THIS IS AN ERA WHEN TO LIVE THE LIFE OF POP super-ultra-megastardom means to have one's every pore pried and probed, as if the Truth could be confirmed in bacteria and glandular secretions. But what do we find? More flesh. How refreshing it is, then, to ponder the enduring mystique of a phenomenon such as the Residents, who for over 25 years have explored their elation and revulsion with the evil banality of American pop culture while happily cloaked in utter anonymity. Their giant-eyeball heads have no pores.
Recently, prior to the group's upcoming performance of their latest epic, Wormwood, I had a chat with one of the group's spokespersons, Homer, a folksy longtime associate of the “band” and co-head of the Cryptic Corporation, the Residents' production conglomerate. Homer amiably conveyed the group's way-out Weltanschauung, bizarre beginnings, current crazes and fears for the future.
The Residents, it seems, germinated somewhere in Louisiana, possibly a swamp, but packed their bags and moved to San Mateo in the late '60s. They spent their early years honing their style and recording such unreleased masterpieces as “The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger” and “Baby Sex.” It was here too that they met their guru, The Mysterious N. Senada, whose Theory of Obscurity later inspired them to record The Unreleased Album, a pure-art work created intentionally to be heard by no one.
Moving to San Francisco in 1972, the Residents set up a four-track recording studio in a small, windowless room. Their modest goal was to tell true stories about the real America, the one they knew from puerile pop music, terrible TV and horsepoo Hollywood movies. Significantly, it had dawned on them that any truly countercultural telling of the Great American Adventure not only had to shun stardom, it had to be interpreted in a musically original form — for them, an honestly white no-soul music derived from disparate views of reality squished together for maximum cranial excitement.
You'll recall that in the wake of '70s punk rock there was a trend called new wave, which spit-shined the sweaty spirit of punk and took it to heady heights at the top of the charts. The Residents, having been discovered by the ravenous British music press, suddenly became the next big new wave thing, a phenomenon that spread into Europe and, in classic fashion, back to America.
Having been officially approved of by the people who wore skinny ties and rolled up the sleeves on their blazers, the group began to sell in sizable, if not exactly mass, quantities. The Residents used this relative prosperity to found their own label, Ralph Records, which released high-quality uncommercial music by the likes of Fred Frith, Yello, Snakefinger, and Renaldo and the Loaf, and established Pore No Graphics to handle album-cover, poster and T-shirt art. Along the way, they won fans in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The Residents are huge in Greece.
ANONYMITY HAS HELPED THE RESIDENTS ACHIEVE durability, but . . . the masks must become a burden at times. Surely the band wants to rip them off and proclaim, “Yes, it is me, John Johnson, who has created this art.” And surely there's been some fanaticism to deal with, the mad compulsion of fans with nothing better to do than to unveil the men (?) inside the eyeball heads.
“It's there,” says Homer, “but people seem to respect that it's important that the Residents be allowed to exist in their own little world. We've had a few people who've tried to crash through the backstage doors, or get through security and things like that. But it's like people have accepted that the Residents really want to be treated as a group, they don't want to be treated as individuals, and it's not to anyone's advantage that they be forced to give that up.”
The Residents have thus maintained their mystery, yet they couldn't have done it without such ambitious music. From humble beginnings messing with tape loops, detuned guitars, one-fingered cheapo organs and twangy, retarded vocals, often reinterpreting to horrific effect the “best” of the rock canon (hilariously tin-eared and unfunky covers of “Satisfaction,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “It's a Man's Man's Man's World”), they've slowly developed a pretty slick production technique, largely due to their discovery of the Emulator sampler in the early '80s, and their exploration of computers and MIDI programming. They've taken on works of gigantic scale, such as Eskimo, a history of life in the Arctic, and the ethnic-cleansing/dignity-in-work legend of the Mole trilogy (volumes 1, 2 and 4), which relates the struggle between the industrious, sincere Moles and cheerfully vacuous hypercapitalist Chubs (“We don't want your brow/We don't want your eye/All we really want is/For you to puke and die”). Consistently, they've established a distinctive homegrown tonality, owing equal debts to the Stones, Harry Partch, Mauricio Kagel and Don Kirschner. Their Third Reich & Roll album, wherein Adolf Hitler imitates Chubby Checker singing “Let's Twist Again” and concludes with a discordant medley of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” “Hey Jude” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” was also a nod at '70s Krautrock, the Residents demonstrating that America could generate its own avant-garde style derived from a purely American tradition.
