THE RESIDENTS: CONTROLLED MISINFORMATION
The Residents consist of x number of masked and anonymous artists who have been engaged in collective multimedia expression in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1970s, though the group’s core members have known each other since their childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. They are best known for their music, which prosecutes the same visionary tradition as Pere Ubu, Negativland, Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The Residents do not communicate directly with the press, but Hardy Fox and Homer Flynn of the Cryptic Corporation, who have managed the Residents since 1976, represent the band in interviews. For a short time on December 30, 2009, Oliver Hall, who only occasionally stops listening to the Residents, say if he needs to leave the basement to do something important like sell plasma or take out a payday loan so that he can buy more Residents media, was able to stop watering their oeuvre with his tears just long enough to talk to the wise and hospitable Hardy Fox by video chat.
I know that L.A. is the city where one of the eyeball heads was stolen in 1985, and I hope that didn’t leave too much of a blot on our fair city’s reputation—do the Residents feel okay about playing in L.A.?
Hardy Fox (Crypticorp representative): I don’t think it’s been given any more thought.
Well, I apologize on our city’s behalf. I know the Residents have always created their own world, but I wonder if there are any artists that they think of as peers, or that they’ve been in a friendly competition with.
Hardy Fox: No. There’s not a lot of people that even resemble vaguely what they do. There have been in the past, I suppose, but still at the same time I don’t think they ever considered themselves in a competitive position because it was too small of a world. There’s nothing to compete for. It’s not like only one can win the Super Bowl, or something like that. They’re basically in a field where nobody wins; it’s only a field for losers. And particularly I suppose in American culture. Because people in America, being a democratic society and voting on everything—it’s like voting is done with dollars in America, and so success is based upon money. And the Residents are not driven by money, they’re driven by ideas, so they’re doomed to be considered failures no matter what, and we like it that way. I don’t remember what the question was now, I think I wandered off.
Whether there’s any artists that the Residents think of as peers—it doesn’t have to be musicians.
Hardy Fox: No, it wouldn’t be musicians. Partly because they don’t really listen to music. It’s not like they don’t hear music, because they do hear it all the time. But there’s not really anybody that I know of that, like, there’s a new release by that they would rush out to listen to, because for the most part it’s all down to pop and rock or country and western now. Or rap I guess. But all of those are really such old forms at this point; from [the Residents’] point of view, these are all people who are stuck in the past, so they don’t really have anything to offer educationally. These are people who just continually exploit an old form over and over again, and that’s why it’s gotten so boring, and also why the music business is doing so poorly. But, you know, they still like to watch television, surprisingly enough. They like movies. They even like poetry.
Any particular poets?
Hardy Fox: I don’t know offhand. … They pay a lot of attention to the culture—they’re not really removed from the culture in general, but they do tend to think that in the past few decades too much emphasis has been put on music. That there’s been more interest in music than it deserved. That other things, like poetry, have not gotten the attention that they deserved. And that’s one of the things that they do like about the entire rapping and hip-hop movements, is that it’s brought poetry back to the front again. Because they tended to see that more, at least in the early days, as poetry set to rhythm, rather than music per se.
It’s almost become a cliché about the Residents that they’re usually in the first group to start using any emerging technology, whether it’s the E-MU synthesizer or the Big Brother BBS or the CD-ROM stuff we were talking about. Is there some new technology that the Residents wish was more cheaply available and widely distributed?
Hardy Fox: I haven’t heard anything get mentioned recently, though I have heard a number of times when talking about performance that they really wish that the whole holographic world had made some advances, because it seems like at this point in time stage production should be much greater than what you can actually physically put on the stage. Even a Britney show or something where you’re driving sixteen trucks around with your set or something like that, it seems like it should pretty much just be on a disk. And it should take you into worlds that you could never see or experience. They’ve also said that they’ve always wanted—and thought it should be possible—to have music that causes a simultaneous orgasm in the audience. They thought that would be really good. Really sell well.
I wonder if there’s a frequency range for orgasms, if there’s a particular note that hits you just right in the …
Hardy Fox: Well, it’s probably more complicated than that, and a lot of the complication is the fact that people are so different as individuals as far as what would set them off. But there probably is some kind of stimulus, a more complex thing that could be done. I don’t know; that’s the kind of way they think, though. Actually, they always wanted to have an album, like a gatefold album that when you opened it, it was just a hole—and it would give you instant vertigo, like you would be terrified to open it because you could fall into it and get lost.
