.:.NEVER KNOWN QUESTIONS.:.
A Conversation with the Residents
by Conor Fynes
Even in the decades since their inception, there hasn’t been another band quite as mysterious, polarizing, and otherwise just plain weird as the Residents. Formed as an anonymous art collective at the end of the 1960s in San Francisco’s booming music scene, there’s not much that can be said with certainty about them. To date, their identities remain a total mystery, although that hasn’t stopped people from speculating.
Everyone from George Harrison to Les Claypool (Primus) have been purportedly ‘outed’ as members, although speculating would be missing the point. Their body of work, ranging from avant-garde pastiche to twisted deconstructions of American rock and pop music, casts no light on the ego. This ‘art first’ mentality is described succinctly in the Residents’ so-called ‘theory of obscurity’, which states that the purest art can only be made when there is no risk of a prospective audience to pander to.
Considering they’re on a successful tour with more than forty years together under their belt and have had a recent documentary film (ironically borrowing its name from said theory) released about their career together, it would seem like the Residents have grown beyond the theory of obscurity. Whether this success is in spite of or because of these convictions, I’ll let you be the judge.
Although the Residents themselves do not officially respond to interviews, the band’s longtime manager, Homer Flynn, was available to discuss the state of the Residents over the phone while on tour for their recent piece, Shadowland.
Heathen Harvest: First I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer this interview. I know how busy things have been on tour for you guys recently. A happy belated birthday to you, by the way!
Homer Flynn: Oh, thank you! Thank you. Word seems to have gotten out about that. It’s always nice to be acknowledged.
HH: What’s been the state of the Residents‘ current tour so far? I know you played Los Angeles a few nights ago, and have come up the West Coast for Seattle tonight, and into Canada for Vancouver tomorrow…
HF: Yeah, this is the fourth night of our tour. I think it’s going well! Things were hectic in the beginning—it’s always that way though. Doing Los Angeles one night, then San Francisco the next. That’s a four-hundred-mile drive right there. So, getting away from San Francisco and further up the coast. There was a little bit of a break in between, and now things are more relaxed. Last night in Portland was very good.
HH: For this particular tour, it’s based around a single piece of work, ‘Shadowland’, which I’ve seen recorded versions of online. Has this tour been exclusively geared towards this and the film?
HF: This is strictly Shadowland and the film. With this format, there’s the idea that the film is the opening act, and then there’s the show. But everyone’s been asking how this is going to work. Well, the feedback so far is that it works really well. The film certainly has plenty of stuff in it for fans, but people who don’t know that much about the Residents will find something in it too. The film really acts as a sort of intro, setting the stage for the show to the come afterwards. I think it functions well as a one-two punch in that sense.
HH: I was going to ask about this film. You guys have been branding this as a documentary about the Residents, but having been a fan of the band’s work for some time now, I might expect something more abstract than a typical documentary—possibly to the point where the lines are blurred of what actually constitutes a documentary proper. Is this film an extension of the Residents’ art, or is it more of a conventional, informative piece?
HF: Well, the documentary technically isn’t a piece by the Residents. It’s done by Don Hardy, who is an established filmmaker, and it’s about the Residents. In that regard, it’s probably straighter and less abstract than something you would expect from an official Residents film. When everyone started talking to Don—I was the facilitator on the side of the Residents and the Cryptic Corporation. Don and I got pretty close. There was a lot of talk in the beginning of doing something that was less straightforward, although it’s not totally fair to call the film completely straightforward. Don takes some liberties. Ultimately, as he was compiling it and I was watching early edits of the film, I didn’t think the film was really working. But as I saw what he was doing with it, my opinion changed. You know, the Residents have a fairly impressive career: over forty years. I think the challenge for him was how to take all that and condense it down into an hour and a half. As opposed to something that was more off-the-wall or less accessible, really.
HH: As an aside, how did you discover Don Hardy’s work? Was there one of his previous documentaries in particular that stuck out to you?
HF: No, it was more of a situation where Don was a friend of a friend. Don had a lull in his schedule. I think he had a project that didn’t pan out, so he was looking for something. One night, he was out with buddies, who were either NBC cameramen or ex-NBC cameramen. Don wasn’t a Residents fan at that point, but he heard these other guys talking. But he had found out that they had a tour coming up for their fortieth anniversary, and he saw how excited they were about it, so he started thinking maybe there was a film here. One of the other cameramen was a guy I was already friends with, so he linked us up and we just sorta clicked. It became obvious to me pretty early on that he wanted to reinforce and advance what the Residents had done, as opposed to being a spoiler and trying to tell the “real story.” Once that was made clear and a level of trust was established, at that point all the doors opened for Don.
HH: Do you think there was a special opportunity in the fact that this was an outsider looking in? Obviously this isn’t the first time you’ve had film-related projects.
HF: This isn’t the first time, but it’s the first time someone’s been involved who is as serious as Don. No one’s had the credentials that Don had, and he really brought a lot of integrity to it. He’s really respected what the Residents have done all this time, and he wanted to put it in his best light.
