and that's exactly how Coyne hopes that it will be viewed.

"Hopefully, it's entertaining even if you don't like the music," he says in his friendly Okie drawl. "The idea that you got your friends over there all pressing CD players all at the same time -- that in itself has an element of entertainment about it. To say, 'OK, we're doing this, and I don't know why.' If people perceive this as something that you participate in, and it's different and unique and it does take a bit of a hassle -- well, instead of looking at that as being bad, if people think that's cool, then maybe they'll like it."

At the tail end of the alternative-rock era, one might argue the futility of expecting that kind of effort from an audience used to being spoon-fed such carefully contrived pabulum as Third Eye Blind; does Coyne really expect his slacker listeners to do that much work?

"Well, it's not that much work," he says, laughing. "I'm not asking them to mow the lawn.

"I guess what I'm hoping for is that playing the CD becomes a little bit of an event. Because things do become too convenient. I can't remember the last time we got a record and actually sat and listened to it in our house. There's cable TV, there's computers, there's all this stuff that makes you say, 'I don't wanna sit here and just listen.' I think the idea that it becomes an event, each song as it comes up, that's what will appeal to people. Or maybe not."

Not that the music itself isn't worth the effort; if nothing else, Zaireeka stands as conclusive evidence that the Flaming Lips remain one of the most ambitious, imaginative, twisted, and for the most part sadly unheralded bands in rock 'n' roll today. They've trodden that path since the middle of the indie-rock '80s, when the group came together in the college town of Norman, Okla. Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins would meet up at punk shows by the likes of the Meat Puppets, and the pair soon figured it would be easy enough to make a similar noise themselves. On such early recordings as Hear It Is (1986) and Oh My Gawd!!! (1987), the band sounded a lot like an acid-damaged Replacements. But by the time they signed to Warners in 1992 (the label thinking that maybe, just maybe, the quartet could be another Jane's Addiction), the Lips had forged a thoroughly distinctive sound that merged the psychedelic shenanigans of bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Butthole Surfers with the twisted pop sensibilities of Syd Barrett and Brian Eno.

The latter element of their sound paid off most noticeably in late '94, when modern-rock radio started playing "She Don't Use Jelly," an irresistibly catchy ditty about tangerines, Cher, and Vaseline from the Lips' sixth album, 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. The group had been touring relentlessly for months with its strongest lineup to date: Ivins, Coyne, Ronald Jones (an expert at crafting freaky orchestral guitar sounds, since departed from the group), and drummer Steven Drozd (the master of thCR>e Bonham-esque backbeat). Suddenly, years of hard work were rewarded with a slot on MTV's Buzz Bin, an appearance on Letterman, a contribution to the soundtrack of Batman Forever, a flurry of requisite name-checking by the likes of Billy Corgan, and, most hilariously, a guest slot on Beverly Hills 90210 as a band playing at the Peach Pit.

Unfortunately but perhaps predictably, this elusive altrock buzz slipped away just as quickly as it had come. When the band released the symphonic, Pet Sounds-styled Clouds Taste Metallic in 1995, Warner Bros. gave it the usual two weeks of marketing push. The commercial powers that be barely noticed, and the Lips went right back to selling albums to the devoted 50,000 or so hard-core fans who had cared about them from the beginning. In stark contrast to most rock musicians in the business, Coyne refuses to blame his record label for the Lips' fleeting success; mostly, he just blames himself.

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