The Residents More Than What The Ear Hears Coming From The Eye
Published Sep 01, 2001"It's prevented us from doing any solo albums I suppose," responds Hardy Fox, a "talking head" for San Francisco's influentially avant-renegade sound and visual collective known as the Residents, when asked about how anonymity has affected their music as a whole. "It is a very deliberate and intellectual thing to do it was agreed that they would do this as a group, and not as individuals." Semantics aside, the group has managed to keep their identities under some rather interesting "wraps," and have remained unknown to the public for 30 years. While the rest of the veterans in the music business struggle to project their new wares to jaded audiences who instantly expect less and see wrinkles and hear recycled sounds (i.e., the Rolling Stones), the Residents' watchers and listeners are able to become that much more acutely aware of their craft, which ranges anywhere from uneasy rock listening, to concentrated chemical sugar pop, to ambient landscapes to dramatically theatrical symphonies. They are often generalised as weird and different, because they unearth the codes of raw emotions that are burrowed deep within the minds of unprepared listeners and translate them into musical notes. But the group's curiosity in music is almost removed entirely from all forms of expectation, and instead, they opt to intellectually immerse themselves in logic. "There is music, and there is music that is business-oriented that is based upon demographics. People seem to explore what the current trends or directions are and what seems to be happening. They forget who their audiences are and what they want to hear, and then you do music for that. And that's a legitimate form of working. But the Residents' point of view was more that each person has a type of music that is inside of them or approach to music and it is influenced by other music and life around you, but ultimately, it comes from inside and each person is unique. And anything you do like that is going to be "weird" from another person's perspective because it isn't theirs. The other thing that's not weird is the one that is based on demographics, where you get a large number of people to say we'll agree that this is not weird. But basically, all music is weird, it's impossible for it not to be. It only not weird when it becomes part of demographics. Radio, which is advertising, makes sense economically, but it doesn't always make sense artistically."
The Residents are almost a type of clinical mirror that reflect society as it is. Perhaps it is us who are weird. The group are not into music per se, but more into how and why it is made. "I think they are more interested in technology," reveals Fox, "and as it changes and made more tools available, then their music changes. A lot of sound and style changes are influenced by the tools. Generally, they find technology to be highly stimulating."
Four, or five, experimental artists (genders unknown) bond in Shreveport, Louisiana. Collectively, they embark on a mission to relocate to the artistically idealistic West coast city of San Francisco, California. Upon arrival, the group would begin experimenting heavily with whatever tapes they could find, anything from improvised music by Vietnam soldiers to sound effects collections.
Word of their surrealistic cochlean exploits would attract one Philip Lithman, a guitarist from England, who would travel to San Francisco particularly to visit the collective. During a visit to Germany's Black Forest whilst en route to the United States, Lithman would befriend a highly mysterious artist and philosopher by the name of N. Senada to this day considered by some to be fictitious. Senada also made music, but in a manner that would almost be considered pre-post modernist. "He would build 'houses' out of 'bricks' consisting of pieces of other composers' works. The compositions were the "blueprints," while the final performance was the 'house'." Senada accompanied Lithman to California, and he would prove to be a major source of enlightenment for the troupe, as the band would absorb his two major musical theories. His Theory of Obscurity "states that an artist does his or her best work when working in obscurity, unhindered by the influence of an audience. Things such as trying to gear one's work to the audience's likes in order to sell better, or the conflicts and ego problems which fame brings only serve to destroy true creativity." The other, Theory of Phonetic Organization, stated that "the musician should put the sounds first, building the music up from [them] rather than developing the music, then working down to the sounds that make it up."
Scores of magnetic tapes are magnetically charged with scores of amateur complexities of sound; two cassettes Rusty Coathangers for the Doctor and The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger are the earliest titles created by the collective (with input by Senada and Lithman).
The Warner Bros. Album, the first demo tape created by the as-of-yet untitled troupe, was sent anonymously and specifically to Harve Halverstadt, a Warner Brothers Records executive who was responsible for dealing with the equally bizarre musical kindred spirit known as Captain Beefheart. The rejected tape was returned addressed to 'Residents, 20 Sycamore St., San Francisco'. The generic addressing would prove to be a positive, and excited them enough to christen their group as a fictitious musical organisation entitled "The Residents Uninc.", and soon after, simply as the Residents.
On October 18th, the Residents would play their first show at The Boarding House, a small club in San Francisco. It was "open mic" night that evening, and the group, (along with Senada and Lithman), took over the stage and performed 30 minutes of poetry set to music. For Lithman, the event would provide yet another monumental moment in moniker mutation. Someone had taken a photo of him playing a violin, and upon viewing it, one of the Residents had noted that his pinky finger was positioned in a manner much like how a snake would appear just prior to making an attack. Hence, Lithman became "Snakefinger". He would use the name for the rest of his life, and would remain a close friend and collaborator with the group until his death. The Boarding House performance was captured to tape and was released as the second side to Baby Sex, the band's last sub-subterraneaneously self-manufactured tape before making a go at making the music world wobble on a different axis altogether.
According to Matt Groening's (creator of The Simpsons and Life In Hell) book The True Story of the Residents, another live performance would follow shortly thereafter on Halloween. Not much is known about what occurred except for the fact that it was for a private wedding that took place in in Arcata, California.
The Residents had always planned to make a film, (something of which they always wanted to do before making music), and thus they began a rather ambitious and still as-of-yet unfinished self-financed project, Vileness Fats. The band's space at 20 Sycamore was converted to a soundstage, and 1/2" black-and-white video tape was used as the medium, which was a new technology available at the time. Not only was it suitable for it's cost effectiveness as compared to using film, but the band knew that it was also considered to be the 'next big thing'. The ongoing shoot was guided by a vague and unfinished script that included a cast of characters who lived in Vileness Flats, a community of one-armed midgets (including siamese twin who were tag-team wrestlers), who had to protect their town from the oncoming threat of the Atomic Shopping Carts.
