What does it all mean? I have no idea.
— Les Claypool, Primus
(from Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents)
It is damn near impossible to write about The Residents, especially now. We are talking about a band that has been around for over 40 years and has never stopped creating. Not only do they continue to produce weird art masterpieces on an almost annual basis, they refuse to reference any of their previous material. They refuse to acknowledge their own history, except for commercial reasons.
(They need to eat too, right?)
This is a band that stays on the bleeding edge, adopting every new medium and format as early as possible — CD Roms, Podcasts, YouTube, etc. — taking each for a spin and pushing to discover new capabilities, then blowing past those limits into new, uncharted territories.
This is a band that doesn’t like to tour because it keeps them from making new stuff. Writing about The Residents is an assignment that few people undertake (Matt Groening is just one example.) Many have tried and the results are mixed.
But… It’s been over 40 years since the release of the “Santa Dog” single, which could be considered the seminal Bay Area Avant rockers’ first record, and the first disc put out by the band’s label, Ralph Records. (That’s why I’m writing this.) Originally a gift given only to close friends, the record has been reissued (along with a rarities compilation) by the Oakland-based Superior Viaduct and they’re celebrating with an event at Stranded Records, the label’s record store in Oakland. (Also notable.)
Excited by the news, we spoke to Homer Flynn of the Cryptic Corporation, the mouthpiece for the mysterious Residents, about the band’s impact and what makes one a Resident.
To become your own Resident, what are some helpful tools?
To begin with, everyone is a Resident already, but for those not in touch with their inner eyeball, the only tool needed is the ability to open one’s soul and to let life come screaming through. To be a Resident is to enable the the creativity residing in everyone.
Do you need musical training to become a Resident?
What do we know about The Residents, San Francisco’s king purveyors of weird? A lot actually, but there’s plenty more that’s been kept secret for over 40 years. Still, for them, the story begins in Shreveport, LA, where they met as teenagers. But in the mid ’60s, something pushed them to San Francisco.
Was the South an unwelcoming place for The Residents?
Except to other southerners, the South in general was an unwelcoming place in the late ’60s, but you have to understand that it was a region under siege back then. No one likes being told what to do and people in the South were being ordered to change, a change that was forced on them from the outside. The slaves may have been given their “freedom” in the 1860s, but unfortunately it took 100 years for anyone to notice, so this change was obviously overdue, but it didn’t come easily. The Residents were happy to leave.
What did the Residents think of the Haight-Ashbury scene of the late ’60s?
From an “official” perspective, The Residents as a group didn’t exist during the Haight-Ashbury period, but they were aware of and definitely inspired by the hippie scene. At times they have even claimed that the collapse of that era, and its assimilation back into mainstream culture, along with its subsequent loss of risk-taking was a big inspiration for them.
The story goes (according to Uncle Willie) that the band of four made its way to San Francisco but they ran out of gas in San Mateo and that’s where they stayed (for a while, at least.) And it was there that they began making “music,” as it were.
When was the first time the guys were excited about the music they were making?
The Residents started by beating on things: pots, pans, cardboard boxes, themselves – and occasionally even drums, keyboards and guitars. This beating process started in the late ’60s when they perceived the world, occasionally enhanced by drugs, as a wide-open, anything-goes condition. Armed with that mindset, they were excited as soon as they beat on their first cardboard box.
Does the band let any other music influence them?
The Residents had many influences and some of them were musical, but they were also inspired by many elements of their culture — from Marshall McLuhan to Kurt Vonnegut to Federico Fellini. Musically, their influences were just as varied, including Sun Ra, Harry Partch, Moondog, Frank Zappa, The Beatles and Billy May’s Big Fat Brass.
Do you think anyone bought “Santa Dog” in the hopes that it was some run-of-the-mill Christmas record?
“Santa Dog” was given away; it was never sold except between collectors.
“Santa Dog” still sounds fresh today. Why do you think that’s so?
Such is the power of naiveté. Shirley Temple and Moondog still seem fresh to me.
“I remember it was either 1976 or 1977, and DEVO was playing outside(?!?) in front of a record store in Cleveland called the Hideodrome. Crocus Behemoth, (lead singer of Pere Ubu, and later to become David Thomas), was there, and after our show, played me a couple 45s they had there, one being this Hawkwind song, that was a super long instrumental intro, that after 3 minutes faded out.. Maybe we had just played “Gut Feeling”(?), but the song that impressed me was The Residents’ version of “Satisfaction”, a song DEVO also covered. I remember being impressed with the feeling of a kindred spirit somewhere on the west coast of the country, and when we got to California, we sort of shared people and fans like PeeWee Herman, Gary Panter and Richard Duardo. I always thought of them as one of the true creative spirits of the late ’70s, and still cant help but laugh whenever I hear their amazing castrated-vocalist cover of James Brown’s “This is a Man’s World.”
