The first thing you need to know about The Residents is that the avant-garde act is not a band, but an art collective. At least, that’s what Hardy W. Fox, the head of The Cryptic Corporation told Pollstar during a recent conversation.
Confused? Welcome to the world of The Residents, which has entertained, amazed and sometimes even confounded audiences with performances that go beyond music for more than 40 years. With each member remaining anonymous, The Residents have carved out one of the most unique careers in entertainment.
The Residents are about to embark on the next leg of the collective’s “Talking Light Tour,” which started out 13 months ago as a concept featuring ghost stories but centered upon our TV culture, especially commercials. However, that was then. Now the tour is, well, you gotta read the interview to find out.
The “Talking Light” tour began 13 months ago. Do all Residents tours last as long?
No, it really varies. There haven’t been that many tours to begin with. I think, basically, maybe seven tours. Most of them were designed to run for a year. But some of them don’t last that long because there aren’t enough dates for it. Some go longer because there are dates for it. They sort of go until they’re played out. This one’s still going.
For the people that saw this tour the first time around – has anything changed for this new leg?
I’m not sure because rehearsals haven’t started. I don’t know if there are plans to add different material to mix things up. Some of the cities are new, some are not new. Some of the venues aren’t new. I know there will be differences. Every tour has been different and things change during the tour. I would think things will be different. I just don’t know what changes will take place. It’s a little more of a dynamic tour. It doesn’t have to be the same all the time.
At the beginning of the tour it was described as ghost stories seen through a TV perspective. Is that still the case?
It has changed a bit over time. So the answer is “yes” but “no.” At this point the show has taken a bit of a turn and become sort of old-age-and-death-oriented. The TV aspect has shrunk down to almost nothing at this point. Originally, that was going to be a big aspect of the show. But it’s really taken a different angle. The show is concerned with the universal experience of death. Not so much the negative aspects of death, but the overall aspects of death.
I would say now it’s less about ghosts even though ghosts get mentioned and talked about. The material itself tends to lend itself to just being creepy.
How have audiences reacted to this tour?
Fantastic. Generally, the tour has been very well received.
So the performance constantly evolves?
It’s constantly evolving. That’s why I was saying it’s a dynamic show. It’s not a locked-down show. Many of the Residents shows were written and [on past tours] were the same.
But this show was built to have surprises. The audience may not even realize that there are things changing, where everyone doesn’t know what is going to happen. Keeps them on their toes.
Usually it’s like musical changes where some section musically will go in an unexpected direction. There is room for improvisation on this tour.
How long can a project take from the initial conception to presenting it to audiences?
It really varies. For this show they started around May 2009 and they were on stage in January 2010. So less than a year in development. They were going out on a different tour with a different show when they started developing the idea for this show. The first piece of music for this show was released as a download in May 2009. So that references the starting point as a public hearing of a piece of it.
The idea at that time was it was going to be a Halloween show that would be performed in October. But they didn’t make it so they had to cancel that idea. As soon as they could get it on stage, having missed October, it was January. It wasn’t quite as fitting as a show about death and ghosts in January as it was in October. But at that time it had outgrown some of those original ideas.
But I was going to say, at this point when they have a project, and the concept of the project requires a band or a band’s way of thinking, then they form a band. But when I say they’re not a band, I mean they’re not a band in the general context of a band. But for the tour they’re a band.
It’s more about accepting a different way of thinking. Bands in general, you usually have someone who’s a guitarist or a drummer. They meet, form a band and bring in more musicians.
This is like people who have one idea meet someone else who has one idea and they form an idea conspiracy. Then other people come in with ideas and then it’s all a matter of the realization of the idea. That’s what counts.
They always said they got into music because it was easy. It’s a popular form for which it was easy to visualize a project. Anything else you try to do wasn’t as easy as music.
During the band’s years of anonymity, there have been suggestions made by the press regarding individual identities. For instance, at one point during the 80s, there were rumors in the press that one or more Residents had played in Santana? How did that rumor come about?
The rumor got started because The Residents had worked with a member of Santana. The rumors often have some grounding in truth and people jump to conclusions. And the thing is, The Residents reinforce that. Because their point of view is everyone who is working on the project is one of The Residents. The people involved change from project to project except for the core. When they’re on tour, even the bus driver is considered one of The Residents. Part of the collective that’s making it happen does not have different levels. It’s not like, “We’re the artists and what we’re doing is important. And you’re the sound person and what you’re doing is a different level of importance.” Everybody is all part of the rolling party.
I think the most outrageous things I’ve heard that are fictitious about The Residents is that media people sometimes get creative and make up interviews or stories about The Residents. I’ve read some great writings where people have gotten really imaginative about who each person is, what their role is. Which one is the drug addict? Which one is the beautiful woman? The cliches in the rock world, anyway.
It makes for some interesting reading and in some cases, The Residents have picked up pieces of that kind of stuff and included it in their imaginary history.