HH: One of the questions that has been on my mind about the Residents was related to the way the band might meet associates. Given the group’s consummate anonymity, I was wondering if the cryptic nature of the Residents would make it difficult to establish connections or bring new musicians into the fold. I always assumed it was people you already knew beforehand.
HF: I think you’re right. When new people come in, they inevitably come in either as friends, or brought in by friends. There’s hardly anyone that comes in cold, really, and that usually makes for a good working relationship.
HH: Do you think that different members have coloured the music in unique ways. Say, if you weren’t aware of the different lineup changes, do you think an attentive listener would be able to pick up on the differences? I guess this boils down to a question of individual identities coming through in spite of the focus on the band as a collective.
HF: Yeah, I would think so. Everyone has unique talents. This is most obvious when it comes to people doing vocals. But there are soloists who come in who have a distinct quality. One great example is on the God in Three Persons album in ’88. A lot of the solos there were said to be done by Snakefinger. He actually died before he could record those, so they brought in the guy who plays trombone in the Club Foot Orchestra. He came in at the last minute, and what he did just completely coloured it in a very different way—in a way I think is really great. His addition to that album is unlike anything you’ll hear on any other Residents album. When new people come in, the Residents try to find what’s unique about that person, then try to give them a proper platform to express it.
HH: For this current ‘Shadowland’ lineup, how would you describe their personalities, the ‘colour’ they offer to the music?
HF: The most interesting change in this, well… Our lineup was Randy, Chuck, and Bob. Chuck, or “Charles,” essentially retired. The premiere for Theory of Obscurity at SxSW, almost exactly a year ago—that was his last performance. He has been replaced by Eric Feldman. If you know of him, he’s most notably played with Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger, and the Pixies. He’s also played with the Residents in the past. That was a fundamental change. For me, observing this, Chuck was a great arranger—he was the guy arranging Residents material for years, but he wasn’t a great player, whereas Eric is actually a very good player. So, the Shadowlands stuff started out like Residents karaoke, with Randy and Bob playing over the backing tracks. Once Eric came along, we could mix tracks out and have them played live, and it’s resulted in a lot of interplay between him and Bob. The core of the music slightly shifted once they got together and saw how it could work.
HH: With a lot of the live footage I’ve seen, everything both recent and modern is completely fascinating. It strikes a major contrast with a lot of the live recordings by other artists, where they’re trying to replicate the studio material. With the Residents on the other hand, it feels like a freshly parallel experience from the studio work, and not something you’d be seeing otherwise. What do you think? Are the Residents’ live shows an enrichment of the existing studio experience, or are they something largely different from experience of the record?
HF: I’d say it’s definitely different. There are a couple of reasons for that. When the Residents started, they were strictly a studio group. They existed for ten years before they even attempted to play live! So much of their aesthetic has been built around creating these materials slowly, track by track in the studio. They’ve been able to create a unique sound that way. At the same time, it’s a sound that’s almost impossible to reproduce live, and I think they learned a long time ago they were better off just reinventing the material they had for live performance, as opposed to trying to recreate it.
HH: If the Residents are performing live, there’s an obvious opportunity for visual accompaniment. Not just with the performers themselves, but added media like film and visual backdrops. How does this visual media relate to the music itself?
HF: With Shadowland, or any part of the Randy, Chuck, and Bob trilogy, every part of the trilogy has a specific theme. Talking Light was about ghosts and death. Wonder of Weird is about love and sex. Shadowland is about rebirth, reincarnation, and near-death experiences. So not only has the music been picked from the Residents catalogue to reflect these themes, the video themes have been done to reflect these themes too. With Shadowland, you have these five videos that are sort of like spacers in the set. They are short monologues, two to three minutes long, and each one is done by a character. Each of these characters is going through their rebirth, reincarnation, or near-death experience. So the idea is that the video material does not so much reflect the music but the idea is that it complements it.
HH: With ‘Shadowland’, I was going to ask about its role in this trilogy exploring life in reverse. I was interested by the choice of name. The name ‘Shadowland’ would normally probably be seen as a reference to someone’s twilight years, rather than the start of life. In a way, I’m not surprised though. The Residents have always distinguished themselves based on inverting ideas and making them counter-intuitive. What was the idea of associating shadows with birth and beginnings?
HF: At least in my mind, all of these things—birth, reincarnation, and near-death experience—they all represent a shadowy alternate reality. These are not things that anyone can get specific about. Like, with birth, you can have sonograms of someone before they’re born, but it’s a shadowy image. So the baby comes from being in this cloudy shadowland inside the mother to becoming a more concrete thing in the real world. There’s a kind of magic that goes with that. I’ve never had a near-death experience, but anybody who describes one… it’s not dissimilar. They go to a cloudy place, and it’s a type of shadowland. They have experiences that don’t fit in with the way we measure experience. And then they come back: they’re reborn. I don’t know exactly where Shadowland came from, but when it did, everyone agreed that it fit the mood and content of the show.
HH: Was there an idea of exploring these ideas in reverse, particularly?
