What if you made an album and no one listened to it? Even better: What if you made an album and no one could listen to it? What if that were the point?
So much of our interaction with our favorite artists, even in today's fractured, niche music world, revolves around our expectations of them. Are they too popular? Have they sold out? Have they lost what made them great? Do they still feel like they speak exclusively to us, like they're that local band that we, specifically, discovered? My Morning Jacket makes a Prince-infused album with a song ("Look At You") that they play at weddings. Jack White writes a song about an obsessed fan shooting him in the face. A Mates of State song helps AT&T sell their shitty cellphones. Are these still our bands? Much of the connection we have with musicians is based on our trust in their intentions. We are obsessive the same way we are about a crush or a new lover, and we are protective in the same fashion: We just don't want our heart broken.
My love affair with The Flaming Lips began in high school, in 1993, when they were the band I'd never heard of opening for Stone Temple Pilots and the Butthole Surfers. ("Lips and assholes, that's what you're listening to," my Dad said at the time.) I thought they were a typical grunge band when I saw them initially, probably 15 percent because they were opening for STP and 85 percent because I was an idiot, but brought myself up to speed immediately, listening to "Transmissions Of A Satellite Heart" on repeat for days at a time. To be fair: My CD player only housed one disc.
I remember, a couple of years later, seeing them play "She Don't Use Jelly" on Letterman, and feeling the pride of a beloved nephew hitting a grand slam while scouts watched lustily. I was happy for them, but feared this would change things: That I was going to lose them.
(God, look how young they are.)
I had no idea what they would turn into, and I suspect they didn't either. Their next album was "Clouds Taste Metallic," which is like "Transmissions" but just a step or two to the right on the evolutionary chart. ("Transmissions" carries a club; "Clouds" has discovered the ability to create rough, blunt tools.) "Clouds" barely sold, and the band's label, Warner Bros. (the Flaming Lips, improbably, have been signed to Warner Bros. for 18 years), began to worry about the wisdom of keeping a cult band on a major label. They certainly were trying; Warner actually played the band's "Bad Days" in the film Batman Forever, in the scene where Jim Carrey becomes The Riddler. It was bizarre to hear the song there. It felt ominous. It felt like the nephew was doing Gatorade ads.
Then, apparently, everybody in the band took acid every day for two years.
Thus spoke "Zaireeka." "Zaireeka" was an album, inspired by some "experimental" shows Wayne Coyne — suddenly looking much older, in the span of two years — had put on after the guitarist Ronald Jones left the band. He began encouraging fans to bring their own boom boxes (a device once used to play music) and play them all at once. Because he and everyone else were on a rather large amount of drugs, they decided to make a whole album this way. The album required you to play four separate CDs on four different boomboxes, pressing play at the exact same time, with the boomboxes strategically placed in four points around the room. You could listen to each CD by itself, but it wouldn't make much sense; occasionally there would be a random cymbal crash or guitar riff that only made sense if you were listening to all four.
You could call this ambitious, or you could call this, rightly, insane. Even if you were the biggest Flaming Lips fan in the world, this was an experiment that no reasonable person could undertake. Who has four boomboxes? Who can organize such an endeavor? Who listens to music like that? My cousin Denny tried it once. He borrowed boomboxes from three friends of his and put them in the corners of his small apartment. He was by himself, though, so he kept failing to get the syncing right and eventually just gave up. Denny did tell me that the eighth and final song on the album, "The Big Ol' Bug Is the New Baby Now," consists mostly of dogs barking.
Not that it mattered, really: Coyne later admitted that there was no real right way to sync everything up; "it's impossible to figure it out," he once chuckled. That didn't mean he didn't try. To "tour" for the album, the band would supply its own sound systems, and Coyne would "conduct" from the stage, motioning and gesticulating to attempt to sync up whatever strange audio vision he had in his crazy acid brain. The album wasn't a failure exactly — it sold enough copies to make its money back and keep the Lips on Warner Bros — but it was mostly a collector's item, for fanatics to display but never listen to.
And I mean seriously, never listen to. It's impossible. Maybe the songs are great. Maybe they're terrible. No one seems to know, including Coyne. The album is purposely designed to be inaccessible. This seems to have been the point. It appears to have gotten the Flaming Lips unstuck. Two years after "Zaireeka," the band released "The Soft Bulletin," one of the greatest rock albums of all time and a direct result of the experimentation of "Zaireeka." (A couple of songs off "Bulletin," including "Race For The Prize," were originally written for "Zaireeka.") Going into a "Zaireeka," the Flaming Lips were a struggling band, losing members and momentum, and going out of "Zaireeka," even though no one knew it yet (including them), they were one of the best rock bands in the world. Their shows displayed the difference in who they had been and who they had become.
"Zaireeka" was a labyrinth the band entered, only to exit changed, wilder, crazier, better. It is the pivotal moment in one of the most important bands of the last 25 years, one of my favorite bands of all time. And I have never heard it. Almost no one has ever heard it. I always thought that Coyne, someday, would take pity on us and release a "normal" single disc with the perfect mix of all eight songs. Instead, on the album's 10-year anniversary, he added a fifth disc.
Thanks to some enterprising Web denizens, you can attempt to listen to "Zaireeka" the way it was intended, however that was. While writing this piece, I tried it at this site. It doesn't really work, unless your computer has four different mouses, and you personally have eight ears. But it's an attempt. It's an attempt to understand the impossible, to corral the elusive, to make sense of madness. It is something that, deep down, was made just for the band, to reach the next step, to change into the band they needed to be all along. It is the most pivotal moment in the life of a band that matters.
And you can't listen to it. No one can. By design. The world is a mysterious place. The journey, I guess, is the battle.