The members of San Francisco-based experimental band the Residents have attempted to cloak their identities under wild costumes, including their infamous eyeball masks, for more than 45 years.
The bandmates attended high school together in Shreveport, Louisiana, and moved to the Bay Area in 1966, using the costumes to help reinvent themselves.
“The place where you grow up should be your most extreme comfort zone, but at the same time, you’ve created so much identity there,” says Residents spokesperson Homer Flynn, who heads the band’s management team, Cryptic Corporation. “Identity has a grounding impact on your life, and that can be good. But on the other hand, you have to break away from that, too.”
The bandmembers moved to San Francisco not long after California’s psychedelic-music scene erupted. Flynn says they were huge fans of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. The bolder and riskier bands got in the late ’60s, the more the Residents loved the genre. But that love didn’t last forever.
“It seemed most of those groups, the ones who didn’t break up, found their commercial niche, and in some ways their sound became more formalized,” Flynn says. “At that point, the Residents almost felt like they had a certain mandate or agenda or desire to carry that feeling of experimentation forward, that they felt like it had been kind of dropped by the original San Francisco groups. They had been doing a lot of experiments and just said, ‘Well, let’s get serious about this. Let’s do it.’”
So in 1972, the bandmates moved into a warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District that acted both as a studio and their living quarters. Over the next four years, the band pushed boundaries on projects like Vileness Fats, which was supposed to be the world’s first-ever longform music video. But after shooting fourteen hours’ worth of footage, the group scrapped the project.
“They were really just experimenting with a lot of different things,” Flynn says.
Some of the material from that time ended up on the band’s 1974 debut, Meet the Residents, which was reissued in January this year on Cherry Red Records, with more than twenty never-released tracks — like “Boots Again,” “Spotted Pinto Bean” and “Consuela’s Return” — from the band’s extensive tape archive.
The two-disc album includes both mono and stereo mixes, as well as material from the Santa Dog EP and previously unknown outtakes. Third Reich N’ Roll, from 1976, was also reissued by Cherry Red, with eleven previously unreleased tracks from the original master tapes. And just last month, the band reissued late-’70s albums Fingerprince and Duck Stab/Buster & Glen.
“The Residents are not great musicians,” Flynn says. “They never were. They felt like they had interesting ideas, and by using technology in creative ways, they could create something that was compelling and valid — but at the same time, I think they had to kind of stake out a territory outside of what other people were doing, and in a lot of ways that sense of anonymity made it easy to stake out that outside territory. They felt like they were off in uncharted territory, and that did give them a huge amount of freedom.”
After releasing dozens of studio and live albums, EPs and compilations over the past four-plus decades, the Residents are currently working on I AM A RESIDENT!, which was crowdfunded through PledgeMusic. For that project, the band recruited fans to submit their versions of Residents songs.
“There were 197 submissions, which kind of blew everybody’s minds,” Flynn says. “They were all thinking if we got forty or fifty, that would be pretty good, but almost 200 was almost incomprehensible.”
The original plan was to pick fifteen to twenty songs and let fans vote, and the winners would be on the album. But Flynn says as the bandmembers kept listening to everything and it started to settle in, they came to the conclusion that they could do something more interesting than that.
“Ultimately,” Flynn says, “they kind of took inspiration from their Third Reich N’ Roll album and said, ‘Okay, we’re just going to do a giant mashup of all this stuff. So they set to work editing, looping, overdubbing, you know, just doing whatever they could think of to combine as many of these as possible into a series of suites. I think at this point they have about five or six suites that are almost complete. It’s pretty interesting. The thing that I found so remarkable about it is that you put on the headphones and listen to it, [and] while it’s remarkably familiar, it’s also wrong at the same time.”
Flynn likens the album to a hall of mirrors, because first there’s the original material, then the fans’ reflection of that, and then the Residents have gone back and overdubbed and added stuff.
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“It becomes another layer, another reflection,” Flynn says. “It just ultimately has this kind of unsettling but at the same time kind of positive quality about it, of just something you never quite expect it to be.”
The Residents are on their In Between Dreams tour, which started in Los Angeles on April 4 and lands in Denver April 14, for the band’s first-ever concert here. Flynn says the shows are divided into five miniature sets.
“Most of the material is dream-based in terms of the imagery within the song or the character that’s singing the song,” he says. “It’s dream-related.”