'98's Best: Flaming Lips' Bizarre 'Boombox Experiment'

Leader Wayne Coyne and bandmate conduct an orchestra of 40 boomboxes.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, March 2.]

Wayne Coyne looked genuinely surprised.

Resting backstage after the show, the leader of the Flaming Lips

unzipped his yellow rain slicker and said, "It worked! I thought it went

really well."

Coyne had reason to believe things could have gone the other way. The

only thing missing on the stage just hours before were rows of bubbling

beakers and sparking tesla coils. When Oklahoma acid-test sound

technicians the Flaming Lips brought their "Boombox Experiment" to San

Francisco's Bimbo's 365 Club on Saturday night as part of the Noise Pop

'98 festival, nobody seemed sure what to expect.

But, given the unconventional look of the stage, experiment was as good

a description as any.

In place of guitars, amps and drums, the stage was carefully arranged

with 40 black restaurant chairs in eight rows, each one with a

battered boombox resting on the red vinyl seat. Each boombox had a

ziploc bag filled with seven tapes attached to it, while the back of the

stage was cluttered with mixing boards and a pair of microphones. This

would only be the second time the band had attempted this kind of

boombox symphony in public and the show would feature the

world premieres of two new boombox tracks, the likes of which the

audience had certainly never heard before.

In fact, just to add to the experimental bent, Lips drummer Steven Drozd

would later admit that even the group hadn't heard the songs

"Heralding In a Better Ego" and "Altruism a.k.a. That's the Crotch Calling

the Devil Black" prior to Friday afternoon, when they ran three

boomboxes through the stereo in their van and did a dry-run.

The musical science experiment began with two tests. Coyne instructed

the 40 volunteers to pull out the first test tape from their bags and

load them into their boomboxes. As Coyne followed the sound from box to

box by placing his microphone up to the speakers, each one announcing

its number in Coyne's best game-show host baritone, a snafu developed.

In the mad rush to take their seats, the boomboxers had unplugged some

of the miles of wire snaking all over the stage.

Keeping it together in front of the sold-out, eager-looking crowd, Coyne

ran the second test and prepared his impromptu orchestra for the

strangest trip he'd ever taken them on in an already beyond-eccentric

career.

Pat Lochelt, an 18-year-old Lips fan who had tried his own experiment at

home with last year's Zaireeka four-CD set -- the Flaming Lips' attempt at capturing the multi-phonic sound of the experiments on CD --

said he had no idea what to expect. "They explain it a bit in the liner

notes," said Lochelt, whose bleach-blond and red-striped mop of hair

looked like one Coyne may have sported years ago. "But who knows what it

will sound like tonight?"

The only warning Coyne gave was, "I know this is a weird thing, but at

least we're in a place where weird is normal."

The first song was one that appears in a different version on

Zaireeka, "The Big Ol' Bug is the New Baby Now." On Coyne's

count, all 40 boomboxers depressed play at once, creating a creepy

circle of tape hiss for a few minutes, followed by a warped monologue

about dogs destroying stuffed animals and chew toys.

With speakers

scattered throughout the club, the sound of the experiment was truly

wrap-around and massive. The boomboxes soon began to pump out the

otherworldly sound of hundreds of voices moaning a thunderous choral

note. The sound reminded me of the opening shot in "Star Wars," when you

are introduced to the Imperial destroyer when it flies over in all its

vast, dark glory. Except 100 times louder.

The sound vacillated from sheets of metallic rain and electric hail

falling on a tin roof to a dog barking in the distance as the song faded

out six minutes later. Coyne and Drozd had big grins on their faces.

"A Winter's Day Car Accident Melody" was even more abstract. While Drozd

controlled the volume on his side, flapping his arms up and down like

some slacker orchestra-conductor, Coyne worked his side of the stage,

phasing the boxes up and down to create a ping-ponging scream of sirens

and grinding metal sounds.

While Coyne's side burped out the baritone of what sounded like

American car horns, Drozd's side squealed a slightly higher-pitched tone

of a Japanese import. When both men threw their arms in the air near the

song's end to indicate full jet-engine volume, the crowd responded as if

they'd just witnessed a fireball-shooting guitar solo, or an upside-down

drum run. When, in fact, all they'd witnessed was 40 grinning strangers

twisting volume knobs on battered boomboxes and two men raising and

lowering their arms out of time.

"Realizing the Speed of Life" began with bassist Michael Ivins cueing up

a tape of an acoustic guitar and metronome beat, but soon blasted off

into screaming foghorns, swirling strings and, finally, a piano-driven

nursery rhyme, as Coyne and Drozd shut down the boomboxes one-by-one.

The mesmerizing "Heralding a Better Ego," which featured the sounds of

100 trumpets blaring over a backbeat supplied by 40 drummers,

was the most moving experiment of the night, brining to mind the

trance-inducing sounds of the Masters of Jajouka being attacked by a

million metallic bees.

The evening ended with the odd "Altruism," otherwise known as "That's

The Crotch Calling the Devil Black." Over a loop of Meg Ryan's fake

orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally," Drozd and Coyne ratcheted up

the hysteria level by sub-dividing their sides into two 10-person

mini-symphonies and bringing the sounds up and down, in and out, at a

furious pace in time with Ryan's panting. Looking like they

were trying to fly sideways, both men peaked over their shoulders

occasionally to make sure they were in synch, brining the entire room

into a vicarious sound orgasm that left both musicians sweaty and

smiling.

Decked out in his best lime green tuxedo, Nathan Pierce, 21, couldn't

rave enough about the show. Jumping off the stage, where he had been

lead chair in Drozd's section, Pierce leapt into the arms of friends and

slapped high-fives. "How fucking great was that!" yelled Pierce. "To be

a part of the Lips for a night and just be so fucking psyched to get up

there and press play."

"It worked," said a bemused Coyne just after the show. "Except somebody

had their radio on the whole time. Well, I tried to make it foolproof.

I'll just have to fix that one for next time."

Despite some confused looks on the faces of a few exiting fans, even

skeptics could admit, at the very least, they'd never quite seen

anything like it. [Mon., March 2, 1998, 9 a.m.

PST]