HF: No, I don’t think so. With the Residents, there’s an organic aspect of the process where the pieces will take the form that they want. The Residents just try to be open to that. When they started out on Talking Light, there was no talk of it being a trilogy. There certainly was no sense of being about life in reverse. It wasn’t really until they went into Wonder of Weird and started realizing it was about love and sex, and started seeing how that connected with the one before. All of a sudden, they began to draw connections in that sequence to birth and rebirth on Shadowland. So, once again, it’s a process of peeling an onion and finding out what’s inside. That’s a lot of the way they work.
HH: I think anyone who has invested a lot of time and thought into listening to the Residents would come to the conclusion that a lot of it is ‘organically produced’, like you said. In spite of this, would you say that there are usually certain explicit meanings behind music the band has done?
HF: I definitely think there are explicit meanings to be gotten from those things. But, you know, the Residents don’t come at it from a point-of-view like that. For instance, if you said that Freak Show was all about difference and differences, you would be right, but the Residents didn’t initially mean it like that. They started writing about freaks, and let the meanings unfold as such. It’s more like they just move in a very intuitive way, and later they may (or may not) reflect upon that and realize what it was they were doing. They’re not terribly intellectually based in terms of how they ground or initiate a project.
HH: I’ve always interpreted the Residents as a twisted deconstruction of American pop culture and its tropes. Of course, pop culture has changed quite a bit between now and the time the Residents started in. Are the Residents adapting this commentary to mirror new cultural trends, or have you been drawing from the original 1960s/70s culture?
HF: Well, I feel as they’ve aged, they no longer feel the connection to Justin Bieber and Beyonce that they felt with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and so on—the cultural figureheads for their time. At this point, I think they take their direction internally without being influenced externally.
HH: In reference to the ‘Theory of Obscurity’ that the film is named after: The Residents were big into self-induced obscurity, and they’ve still managed to become very well-known and influential—still striking up debate decades into their career! Would you see an irony in this fame-by-way-of-obscurity, or would you cite the exposure as a result of those convictions?
HF: Well, the theory of obscurity as the Residents originally saw it…they don’t see it as valid for them as it was back then. Really, when it came to the point where the Residents saw a review of one of their albums in Rolling Stone magazine, at that point the theory of obscurity no longer held the same validity. In that regard, there is no irony because they no longer feel that’s a defining characteristic for them. At the same time, there’s still a kind of it. They willfully shy away from publicity. The Residents never saw the rock star lifestyle as a particularly desirable thing. So, I’m here talking to you for the Residents because this is part of the way things are done. They’re out on tour and in order to make this work it needs to be promoted. At the same time, no one’s saying, “I’m a Resident, put a picture of me in there and cite my name!” That’s just the way they’ve always been.
HH: Do you think there’s a sort of negative commentary on society that there are people who feel an undying urge to know the identities of the Residents, especially when the band have sought to belie that aspect of art?
HF: Yes and no. There are certainly people who want to know, but for the most part, people who have gotten to know the Residents respect what they’re doing. I mean, ultimately, what is there to gain from knowing their identities? The most valuable thing is a sense of mystery, of wonder. If you found out that the Residents are relatively ordinary, uninteresting people, how much wonder and mystery do you get out of that? It’s like seeing a magician do a trick; once he shows you how it’s done, it’s not even a trick anymore. It’s no longer interesting.
HH: In spite of the Residents’ weirdness, they’ve always struck me as a very intimate and intelligent group. However, there are people who try to dismiss it—especially on hearing it for the first time—as silly or stupid. Do you think these negative interpretations are valid? What might you say to someone who was willing to dismiss it like that?
HF: Honestly, I would say they weren’t looking far beneath the surface. There was a lot more of that kind of commentary at the beginning of their career. The Residents would use humor and comedy in their music, and people wanted to dismiss them as a comedy act. The Residents didn’t like that point of view at all. As far as they were concerned, humor is just one emotion, and any kind of artwork that has substance to it should touch on a wide range of emotions. If anything, I think they backed away from some of the silliest sounds, but there’s still plenty of humor in what they do.
HH: What kind of advice would you impart to other artists in terms of the creative process? It seems to be a question that could be answered by no one better than the Residents.
HF: Well, I suppose it sounds like a cliché, but honestly the best thing I can say is for people to be true to themselves. Everyone has a unique voice. Everyone has something interesting to say. The trick is in figuring out who you are and what you have to say, then getting all the bullshit out of the way so that you’re able to express it in the cleanest, purest way possible.
HH: What are you hoping for the Residents in the future?
HF: Well, the Residents are currently working on a new album! It’s based around the idea of trainwrecks, both metaphorically and literally. It should come out around the end of this year, and that’s pretty exciting. Conceptually, I think it’s closer to Eskimo than anything else. Stories that are told with sound collages. They’re also working with a theatre group in San Francisco about doing their God in Three Persons album as a theatre piece, with live music and puppets. So that’s pretty exciting. There are other things in the works that we’ll be playing out over the course of this year and in the future.
HH: Thank you again for the interview. Is there anything that you’d like to add?
HF: Well, you know, not really. It’s like the Residents are still going strong—still standing. There are still new challenges. For any artist, I think that’s one of the greatest things in life. They’re still doing that. So at this point, things are looking pretty good.