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By: Cameron Piko
How do you sum up a band like The Residents? Most famous for their eyeball masks and an almost anti-music approach to music making, the band members have insisted on staying anonymous ever since their beginning in the early 70s. However, in recent years, they have left the eyeballs behind (although they remain masked) and have designated themselves the names “Randy”, “Chuck” & “Bob”. Just before they embark on their European tour, I spoke with Homer Flynn of The Cryptic Corporation, spokeperson and manager for The Residents. Given that Homer has been asked countless times about the identity of band members and of eyeball masks, I leave that aside (“Good, good! I appreciate that.”) in order to talk about the band’s history and future.
(((o))): For the uninitiated, how would you describe the upcoming Shadowland tour?
HF: This tour represents the end of The Residents 40th celebration. They decided to celebrate their 40th anniversary (which was really in 2012) with a trilogy of tours. The first tour was the Talking Light, the second one was The Wonder of Weird – which really corresponded with their anniversary – and then the third one which is Shadowland.
Talking Light was about ghosts and death, The Wonder of Weird was about sex and love, and this tour Shadowland is about birth, rebirth, reincarnation and near-death experiences. So if you sum those up, what you get is death and then sex and then birth. The tour is really meant to represent life in reverse, at least in the point of view of The Residents.
The material is all from their huge catalogue of songs, all of which they feel like are pieces that represent the themes of the various tours.
(((o))): It’s been a while since the band got back in the studio together, although we’ve been privy to a series of solo spin-off releases by Chuck and Randy. Are there any plans for a new studio The Residents record?
HF: Yeah, there’s actually a new album that is in the works right now. The Residents – one of them in particular – has always been obsessed by trains, and somehow the idea of doing an album based on trainwrecks came up. After doing a lot of research, they’ve been doing a lot of recording lately and I’m expecting this album about trainwrecks to come out probably in the fall of this year.
(((o))): Can you say anything about what it will sound like?
HF: I’ve heard a few samples and, if anything, it probably harkens back more to [1979’s] Eskimo than anything else in their catalogue. They’ve done a lot of research and they’ve found a lot of stories. As you might expect with the idea of trainwrecks, they’re portraying this both in a literal sense and a metaphorical sense. So they’ve found a lot of stories about trainwrecks, where these people’s lives were trainwrecks either before or after. And so they’re creating these sound collage pieces that consist of music – of course – but also a lot of sound effects, spoken word, singing. And these all blend together in a montage. Yeah, they’re interesting pieces.
(((o))): With this current tour ending the Randy, Chuck and Bob trilogy, I was curious to see whether the storytelling aspect of the band that’s reigned over the past decade would keep going. It definitely sounds like that is living on beyond this tour.
HF: Yeah, absolutely.
(((o))): Chuck – as of a few hours ago [of the interview] – officially announced his retirement from The Residents. From what fans have been able to gather, Chuck seemed to have a huge impact on the compositions and instrumentation of the band. Will he continue playing on studio projects?
HF: Well, that ultimately has yet to be decided. Chuck – Charles – in some ways has been becoming more distant from the group over the past few years and once he made his decision not to tour any more, this kind of hastened that. And while the relationships with everybody are still good, he’s more charting his own path at this point. I think what has to happen is that everybody has to get past this transition that’s currently happening, and then see what reality pulls on the other side of it.
(((o))): The Residents’ documentary Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents has been out for several months now. What is your take on the film; is it truly reflective of the band in your eyes?
HF: Interestingly, you hear certain people think it’s just great. But then you also hear people saying it’s too much for the fans, and other people saying that it’s too accessible.
Given that range, I think the film has really hit the perfect spot. I think it’s plenty accessible enough that people who are not into The Residents but have some interest in off-beat music, or art, or the combination of those things, can easily be drawn in, get something out of it and then potentially become fans.
At the same time, I don’t feel like it’s so simple-minded and dumbed down that fans can’t enjoy it. On the side of The Cryptic Corporation, I worked quite a bit with Don Hardy, the filmmaker, as a facilitator/enabler and honestly I think Don did a fantastic job. Just to start, to take over 40 years’ worth of material and distill it down to an hour and a half; it’s not a job I would have wanted. He does that, and then he gives it a sense of feeling and emotion, and a sense of both …serendipity and chaos and confusion. All of which sum up to be The Residents. [Chuckles]
(((o))): That’s great. And the film is going to be out with the new tour as well, is that right?
HF: Yes, you will be able to buy a DVD of it on the tour. The rollout for it unfortunately has been slower in Europe than it has been in the States. It’s actually gotten a lot more exposure in the States and, due to things and winds that blow in certain directions, I don’t think there’s going to be as much benefit from the film in the European tour as there will be in the American tour. In the American tour the film will actually be travelling with the band, sort of acting like an opening act.
But all these things are done so far in advance that there wasn’t really a way of working that out with the European tour, which is too bad. But the DVDs will be out and they will be on sale on the tour.
