Continuing to archive items from the old Happy Homeland site.
By Steven Cerio
The unblinking eyes of THE RESIDENTS stand as a constant reminder of the infinite possibilities of invention and transcendence in the face of numbing boom boom crash crash dance beat aggression. They stand in tuxedos and bow ties against obligatory fuzz boxes, planned apathy, and cooler-than-thou affectations. They are faceless, genderless and devoid of individual personalities: a brick pitched into the face of mass marketing. They are a collective of unknown human quantities shuttling along the cutting edge for a quarter of a century – and they are sharing that twenty-fifth anniversary this year with Disney World.
These winkless wonders have created their own aesthetic with any and all of the newest technological advances in sound and recording. Even with the slew of synthesized voices and oddly registered sounds, which have become The Residents’ trademark, they have somehow managed to create an organic, analog feel to their painfully futuristic instrumentation. Their compositions have overtones of exactness counteracted by a sense of disintegration. This is a phenomenon felt in the music’s of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, Pere Ubu, Sun Ra and John Coltrane – in short, the innovators who helped create a new psychedelic, technical savantism, and an inborn need to reinvent the wheel.
HOMER FLYNN is the official spokesperson for the Cryptic Corporation, a management company that handles The Residents’ business affairs. Flynn also founded Porno Graphix to oversee graphic needs of The Residents and their Ralph Records label mates. With the consent of the group, Flynn and a fleet of artists went on to create the seemingly largest and oddest series of packaging concepts and knickknacks in the history of musical propaganda. Aside from the expected t-shirts and buttons (of which they produced countless varieties), these kings of collectibles produced a plethora of LP covers that change with each new pressing, scarves, UWEB (Uncle Willie’s Eyeball Buddies) newsletters and white singles with iris-inscribed labels set inside clear plastic dust sleeves silk-screened with swollen red veins. When not hard at work redesigning the ever-fluctuating Ralph logo, the team set out to find the newest art technologies. They utilized the clumsy computer graphic programs available to them in the Seventies, creating the covers for the Composer Series albums with wonderfully clumsy bit maps, using the “Pong”-like technologies to full effect. Mockingly futuristic patterning prevails in most of their designs, creating deceitful stability for the over-layered images. Covers like those of Mark Of The Mole, The Tunes Of Two Cities, Not Available and Residue Of The Residents testify to the scribbling prowess of the Porno Graphix founders – images vary from the slickly airbrushed to the possibly Flair-penned. Each newly concocted image and design presents a fresh variation marked with playfulness and the bold refusal of repetition and other symptoms of stagnation. Even the name “Porno Graphix” undergoes a constant metamorphosis, alternating between Pour No Graphics, Pore-No Graphics, Pore-know Graphics, and Poorknow Graphics. Additionally, Flynn and Fox have utilized other graphic technicians including photo wizard Henrik Kam, Gary Panter, the forlorn Mark Beyer, Savage Pencil, Richard Sala, Jonathan Rosen and yours truly.
There are very few facts known about The Residents. By choice they have remained warm and snuggled in anonymity since the dawn of their existence, using their ego-less freedom rampantly and flauntingly. The one proven fact is that The Residents have worked obsessively for the last twenty-five years creating records, CDs, films and CD-ROMs. Somewhere in the dawn of the Seventies The Residents had the unmitigated audacity to write and record music with almost no licks, chops, or even practice to speak of. There are rumored to be early tapes with titles like “The Warner Brothers album,” “Baby Sex,” and “The Ballad Of Stuffed Trigger” but The Residents do not acknowledge their existence. They remain unreleased and, according to Residents Fan Club president, biographer and touring pal Uncle Willie, unheard as well. The multitudes of purported bootlegs of this session are fakes.
The recording of Santa Dog is more a matter of record than of superstition. It was released in 1972 as a free gift to possible fans and cronies, a move Uncle Willie termed “a Christmas card to the music world of their coming invasion.” They would later follow it up with updated versions in 1978, 1988 and 1992. They spent the next four years filming Vileness Fats, a video shot on reel-to-reel long before the first VHS recorder was made available to the public. (The film was not released till1984.) Vileness Fats is a convoluted narrative about the citizens of the town of Vileness Fats, a community united in the fear of the atomic-powered shopping carts. All of this fine publication could be easily filled with a discussion of the video’s tainted intentions and buckled symbolisms.
