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The Residents: Concepts within a concept wrapped in an enigma and labeled music

January 27, 2010 - 4:38 pm

After 40 years and 60 albums, the question remains: Who are The Residents?

In photographs, one wears a skull mask and the rest wear giant eyeball heads, tuxedos and top hats. On stage, they hide behind curtains or in the darkness. As a matter of policy, they decline media interviews. They say they’re from Louisiana and live in San Francisco, but nobody can say who they really are—or, for that matter, if there are even four of them.

But the question is neither here nor there, according to Hardy Fox, a longtime Residents spokesperson and co-founder of the Cryptic Corp., the agency devoted to managing The Residents’ affairs. “The Residents are everyone who is working on the project. So there is no set number of Residents. It expands to meet whatever the needs are of the project,” he tells me in a phone interview. “It’s not a real thing. It’s the combined energy of all the people that are working on it.”

Does he mean to say that The Residents are nothing more than an idea? The idea of The Residents?

“Yeah, it doesn’t really exist,” he says. “It’s the energy that is generated to create something from nothing.”

Had he been talking about any other band, I would have said Fox was being coy. But when it comes to The Residents, this warped logic makes perfect sense. Masters of high concept, they (whoever “they” are) use strange instruments and electronics—along with videos and concerts incorporating multimedia and dance—to explore the nuances of American culture, capture the zeitgeist of imaginary worlds and tell stories both allegorical and absurd.

Over the years, their distinct blend of eccentric instrumentation and wacked-out vocals have come across as unlistenable (see 1976’s The Third Reich ’N Roll, a medley of Top 40s hits), delightful (1980’s Commercial Album, a collection of minute-long tracks modeled on radio jingles), marvelous (1988’s God in Three Persons, an opera about Siamese twins with healing powers), disturbing (1998’s Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, a treatment of some of the Bible’s stranger tales), or just plain weird (2005’s Animal Lovers, a look at humans through animals’ eyes). They sound ahead of their time—of any time at all—yet much of their work displays a fascination for America’s freaks, Bible beaters and snake-oil salesmen.

In their Friday performance at Birch North Park Theater, they will delve into the world of daytime television.

“They’re interested in people who go on television to basically be freaks,” Fox says of the group’s current “Talking Light” tour. “Like Maury people, or Jerry Springer people. People who will actually volunteer to go on television to make a fool of themselves, or to be ridiculed or to tell embarrassing things in front of an audience and on television, in exchange for the mere fact that they’re on television.”

Despite their devotion to ideas, The Residents reside in a world of economics. And with grandiose ideas come with outsized ambitions:

  • “The Mole Show,” a world tour telling the story of the Mole people—a proletarian society that’s forced out of its underground home by a flood only to face exploitation and discrimination by the above-ground Chub people—led to financial turmoil.
  • The American Composers Series was supposed to include more than a dozen albums. But The Residents couldn’t afford paying all the royalties, so they only produced two albums: 1984’s George & James and 1986’s Stars & Hank Forever!.
  • For one tour, The Residents intended to use a dozen hand-carved wood panels from Bali, costing $30,000 each. The Cryptic Corp. nixed the plan. “It just wasn’t a very practical idea,” Fox says.

But The Residents are used to their constraints, Fox says. “We’re totally American. We’re totally capitalists,” he says. “It’s fine to do art, but if you can’t sell it, you might as well have not done it.”

To be sure, this hasn’t held them back—if anything, their concepts have only grown more conceptual with time. Even Fox hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the “Talking Light” tour.

“The idea, as I understand it, is that they see people on television as ghosts. And so the whole ‘Talking Light’ concept is sort of TV, it’s this box that lights up and then people talk on it,” he says. “I think the show’s going to be more abstract than usual.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 27, 2010 - 7:32 pm 7:32 pm

    Great article! My favorite Residents album will always be “Meet the Residents,” and it’s twisted sing-song ways. I think “The Commercial Album” is a great example of concepts masked as music. By strictly adhering to the pop song format while disregarding the rules of tonality, they demanded that their music be enjoyed by the brain rather than the ears. My brain enjoyed it very much.

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