The Residents bubbled up from a swamp in Louisiana, moved to the Bay Area in the late '60s and set out to be a nonband. They did not come together via a mutual love of jamming on guitars and drums and pumping fists and flinging tresses. No, the Residents were and are an ideas band, avant garde, sure, but with a sonic difference channeled through a persistent love for pop culture garbage.
Over 30 (or more) albums, films, DVDs, podcasts and, soon, iPads, the always mysterious Residents (nobody really knows who hides behind their multiple masks) have parodied, deconstructed and severely warped such icons as the Beatles, Elvis, Hitler and God. They've done epic paeans to Eskimos and moles, too, in works loaded with dissonant electronic elegies to normalness, arcane spoken-word patches and a cast of sympathetic weirdos, gimps and losers.
Hardy Fox (a pseudonym, of course) is the Residents' longtime spokesman. We contacted him through typically secretive channels to get some insight into their current renaissance with the Talking Light tour (a stage show about a horny, creepy old-timer that overlaps a lot with Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers) and new album Lonely Teenager.
L.A. WEEKLY: Who and what are the Residents at this point in time?
HARDY FOX: Next year is the 40th anniversary for the group. And the way they've survived all this long is they're constantly evolving. They never really set out as a traditional band, and they've never tried to record hit music. As a result, they've never had any real commitment to be a certain way or stay a certain way or play certain music in certain styles.
The Residents at some point became an active touring unit, presenting their work in elaborately staged events. What's on the agenda for the Talking Light show?
The Talking Light show approaches the concept of telling stories set against abstract music. It's something they really hadn't done, particularly in a live situation; the touring shows have generally been compositional. The stories can change from show to show, and there's a lot more improvisation that goes on, and calculated surprises, to keep the music from becoming too stale and predictable — for them.
“Randy's Ghost Stories” are performed on the Talking Light tour. Apparently these have something to do with TV culture and commercials, among other vaguely delineated things. There are many different kinds of ghosts, of course.
The Residents don't even know for sure if ghosts exist. “Randy's Ghost Stories” has a lot to do with the concept of aging and death, and how aging and death affect perceptions. We're haunted.
The new album, Lonely Teenager, which grew out of ideas germinated on the Talking Light tour, reveals the music growing more subtly complex — and beautiful, and scary, too. “The mirror has two sides” is a sample lyric. What do you suppose the Residents mean by this?
As people age, they stop recognizing themselves when they look in the mirror. There's a two-sided mirror in the show, one side reflecting Randy and the other reflecting the audience. The audience has to face the mirrors just like the performers do — just like your death, each person has to deal with that at a very individual level.
The Residents don't take a political or moral stance as such. But do they feel that their art posits moral imperatives?
I feel reasonably certain not, because I don't know that they think anything really exists.
How about musical/artistic imperatives? Is there a kind of music that can and should be pushed, to edify, to better entertain?
No, because when you're dealing with sound you're dealing with an abstract thing, and it's sort of like dealing with color. It has a lot to do with one side saying, “This is what I like,” and then you've got the other side saying, “Well, I agree with you, I like that too,” or “That's not what I like.” The reality is, there are many different ways of seeing things, different ways of thinking, some of which you understand and enjoyed or those you don't understand and you don't enjoy. There's really no right or wrong in music.
The Residents have influenced the culture, but who might've influenced the Residents? Did they find an affinity with Beefheart and Zappa, for example?
There's a similar attitude of not feeling like you have to conform. The Residents appreciated the fact that Beefheart and Zappa had a vision that they pushed forward, and that it wasn't a vision based upon what other people were doing. The Residents knew that anyone can do weird music, but respected people who represent a vision, even though it may be a popular vision.
Such as the Residents' skewed interpretations of the Rolling Stones.
Like Beefheart, they were a blues band, and the Residents always loved blues music. The Rolling Stones were interpreting an American form into a British form that changed what it was. They thought it made sense to try and change it back into an American form. It's like translating Spanish back to English again, how it changes the meaning of things.
Would the Residents accord similar respect to Lady Gaga?
They've seen her on television and were very touched with her very strong sense of visuals. But they would point out that she could be anonymous, too: If it says “Lady Gaga” on it … [laughs]
The Residents have pursued their alternative-to-all-alternatives music and art for 40 years, from '60s hippie counterculture through '70s-'80s-'90s DIY counter-countercultures, up into the Internet 2000s. So how do they keep up? How do they stay savvy, trendy and very, very popular?
The Residents work and think by observing, so they feel like they have to be tuned in to where the culture is. Even if they're not trying to imitate what's current musically, they're always influenced by what's going on musically, as well as any other art form. And they're always very interested in technology, and they keep on top of it: What is this? What's the impact on the culture? How does it change who we are?
The Residents have done a series of podcasts called River of Crime. That seems like a natural medium for the group.
That's an area they're exploring, providing the story by music: How do you combine them and get interesting new ideas that work? They're very impressed by the iPad; they're trying to figure out how that can be turned into an instrument for supplying media, just like a radio. Ultimately, the Residents want to create a whole new medium itself, and that's what they're looking for down the road.
Who are the Residents for?
In every school across the world you'll find those pockets of people who don't really relate to mainstream culture and who want something — who need something — different. Because they are different. And those are your lonely teenagers.
The Residents perform at El Rey Theatre on Sat., April 9, at 8 p.m.