Their next release was the famed Meet The Residents. It hit the stands in 1974, enshrouded in a morbidly silly defacement of the cover image found on the Fab Four’s debut release. Meet The Residents also marked the birth of Ralph Records and its offshoot Cryptic Corporation. Ralph would eventually be home to such seminal acts as Yello, Renaldo And The Loaf, MX.80 Sound, Fred Frith and the immortal genius of Snakefinger. Ralph exists today primarily as a clearing house for Residents collectibles new and old.
The sophomore album Not Available was recorded amidst the Vileness Fats shooting schedule of 1975 but wasn’t released until 1978. 1976 gave birth to the aural irritations of The Residents Present The Third Reich ‘n Roll, its cover bestowed with Nazi imagery and a Hitleresque Dick Clark. It included retardations of songs from the dawn of the electric guitar.
The same tour, another loss was suffered by The Residents – their very close friend and fifth Resident, Snakefinger, had passed away while on tour with his own band in Austria. Snakefinger, a.k.a. Philip Lithman, was an overtly adventurous guitarist who was able to sway back and forth between personas. He easily tackled Frank Zappa’s “King Kong” with The Residents, yet could dissolve into atonal dissonance when called for. His influence can still be heard in the work of any guitarist worth his weight in used toilet tissue.
As the Eighties rocked and rolled to a close The King and Eye was set upon the public. Its stage show: a former Elvis impersonator Granddad holds “Shorty” and “Shirley,” his wooden grandchildren, on his knees while speaking lovingly of the birth and demise of The King. These actions are set against a backdrop of Elvis covers done in purely Residential style. They do steer away from the obligatory Elvis gags, preferring to treat their subject with eloquence – which made it all the spookier. 1990 brought us Cube-E: Live In Holland, “The History Of American Music In 3 E-Z Pieces.” included music of the Plains, subtitled “Buckaroo Blues,” the birth of Gospel as “Black Barry”, and the dawn of the Elvis era as “The Baby King.” They ended the retrospective in 1950, the point where The Residents as well as many historians believe marks the end of genuinely American music. The stage show demanded attention – at times, there was a dark stage lit only with the false Christmas bulb-eyes of dancers; at other times a cube creature rises from the stage growing to mammoth proportions, its arms outstretched like a savior to the ticket-holding worshippers.
Freak Show was released the following year by OP. Its counterparts included the now classic Freak Show CD-ROM, as well as a graphic novel released by Dark Horse that included the wayward talents of Savage Pencil, Charles Burns, Richard Sala and the ever-present Pore.
Thereafter the giant media cyclops carried them away in its hairy arms and labeled them the darlings of New Wave. During that era they released Fingerprince and Baby Fingers and bestowed the cult classic “Walter Westinghouse.” These albums demonstrated The Residents’ love of minimalism, an affair that has continued to the present day. For example, Side B is a 17:48 song, “Six Things To A Cycle,” expounding upon a morse code-like ditty that haunts each minute in a terminal state of transformation. It provided yet another theme that surfaced continually throughout their history.
1978’s Duck Stab / Buster And Glen was a crowning surrealist achievement blending the psychedelic and the childish (odd couplets scrambling majestically above disorienting keyboard passages, narratives revealed with sinister-yet-Dr. Seuss-like intent). For the first time catchy riffs emerged amongst seemingly sarcastic arrangements. “Constantinople” and “Hello Skinny,” two late night radio faves, appear here in their unfailing glory.
The Eskimo LP emerged in 1979, paving the way for ambient musics to come. At first listen it seemed to contain no understandable languages. After repeated listening, catch phrases like “please don’t squeeze the Charmin” emerge, adding extra flakiness to the blizzard of sounds. Many of the lyrics were improvisations on Innuit themes such as walrus hunting, birth rituals and avenging spirits. This album’s disco counterpart was released in 1988 as Diskomo, a must for Eskimo addicts.
