MEET THE RESIDENTS? THOSE CRYPTIC GUYS AT THE CORPORATION
by Stephen Ronan with St. Jude
We may no longer condone exhibition of human oddities but the freaks still get stared at. The only difference is they no longer get paid for it.
Is our modern enlightened attitude actually an improvement on the old travelling freak shows? The Residents, whose interests lie purely in the Romantic re-creation of uneasy feelings of more innocent times, believe such questions are best left in the hands of sociologists and philosophers. So turn down your lights, put on your headphones and go to the "Freak Show"!
Voice of Resident: Life is a lot like a freak show, 'cause nobody laughs when they leave.
Here they were at last, the guys from the Cryptic Corp. They look like such human beings-a little shaggy, relaxed, they have the look of hard-core working artists. No goth-black pleaty crap. Their voices meander in the dry, tranquil rhythms of Louisiana-Hardy Fox the subtly-accented baritone, Homer Flynn the back-country bass. Both, ah, thrillingly familiar.
The guys from Cryptic thought they were invited for dinner. We didn't know this. Things turned strange immediately: the rest of the staff left, and two hot-eyed fans moved in on them with tape recorders. They dined only on strange brews-foreign ales, chosen at random by me, a non-drinker-and, ride-less, wholly at our mercy, were debriefed far into the night. The livingroom of the Mondo house, where they were put to the question, is an ideal indoor Torture Garden, family-style-Addams-family style: toad and spider bibelots, velvet retrostuff in dense shadow. The guys came through nicely. Many tales from the Cryptics. They are, of course, practicing surrealists. -St. Jude
IDEAS OF REFERENCE, AND OTHER ABERRATIONS
MONDO 2000: Can we talk about roots?
HOMER FLYNN (HF): In terms of the rules as the Residents put them to us, they don't really allow much roots kind of stuff.
HARDY FOX (HF2): The attitude is more that they are a group. That's what counts-anything before that doesn't matter.
M2: I was thinking the Residents were autochthonic, which means to be self-invented-not from any recognizable musical roots.
HF: They had 'em.
M2: They seem more inspired by radical art concepts than by the music of the 20th century.
HF: I'd say that's a fairly accurate statement.
M2: The Residents personify "pop simulacra," where the image presented is entirely manufactured-from the Archies right up to Milli Vanilli. Do the Residents see themselves as part of that continuum?
HF: They're very proud to be part of it.
HF2: If there were no Monkees there would be no Residents.
M2: When I mentioned roots to St.Jude, she came up with William Butler Yeats_
St.J: "Here I Come Constantinople" and "Sailing to Byzantium"-did the Residents have that in mind?
M2: Byzantium was the heaven where art was stylized and formal_
St.J: "Gather me/into the artifice of eternity."
HF: It does sound apropos. They're coming from the same place, but there is no direct reflection of the one in the other.
M2: "Here I Come Constantinople" says, "all my friends will be there," that sense of an immortal place or_
HF2: Yeah, I think Constantinople is sort of heaven.
M2: There's a definite spookiness to a lot of the Residents music.
HF2: The Residents' concept is that real life has a lot of different things to it, including those that are scary.
FEELING DISTINCTLY UNGROOVY
M2: "The Laughing Song" is not "Feelin' Groovy."
HF: There is a sardonic edge to that laughter.
HF2: But the lyrics are silly, a nursery rhyme.
St.J: The Residents are the Brothers Grimm of pop music.
HF: That's pretty accurate. Although, the Brothers Grimm didn't write the stories. They collected them-they were archivists.
St.J: The Residents' music has that Grimm feeling to it, as if you were sucking things up direct from that primordial_
HF: Once again: the Residents are not without influences. The reason they're not recognizable is that the Residents weren't capable of rendering them that faithfully.
HF2: I always tell people that the whole success of the Residents is based on the fact that they're tone deaf.
M2: Is there a "Residents sound"?
HF: The intention was very conscious, not to have a sound-to reinvent the sound with every new project. Any lack of success in doing that was that they weren't capable of reinventing it each time.
HF2: Although there is a sound in the sense that you can say something "sounds like the Residents"_ even though it would be very hard to pinpoint what the mechanics of that sound are.
HF: Yeah, it's definitely an ear-of-the-behearer kind of thing. I've had people point out things that they thought were influenced by-or exactly like-the Residents, and I thought they were nuts. Even if the Residents had supplied visuals to everything, a lot of it would have been as ambiguous as the lyrics.
I always enjoyed people who didn't read the Eskimo lyrics at all but created their own stories to go along with it. My ex-wife used to put speakers in the windows on Halloween and play Eskimo to the kids in the street: a very valid use, but nothing to do with the Eskimo stories.
AND NOW, DANGEROUS MUSIC_
M2: Heading back to the notion of artifice: the Residents came along in the early Seventies when there was a reaction to the artificiality of the psychedelic era-it was all "natural"- acoustic singer-songwriters. Then we met the Residents saying they were going to be as artificial as they want to be.
HF2: The Residents sprang more from the fact that Psychedelia dead-ended. The people who were doing experiments in that direction stopped when they had barely scratched the surface.
