The San Francisco-based art rock band began as four guys getting thrown out of R&B shows in Shreveport in the '60s.

the residents photo
The Residents today

The Residents’ anonymity has been the band’s stylish calling card. The members have protected their identities by appearing in public and in photos wearing costumes, most commonly in their signature eyeball helmet/masks and tuxedos. Their music doesn’t draw attention to individual members either. Vocals are usually processed or distorted in ways that make it hard to be sure if the band has one lead vocalist, or if The Residents pass that chore around. The songs are best thought of as compositions, even when they’re only a minute long, as on The Residents’ Commercial Album, so listeners can’t even say, “I like the guitarist.” 

In all phases of the enterprise, The Residents erase the identities of band members and replace them with a cypher. The band’s career is best understood as a conceptual art project that plays out with extreme patience: How does a band with no “I” (but in fact, four eyes) function in a marketplace focused on individual stars?

The Residents will make their New Orleans debut on Monday night when they perform at The Music Box Village, and if Homer Flynn, band spokesperson from the Cryptic Corporation, isn’t a Resident, he knows enough about the band that he might as well be. If he’s a Resident, he might also be the last original member. Hardy Fox used to be another spokesperson for the band, but he effectively blew the whistle on the game when he released Bobuck Plays The Residents under the pseudonym Charles Bobuck in 2016. On his Bandcamp page, he wrote:

Yes, strange. First writing music as one entity, then returning to the same material as a different entity and writing new arrangements. But it is actually kind of fun too. Truthfully I tried redoing a lots of different pieces. I found it to be harder than I thought. I really wanted this album to sound familiar but not too familiar. I think I pulled that off. I have always liked writing arrangements for music by other people, so why not redo some of my own tunes? -HF

The love of masks and assumed identities is strong in Residents, and when OregonMusicNews.com ran an interview with Bobuck that his management provided, he refused to acknowledge he was Fox, and the “interview” was conducted by the person who founded and operated The Residents’ website. Still, Bobuck talked about leaving The Residents because aging made the band’s touring schedule too hard to be fun anymore.

“Stairs had become my enemy,” Bobuck said. “I really wanted to get back into the studio anyway. Music for touring is very repetitive.” 

Homer Flynn says he has known the band members since they were teenagers in high school in Shreveport in the 1960s. They loved music and saw anyone cool who came to town, including Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Sam and Dave, and The Who. They were thrown out of an Otis Redding concert at the Municipal Auditorium not for doing anything wrong, but because they were the only white people in the audience. The promoters were concerned about how the police would respond if they saw that the audience was racially integrated.

“These were George Wallace times,” Flynn says, and that racial tenor in part prompted the Residents-to-be to move to San Francisco in the late ‘60s. “The South was not really a very pleasant place at that time. At the same time, the hippie thing was happening in San Francisco. They were feeling not that comfortable where they grew up, and knew that something else was going on on the other side of the country was more appealing to them.” 

Nothing in The Residents’ body of work would lead listeners to think they were hippies, but they slipped into the lifestyle of the day. They weren’t Deadheads, but they saw a lot of Grateful Dead shows and were fans of the scene in general. “They were into what was around,” Flynn says. They took drugs, but as Flynn says, “Drugs were an inevitability at that time. You had to go out of your way to avoid them.”

The Residents loved music and didn’t let their lack of skills get in the way. They decided to make their own, and because a couple of members had backgrounds in visual arts, they approached music like painting, recording a bit of melody or something to establish a mood, then layering parts on top of it as they occurred to the members. They discovered their songs by crafting them in the studio—an approach that is far more conventional in painting than in music.

 

That amateurism explains some of the abrasive, confrontational tone present on their first two albums, Meet the Residents (1974) and Third Reich 'n' Roll (1976). The first track of Meet the Residents, Alex Cook wrote in The Oxford American, “is a deadpan reading of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood kitsch classic ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’’—with the groove bass of the original replaced by a sick, mooing saxophone punctuated by a glockenspiel, with the vocals devolving into a zombie chant.” Third Reich and Roll featured two side-long suites that similarly reduced pop and R&B hits to a series of squeaks, toy sounds and distorted voices. How badly do you want to visit the “Land of a Thousand Dances” when Chris Kenner’s wordless introduction to the verse is rendered as a playground taunt and the lyric asking you if you know how to pony is delivered by a trollish drill sergeant?

1984’s George & James, like 1986’s Stars and Hank Forever and 1989’s The King & Eye featured The Residents returning to other people’s music—Gershwin, James Brown, John Philip Sousa, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley—with less confrontational results. When they were more capable musicians, they were able to find more nuanced responses to the music that inspired them. 

