The mysterious Bay Area collective known as The Residents, whose masked members have never been identified, have set the standard for the avant-garde–iest of art rock and related alternative whatsit for more than four decades. The band — if you can even call them that — have released something like 60 albums and were early champions of home recording, music video production, multimedia releases on CD-ROM and LaserDisc, podcasts and web series; their short films are now part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.
The Residents are currently on tour with their latest live show, Shadowland, whose opening act is a screening of the documentary Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents. Via phone from Vienna, longtime Residents spokesman Homer spoke with us about the film, music and the joys of anonymity.
Homer, what is this Theory of Obscurity all about?
Well, the Theory of Obscurity comes from The Residents’ earliest period, when they had this idea that artists did their most pure work when they had no audience to play for, no critics to worry about, and they were just doing things that were purely for themselves and what their interests were.
How has anonymity benefited The Residents?
There’s a sense of freedom underneath the blanket of obscurity — but it’s a two-sided sword. I’m doing promotion here for the film and upcoming tour, and you don’t really exist in our culture without promotion, and it’s hard to get promotion if you’re completely obscure.
How did The Residents allow the filmmakers such close inspection of their archives and lives without blowing their cover?
It was a matter of trust. There were three filmmakers involved in the project. One of them, Josh Keppel, I had met in Santa Cruz when The Residents did their Talking Light tour in 2010; Josh had shot photographs of the show, and I thought they were great and wanted to use them for PR. Then a couple of years later, Don Hardy, who is an established filmmaker, was looking for a new project, and he was sitting around with Josh and [co-producer] Bart Bishoff, and the idea of The Residents’ 40th-anniversary tour came up, which Don saw as an opportunity for a documentary. Don and I just clicked right off, and I was able to then bring him into the fold.
The Residents' new stage show, Shadowland, is part three of a trilogy starring Randy, Chuck and Bob. Who exactly are Randy, Chuck and Bob?
Randy, Chuck and Bob are The Residents these days. The classic “faceless four” which was The Residents up till 2010, well, The Residents started to think that was dated. They needed something in the age of the Internet, when everybody has their own Facebook page and everybody broadcasts. They felt like The Residents needed more of a personal identity, and so that’s where Randy, Chuck and Bob came from. It’s Residential in that, you know, who the fuck are Randy, Chuck and Bob?
The Residents' music is no longer merely weird. It has grown peculiarly beautiful — moving, even. Are The Residents affected by music, art and topical events of the outside world?
I don’t think they’re absorbing pop culture presently the way they were when they were in their 20s and 30s. But then music doesn't hold the position within the culture that it did when The Residents were young. I remember when a new Beatles album came out, this was a major cultural event. You don't really have the same thing when Justin Bieber releases a new album.
Do The Residents just loaf about on their tour bus, or do they create new material?
The Demons Dance Alone album was almost entirely composed on the road. One of The Residents had a little black box that had all these riffs and compositional parts built into it that you could then cut and paste to create new compositions. And recently The Residents released a short novel based on their Bad Day on the Midway CD-ROM, and that was primarily written on the road.
Any new Residents recordings coming out?
There’s an album currently in the works based on the idea of train wrecks. One of The Residents found a Kindle download that wasn’t so much a book as it was a collection of newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The title of it was Death by Train. What The Resident found fascinating was that the language of that era was so eloquent, but then they were using this beautiful, elegant language to describe incredibly horrific events.
How long can The Residents carry on before they wither away and gently drop, leaflike, to the ground?
I don’t think the culture’s quite ready for Residents clones yet. Sheep at best. But if not Residents clones, then a new generation of artists working under the Residents banner, that’s a distinct possibility. They’re looking for somebody to pick up the banner and run with it.
The Residents perform at the Regent on Saturday, April 9.