Like a bottomless pit—inside the record? Is that what you’re talking about, Hardy?
Hardy Fox: Exactly. It opens up—it would just terrify you because it would just be so empty.
I guess with holographs, the Residents wouldn’t even have to be there for the show, right? It would be like Kraftwerk’s dream of doing simultaneous shows with robots in big cities around the world while they’re controlling it from a tower in Germany.
Hardy Fox: That’s pretty close to already happening. Movie theaters now will show a live 3-D performance of something that’s been somewhere. That’s close to that realm, without actually having to send out robots.
How much has the business aspect of what the Residents do changed? To take the CD-ROM projects for example—I remember that during the ’90s it seemed like the possibilities of that format were just going to keep growing exponentially. But the whole structure of that business changed.
Hardy Fox: Well, your way of thinking is exactly the way the Residents were thinking. They really thought that this was the new form—this was going to be the new entertainment, you know, and it wasn’t. They were producing really strong titles, but they weren’t necessarily titles that satisfied the mass market, which ultimately went in the gaming route—more in the Xbox or PlayStation direction, and they weren’t really interested in doing that. So that space between the Xbox game and television sort of just didn’t get filled anymore. There’s a hole there that something could go in. It tried, but it didn’t quite make it. They really had pretty much put everything into that basket—they really thought that that was totally where they were going to go. And in truth, that ties back into what I was saying earlier about ten years ago, when they decided that they would put a band together and try something that was more band-based. And that was coming straight out of the fact that they had redefined themselves entirely into this visual musical storytelling style for CD-ROM and this interactive thing, and when that collapsed they found themselves without really anything because they had put all their eggs in that basket. So they had to sort of start from scratch—that’s when they started this band direction. I think that now what’s happening is sort of the same thing again. They feel like the whole music industry and the whole download thing—and basically what music has become, which is largely so ever-present in our lives that we can’t escape music—that it’s just not taken as seriously. It’s much more accepted as background, or as something you play in the car or something like that, and that’s not really what they do either.
I imagine when the Residents started out, it was really before the media was monopolized to such an extent. You didn’t hear rock songs in shopping malls and drug stores like you do now.
Hardy Fox: No. It was all, like, 101 Strings! Muzak. But now, you know, it’s just ever-present. And the positive side of that, though, is that everyone makes music now. It’s not just a third-party thing anymore. It’s become accessible for people, and so making music is now more important, I think, than listening to music. And I think that’s cool. They think it’s cool too. They think everyone should—that the experience of participating is much better than just observing it.
What can you tell me about the ‘Talking Light’ show?
Hardy Fox: Well, that’s sort of a wide question …
Can you tell me how it’s different from the ‘Bunny Boy’ shows?
Hardy Fox: Well, ‘The Bunny Boy’ didn’t play L.A., so you probably didn’t see it.
No, unfortunately I didn’t.
Hardy Fox: OK. ‘The Bunny Boy’ was sort of like the end of the band series of shows, so this is sort of like the beginning of a new phase. You know, the Residents like to reinvent themselves from time to time; that’s basically how they’ve survived all these years. I can’t say much about it—I actually haven’t seen any rehearsals yet, but what I understand is that it’s definitely more performance art-driven and will be a lot more unpredictable and abstract than the previous tours have been. I think in a lot of ways they wanted to really break the old format that they were in. They had sort of gone over to a band format for the last ten years, and had worked with that—somewhat from the point of view of thinking that that might bring them more into alignment with the changes in the music business because so many people seemed to be more interested in buying songs and that type of thing. For downloading purposes and everything. So they thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s a direction that should be explored.’ So they started working more in the song format and working with a band. And that didn’t really prove to make much difference, I suppose. So now they’re done with that—they’ve abandoned the download-friendly concept and have gone to download-unfriendly.
Except that the Residents just launched their own MP3 download store, right? Is that more of an album-oriented format?
Hardy Fox: Well, no. Actually that’s a very good point because tied with this is the fact that this particular project—normally, they would release an album, and then they would tour in support of that album. So this is not that way. There is no album because the experiment this time is to record every show and have it immediately go up as a download—the entire show. And to have that night’s show online within an hour of the end of the show. So that becomes the form of distribution—not a CD. There is no CD. That’ll be the form, and so basically people can pick [the tracks] they want to hear and download them.