Accepting the fact that their exploits were a little too left-field for practically every record label on the planet, The Residents form a label of their own, Ralph Records. (A graphic design wing would also be formed, known as Porno Graphics, aka Pore No Graphics). The first release under the new label was the band's first single, "Santa Dog," (a story about a dachshund in a Santa Claus costume, and based on an anagram of "Satan God"), was distributed as two seven-inch vinyl records and packaged to look like a Christmas card from an insurance company. (And also contained a track from Vileness Fats). It contains the musical foundations of what the Residents would become, except in an analogous and primitive fashion. It was mutilated novelty nightmare jazz pop at its finest, making the musique concrete of Varese and Zappa feel like melted plastic. And, it was the first of its kind. Copies were sent out to various record companies, friends, then-U.S. president Richard Nixon and Frank Zappa, which ended up getting returned due to a change of address.
In October, the Residents would perform their second show ever at a private party in Redwood, CA; details of the event are unknown.
Meet the Residents, subtitled as The First Album by North Louisiana's Phenomenal Pop Combo is released. The cover art resembled the Capitol Records version of the Beatles' first album, Meet the Beatles, only that the faces of the Fab Four were given some interesting new features. The album featured "Smelly Tongues", their first classic-to-be, and "Guylum Bardot", showcasing the influential brain-bits-trapped-in-the-nose-cavity vocal style that the band would use through to this day. Needless to say, the album did not catch on with the general public.
In February, File, a Canadian art magazine, included a flexi-disc sampler of Meet The Residents with a absurdist advertisement promising a full copy of the album in exchange for only two dollars. They sold 40 more copies as a result.
The Residents record Not Available, which would not yet be available for the public's consumption. The reason being that the album was never meant to be released. The group would fully apply N. Senada's Theory Of Obscurity to the project, making sure they would do the album only for themselves without having its development influenced by their audience. It was decided that the album would not be released until the band themselves forgot that the project had ever existed.
The group back up the equally strange entity known as Schwump, a Portland, OR radio personality for his "Aphids In The Hall" single. Around this time period N. Senada reportedly vanishes.
A momentous year. Production of Vileness Fats is abandoned out of frustration without ever having reached the end of the story. Fourteen hours of video footage had been shot, which only amounted to 66.6% of the shooting script, which was not even complete in the first place. Financial reasons aside, the black and white medium that they were using was also bumped off the market by colour video, which also had a major increase in quality as compared to its inferior predecessor.
The Third Reich 'N' Roll album, a groundbreaking concept album about "music," is released. Consisting of only two long tracks, "Swastikas on Parade" and "Hitler was a Vegetarian", the avant-garde album would parody the music industry's "fascist" requirement to homogenising music into money by bastardising popular songs of the 1960s. They re-recorded songs such as Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", "Heroes and Villians" by the Beach Boys and "Light My Fire" by the Doors were forced to fornicate with each other into medleys that were cut, pasted and sometimes sampled from the original versions together, and with lyrics occasionally sung in German. In a morbid way, the Residents were also making an ode to some of their influences. Fox reflects upon the album's impact it made. "When it came out, it had gave a type of permission to people to record. A lot of home recording equipment was just coming out then and I think that it told a lot of people that it was cool just to have fun and do it and not worry too much. I think up to that point, music was being very much treated as an elitist thing like you're supposed to have a record label and all that stuff, and the only other alternative was to form a cheesy garage band that imitated people who had record deals and so on. The fact that you could do something that was its own thing and didn't have to have allegiance to anyone else was a new concept. [The album] really radically used the studio as a compositional tool to write and compose, and how people could play their instruments. It became completely wide open to the idea that anything goes."
The album would prove to be highly controversial as well; it's cover art featured Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform holding a carrot while swastikas riddled the rest of the album's jacket. Needless to say, it was banned in Germany.
Using props from the Vileness Fats film set for a promo film of their cover of "Land of 1000 Dances," the Residents end up creating what is now historically accepted as being amongst one the first earliest music videos ever produced. Controversy would be caused by the short film as well, as it featured the band in newspaper costumes, where the head section resembled a Ku Klux Klan's outfit. However, the group were in no way supporters of their cause.
As interest in enigma escalated, four business-minded friends of theirs from Lousiana flew to San Francisco to aid with the group's adventures. Consisting of John Kennedy (president), Jay Clem (business, publicity) , Hardy Fox (sound engineer and A&R) and Homer Flynn (advertising and graphics) they would create an official legal company, still known to this day as the Cryptic Corporation. Ralph Records and Pore Know Graphics would then exist under their regime.
On the 7th of June, the Residents, dressed as mummies, perform a multi-media show entitled "Oh Mummy! Oh Daddy! Can't You See That It's True; What the Beatles Did to Me, "I Love Lucy" Did to You," as part of Rather Ripped Records' fifth anniversary party. Snakefinger (dressed as an artichoke) joins them onstage, and clips from Vileness Fats are shown.
Their Third Reich-ian, blisters-on-the-central-nervous-system-inducing cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" is released soon after as a two song seven-inch single, and followed by the release of their next full-length, Fingerprince. The album was originally entitled as the Tourniquet of Roses, which was to be the world's first three-sided record, but problems with mastering ensued so they shortened the track listing. Fingerprince, also the band's major delving into minimalism and Indonesian percussion, was a study on how "man, represented by a primitive humanoid, is consumed by his self-created environment only to be replaced by a new creature, still primitive, still faulty, but destined to rule the world just as poorly." The mini-opus track "Six Things To A Cycle" would reveal the group's interest in American composer Harry Partch, who had devised many musical theories, constructed unique instruments and languages.
