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Crank up the Flaming Lips Boombox Experience.

By Dave Chamberlain

APRIL 20, 1998:  Quick, what travels the United States, uses audience interaction and--in the words of Dennis Miller--pushes buttons like a peyote dealer working straight commission? It's the Flaming Lips Boombox Experiment. But unless you're from Oklahoma City or are among the musical elite who smother Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest, you've never seen its ilk. The precursor to the Flaming Lips Boombox Experience was a symphony of sorts that began in the Lips' hometown of Oklahoma City as the Parking Lot Experiment.

"A couple of years ago," says the Lips' Wayne Coyne, "we came up with the idea for presenting music using various sources, whole pieces of music that are separate, but meant to be together." The exper- iment started with four people in cars parking in a covered lot, using four car stereos. The next time Coyne assembled a crew, it was using six people in cars. Then eight. The next time, fifty. "That took about six months to put together," Coyne recalls. "I was trying for something that would be entertaining, not just chaos." Fifty proved to be a logistical nightmare for Coyne, so the next parking-lot experiment was trimmed to thirty people. "At that time, we began to make the compositions more concise, more dramatic. You can call it progress, or call it evolution." Eventually, the experiment culminated in Austin, during the South by Southwest music festival. "We invited some people out," Coyne recalls, "and about 1,000 people showed." With increasing numbers, logistics got out of hand. So did the weather. "Even here [in Oklahoma City], it gets real fucking cold in the winter. So we began working on a way to bring the same thing inside, using boomboxes instead of car stereos. The hard part was figuring out a way to take it to other cities and not have it be a total mess. It was a small idea, but it led to the boombox experiment." The latest Flaming Lips effort, "Zaireeka" (Warner Brothers), is actually four CDs, individually playable as separate compositions, but meant to be played simultaneously. The same concept has been taken to the road by the Lips.

"We use forty boomboxes," the energetic Coyne explains, "and we have people from the audience come on stage and run the tapes, which are a series of songs and compositions. It starts out real easy, but it eventually gets harder rhythmically and with timing."

The compositions haven't varied completely in the five experiments to date. "The biggest problems are that the audience members screw up, so the final results change a little. Not drastically, but small elements change. But to hear it, you'd have to be familiar with time signatures and rhythmic patterns. An analogy would be like a Miles Davis recording. He goes improv here and here, but unless you're real- ly familiar with the composition, you'll never hear it."

The Lips have recorded every performance to date, but the results upon playback, according the Coyne, are unimpressive. "A good analogy would be the difference between being at a football game and watching the game after it's over on a VCR. Or like trying to take the flavor out of popcorn and put it in a sucker. It's really bad. You just really have to be there, to see what it's like, to feel the excite- ment of the audience members on stage."

The material for the compositions is pure sound, both instrumental and quasi-sampled. "Some of it we've recorded, but then we also use this one piece we took from 'When Harry Met Sally,' of Meg Ryan's orgasm scene. What you can do with sound is unlimited. And anything you can do with a tape, you'll probably hear [from us] sometime."

Although the past five experiments have been deemed "successful," Coyne is aware that at any moment, chaos can erupt. "Structure and organization are great. In all the time doing this, I've learned the fine line between chaos and disorientation. Chaos is bad, but we aim for disorientation." Will the boombox experiment lead to anything even larger than the parking-lot experiment? "Well, I don't try to tell the future, because I can't," Coyne responds. "But a friend of mine said he could see me doing a stadium show, conducting half of the stadium to do this while the other side does that. And all I could think was, 'Sure, but how the fuck am I going to do all those tapes?'"

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