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‘Zaireeka’: The Flaming Lips Album You Can’t Listen To
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Zaireeka’: The Flaming Lips Album You Can’t Listen To

Spread over four CDs designed to be played simultaneously, The Flaming Lips’ ‘Zaireeka’ may be the most experimental album of all time.

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It’s 1997. The new millennium is approaching, and with it a growing case of Y2K fever. Everywhere, artists are questioning everything they think they know about themselves, working out ways to survive in a new era far different to the one they came up in: Radiohead have released OK Computer. Bjork has released Homogenic. Blur have released their self-titled album. All these records found their creators interrogating the act of music-making in a rapidly changing technological landscape, but none did so more radically than The Flaming Lips, whose eighth album, Zaireeka, dismantled the idea of what an album could be, and rethought how listeners could experience music. Pegged by Julian Cope as “the experimental album to end all experimental albums”, Zaireeka took the listener beyond a simple auditory experience and into something wholly immersive that no other record before or since has been able to offer.

Spread across four CDs designed to be played simultaneously, Zaireeka also marked a vital shift in The Flaming Lips’ evolution. With songwriting that more than matched the scope of their ambition, the album took the group from being a cult alt-rock outfit with a quirky hit single to a visionary act capable of tackling big questions about life, death and what it meant to be a band working in the late 90s.

“We really did believe this whole other universe existed for us to create in. And I think it really did change the structure of what we thought a song could be for us,” The Flaming Lips’ frontman, Wayne Coyne, told this author in 2020, in an interview for Record Collector magazine. “Now it’s insane,” he said of Zaireeka. “It’s the most insane record ever.”

Listen to the best of The Flaming Lips here.

“This is fucking cool. Someone should make an album like this”

The physical effort it took to play Zaireeka presented a challenge in 1997: few, if any, members of the record-buying public owned four CD players, meaning that any attempt to hear the album the way it was intended had to be an event, with a gathering of like-minded listeners, sufficient equipment – perhaps a stereo, a couple of boomboxes, a CD Walkman connected to some speakers – and enough spare hands to hit Play at the same time. (Spoken introductions, such as, “Track number one. This is CD number one. Number two. Number three. And number four,” allowed listeners to synchronise their start times as closely as possible at the beginning of each song – a necessity given that that every CD player runs at imperceptibly different speeds, meaning that the four discs will inevitably slip out of synch at some point.)

Similar, if less organised, types of gatherings had given Coyne the idea in the first place. Walking past gig venues as a teenager in the 70s, the future Flaming Lips figurehead became fascinated with the sounds he heard blasting from car stereos – not just the tunes competing for supremacy on a hot night in Oklahoma, but the rare moments when the same songs could be heard coming from different cars, almost in time with each other. “Everybody is playing their own KISS album or their own Led Zeppelin album,” Coyne recalled in 2020. “But occasionally, you’d walk through a piece of the parking lot where two or three people are playing the same song, they’re just not playing at the same time. I was probably the only one, but I remember being like, This is fucking cool. Someone should make an album like this.”

Two decades later, Coyne and Steven Drozd, Coyne’s kindred-spirit creative foil in The Flaming Lips, set out to do just that.

“We started to crack the code”

In the era of multi-format releases, where one single would often be issued across multiple CDs, cassettes and 7”s, remixes made for a handy way to bolster B-side material. Gathering an array of remixes of one song, Coyne and Drozd looked for proof of concept for the idea that would serve as Zaireeka’s jumping-off point. “We’d put on a remix by someone, we’d put on a remix by somebody else, and just play them both at the same time,” the singer explained. “And with someone like Steven doing the timing, they would line up, not exact, but pretty close to exact for a little while. They would get out of whack after about a minute or so. But for the beginning of it, you’d be hearing two mixes at one time.”

Upping the experiment to three mixes gave the same results. “We started to crack the code,” Coyne continued. “We know we can get these in sync for a while, but no matter what, eventually they’re going to [do their own thing]. But we also thought that was cool because that was us reliving walking through the parking lot at concerts and stuff and hearing the same song being discombobulated.”

The stars also seemed to align as The Flaming Lips underwent their own internal shifts. Having amassed a small but devoted following with an early run of indie albums whose sensibilities leaned into prog and psychedelia shot through with a DIY punk attitude, the group had signed to major label Warner Bros in the early 90s and scored a surprise hit on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1993, with the grungy, whimsical and naggingly catchy She Don’t Use Jelly. An unlikely appearance on Beverley Hills 90210 added pressure to the group, whose unforgiving touring schedule ultimately led to the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones after the release of Zaireeka’s predecessor, Clouds Taste Metallic. But rather than flounder with a man down, Coyne and Drozd took the opportunity to experiment away from the kinds of music they were used to making as a four-piece with Jones and long-serving Lips bassist Michael Ivins.

