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It's hard to know where to start with The Residents. The band's press release claims that they neither exist nor play any instruments, and yet they have released more than 60 albums, a smattering of videos, DVDs, and short films, and produced a handful of theater productions as well. It's a conundrum that confounds both would-be music scribes and music salesmen but has generated a legendary cult following almost from the day the group's car broke down in 1966 in San Mateo, California. It is there that this band of artistic misfits — barely musicians, any of them — began their assault on musical sensibilities and convention in a fashion similar to, though uniquely different from, The Fugs, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart.
It wasn't until 1971, however, that the band actually came up with a name, previously content on plying their craft anonymously. After the first demo album was turned down by Warner Brothers, the rejection slip was mailed to "The Residents" since no name was listed on the return address. It stuck.
But a band name does not mean its members will follow suit. Unidentified and frequently performing shadowed or with masks, the musicians guarded their privacy — while simultaneously building intrigue.
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"They felt that if they got any level of fame or notoriety, they wouldn't be able to keep any separation between their private life and public life," says longtime Residents co-manager, artistic director, and media liaison Homer Flynn. Plus, "there was a huge mystery and mystique around people like Sun Ra — he said he was from outer space — and I think they were intrigued by the idea of creating mystery and mythology for themselves in the same regard."
Musically, The Residents explore the outer reaches of the musical universe, converting sound and shape into sonic visions in a realm where lesser (or perhaps more capable) musicians dared not venture. Rich orchestration with overloaded drumming and nasally vocals confound the senses, while classic ethnic folk tales like "Matchmaker" or "Jambalaya" get reworked to a point of twisted recognition. And much of The Residents' catalog carries a show-tune-like quality, exposing a theatrical side that strangely forces the listener to paint the scene and become the actor.
Over the course of their 40-plus years, The Residents have deftly acted upon those theatrical whims, creating a new image for every album. However, it was the eyeball helmets and tuxedos developed by Flynn in 1979 that actually succeeded in giving The Residents a lasting identity.
"The deal was it was just going to be just for [the album] Eskimo, but people like it so much they couldn't get rid of it," Flynn says. "They kept trying to get rid of it, but the interest and demand kept it coming back. At this point, they're not using them. It's mainly just a symbol or trademark of the group, but it took a long time."
The current incarnation of The Residents arrives as a power trio consisting of Randy, Chuck, and Bob — singer, computers/keyboards, and guitarist, respectfully. Brazenly, for the secretive Residents, each has taken to social media, Flynn says, as a way to get "closer" to fans.
So will the real Residents please stand up?
"They have humanized themselves slightly . . . They've really kind of personalized it to create more personality behind the façade," Flynn says. "You won't really know who they are. What it amounts to is that the veil has been created, but it's thinner than ever. But if you peek behind the veil, the man behind the veil is still wearing a mask."