Most people have never heard of The Residents. The band has had no commercial hits and arguably its most famous, iconic song is a cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” a 1953 novelty hit by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon. Founded in 1969, from the early days, The Residents have performed in various costumes—most notably wearing giant eyeball masks with a top hat. The speculation on the identity of the members of the band have included people “knowing” Frank Zappa, Les Claypool and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo are members of the band. There is a rumor that Homer Flynn, the band’s longtime art director, and designer of most of the album covers, is in the band as well. All of which has been denied or ignored by representatives of The Residents.
Whatever the identity of the band members or its relative obscurity, its deconstructing and reconstructing of American popular music has given the world some of its most unusual, fascinating and brillint music of the modern era. For example, The Residents have done albums dedicated to American composers like John Philip Sousa and George Gershwin. The Residents have reworked songs by Elvis and James Brown and, as on its 1978 classic Duck Stab, traditional songs like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” as a warped and spooky song called “Farmers” which weaves in “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Three Blind Mice.” By following their creative instincts, The Residents, whether as interpreters of song, a long tradition in American music, or in crafting original songs, have established themselves as one of the most original and unusual bands on the basis of their recordings alone.
Live, The Residents always incorporate multimedia elements from costumes to video projections and stage sets if the tour, such as the disastrously expensive 1983 The Mole Show tour whose production cost and execution nearly did in any other touring for the band.
“They lost so much money and it was so difficult they said they would never tour again,” says Homer Flynn. “They definintely ranged it back, otherwise they wouldn’t have lived this long. That idea, though, has always been part of their planning for a show.”
The most elaborate shows Flynn says require a more stable setting with a production company coming in to help with the execution in a setting that wouldn’t really work for a touring show. But even the more scaled back presentation is striking and on the highly theatrical 2002 tour for Demons Dance Alone and even the more modest set of 2016’s Shadowland tour it was obvious that you were witnessing a band whose storytelling and persona mythmaking involves a rich creative exercise that most other bands don’t undertake.
The Residents have several high profile fans including their friend Penn Jillette, Simpsons creator Matt Groening and the aforementioned Les Claypool whose band Primus has covered Residents songs including “Sinister Exaggerator” on the 1992 Miscellaneous Debris EP. Even though such deeply imaginative music and shows rarely result in mainstream success, The Residents remain a much respected group to those who have had a chance to delve into any of their albums and seen a show. In an age when there seems little mystery left in art and music, The Residents have retained the mystique and not just because the identities of the members of the band remains a public mystery.
No one writes albums quite like 1988’s lurid yet mystical God in Three Persons or any of The Residents’ several story style albums since the 80s. In the mid-90s few adopted new technology and utilized it as fully as The Residents did for the 1994 CD-ROM edition of 1990’s Freak Show. Podcasts are a common thing of the past several years but The Residents released a noir story album as a podcast in 2006 with The River of Crime. In 2015 a documentary film about The Residents called Theory of Obscurity told the band’s story using previously inaccessible archival footage and interviews with Flynn and other partners in The Cryptic Corporations as well as many of the band’s fans, famous and otherwise.
Currently the band is in the middle of its In Between Dreams Tour making its live debut in Denver at The Bluebird Theater on Saturday, April 14. We had the chance to talk with Flynn about the band, its inspirations in some of America’s most flamboyantly theatrical performers, how The Cryptic Corporation was essentially saved by fans of the band and Flynn’s early experiences with finding music in suburban Shreveport, Louisiana, where the band started before relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Queen City Sounds and Art: Did you have access to non-mainstream music or art when you were growing up?
Homer Flynn: Basically, no. I grew up in pretty straight, white, middle class suburbs. I was always a music fan and I was always seeking out new music. At that time radio was really the best exposure that you had. So I had a handful of stations that I would listen to. Back then there were certain stations you could listen to late at night. It has something to do with atmospheric conditions after a lot of other stations signed off. I would listen to stations like WNRE in New Orleans that I listened to regularly. Also WLOS in Chicago and XERF, which was Wolfman Jack, from Mexico. For me that was the only way I could get exposed to new stuff. There was a very mainstream culture at that time.
Some people take for granted that didn’t exist back then like any viable alternative kind of radio station. Although, until the early 90s, late at night some stations relaxed their control over what DJs played so you could hear a very different kind of programming than the normal faire.
Exactly. When I first came to San Francisco it was wide open. It was just as FM was starting to take off. The reality is that the corporate powers that be hadn’t figured out how to make a lot of money at it yet. So you would have a DJ that would be on for four hours playing whatever seemed cool. In a lot of ways FM at that time was kind of like how the Internet is now—more open with a lot more stuff available.
What prompted you to make the move
There were two things going on for me. One, those were George Wallace times back in the South—the original Trump. Most of the people I knew at that point had escaped or left. For me, I’d always said that I was ready to get out of the South. The main thing upon leaving is that you have to have a landing spot. I had a good landing spot in the Bay Area. If I’d had a landing spot in New York I could easily have gone there.
