Zaireeka is the eighth studio album by the alternative rock band The Flaming Lips. Released on October 28, 1997, the experimental rock album consists of four compact discs. Each of its eight songs consists of four stereo tracks, one from each CD. The album was designed so that when played simultaneously on four separate audio systems, the four CDs would produce a harmonic or juxtaposed sound. The discs may be included in different combinations, omitting one, two or three discs. The album's title is a portmanteau of two words: Zaire, chosen as a symbol of anarchy after Wayne Coyne heard a radio news story about the political instability of the African nation, and eureka (literally: "I have found it"), an expression of joyous discovery.
Zaireeka was the first album made by the band since the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones. It acted as a preview of the music and style that would surface on the next album, The Soft Bulletin (1999) and is the predecessor to the band's more conventional surround sound releases.
Adverse circumstances led to the production of Zaireeka. The departure of guitarist Ronald Jones compelled the band to change fundamentally. In addition, the limited success of the previous album, Clouds Taste Metallic, threatened their status at Warner Bros. Records. They eventually found that drummer Steven Drozd could compensate for the loss of Jones by becoming a multi-instrumentalist. However, live shows proved to be more challenging and in order to maintain activity and output, Wayne Coyne conceived an experimental show.
During 1996 and 1997, The Flaming Lips ran a series of events known as "The Parking Lot Experiments." The concept was inspired by an incident in Coyne's youth, where he noticed that car radios in the parking lot at a concert were playing the same songs at the same time, Wayne Coyne created 40 cassette tapes to be played in synchronization. The band invited people to bring their cars to parking lots, where they would be given one of the tapes and then instructed when to start them. The music was "a strange, fluid 20 minute sound composition".
Production of the album was preceded by two unfortunate events, which were recounted in "The Spiderbite Song" from The Soft Bulletin. Michael Ivins was involved in a car crash, and Steven Drozd's hand became severely infected. Drozd initially claimed that his hand had been bitten by a spider, although later he admitted the infected abscess was caused by injection of heroin.
The Flaming Lips began work on Zaireeka in April 1997 in the then-new Tarbox Road Studios. Initially, the band was frustrated while making the album. Even after diverting half of the budget for the next album into Zaireeka, there were no tangible results. The band experienced difficulty writing songs for the album. Finally, Coyne exclaimed "Look, we don't have to be friends... but we have to make this record!" While this philosophy aided progress, the band only began to complete songs when they learned to write for the medium as opposed to trying to split normal songs across four CDs.
The group wrote several songs that were unsuccessful in the four-CD format. These songs, including "Race for the Prize", were reserved for the next album, which would eventually become The Soft Bulletin.
Warner Bros. Records was initially apprehensive about releasing Zaireeka, so manager Scott Booker carefully researched the costs of releasing a box set. Booker discovered that Zaireeka could be released so that once 12,000 copies had been sold, the label would break even. (Advance orders for the album came to 14,000 copies). Booker pitched the album to Warner Bros. Records president Steven Baker.
Eventually, the two factions reached an agreement in which the album would be released, although Zaireeka would not count towards the seven albums the band was contracted to deliver to Warner Bros. For an advance of $200,000, the band would make both Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin. In addition, Booker mentioned that by allowing the media to proclaim how "weird" the band was with Zaireeka, they would be more prepared to treat The Soft Bulletin as a serious album. Zaireeka was released in October, 1997. As of 2006, 28,000 copies have been sold.
The speakers being used may be physically positioned in many different configurations (e.g. at different heights or even in entirely different rooms). Some listeners may even choose to disable the left or right speaker of one or more systems. Synchronization errors between the audio systems may cause effects such as reverb or echo being heard on one disc before the original sound is produced from another. Further, the type and quality of each audio system affects the relationship between the four CDs.
