Did the San Francisco hippie movement fuel avant garde giants The Residents? Was flower power wilting before their eyes? Was the Summer of Love finally over? Here’s where our heroes begin their journey. Through their legacy of sampling, layering, and a fair amount of “fake it till you make it,” audiences were both shocked and won over by these weird, rambling mad men. With over 40 years under their belt, The Residents have journeyed through many musical outliers. In their early years they used tape loops to build frantic soundscapes that were nearly impossible to play live (until the invention of samplers in the early ‘80s). They layered tracks from famous rockers and redubbed themselves over, deconstructing the idea of what it means to be “in the band.” They were also one of the earliest bands to use CD-ROMs, and contributed to some of MTV’s first music videos.
Though The Residents have put to rest their signature eyeball and top hat disguises, the members continue to remain unidentified. There are many theories as to who’s in the band (and who has left). They’ve morphed from a quartet to a trio, and now return in 2018 to quartet again, with a completely new moniker of Eekie, Erke, Cha Cha, and Tyrone. But are these the real Residents? Are these imposters? Are The Residents pulling a Tony Clifton? I reached out to Homer Flynn, suspected Resident and band manager via The Cryptic Corporation, to talk about tour, origins, and what makes a band “good.”
The Residents started in Shreveport and 40 some-odd years later they’re finally playing New Orleans.
It’s about time, huh?
Can you tell me a little bit about this new lineup that’s going on?
Well, The Residents have gone through a lot of changes one way or another over the years and now they’ve kind of reverted to a classic four-piece line up. It’s guitar, keyboard, drums, and vocal; and I’ve referred to it as sort of modern retro. But it’s definitely a four-piece band… There are a couple of things I think maybe that they use a timing track here and there, but for the most part it’s all live.
The name of the tour is called In Between Dreams, is that a reference to something specifically?
Well, it’s a reference to the content of the material that they’re playing, and it’s mainly—not exclusively but mainly—material from their catalog that references dreams. Either it’s about characters talking about their dreams, or very dream-like imagery, things like that. There are also four videos. The set kind of divides itself up into 5 mini sets, and each mini set is then punctuated or uses a short video as a spacer. So what you have is four different characters talking about their dreams.
I think dream imagery in a lot of ways seems to be something very prevalent with The Residents, and so they had the idea of, “Well, why not just fashion a show around that theme?” And it just kind of fell together that way.
The Residents just put out the crowd-sourced I Am A Resident record. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
The album hasn’t actually come out yet. In the fall through early December, something like that, they did this crowdfunding campaign, and it’s called I Am A Resident. And the whole idea was that The Residents were inviting their fans to submit their versions of Residents songs, to become part of a I Am A Resident album… and the interesting thing about it was how many songs were submitted. I think The Residents thought maybe we’ll get 30 or 40 songs or something like that, and they got almost 200. Everybody’s mind was kind of blown, because a lot of ‘em are really good. People did a really good job with ‘em. So ultimately they felt like, “If we just collect up 15 or 20 songs and put that out, well that could be OK. But then a whole lotta good stuff gets left out.” So what they decided to do was take all that material and create like a mash-up. I think they did five or six suites, and each suite is about anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes long. And they integrate as much of this material in, by editing and looping and overdubbing, whatever they can.
Were there any particularly strange ones?
Well, probably the one that most caught my attention as being something completely unexpected—are you familiar with The Residents’ Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life?
It has actually been credited as the first mash-up. The Residents took samples—and this was like back in 1977 or ‘78—I don’t know, 15 or 20 Beatles songs, and then made tape loops off of ‘em, combined ‘em, and essentially made a new piece of music which they called Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life. So somebody went to YouTube and found all of these recreations of Beatles songs that people had done and recreated Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life as “Beyond the Valley of YouTube” or something like that. And so all the material is not actually from Beatles songs, it’s from imitations of Beatles songs. And when you go back and listen to it, the first time I heard it I thought, “Somebody’s just done the same thing.” But as I listened to it closely I thought, “No, that’s not quite right. They don’t quite have John’s accent here.” And it’s a really unique piece that somebody did, and a completely different perspective on covering a Residents song.
Rock music is an established cornerstone, and ideally sampling it reinforces that idea.
Surely. Sampling just opens up the entire world, really.
Yeah, it’s a medium that acts like a currency. Something that can be borrowed from and passed around.
And so many things make their statement from a cultural point of view that you get to then use those as touchstones or reference points.
The Residents have some reissues coming out as well?
