Hardy Fox, the Residents’ longtime spokesman, gives us some insight into the “band”’s Talking Light tour and new album Lonely Teenager:
B: Who and what are the Residents at this point in time?
HARDY FOX: Next year is the 40th anniversary for the group. And the way they’ve survived all this long is they’re constantly evolving. They never really set out as a traditional band, and they’ve never tried to record hit music. As a result, they’ve never had any real commitment to be a certain way or stay a certain way or play certain music in certain styles.
The Talking Light show approaches the concept of telling stories set against abstract music. It’s something they really hadn’t done particularly in a live situation; the touring shows have generally been compositional. The stories can change from show to show, and there’s a lot more improvisation that goes on, and calculated surprises, to keep the music from becoming too stale and predictable –– for them.
“Randy’s Ghost Stories” are performed on the Talking Light tour. Apparently these have something to do with TV culture and commercials, among other vaguely delineated things. There are many different kinds of ghosts, of course.
The Residents don’t even know for sure if ghosts exist. “Randy’s Ghost Stories” has a lot to do with the concept of aging and death, and how aging and death affects perceptions. We’re haunted.
The new album Lonely Teenager, which grew out of ideas germinated on the Talking Light tour, reveals the music growing more subtly complex –– and beautiful, and scary, too. “The mirror has two sides” is a sample lyric. “I threw the ring and the baby’s skeleton into the hole, and I went home.” “I tried to convince myself it was a dream.” What is going on here? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I don’t actually know. But it has something to do with a loss of innocence, and completing the cycle of life to death. Everything about it really points to those elements in some way or another. It’s something they’re concerned with; I mean, you don’t get to be doing your 40thanniversary without getting pretty old yourself in the process.As people age, they stop recognizing themselves when they look in the mirror. There’s a two-sided mirror in the show, one side reflecting Randy and the other reflecting the audience. The audience has to face the mirrors just like the performers do –– just like your death, each person has to deal with that at a very individual level.
The Residents don’t take a political or moral stance as such. But do they feel that their art posits moral imperatives?
I feel reasonably certain not, because I don’t know that they think anything really exists. No, they don’t really take much of a stand on anything. They’re much more in the position of other people taking stands. I don’t think that they really have an agenda, as far as a political or social agenda goes, but they’re aware that other people do and sometimes they incorporate that in what they do.
How about musical/artistic imperatives? Is there a kind of music that can and should be pushed, to edify, to better entertain?
No, because when you’re dealing with sound you’re dealing with an abstract thing, and it’s sort of like dealing with color. It has a lot to do with one side saying, “This is what I like,” and then you’ve got the other side saying, “Well, I agree with you, I like that too,” or “That’s not what I like.” The reality is, there are many different ways of seeing things, different ways of thinking, some of which you understand and enjoyed or those you don’t understand and you don’t enjoy. There’s really no right or wrong in music.
Are the Residents affected at all by things of a topical nature? Spurred to create music by current social or political phenomena, natural disasters, assassinations, etc., etc.?
Usually not, but I know that they were on tour in Europe when 9/11 happened, and so very impacted with that uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen next, whether there would be war or attacks all over the place or whatever it might be. And the big concern was whether they’d be able to get back home, because planes had stopped flying and there was just no sense of what was going to happen. Well, there were two more weeks of the tour, and all they could do really was just to keep touring, because that was the reality that they had. And they were the family that they had; it made them very tight and just made them want to keep doing those shows.
I’m hearing some really incredible guitar playing on Lonely Teenager. Is this a musician who can be named ?
Bob. It’s Bob.
Oh, Bob. Everybody knows Bob.
The Residents have maintained a policy of strict anonymity for 40 years, as if in rebuke to celebrity, though perhaps it’s just a practical stance.
Well, this is interesting: They’re not anonymous now. They’re now Randy, Chuck and Bob, that’s the new version of the Residents. Of course, when you get down to it, Randy, Chuck and Bob are just names like everybody has, it doesn’t give information about who the people are, all it does is give them names. They could be John, Paul George and Ringo just as easily and it still wouldn’t give any information about who the people are.Everyone’s anonymous if all you know is their names. But the Residents are different because you know not only that their names are Randy, Chuck and Bob, but you also have 40 years of seeing what they’ve done. So you know much more about Randy. Chuck and Bob than anyone who would actually be anonymous.
Okay, now strictly musically speaking, what sort of aesthetic do the Residents pursue? I’m still struck by how their music grows ever more just plain beautiful. It is, of course, as dark as ever, if not darker, even. Is this what they call a deliberate juxtaposition?
Their view of the world is that it’s both beautiful and dark, and you know, they’re not even really two different things. Life is complicated, and that’s why there’s always an element of dark humor in what they do as well, because they see that too as a part of the world, a part of humanity. So they sort of feel like it’s important to attach a lot of contrasting emotions next to each other, because it heightens the impact of each of them.
The Residents have influenced the culture, but who might’ve influenced the Residents? Did they find an affinity with Beefheart and Zappa, for example?
There’s a similar attitude of not feeling like you have to conform. The Residents appreciated the fact that Beefheart and Zappa had a vision that they pushed forward, and that it wasn’t a vision based upon what other people were doing. The Residents knew that anyone can do weird music, but respected people who represent a vision, even though it may be a popular vision.
Such as the Residents' skewed interpretations of the Rolling Stones.
Like Beefheart, they were a blues band, and the Residents always loved blues music. The Rolling Stones were interpreting an American form into a British form that changed what it was. They thought it made sense to try and change it back into an American form. It’s like translating Spanish back to English again, how it changes the meaning of things.
Would the Residents accord similar respect to Lady Gaga?
They’ve seen her on television and were very touched with her very strong sense of visuals. But they would point out that she could be anonymous, too: If it says “Lady Gaga” on it…[laughs]
The Residents have pursued their alternative-to-all-alternatives music and art for 40 years, weathered the storms from late-‘60s hippie counterculture through ‘70s-‘80s-‘90s DIY counter-countercultures right on up into the Internet digital free-for-all 2000s.
So how do they keep up? How do they stay savvy, trendy and very, very popular?
The Residents work and think by observing, so they feel like they have to be tuned into where the culture is. Even if they’re not trying to imitate what’s current musically, they’re always influenced by what’s going on musically, as well as any other art form. And they’re always very interested in technology, and they keep on top of it –– What is this? What’s the impact on the culture? How does it change who we are?
The Residents have done a series of podcasts called River of Crime. That seems like a natural medium for the group.
That’s an area they’re exploring, providing the story by music: How do you combine them and get interesting new ideas that work? And they’re very impressed by the iPad; they’re trying to figure out how that can be turned into an instrument for supplying media, just like a radio. Ultimately, the Residents want to create a whole new medium itself, and that’s what they’re looking for down the road.
Who are the Residents for?
In every school across the world you’ll find those pockets of people who don’t really relate to mainstream culture and who want something –– who need something –– different. Because they are different. And those are your lonely teenagers.