Just as in 1974 when their first album, “Meet the Residents” entered an unsuspecting world, The Residents defy easy description and remain as enigmatic and mysterious as ever. No-one truly knows who the band members are or were; their styles range from seemingly novelty covers to scabrous cultural and social commentary to inspired rock and pop moments of crystal clarity. To the wider world, at best, they are the band with the top-hatted eyeballs.
As they approach their fiftieth year, they emerge revitalised after the loss of one of the ever-presents in their camp left forever, Hardy Fox dying in October 2018 (editing his own Wikipedia page to alert fans in the month before). Fox is now widely recognised as the primary composer for the band and though always in denial as to his role, spoke on behalf of the band for much of their first forty years. He had quietly retired from his main role in the band in 2016, leaving Homer Flynn to fill the gaps. Flynn, widely assumed to be the band’s other co-founder, has only officially confessed to creating the band’s artwork but is the current spokesman for The Cryptic Corporation, the management company The Residents founded to enable them to speak to the media without unmasking themselves.
On 10th July, The Residents released “Metal, Meat and Bone”, which might be their 49th album…it’s difficult to keep track, given the reissues, remixes, live albums, compilations and grey market releases. It sees the band come into possession of the entire recorded works of a grizzled bluesman, Alvin Snow (aka Dyin’ Dog) whose work covers one disc, while The Residents and assorted guests (including The Pixie’s Black Francis; Sivian Lioncub and long-time associates such as Eric Drew Feldman and Carla Fabrizio) take over disc two, putting their own stamp on the tracks and a few others inspired by them. Of course, there is no Alvin Snow and never has been, it’s all part of the fun and games. The masks never slip.
As they nearly said at the beginning of Live Aid, “It’s 6pm in Cambridge , England and it’s 10am in Shreveport, Louisiana”. The audiences are only number one at each end and Bob Geldof doesn’t say, “fuck” once, so I concede this analogy has little in the way of legs. I’m interviewing Homer Flynn, spokesperson of the legendary Cryptic Organisation, brain of the eyes of the counterculture musical behemoths, The Residents. I have spent the previous hours, not just pouring over the questions I am going to ask him but to beg my brain not to say, “Homer Simpson”. The will is strong but the vocal chords are weak. I mustn’t say it. That would be very bad. We start a little early as I am not very good at waiting and Homer is very kind.
DL: Good morning Homer! Have you had coffee yet?
HF: Haha, yes, I’m halfway through my first but I had a tea earlier so we’ll be fine
DL: How has lockdown been treating you?
HF: It’s so different for people. For some, it terrible of course for all sorts of reasons. For my eldest daughter, she got two kids running around and she trying to teach them at home and all that. For artists of course it’s good. It’s good to have that time to dedicate yourself to whatever you’re creating.
DL: Those rainy days you always talk about, those times you promise yourself will happen one day when you can finally catch up on books and films and music
HF: Exactly! It’s the time you always wished for that you can finally use to finish off all those little projects you had started and can finally finish. So yeah, I’ve been busy and as much as it can be, it’s been good
DL: What a pleasure to see you featured in Rolling Stone! [their Trump-savaging video to the new single, “Die! Die! Die!” received a glowing write-up]. The Residents have definitely been playing the long game!
HS: Yes, it really has been the long game! I’m still hoping they’ll get get on the cover of course. We’ve definitely taken our time and it’s funny to see.
[I THINK he says “they’ll” and not “we’ll” – the Skype connection isn’t great and though it’s not massively important, the issue burns on now as it has since The Residents birth in 1971 (or earlier or later, depending on your pedantry) – who exactly are the band? Their identities have never been revealed but it is widely assumed that the late Hardy Fox was both behind the scenes and front and centre and that Mr Flynn is likewise one of the original and current band members]
DL: The video must have been great fun to make?
HF: Oh certainly, it was difficult to stop!
DL: Did the band have Trump as the focus in mind when they were writing the song?
HF: No, I don’t think so, it was based on one of the blues songs by Dyin’ Dog they came into possession of. But by the time they were thinking of what single to release first, it was a no-brainer
DL: Trump almost seems too easy a target but then on an almost daily basis, he’ll do something so preposterous that it becomes impossible to ignore. This morning he’s waving a face-mask around explaining why he thinks it’s best he doesn’t wear it
HF: Well, what can I say, he’s a natural-born entertainer. I can’t say I care too much for his brand of entertainment but he’s a real expert. Although the song was recorded for different reasons it became irresistible. Black Francis’ performance as well really stood out, it was obvious this had to be the first single we [he definitely says “we”] put out.
