Critical Writings -> Academic
Zaireeka by The Flaming Lips: An Introduction and Some Implications
My purpose, referencing the theme of ‘content’, particularly user-generated content, interaction and design, is to discuss the concept and implications of the Flaming Lips’ 1997 album, Zaireeka. I will begin with a general introduction to this work’s genesis and reception, and then I will go on to suggest some possible implications of this singular and ground-breaking release.
But first, a little information about the Flaming Lips. They are a band from Oklahoma City, formed in 1983, who have been through an assortment of line-up incarnations, but since 1996 have coalesced around three core members: founders Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivens, on vocals and occasional guitar, and bass, respectively; and 1993 recruit Steven Drodz, a multi-instrumentalist who joined as a drummer, but now takes care of most of the musicianship in the recording studio, and plays guitar and keyboards in concert. They are supplemented by live drummer Kliph Scurlock. They have released twelve albums thus far, of which 1997’s Zaireeka was the eighth. In combining elements and tonalities of prog and punk, soul and psyche, particularly since 1999’s mainstream breakthrough The Soft Bulletin, without this daring genre-mixing sounding like a sonically incompatible Frankenstein’s monster, but rather more like some hitherto undiscovered, entirely new fusion, they have as much affinity for melody as for blistering noise assaults.
They are also noteworthy in that as an ostensible ‘indie’ band, they have been with major label conglomerate Warner Bros., taking advantage of the increased distribution network it affords them, since the recording of their fifth album, 1992’s Hit to Death in the Future Head, despite only very modest sales for it and for their subsequent three releases: Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (1993), Clouds Taste Metallic (1995), and our subject today, Zaireeka. They have managed to retain this position, when the relative financial failure of these releases would have them designated as ‘flops’ by industry standards, by keeping their overheads low and adopting a D.I.Y, thrift store ethic, especially in regard to touring. Despite their critical and commercial successes of the naughties, they remain very hands-on in their approach, setting up and testing their own equipment before performances, and never placing their own gear on stage until supporting bands have finished their sets.
Indeed, to begin focusing more closely on Zaireeka itself, the story goes that the general manager at Warner Bros., Jeff Gold, hated the idea of Zaireeka being a four-CD set and wanted to drop the band from the label, according to A&R rep, David Katznelson. The Lips’ manager, Scott Booker, needed all his business acumen and charm to sell the notion to Steven Baker, who had become president of the label at a time when fearful executives summarily rejected any offbeat and potentially unprofitable idea. Fortunately, Baker’s respect for the group’s work ethic and resourcefulness helped. He has said: “I was dealing with bands coming to me and saying, ‘We need a backdrop that costs ten thousand dollars’ or ‘We need these lights that cost twenty grand.’ I’d be thinking, ‘You assholes, look at the Flaming Lips: They have a better light show, and it came from Ace Hardware! Don’t you get it? This is your career, and you have to do it yourself.’” I will return later to the economics of getting the album released.
As mentioned, Zaireeka is a four-disc package, but the four CDs are not primarily intended to be listened to individually or sequentially (although they certainly can be). Rather, different elements of the same song compositions have been separated and reproduced on the different discs, requiring that the four discs be played simultaneously on four different stereo systems, with the eight individual tracks synchronised at the start by way of band count-ins on the different discs (“1” on disc one, “2” on disc two, etc). Between combining the discs (i.e. in groups of two, three or four) and toying with volume, balance, fidelity, bass, treble, speaker position etc., on four different reproduction sources, the options and possibilities for how listeners hear the songs are truly limitless, or certainly exceed those offered by the conventional two speaker stereo set up. (And it is usually ‘listeners’ rather than ‘listener’, since unless you cheat stated authorial intentions by using pre-programmed staggered starts for each CD, properly synchronized multi-disc playback requires more than one person to turn on the four machines at the same time, so it is literally a ‘party’ album.) Furthermore, no two multi-disc listening experiences of the work can be repeated, thanks to the space-time continuum and discrepancies in speed from one CD player to another. Musically as well as conceptually, the Lips are defiantly experimental throughout Zaireeka. Individually, each disc sounds more like free jazz than pop, although Wayne Coyne's melodic sensibilities prevail even during the most chaotic moments. With each additional disc, though, the music's force and ingenuity reveals itself.
