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Flaming Lips: music with a menagerie

The pop group, known to encourage audience members to behave like animals, has become an unlikely success story.

June 04, 2003|Alec Hanley Bemis | Special to The Times

The Flaming Lips' sudden career upswing after two decades of cult obscurity is one of recent pop's unlikely success stories, and the band's leader, Wayne Coyne, is an unlikely pop star.

With his longish salt-and-pepper hair, scrupulously unkempt beard and trademark white suit, he looks a bit, well, savior-like, in keeping with what the Lips' shows have become: religious-type spectacles meant to celebrate our terrestrial lives.

"Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?" Coyne sings on the band's latest album, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." Unlike most revivals and in spite of such dark lyrics, though, the Lips' celebrations, such as the one Saturday at the Hollywood Palladium, are shot through with whimsy.

Enter Cory Franklin, the man responsible for the whimsy part.

His attire -- blue jeans and a black Bad Company T-shirt -- was far more mundane than Coyne's at the Palladium on the afternoon of the concert, but that night he would be outfitted as Santa Claus, after trolling the audience to choose fans for the highest honor the Flaming Lips can bestow -- the opportunity to dress as an animal and dance on the stage during the show.

"I mostly get called the animal wrangler," Franklin explained. "When I'm joking around and people ask what I do, I tell them I'm a shepherd."

He was in a dressing room where 20 fuzzy costumes hung from a ceiling pipe in a neat row. Bunnies, tigers, a giraffe, bears, a baboon, etc. (Currently on the inactive roster is the dolphin that Justin Timberlake wore when he accompanied the band on bass during a January appearance on England's "Top of the Pops" TV show.)

"Generally I'll start out a half-hour before the show and pick out 20 people, usually petite women, just because Wayne thinks it looks better to have the costumes baggy," Franklin explained.

"The selection process is a little biased. There's a 70-30 girl-to-guy ratio, but it's practicality. I have to clean the suits, and guys sweat. If you let them dance around for an hour it smells real bad. Girls are also better dancers."

Franklin, who is also responsible for filling and transporting the oversized balloons that litter the stage, isn't one to take his unique position for granted.

"I'm 35 years old, working with a band that I love, having free wine and beer, and throwing balloons at people. My bad moods are pretty short-lived."

Franklin first encountered the Lips in 1984, when he was an "omnipotent 14-year-old punk rock kid" in Oklahoma.

"They were the only band on the Oklahoma punk circuit that owned their own P.A.," he said, "so they would open for all the big punk bands at the time.... In that first year my friends would always end up yelling and throwing stuff at them because, in all honesty, they weren't all that great."

But by the early '90s he was working for the group's then-manager and eventually joined the road crew.

The idea for having fuzzy animals on stage came to Coyne when a drug-crazed friend rented a bunny costume and wore it to one of their shows. One bunny became two, two bunnies became five, and the number continued to multiply, as bunnies are wont to do.

The group now takes 30 suits on the road, acquired from a Champaign, Ill., company at $500 per plushie. Because even girls sweat, the band is looking into lower-priced suits from a vendor in India.

Just before show time at the Palladium, nearly two dozen scantily clad men and women slipped into costume. Franklin was half-ready, wearing big black boots, red pants and a fuzzy white belt.

There was one person not in costume -- a lanky, long-haired blond man in white robes and headband. All night he'd been haranguing people backstage and handing out business cards with epigrams such as "I'll believe in me, if you'll believe in you," and "You too are a star."

Coyne poked his head into the dressing room minutes before set time, and the two exchanged a meaningful look.

"Hey, what's up, LA Jesus?" Coyne said. "I'm happy to see you out here."

LA Jesus is from Chicago and is a regular at Lips shows.

Franklin then recited his spiel.

"It's fairly simple. We're going to take these big flashlights, and we're going to hide behind the stage.

"There's going to be a loud video playing, people will be yelling. It's kind of confusing, but just remember not to go out until the band starts. You guys have a giant stage so you can bust a move all over the -- "

Someone interrupted. "What if we want to cross -- "

"Let Santa finish!" barked Franklin. "Just remember, if you get tired, if you get hot, if you're gonna pee your pants, see me. I'm Santa, and I will help you."

He answered a few questions.

"Yes, LA Jesus, you get to go on the same side as last time."

A last-minute count found Franklin short two animals, so he sent manager Scott Booker running into the audience. It's not hard to find volunteers.

"Really, the only thing we don't want is a crazy person on stage," said Booker.

What about LA Jesus?

"Well, Wayne insists on that one."

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