— Mark Mothersbaugh, DEVO
“DEVO never thought of The Residents as competition. We looked up to them. We respected them. We held them on an aesthetic plateau like we should be able to do what we’re doing as well as what they’re doing. We respected them as artists. They raised the bar for us.”
— Gerald Casale, DEVO
(from Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents)
Even before they began recording their first records as The Residents, they were working on a film project called Vileness Fats, which they dropped after investing four years into it. How hard was it for the group to give up on working on it?
It was extremely difficult, but as a sidebar to the project, there were a lot of internal conflicts happening as Vileness Fats was being made. I think that ultimately they realized that the termination of Vileness Fats gave them a better chance to repair their relationships and move forward. It was apparently true.
Was the concept behind Eskimo in any way influenced by the available technology?
The Residents have always found a certain fascination in the juxtaposition of the crude against the sublime, the primitive versus technology, raw conflicting with the refined, and Eskimo is a perfect example of that obsession. Consequently, technology, especially in the form of multi-track recording was a huge component of Eskimo. They loved the idea of beating on their pots and pans and recording it on sophisticated equipment.
(Author’s Note: The uninitiated should take a moment and listen to the 1979 concept album Eskimo as soon as possible. The aural experience of the album’s arctic world, created with recording technology from the ’70s, is astounding — it manages to sound both timeless and unlike anything you’ve ever heard.)
The Residents have changed with the times. Is there anything they miss about the old technology they used?
I have been told that there are two things The Residents miss about the past: the serendipitous accident and naiveté. Digital technology often allows too much control, consequently it’s far too easy to fix something as opposed to accepting it and contriving a preposterous reason for its existence.
As the fame began to rise, the band staunchly hid its members’ identities, going as far as setting up a corporation that acted, among other things, as a mouthpiece for the band. That doesn’t mean the band members didn’t go out in public; it’s just that whenever they did, they went out wearing their famous eyeball masks and let someone from the Cryptic Corporation do the talking.
How do The Residents collaborate with other musicians without revealing their identities?
The Residents don’t conceal their identities from their collaborators. Concealment creates barriers between people while openness promotes trust. The people that The Residents work with are within, not without. They are their friends.
What came first, The Residents or the Cryptic Corporation? Why do The Residents work with a corporation?
The Residents predate the Cryptic Corp by four years. Cryptic exist primarily as protection or as a shield for The Residents. By taking care of the group’s business affairs as well as their marketing and promotional needs, the Cryptic Corp has allowed The Residents to concentrate on purely creative output – or at least that was the plan. Unfortunately real life has a way of intruding – the best laid plans and all that – so sometimes shit gets in the way.
After picking up momentum from the conceptual album The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, the band would find its stride with the album Fingerprince. Finding their voice in the studio, the group would then release the 1-2-3 combo that would elevate them to the throne of weird: Duck Stab, Eskimo and last but not least, The Commercial Album.
The band would reach far beyond the underground they grew up in, thanks to their unwavering anonymity, and stunts like buying air time on a San Francisco radio station and having them play every track off The Commercial Album during advertising spots. The band would also take on another massive project, The Mole Show, a live act based around a trio of albums about “a culture driven from their homes by a storm and forced into a confrontation with another people.” But once again The Residents undertook a project that was beyond their means.
The Internets say that one time on a tour for Wormwood, a guitarist for The Residents was hit in the head by a rock. Were there other incidents like that?
There were no other incidents quite that drastic, but Penn Jillette, who was the narrator on The Mole Show tour, was attacked by a crazed fan while he was handcuffed into a wheelchair on stage. The stage was filled with smoke at the time, but luckily the stage manager spotted the guy and pulled him off of Penn.
Was that the most violent reaction that you know of to a Residents concert?
The most extreme reaction was a 20-minute standing ovation at the end of The Mole Show, when The Residents played the Olympia in Paris. The Residents had no encore and the audience literally refused to leave without one. Feeling they had no choice, the group finally gave in and went back out, replaying a song they had already performed earlier.
“I was very inspired by The Residents when they first started, and watching them go through life. They did something, which I sort of incorporated into my work in its own way. It’s entertainment and subversion. It’s taking elements of pop culture and mutating them and doing something completely different. For me, that has been personally inspiring. What that means, I’m not exactly sure, but that’s been my secret motto. Entertainment, subversion. They’re kind of contradictory actually, but The Residents pull it off.”
— Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons
(from Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents)
Was The Mole Show too big of a concept to tour properly at the Residents’ level? Would it have been better if you were, say, U2 in the late ’90s?
As I mentioned previously, naiveté plays a large part in many of The Residents’ earlier works and The Mole Show is a prime example. The tour was too big, too long, too unwieldy and definitely ill advised; after that, The Residents swore they would never tour again. It would certainly be interesting to see U2 attempt The Mole Show. I might even buy a ticket.
The fact that the band had to drop the mammoth Mole Show trilogy before it was completed did nothing to slow them down or even dissuade them from doing equally massive concept albums. A series of albums where they covered artists as diverse as Hank Williams, George Gershwin and James Brown led to the Cube E tour, which saw The Residents bring those strange samplings of Americana to the masses via a large-scale live show.