The release of The Residents Commercial Album in 1980 ended The Residents’ stint as New Wave darlings. It was a collection of TV-commercial-length songs strewn one after another that the press didn’t groove on (but the fans sure did). Its forty songs included imported performance s by Snakefinger (by now an honorary member), Fred Frith and percussion great Chris Cutler (Pere Ubu, Henry Cow). Uncredited performances include Lene Lovich and gun-shy XTC frontman Andy Partridge. This project also inspired the ocular ones to pursue optical accompaniment to their sounds. Those videos as well as other works completed for Third Reich ‘n Roll and Duck Stab were added to the permanent collection of the Museum Of Modern Art.
Mark Of The Mole marks the waterline where the turbulent New Wave sea retreated back into a muddy hole. It was the first installment in a series that also included Tunes Of Two Cities, Intermission and The Big Bubble. This series invoked their darkest era. Begrudgingly slow tempos, drawn-out, depressive vocals creeping between long keyboard strains embodied a period complex in its economy and surprising maturity. The series also spotlighted the Residentially-invented Mohelmot language of Zinkenites, the forlorn prisoners of their dark world. The Mark Of The Mole tour, with its extreme set design worthy of a major Broadway production, sparked a film by the same name, which was a staple of the USA Network’s Night Flight throughout the early Eighties. The American Composers series began in 1984, with odd pairs teamed for each of the two releases. The first, George And James, saw the odd marriage of George Gershwin and James Brown. The second saw the unholy partnership of Hank Williams and John Philip Sousa, entitled Stars & Hank Forever.
Residents live albums like The Residents Mole Show (1983), 13th Anniversary Show Live In Japan! (1986), PAL TV (1985), Assorted Secrets (1984), The Mole Show Live In Holland (1987) and The 13th Anniversary Show Live In The USA (1986) displayed the eyeballians and Snakefinger out of the comfort of the studio, on the proving grounds where only previously ticket-buying fans had tread. At a 1986 show in Los Angeles they lost one of their heads, or one of their eyeballs, as it were. It was eventually returned after the elaborate theft but not before The Residents decided to replace it with a skull head. “Dead Eye Dick” was the moniker given to this sightless Resident who was assisted on and off stage by his sighted brethren. During permanent waves with a pale tattooed arm, the glint of a sterling silver skull ring shining like a lighthouse beacon through the fake fog. Yet they remained unseduced and yes, a bit queasy, and they decided to mutate, in the process exacting a new science. Now their immense pupils soak up the ambient light, fiendishly large retinas opening only to slide shut like barn doors trapping the woozy hallucinations that have become synonymous with The Residents.
SECONDS: First of all, what is your relationship to The Residents?
FLVNN: Well, I’ve done a lot of The Residents’ album covers and graphics. As things have continued, my biggest responsibility is more in terms of management. I do a lot of public relations stuff and a lot of contracts – yucky business things.
SECONDS: The Residents have always seemed genre-less. Do they consider themselves part of any movement?
FLVNN: Not really. They were swept along with the Punk/New Wave of the late Seventies/early Eighties but they never considered themselves to be Punk or New Wave. That was a point in time when people were more open to new ideas and from that standpoint, The Residents did fit in. We’ve always felt The Residents were more marketable when seen as the fringe of the Rock audience.
SECONDS: I’ve always thought of them as being the truest Psychedelic band. Did they set out to be Psychedelic?
FLVNN: In a way, yeah. All of those bands – San Francisco Psychedelic-era bands – eventually found their formula. They were experimental and then about 1970, 1971 most of them found a formula that sold and they stuck to it. Even Jefferson Airplane going into Jefferson Starship didn’t change that much, it just got more bland. I don’t think The Grateful Dead were that different three years ago from how they were twenty years ago. The Residents felt the ideas of the Psychedelic era could stand to be No Graphics.
The CD-ROM is masterful, the first of the Rock, personality cult varieties. Freak Show utilizes the expertise of animator/illustrator Jim Ludtke, who animated and designed the release along with the watchful eyes and the Porno boys. Its macabre theme probed the private lives of imagined performers like Wanda The Worm Woman and Herman The Human Mole. It was purely sinister 3-D animation supported by an equally creepy yet mournful soundtrack whose lyrics were a straight narrative with undertones of the cryptic (instead of the inverse mixture we’ve come to expect from the unblinking ones).