“We’re doing these Parking Lot Experiments, which lead to ‘Zaireeka’”

Initially hired as a drummer, the multi-instrumentalist Drozd had begun to expand his role in the group, and experimental recordings he and Coyne began making on four-track machines would eventually lead The Flaming Lips to the symphonic-pop grandeur of their next phase. In this embryonic stage, the pair took recorded fragments – samples, guitar parts, drones, synth strings, keyboard lines, drum patterns – spread across as many as 50 or 60 cassettes and held events in Oklahoma car parks, inviting willing participants to become part of what Coyne and Drozd dubbed “The Parking Lot Experiments” across the autumn of 1996 and into the spring of 1997.

“We need fifty cars that have tape decks in them…” read flyers advertising one event. “Cassette tape decks, preferably with speakers in the doors or the trunk… The louder the better!” Assigning a cassette to each car, Coyne and Drozd would orchestrate a fully immersive experience, learning from the results and making ever more complex recordings that paved the way for Zaireeka’s four-CD format.

“We thought this was only gonna be like a month or two – it’s a break, but it’s not a break forever,” Coyne told this author. “It was like, ‘We’re gonna do this until Ronald decides to come back.’ And Steven and I just started to make this other type of music.” As the experiments rolled on beyond their expectations, Coyne and Drozd amassed a staggering amount of material. “If you saw the amount of music Steven and I made, it’s just insane,” Coyne said. “And the freedom of not having to deal with the guilt of not including Ronald – all these sorts of things that hinder creativity were unbounded.”

“It really made us go to the next level”

When Coyne told The Flaming Lips’ regular producer Dave Fridmann that he wanted to release an album consisting of multiple CDs designed to be played simultaneously, “He said, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do it,’” the singer recalled. But the group’s ambitions were initially too unwieldly to be practical.

“We talked about it being 100 CDs. And then we got talked down to 20 CDs, and at some point it was gonna be 10 CDs,” Coyne explained. “And then our manager, Scott [Booker], he’s like, ‘I think we can do four.’ Which at the time seemed like, ‘Well, everybody’s doing one. What? We’re just gonna do three more?’”

However, with The Flaming Lips yet to repeat the success of She Don’t Use Jelly, and Warner Bros undergoing major personnel changes, the more manageable four-disc approach was an easier sell from a group that risked getting lost in the shuffle. “Most of the bands that had been signed in the time that we were signed had already been dropped,” Coyne noted. “And all the people that were working there had been fired. And so we’re working in a new zone – not being mega successful, but not being unsuccessful in a bad way.

“To their credit, the people at Warner Bros always absolutely loved what we were doing,” Coyne added. “They were always like, ‘You guys are what making records is all about. You don’t give a fuck and you do the coolest shit.’… And we convinced Warner Bros, ‘If you let us record Zaireeka, we’ll give you two records. One of them – we didn’t know it yet – is gonna be [Zaireeka’s 1999 follow-up] The Soft Bulletin, and one of them’s gonna be Zaireeka. So we’re doing two records on a small, small budget that would be really one record to them. And they’re like, ‘OK, do whatever you want.’ Because they’re in flux, too.”

“Some of it sounded like music from heaven”
Effectively recording two albums at once, the group had to made judicious choices over which songs would suit the Zaireeka format and which would be held back for its more conventional, if no less crucial for The Flaming Lips, follow-up. “You have to have somewhere to start,” Coyne explained of the way they built the Zaireeka material. “Some would be sound collages that would turn into songs, and then some of them, like Riding To Work In The Year 2025, we worked on specifically for Zaireeka… We would veer away from songwriting and it would be more abstract compositions and stuff.”

In rethinking the way they wrote songs in order to make Zaireeka work, the three-piece Flaming Lips found themselves developing new skills that would forever change their sound. “It really made us go to the next level of just being able to write songs – these big dense compositions – and make some of it sound like music from heaven, and at the same time still having the quirks and the uniqueness,” Coyne observes. “We rationalised the ridiculousness of it to ourselves to get through it. And we wanted it to work.”