Ralph Records releases The Beatles Play The Residents and The Residents Play The Beatles, a highly-limited single where the band cut together a slew of Beatles songs (calling the track "Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life") and on the second side, they cover "Flying."
Duck Stab, their most musically comprehensible and accessible work up to that time, is released as an EP and sold rather quickly. It would be repackaged as an LP along with the previously unreleased Buster & Glen EP. The album sees the group totally in control of losing control. The crusty electronic instruments and vocals breathed within the translucent sound mix, and yet, its logic-defying lyrics seemed to dictate the liquid pulses of music, that would have easily been the perfect accompaniment to a high-tech theme park featuring nothing but snake charming events on designer drugs. Instant classics such as "Constantinople," "Hello Skinny" and "Lizard Lady" would adorn many a future compilation, but was presented here for the first time.
With intent to cash in on their new-found popularity, the Cryptics re-released the "Satisfaction" single, which ended up landing in the #1 position of Record World's New Wave charts, surpassing Devo's cover version of the same song. The sudden influx of attention makes them uneasy during the recording of their next album; fearing that their creative process would be might influentially polluted, so, the band flees to England with the tapes to continue the project-in-progress. While ransacking the vaults in hopes of finding something to release until the band would return with the new album, The Cryptics would find Not Available, and unleash it unto the public. According to the album's compact disc re-release liner notes, the band "were not upset by this fact since it in no way violated their original intent." Not Available contains an impalpable story about an 'Uncle Remus' who might or not have a bizarre love for 'Edweena'. Musically, it is set to a sort of dark, tribal lullaby, and is highlighted by the hypnotic marimbas and pianos that drive the alien story's narrative. The use of sound as storytelling' approach to telling their stories are akin to using colour in a drawing to do the same. "Their music is narrative driven," explains Fox, "their concept is that things have to start somewhere, and that for human beings, the thing where everything starts is the story. Even in an instrumental piece, even if you don't understand the story, then you don't understand the music, which is how they see things. Their approach is very primal and basic in a lot of ways."
Concerned about the pressures of success, the Residents take their working tapes to England, where they are left with a mysterious person who places them in a safe deposit box. New Wave magazine reveals this fact, and members of the Cryptic Corporation retrieve the tapes.
These efforts cause a rift between the band and the Cryptics, who pay for a new 16-track studio for the band. There, the band records "Santa Dog 78" single and mails it out to everyone on the Ralph records list along with a Xmas card and a story about the disappearance.
Finally Eskimo, an impressionistically ambient concept album is released. It is intended to be heard in its entirety, and it tells a self-invented story of the Eskimo people who inhabit the North Pole region, and done so solely with sound. A written explanation of the story is available in the liner notes, and meant to be read while listening to the album with headphones. The album's importance can be attributed to being a first of its kind. "Eskimo was a radically different thing;" exposes Fox; "it was serious on all levels and the only serious music at the time was Philip Glass or classical and jazz music - it was so different and mood driven, yet narrative driven without many words. It was a very bold thing to do I suppose."
The stimulus for the album's idea was allegedly inspired by the reappearance of N. Senada, who supposedly provided the group with a tape containing samples of Eskimo sound samples and a jar of arctic air to record. The Harry Partch influence would once again come into play, as the language spoken on the album is entirely fabricated by themselves. As the story unfolds, recognisable words eventually become perceivable, when the story's leader becomes contaminated with North American pop culture.
The album was extremely well received and ordained a vanguard of "new music". Another monumental moment would arise from the project- the cover art was the first to feature the group in their infamous eyeball-head and tuxedo costume, an image that would forever be associated with their name. The additional attention beamed towards the band had created a fear within themselves that they might become egotistical. Hence, Diskomo was released a few months later, a twelve-inch single parodying themselves by taking certain Eskimo elements and turning them into disco versions. The Goosebump EP was also included, featuring re-workings of Mother Goose rhymes that were oblique and ominous sounding enough to make a child grow up rather quickly, or succumb to one giant wave of fear. Interestingly enough, all the instruments used for the recording process were toys that the band had purchased from Toys 'R' Us.
The first fan club surfaced in June, entitled W.E.I.R.D., ("We Endorse Immediate Residents Deification"). Although short-lived, the club would offer members an EP entitled Babyfingers, which consisted of the omitted tracks from Fingerprince.
W.E.I.R.D. fan clubbers Philip Culp and Mimi King ask their friend Matt Groening to write an essay called The True Story of the Residents. The essay, subtitled "A Brief Summary of Known Facts, Top Secrets, Hazy Details, Veiled Hints and Blatant Lies," forms the core of The Official W.E.I.R.D. book of the Residents and is later expanded and reprinted in The Cryptic Guide to the Residents. The original version also appears in The Cryptic Guide to the Residents.
In the interim leading up to their next project, the eyeballed ones would contribute their production skills to two releases by Snakefinger, Chewing Hides the Sound and Greener Postures, as well as contributing four tracks to Ralph Records' Subterranean Modern project, an album comprising of songs inspired by the city of San Francisco. Other artists on the collection were Chrome and Ralph signees Tuxedomoon and MX-80 Sound. The other demand set upon by the label was that each band had to cover of Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
The next surrealistic music video the band would create would be for "Hello Skinny". It was directed by Vileness Fats contributor Graeme Whifler, and starred a man the band befriended who had recently been released from a mental institution as a result of then-president Ronald Reagan's budget cuts. Bridget Terris was his name, although he himself thought he was actress Bridget Bardot.
Another post-modernist view (or is it attack?) upon the groups' analysis of the concept of 'music' and how it functions in modern society came to light again with The Commercial Album. Forty songs/forty minutes= 1 minute songs. The minute (pun intended) tracks resembled that of radio spots (commercials). The synthesizer plays a heavy role throughout this masterpiece; prickling, prodding and tingling the listener's blood pressure with the sounds of truly enjoyable elevator music. However, we only hear what it leaves in it's wake as it passes through the elevator shaft- a whirling, resonating doppler effect that somehow had managed to stop by a theatre to watch a couple of B movies while en route to your ears. Several contributors are listed in the album credits- Snakefinger (of course), Fred Frith (who would soon sign a recording contract with Ralph Records) and XTC's Andy Partridge.