Gingerbread Man was the CD-ROM follow-up to Freak Show. Released in 1994, Gingerbread Man had that trademarked forlorn quality, investigating the woes and beaten-down dreams of sold-out artists, transsexuals, old soldiers and aging musicians. That CD-ROM was a form of what The Residents call “Album Length Interactive Music Video.”
Bad Day At The Midway, the next CD-ROM release, returned to the classic interactive format loved by game users and film aficionados alike. It had a Fifties retro midway theme, complete with dark alleys and fiendish ticket ladies. You wandered through the dank park in search of fun and mischief. Your visual perspective is matched to that of a young boy, “Timmy,” whose body you’ve inhabited quite innocently. Animated and designed once again by Jim Ludtke, the CD-ROM included guest animations by Peter Kuper, Jonathan Rosen and yours truly. Word has it that a big production company run by a famed surrealist film director is speaking to the optical spheroids about further possibilities for the piece.
I Murdered Mommy, a new CD-ROM, was in development for 1998 but has since been canceled. It surely would have included yet another obsessively engineered soundtrack, a task The Residents have always lept into top hat first. Their first soundtrack (for their own film), Whatever Happened To Vileness Fats? had first seen light in 1984, their score to The Census Taker in 1985. Hunters: The World Of Predators And Prey (Milan) was created for the Discovery Channel in 1995. They also scored the Pee-wee Herman show Pee-wee’s Playhouse five times (the “dentist” show is still a cult fave amongst Residents fans in the know). Until its demise in 1993, fans of the aqueous humorists had a friend in UWEB, their official fan club. Uncle Willie dealt out news and answered mail as well as dispensing myths and citing new ones. Dedicated to their very dedicated fanbase, The Residents released UWEB CDs, available for years only through the club. Some of these releases included a recording of an informal musical wake for Snakefinger entitled Snakeywake. There was also Our Finest Flowers, probably the most satiating hard-core fan classic ever created. With fans in mind, The Residents re-created Our Finest Flowers from stripped-down skeletons of various recorded points of their past. Other UWEB classics such as Stranger Than Supper, Liver Music, and Buckaroo Blues are no longer available.
Since their birth, The Residents have always been the kings of the collectible single. Some of their classic B-sides like “Safety Is A Cootie Wootie,” “Loser Is = To Weed,” and “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” stand as monoliths to The Residents’ success not only because of the novelty factors but because they didn’t treat any B-side like an expendable track. You can’t find a throwaway in their twenty-five-year history. When the quality control is that genuine, so is the music.
The work of The Residents is an untapped world of something new where open-faced inspiration replaces rehearsed apathy and the wheel gets a chance to be reinvented. Playtime sounds are mixed with coagulations of Acid and sugar highs. New sounds abound, masking cryptic clues to the deciphering of a psychedelic legacy that reveals itself layer after layer with appealing absurdity and unfettered intelligence.
Their anonymity and disguise appears as shtick upon first glance yet reveals itself to be a fully functional shield against the death rays of ego-laden complacency and stagnation. They have fenced in the cash cow of Pop only to leech its milk and flesh for sustenance for themselves and their fans. The Residents saw the specter of Rock & Roll standing under the garish lights, hairspraying its long
SECONDS: The Residents have always done a lot of cover tunes.
FLYNN: One of the things they always enjoyed doing was reinterpreting other works. That’s the side of their creativity that has… not so much fallen by the wayside, because I expect it to come back at a certain point, but they haven’t done as much of that in recent years – the last thing being the Elvis album. They really like music to reinterpret other people’s stuff is a thrill for them.
SECONDS: There’s a heavy sarcastic edge to those interpretations. ls that intentional?
FLYNN: From their point of view, most of the stuff they interpreted they liked or they wouldn’t have bothered to do it. While there’s always a sense of dark humor, there’s an underlying sense of respect and tribute.
SECONDS: The way they play is in some ways very minimalist but at the same time very detailed and thick sounding. Someone said to me that Duck Stab was the smallest-sounding record they ever heard. It wasn’t powerful; there were no power chords – it was small-sounding.
FLYNN: A lot of that comes from the fact that they didn’t play. They wouldn’t know what a power chord was. Generally, they play one or two notes at a time and build things through overdubs. That’s how they would get that thickness, by adding more and more parts, but the parts were never very hard, which is the source of the minimalism. They wouldn’t spend tons of time trying to work a melody out in twenty different variations. They’d have an idea, get it down, and move on.