Indeed. I had a partner in the Cryptic Corporation, a guy named Hardy Fox, that I worked with for like about 45 years and then, as of a couple of years ago, he kind of suddenly announced that he wanted to retire and wanted me to buy him out. I had no way of doing that and had no intention of retiring myself, so ultimately I was able to find two new partners, one of whom is a company called MVD (Music Video Distributors) right outside of Philadelphia. And the other is Cherry Red Records in London. We’ve worked with MVD since the ‘80s so they were a pretty known quantity; but Cherry Red, on the other hand, I knew of them but I didn’t really know that much about ‘em, and they’ve been fantastic… Hardy had been the engineer for The Residents for like, forever. And he was the keeper of their archive tapes, and as he retired he turned those tapes over to me. I didn’t know what all was there, so we started checking it out and there was just all this stuff: alternate versions of things, or jams, or rehearsals that got recorded. So Cherry Red, in order to sweeten these re-releases, took all that stuff and got it mastered and added it to these releases as they’ve been coming out. And it’s good; it’s a great thing. It’s nice to have all that stuff seeing the light of day.
The Residents can be viewed as an art collective, and with that comes the stance that the music is secondary. What’s more important: good musicians in a bad band or bad musicians in a good band?
Well, you know, if The Residents were left to succeed based on their musicianship they would have dried up and gone away a long time ago—which is not to say that they haven’t had some great musicians that have worked with them. But it’s never really been that high of a value for them. The sound has always been more of value, and when they started, they were really kind of on, at least for the consumer level, the very cutting edge of multitrack technology. And they always felt like, well, there’s no reason for us to really learn how to play this song—first off, we couldn’t play it to begin with because it’s made up of a bunch of different tracks—but they would just learn how to play something well enough to get it recorded and that’d be it, they’d never play it again. Then they’d overdub something on that and overdub on top of that. And that then became the basis of their sound. Learning how to use recording technology to their advantage was much more important than learning how to use instruments, although they did that out of necessity.
You’re a graphic designer by trade, is that correct?
Yeah, I’ve done pretty much all The Residents’ album covers and group photos, art directed a lot of videos, things like that.
So from your position, do you find an importance in mastering a craft versus using it to express your own voice?
Ideally you’d do both, but to me, I would say mastering a craft comes when you have a relatively efficient process to realize your ideas. When you’re still learning it, you have an idea but you can blunder along the path for a long time until you finally get something that you like. Whereas once you’ve mastered the craft, that process becomes more efficient, and I’m not saying either one is better because you can blunder along and come up with some really cool stuff. And once you reach a level of efficiency sometimes it can cause you to, you know, not experiment as much, just go down the path of least resistance. But when you’re professional and you have work to do and you have deadlines, well, being efficient is a good thing.
Back to rock’n’roll: it’s the same thing kinda all the time.
One of my favorite expressions is: there’s no new jokes—only new audiences.
The Residents have some new albums coming out? I know that I Am A Resident is coming out but there’s some new stuff, right?
The I Am A Resident should be out, I think in April. And then there’s a new album called Intruders and… they did an album almost exactly a year ago called The Ghost of Hope. [It] was all about trainwrecks in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it was all completely factually based. They probably researched, I dunno, 50 or 60 trainwrecks, and pulled out the ones that seemed the most compelling, or bizarre, or interesting. In a way, the Intruders album is a kind of reaction to that, because The Ghost of Hope is so narrative and factually based, they kinda thought well, let’s do something that’s more introspective and not factually based at all… as opposed to based on the physical world let’s make it based on the metaphysical world. And so the idea is more about, essentially, the kind of people or spirits or beings that we carry around inside of us, oftentimes unwanted. The most classic example that I give is like OK, you just had a romantic relationship and it broke up, and maybe you were the instigator of it. In the big picture you see it’s a good thing, but you can’t stop thinking about that other person. So ultimately that person becomes like an intruder in your mind: you can’t get rid of ‘em. Now like I say, that’s probably the most obvious example. Another thing would be like, if you’re walking down the street and you see an old lady panhandling and you pass by and look at her, and she looks up at you and she’s got this completely haunted look in her eye and you can’t shake it. For days you keep thinking about that weird old woman. So anyway, these are the kind of things that are the subject of the songs on Intruders.
How did they come up with the trainwreck stories for The Ghost of Hope?
The Residents found the majority of the pieces from a book, which was really like a Kindle download, and it was called Death by Train, and it was a bunch of newspaper articles.
“Sampling just opens up the entire world, really.”
Can you give a list of books that people can read that might be a good point of reference for the artistic background of The Residents?