Where did the idea for this extravagant opus come from? The title is a combination of the words ‘Zaire’ and ‘Eureka’, a term coined by Coyne, as it were, to symbolise the fusion of anarchy and genius. In the album’s liner notes, he explains: “One day while on tour in Europe somewhere we were driving and listening to the news of the day on the radio. I remember a newscaster with a British accent saying these ominous words: ‘Civilization as we know it is breaking down at a phenomenal rate.’He was talking about Zaire, you know, in Africa. And I thought to myself, what if we were actually driving around and playing shows in Zaire instead of Europe... What would you play to an audience whose civilization was "breaking down??"…Since then, to me the word "Zaire" has always been synonymous with "trouble." And it made me think that people who have touted the idea of "anarchy" as the ultimate solution obviously have never really experienced it.’
He continues: ‘So anyway it's Zaire fused with Eureka - Zaireeka!! Both of these spheres of thought happening at exactly the same time - a kind of progress because of decline - simultaneously - but instead of one cancelling out the other - one uses the other. Anarchy using inspiration to guide it. And inspiration using anarchy's abandon and power to crash through any road blocks... whatever that means??... But somewhere in there is the spark that, I think, holds this concept and these songs together...”
Conceptually, the project had its origins in the Parking Lot Experiments, a series of happenings begun in autumn 1996, where the group would distribute thirty different cassettes with a different pre-recorded part to thirty different drivers with their cars arranged in a gigantic circle in a parking lot. The drivers would then load them into their tape decks, roll down their windows, turn up the volume to maximum level, and simultaneously hit play when instructed. Like many of the Flaming Lips’ wildest ideas, this one had started simply enough.
In 1978, a seventeen-year-old Coyne had wandered through the parking lot of the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma before a concert by KISS and Uriah Heep, and noticed the strange effect of different cars blasting the same tune on different eight-track players at the same time. Coyne has said:
“This led to the idea that we could have all these separate entities playing this big piece of music. I’m doing a weird step that’s outside of what we normally know as listening. You can have this enormous sound of a live orchestra, but eventually everything gets reduced to coming out of the left and right speakers. There are other ways to hear things, and that’s what I’m playing with. I don’t know if I can make it happen, or even if it will be worth listening to if it does happen, but I’m gonna try it.”
Coyne expands on this, again in the liner notes:
“With each experiment I was more encouraged - and even though it had its limitations, I was discovering the possibilities of using separate sound sources to expand on the ideas of composing and listening. And at the same time I was finding that the audience liked the idea of participating in their own entertainment... it was from this process, these failures and successes, that this four CD concept came into being. Though not the same compositions, much of the same ideas are used. My initial recordings of the ‘parking lot’ things were, I was finding out, dull and flat compared to the way they really sounded. I was finding that the multiple dimensions of having separate sound sources is what gave the compositions their dynamics. What I mean is, when I took
a composition that came out of just two speakers right in front of you, well... it was kind of boring, so I set out to see if I could capture the ‘unstructuredness’ and ‘unexpected’ elements of what was going on out in the parking lot and put it into a format that could be played in someone's living room....... The way the parking lot compositions/performances were fused with a ‘multi-dimensional’ dynamic is what I would try to do to songs and the recording process. What I mean is... I wanted to abandon song structure but not abandon the song. I wanted to make songs that were different every time you played them. I wanted to veer away from even the way songs were listened to... I wanted to get away from the things that were... known.”
With Parking Lot Experiment No. 4 at the eleventh South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, held in Austin, Texas in March 1997, the group played a show unlike any of the other four hundred and ninety-nine performances there, claiming a place in the lineage of avant-garde sonic pioneers stretching from Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote a string quartet to be played from four helicopters, to John Cage, of the famously doctored pianos.
Of course, Zaireeka is not the first attempt at reproducing sound or music through more than two channels. In the early fifties, American cinemas were utilising a variety of systems stemming from the development of “binaural sound”, or “stereo” as it is popularly called, in the thirties, most with four but some with as many as seven channels. When ‘high fidelity’ audio equipment arrived in homes a few years later, it employed only two channels because phonograph records at the time could not accommodate more sonic information. In the early seventies, improvements in the manufacturing of vinyl LPs led to the birth of quadraphonic sound. When one of the Flaming Lips’ major influences, Pink Floyd, recorded their 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, they mixed it for four speakers. Pink Floyd had been playing with the idea in concert for years, since its live-sound engineers developed the fancifully named Azimuth Coordinator, a joystick device that they manipulated to move the music coming from the stage between speakers surrounding listeners in each corner of the hall. Unfortunately, competitive audio manufacturers could never agree on a standard format for quadraphonic sound, which confused and frustrated consumers, who failed to embrace it. But the four-channel concept returned in the early eighties with the advent of home theatre equipment and surround sound.