SECONDS: Early on, what equipment were they using?
FLYNN: They started out mostly acoustic with some kind of electric keyboard and maybe an electric bass, but not much more. They had drums, saxophones, a trumpet, clarinets – none of which they played very well. They had instruments from thrift stores and pawnshops. Initially, they could get a huge variety of sounds by banging on pots and pans to go along with the instruments they had. Over the years, they started getting into synthesizers, which offered a huge variety of sounds in one instrument. Then they got more sophisticated and sampling comes along. They absolutely love sampling because they can take highly-processed sounds and play them. That’s what made it possible for them to feel like they could do a live performance and be faithful to their sound, because they could never play it otherwise. After that, they got involved in MIDI, which was liberating again, because it took the real-time aspect out of it. Now, they could not only manipulate sounds, they could manipulate time. They had done that by speeding up and slowing down tape, and here was a way to almost magically manipulate the time. Ultimately, things have gotten to where they now have a fully digital studio. The amount of flexibility they have at their fingertips is stunning. It allows them to manipulate sound more fully than they ever have before.
SECONDS: Do they prefer digital over analog for any reason other than that it makes manipulation easier?
FLYNN: It’s purely convenience. They could never afford progressed further, rather than left where they were.
SECONDS: What advantages did they have by owning their own label?
FLYNN: The advantage was they could do whatever they wanted to without having any pressure to compromise or conform to whatever the trend of the day might be. The trade-off was the distribution was always terrible. If you’re with a big company, they give you more money and expect you to kow-tow towards what they want, unless you’re at a high level. You get the distribution and promotion and pay the price with control of your products.
SECONDS: What is the state of Ralph Records right now?
FLYNN: Ralph right now is exclusively for Residents merchandise. It’s a service for the fans. It makes a little money, but not a huge amount. It exists as a way to get purist level Residents stuff to people without having to be filtered through anything else. Ralph doesn’t manufacture much stuff anymore; it’s more a clearinghouse for all the different things that are manufactured at other points all over the world. Anywhere they can find Residents merchandise, they buy it and sell it to the fans.
SECONDS: Has it been hard for The Residents to find appropriate touring partners?
FLYNN: First off, The Residents aren’t really a band and they never have been. They’re a group of people who create work. People think of a band and think of several people who get together and work on a song, and then go into a recording studio and lay down the basic tracks and build from that. The Residents approach couldn’t have been more opposite. Traditionally, they’re non-musicians. Before they started doing The Residents, they had never played. By teaching themselves, they felt it was a good path towards originality. You asked before if The Residents were part of any genre. If anything, they like to create their own reality. They build a world and then inhabit that world to see what to create a live concert with another band opening for them works against that idea. If you look at the Third Reich ‘n Roll video, there’s a little world that they created and it’s very complete in and of itself. The fullest expression of this idea musically was Eskimo. It had some links to the real world but it was a fantasy created by The Residents. When you get in there and give yourself up to it, it becomes very whole. This same idea they’re bringing into CD-ROMs. It’s The Residents world you become fully immersed in, with complex stories visually fleshed out.
SECONDS: Did they have an easier time, when they started than they would if t~ the Nineties?
FLYNN: If they were starting now, it might be difficult. They’ve never been trendy relative to the music business but they are established enough so that its easier now to connect with the people. The people The Residents appeal to are always going to be there. It’s mainly a matter of finding them.
SECONDS: What is your average Residents fan like? Are they different from a Rock & Rol! fan?
FLYNN: The average Residents fan is generally more alienated. For the most part, all the stuff that comes out of the big media machine doesn’t work for them that well. The Residents are the voice of alienation and they say, “It’s okay.” They connect with the nerds and alienated people in every community.
SECONDS: What do they think about the present state of Pop music?