I know The Residents have often referenced Kurt Vonnegut as someone who, shall we say, significantly contributed to their world view. I know one of his books, a book called Mother Night (which is not necessarily one of his better known books), was one that really sort of hit The Residents in the right place at the right time. Another writer would be Philip K. Dick. I know they were really into Philip K. Dick for a long time.
The Residents have a willingness to throw everything aside, try something different and new and take a step into the darkness.
Yeah, you know Bob Dylan said, “There’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all.” And I think in some ways that holds true for The Residents, [who] have never had any success from a commercial point of view. The good thing about that is they’ve never really created something that they felt a great need to have to imitate in order to recreate that success. You know, the only time that they really had management for a short period of time was with Lookout Management in L.A. Lookout Management is big time; they were doing Bob Dylan at that time, and Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell and Devo… ultimately they kinda watched a lot of things. They had some level of connection with Devo, and it’s like, Devo was taking a lot of chances until they did “Whip It.” It’s like “Whip It” was a hit and every song from then on sounded like “Whip It,” and they weren’t as successful. They quit taking risks, they quit taking chances.
How was it in The Residents early years when they were trying to self-produce, self-record, self-finance?
Well the best thing about it was that there was complete and total freedom. At that point, in the very early years, they were working straight jobs on the side so that they didn’t have to make any money from doing their music. They were completely free to do whatever they wanted to, and that was the upside of it. The down side was that they didn’t really have any record company that was throwing money at them. Their resources were limited but at the same time their resources were only limited by their creativity.
Were there financial hardships?
Yeah, there were times when finances were pretty tough. When The Cryptic Corporation formed, there were four of us, and one of the partners—the reason why The Cryptic Corporation was formed to begin with—was a guy named John Kennedy, [who] inherited an apartment building in Paris that was worth a million dollars in 1975 or ’76. And so the Corporation was formed in order to protect his assets… His goals and way of looking at the world was very business-like; and while he enjoyed The Residents and he enjoyed working with them for five or six years, ultimately he decided it wasn’t being lucrative enough for him and he left. And ultimately he had put a lot of his money that had really helped establish The Cryptic Corporation and The Residents as independent entities from those day jobs. And so when he left, the money kind of all dried up, and things were pretty tough there for several years.
“There’s no new jokes—only new audiences.”
How’d you guys get out of that?
By selling anything that we could… John was willing to put enough money into the Corporation and The Residents for several years, but there wasn’t a really highly disciplined business sense fueling the whole thing. And there was a different guy name Jay Clem; Jay was sort of the business manager really for Cryptic and Ralph Records. John was kind of the production guy, and things would happen like, Jay would really hate it when we ran out of stock, and he’d put a lot of pressure on John: “No, you have to keep ordering stuff so that we never run out of stock.” And after both John and Jay left, we discovered that there were 125,000 album covers in a warehouse in L.A., the point being that if you’re making album covers, you can make the first thousand for like $1500; then you can make the second thousand for another $200 or something. So ultimately things were being over-produced at that point, with the idea that it would ultimately sell and it was gonna save money and save the hassle of being out of stock and whatever. But it was overdone. And so ultimately we went on a binge; we would press records strictly, we’d press a record for like 50 cents so that we could sell it to a cut-out place for like a buck and a half or two bucks, in order to get money out of that stock that was just sitting around going to waste. And it took a couple of years of that sort of attitude of selling off stock cheaply just to keep paying the bills, until things ultimately turned around.
It sounds like you’re all still on good terms.
Yeah, we’re on decent terms. I don’t see him very often but there was a documentary film on The Residents two or three years ago called Theory of Obscurity, and I was the enabler on that film project for The Residents and Cryptic. The filmmaker, a guy named Don Hardy, he was interviewing everybody that he could to put the film together, and he wanted to interview John, Jay, Hardy, and me, so that put me back in touch with John for a while.
Is there anything you would like to announce to the wonderful world of New Orleans for The Residents show?
The only thing I want to say is that The Residents are honestly, no bullshit, thrilled to actually be playing in New Orleans. As Louisiana natives, most of them anyway, they’ve been to New Orleans many times over the years, had some great experiences there. They are completely familiar with New Orleans’ marvelous history of music and they’re happy to be part of it and actually be playing there.
Yeah, I think New Orleans is equally happy to see The Residents, and I’m hoping that they play some Professor Longhair or something…
Oh yeah! I’ll get em to work on that. Play some Fess.
The Residents will be performing at the Music Box Village on Monday, April 30. For more info, check out www.residents.com
top photo GREAT THE KABUKICHO
Transcription by MICHELLE PIERCE