Resident Memories

How a San Francisco art collective carved a unique path through the creative combination of art and technology.

Today in Tedium: After seeing The Residents perform updated versions of classic songs from their 1978 album Duck Stab! (Originally known as Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen) for Night Flight’s 40th anniversary, I was looking forward to seeing them perform those updated tracks in late August as the band finally went back out on tour. We were even going to film our own version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot for Tedium, Residents Parking Lot. It would’ve been the first concert I’ve attended since the last time I saw Weird Al. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the band ended up canceling the bulk of their North American tour dates. Instead of being upset over what we cannot control, we’re channeling our excitement and energy about The Residents into our version of an art project: an issue of Tedium. So, dust off your tuxedo and put in your favorite eyeball mask because today’s Tedium, we’re exploring The Residents’ blending of art, music, and technology, the Tedium way. Read to the end for something extremely residential. — David @ Tedium

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“A truly marvelous and besides excellent record. I mean it. ‘Goodbye Piano’ made me want to tear out my hair because it is so great, and I never tear out my hair!”

A passage from a letter from “A Resident” to R. Stevie Moore in response to the song “Goodbye Piano,” which caught the ear of one of The Residents and prompted an exchange between the two musical juggernauts following the release of Moore’s Four From Phonography sampler disc. Moore and his uncle were so excited that they inadvertently used the letter as an ad in an issue of Trouser Press, which prompted another letter from the band, continuing to praise Moore’s work and asking him a few follow-up questions about his creative process.

Residents Discs

A collection of discs by The Residents. (David Buck)

The merging of art and obscurity

San Francisco’s The Residents have always been at the forefront of technological innovations. From their early sound collages like Meet The Residents to fully formed stories like 2019’s Metal, Meat, and Bone: The Songs of Dying Dog, they’ve crafted many different and original multimedia projects, including plenty of DVDs, a few books, and music galore.

The Residents first began making art in the early ’70s. In 1972, they shot some critical sequences of a film called Vileness Fats on 16mm film. They shot the rest on ½ inch black and white videotape. It was supposed to be the first long-format music video. It was on a shoestring budget, time-consuming, and eventually abandoned in 1976. The videotape format they used to shoot it couldn’t make the transfer to 35mm, either, so the film was relegated to becoming part of the vast Residents legend. As Ian Shirley wrote in Never Known Questions, they shifted the focus to more music. Four of their friends formed a company called The Cryptic Corporation to act as a management/promotion agency. They also formed Ralph Records to sell the Residents’ albums and eventually sign other artists, including Fred Frith, Tuxedomoon, Snakefinger, Yello, and Reynaldo & the Loaf.

The history of The Residents is shrouded in obscurity and aptly covered elsewhere (we recommend Ian Shirley’s definitive text and Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity as starting points). We should also point out that there will be no discussion here speculating on the band’s identities. Who they may be is irrelevant to the sweeping vision of their art and music.

The Residents have continuously operated under what they dubbed “the theory of obscurity.” Under this idea, they could work on their art without worrying about anything getting in the way. Per Shirley:

[the theory of obscurity] laid down the mantra that The Residents would conceal their identities so that people could focus on the music, art, and visual presentation they created.

Listening to their body of work, one can hear the spiritual presence of Moondog, the sensibilities of Frank Zappa, the wit of Kurt Vonnegut, the otherworldly influence of Sun Ra, the ingenuity of Harry Partch, and maybe just a pinch of Elvis Presley’s rock & roll style. They even did an entire album of Elvis Presley covers/deconstructions called The King and Eye. Then there was that time they bought forty one-minute commercial slots on KFRC-AM radio (a San Francisco Top 40 station), ostensibly to play the entirety of The Commercial Album on the air during the station’s commercial breaks. And we can’t forget about their early masterpiece, Eskimo, for its atmospheric and occasionally ominous music (not to mention the insane story behind the record). They’ve collaborated with Todd Rundgren, Andy Partridge, Fred Frith, and Penn Jillette.

Under the guidance of the theory of obscurity, The Residents took a multimedia approach to create numerous albums, tour extensively, and carve out a spot in The Museum of Modern Art for all the work they’ve done over the years. Hardy Fox even tried to take advantage of bulletin board systems in the early 80s to help sell more records.

As one of the first bands to extensively use an E-Mu emulator 1—a sampler created by E-MU Systems of California—The Residents unlocked their creative potential. According to Shirley, they paid $10,000 for the unit with the serial number 005.

The emulator recorded two seconds of sound through a microphone and allowed the user to play it back as any tone over four octaves. Because the sound source could be anything, the emulator opened an entire box of creative worms for the group. They used it extensively but switched back to more traditional instruments and a synth mix over time.