The album would not find success as it's predecessor; the negativity from the press first disheartened the group, but in time it became many a fan's favourite. "It followed Eskimo," quips Fox; "and people who loved Eskimo found that it had nothing to do with it. It was a complete turnabout. The Residents feel like they go out on a limb. If all this was a tree, they would go out on a limb and try to go out to the point where that limb will break and that's where they want to work. But, they'd feel stupid to go out any further. So their point of view is to go back and find another limb to go out on. You do what you think is the best you can do- and if you have nothing else to say about it, then basically, you're not going to do anything except make a sequel based on what you did before, which is what people liked."
The album would be the first by the band to have overseas licensing, and two European labels would finance One Minute Movies, a series of four music videos directed by Graeme Whifler and the band themselves, based on songs from the album. and was even broadcast randomly piece by piece, scattered within a local radio station's commercial slots. The album sank sales-wise, however. Around this time the group were asked to provide a soundtrack for an unknown British television series. Their music would be rejected however, having been cited as too "strange".
The need for change was in order; internal conflicts coupled with being disappointed over the press' reaction to The Commercial Album caused the band to think that it was time to tour, but with a concept. The vehicle they would use would be a epic trilogy about working class Moles who were oppressed by the upper-class The Chubs, and of which an eventual war would occur. What the band found appealing was that a company by the name of E-MU had just released the first 8-bit digital sampler, which would be very beneficial in reproducing their complex songs on stage. As plans were being made, Mark of the Mole, the first part, was released. The album was predominantly lyrical in nature, as it told the story in great detail.
A UK band by the name of Renaldo and the Loaf, (Brian Poole and Dave Janssen), big fans of the The Residents and signees to Ralph Records, drop by the Cryptic office to have them produce a music video of the title track from their Songs for Swinging Larvae album. The album sold rather well for the label, and both bands would collaborate on a project that would end up being shelved indefinitely. Over the next while, the label would also sign other artists such as Yello, Fred Frith, Art Bears, DooDooettes, Half Japanese, Deficit Des Année Anterieurs, and Negativland.
The Tunes of Two Cities is released, and is the first album to entirely use samplers. This second part of the trilogy contains tracks that would represent each of the two opposing cultures' music; the Moles sounding more primordial and tribal, and the Chubs sounding more sophisticated, being similar in approach to that of The Third Reich 'N' Roll. Shortly following the second part, Intermission was released, an EP of tracks similar in feel to that of Duck Stab that would be played from a stereo system during the live shows' opening, middle and closing moments. With sufficient material to make up a live show, the group brings Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller, long suspected a 'Resident' by many) to narrate, and an expansive and expensive set consisting of props and backdrops (from which the band who play behind) and cut-outs, which is what the Moles and Chubs were made from, operated by stagehands who would all be sporting Groucho Marx glasses. A series of highly successful shows in California were performed, and based on the positive response, their new business manager, Bill Gerber, would coax the troupe into taking The Mole Show to Europe.
The cost of bringing the show and it's accessories to ye olde world had been astronomically more than imagined, so the group sells their merchandising rights for $10k US to help pay for transport and crew wages. Just before the tour began, the Cryptic Corps' Clem withdrew from the organization, as did Kennedy, who also took the group's home base office with him. The European shows were a critical success, as were the merchandising sales, but overall for the group, the tour was a financial disaster. The English road crew were upset over not living a 'rock and roll' lifestyle, and did not get along with Jillette whose straight-edge ways only made things more tense. Additional buses were deployed to segregate conflicting parties, and at one point Jillette had to be hospitalized due to illness. Jillette's luck would not improve, when a member of the audience physically attacked him during a performance. Ralph Records practically becomes bankrupt as a result, but is slightly saved at the last second when the November New Music America Festival in Washington, D.C. offers the group to play for a much-needed copious fee. The show almost never happened, when it is revealed that the tour manager had never paid the English shippers would still had the band's sets and equipment on the other side of the pond. Luckily, a resolution was made, but barely in time. The Residents vowed never to tour again. However, the band would be honoured by having the show's costumes inducted into the permanent collection of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.
To save the label in limbo, the company's responsibilities were handed over to Tom and Sheenah Timony for restructuring under the name New Ralph. A number of compilations and special collectable releases were sold to the public, and they would unearth the dormant, untitled Renaldo and the Loaf/Residents album from 1981 and release it as Title In Limbo, which luckily sold a substantial amount of copies.
Ralph Records had demoted itself strictly as a mail-order company, and offered up most of their artists (except for it's flagship act) to other labels. A couple of exceptions were made, including the release of Canadian avant-mysterioso Nash The Slash with his Million-Year Picnic LP. Ralph would become a branch of Timony's T.E.C. Tones label for the time being.
The Residents had a new idea. They began what they would call the American Composer Series, albums touting some of the country's finest composers, a study of music done in music. George & James, the first release, features the works of George Gershwin and James Brown. The liner notes stated that both artists were "a group of pseudo-artists who freely indulge themselves in the Great American Culture". Warner Bros. would finance the zany video to their cover of Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World", which like the cover art, would feature primeaval computer-generated graphics. Video technology had advanced itself enough to the point that the band would be able to salvage and transfer the troubled Vileness Fats footage to a more modern medium. They did so, and extracted one of the stories subplots and added in footage from the Mole shows to create the Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? home video. A soundtrack album naturally followed.