After completion of Zaireeka, The Flaming Lips tried an unconventional method to tour the album. "The Boom Box Experiments", like "The Parking Lot Experiments", involved tapes being played at the same time. However, these shows were held in conventional rock venues, and the band supplied their own boom boxes. Coyne and Drozd conducted two "choirs" of people controlling the boom boxes, giving them instructions for actions like turning the volume up or down, while Ivins controlled the mixer.
Songs played in The Boom Box Experiments include:
"The Big Ol' Bug Is the New Baby Now"
"A Winter's Day Car Accident Melody"
"Altruism, or That's the Crotch Calling the Devil Black"
"Heralding in a Better Ego"
"Realizing the Speed of Life"
"Schizophrenic Sunrise, or The Loudest Blade of Grass"
With Zaireeka, The Flaming Lips had overcome the loss of Ronald Jones and proved they could still work as a band. The situation at Warner Bros. Records was still dire, including a risk of being dropped from the label. However, songs had already been written for the next album, The Soft Bulletin, which would be both a critical hit for the band and their breakthrough into mainstream success. Following the release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 2002, The Flaming Lips would return to the concept of surround sound with a DVD-Audio special-edition of that album in 2003.
Zaireeka is viewed by the band as nothing more than an experimental release. "It was, and still is, intended to be listened to by other artists, musicians and producers," Coyne would later state in the liner notes for The Soft Bulletin 5.1, adding that they "never expected the less involved members of our audience to care about it."
Zaireeka opens with "Okay I'll Admit That I Really Don't Understand", a mantra of sorts about the admitted lack of comprehension regarding one's situation. The second track, "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)" tells a science-fiction story about a man who pretends to be a secret agent in the future and imagines his own psychological demise from the stress "of being the most important secret agent in the world". The song is also featured in the Impossible Quiz 2 as part of two questions where your mouse turns invisible. "Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair", the third song, is the tragic story of an airplane pilot who commits suicide mid-flight. The next song, "A Machine in India", is about the "dull and depressing, mild insanity" that Wayne Coyne's partner slips into during her menstrual cycle. Next, "The Train Runs over the Camel but Is Derailed by the Gnat", is a speech by a man who is on the verge of discovery, but ends up "talking himself into circles". Track six, "How Will We Know? (Futuristic Crashendos)", is based on an urban legend that being exposed to high and low frequencies can cause a person to experience premonitions, and thus contains its infamously extensive frequencies that caused the band to place a warning on the album cover and inside the booklet. The seventh song, "March of the Rotten Vegetables", is "music for a cartoon about a group of demented vegetables". The eighth and final song, "The Big Ol' Bug Is the New Baby Now", contains a spoken-word story about Coyne's dogs; the track ends the album with loud barking from each disc.
Critical reaction to the album was mixed. Rolling Stone gave Zaireeka four stars out of five, writing: "Zaireeka'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." Allmusic mentioned that the album would only really be accessible to hardcore Flaming Lips fans, but that "they're in for the musical experience of a lifetime".
Critics who disliked the album cited what they viewed as a ridiculous concept. Pitchfork gave the album its rare 0.0 rating, criticizing the concept for its "ridiculousness" and dismissing the project as "completely useless"; however, the reviewer admitted that he did not listen to the album as intended, did not listen to all four discs at once, and claimed that his audio equipment consisted of a barely held-together boombox. Another Pitchfork reviewer contested the 0.0 rating in a "We Are the World" feature, and emphasized the social experience that takes place when listening to the album. Similarly, Salon remarked in its review that "Musically, their 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic offers the same psychotic results without all the technological hassle. And conceptually? The same thing, just all at once: stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid."
Wayne Coyne confirmed that Zaireeka will eventually be released on DVD format in the vein of the surround-sound special editions of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Soft Bulletin, and At War with the Mystics.
In the UK, the "Race for the Prize" and "Waitin' for a Superman" CD singles were released in 2-disc sets. Each disc of the two sets contained a different version of "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)" and "Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair". This marked the first time material from the album would be released in the four-disc format in Europe. The "Waitin' for a Superman" Maxi-CD, as released in the US, contains stereo mixes of the two songs.