Hearing a New World

Freaks and friends explain why the Residents still matter

The Residents have always been weird, but they've rarely been weird for its own sake. For 25 years and on 30-some-odd records the anonymous quartet has used off-kilter wit and bizarre imagination to force listeners to absorb and process the group's art and ideas about pop music, the perverse machinations of culture, and the constructions of self and society.

Proudly independent and protective of their identities -- a combination that's allowed the band members to liberate themselves from what they see as a tyranny of identity -- the Residents, who play a series of four dates at the Fillmore this week, created their own Ralph Records to release their work and something called the Cryptic Corp. to act as a liaison to the public. It's all kind of ridiculous.

It's an ethic that has infected music in the Bay Area for the past two decades; precisely, the Residents are why music in San Francisco is weird. Here, the Residents practically invented artistic self-sufficiency, uncompromising musical experimentation, and -- yes -- costume rock. Because the Residents refuse to talk about what amounts to a quarter-century legacy, I asked local musicians and a few Residents aficionados to do it for them.

Nils Frykdahl (Idiot Flesh singer/guitarist): [The Residents go] beyond the personal. There is a whole idea of music continually reinventing itself, but it's done always through individual people and the emphasis on rock performers, on their individuality, on them revealing their world and who they really are. The Residents present an alternative to that approach.

Gino Robair (Club Foot Orchestra percussionist/theremin player): They're one of the most successful do-it-yourself groups. They are one of the first groups to start their own label and manage their own career from the bottom up and do it very successfully. They started with absolutely nothing ... and they have become world famous and world-class musicians. This was before punk, so they really didn't have people to follow. The lesson that I learned from them is that, no matter how weird people think your music is, you can get it to the ears of those who need to hear it.

Paul Mavrides (artist): I remember I was walking past a record store in Berkeley and there was a window display for Third Reich 'n Roll. I looked at the album cover and bought it without knowing anything about the band. I wasn't disappointed by the contents: They matched the packaging and then went past it.

Joe Gore (S.F. guitarist): They mutilated the record cover of Meet the Beatles [Meet the Residents] and then they had that cover with the Nazi imagery, The Residents Present the Third Reich 'n Roll. Someone coming out with that, going against the prevailing notion of rock as being this grand, spontaneous, liberating music of free expression and seeing it as something dictatorial and tyrannical, it really hit a chord. It was someone trying to rip down the edifice of rock.

Bryan Kehoe (M.I.R.V. bearded opera guy): In this big giant corporate recording industry, the Residents' success is a raging finger in the air.

Klaus Flouride (Jumbo Shrimp guitarist): From a business aspect sure, they were one of the first people who just put out records by themselves ... but I don't think that's their greatest achievement. They started out in Louisiana, but they did the major body of work out of San Francisco. They were tied in -- in the early days -- with innovators like Tuxedomoon and that school of strange, not-comfortable-to-listen-to music.

Dren McDonald (Vaccination Records proprietor; Giant Ant Farm singer): I think I first bought Fingerprince and Duck Stab. I was just frightened. Literally, I couldn't listen to them. I kept them around because they were interesting. But I was truly scared. Maybe a year later I put them on again. And maybe the year after that again. It took so long to acclimate myself. Such wild stuff.

Kehoe: How do you say what their music sounds like? It's that wacky, zany, otherworldly sound. So insane. And their shows and their whole thing. Shit. What do you say to that? You can't say nothing. It speaks for itself. You see it and you hear it and you go, "What the fuck was that!?" That's the greatest thing.

Ron Anderson (Molecules guitarist): I don't even know how to describe their music. That must be the ultimate compliment.

David Cooper (Eskimo marimba/vibes player): The musical structures are very simple and they achieve a great deal with very little. It's mostly in the voicings and the pacing and the evocation of place. You wonder who it is and who are these people who make such agonizing music.

Penn Jillette (Penn & Teller comedian; former Residents press officer): I was in Texas seeing the Talking Heads for that brief moment that they were good. I was walking behind these two guys and one of them said, "You know, I'd give anything to know who the Residents are." So I spoke the names of the Residents loudly and clearly. He turned around, looked at me, and kept walking. The important part of getting information is knowing when you've got it. His wish had been granted and he didn't know it. He was walking around with a 14-inch dick in his pants and no one told him.

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