The band also embraced the emerging technology of the time, including releasing albums such as “Freak Show” only on CD-rom.
In retrospect, how would you rate CD-roms as an album format and why? Did they work like you wanted them to?
I think The Residents see their CD-Roms as albums from the mid-’90s time period, but since Freak Show was a music project first, and Gingerbread Man was a music and interactive hybrid, only Bad Day on the Midway could be seen as a “pure” CD-rom; consequently it was the most satisfying of the three.
Over the years, it appears that The Residents have concentrated their efforts on innovating the art of storytelling, from opera-like stage shows to serialized video works. Do The Residents see themselves as storytellers, and how is it possible they have so many stories to tell?
The Residents definitely see themselves as storytellers. They feel like the world is full of stories, all you have to do is look around – and within.
Other changes came — new technology (for both composing and performing), new media formats like podcasts and YouTube videos, and even new collaborators, most notably composer Charles BoBuck. But the last decade also saw “Carlos,” the drummer, one of the original four eyeballs, leave the group. Still, The Residents continue on, undeterred, as a three-piece, and their output of strange is as constant as it’s ever been.
Wormwood was an elaborate stage show based on Bible stories. Has the Bible had much influence on The Residents?
Being from the South, most of The Residents come from a fairly WASP-like background. The Bible had a strong influence on them in their youth, but like a lot of people they all but forgot their biblical roots until it came time to research Wormwood, and when they did, the Bible blew their minds. They saw the Old Testament as an amazing window into a strange, dark alternate universe and an amazing source of material. In addition to Wormwood, they had an idea for a TV series based on the Bible where God is an all-powerful alien from outer space who sees humanity kind of like an ant farm that he enjoyed playing with in his youth, but eventually got bored with after a few thousand years. The Residents are not optimistic about the series being produced.
How tough was it when Carlos (the drummer) left? Was there any discussion about replacing him?
There were definitely mixed feelings about Carlos’ departure, but the general feeling was that it was overdue. There was total agreement that a person like Carlos could never be replaced.
“Mushroom” is a great example of dance music. Do The Residents like to dance?
The Residents do like to dance – naked, in the rain.
Did anyone buy the refrigerator ultimate box set?
One was bought by a young man in Indiana who goes by the name of Tripmonster. Another was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“The Residents create dreams/spells as well as the best of them. They have always seemed to achieve this by their unique mixture of the primitive and technology. And I suppose this can all be considered a possible definition of art.”
— Eric Drew Feldman, producer/keyboardist
At every stage of my association with them, I wasn’t aware of anyone else who was doing what they were doing, although plenty of people did things later that clearly showed their influence, although usually not as interestingly or wittily.
— Joshua Raoul Brody, former keyboardist for The Residents
How do The Residents feel about online video publishing on sites like YouTube and Vimeo? Would they rather just get their films out to the world or do they miss packaging (and the financial benefits) of selling a product like a DVD?
As the culture moves from physical product, things that actually create income, to digital vapor that young people seem to feel should be free (?), The Residents, like a lot of artists, are wondering where this change leaves them. But they also believe that: 1) change is real and inevitable, especially in situations where record companies have been ripping people off for years, and 2) change creates new opportunities. The Residents just hope they live long enough to exploit these changes before becoming vapor themselves.
Are any of The Residents parents, or even grandparents? Do they have any parenting advice they could pass on?
The Residents have offspring, but this ventures into the territory that they like to keep separate from their so-called professional lives. The only advice I can give would be that children are a blessing – there’s not much that’s truly meaningful in life, but it’s important for people to be there for their kids.
What do The Residents have to say about the changes to San Francisco they’ve seen over the years? Are any of them in trouble of being priced out of the city?
To my knowledge The Residents don’t have much to say about the changes in San Francisco except that change is a reality that must be surfed – with or without The Beach Boys. Trying to stop change is like pissing in a hurricane. Nothing good comes out of it but acrid clothes and an empty bladder.
Any plans for a US tour?
The Residents just completed a seven-show mini-tour of Europe – including a brief stop in the Holy Land. This performance is called Shadowland and they are referring to it as “Part 3 of the Randy, Chuck & Bob Trilogy.” Shadowland is likely to be touring the States in 2015, probably in the fall.
Why did The Residents stop wearing the eyeball masks?
They got tired of them. The Residents originally wanted to have a different disguise for each project, but felt that they got “stuck” on the eyeballs for marketing reasons. They were ready to bail long before it actually happened.
Will the band’s true identities be revealed at some point?
What is the identity of an idea? Like the smell of popcorn or the promise of rain on a hot summer day, the essence of The Residents is more ephemeral than corporal. How can a person or several people live up to the boundless bullshit known as The Residents?
(Editor’s Note: All pull quotes have been provided by Randy of The Residents.)