M2: There were stories about the Residents having a warehouse where the dangerous music types gathered to get acid-drenched. Any comment on LSD as influence?
HF: In their formative years they were drawn to this area because that's what was happening in the late Sixties. They had their share of those experiences-although, to my knowledge, they haven't had any drug experiences since the mid-Seventies.
M2: Would that mystery and enigma of the early Residents be attributable to the psychedelic experience?
HF: There were certain attitudes created that way-certain attitudes early on.
HF2: There were attitudes even before. There were concepts that show business itself is mythological. That if you were going to be in show business you should be in show business and be as colorful as possible.
M2: I was going to ask if the Residents considered themselves part of "The Biz"- I guess you couldn't deny it now.
HF: Yeah, the Residents is definitely Show Biz. No question about it.
HF2: Always was- in their heads, if not in reality.
M2: It was never more of an approach to conceptual art? On the American Composers sleeve, the Residents are described as "pseudo-artists working in music."
HF: I recently re-read that and I don't agree with it.
HF2: You go back over the years and re-read things, and it's like you've never even seen them before.
M2: And wish you hadn't.
HF2: No, not really. A lot of things are written just to be colorful.
THE MOTHERSHIP! THE MOTHERSHIP!
M2: My next question is, and I mean it in the most positive sense of the term, were the Residents an "art school band"?
HF: I think so, in fact-but_
HF2: _ but there was no school.
HF: Right. They were just doing what was interesting to them and they found art, and particularly avant-garde art, very interesting. They liked things that were weird and experimental. I don't know that any of them were that knowledgeable, that they studied anybody in particular.
HF2: It's more fun-based than anything: you can't really think about it_ you play with it.
HF: I know that musically Captain Beefheart was an early influence. It was obvious to them that he was taking John Coltrane and Howling Wolf and twisting them around in a wonderfully unique and interesting way.
M2: Captain Beefheart was almost the only direct musical influence on the Residents I came up with-especially "The Blimp"_
St,J: Yes, on Trout Mask Replica!
M2: _ which had the vocal in an envelope and dadaist lyrics.
HF2: There was no attempt to imitate his style, but the freedom_
HF: How he twisted those influences to come up with his own thing was very avant-garde in its approach. That process inspired the Residents.
HF2: And the lyrics, the strength of his lyrics-that was a definite influence.
THE RESIDENTS' GREATEST HITS
M2: An artist who seems to resonate with the Residents is Man Ray. He had a theory of obscurity-and he was able to list his ten best photographs, which reminded me of the bit on the American Composers' sleeve: "The most important things the Residents have done are 'Eskimo', 'Third Reich and Roll' and 'The Mole Trilogy'." I'm amazed when artists are so objective.
HF: It's hard to know how valid it is_ and I think that list would probably be updated at this point. I would add "God in Three Persons" and would give long and hard thought to both "Freak Show" and "Cube E". It's probably too close to make a valid judgement on those, but certainly "God in Three Persons."
M2: What was the origin of the Eskimo saga?
HF: With Eskimo the number one parameter was that the story had to be told in sounds, so those stories were written very collaboratively.
HF2: That album actually took four years to make. A lot of the problem was resolving it-how do you get those people out of there?
HF: They had painted themselves into a corner.
HF2: You can't just stop it and leave people freezing. You've got to bring people back home. So the last piece of the LP breaks down the entire concept which is all story telling by sound. It gradually starts to intellectualize and it slowly brings you back home.
M2: So you do feel there is a responsibility in publishing things?
HF2: The thing about making LP's-or about making magazines-you have to be aware that you are actually creating something. The world is full of stuff and it's not going to be very useful to many unless you attempt a sense of morality.
HF: There was never that sense, though, in regard to the Mole Show.
HF2: But that's different.
HF: The Mole Show totally jerks the rug out from under the audience. It never gives them any reality,
M2: It's a dystopia, a society that doesn't give you an out.
HF2: Just before "The Mark of the Mole" was being invented, some writer said, "Oh, the Residents, the Monty Python of rock, are back again." So our response was, "OK, the next album won't see a single smile, it's going to be one horror after another." And that's what The Mark of the Mole was.
MOLE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC
M2: The Mole opus is a tetralogy with one missing volume?
HF2: Three of the Mole Trilogy are out.
M2: But it goes to four?
HF2: One, two and four are out. Three, five and six are missing.
St.J.: Another on my list of influences was Friedrich Engels, because of the Mole Show. Would the Residents confess to any politics?
HF2: I'm sure they're there.
HF: They don't confess to any politics whatsoever. Early on they had their own specimen of a working communist-socialist-type system, where everybody worked and everybody contributed everything they had to the Mothership, so to speak, and drew from that.
St.J: A working communism rather than a theoretical communism,
HF: Exactly, no theory involved whatsoever.
HF2: And no rules either, everyone just did it.
HF: It worked until fate intervened-as it would have one way or another-and a situation threw it out of balance. They then did a pretty good job of recovering-sort of a modified capitalist/communist synthesis. They are 100% capitalist at this point-although, once again, there's no ideology involved.
