Interview by Jason Gross (March 1999/2000)How do you reconcile that a band has been putting out albums since 1974 but who is still literally unknown today? That's been part of the plan of the Residents since their inception- to be a band but not be one at the same time. The story goes that they were four people from Louisiana with a head full of ideas driving them insane headed for San Fransciso, ready to unleash music, movies, performances, programs and later CD-ROM only releases of their work onto the world.
For all the concept albums that have run through multiple albums, strange theories, stage performances, underground films that have made up the catalog of the Residents, they have kept up an interesting attraction and repulsion to mainstream culture. Their wacked-out humor and seemingly simplistic song structures turned pop music inside out. Dick Clark became a Nazi as they recontextualized 'oldies music,' imaginary wars were fought with (literally) above-ground and underground races and their bands, bizarre tributes were staged to James Brown, John Philip Sousa and Hank Williams, and an ambitious history of American music ranging from cowboys, slaves and culminating in a pyscho-drama about Elvis was told. All the while, they've done it more or less under the command of their own Ralph Records and Cyrptic Corporation, releasing private tapes and out-takes and fan-club material.
Since the eye-balled ones themselves don't officially give out interviews, the task of speaking for them is left to Hardy Fox of their Cyrptic Corporation, who has been with them from the start. In late March 1999, we talked about their latest CD Wormwood, a collection of Bible stories, as they were preparing to hit the road for their first tour in roughly nine years.
PSF: Where did the band come up with the idea of doing an album of Bible stories?
Well, they have such a deep fascination with American culture. I suppose it was only a matter of time before they started getting deeper into the philosophical and spirtual psyche of America. They love to watch TV so they love to watch these evangelistics waving Bibles around, claiming that they're correct about everything in the world and everyone else is incorrect unless they send them money! (laughs) They thought that this all looks a little suspicious and "We should read this book," the Bible. So they did and they found it was much different from anything they would have ever expected it would be. It was the probably the darkest, most horrific book they had read in their entire lives. So they said "OOOH, this is our kinda stuff!!"
PSF: What kind of things did they glean from the good book that comes out in Wormwood?
The thing that fascinated them was that everybody, including God, in the Bible is really fucked up. I mean, everybody. Nobody ever tells you that- that it's really a book about the failures of humans and failures of the Gods, but yet the triumph of these people as well. It's like everyone has the worst problems imaginable. Melrose Place looks like nothing by comparison. They really don't understand where the Religious Right get a lot of their ideas from because it doesn't really seem to be coming from the Bible. If they were really saying what the Bible said, they would be censored! They'd never allow such people on TV.
PSF: Do you think that part of the reason behind the project was to demystify the Bible and get people to look at what it's really saying?
Yeah, absolutely. They felt that it was almost embarassing to be seen carrying a Bible these days because of what these other people have represented it to be. That's really too bad because they think it's a completely fascinating book. You should be no more embarassed about carrying a Bible than you would carrying the Ramayana or any other great book of our world's culture. It's a book, for Christ's sake, it's just a book!
PSF: What are the Residents' thoughts on religion then? Do they see it as harmful or helpful to society?
They see that like most things, it has its good side and its bad side. Horrible things are done in the name of religion and even as we sit here and talk, it's going on. But good things are done in the name of religion as well. The Residents feel that it's really up to everyone to weigh out the good and bad in things. They don't know or have a better idea- it's a thing that works for some people and it's good for them and it's (also) bad for some people.
PSF: The band's touring now for the first time since the early '90's. Why is there such a big gap for time for doing shows?
It's not an uncommon gap. This is their fourth tour in 26 years. It may be a little larger than usual because the CD-ROM work pushed it further. It's not like they used to tour all the time and now there's a big time gap. It's about as often as they're willing to do it.
PSF: Why is that?
'Cause it's a drag. It's fun to do it but you wouldn't want to do it too often. It's also destructive to a lot of other aspects of your life, including your creative life. You're really not allowed to have any new projects while you're touring. You're stuck in one project and that's all you do basically, for the amount of time that you're doing it. You want to start thinking of other things and you're not really allowed to.
PSF: So they don't really find anything from being in front of fans?
No, they do enjoy that and they enjoy performing but it comes with a heavy price. That includes the fact that they're not in their '20's anymore, to be polite. 30's, 40's either...
PSF: What are they planning for these shows?
Their shows are always an equal mix of theatre and music. This one is certainly no different than that. It has an overall stage. It's conceived of as a show, from beginning to end. It has a statement to make and a point. Otherwise, it falls more along the lines of cabaret, but not Liza Minelli. It's vinyettes, small stories, personalizing a lot of the material, having really pretty sets and costumes and pretty music and all the pretty stuff one would want in a show. (laughs) Actually, it's a really cool show- I think it's their best, to this point.
The Elvis show, The King and Eye, about ten years ago when they were last out (touring), was a very powerful and interesting show.
PSF: It was great! I caught it here in New York.
I think this one's very different from that but in the same respect, it's sort of the same thing again- it's a very thematical-conceived show and works on various levels all the time.