DL: The band somehow drag out the inner Black Francis from twenty-odd years ago
HF: Yes, we were lucky, Eric Drew Feldman [‘assister’ to The Residents and ex-member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and producer of Frank Black‘s first album] stepped in in a big way to help when we lost Hardy Fox. Charles [Black Francis/Frank Black’s real name] was in town with The Pixies and Eric suggested we all meet up and it just worked out so well. Eric produced a lot of the record and he really understands the workings of the band so it was a perfect situation. He brings a different dynamic and a different way of working but it fits really well with the band. He’s known us a long time and like I say, with us losing Hardy, it was kinda seamless to have him come in and help us with things like this. Because we’ve worked with him before, we were really comfortable with him coming in and he knew pretty much what the score was.
DL: The band have always been so selective about who they work with over the years. The kind of fan-base The Residents have mean that every single note and every single word is pored over. If you introduce someone who doesn’t quite fit with their expectations or ideals, you’re in big trouble
HF: 100% We’ve thought that so many times. And you’re right, you go in with all good intentions and then you stop yourself and think, “but what if the fans hate them?” It’s why when we do work with artists who come from outside the circle, it means a lot of time and thought have gone into what they bring to the project.
DL: The people the band have worked with haven’t always been straight ahead musicians of course, people like Penn Jillette. You’ve always been at pains to say that you’re performance art, not a rock or pop band
HF: And that’s the same with this new album, it’s not just been the case of working with other people for the sake of it, it’s what they could bring which would add to what the band had already done
DL: The Residents have always been happy to revisit their own material and re-work it. Is that down to perfectionism and a constant search for the best performance or a matter of toying with songs to see what they can turn into?
HF: A bit of both, I think. The nature of how the band recorded, especially in the early days, meant there was a lot of experimentation and sometimes they were working things out as they went along, which means when you look back you think, “well, if only we’d done such and such”. The other side is like you said, I mean, with a song like “Constantinople” [a track from their 1978 album, Duck Stab], it’s changed so much over the years and in different performances, which is why it’s a song the band continually go back to, along with many others of course.
DL: That’s how art should be – the perfect rendition could be a live performance which just couldn’t be replicated in exactly the same way again
HF: Yeah, The Residents have always worked like that, you’ll see that with the reissued albums and the live shows a lot.
DL: People hail the work that Springsteen and Dylan and Jimmy Page do with their musical output but I’ve never seen a project like The Residents’ archival reissues. Truly, no stone has been left unturned! That was all Hardy’s department, yes?
HF: That’s right. What a lot of people don’t realise is that Hardy actually retired two years before he passed away, so he had already started going through the old material properly. I mean, he kept everything. EVERYTHING. We knew there was a lot but it just kept coming and coming. This is all down to Richard, the product manager at Cherry Red [the band’s UK label] who is a huge fan himself and encouraged the madness! In the last few years, Hardy’s obsession began bordering on hoarding. Y’know, I have an archive room over there [gestures…over there], I mean, I’ve been trying to get rid of stuff! So, yeah, Hardy was the keeper of the archive and ultimately, that came to me and I was shocked in a way at some of the stuff that was there, stuff I was never aware of or had long forgotten about and once again, the relationship we then had with Cherry Red was a gift and the main aspect and component of that gift was Richard. The time and the energy and the love that he has put into mining that archive is phenomenal.
DL: In terms of your art as well, you must get that huge rush of nostalgia when something appears you’d completely forgotten about
HF: Yeah, I have felt both sides of it. There are things which were almost done as a toss-off for fun, stuff that was done almost fifty years ago, that on the one hand you think, “well, that was never meant to go like that” but other times when you see things which are still appreciated fifty years later, that’s just great. I don’t always appreciate the time it takes to dig through all this stuff!
DL: This has led to projects such as allowing your fans to remix and reinterpret the band’s songs – something I didn’t expect to appreciate in the slightest but completely proved me wrong. How privileged the band have been to have an audience that have listened to the work and have all come away with something different and yet completely valid. That must be exactly how you always hoped the music would be experienced?