HF2: There never was.
HF: Just practical ways of dealing with life.
HF2: To get to the next step.
HF: To get the next album out.
PUT A CHAIN AROUND MY NECK_
M2: As the Residents get more sophisticated they seem to deal with bigger emotions. The raw emotion of "Teddy Bear" for example.
HF: That was the intention with the Elvis material. There were a lot of emotions in that material that had never been fully explored. These underlying things were intriguing to go in and rework, to bring to the surface. Like "Teddy Bear"-Elvis did it as a light pop thing. It's fluff, but there's a whole undercurrent of S&M.
M2: Verging on cannibalistic menace.
HF: Absolutely. Take "Viva Las Vegas"- the Residents didn't make up the fact that it's about a loser whose whole life is dreaming about going to Vegas and hitting it big.
HF2: "Jailhouse Rock" really is about homosexuality.
M2: So the band began dealing with more accessible emotions.
HF: Maybe, in a way, they became more aware of their own emotions.
A GAFF IN THE SHOW
HF: The Freak Show started out to be about a circus, then it was a about a pony circus_
HF2: A roller-skating pony circus.
HF: It kept going until it was decided it would be a Freak Show and that felt right.
M2: How so?
HF2: It followed a year and a half of touring, and there was a certain feeling of being in a freak show when you are on the road. People come and stare at you. You start feeling like a pinhead, depersonalized and objectified. Then the quality begins to turn, and the audience are the freaks. The stage just draws the line. Who's watching who?
HF: Where are the real freaks?
M2: Did The Residents ever "pay dues"-you know, where the crowd is drunk and doesn't care who's onstage?
HF: They did-in Australia, in a poolhall in Kansas. They played a disco in Spain where only 10% of the audience knew who they were, or cared-and as soon as the Mole Show ended, it was BOOM-chuck BOOM-chuck disco, and the Residents couldn't get off the stage fast enough.
M2: Are you casting freaks for your next stage show?
HF: You know any?
HF2: We're not talking about your normal everyday freaks.
HF: No, in true freak-show fashion, only about three of them are really freaks-the rest are just gaffs.
M2: Like the classic freak show hermaphrodite who shaved the left side of his body and wore one falsie and "dressed to the right." The carnie word for a fake is "gaff."
M2: I've seen the computer-animated "Harry the Head'" video and I understand there is related media.
HF: Freak Show will have its own comic book. We have commitments from various artists- Brian Bolen, Charles Burns, Gary Panter, Kyle Baker, Mark Bayer, Savage Pencil. Each freak will have a different artist.
HF2: Then there's the Freak Show CD-ROM which we're collecting data for. That's out around Christmas as well. Animated, interactive-you wander around through the windows. It will be randomized so that when a window opens you never know what will pop out. We've got a lot of people working with us on this who tell us just to think about what we'd like to do, since the mappings are all done.
M2: I always thought of the Residents as inspired primitives when it came to slick tech.
HF: The truth is that was fine at the time but at some point_
St.J: I always thought the Residents were newest tech, newest technique.
HF2: Freak Show is digitally recorded on Mac software, real edgy stuff.
M2: Doesn't mean it has to sound like the Pet Shop Boys.
HF2: It's pretty slick, pretty slick. The real problem is to feel you have a responsibility to be any certain way whatsoever.
M2: [Dejected] We want our same old Residents! [Laughter]
HF2: you can have your old Residents-and now they're available on CD.
M2: Some think CD's are the nuke plants of audio.
HF2: I love CD's. I don't even care if they last. Just enjoy them while they're here.
M2: The Cryptic Corp. welcomes the fact that they'll have to be replaced in ten years.
HF2: That's no problem. We're ready for a new form at any time.
M2: So the theory of obscurity is over?
HF: You're the first interviewer to get it. You can't make much of an argument for it after you've been in Playboy and People.
M2: Obscurity lost is not found again.
M2: The Residents are really John and Yoko.
St.J: How big did the Residents get and how small did they get?
HF & HF2: There's four.
St.J: Same four.
HF2: Always four, always the same four. In the latest fan club mag, The Eyeball, the big question is, "Is there only one Resident?" Is it David Byrne or is it the whole band in Stop Making Sense? It's what they say it is: four Talking Heads. The Residents say there are four members.
HF: There're lots of pictures and always four in each one. I make those pictures, and I have always been extremely careful.
HF2: I'm glad we didn't decide on five-it would be much more work.
M2: Residents' work has a terrible beauty. They have to have been influenced by the Surrealists.
HF2: Being influenced by Surrealism is the same as being influenced by life. But you could say that Surrealism is an interest people who like the Residents have in common.
M2: The automatism with which the Residents create is a Surrealist concept-
HF: Automatism is the way they write, basically. They clear out their minds and just let them fill up with whatever comes in, in a semi-conscious way.
M2: A Surrealist poet once told me there is no Surrealism without the group. A definition of Surrealism is "the communism of genius."
HF2: Hmmm. We've all just had a reasonably surreal evening_
So we relented and drove them back across the bridge to San Francisco.