Even so, with quadraphonic sound and surround sound, there is still only one source, leaving less room for listener participation in the process of listening. In 1996, the Flaming Lips knew that relatively few of their fans owned high-end audiophile gear, but everyone seemed to have more than one CD player: the conventional stereo-system component, augmented by a computer player or perhaps a boom box or two. Coyne began talking with longstanding band producer Dave Friedmann about how listeners might duplicate the multisource sonic swirl of the Parking Lot Experiments at home in a simple and low-tech way. Initially, Coyne hoped to release ten CDs designed to be played simultaneously, but manager Booker, who faced the challenge of packaging the music so that Warner Bros. could sell it, and Friedmann, who had to record the daunting multidisc epic, prevailed upon him to settle for the more realistic number of four.
The group started recording in April 1997 at Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, upstate New York, which Dave Friedmann had just opened. Michael Ivens joined him in tearing out, rewiring, and re-configuring much of the equipment he had just installed, rigging a system to record and mix four separate stereo masters at once. The group recorded on two eight-track ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) machines running in conjunction with the twenty-four-track analogue tape machine, then mixed to four stereo DAT machines wired to eight speakers.
Solving the technological problems proved to be easier than creating music that justified all of this trouble. After three months at Tarbox Road, the band had spent half of the budget Warner Bros. had allotted for their next “real” album without completing a single song for its arty side project. The musicians gradually discovered that instead of imposing the four-CD format on its usual songwriting, they had to write specifically for the new medium. This realisation precipitated an outpouring of songs. Not all of them fitted the experimental sonic requirements of Zaireeka, but those that took shape as more traditional song forms were earmarked for the next conventional album. By August, eight tracks had been completed for Zaireeka, as well as several lushly orchestrated pop songs, including ‘Race for the Prize’, which wound up as the opener on Zaireeka’s successor, The Soft Bulletin.
In the tradition of 4’33’ by John Cage, which employed four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to shift listeners’ attention from the stage and prompt them to hear the ambient sounds around them, and Metal Machine Music, the 1975 album by Lou Reed which featured four vinyl LP sides of grating feedback, Zaireeka is partly an inspired audio experiment, and partly Situationist, media culture event chutzpah. Hints of the gorgeous sounds that would flower on The Soft Bulletin can be heard on four of the eight songs, and these do work as conventional stereo mixes, though there are certainly added dimensions in the eight-speaker format.
‘Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)’ is a hook-laden, multipart orchestral suite with lyrics that tell one of Wayne Coyne’s science-fiction tales: a secret agent tries to stop a plot to end the world but ends up “reporting back to nothing” when his headquarters is destroyed. A similarly dire story unfolds in ‘Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair’, a haunting tune with symphonic flourishes, concerning an anxious pilot who commits suicide in mid-air.
The group revisits familiar terrain with the other two so-called “conventional” tracks, ‘A Machine in India’ and ‘The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now.’ Based on an acoustic guitar decorated by Steven’s synthesised flute, the melody of the former owes much to Big Star’s ‘The India Song’. In the liner notes, Coyne explains that the lyrics stemmed from a conversation he had with his partner, Michelle Martin, “about the ‘other world’ she is in during her menstrual period and the kind of dull and depressing mild insanity that seems to possess her.” The story-song ‘The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now’ pairs a musical coda with Coyne’s spoken-word account of how the couple’s three dogs adopted a plastic grasshopper that they treated as if it were their offspring, sparing it the fate of being chewed to death. The track ends with an audio assault of barking dogs.
The remaining four tracks exist to showcase the eight-speaker format, and they really cannot be appreciated fully unless you take the trouble of arranging four CD players. If you do, sounds zip around the room, weird noises erupt from unexpected places, and unlikely melodies come together and mutate in bizarre ways. ‘Okay I’ll Admit That I Really Don’t Understand’ is a one-chord drone over which Coyne repeats the title, mantra-like; ‘The Train Runs Over the Camel But Is Derailed By The Gnat’ combines three unrelated melodies and a swirl of ambient noise; ‘March of the Rotten Vegetables’ is Drodz’s electronically doctored drum solo, in the style of Pink Floyd’s ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’, from the Parking Lot Experiments; and ‘How Will We Know (Futuristic Crashendos)’ is distinguished by high and low-frequency drones. “Can cause a person to become disorientated, confused, or nauseated” caution the liner notes. “Make sure infants are out of listening range. This track should not be listened to while driving.”