HF: Absolutely. One of my favourite stories is that my ex-wife and mother of my eldest daughter, back in the late 70s and early 80s, on Halloween, my wife used to take “Eskimo” [their 1979 album] and the stereo speakers and take it out on the street to scare the kids. From my perspective, this was a great use of the material. The Residents always liked the lines that people read between to be as wide as possible and loved to see how people read between those lines and see what they come up with
DL: What does success mean to the Residents? Is it simply being allowed to do what you do or, even at this stage, could there be a single incident that makes the band stand back and say, “that made it all worthwhile”?
HF: Well, to me, part of what is so interesting about The Residents is that anonymity is the facade that they steadfastly stand behind and what that facade allows is freedom. The Residents have always asked for that freedom.
DL: People dig quite extensively as to where the sound of the band comes from, who could have been in the band and all that but there’s been far less talk about what films have influenced the band, both in terms of their sound and obviously their imagery.
HF: Well, I know that they were huge Fellini fans, no question of that, they’ve always been movie buffs. Y’know, I know Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” was a landmark film for them but they also liked a lot of American film noir and those European directors who then came to America – Elia Kazan was one – it’s that take of the European which gives that unique perspective. I think A Streetcar Named Desire gives this unique take on New Orleans and Southern culture and they really appreciated those touches.
DL: I think Southern culture and Southern Gothic, there’s always been that element in the band’s stuff
HF: Oh, yeah, definitely. Are you familiar with the film “Ace in the Hole”? That was another one. He was another director [Austrian, Billy Wilder] who escaped Nazi Germany and winds up in Hollywood creating these really interesting film. I know in recent times they’ve gone back even further to German expressionist films from the 20s and really enjoyed a lot of that too, Fritz Lang and the likes
DL: Going back to directors like Fellini and Jodorowsky, as much as some of the imagery is grotesque and startling, there’s also a sense of humour there. I think with a lot of The Residents stuff, the humour is overlooked. It’s taken so seriously and taken apart so forensically in some quarters that the entertainment is almost destroyed.
HF: Absolutely. It’s interesting because when The Residents started, the humour was more up-front and less subtle and they felt they were kind of falsely labelled like some kind of 1970s Spike Jonez and they didn’t want to come across as one-dimensional. For them, any real valid interesting artwork with any depth to it is going to affect you on different levels and humour definitely is one but drama is one too and they feel like humour and drama affect each other – each makes the other more potent and so they love bouncing the humour off of the dramatic and horrific stuff.
DL: And that’s a reflection of real life
DL: You’ve already had to move your proposed North American tour – how far ahead as a rule are The Residents working? Is it a case of looking backwards to move forwards?
HF: We definitely look forward and backward at the same time. The older everyone gets, it’s kind of a double-edged sword because the idea of the legacy…the more the legacy is appreciated the more it becomes about that albatross around your neck and the more the legacy puts that pressure on you. It’s hard to complain when you finally start feeling appreciated though after fifty years! The tour wasn’t that much of a problem, they’ve literally just rescheduled it for the same time next year. This forced break isn’t so much a vacation but a change which has actually been quite welcome. The Residents have been working on a film project for a few years now based on the aesthetics of “Vileness Fats”, their 1970s unfinished film. It takes an awful lot of money to do it but they got funding but not quite enough funding, so they’ve jut tried to find a way of doing it with a third screenplay and are shooting that around the end of the summer to fill in the time. They’re also looking to make a new presentation of “God in Three Persons” [originally released in 1988] and that’s looking really interesting. They’ve started writing another album too but there’s no pressure on that right now.
DL: Finally, with Hardy’s passing, with Eric taking more of a role now, does the anonymity of The Residents mean this is ultimately endless, that there will always be custodians that can carry on the band’s work or must there always be an original member?
HF: Certainly that’s the ideal outcome but of course in that scenario, there is no outcome. The fantasy as to how The Residents continue…the main problem is that the right collaborators have to step forward at the right time and prove their worth. We’ll see if that happens or not.
DL: Doing that and retaining anonymity makes it become a real maze
HF: In some ways The Residents exist in a loss of personal ego and the ego becomes a collective ego and talking about idealised forms…the group is greater than the sum of its parts and if everyone enters into that attitude then that can be true but then you have to find more collaborators who share that view, which isn’t easy!
With huge thanks to Homer Flynn, Matt Ingham and Ade Furniss