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[whitespace] The Residents
Photograph courtesy East Side Digital

Nothing Says Art Rock Like Corn on the Cob: But something tells us someone's gonna need a toothpick.

Resident Oval

Mysteries. Legends. Contradictions. Huge eyeballs. Who are the Residents?

By Mike Connor

SOME SAY the Residents are the Beatles in disguise. Others say they're from another dimension. Throughout their career, they've always performed in disguise, wearing huge eyeballs over their heads to conceal their identities. Not even their legions of die-hard fans know who they are.

The half-truth is: nobody knows who they are. Avant-weird musicians, sure--they were at the forefront of the trance, world music, electronica, punk, industrial, lounge and New Wave music before any of those genres broke into the mainstream. Like Laurie Anderson, they tend to preorder new music technology from manufacturers before the equipment is ever mass-produced. We know that their videos appear in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and costumes from their Mole Show tour appear in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. We know they've been incredibly prolific over the past 30 years, releasing over 40 albums and a slew of various multimedia projects.

But beyond that, there is only speculation--that the four met in high school in Shreveport, Louisiana. That they supposedly had little talent, but would form a band regardless.

Now, the Residents are celebrating 30 years of Residency with a tour performing their new album, Demons Dance Alone. Conceptually, their new CD is a collection of eerie character sketches--the hallmark of the Residents' work--about misfits and outcasts. Musically, it's a synthesizer and electric guitar-driven pop, with a decidedly twisted edge. The closest anybody can get to an interview with the Residents is with the Cryptic Corporation, the group's equally mysterious management. But we've managed to milk some information about their mysterious past and upcoming tour from Homer Flynn, the deep-voiced, Southern-drawling spokesperson for the Cryptic Corporation.

During last year's Icky Flix tour, which also stopped in Santa Cruz, the Residents projected their videos onto the Rio's movie screen while playing the songs live, but Flynn says this tour is less structured, focusing more on performance art.

"They're definitely trying to move back into performance-oriented projects," Flynn reveals from an undisclosed location. "Playing live to the DVD [during the Icky Flix tour] meant that everything was locked down, timewise. Whereas with this, it's all new material that they've never performed before, and it's loose and open in terms of how the band and the performers can operate onstage."

As longtime local superfan Jeff Harding can tell you, the Residents are known for their innovative and surreal music and performances. The staging for the Mole Show tour in the early '80s is the stuff of legend.

"Visually, there was a lot happening at the show, a sort of epic march of the moles," Harding recalls. "It was a very elaborate production, with lots of sets that kept changing and cut-outs of moles marching to the sea. They had screens and partitions and fishnets that kept changing, and the musicians were either hidden or camouflauged throughout the show."

The Road to N. Senada

Legend has it that the Residents' willful obscurity stems from the theories of a mysterious philosopher called N. Senada, who their good friend Snakefinger met somewhere in the Black Forest of Bavaria. The Residents subscribed to N. Senada's "Theory of Obscurity,", which (essentially) states that an artist does his or her best work when working in obscurity, and that the conflicts and ego problems that arise with fame destroy true creativity. But of course, obscurity didn't last long.

"From their point of view, the theory of obscurity didn't hold much validity as soon as they could start reading reviews of their stuff in Rolling Stone [back in the early '70s]. I mean how can somebody consider themselves obscure when they're reviewed in national press?"

Still, they've done the best they can to remain anonymous, although according to Flynn, the Residents don't have to work very hard at maintaining their secret identities.

"I'm sure if the National Enquirer were offering a hundred thousand dollars to somebody [to expose them], somebody would do it, maybe even me," confesses Flynn. "But there's never really been a whole lot to gain from somebody going out and talking about it. Ultimately, they'd just wind up looking like a jerk for no particular reason.

But Flynn also recalls the extreme security measures taken at the height of the Residents' popularity: "During the Mole Show, everybody on the entire tour, including all the roadies, the tour manager, the sound people ... everybody wore these gray coveralls, and then anytime they were around the set or the theater, they would wear these black knit watch caps pulled down over their ears and Groucho glasses. People would come in and see like 20 worker bees, all wearing these absurd get-ups. So you might know that somebody was one of the Residents in there, but you'd never really be able to pick out who it was. That was definitely the most elaborate thing they ever did to diffuse that kind of energy. And it worked, you know, and it created a very surreal atmosphere offstage."

So, will the Residents ever reveal their identities? Says Flynn, "I think, from their point of view, they'll go to their graves winking and denying everything, never saying a word."

The Residents perform on Friday, Oct., 25, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ace., Santa Cruz. Tickets are available at the Bookloft (439.1812) for $28 general admission, or $40 for the first four rows.

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From the October 23-30, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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