The band has been prolific, with two dozen-plus albums released since 1974, wide-screen works loaded with dissonant electronic elegies to normalness, arcane spoken-word patches and a cast of sympathetic (sometimes) weirdos, gimps and losers. The recent two-CD retrospective Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses is a good intro.
THE RESIDENTS HAVE LONG RESIDED IN THE VANGUARD of new technologies — as well as being among the first to use the Emulator, they've produced a number of award-winning videos and CD-ROMs (Gingerbread Man, Freak Show and their most recent, the bracingly grim Bad Day on the Midway, featuring such endearing characters as Benny the Bump, Herman the Human Mole, the Old Woman and the Sold-Out Artist) — yet their music remains the product of a highly refined ignorance. The core members enjoy limited instrumental chops, though recent projects have incorporated skilled players and singers to better transmit the sickness.
“From the craftsman concept of musician,” says Homer, “the Residents couldn't hardly be worse. From the idea standpoint of musician, with the emotion and energy for music, I'd say they can hardly be beat. With Wormwood, they would write things using the computer, and then print scores out, and then people would come in to play them. They feel like Wormwood, being about the Bible, it was really important to have that human spirit behind it.”
Wormwood is, in part, the Residents' reaction to the severely literal-minded Christian atmosphere that has plagued the American consciousness in recent times. Gleaning insight from Jonathan Kirsch's book The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, the group retells several of the hairier Bible stories without all the mayhem, humiliation and abnormal sex sanded off.
“The Residents watch television a lot,” says Homer, “and they've always been fascinated by TV evangelists. Several years ago, they said, 'We have to find out. These people are waving this book in the air and telling other people how horrible they are because this book says they are, and it's time to sit down and read this book and see if it really does say that.' It didn't — these evangelists were holding the Bible hostage.”
The Residents' reading of the Good Book proposes other options. “The Bible,” offers Homer, “is saying that it's okay to be failures as humans and as gods, because that's all there is. And it's really not about denouncing this group or that group. In fact, when you read it, everybody gets denounced at some point or another.”
KNOWING THAT THE RESIDENTS LIKE TO KEEP UP with all the latest nifty trends, I ask Homer if there're any new bands they like.
“The Residents are very fond of the Spice Girls, and Hanson particularly,” says Homer. “They like them a lot, because they really love pop music, and they think pop music should never last, that two weeks later you should forget entirely about the music and who performed it. So they like whoever does that.”
Well, I guess these veteran Residents aren't a pop band then, going by their own definition. I wonder what they'll be doing 20 years from now.
“I've heard the Residents talking about what they'll be doing 100 years from now,” Homer says, cryptically.
But . . . that's impossible!
“I'm not allowed to say, but they have some interesting schemes on how the Residents will live forever . . . They're thinking replacements. They're thinking apprenticeships and training.”
The Residents, eminent purveyors of a grotesquely beautiful, sometimes anti-, sometimes pro-American art, are an American success story, having achieved a preferred way of life by precisely locating their audience. And who might that audience be?
Homer says, “You know, in high school you've got the majority of people that sort of rigidly listen to the same music, and they like the same things and dress the same way. And then you have this smaller group of people that stand apart from that — they can't really relate to that larger group of people at all, and don't like anything they like. That's the Residents' audience. They're everywhere.”
The Residents appear at House of Blues Friday through Sunday, April 2325.