Meet the Residents and Third Reich and Roll felt like kidney punches to the musical establishment at the time. Flynn says The Residents never considered themselves a punk band, but they shared the impulse to piss on the icons they inherited with The Clash, who sang, “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones / in 1977,” and The Sex Pistols, whose singer Johnny Rotten auditioned for the band while wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words “I hate” hand-written above the band’s name.

In fact, The Residents were Beatles fans, and they loved much of the pop and R&B that they dismantled on those first two records. “Coming from Shreveport, it was hard to be exposed to anything else,” Flynn says. At the same time, they saw a fascist side to the top 40 that inspired Third Reich ’n’ Roll—the same fascist side they saw in consumer culture in general as it created rewards and incentives for those who conform and mimic established tropes instead of exploring new ones. They heard that impulse manifested in the simple, 4/4 rock ’n’ roll beat.

“Commerciality was much more of a goal than originality,” Flynn says. “Their point of view was that it wasn’t that hard to be original. Why weren’t more people doing it?”

The Residents famously took their name from a rejection letter they got from Warner Brothers. The band submitted a demo but neglected to include a name on the return address. They specifically aimed the tape at Hal Halverstadt, who had championed Captain Beefheart at Warner Brothers. They figured that if anyone would get them, he would, and he did, but he didn’t hear the probability of even Beefheart-level sales in them. When Halverstadt didn’t think The Residents were right for their label, they realized they likely weren’t right for any label and they started to sell their music themselves.

In 1974, there were few indie labels so there were no well-worn paths to the marketplace mapped for the band. The Residents pressed a thousand copies of Meet the Residents and sold some of their records at a couple of record stores in the Bay Area. They also took out ads in the classified sections of music magazines to sell their albums by mail order the same way X-ray specs and sea monkeys were sold at the time. 

“They rejoiced anytime anyone responded to one,” Flynn says.

The band’s break—to the extent that it’s ever really had one—came when British music critic Jon Savage came to San Francisco on a trip to America and asked one of the clerks at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley what local acts he ought to know about. The clerk handed him the first three Residents albums—including Fingerprince—and he loved them. Savage warned that they “not for the faint of heart” when he reviewed them, but he also gave each five stars.

“At that point, the records started flying out the door from the closets and bedrooms they were stacked in,” Flynn says.

That review came out in December 1977, and the market for more adventurous music that was punk’s kissing cousin had started to take micro-shape. Cleveland’s Pere Ubu and The Electric Eels were performing, as was New York City’s electronic duo Suicide, who released their self-titled debut album that year. Rochester, New York’s Armand Schaubroeck sold his albums, including A Lot of People Would Like to See Armand Schaubroeck … DEAD and Ratfucker, by mail as well. The music press had begun to pay attention to punk, new wave music, and their fellow travelers in art and adventurous music scenes, so when The Residents released its biggest project to date—Eskimo—in 1979, the background and machinery had grown around the band to help it sell 10,000 copies straight to distributors on the first day, then another 10,000 soon after.  

In January 2018, Cherry Red Records started to reissue The Residents albums, beginning with Meet the Residents and Third Reich ’n’ Roll. Both come with second discs of unreleased material—almost an album’s worth in the case of the first album. Later releases won’t have as many leftovers, in part because the band became more efficient, and because at some point the members became self-conscious about the scraps they left behind. “They at one point had hour after hour of tapes that they recorded when they were on drugs that they eventually destroyed,” Flynn says. “Their point of view was, This shit is garbage. We don’t want this to be our legacy after we’re gone.

Their legacy though, more than any individual tracks or albums, will be the identity games that The Residents played. An upcoming project, I Am a Resident, will further it as the members took covers of their songs that were made by fans for a tribute album, then added their own parts to them. They in effect folded all of the contributors into the band, if only for a few minutes.

If there’s a city that understands how loose names came be, it’s New Orleans. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been through at least five full lineup changes since it started, but it still finds value in being called Pres Hall. The name “The Original Tuxedo Brass Band” was in constant use for more than 100 years—into the start of this decade—despite regular lineup changes. The Residents, like those bands, embody an idea--that there are other ways to have a music career than to buy into the celebrity culture that shapes much of what happens on the charts. And as many #metoo moments illustrate, knowing people’s names doesn’t mean we know them. Whether The Residents that perform Monday are The Residents who first met in Shreveport doesn’t matter because in the end, they’re still The Residents.