The beginning of the year would begin with the group delving more into the cine side of things, by contributing their first-ever feature film soundtrack to an inferior low budget horror film, as per a suggestion by Penn Jillette to it's director. Entitled The Census Taker (aka Husbands, Wives, Money, & Murder), film did not go past video distribution. The music consisted of re-workings of Commercial Album and Mole material, and was released as an album.
The pace with their adventures in video would pick up, and the group concocted a plan to create a series of videos entitled Science Fiction's Greatest Hits. Each original song would be married to computer modified scenes from a classic 1950s film. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers became the first and last vignette, due to problems with securing usage rights to other scenes.
And depending on how one sees it as either a bizarre act of illogic or logic, the group returned to the Mole story with The Big Bubble, a metaphysical album which they would announce as the fourth part of what is now a six part story. The odd numbered releases would tell the story, and the even numbered ones would be a complimentary musical representation to the story. But what about part three which hadn't been recorded?! According to the liner notes, the third part would take place decades after the war between the two cultures, who now co-existed with each other albeit uncomfortably. A new culture and language would form due to cross-breeding, while a new faction of fundamentalist Moles brewed as well. The leader of this new 'party' wished to reestablish the moles as a singular entity and hires a musical band to play at a rally. Their songs would partly contain the raw original Mole language, which would help jar loose the Mole that dwelled deep within certain inhabitants of the land. The leader would stage an arrest of the band's singer to gain sympathy from re-enlightened ones, and part four begins when their outcry gets him released from prison. The band, The Big Bubble, get signed to a Chub-run record label and release a self-titled album. The Residents' The Big Bubble is that album, and is sung in their hybrid language. Electronics and synths were not used this time around, as analog instrumentation was employed and performed in a more (albeit ironically light) "rock and roll" manner. The cover art would spark debate, as four unmasked humans were shown. However, they are not the Residents, just three actors and a German fan who just happened to drop by the office that day.
Still to this day, the band have not returned to the Mole story. Fox explains why; "it's because of a loss of interest. They have more projects going on all the time that they can never finish. There is only so much time- they're very aware that they will die and they have a strong philosophical understanding of that from the beginning- about how many years, if at best, they had to do this. So, they are always thinking about how long projects take and how many they are able to get finished. I think if you listen to their music these days you will find that death will appear more than once."
The album would receive mixed reviews, but would garner enough attention to have the land of the rising sun beckon for the eyeballed ones to come. The album would be a selling success for Wave Records of Japan, and they offer the band to do an all-expenses-paid tour of the country. The band dwindled down the lavishness of their sets and kept things simple expense-wise, and also brought Snakefinger along as a guitarist. The 13th Anniversary Tour was a smash success, and word of it caught wind to an ambitious and persistent 19 year old American fan who would manage to book the band in numerous US cities, and turn out to be a triumph as well, but not without one downfall. On boxing day in Los Angeles, someone had managed to infiltrate the venue's dressing room and stole the singer Resident's red eyeball costume. This was considered a tragedy, and as a quick replacement, the band had unearthed a skull mask that was used for the Third Reich 'N' Roll props. Following shows would open with a eulogy given to the missing eyeball, and black armbands were given to members of the audience in memoriam. The skull and variations thereof would be used from thereon, and the singer became generally known as 'Mr. Skull'. Sometime after, the real thief, pretending to be a friend of the 'thief', returned the eyeball, although it had been severely damaged.
The Residents would make their compact disc debut through the aid of avant-garde label Rykodisc, who would release two compilations of the band's works. Entitled Heaven and Hell, one would feature the more lighter and sensational side of the group, while the other would collect the more sinister and geriatric-murdering songs.
Stars and Hank Forever, the second in the American Composer Series is released. Hank Williams' music is covered in straightforward Residents fashion, while the instrumental John Philip Sousa ("The Stars & Stripes Forever") celebratory pieces were conceptually presented together where the environments where his music is usually played (i.e. parades) would be heard in the background. A live album of The 13th Anniversary Show: Live in Holland also gets released. During one Norweigan show that took place within the Arctic circle, the band would have to apply improv skills to their looks, and to their music. Their equipment never showed, so they had to borrow instruments from the audience (including ones they have never used nor seen before) and concoct makeshift costumes out of whatever they could find for the performance. An announcement was made that ticket holders could get refunds if the isea was too odd for them. Apparently, they pulled it off.
The 13th Anniversary Tour concluded with a show at the beginning of the year with Penn and Teller as guests. The infamously silent Teller promised to sing a Residents song in return that one of the Residents revealed themselves in front of the audience. The exchange occurs, and the Resident takes off his/her eyeball to reveal Teller underneath.
On July 1st, Snakefinger expires from planet earth, a result from living a hard life of smoking and poor nutrition. Ironically, the same day he died his "There's No Justice In Life" single was released. A month later the group would perform a nighttime tribute to him in San Francisco entitled Snakey Wake, dressed in black netting and holding umbrellas while singing their cover of Hank Williams' "Six More Miles To The Graveyard" and various traditional English hymns of lament. Two months later they would put on another special anniversary performance for Boudisque (aka Torso), the label who distributed Ralph Records in Europe. Was Snakefinger highly underrated? Fox tends to think so, and contemplates why. "I always wondered if his association with The Residents was a benefit to him or a hinderance. There are so many people out there in which once they hear "The Residents" they won't have anything to do with it- they won't give it a chance because they've already decided they won't like it. A lot of people dismiss The Residents as jokesters and pranksters so he might have gotten caught up in that. The guitar work that continues is constantly done with an air of respect toward him."
The band decide to cancel the American Composer Series in light of the fact that the compact disc was taking over the market, and that the charm and necessity of being able to place each artist on a separate side would ruin the effect.