Sounds like there are moments when The Residents mirror their audiences.
Absolutely. From their point of view, they’re so much more about a mythological idea. They want to be bigger than what people really are. They want to be a bigger idea. They want to create something that uses a lot of fantasy and imagination in order to create the image of something that’s more than what a human being can be.
Is there any subject too off-the-wall or bizarre for The Residents to tackle?
Probably. I know some things have come up that would be nixed because there would be perhaps, negative reactions.
So no matter how wondrous or strange a presentation might be, is it safe to say there might have been something more bizarre that never made the show?
The Residents have based a lot of their history of being observers of American culture. The whole eyeball thing is like being removed a great distance and coldly watching American culture. There are some aspects of American culture that are really curious and unique that aren’t necessarily something to dwell on. Even getting into a show about death isn’t always well received. Some people consider it to be morbid. But they don’t consider everything people possibly could experience as morbid. Unfortunately, some of the things we all experience aren’t necessarily pleasant. But we can’t pretend they don’t happen. We can look at that as a negative experience or look at it as a human experience.
Throughout the years, have you seen The Residents’ influence on music, film or other art forms?
I certainly saw something a long time ago. I saw a video in Germany that basically went through three different sections. One section used imagery from The Residents. The costuming was three different costuming things The Residents had done.
I was in a club in Belgium once, and all of a sudden an obvious Residents’ song came on that was redone as a disco song. So I went up to talk to the DJ to find out what he was playing. It was a song – a 12-inch – that was listed under a different title with a different writer. Not only was it exactly the same melody, but it was the same arrangement. It made all the same changes. It was a total rip-off.
Did you pursue it legally?
I did pursue it. At the time Warner Bros. was handling our publishing. I bought a box of the records and sent copies to Warners saying it was infringing on our copyright. Their point of view was that it was too expensive to pursue. There was no money to get out of it even if we won.
Are The Residents approached for licensing, say for TV shows or movies?
No. It’s not that we’re opposed to it, but Residents music usually attracts too much attention. Some time ago, someone at The Discovery Channel had this idea to do a ten-show series that would be really unique and would have no narration. It would strictly be visual images.
What they wanted was The Residents to score it and then Leonard Cohen would read poetry over it. Cohen wasn’t interested in doing it but we were, so we signed on to the project. It had something about death in the title and it was going to be all about things eating other things, gradually leading up to people. We thought it was going to be brilliant, this chain of predatory behavior in animals.
But Cohen didn’t do it and they got someone else for the poetry. Then the Discovery Channel didn’t want anything with death in the title. They had to change the title. Then the Discovery Channel didn’t want to have poetry. They wanted traditional narration. You can see where I’m going, that step by step the whole thing became more of a traditional nature series which was called “Hunters” at this point. It did air and The Residents did all ten shows. It did turn out to be more traditional and wasn’t about animals eating animals.
Sounds like the core idea of the project never made it into the finished work.
No, but it’s a good example of how an interesting idea can get started and then get eaten away somewhat by our culture’s unwillingness to deal with some of the aspects of death or eating or abstract imagery in music. I think it would have been brilliant.\
Cracker released a song a few years ago (“Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself”) that mentions a person being accused of stealing one of The Residents’ prop eyeballs from backstage after a show. Is this a constant problem? That is, do people tend to swipe props from the show for their own souvenir collections?
That’s the only time anything of that level was taken. That [the eyeball] was taken from a dressing room, but it was returned and whoever took it felt very guilty about it. It was a big deal at the time. The Residents were on a tour and using four eyeballs. If one goes missing, you have three people with eyeballs and one without. Those eyeballs were all custom jobs from a production house in Hollywood.
What did happen in that situation is that the Residents, being very good at adapting, realized they had this large fiberglass skull. They painted it black and one person started wearing it, becoming known as “Dead-Eye Dick.”
Dead-Eye Dick represented the loss of innocence of The Residents because his eyeball was stolen. Literally the skull had no eyes. There was no way of seeing out of it. So that person had to be led around like a blind person. We, of course, sold memorial armbands in the lobby.
The eyeball was returned, but by that time the Black Skull had become ingrained in Residents mythology. If you look at photos over a longer period, The Residents went from being four eyeballs to being three eyeballs and a skull.
What’s next for The Residents?
The next thing is our 40th anniversary in 2012.
Is there something already being worked up for that?
Only conceptually because they’re still on the “Talking Light Tour.” But I’m sure there will be some live shows. I don’t know if they even know at this point. But I’ve heard rumors…
The next leg of The Residents’ “Talking Light Tour” begins in Mexico City at Lunario March 15, appears in Portland, Ore., at the Wonder Ballroom March 17 and plays Seattle’s Neumos March 18. Other cities on the leg include Vancouver (March 19), Minneapolis (March 25), Chicago (March 26), Toronto (March 28), New York (March 31), Austin (April 6), Los Angeles (April 9) and San Francisco (April 15-16). For more information, click here for The Residents website.