Quadraphonia

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

"I think 'Jelly' was a total fluke," he says. "Not that that's bad; a lot of songs that are hits are flukes. But with us, a different standard applies: We're not trying very hard to make a commercial record. The fact that there are people who think that what we're doing should be popular, well, that's just icing on the cake.

"A lot of people wouldn't want to be in our position," Coyne continues. "You can say, 'Look, you guys get to make whatever records you want!' But a lot of people today would say, 'I want to be famous and make a lot of money! What kind of record do you want me to make here?' That's more of what goes on. People are more concerned about being famous and getting their picture in the paper and wearing the cool new clothes than they are about making music, but that's been the rule since day one."

What Coyne is implying here is that the Lips are different, that they have remained steadfast in the general pursuit of artistry over commerce. You can even see it in the way they live: Coyne, photographer Michelle Martin (his significant other), Ivins, and LCR>ips manager Scott Booker all inhabit a rambling ranch house that the band alternately calls "The Compound" and "Stately Wayne Manor." The group members rehearse there, do their own album art there, and build freaky sculptures out on the lawn. As unlikely as it sounds, they have forged a sort of ideal creative community in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood about a mile away from where the now-infamous Murrah Federal Building once stood.

Coyne is the charismatic dynamo at the center of all of this, and it isn't much of a stretch to think that he'd have made a heck of a cult leader in another life; as proof, consider the success he's had so far with the Parking Lot Experiments. Last year, inspired by those cars at the Kiss show, he convinced 40 friends, neighbors, and relatives to drive to a concrete parking ramp in downtown Oklahoma City on a Sunday afternoon; park in a designated order; roll down their windows; turn up their stereos; and press "play" on his cue to blast the numbered cassettes he'd given them. Throughout the performance, Coyne scampered around in a yellow raincoat, directing the proceedings through a bullhorn.

After several false starts, what finally came together was the sound of 80 speakers playing 40 tapes each containing a different instrumental part or sound effect. The experiment was repeated, fine-tuned, and taken on the road; this writer participated in the third or fourth attempt at the South by Southwest music conference last March, and my rental car contributed the sound of an elephant snoring to a piece called "The March of the Rotting Vegetables." Listeners were encouraged to walk around between the cars, and the effect of hearing different parts sliding in and out of sync and jumping out of unexpected places was wonderfully disorienting and extremely powerful.

The experiment has grown since then, with Coyne taking it inside and recruiting upward of 100 boomboxes. (It wowed 'em at the CMJ Festival in New York this September.) Zaireeka is, of course, the do-it-yourself,CR> take-home, album representation of all this. To some degree, anyway; a full-on re-creation would require dozens more CDs. David Katznelson, the band's Warners A&R rep, sounds nervous and wary when asked why Coyne limited the recorded version to four discs.

"Please don't ask Wayne that," he says. "They're doing this with 30 cars, 300 boomboxes. ... I guess we got off easy with four CDs."

As one might expect, Warners execs weren't exactly thrilled when the modest-selling Lips presented the idea to them. Here was something different (and therefore difficult) that also sounded expensive. But the group has always had a few employees at the company who are solidly in its corner, and the idea started to grow on them after Coyne came to Burbank and conducted an experiment in the Warners parking lot earlier this year. To assuage some of the label's potential financial concerns, the Lips struck a deal whereby they would record Zaireeka at the same time as a more conventional rock album that will follow in April or May; since the band treated the former as four separate albums with four 24-track master tapes, this means they effectively made five albums at once, all for the relatively humble sum of about $200,000.

"Honestly, when the idea was presented to the label, there was some resistance, because nobody had ever heard of such a thing before," Katznelson says. "But I have to believe, and Warners believes, that in the long haul, if you stick with a guy like Wayne Coyne, you're going to be rewarded both artistically and commercially."

Just how rewarding is Zaireeka? Not surprisingly, it works best if you go through the trouble of rounding up four friends and four CD players; under those circumstances, it's even better than Laserium Pink Floyd in quadraphonic sound -- partly because it's your friends in your living room. (And partly because it's the Flaming Lips instead of Pink Floyd.) Voices come out of nowhere, melodies slither around your head, and your grip on reality slides away as the CD playeCR>rs subtly slip out of sync. This disorienting effect was part of what Coyne was after.

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