FLYNN: They have a difficult time finding current stuff to get interested in. They’re musically curious and looking for new things but they’re less and less finding it in the Pop world. It’s hard to tell how much of that is just a product of getting older. Pop Music is generally made for younger people. On the other hand, so much of it they feel like they’ve already heard before. It just gets regurgitated and reworked. One of my favorite expressions is “There’s no new jokes, only new audiences.” I have a sixteen-year-old daughter and she was into Nirvana and more recently Nine Inch Nails. I don’t want to invalidate that, but it’s more valid for the audience it’s created for. Musically, it’s exactly what was happening twenty years ago. The differences are in the subtleties.
SECONDS: Is there anything new The Residents are interested in?
FLYNN: The things I think they listen to the most are World Music. One of them’s gotten into Indonesian Music. They listen to European soundtracks, Forties and Fifties Big Band and Country Swing – stuff they find still has a lot of energy.
SECONDS: What do they think of the new Residents tribute album?
FLYNN: They’re quite flattered by it. In a lot al ways, The Residents isolate themselves from their audience. It’s always been part of their aesthetic. When they’re creating they enjoying feeling like they’re doing what they want strictly for them. To then have someone put out a tribute album like that is kind of shocking to them. Like, “People pay that much attention to us? Why would anyone do this?” The Residents don’t take themselves that seriously so they have a hard time understanding why anyone else would.
SECONDS: If I’m right, they’re also the first to record an album solely with musical children’s toys.
FLYNN: As far as I know, yeah.
SECONDS: Then you move on to the first group to do a home video, Vileness Fats.
FLYNN: Vileness was designed to be the first video feature and unfortunately it wasn’t completed.
SECONDS: Did they take a cue to do that from 200 Motels?
FLYNN: They saw video was a big thing coming. They were no more filmmakers than they were musicians and what they really liked about video was it gave them instant feedback.
SECONDS: The way they blend music with images achieves an equilibrium
FLYNN: There’s a whole phase of their career doing soundtracks that’s yet to unfold. I think they really know how to compliment images.
SECONDS: Is Video Voodoo on permanent exhibition somewhere?
FLYNN: There are a couple of pieces of Video Voodoo in the collection of The Museum Of Modern Art, I think Third Reich ‘n Roll and the one-minute movies.
SECONDS: Have all the one-minute movies been released?
FLYNN: There hasn’t been a new compilation put together in awhile. There’s a lot of music videos in the CD-ROMs but a lot of them are too low-res to be viewed on TV. Something like the “Jelly Jack” song from Freak Show was done as a full music video and that will eventually make it onto a compilation. The best collection is the laser disc that Voyager has out now.
SECONDS: They always seemed ready to cross the line from musical performance into theater. Who designed the whole Mole show set?
FLYNN: That was me, really.
SECONDS: So you are Pornographix. Were you always an in-house entity for The Residents?
FLYNN: Yes. I’ve done a few things here and there outside but I work pretty much exclusively with The Residents.
SECONDS: There’s so many t-shirts, picture disks, books, toys and what not …
FLYNN: There’s always been an interest in creating cool things. The first Residents release was Santa Dog, a two record set of 45s with silk-screened covers. It’s part of The Residents’ ongoing war with Pop Culture in that they like things to be more individualized and have a sense of being done by a human being, whereas the culture likes everything to be uniform and homogenized.
SECONDS: Didn’t you tell me you dreamt up the white single?
FLYNN: One of The Residents had a dream that this was going to be their hit single and they saw it in the dream as a white single with this silk-screen on the clear package.
SECONDS: When you started designing for them, Hipgnosis was doing some interesting covers. How did you feel about them?
FLYNN: I think they’ve done some nice stuff. At the time they certainly were the ones creating the more eye catching covers. As far as what I do, I’m pretty much selftaught and operate more based on my limitations than anything else. It can be difficult to copy somebody if you don’t have lots of chops and skills. My design work has operated more based on what I felt good about than on what I was influenced by. There’s people I like – Picasso, Escher – but I could never do it.
SECONDS: Do you have to run ideas past them, or do they come up with ideas?
FLYNN: It goes both ways. For the most part it’s their stuff but we work on things until everybody’s in agreement with an idea.
SECONDS: They seem very willing to do the photo shoots
FLYNN: More or less. I couldn’t say there aren’t , occasionally a few stand-ins inside some of those eyeballs.
SECONDS: Have they ever sampled anyone’s work or been sampled themselves? .