They would also be idealistically be commissioned for the equally colourful entity known as Pee Wee Herman, for his Pee Wee's Playhouse television series. Given the strict and quick turnarounds that the production demanded, the band would have to jettison their manual analog ways and adopt MIDI programming and digital audio workstations. They would provide the music for five episodes as well as commercials for it's toy products.
By this year, the CD had pretty much dominated the market over LPs. The cluster would conceive their next project God In 3 Persons, keeping in mind that the medium had the capability to be played straight through from start to finish without breaks. Another first would be that the recording process was completely immersed within the digital domain. Because of the intensive lyrical content to the album which made the music a slave to the story, Rykodisc also released a sans vocal version. "It was basically a poem that's an hour long in rhythm and rhyme and was once again a gutsy thing to do," reveals Fox. The detailed story of was a dark one, describing the bizarre infatuation between a man who befriends and falls for identical siamese twins (one male, one female) who possess magical healing powers. He exploits them for profit, and eventually realizes that a rift between he and them is developing. As a result, he plots a malicious and violent rape to change things between the twins forever. The album is unlike anything they have done before- combining the style of a early serial radio drama to that with an intellectual film. One could perhaps deem it as a white trash man's plight into a dark world where Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick play chess. The dark' element was not an issue, and Fox sheds light that it is nothing new; "it's very heavy, but at the same time, rap music, which is basically bad, does the same thing. Rap music is dark story telling with a very rigid rhyming and rhythm thing to it. Basically, it's the same thing, but it's saying you don't have to do it the same way. There really is more variety available." Snakefinger was, of course, intended to provide guitar parts, but his death prior to its recording put an end to the idea, as with a live touring version of the album.
The only public appearance would take place on Off Beat Night, a show broadcast on a German TV station Tele 5.
UWEB ("Uncle Willie's Eyeball Buddies"), would be launched this year. It was the first ultra-official fan club for the band, and offered exclusive releases of their music, as well as a slew of merchandise.
With a developing interest in the history of music, the group decided to put together an album and complimentary theatrical show that would cover what they thought was a fine account of what really inspired modern music, besides that Beatles that is. Thus, Cube-E: The History of American Music In 3 E-Z Pieces was conceived and compiled. Part one consisted of Buckaroo Blues, got it's motivation from vintage cowboy numbers stemming from the late 19th and first half of the century periods. Residential versions of black music (gospel songs, blues, and jazz) just as Buckaroo Blues was covers of cowboy music. Black Barry, part two, consisted of traditional black music, known to be the source of what music is today. A variety of jazz, gospel and blues were amalgamated, with maximum Residents-style, celebrating freedom from slavery. Part three, The Baby King, would be a culmination of the previous two- into the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. The visuals were enthralling at the very least. The first sequence depicted the group in an outdoor country setting, wearing cowboy hats while performing the numbers in front of an electronic fire. Parts two and three, had cubist eyeballs costumes, with the singer Resident taking on the roles of Barry and a former Presley imitator to surrealism's maximum strange setting. A studio recorded version of the third part would be released, titled The King and Eye.
The group would perform a segment of Cube-E on David Sanborn's Night Music television show, which resulted in an on-air jam with Sanborn on saxophone and a dance with Conway Twitty. The tours were a success as well, but eventually problems started to creep upon them. A speaker had fallen into the audience at one point, and a promoter had mysteriously gone bankrupt. With enough experience to suspect that a Mole show type of curse was rapidly developing, they reinstated their "no touring ever again" belief system. Cube-E: Live in Holland gets released on compact disc.
Having existed for over twenty years, the group would develop a Pink Floyd: The Wall type syndrome, feeling as if they were seen as nothing but freaks on stage, instead of the musical artists that they were. Suffering with this oppressive angst, the band decide to transform the concept into a creative one, and the Freak Show album would surface. Characters like "Harry the Head", "Wanda the Worm Woman" and "Jello Jack the Boneless Boy" would all be given their own track, each exploring a facet of how people are treated in the world. It would also become their most ambitious project to date, which would evolve and mutate into many other mediums. Fox recounts the album's importance; "Compositionally, most music tends to have things that repeat- some element in it that reoccurs, like hooks choruses and verses. It isn't completely without that, but for the most part, it is stream-of-consciousness. Compositionally, it goes from point A to point Z, and doesn't come around to try to hook you with any reoccurring melodies. It is very free-form and at the same time constantly demanding of it's structure and patterns."
Computer animation pioneer and illustrator Jim Ludtke, an Apple Computer affiliate, would create an innovative promotional 3D video for "Harry the Head". This would the group's first video in years, since they were upset with the fact that their visuals were too innovative for broadcast outlets such as MTV, which of course would create a roadblock in getting financing to create them.
A significant collection of live rarities and ocular fluids was released by UWEB entitled Liver Music. For the curious in need of knowing, material emanating from all the way back from 1972's Boarding House performance as well as "The History of Digital Music (Pt. 1)", which was a demonstration the band gave under a different name to junior-high school students, showing them the evolution of digital music beginning from the days of punch card sequencing.
The Eyes Scream hit shelves, a documentary on the group and hosted by Penn & Teller, would shed some insight into the band, whom of course are not interviewed for it. They also continue their foray into new unchartered waters in multimedia-dom with Ty's Freak Show, a special performance showcasing NEC's Light Source non-linear video editing system with. Directed Ty Roberts and financed by NEC, the band would perform Freak Show material which was recorded and then mixed live onstage with the software by multimedia experimentalist, record producer and musician, Todd Rundgren. Apple Computer would later incorporate this footage into their groundbreaking yet still infantile Quicktime software bundles.
Daydream B-Liver would be released by UWEB as well, a sequel to Liver Music, consisting of previously unreleased gems including material from 1971's N. Senada-graced Baby Sex.