Is it possible that this will lead into another recording project—maybe in the way that the ‘Bunny Boy’ internet series did?
Hardy Fox: You mean like a studio project? Possibly. I really don’t know because what makes this really desirable on their part is that the shows will not repeat themselves every night. Usually, their shows are written shows, and the differences between the shows are pretty subtle. But this one is going to be more radical from night to night.
More of an improv element?
Hardy Fox: Yeah, there is. It’s not going to be jazz in the way it sounds, but it’s going to be similar to jazz in the fact that some of it is structured and some of it is not structured. So they will be as surprised themselves as to what happens at times because there are a number of points where it’s sort of on its own to figure out what it’s going to do and where it’s going to go. So part of what they’ve been working on is really trying to get a blend of those elements. They don’t want to do an improv show because so often those are just disastrously boring. It’s sort of the nature of that beast in that when an improv show really clicks and really works, it could be the best show ever, but when it doesn’t click, it’s the worst show ever. There’s a high element of risk, but the Residents are getting older and they feel like it’s time to get riskier. It’s time to take more chances, because you don’t know when the last tour’s going to be, and so you don’t want to feel like you just played it safe through your last tour. So I think things might get wilder over the next few years. Basically, like they said—they have nothing to lose at this point. You know, even if people don’t like what they do, it doesn’t really matter at this point.
If I had to do a top ten list for this decade, my number one album would be the Residents’ Eskimo DVD. The 5.1 mix is so beautiful, and the visual presentation really brings out the stories—it really sharpened my appreciation of how narrative those pieces are, how each one really tells a story.
Hardy Fox: Yeah, they’re quite literal. As abstract as they are, they’re really quite literal in their storytelling.
Is there any chance that there will be more 5.1 mixes of old albums?
Hardy Fox: The odds are actually pretty low on that because the thing that made Eskimo really possible was that it was an analog multitrack recording, so it was possible to go back to that recording and do that. If you go earlier than that, a lot of the recordings are not multitracks, or they’re low-level multitracks where things have been mixed together and it’s been built by overdubbing and stacking stuff, and so they’re not really right for a surround mix. Very far on the other side of that, then, you go into MIDI work, and a lot of the MIDI files only existed as MIDI files and they’re no longer playable. The MIDI files are all there, but what they are etched to—the sounds—are no longer available.
Hardy Fox: And a lot of times the software is no longer available, because a lot of the early software they used to use is no longer made.
Not Available is one of my favorite Residents records, and it sounds to me like Meet the Residents was recorded pretty basically, that there probably wasn’t even a studio for Meet the Residents—that it was more or less recorded just with mics.
Hardy Fox: It’s very primitive, yeah.
But Not Available sounds like a kind of quantum leap—can you tell me if that was recorded under different circumstances?
Hardy Fox: Partly it comes a few years later; I don’t know exactly, maybe it’s no more than two years later. But I don’t know if it’s that different. I know there’s synthesis on Not Available that wasn’t on Meet the Residents. Meet the Residents is more like people actually playing horns and things. I don’t know exactly the dateline of when the synthesizer started coming in, but I know it was considered a revolutionary concept—of being able to synthesize sound—when it happened, and hugely, quickly embraced. I’m just curious—I can see you, so I can see that you’re very young—how do you know all this stuff and how did you make this connection?
I didn’t know anything about contemporary rock music growing up, and I kind of stumbled on the Residents at about the age of 7. I was a weird kid, and I had no idea who they were or what their context was. I thought they were, like, a cool English pop band because the first song I heard was ‘The Act of Being Polite.’ So I used to ask older people, ‘Do you know this cool band the Residents?’ And they would usually not have heard of them. So I started collecting Residents stuff just in isolation, and I joined the fan club—but information about the band was a lot harder to come by in those days, and I suppose the band probably had more control over the information in those days.