FLYNN: They’ve sampled everybody. [Laughs] If you listen to Meet The Residents, they sample the song “Nobody But Me” by The Human Beinz. Halfway through the first side, you actually hear a needle being set down on a record. They rigged up this thing with a coathanger so that the record would stop at a certain groove and skip back, like “Nobody does – nobody does – nobody does,” and they used it as a rhythm track.
SECONDS: A primitive loop.
FLYNN: Exactly. If you listen to their version of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” on Third Reich ‘n Roll, that’s actually James Brown’s horn section. What they did on that was lay down his original song as a template and played along with it. They did that a lot on Third Reich ‘n Roll. I could list examples for the next hour, but yeah, they’ve sampled.
SECONDS: Was the composers series created differently than that?
FLYNN: The James Brown side of George And James was done that same way. What they did is take James Brown Live At The Apollo, edit it down to twenty minutes, play along with it, and then take the James Brown part out. I think that’s the only side of American Composers done that way.
SECONDS: Have they always engineered and produced their own work?
FLYNN: They’ve had some engineers at times. The Elvis album, The King & I, was recorded at a local studio here, Different Fur, because it came out on Enigma and they had a little extra money to spend. Then, Freak Show and Finest Flowers were both recorded by Tony Janssen, who was The Residents soundman when they toured last time.
SECONDS: The Residents used to work with Snakefinger. Now that he’s passed away, has their work process changed at all?
FLYNN: Not that much. Snakefinger wouldn’t really be a part of their process. They would have semi-completed things and ask him if he’d want to lay down some tracks on them. The structure was already sketched out at that point. The interesting thing with Snakefinger was that at the point he died they were at the high point of their collaboration. They had just recently done their 13th Anniversary Tour and that was the thing he was the most heavily involved in. They got a call from these people in Japan, Wave, wanting to know if The Residents would come and perform. Originally, they wanted the Mole show but it was dead and buried, but they said they could put another show together and they did so in two weeks and took it to Japan. It was successful enough that they toured with it. Snakefinger was with them as they created music for that tour.
SECONDS: He came from a completely different background. How did they hook up with him?.
FLYNN: The Crosby, Stills & Nash / Eagles Folk Rock sound was such a dominant trend that that’s what Snakefinger was doing with the people he was recording with in England. That’s just what he was doing to have a career, but his interests were much broader than that. He was way into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
SECONDS: There’s that beautiful version of “King Kong” The Residents did with him.
FLYNN: That was his influence. When he would get with The Residents, he would break away from the stuff he was doing as a commercial musician.
SECONDS: Why do you think the history books overlooked him?
FLYNN: Because he never stuck with one thing long enough to develop a hard-core style and on top of that, he never got major distribution. He wasn’t exposed that much. The people who build careers are the ones who do one thing over and over again. Why is Jerry Garcia so loved? He’s fine, but there’s nothing distinctive about him to me. How many people do you know that are able to maintain vital careers over a long period of time? Bob Dylan’s line is “There’s no success like failure” and The Residents are the ultimate failures from the point of view of what makes Western Pop work. In other words, you have to find your formula and do it over and over again until you burn it into people’s minds, but The Residents have always been moving on to something new. That’s the wrong way to build a successful career in the Pop market. But if you look at their career, you’ll see it as vital and lively. Anytime artists find their formula that sells, they’re on the path to creative bankruptcy. If The Residents had ever had an album that sold a million, they’d have the temptation to do another one of those, but it’s never been the case.
SECONDS: There was never any sense that they were concerned about sales.
FLYNN: I agree. That’s the appeal for people that aren’t even into the music, They’re into what The Residents stand for. For along time, people considered them a joke band. People don’t understand how you can use humor in music and not be Spike Jones. People think if you’re using humor then it must be a joke and that couldn’t be further from the truth with The Residents, as it obviously wasn’t true with Frank Zappa. You can set up your seriousness with humor and vice versa. They’ve never had the view that things should be one-dimensional from an emotional standpoint.
SECONDS: Were they ever trying to create sincere beauty?
FLYNN: We’re talking eye-of-the-beholder here. Some things other people find ugly they may find beautiful. There’s definitely things where they have harmonies clashing that they find beautiful. For them, it’s more the process of expression rather than trying to create beauty, ugliness, sarcasm or anything else.