Having completed the album, how did the Lips convince their label Warner Bros. to release it? Their manager Scot Booker carefully crafted his pitch: for an advance of two hundred thousand dollars, they would deliver two albums, the experimental Zaireeka, which it would not count as one of the seven albums required by its contract, and the next pop disc. He also had an answer prepared for why Zaireeka should be released first, arguing that most reviews of the band’s work up until then, even if conceding that they had some good songs, tended to stress their weirdness. Booker believed that if Zaireeka appeared first, everyone would get tired of calling them weird, get it out of their systems, leaving them open to focusing instead on the musical content of the next record.
A week before meeting with Warner Bros’ president, Steven Baker, Booker worked his way through every department at the label, collecting the figures to bolster his case. He did his homework as regards manufacturing costs, packaging options and distribution. He calculated that if Zaireeka sold twelve thousand copies Warner’s would break even, and start making money after that. Warner’s were sceptical of even selling that amount, but then advance orders came in for fourteen thousand. So the album was released as a specially priced boxed set in October 1997.
It did not win the band any new fans, garner any radio play, or broach the charts, but supporters held listening parties at rock clubs and record shops across the United States, generating a deal of ‘Aren’t they weird?’ press coverage, as Booker had predicted. To date, Zaireeka has sold over twenty-eight thousand copies, more than double the number the record company needed to turn a profit.
The Flaming Lips also devised a novel way of touring in support of their oddest album. Starting in February 1998 and continuing until autumn of that year, following on from the previously discussed precursor to Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, the band brought the Boom Box Experiments to midsized rock clubs across America and Europe, travelling with forty portable cassette players and forty tapes for each song on the set list. The musicians corralled friends and fans in each city to sit on stage in two groups with the boom boxes in their laps. Wayne Coyne conducted the twenty operators on the right, instructing them to raise or lower the volume at different points in each tune, while Steven Drodz directed the twenty on the left, leaving Michael Ivens to stand in the centre, manipulating a mixer that fed lines from all the boom boxes into the house PA, thus producing aleatory songs and soundscapes.
It remains to discuss the appeal of Zaireeka, and to suggest why it can be regarded as a significant artistic statement rather than as a monumental folly, or even a noble failure. While working on the album before its release, Wayne Coyne stated that he had two goals for Zaireeka, apart from the obvious one of offering another way of hearing music. One was to create a group listening experience; the other was to illustrate the unexpected pleasures of what Brian Eno calls “happy accidents”. In terms of these objectives, the work succeeds admirably, on its own terms. Zaireeka represents a challenge to the reigning assumptions behind the idea of recorded music and its reproduction, and is an attempt to change the way listeners use the available technology. The open and interactive nature of the project, and the artistic practice which facilitated it, has a direct bearing on user-centred interaction, in which the object that is the means of (re)production – the CD – requires a new species of environment, in terms of listening conditions, for its consumption and appreciation. Zaireeka achieves its purposes, I would argue, in three main ways: by being social, by being variable, and by being transient.
Perhaps the most significant facet of this enterprise is that Zaireeka almost dictates the conditions of its listening, in that it must be set up through group cooperation and listened to in a social context. Although it is technically possible to synch the tracks by, for example, pausing one CD player after six seconds of play, another after four seconds of play and another after two, and then pressing play on the fourth, counting “one, two” and pressing play on the one paused after two seconds, then counting “three, four” and pressing play on the one paused after four seconds and so on, this method of being able to listen alone (and, so to say, ‘cheat’ the intentions implicit in the format) misses the spirit of Zaireeka. As already mentioned, listening parties became popular in the wake of the album’s release, and not just in public premises but also in private homes. A regular topic of the Flaming Lips’ mailing list and message boards was Zaireeka parties. People were constantly organising them, inviting people to them, and giving reports on how they went afterwards. Few people have four CD players, but most people, if they are lucky, have at least three friends or acquaintances, or friends of friends and acquaintances of acquaintances. Some of these people are bound to own boomboxes. Zaireeka provides a great reason to bring people together to listen to music communally. Indeed, a cursory YouTube search will yield documentary evidence of people listening to different tracks from the work at gatherings in apartments, and even an amusing demonstration of how the CDs should be set up.
