The masked enigma known as The Residents
Active since the late ‘60s, The Residents are a legendary performance collective that’s remained one of the most unknown groups in any subheading of performance art despite being one of the most intensely celebrated. To this day they’re still very much an enigma, falling in the cracks between music and theater, celebrity and mystery.
For newbies to the group, The Residents are a melding of music and visual art, and in live shows typically feature four members wearing eyeball-shaped helmets or other face-obscuring adornments. Throughout its history, the group has kept the identities of its members a tight secret, with the only connection to the outside world through its aptly named management team, The Cryptic Corporation. So while The Residents may be considered outsider musicians with shifty origins—much like the infamously illusive Jandek—likewise the group has had a great influence on modern avant-garde dignitaries such as Animal Collective and Primus. Bringing their latest innovative show to Santa Cruz this week, The Residents perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23, at the Rio Theatre.
Supposedly, The Residents do not give interviews, but often nominate one Hardy Fox of The Cryptic Corporation to speak on their behalf. According to The Residents’ mythology, Fox is one of four original members of the Corporation, and one of only two remaining to this day. But much of the speculation surrounding The Residents purports that Fox is an actual member—and forms the creative core with Homer Flynn—of The Residents. However, he still denies this, and unflinchingly claims to simply play a business role, and throughout our talk refers to The Residents in third person.
“We’re a pretty small operation,” says Fox, speaking about The Cryptic Corporation. “We all wear a lot of different hats, and my job has become a lot of paper pushing,” he says while lamenting his supposed lack of involvement in behind-the-knobs music production. Though later in our chat Fox claims he hasn’t seen what the group is working on, he speaks intimately of plans for “their” upcoming tour and discusses the creative impetus for several recent projects.
Rather than a straightforward band, Fox describes The Residents as “more like a collection of skilled craftsmen. They approach [art] like a producer: idea based, not music based.” And in defining the group’s general philosophy, Fox says “you want the things you work on to not go obsolete, so [The Residents] tend to stay away from things that are topical.” And part of that, surely, is the visual aspect of the group and the way it has integrated the two aspects of its identity. “Much of what we (referring both to The Residents and The Cryptic Corporation) do is in using technology in different ways—making things more efficient, feasible, and streamlined.”
In 2007 The Residents began a project in which they posted weekly videos on YouTube; extremely abstract and featuring imagery along the lines of a David Lynch flick or Nine Inch Nails’ infamous music video for “Closer.” “It’s a live story—YouTube is the project,” explains Fox. “It’s a very time-aware thing, and The Residents were touring during the process of creating the story.” Though that project, “The Bunny Boy,” has since been taken down from Internet-video goliath in lieu of a DVD release, there are several other (equally bizarre) visual projects from The Residents easily searchable. But viewer be warned, do not expect your typical MTV fare.
More than 40 years since the group began, The Residents are gearing up for another tour, using the Rio stage for a “test show” before their trek officially begins a week later. “Have you ever heard of pico projectors?” Fox asks me, before describing the technology that the group will be using to project images from the palm of their hands, adding a new visual dimension to their live performance. It’s yet another way of connecting their music to “interface with the real world.”
The Residents perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $26.25 in advance. For more information, call 423-8209 or go to residents.com.