SECONDS: They’ve always been the first to exploit new technologies. They probably did the first record recorded on a home four-track, right?
FLYNN: All these technologies existed, they just existed on a high level. The Residents were the first ones to adapt these things when they hit a consumer level. They’ve always liked having new toys. New technology stimulates them in new directions and makes them think in ways they haven’t necessarily thought in before.
SECONDS: It’s impossible to discuss The Residents without hitting on their perpetual anonymity. What are the latest rumors about their identities? I’ve heard Mark Mothersbaugh and Les Claypool
FLYNN: It was published in a big Australian paper years ago that they were The Beatles.
SECONDS: I heard a rumor that Captain Beefheart was upset that The Residents lifted his ideas.
FLYNN: I don’t really know how true that is. There was a Captain Beefheart interview where he said about how his stuff was totally original to which The Residents reply was “Oh, he must have not have ever listened to Howlin’ Wolf then.”
SECONDS: Does the eyeball have special meaning for them?
FLYNN: They feel what they do is take the world in and regurgitate it back out again. It’s their symbol of looking back at the world.
SECONDS: Let’s deal with some more rumors. One rumor is Mr. Skull exists because Speed freaks stole one of the eyeballs years ago.
FLYNN: Whether or not he was a Speed freak I have no idea, but one of the eyeballs was indeed stolen on Christmas of 1986 at The Palace in L.A. Somehow somebody got backstage and got into the dressing room, got the eyeball, went up a spiral staircase, found an open window and dropped it into a debris box, and then casually strolled out and got it. Ultimately what happened was a few weeks later there was a call from somebody in L.A. that a friend of theirs had stolen it and this person was going to steal it back for us and return it, which did happen, although everybody was suspicious that this was the person who had stolen it. This person said a friend of his just happened to have been given two plane tickets from L.A. to San Francisco as a Christmas present and that’s how he was able to come and return the eyeball.
SECONDS: So Mr. Skull appeared after that?
FLYNN: Yes, they were kind of halfway through their 13th Anniversary Tour when that happened. They could get another eyeball made but they felt the whole thing was defiled and it became a better story to have the stolen eyeball go into mourning and be a black skull.
SECONDS: Is their anonymity a snide statement about stardom?
FLYNN: I think so. It’s not just that; they’re very private and the decision they made years ago was to protect their personal lives. The anonymity has served to do that. It’s also an anti-star message. It says a lot about ego and not having to be in competition for how many times you can get your name on the album covers. It just eliminated all those issue. While at times I think it’s been confining to them, it has generally worked out.
SECONDS: Have you had any weird reactions from people because they don’t have a Jimmy Page or Robert Plant to cling on to?
FLYNN: Not really, because The Residents don’t appeal to people looking for that. If anything, the people into it respect the privacy of it and are willing to accept the fact that it’s all about the work. SECONDS: What’s Uncle Willie doing now that UWEB has disbanded?
FLYNN: Uncle Willie has been writing some columns for the catalog. He’s also trying to make a CD-ROM out of his book. The problem with all the Residents stuff is that there’s so much stuff out and there’s hardly any demand for it when it’s available. As soon as it’s all gone, everybody wants it. The classic examples were the Santa Dog doggie t-shirts. They were cool and they sat around forever. As soon as they were gone, everyone wanted a Santa Dog doggie t-shirt. The UWEB stuff is another good example. There was not tons of it being sold when it was being made but it’s going to gain value over time and it might be worth collecting.
SECONDS: Any tours coming up?
FLYNN: No. The Residents have mixed feelings about touring. Some of them are still into it, some of them are not. The first question would be how to come up with a structure that suited everybody. At least for now, there are enough interesting projects that touring is not relevant. I expect it to happen again but it’s hard to know in what form. The most interesting thing is a couple of producers and a writer from the Tales From The Crypt series are interested in doing Bad Day At The Midway as a TV series. It’s a longshot but it’s exciting. [Editor’s note: Those people have since been taken off the project.]
SECONDS: Van Halen always had a thing for brown M&Ms. Is there anything on The Residents rider?
FLYNN: The only thing I can remember off hand is a bottle of Old Crow. They were never big druggies on tour – it was hard enough as it was.