Similarly, while it is possible with certain software programmes to create a burned, mixed-down version of Zaireeka, where the contents of all four CDs can be heard simultaneously on one disc (an understandable desire if the listener wants to focus on the songs and listen to them repeatedly in an easy manner) the only way to think of a Zaireeka mixdown is as a souvenir of the real thing. For Zaireeka is essentially a multi-disc experience, because it is intended that you will never hear the same record twice, and that every listening experience will be variable, thus more closely approximating a live concert than conventional CD reproduction and listening. Synchronization is the most obvious mitigating factor here. Perfect synchronization is virtually impossible, so each listening experience will vary according to how well you can get the discs to work together. In making a mix-down copy of Zaireeka, it is important to remember that each track should be synched separately. The record is not meant to be heard in one long session, as the speeds of CD players are too inconsistent. Once one track ends, it is advisable to pause the CD and start synchronising anew.
But other factors inevitably have a significant impact on each experience. How loud can you play the record? Four stereos going in one room can make quite an impact, even at modest volume. Which disc are you going to assign to your main stereo? The most powerful drum parts occur on disc four, so do you give that one to whichever system has the most bass? And sometimes you can only get three CD players together, which means you have to decide which disc to leave out. The songs remain the same, but the listeners’ experiences do not.
In this way, it can be seen that Zaireeka’s variability is attained by a meeting and mixing of methods partly controlled and partly aleatory, that is, partly dictated by the necessities attendant on all experiences of listening to pre-recorded sounds, and partly as the result of chance elements occasioned by how this CD package interacts with the available technology. As its title suggests, it is the fusion of the modus operandi of an inspiring idea with the anarchy and chaos of random improvisation. Furthermore, Zaireeka tends to collapse, or at least to highlight and so challenge, the form/content dichotomy. Is the audience listening because of, and more engaged by, the songs themselves, or by the way they have been recorded and are being reproduced? In this way, Zaireeka throws into sharp relief more common debates around musical composition vis-à-vis production values on “normal” CDs.
Finally, because of the organisational hassles associated with the social aspect of the work, and more especially because of the variability of each listening experience, there is a transient quality not only to the experience of hearing Zaireeka, but to the work itself. It is a collection of pieces of recorded music which tends to inspire the same feelings and reactions as does music in live performance. Conscious of the infrequency with which they may with ease hear the work, and also certain that they will never hear it in precisely the same way ever again, listeners are far less likely to talk over the sound during Zaireeka listening parties, and much more apt to listen attentively and with unusual concentration. So, Zaireeka attempts to stand outside the canon of recorded music by refusing to be fixed and finished. The paradox being, of course, that this very transience is what contributes to its standing the test of time, and makes it lasting.
It may be asked, why has no one else taken up the gauntlet thrown down by Zaireeka? Well, in some ways they have. In the twelve years since its release, advances in technology and more ready access to those advances mean that the Zaireeka project is being continued by other means. Apart from the fact that the proliferation of laptops in the intervening period has meant that listening parties are somewhat easier to organise than they were when stereo systems and boom boxes had to be transported to agreed locations, it is also noteworthy that the spread of information technology has given rise to more recent innovations in the composer/audience interface. For example, the band Radiohead have created the opportunity, via their website, for fans to remix already released versions of their songs. Some of these remixes have subsequently been officially released by the band as alternative versions, or made available to download. Nine Inch Nails have also done the same thing. So, while Zaireeka remains, as an artefact, sui generis, its application and influence is still evolving. But even if it is perceived as a one-off, never to be repeated statement, it can stand its ground as a point that needed to be made, and was sufficient to make only once.
1. DeRogatis, Jim. Staring At Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips. New York:
Broadway, 2006. p.163.
2 The Flaming Lips. Zaireeka. Warner Bros., 1997. Liner notes, p.1 ff.
3. DeRogatis, p.151
4. The Flaming Lips, p.5 ff.
5. The Flaming Lips, p.10
6. Derogatis, p.162
In Performing Technology: User Content and the New Digital Media, (proceedings of a conference at the Sonic Arts Research Centre, Queens University Belfast, May 2009), (Cambridge Scholars Press, November 2009)