But while the instrumental cut March Of The Rotten Vegetables was perfect for the surround-sound experience Zaireeka offered – not least when Steven Drozd’s John Bonham-like drum solo seems to chase itself around the room – not every experiment suited Zaireeka’s four-CD framework. Those that didn’t, however, often ended up becoming standout moments on The Soft Bulletin. “A song like Race For The Prize… We started to record it, and it just sounded amazing. And it was like, ‘What the fuck? We have this great fucking song!’” Coyne said. “And we wouldn’t really know what to do with it. In the beginning when were making it, it was gonna be on Zaireeka, and we tried to chop it up and put it onto four things, but it was like, ‘That’s ruining it.’

“So we already started to have a pile of: those don’t work,” Coyne added. “Not that anything really works in the Zaireeka format. And we’re putting those over there as failures, in a sense, but we know we’ll revisit them… And that started to become The Soft Bulletin.”

“It’s exhilarating. There is no other music that is going to do that”

For Coyne, Zaireeka was more than an experiment in how to present music, it was a wholesale questioning of what it meant to release an album in an era just before downloading, file-sharing and streaming made convenience a priority over experience. “You have to be part of it,” Coyne said of way Zaireeka demands both concentration and physical interaction. “Most experimental albums, you don’t have anything to do with it. You just play them or don’t play them, and that’s the end of the story.”

When Zaireeka was released, on 28 October 1997, it proved a challenge not only to fans eager to listen to The Flaming Lips’ new record in all its surround-sound glory, but also to music critics charged with assessing whether it was worth the effort of sourcing four CDs players and corralling enough people to enable hearing the album as intended. “Do I want to buy three more CD players with which to enjoy Zaireeka or, say, eat?” asked Pitchfork’s Jason Josephs. He may have chosen the former, but Rolling Stone were willing to indulge, declaring that the album’s “wall-of-surround-sound approach melds droning-rock dissonance with warped, off-kilter pop melodies, producing a totally immersing post-Pet Sounds audio séance”.

Certainly, listening to Zaireeka is like stepping into another world, and every experience differs. The blueprint may be the same – vocals that alternate between ghostly emanations and massed chorales that engulf space; high-pitched frequencies designed to disorientate; synth strings and sound effects that seek to conjure Coyne’s vision of “music from heaven” inside the four walls of a single room – but depending on timing, the positioning of speakers and volume levels, not to mention the collective mood of the participants, the album creates itself anew with each listen.

“Part of it is that your mind is just so used to music being connected, you can’t quite comprehend that this music is starting to lose contact with itself,” Coyne said in 2020, explaining how it feels to be listening to Zaireeka when the CDs inevitably begin to fall out of line with each other. “So your mind stretches a little bit to connect a beat that now is, little by little, getting ahead of itself. A bass line that’s dropping behind everybody else. And a voice that used to be in time now isn’t. And so there’s this strange floating moment where you’re trying to concentrate and keep them all veering straight ahead. And it’s exhilarating. There’s no other music that is going to do that.”

Ironically, in the digital era, when many CD players are in the bin and most households contain enough devices to stream the four discs simultaneously, this most forward-thinking of albums has made itself obsolete. At the time of writing, Zaireeka is not on streaming services, but The Flaming Lips have created user-friendly stereo mixes of some of its songs, made available as B-sides or on compilations. But though the version of album opener Okay I’ll Admit That I Really Don’t Understand and a truncated edit of the expansive ten-minute centrepiece, A Machine In India, that appear on collections such as The Soft Bulletin Companion do service to the minutely detailed soundscapes the band were now comfortable creating, and Riding To Work In The Year 2025 (You’re Invisible Now) and How Will We Know? (Futuristic Crashendos) offer evidence of The Flaming Lips flexing as songwriters and arrangers, they can only ever approximate the true Zaireeka experience.

“‘Zaireeka’ allowed us to go into our own trip… And we never really stopped”

It may seem increasingly difficult to listen to in its fullest incarnation, but Zaireeka’s legacy lives on in the music The Flaming Lips made in its wake. Most obviously, the symphonic pop of The Soft Bulletin has its roots in the cinematic arrangements of songs such as Thirty-Five Thousand Feet Of Despair, while the album as a whole gives plenty of space over to Wayne Coyne’s increasing confidence as a singer capable of leavening his explorations of death and existentialist angst with pop-leaning melodies – ingredients that have marked many of the best Flaming Lips songs since. The group’s mainstream breakthrough, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, would never have been possible without Zaireeka leading the way.

“We just gained a lot of knowledge about how The Flaming Lips can record,” Coyne told this author in 2020. “We knew a part of us was just making it for our own entertainment, but it was never a joke. It was never ironic, never silly. It was always like: we’re really pursuing this unique joy that Steven and I would share… Zaireeka allowed us to really go into our own trip… And we never really stopped after that.”

Find out which Flaming Lips tune made it into our best alternative Christmas songs.

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