For The Residents, visuals go hand-in-hand with the music. They have a distinctive visual style that’s almost instantly recognizable through the eyeball masks with tuxedos, the hyper-realistic faces, and the wild geometric shapes throughout their album art. But they also took video art seriously.

Indeed, they were music video pioneers and early adopters of blending visual arts with music. Their One Minute Movies project focused on innovative and bizarre music videos for four of the songs from The Commercial Album. Graeme Whifler—a friend and associate of the group—directed “Moisture” and “The Simple Song” while The Residents themselves directed the other two tracks (“Perfect Love” and “The Act of Being Polite”).

Much later, they’d reach out to artists and fans to help create videos for all 40 of the songs from The Commercial Album, resulting in The Commercial DVD, featuring not only their films but fantastic video interpretations for every song on the album plus some.

$3,700

The amount of money The Residents paid for an IBM-compatible Mindset Computer, released in 1984. The Residents used this machine, a fairly rare device that has only appeared on YouTube a couple of times, to create music videos. Using the Lumina graphics package, they made animated bits for their early videos. Before acquiring the Mindset, they used a Commodore for their effects. The Residents used the Mindset to generate special effects over a bleak live-action visual.

The Residents, shown visiting Washington D.C.

How The Residents inspired many of today’s most beloved artists

In his role as the spokesman/president for The Cryptic Corporation, Homer Flynn—who took over the role from former creative collaborator and generally amazing person Hardy Fox in 2015/2016—regularly fields questions about the band’s influences.

Hardy sadly passed in 2018, but Flynn carries on the tradition, answering questions and promoting the group these days. Whenever Flynn gets interviewed by someone, the conversation inevitably turns to who inspired and influenced The Residents. He always graciously provides a,n extensive list. But there isn’t as much focus on how their oeuvre has influenced other artists.

It extends pretty far as well and not only to musicians. Matt Groening—you know, the guy who created The Simpsons—wrote an essay about them in 1979 called The True Story of The Residents: A Brief Summary of Known Facts, Top Secrets, Hazy Details, Veiled Hints, and Blatant Lies. You can read it online.

Penn Jillette—who had a remarkable career as a computer columnist, alongside his role as half of Penn & Teller, and just generally being hilarious—narrated most of the shows in the tour, and it’s difficult sometimes not to associate him with The Residents.

For musicians, take the example of Ween and Primus, two fantastic bands that carry on the musical traditions and legacy of The Residents but add their creativity to the mix. Ween (influenced by R. Stevie Moore) are immensely creative and talented, playing rock songs and composing in a unique style. A deep vein of Residents-inspired music runs throughout albums like The Mollusk and The Pod.

In particular, Les Claypool (both solo and with Primus) pays homage to The Singing Resident’s vocal style on a great deal of Primus’ material. According to one of his musical collaborators, Sean Lennon, they’re his favorite band. In the 2015 documentary Theory of Obscurity, Claypool said, “the music and the visuals … it puts you in a space that’s odd, yet whimsical, yet kind of scary.”

While we’re fans of Ween and Primus, many other great musicians found inspiration from The Residents over time.

California’s The Radioactive Chicken Heads are one of those bands. With a sound blending Devo, The Residents, Oingo Boingo, and all things punk rock, they play a ton of great music—and wear costumes on stage. After seeing them in the Night Flight 40th anniversary show, we reached out to them to find out how the Residents inspired them. Here’s what they told us:

We first became aware of the Residents around the same time that we were forming the Chicken Heads, from seeing a feature on MTV News in 1992 about the Residents and their Freak Show project. Influenced by the Residents’ Theory of Obscurity, we found that creating music and art without revealing your personal identity is incredibly liberating. While we were initially fascinated by the mystery surrounding the group, the fact that the Residents have always pushed forward with futuristic technologies to present their unique artistic vision is truly inspiring.

Friend of Tedium Weird Paul Petroskey once performed an entire show of Residents covers with masks and all. His music shows a heavy Residents influence and he recorded at least a few covers: one in the ’80s with his sister for “Booker Tease” and another for the Freak Show track “Weight Lifting Lulu” that appeared on a Residents tribute album, The Residents Unmasked. When we reached out to him for this piece, Paul was more than happy to tell us about how The Residents inspired him:

The Residents were exactly what I needed to hear when I was 16. I’d read about them in books and magazines when I was 14 and I wanted to hear what they sounded like. I wasn’t going to hear them on the radio though and I couldn’t find their music in the record stores at the mall. I remember finally hearing the song “Moisture” on the Dr. Demento show in 1987, then seeing the “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” music video on Night Flight. By the time I was almost 18, I found their albums in an independent music store downtown and then got the Ralph Records catalog and started ordering as much as I could. I loved how otherworldly and creepy it sounded. Even though I was already a musician releasing my own albums by then, I still could not figure out how they made a lot of the sounds I was hearing. I also loved how their various albums sounded so different from each other...I enjoyed a challenge and the Residents gave it to me every time I put one of their records on the turntable. I started trying to write more stream-of-consciousness lyrics, make music with things that weren’t instruments...I even tried making my own strange movies and music videos inspired by the kind of things they had filmed in the 70s and 80s. The biggest influence the Residents probably had on me though was in saving everything that had to do with my own music. I read the book The Cryptic Guide To the Residents and I was amazed by how detailed it was, listing things that barely existed or how many hand-colored copies of a record there were. The Residents taught me that saving your OWN history was REAL important — because probably no one else would.

Last year, I gifted some extra Residents CDs I had to Paul, who made a nice thank you video for me. At that time, I learned his fiance, local Pittsburgh artist Niffer Desmond, made one of the videos that The Residents included on The Commercial DVD:

She was kind enough to take the time to tell us about how The Residents provide creative inspiration for her art:

I believe the first Residents song I heard as well as saw was “This Is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” in the mid early 80s and it stuck to the corner of my mind as a ditty in the realms of weird and absurd. I had seen the mysterious eyeball band, but it wasn’t until the end of the decade and the 90s that I really caught onto the wonders of their music and the boundaries they pushed. I heard and fell in love with the somber sounds of Eskimo and Mark of the Mole...and later the carnivalesque Freak Show. Their interactive “Bad day on the Midway” CD was a wonderful inspiration on possibilities of telling stories through emerging technologies and animation. I studied computer animation in college, though using real live puppets and stop motion were my medium of choice. After my surreal freakish puppet short “Fear and Fun with Fish” toured some festivals, I was primed to use my talents for others. The Residents’ call for animators for the Commercial Album DVD came at exactly the right time. It was a match made in heaven and I was happy to create the bizarre 1 minute short video for “Margaret Freeman.” I am grateful to the Residents for all their brilliance in finding ways to bring their sublimely dark and absurd talent into the eyes of the mainstream, inspiring and collaborating with others along the way.

Hey, we’re all Residents around here.

1995

The year Inscape released Bad Day On The Midway on CD-ROM. Intended as a pseudo-sequel to Freak Show, it featured a storyline revolving around a twisted carnival. Featuring art and animation from Jim Ludtke, along with the requisite Residents soundtrack, the game is a spectacle to behold. It’s a strange game that reviewed well and ticks all the boxes of what an interactive Residents themed adventure might look like in practice. An official strategy guide came out for the game, and a novelization arrived in 2012 for folks who might not be as engaged with mid-90s computer games.

The Cryptic Kings of CD-ROM

Mark of the Mole was initially being made into an Atari 2600 game by developer Greg Easter. It was a sort of rhythm game, but it became an abandoned project at some point during development. A prototype exists, but the developers later stopped development on the title for some reason.

It wouldn’t be the only attempt at a Residents video game, but it would be the only one intended for a home console. As home computer technology evolved during the early 1990s, The Residents saw a unique opportunity in the realm of CD-ROM games.

During the early part of the 1990s, The Residents teamed up with renowned artist Jim Ludkte to bring some of their creations to life in the form of personal computer games.

Freak Show marked the debut of their creations on CD-ROM. It’s more or less an interactive version of the album with distinct visuals and received immense praise at the time for its realistic visuals. It marked a transitional point for CD-ROM in general, showcasing what CD-ROMs could do and, specifically, what a creative force like The Residents could accomplish with the medium.

Bad Day On The Midway is a full-fledged 3D adventure game. Per The Residents, the actors who portray the characters “were filmed, and the images of their real eyes and mouths were superimposed on the computer-generated three-dimensional models of the characters on-screen.” That explains a lot. But for more insight into how it was made, you can’t beat the official behind the scenes interview with Jim Ludtke, programmer Iain Lamb, and Cryptic Corporation officers Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox:

We’ve written about The Gingerbread Man before, but experiencing the CD-ROM version of the tale is certainly an experience.

A fourth CD-ROM project was in the proposal stage for Inscape, but it never came out as a game, debuting instead as a CD compilation.

“Sheesh, there’s so much to say. CD-ROMs, laser disc, computer animation, lighting and video, digital recording … even music videos!”

Anthony Garone, the author/musician behind Make Weird Music, where he does in-depth interviews on creativity with unique musicians of all stripes. MWM operates under the mission statement: “shining a light on the world’s most creative musicians.” Knowing him to be a bit of an authority on the subject, we asked him his thoughts on the creative legacy of The Residents and how they used technology to significant effect. The conversation quickly turned into the two of us discussing their work, their connections to Todd Rundgren, and how they were pioneers ahead of their time. Stay tuned for more on that sometime in the future!