To further dig deep into the world that is Freak Show, Dark Horse Comics release a graphic novel based on the album's songs. Many illustrators contribute to the project, including Matt Howarth, Les Dorscheid, Savage Pencil and Dave McKean. To celebrate their 20th anniversary as one', the band decide to cover and rethink themselves, albeit in their own mysterious ways. In a biologically sardonic way, they took a slew of previously released tracks and musically mingled them together. Their honesty couldn't have been any more lucid, as they christened the album as Our Finest Flowers, "Celebrating Twenty Long Dreary Years of Obscure Stardom".
With their eyes and minds on new ways to challengingly present their material, the band creates a laserdisc compilation of footage spanning from their entire career. The medium had been made available to the public back at the turn of the 1980s, but it failed until it was revived in the early 1990s as a high-priced connoiseur's home video format. Not only did the medium yield a superior viewing resolution, but it had a capability of presenting material in a non-linear manner, causing the viewing potential of a given title to be somewhat interactive'. The Voyager Company, highly reputed for their ultra-deluxe editions of films that sported many extras, took upon the releasing of the group's Twenty Twisted Questions laserdisc.
As laserdisc was still an insider's medium that limited exposure, The Residents had noticed something else- the budding CD-ROM. As more and more players were being packaged with computer systems, it would reach more of an audience, but the intent was to further the Freak Show story into a CD-ROM, and prove to the world that a unique experience that was entertaining, functional (a booth of Residents merch) and biographical (a historical section with discographies and such). Once again, Jim Ludtke would oversee the conversion of the Freak Show world into graphics, creating more videos the other tracks as well. The title would garner accolades by the press and industry, and managed to pick up a few awards along the way. Voyager, whose name is no understatement, distributed the title.
Another death within the inspirational fabric of the group occurs. This time, N. Senada would pas on at the age of 86.
UWEB folds due to the magic of music being emotionally rained onto Uncle Willie by the reality of the music business, and further business branching ensues. Ralph America is solidified, and EuroRalph enters the scene, taking care of all things on the other side of the pond. He would still run their Buy Or Die! marketing campaigns however.
As fans and the curious were busy clicking their computer's mouse into the wee hours while soaking in the group's morbidly fascinating CD-ROM, the band, along with Ludtke, were busy doing the same thing- by making another- make that two- sort of. Their next project was The Gingerbread Man, an album with interactive computer content that individually told the story of nine people and how each of them, no matter how different they were, contained a morsel of the Gingerbread Man. There are no true unique songs on the album- instead, one is given an aural explanation of each character with music and narration, and the CD-ROM user could make their own video and/or profile of them, by having a choice of images, text and whatever else they provided (or left out!) to accompany it. The expanded version released by ION is a lateral thinker's true work of art; it disobeys all forms of traditional logic, comparison and explanations, only because it succeeds in what it's creators intended to do. (Which were?!)
The Discovery Channel commissions the group to author the soundtrack music for their Hunters: The World of Predators and Prey series. A total of ten hours of music was recorded, and a condensed sampling of the music was released on compact disc via Milan.
By now, the notorious eyeball costumes were rather worn out and damaged. While the Cryptics were doing a speech at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special effects facility, they ran into Mark Seigel, the creator of the original costumes who was now on staff. As a personal side project, he revamped the costumes (including the skull one), making them more functional, detailed, which would shine with more terror and delight, now more than ever.
Several in-flesh performances of The Freak Show Live would be displayed unto the public in Prague, but, without the band proper. Instead, the leader of avant-rock group Uz Jsme Doma. A kindred spirit to musical bizarreness, would be hired to direct the show. The luxuriant production was exclusive to the country, and was videotaped for posterity. It may be released sometime in the future.
Yet a third CD-ROM is conceived and executed via the Inscape company. Bad Day on the Midway is a dense sequel to Freak Show, but operates more like a game. However, there are enough variables and overall oddities to make it's playtime and outcome almost exceed that of infinity. With this game, once can go inside the head of many of the game's characters- be it a freak, a psychotic killer and so on. Like their previous titles, the title received numerous top awards from the computing community, as well as a People's Choice award. In addition, Ludtke's advanced computer animation is astounding, making the characters and colourful settings photographically believable.
The Residents Have A Bad Day is released. But unlike the previous soundtrack albums to their CD-ROMs, this one would be inspired by the story, hence having completely new and different music (instrumentals), with the exception of one song. The group makes an appearance at the San Francisco release party for Primus' Tales From The Punchbowl enhanced CD. It had been long known that the band had practically based their existence upon that of The Residents, carbon copying Mr. Skull's nasal southern-fried vocal styles, dynamic phonetics and nonsensical subject matter. In the past, Primus had covered the eye's "Sinister Exaggerator" on their Miscellaneous Debris EP, and Tales includes a cover of "Constantinople" and "Hello Skinny"; the latter being performed live at the party with one of the eyeballs. It has been suspected that Primus' leader, bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, had at least once contributed to a Residents project- perhaps one of the benefits of being anonymous, which is the ability to bring others in while keep music as the centre of attention.
The Resident's 25th year as a group. They pay homage to their master of enigmatic and master of thinking different, N. Senada, by recreating his infamous and elusive 1936 work known as Pollex Christi (aka The Big Toe of Christ or The Thumb of Christ). The piece is a musical combination of many pieces- mainly that of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Beethoven, Bach and Wagner. The piece was constructed by what Senada called a blueprint', and one of the only surviving ones of his left after he fled Europe for northern Canada to study the Inuit back in 1937. Self-admittedly, Senada stated that he was never a good musician per se, which is why he tinkered with others' works. Senada says that he is "not the composer of the bricks, I just cement them together. I am the composer of the house. It is the house that is important: its form, its usefulness, its sense of joy." When accused of plagiarism, he retorted "if a man steals philosophy from many great thinkers and combines them into a new philosophy, is he not yet another great thinker?" Senada would purposely leave holes' within the music, for another composer or performer to add to the experience. The Residents filled these holes with TV themes such as Star Trek and Popeye The Sailor Man.