Hardy Fox: Yeah, there was a lot more control. These days, it’s one of the main reasons that we actually launched into supporting a website—because there wasn’t an official website for a long time, and even the one that there was that was sort of official wasn’t really official—RzWeb I think it was—so when we started this other one [www.residents.com], part of it was to try to regain some control over the information because it was going in so many different directions and there was so much rumor stuff, and so much misinformation out there. Not that misinformation is a problem, because misinformation is part of the process, but controlled misinformation. There’s definitely a lot more control over the information again; even though there’s a lot more information, it’s more tightly controlled. It wasn’t necessarily the intent, but our website has been so hugely successful that it’s pretty much driven all the other websites out of existence—other Residents sites can’t really compete with it.
There seemed to be so much loving attention to the artwork on Residents records, and the RalphAmerica catalog used to sell all sorts of great objects, but on the other hand I know the Residents aren’t particularly sentimental about old forms. I don’t remember them being particularly attached to vinyl—do they miss the material object of the album?
Hardy Fox: No, they’re sort of amazingly non-nostalgic, I guess. It’s like they’ve always had such a strong sense of what’s coming next, so the whole thing of looking back is always a little weird for them. They’ve been confronted with that quite a lot lately because there’s been much more of a push of digging back into old recordings for the download store—because there’s interest in some of the stuff historically or because there is so much information. There’s just so much data, but their tendency has been over the years to just ignore it. I mean, they do lots of experiments and they try a lot of things, but then they just sort of stick it away; it was never really intended to be part of a project or something. But when you’re working under a system where the idea is that you make an album a year or something like that, where you have your CD for this year come out or something, obviously you do a lot of stuff that never ends up being used. Particularly if it’s a concept project, you do a lot of material that isn’t appropriate for that concept. Or maybe a test for concepts that you never really realize. But now with this download store thing, the download store can take ten minutes of music or fifteen minutes of music and sell it just as a download, and it doesn’t have to turn into a CD with a big package thing and shipped all over the place and promoted and all this stuff. You can just put it up, and if people are interested they can download it. But it’s meant that a lot of the stuff has come back to the Residents because with the system that we have, nothing is allowed to go up in the download store unless it’s been approved. So everything has to go back to the Residents to check out, to say, ‘Are you okay with this going out there?’ So it’s sort of forcing them to be confronted with some of this nostalgia and this old stuff, and it’s interesting—it’s had an impact on them. Some that they’re surprised how much they like it when they didn’t really think that they did at the time they did it. It’s curious. It probably will impact the new show and things. I think they’re going to be playing some obscure old pieces just because they thought it would be fun to dig stuff up that they hadn’t really paid any attention to but that they’ve been subjected to recently because of going through stuff for the download store.
Are there archival releases slated to come out down the line? Stuff coming out in 2010 maybe that they’re looking at right now?
Hardy Fox: Yeah—they’re looking at stuff right now, but it’s been very difficult to get their attention for the last few weeks because they’re working on the show and they’re trying to get that off the ground. And so the whole nature of the download store at this point is that its focus has really changed over to preparing for this hopefully massive amount of live recordings that’s gonna start flowing into the store. I think there are seventeen U.S. shows currently, and I know that there are eight confirmed shows for Europe and there’ll be a lot more, and so if every show gets recorded and released, it’s gonna be every day 90 minutes of material going up there. Which is going to be really demanding to get done, because it has to be mixed and prepared and uploaded—so it’s gonna be a big job. But it’s going to change the whole nature of the store—at least temporarily. Through the spring it’s going to focus a lot more on new material. It’s not going to be so much about the old material or the nostalgic material, but it’ll be the new material. And I think that’s pretty interesting because it’s potentially directional for the way they’re going to do things in the coming years—where things will just be going up into the download store all the time, and the whole concept of making CDs will just disappear. They might not make any more CDs. Or if they do, the CDs will become the nostalgia, where things that are from the download store, or from those recordings, may be collected and released on CD—but still, that will be the old stuff. So we’re starting to see the beginning of this shift, and I think that’s pretty exciting. Sometimes it’s just really hard, you know? The world is changing so fast, and technology changes all the time, and people’s heads change all the time, and so to be able to react to that and to change who you are to go along with that is really important to the continuation. Otherwise, there’s a tendency to sort of start imitating yourself, and then the Residents start doing what they think the Residents should do because this is what the Residents do. And they can’t allow that; it’s that whole thing where the tail starts wagging the dog instead of the dog wagging the tail. They’re all control freaks; they’re complete control freaks, and so the worst thing they can imagine is being controlled by themselves. You know, they would hate that more than anything. Because while that seems like the most desirable situation, it’s actually the least desirable situation. Then you become a cliché of yourself, and life no longer offers surprises and excitement, and that’s what they live for.