PSF: How so?
When you're dealing with... even the Bible, in its story-telling, is making allusions to the larger philosophy and the larger outlook on life. The stories that are told reflect not just the stories of the Bible (like Cube-E) but it's also the story of our culture, and what humans are and what's important to humans and what makes the whole thing work. In that respect, it's a lot like Cube-E. Cube-E was almost more like a history of America where America was really the baby-king, America was Elvis. America became bloated and heavy and has a hard time realizing its own power and its own importance culturally because it wants to be something all the time.
With the Bible show, it expands beyond that, to the basic foundations of what humans are and what humans expect out of life and what they actually get. And what it all adds up to, which isn't much! (laughs)
PSF: What do you think has made the Residents persevere for such a long time?
They love what they're doing. They're extremely happy people. Extremely satisfied with what they do because they really do what they want to. They're really defined their lives in a way that requires them to do what they want to. It requires that they not do anything other than what they want to. Otherwise, they wouldn't be them! So, what better situation could you get? And the thing is, they've set that up for themselves. There's a lot of satisfaction I guess in having pulled that off.
PSF: How would you describe them on a personal level? What's most striking about them?
I suppose it's the overall drive that they have. Because they don't ever just turn off. They always seem to have so many more ideas and so many more things that they'd like to do but never finishing, it's just amazing. It's a constant flow that just doesn't get cut off. Time and money controls what it is that they actually do as far as what actually gets resolved and realized.
PSF: Chris Cutler had an interesting comment about them. He said that they were "a group of artists who decided to make their project a pop band because it gave them access to more mass marketing and advertising." Do you think they'd agree with that?
I don't think they'd put it that way. But they do feel like they're not a band. They feel like they're a group. The only distinction being that bands are usually assigned musical instruments and as a group, they feel like they could be assigned anything- a movie camera or a pen and pencil or paintbrush. They might be better at one thing than another but they'd sort of be equally interested in all of them and all of them at once if possible. They did feel like that out of all those choices that they had, the culture seemed currently seemed to have more interest in music. They did feel like that would be a place to put more energy because it was something that could be done and that there was a market for (it). It was difficult to do movies because it was expensive and required distribution. Or you could be poet but it was difficult to do anything with it. There was a market for music so that was a way of stepping out there and actually do it. Also, they love music.
PSF: Do you think they still see things today the same way that you've been describing?
I can't imagine that they would because it's been too long. I can't imagine that it would be that constant. They do still obviously hold to a lot of the same beliefs that they did then but... They've spent a lot of time with CD-ROM's for the last ten years and in technology. When they felt like they really wanted to do an album again, they wanted to do something really special and really big, they started working on Wormwood. They couldn't have been more excited about working on music again. Music for the sake of music, which has grown into doing theatre again. They also tended to reject a lot of the technology and performance for this show where they're seeing that the subject matter requires the human fraility to show through. They're no computers this time but it's about human fraility and humans stepping out there. You have a situation where people are given more of an opportunity to make errors, I suppose, much like in the Bible.
PSF: From what you were just saying, it sounds like they have some kind of mistrust towards technology.
I think that lately they've been getting bleary-eyed from staring at computer monitors. We all are. It's just that when they do, they react against it. The rest of us say "Well, I hate it but I'll do it again tomorrow." They declared "no computers, it has to be done without computers."
PSF: That's pretty radical nowadays.
Yeah, they're that way even though it's sort of a conservative stance in some way, to move away from computers. It's the nature of the way things go. You're a radical for going towards computers and you're radical for going away from them.
PSF: Why do you think their whole concept of non-identity is still important to them?
They've always felt that they've had more to gain by being a group than being broken down into individuals. They believe that there's something destructive about a group of people who want to work together and when they get reduced down to separate elements, it's destructive for the group. It's the difference between the Beatles and John, Paul, George and Ringo. Groups don't have marriages that fall apart. Groups don't have petty bickering within them. Either the group exists or it doesn't exist. What goes on with the people is never a part of it and shouldn't be a part of it from their point of view. Only the work itself is what the group stands for. From their point of view, it shouldn't be that way. If you're going to be an individual, from their point of view, like a star, you should still let your work stand for what you say. You shouldn't have National Enquirer cover your life all the time. People usually don't choose that, it's forced upon them.
Fortunately, the Residents are really in a position where nobody cares what they do anyway! (laughs) So it doesn't really become a problem.
PSF: It's unique because we do live in a culture of celebrities and stars. Most bands are willing and ready to show you who they have and give you vital statistics about themselves. But the Residents have always been the complete opposite of that. Even today, other groups seems to be afraid to follow their example.
Well, it does rub against the basic ego. But the Residents aren't driven by their egos to begin with, in the same way that their music isn't driven by demographics. They don't do marketing research to decide what their albums should sound like. They're not afraid to do something really different. Their next album is always different, even though they get a lot of support for what they've done on their previous one... Maybe it's because there's never really been enough money involved in it to tempt them to do that. It's just not the way they think. Their point of view is that they want to do good work. They just really want to feel like what they're doing is good work, in whatever form it takes, whatever the media is or whatever it's about. The most important thing is that it be really good. Whether people like it or not or realize it's good, I don't know. (laughs) Because it does come down to taste ultimately.