(((o))): Randy recently gave fans free copies of a novelisation of Bad Day on the Midway, and fairly consistently The Residents play tracks from Freak Show in their set. Given these albums come from the 90s CD-ROM era, where many audience members would probably not have had a chance to play these now out-of-print video games, where do you think the staying power of these pieces comes from?
HF: That’s kind of hard to say. Freak Show was certainly seen as a landmark product of its time and, as far as The Residents’ were concerned, they managed to exceed Freak Show with Bad Day on the Midway. Now, you’re right in that this was so technologically-linked to a certain era that, within a few years, these things were no longer accessible. With Freak Show, there’s an album that came out several years before [the CD-ROM], there was a comic book that was about Freak Show, there was a stage show in Prague. While all these things didn’t get great exposure, there’s a lot of different things that have all allowed [Freak Show] to sum up to something that people could have a connection to.
As far as Bad Day on the Midway, I think part of the idea of that novelisation and releasing that was to give it life in culture again. I think there was such a strong feeling about the intellectual property that made up Bad Day on the Midway that they felt it needed another chance. I think that was a lot of the thinking behind that and, one good thing about novels is that they don’t really seem like they’re going to go away. [Laughs] They’re not gonna become technologically obsolete over the next five years. So at least it exists on a solid platform at this point.
(((o))): A couple of years ago, I rejigged my computer so that I could play the game and I loved it. So this is great for people who don’t want to spend a couple of hours getting their computer prepped to play a game.
HF: Right. There’s been a lot of interest in it continuing over the years. A couple of years after it came out, David Lynch [was interested in a TV series.]
HF: Yeah, and then a couple of years after there were a couple of producers that were interested in doing it as a half-hour animated TV series. And there have been a couple of other things that have come along. Whether anything ever gets developed further or not, who knows. But at least now it’s more accessible.
(((o))): There seems to be a resurgence of the ‘interactive movie’ style of gaming these days. More and more games are focusing on character interactions and novel-like storytelling. Would the band find any appeal in venturing down that path again, or is it too much like a step backwards?
HF: I don’t think they are looking for that, [but] they are always looking for new opportunities and new situations and new people to work with. So if somebody came along to them with the right opportunity, I think they would definitely go for it. But like I said, I don’t think it’s anything they trying to make happen on their own.
(((o))): You have been pretty consistent in saying that God in Three Persons is your favourite album – is this still the case?
HF: Honestly, it’s difficult to say a favourite. Anytime I was going to make a list, God in Three Persons would be in my top 5, if not my top 3. A lot of that stuff depends on your mood, but I think God in Three Persons is one of The Residents better achievements.
Interestingly, in that regard, there is a stage play of God in Three Persons in the works right now.
(((o))): [Fanboy sigh]
HF: The Residents always felt that God in Three Persons was a theatre piece waiting to happen and, unfortunately, neither The Cryptic Corporation nor The Residents had the resources or connections to make that happen. But Randy did a solo show a few years ago called Sam’s Enchanted Evening and when he took that to New York, he made a very good relationship with a producer and director that he had there. So we’ve been working with them ever since and, while there’s nothing official to announce yet, it’s looking very good.
The development process, having workshops and readings and a theatre and official relationships – that all seems like it’s very close.
(((o))): Oh that’s fantastic news! If anyone ever asks me for music recommendations or to lend them an album, God in Three Persons is almost always there. “Just sit down, put on headphones and listen to that album and tell me what you think.” It’s a great piece of art.
HF: Oh, that’s nice to hear. Thank you.
(((o))): So that’s the common answer. But do you feel with such a massive quantity of music, are there any gems in The Residents’ back catalogue that you feel are underappreciated? I personally have felt that Tweedles! doesn’t get enough love.
HF: I would probably put Tweedles! on that list. The Residents had several years with Mute [the record label] in the early 2000s and I feel like Animal Lover, Demons Dance Alone, all of those to some extent are underappreciated. You know how it is, the fans always love the early stuff. And there’s certainly a charm and naivety with that that goes to the essence of The Residents. But on the other hand I think there’s some of their more, shall we say ‘mature work’, that’s really strong too.
(((o))): Yeah, I feel those Mute years are almost another entry point for people. The instrumentation seems to be more complicated than it had been in the 90s and late 80s – there’s a breath of new life into that material. So I’m definitely there with you, I love all those albums.
Going back to what you were saying about this naivety, the band has persisted throughout the decades despite remaining relatively ‘unmusical’. Beyond the anonymity and the ‘gimmick’ of the costumes, why do you think The Residents have lasted as long as they have?
HF: I think it’s because they’ve enjoyed what they were doing. They were having fun, and any alternative that they saw at that time was not nearly as appealing as continuing. What else are you going to do, sit around and watch TV? The alternatives never seemed very appealing, whereas they were having fun doing what they were doing.
(((o))): The introduction of gamelan music over the years has always intrigued me. Was the band always fans of that music?