Do you know what the current status is of the old Ralph Records catalog?
Hardy Fox: You mean the other artists that used to be on Ralph?
Yeah, the original Ralph catalog. I don’t know how much the band itself was involved …
Hardy Fox: Not a great deal. They sort of started it but hated being in the record business aspect of it, so as soon as they got a chance to get out of it, they did. I was much more involved in it. All the other acts that were on the label were released from contracts, if they were still under contract, I guess around the early ’80s. The whole existence of Ralph Records and the success of it was based on the fact that there was this whole new wave phenomenon, where there was this really strong interest in independent music and independently recorded music and experimental music. But it was a fad thing that died out rather quickly, and when it did it brought down lots of labels, including Ralph. There just wasn’t any interest in that, and it disappeared, and bands that had gained any reputation at that time got grabbed by majors so a lot of the main acts of small labels got moved into larger labels. And so the small record companies tended to disappear. With Ralph, we just released all the artists from their contracts and focused the entire attention back onto the Residents. Because the Residents were actually suffering from not getting as much attention. Other bands were getting more attention, and the facilities were limited, and so it made everything get spread a little thin. Once again, a situation of things changed, and so we all changed the whole setup and the whole system to keep in step with it. One of the first things that we did after shaking loose the artists from Ralph was basically we closed Ralph down. We moved the Residents onto Ryko at that point—we did what everybody else was doing, which was to take our lead star and find major distribution for them. So we did the same thing that everybody else did. We basically closed Ralph, and we licensed the name back to Tom Timony, and he ran an operation known as Ralph and put out some albums and stuff by other people.
He did T.E.C. Tones, right?
Hardy Fox: He did T.E.C. Tones, and T.E.C. Tones grew out of Ralph, because he had a five-year contract, so after the five-year contract for using the name Ralph Records ended, he no longer had the rights to the name Ralph, so he became T.E.C. Tones. And then Ralph got moved back—we actually started Ralph back up again as a mail order business, and we ran that with Sarah and Molly. Sarah and Molly ran Ralph for us after that as a mail order business, and then from that we started EuroRalph and RalphAmerica. When that contract ended [laughs], basically then we started the next version of it, which is the one that Dren is still running, and then one in Germany that’s EuroRalph, which has gone out of business.
Do you have any advice for young folks trying to make it in the music business?
Hardy Fox: The music business definitely used to be easier. The Residents always said that the only reason they did music was because there was a market for it. They could have just as easily gone into film or something like that, but it was too expensive to get into, and there wasn’t the wide acceptance for a product. Music was the thing that was the simplest to do and the simplest to market. You know, they’re pragmatic that way. And that’s not really so much true now; in fact, the mere thing I mentioned earlier about the fact that it’s so easy to make music now, and that everyone is making music now—that’s become more important than finding people to listen to it or to sell it, so it’s very difficult. I’ve often thought that I wouldn’t want to be starting out at this point in time trying to go into music.
I suppose it’s ridiculous, but I still hold out hope that the Residents will finish the Mole sequence and the American Composers series at some point, though for some reason I have no such illusions about Vileness Fats. Have the Residents abandoned the Mole trilogy and the American Composers project forever?
Hardy Fox: The Residents never abandon anything, despite the existence of the GRAVEYARD in the Historical [section of the website]. Projects often are put on the shelf, which means they are on hold. But truthfully, I see no likelihood that Moles or the American Composers series will get continued unless they run out of new ideas to want to spend their time on. As they get older they are getting more careful about what they work on—knowing that a project at some point will be their last one.
How were the Residents involved in Negativland’s Escape From Noise? Are they just credited on the album because Negativland sampled them, or did they participate more actively?
Hardy Fox: The Residents had no involvement in Escape From Noise other than a sample and enjoying it.
I could ask you fanboy questions for another few hours, but I’ll spare you that torment.
Hardy Fox: Actually, I feel honored that someone of your youth seems to have as much knowledge and information about things that I have spent my life working on, and so that somewhat honors me that it wasn’t just working out into the void that’s inside that album cover, waiting.