PSF: As a devil's advocate, since only the Cryptic Corporation knows the real story behind the Residents, do you or they think it really matters whether they story or stories they put out about themselves may or may not be fiction?
I don't think any of it matters particularly to them because I don't even think they know. I don't think they know what people say about them. They don't have a tendancy to read anything that's written about them. They would probably tell you that they don't read anything but I've seen 'em do it! They get curious. They get praised by some people and they get trashed by some people, just like everyone else. They're certainly falling within those same brackets like the rest of us.
PSF: Earlier on, the band worked with certain theories that guided their music. There was, for instance, the theory of obscurity (letting a release sit on the shelf until they've forgotten about it and then releasing it). Do they still use certain theories to guide their work?
Inspiration has always come from where ever it came from for them. The theory of obscurity was really geared towards Not Available, which was a really long time ago. It's a curious thing to them to see if you were going to produce something and if you knew you weren't going to do anything with it. If you did something really just for yourself. But they really discovered in the process that even though that changes what you might do, all it does is add a different factor to that. That is, you're consciously aware that you're doing something that you're not going to release. So maybe, you would do something... BECAUSE you're not going to release it. Then in some ways, it becomes the same thing again. It's like the other side, that whole thing about one man's ceiling is another man's floor.
You can't become pure. You can't escape the influence because the negative aspect of why you're doing it becomes a positive influence on you in some way. You can't really isolate yourself from yourself. So, no matter what things you've set up for yourself, it's going to influence what you do. You can pretend that it's not that way but it's actually... It's like when you hear about these scientists who try to observe these little bacteria except that they mutate in light. You can't look at them without them mutating. So you can't see what they really look like because you can't have any light on them to look at them. The mere fact that you look at them, changes them. So you're stuck with that and it becomes a paradox. It wraps around on itself and the snake swallows its tail.
PSF: Much of the Residents' songs are actually part of some grand concept or theme. Does the group have any interest in creating individual songs that are unconnected (as in many pop/rock records)?
It seems like they've tried to do individual tracks. They've done a few just alone. But for the most part, they always seem to fit... From their point of view, they become orphans. They feel like they need family. It becomes a thing where the song not only stands on its own, but it's also defined by the things that are next to it. They just feel like it offers so much more depth to have the collection. It's probably just a metaphor for themselves. They feel like there's strength in the group.
PSF: What plans do they have after this tour is over?
I've been wondering that myself! There really isn't anything being talked about. I guess that's because the tour has been taking a tremendous amount of energy to get on the road. They're going to do this tour and then they do a European tour in the summer. Their idea originally was that it would go through this year to 2000. I think that 2000 is going to bring out some things that the Residents haven't done before.
PSF: Such as...?
There's a couple of things that they've thought about they'd like to do which is a continuation of the Wormwood material. They would like to do a... not a symphony but a piece of music that works all the basic themes from the album into a full-scored piece. They're talking about it right now but it's still a matter of someone coming up with the money for it. It would happen in Europe obviously- that kind of stuff doesn't happen in America. (laughs) It's possible to do things like that in Europe.
They would really love to launch a TV series based on the Bible. They would love to have a weekly series of Bible stories. But (it would be) Bible stories really from the Bible, not the ones from Sunday school. It would probably be too racy for television. Maybe for HBO...
PSF: Do they see anyone else in music or in other media as peers or fellow travellers today?
Peers? I don't know. They don't pay much attention to other people that are working in music. They like television and movies a lot. They seem to take more... escapist pleasure of visual artists. They like comic books too. It's really hard to say. They certainly see a lot of people out there on their own paths. That's what the Residents consider what they're doing- they just do what they do and see other people out there doing what they do. They relate to people on that level.
PSF: Like who?
I was afraid you were going to ask that... It's not like a handful, there's hundreds and thousands of people. It could be anyone from Michael Jackson or Madonna or Prince as performers who are following some vision that they seem to have that seems to be unique, their vision. That's as opposed to... Celine Dion I guess. I'm sure she's doing what she wants to do and what she believes in but it's... I'm afraid it's some kind of lack of love that she got as a child. (laughs)
PSF: They had done a whole series on composers (James Brown, Hank Williams) but it doesn't seem that they give as much credence to performers. Do you see it that way?
To a degree, that's true. I think Elvis would have to fall into the area of performer, not composer. I don't think he wrote anything other than getting his name on something. I think that someone that is really a composer and a performer is something really interesting thing to them but it seems to be pretty rare. They have a lot of respect for a number of composers, most of whom are dead. They do accept that dead composers are better than live ones. They've wondered why it's true or whether it's an illusion or not.
See some of the Residents' favorite music
Also see an excerpt from The Residents encyclopedia
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