HF: The Residents’ [musical] horizons were constantly expanding and it didn’t take them very long to grow beyond the boundaries of pop. At that point they started saying “Well, what else is out there?” So what was called ‘world music’ at that time certainly got their attention. Another composer that got their attention early on was Harry Partch. That ultimately lead them into gamelan, and a lot of that stuff contributed to their ideas around Eskimo, for instance. They really wanted to be able to create an ethnic sounding music, but they didn’t want it to be directly comparable to anything. So by creating a fiction around a culture that no-one really knew anything at all about, they were completely free to do whatever they wanted to. They could invent their own Eskimo music and Eskimo culture.
So that’s where all that came from, was their interest in ethnic music or world music and gamelan was one part of that, but certainly not the only thing.
(((o))): Separate to the band, how do you think your own role has evolved over the years?
HF: I have been primarily the graphic and visual person for The Residents. I’ve done album covers, I’ve done most of their early photographs. In some ways, that’s changed. If I go back and look at my art career, it almost neatly breaks down into two 20 year periods. The first one is the analogue period, the next one was the digital period.
When I do that kind of work now, it’s all in the computer. It’s all in Photoshop. So there’s a huge evolution there, but it’s interesting the way things have changed. Technology has made music and music making accessible to anybody. Anybody with a laptop computer has a recording studio. And on one hand, that’s great. I think that to democratize that process is great. On the other hand, it’s cheapened it. It means that there’s a massive glut of material out there and it’s not that good stuff is not being created, because it certainly is, but in some ways it’s harder and harder to find.
I come from an era where when I was starting there would be one Residents album a year, maybe not even that often. So to do a cover was a big deal. There was a lot of time and a lot of thought and energy that went into it. Now, I won’t say I don’t still put time and energy and thought into these things – I do – but I’m constantly taking old Residents products and repackaging it. I sit down at the computer and knock this stuff out in a day or two.
The demands are such that I need to be able to work faster and faster, and the tools enable me to do that, but then things are not really as precious as they used to be. Like so many things in life, there’s a good side and a down side to that. In some ways, I kind of miss that [old era].
(((o))): Speaking of the changing musical environment, this brings to mind the last few albums. There were the emails that fans were able to send Bunny during The Bunny Boy tour [Residents fans were able to email the protagonist of the album directly and would receive responses in character], and there’s the ongoing Randyland video series (LINK: http://randyresident.tumblr.com ). How have you found these techniques working, in terms of engaging with the audience of today?
HF: That’s really hard to say. These things go out there and people respond, but the feedback is not necessarily nearly as strong as what you feel is probably what’s going out there. It’s mainly a matter of putting things out there and moving forward.
Bunny’s interaction with the fans I think was very rewarding, but poor Randy on tour!
(((o))): That’s a time commitment!
HF: There were literally thousands and thousands [of emails to reply to]. There was no sense of what massive can of worms was opened when that happened. If you’ve noticed, Randy on Randyland is not nearly quite so generous in terms of his availability!
I think all these things are good. Maybe they could better be taken advantage of? I don’t know.
Another project that you’ll find interesting that’s in the works – once again, there’s nothing official about this yet – but we’ve always wanted to do an installation which would be a recreation of Bunny’s room, as it appeared in the videos. We’re having conversations with somebody about that now, I’m hoping that will happen. One of the things to me that hopefully we could get out of that that would be really fascinating, would be a book that would be the highlights of Bunny’s correspondence with his fans.
Also, there was a lot of artwork that Bunny’s fans submitted to him, and I think reproductions of Bunny’s fan’s artwork on the walls around the installation would be a nice touch. There’s a lot of potential in that one for sure, if we can find the right venue for it.
(((o))): For sure. It definitely sounds like, regardless of the feedback that’s received, the band enjoys having that sort of …non-album continual presence, if that makes sense.
HF: Yeah, absolutely! Absolutely.
Shadowland tour dates are listed below, with full ticket information here:
28.01.2016 NL-Nijmegen, Doornroosje
29.01.2016 CH-Zürich, Ziegel Oh Lac
30.01.2016 CH-Fribourg, FRI-SON
01.02.2016 D-Frankfurt, Mousonturm
03.02.2016 A-Wien, Arena
04.02.2016 HR-Zagreb, Mochvara
05.02.2016 CZ-Prag, Palac Akropolis
06.02.2016 CZ-Olomouc, S-Club
07.02.2016 D-Dresden, Beatpol
08.02.2016 D-Berlin, ColumbiaTheater
09.02.2016 DK-Copenhagen, Amager Bio
10.02.2016 D-Hamburg, Kampnagel
12.02.2016 UK-London, Hackney Empire
13.02.2016 NL-Utrecht, Tivoli Vredenburg
23.03.2016 The Croxton, Thornbury Melbourne
24.03.2016 Factory Theatre, Marrickville Sydney
25.03.2016 – 28.03.2016 Blues Fest Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Tyagarah, Byron Bay