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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013

Forty Years of Not Knowing Who The Residents Are

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If the eyes are the windows to the soul, The Residents in their most famous visual incarnation provided some of the strangest, most soulful music of the last half-century. The band’s striking visual presence—that of nameless, top-hatted, tuxedoed eyeballs joined by the guy with the black skull—has become nigh iconic among many listeners of out-there sounds, and it’s an apt complement to their unique aesthetic. The band finds its place somewhere between progressive rock, lo-fi, avant-garde classical, weird world music and, yes, pop.

The Residents' 40th anniversary tour hits the Turner Hall Ballroom Sunday, Feb. 17. Though the eyeball headgear has been retired and the quartet has been trimmed to a trio going by the (assumed?) first names of Randy, Chuck and Bob, continued mystery and spectacle are guaranteed. The band members’ enigmatic nature carries through to the process of interviewing them, though a recent email exchange with Residents “representative” Homer Flynn was more straightforward than the enigmatic aura of his “clients” might suggest.

Of the career longevity of the men who trekked from Shreveport to California hoping to follow in the footsteps of musical hero Captain Beefheart by signing with Warner Brothers Records, Flynn says, “They genuinely like each other and keep finding new challenges. This is what they truly enjoy doing.”

If the satisfaction of protean creativity hasn’t been a great boon to their bank accounts, they can pride themselves in knowing that they have made an impression on other musicians. Remarks Flynn of The Residents’ unique position, “In a culture dominated by celebrity and sales, it’s easy to make the argument that The Residents haven’t been successful at all. That said, I would offer that The Residents primary contribution has been an ability to run a little ahead, even though most are unaware of them. Also, there have been a lot of people who have come up to them and said how much The Residents have inspired them, and they have found that to be pretty satisfying.”

The Residents run ahead of whatever pack brave and idiosyncratic enough to claim them, not only by the sound of their music, but the prolific rate at which they produce it. 2011 saw the release of Coochie Brake, their 47th album since their 1974 debut with its Beatles-baiting title, Meet The Residents. For art institutions desirous of keeping such a massive discography for the appreciation of others and, perhaps, a few aficionados, they have released what may be the last word in career-spanning box sets. Each of the only 10 sets on the market includes all those albums in all their various formats in addition to live releases, singles, videos, computer discs and one of those ocular noggins they wore...in a refrigerator. Not likely to be found at their merchandise table for considerations of bulk—if not its $100,000 price—the set is not only a testament to The Residents’ work ethic, but their canniness as well.

When asked why the whole shebang comes housed in a fridge, Flynn responds with the kind of dry humor in which the folks he's representing often indulge, "They had to put it in something where the objects would be safe, possibly for eternity. Ultimately, the refrigerator seemed the safest, most accessible and the thing that would stir up the most interest. Also, you can buy anything at Lowe's and return it in 30 days, no questions asked." And what should one of the buyers of this do with their Residents mega-stash if they want to use its utilitarian container to keep food cool? Flynn gets funnier still: "A casket or a safe would work, but it would take a very large safe. A bomb shelter or an armored car would work nicely, too."

Any other act with that much back catalog and a recent album to promote could be easily tempted to make such an anniversary outing an occasion for celebrating past and present glories. As with so much else in The Residents' methodology, their approach is more askew. "It's all older and more obscure material that has been drastically rearranged,” Flynn says of the group’s current show. “While there is familiarity there for the fans, one could also hear it and think it's all new material.” Furthermore, this could be Milwaukee’s final time to see the group perform. "There are changes within the group that could mean this is the end,” Flynn states, “but at the same time, these changes could result in new directions. We'll have to see what happens.”

The Residents play the Turner Hall Ballroom on Sunday, Feb. 17. Doors open at 7 p.m.