Residents Dot Com

The Residents used the internet to enhance their creative legacy

For most of the 21st century, The Residents nurtured a fascination with the internet and its various machinations. Taking advantage of different content forms — internet video, podcasts, online distribution, crowdfunding, and extensive box sets—The Residents tell their unique stories in utterly fascinating ways. They even wrote a novel in 2018 called The Brickeaters. It prominently features a person who moderates internet content for a living and a writer/detective teaming up to investigate an even more bizarre event.

The Residents saw the value of internet distribution and short-form internet video as an art form early on. They started releasing free downloadable tracks each month in 1999, eventually compiling every song as a limited edition CD. In 2006, they created a short 1940s-style true crime radio drama in podcast form, The River of Crime. River of Crime was a five-episode, character-driven tale about a man who collects crimes. They got a little more ambitious with The Bunny Boy—a simultaneously bizarre and fantastic project—a few years later, in 2008. As an album, The Bunny Boy focuses on fast, energetic songs invoking the mood of a coming apocalypse. It rocks and sounds like a full-fledged rock show in its presentation.

The Internet video series dials up the insanity of a bit—which is saying something—as it follows the story of the bunny boy searching for his last brother. Curious listeners can find the video series on YouTube, but keeping with the most beautiful tradition of The Residents themselves, we’ll just say that you’ll have to look for it yourself. The first video kicks off with a jittery, almost blurry look through a cluttered room and a voice at the end saying, “I have a story to tell,” all while accompanied by a very residential soundtrack. There were 66 videos in all.

The Bunny Boy concept even featured an interactive component, where viewers were encouraged to speak with Bunny via email to influence the story’s direction. They’d continue to write, record, and tour during The Talking Light, Wonder of Weird, and Shadowland tours over the next decade.

In 2017, The Residents dipped their eyeballs into the world of crowdfunding with their I Am A Resident campaign. I tried to sign up, but I missed the deadline. The campaign was a resounding success, leading to a double album filled with some fascinating are you experiments and incredible fan covers of a wide variety of Residents’ songs. Not content to rest on their laurels, they brought us another masterpiece: Metal, Meat, & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog. This album used modern documentary-style visuals and a “behind the music” format to dive into the world of American blues.

They made a mini-documentary about this mysterious musician, released remasters of the original songs they found on vinyl, and reimagined them in their inimitable style. Of course, the idea that it’s all a fabrication might be the ruse here. But that’s half the fun, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I have been told that there are two things The Residents miss about the past: the serendipitous accident and naiveté. Digital technology often allows too much control; consequently, it’s far too easy to fix something as opposed to accepting it and contriving a preposterous reason for its existence.”

Homer Flynn, current president/Captain Doc of The Cryptic Corporation, in a 1998 online interview. Speaking directly to their use of technology in their writing process, Flynn clarifies that while improved technology does change the process, it also makes it easier to create new exciting things. Flynn later expands on the Residents’ creativity in a 2016 interview with Make Weird Music. He states, “they [The Residents] are not afraid to be themselves, not afraid to be original.” For The Residents, technology remains a significant part of carrying on that creative legacy.

We may never know the identities behind the eyeballs (wink), but that’s half the fun of being a Residents fan. It doesn’t matter who’s face or identity is behind the masks—the unmistakable legacy of creative music and unique artwork that ultimately stands the test of time is what really matters.

While it’s unlikely there will be another one of those Ultimate Box Sets available to fans—especially after the unfortunate aftermath of what happened with the one that did sell—the push to preserve the music and art of The Residents is high not only among fans but by the artists themselves.

A few years ago, Cherry Red Records began the arduous task of collecting, remastering, and packaging The Residents’ discography in their PREServed series. The CDs come with plenty of demos, extra tracks, unreleased material, and in-depth historical essays that offer insight into the work itself. From the first release of Meet the Residents to the most recent release of Gingerbread Man, each one is a tangible testament to their work and legacy. Some of them, like The Mole Show and CUBE-E, collect multiple albums into a single package. In a world where so much is ephemeral—and albums swiftly go out of print—it’s refreshing to see these records available to the public at large. It’s never been easier to experience The Residents’ tremendous art and music in all their glory. While they may not catch everyone’s ear or tastes, their art is worth checking out at least once—even if you don’t become a regular listener.

We, of course, have our favorite albums (for me, that’s God in Three Persons, Demons Dance Alone, Eskimo, and Gingerbread Man), but we’ll let you decide where to begin. Oh, and remember when we told you to stay tuned to the end of something genuinely residential? Behold, The Resi-Duck:

Eyeball Duck

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Thanks again to David for going all in on The Residents. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!

David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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