Bomba records of Japan begins to remaster and re-release the groups' entire body of work, while East Side Digital in North America would re-release the re-releases.
They would continue their study of people with extraordinary talents (aka freaks) with the 30 minute performance piece Disfigured Night. Three shows were played at the PopKomm music festival in Köln (Cologne), Germany. Marlboro sponsored the event which was taped for German music television station VIVA TV. Directed by John Payson, (Joe's Apartment), the dark, tortured and fantastic story revolves around a character by the name of Silly Billy who was able to experience someone's most personal; and painful memories, and eventually goes through his own trials and tribulations. There would be some pain experienced by the band as well, when the Germans thought that Mr. Skull's appearance would be too unsettling for the Rhineland, so all advertisements featuring the skull would be replaced by an eyeball.
A major retrospective of their musical work is released as a double disc, entitled "Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses". EuroRalph would release a special 4 disc version, expanding on coverage of their singles.
In September, a film by the name of Conceiving Ada premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is a light science fiction time travel story incorporating real and CGI generated images that also includes a near-death Timothy Leary in a supporting role. The band provide the soundtrack, which was reported to be of an "electronic Victorian" genre.
The band appear at another film event, California's Mill Valley Film Festival, but, in person. They were honored with a 25th anniversary retrospective, and clips of various videos were shown as well as having been given a birthday cake.
During the last week of October, a series of legendary full-spectacle shows were performed at the Fillmore in San Francisco, combining the themes and work of Disfigured Night, Gingerbread Man and Freak Show.
The Residents would return with another conceptual album, their first since 1992, with Wormwood: Curious Tales From The Bible. However, the affair was no Jesus Christ Superstar, but something animated along the lines of Ben Hur meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a Tuesday afternoon. The band chose most of the stories from the big book's Old Testament; the darker ones that are less talked about, of course. The album would be a first for the group. Fox explains; "In a lot of ways, it was interesting because of what it was about. I don't think any of the albums so literally approached a subject like that- where there wasn't an album about a specific theme."
And based on the cerebral possibilities and success that Bad Day On The Midway brought, Ron Howard's Imagine TV would seize the material and put it development stage for a TV series. Also brought on board was famed surrealist filmmaker David Lynch (Eraserhead, Lost Highway) of whom the band considered to be the only person who could properly translate the material. The Residents themselves were to act as consultants for the 2 hour pilot. A conflict of interest arose within all parties involved (including scores of execs, writers, etc) and the project was shelved. However, talks of other possible Lynch-Residents projects are possibly in store.
A highly successful tour of Wormwood reinstated the band's views on hitting the road, but again, conflict and curse would strike them in the form of fear. The sole American soil shows in Berkeley and Sacramento were cancelled by over-sensitive promoters who reportedly took offense to the album's religious content. "It's definitely been a piece of controversy, and not just one with Christians, but also with people who are very much non-Christians who aren't interested in having anything to do with Christianity. Even if it's interesting, they don't want to hear about it," he laughs; "you're basically targeting an audience that are very few in numbers who are willing to be open."
The group would also finally take advantage of the internet and it's sharing abilities via the mp3 formatting system. Occasionally on their Ralph America site, one would be able to find rare material, such as the oldest track ever released from 1969 entitled "I Hear Ya Got Religion" up to an ocular rendition of Prince's 1999. The tracks would be compiled onto a compact disc for sale, entitled dot.com.
The Wormwood performances (featuring more live analog instruments than had been used in previous tours) were so regimented and unique that the band issued an album of studio recordings based on it's live arrangements. Without having the need to wear costumes and be submitted to various other pressures of a live show, the album would portray just how musically talented they really were. Hitting the film festival circuits was the documentary Condo Painting, directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things), about like-minded painter in spirit George Condo, part of the same rebellious circle that contained the eccentric geniuses that are William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The band contributed a number of previously released songs to it's soundtrack.
The new millennium brings Icky Flix- the band's first foray into the world of DVD. The band's entire set of music videos were included, (by now their Third Reich N' Roll video had been inducted into New York's Museum Of Modern Art) as was restructured ones, newly created pieces, and excerpts from Vileness Fats. The group took full advantage of the medium's storage capabilities- re-recording the songs in 5.1 surround (yet still making the original versions available)., Considering what they have done with the Bad Day CD-ROM, the collection only really acts like a teaser; and it is almost ominous to learn in a way that news of Vileness Fats surfacing on it's own DVD in the near future. One can imagine the hours spent trying to make sense of something the band themselves were trying to do.
The ongoing (and extensive) Icky Flix tour is nothing less than interactive- while the DVD projects onto a screen above, the band plays below- and audiences at times get to pick what they want to see and hear. Of course, a stereo soundtrack version CD with the same name was made available.
The year 2002 will mark their 30th anniversary as an official recording entity, and people still think they are "weird". Fox admits; "[People] think [The Residents] are going to be unpleasant to listen to and they're right to a degree. It's like I can't criticize it completely because it require a certain amount of attention and desire to actually try to get something out of it rather than just have it in the background. It's terrible background music, you wouldn't want it on while you were doing the dishes. It really works best with headphones and while sitting down but people don't really do that anymore. It's sort of a passe form now, to actually sit down quietly and listen to something. Basically, we can't escape music. You can't go anywhere anymore without hearing it, and more and more people try to somehow find a little piece and quiet instead."
Death withstanding, The Residents are very close to achieving what might be their ultimate goal: to combine visuals, music, sounds and interactive user-dictated storytelling into an indefinable medium. Fox chuckles upon hearing the theory, which in turn could be perceived as hitting the nail on the head or being way off. His reply is quaintly put, but certainly under suspect; "no comment. I can't comment about the future!"
Check out the Residents live on Primeticket!