The Residents have deconstructed and reconstructed Western popular music for much of its career. Overtly with stuff like The King & Eye from 1989, [1984’s George and James and “Farmers,” with traditional songs. Why was that important to the band?
The Residents have always had a great love for music. All kinds of music. Even though they’ve been mainly marketed as a rock act, their taste has always been much broader than that. Things like the American Composers series allowed them to stretch out in ways that weren’t necessarily expected.
Many of The Residents’ albums from the 80s going forward seem like fascinating and imaginative works of fiction presented in a multimedia format rather than through prose.
I think that’s true. I think for The Residents they always felt like there were stories inherent in the lyrics. The lyrics would be sung by characters The Residents had in mind and those characters would have a whole story. As they matured, they started developing those stories more and more. In a lot of ways that became more full with their CD-ROM stuff in the mid-90s which offered so much in the way of presenting that storytelling.
One person that influenced them is Sun Ra. I got to see toward the end of his life and found out about him around the same time I learned about The Residents. Did you get to see Sun Ra perform?
I was a huge Sun Ra fan and the first I saw Sun Ra was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival sometime in the early 70s. This was at a small amphitheatre in Berkeley and he blew that place off the planet. Everyone else seemed like they were totally straight and going out there playing their jazz stuff and improvising or whatever. All of a sudden Sun Ra came out and it was like the whole stage levitated. I saw him several more times. I’m a huge Sun Ra fan but I can’t say I’m a huge fan of all the recordings because some of these recordings sound like, “We just did a gig, we’re all high so we’re going to go back to the hotel room and play some more and turn on a cassette recorder in the bathroom.” While a lot of that music may have been great if you were there with them it doesn’t translate well to the recordings.
Definitely. I remember seeing him on an episode of Sunday Night with David Sanborn hosting that a friend had recorded and shared trying to convince me to go to the show in Chicago and thinking, “Who is this guy? He looks like a wizard throwing glitter!”
Right, and wearing a hubcap for a belt buckle.
You have to love that. Why do you think he had such an impact on The Residents?
One of the things that had such an impact on The Residents, and I could say exactly the same thing about Liberace, not many people would compare Liberace and Sun Ra but the cool thing is that they’re both incredible showmen at a time when so many people felt like, “We’re a band and we’re going to go up on stage with just our blue jeans and t-shirt on.” And they’re indistinguishable from the audience. The Residents felt that if you’re a performer you should look like a performer. Nobody ever mistook Sun Ra for a guy that came up out of the audience and got behind the keyboards.
For the Demons Dance Alone tour in 2002 it seemed like there was a lot of production for that show and then for the Shadowlands tour was a smaller scale production. Now it’s a four member band rather than that three-member?
They’ve kind of reconstituted the current version as a classic four-piece: guitars, drums, keyboard and vocals. It’s almost like a modern retro. It’s all very electronic, as you might expect, the drummer who is an excellent drummer is playing electronic drums. He looks like he’s playing drums but they’re really MIDI triggers and can make any sound in the world.
On the Shadowlands tour in 2016 there was an object on stage like a sculpture or sphere-topped pedestal on which to project images. Has 3D mapping become part of the show?
No, I don’t think they’ve actually done any 3D mapping. They’ve done several projections the last couple of [tours]. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the projections. Probably the most interesting thing is that for the “Talking Light” show they used a small, handheld projector and they had three circular screens on stage. So the singer would kind of go to one of those circular screens to another projecting mainly short videos of stories told by the characters. Various characters told ghost stories on those three screens. What was nice about the three screens is that the light people love them because special light things could happen when there’s not a projection so it becomes another nice visual exclamation point on the stage.
The Ghost of Hope was from 2017. Are most of the albums put out through Cryptic Corporation these days?
I had a partner, a guy named Hardy Fox, that I worked with for about forty years. He and I kind of formed the Cryptic Corporation together with a couple of other guys. Hardy decided he’d had enough and wanted to retire a couple of years ago. So ultimately he wanted me to buy him out but I couldn’t afford to do that so I had to look for new partners. I found two new partners, one was MVD, Music Video Distributors. We worked them in the 80s, they sold lots of Residents VHS cassettes in the 80s, DVDs in the 90s and CDs and LPs more recently. I talked to them two or three years ago saying I was having these problems with figuring out how to do it and they said they might be interested in doing it. They said they had another partner that might be interested, which ended up being Cherry Red Records in London. Each of them bought half of Hardy’s half of The Cryptic Corporation. I still own 50%. Most of the product that is coming out at this point is being created by Cherry Red and being marketed and distributed mainly by MVD in the United States and Cherry Red in Europe. The real stroke of luck in the whole thing is that there’s a guy there named Richard Anderson who’s a project manager at Cherry Red. Turns out Richard is a huge Residents fan so it’s been a real pleasure working with him on the new material and all the back catalog that’s coming out. Richard brings a huge amount of care to the product so things are going really well at this point.