Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Residents come to Vancouver: a Chat with Hardy Fox

As anyone who picked up the Straight today might note, I have an article on the Residents in it. To be honest, I haven't always been a rabid fan, though I've been aware of them for some time. Ty Scammell (late Vancouver flea market record dealer who discovered The New Creation) turned me on to The Third Reich'n'Roll back in the 1980's, and THAT album impressed the hell out of me - a brilliant mashup/ satire/ darkly ironic rendition of pop hits from the 1950's and '60's (mostly), with a cover that equated Dick Clark with Hitler:

For years, for me, The Third Reich'n'Roll filled all my Residents needs, so brilliant an album it was. Some of their other material seemed a bit too "weird for weird's sake," however; I found Meet The Residents somewhat offputting, a gross, musically crude, unwholesome THING that I had no easy ability to work with, and their (much later) album of sendups of Elvis tunes, The King and Eye, seemed almost trivially silly (and somewhat disrespectful - it probably didn't help that I bought it, in part, to play during Scrabble games with my parents, since my father was a big Elvis fan; he hated it, found it an insult to the King's legacy). I realized that there was a lot of interesting work in their back catalogue, and it's certainly intriguing that they've been around quite this long without anyone actually being sure who the Residents are, but it wasn't until I heard that the band were coming to town that I really took the plunge.

My lord, what a rewarding plunge that has been - suddenly the Residents are the most intersting band in the world. In the last few months, I've acquainted myself with Residents classics like Eskimo and Not Available, revisited Mark of the Mole and Meet the Residents, spun my CD comp of their most accessible songs, Petting Zoo, about a hundred times, and beefed up my selection of Residents DVDs. Between the obvious and omnipresent influence of Harry Partch (more about that in the spring issue of Big Takeover!), their interest in gamelan music, and the surprisingly passionate and emotive qualities of some of their recent stuff (off, say, Demons Dance Alone or Roadworms, a "live"-ish reworking of material off their Bible-themed Wormwood project), I've discovered with delight just how sophisticated the Residents have grown since their beginnings in the early 1970's. From the freeform mutant jazz of The UGHS to the Partch-in-Java tingly sonic complexities of Dolor Generar (a CD that will be sold on the road, of the "house music" for their current tour) they've become quite richly MUSICAL, while losing none of the unique, dark aura of terminal strangeness that has always surrounded them. Somehow once you get the Residents bug, nothing else quite suffices: with brief digressions (to listen to the Swans and Zev Asher, due to recent Vancouver shows), I've spun pretty much nothing but the Residents for the last two months, and the main effect of that has been that I'm hungry to hear more.

It's kind of shocking to me that the Residents Vancouver show (March 19th at the Rickshaw) didn't sell out in a few minutes - is it possible that there are a lot of people out there not yet hip to how much this band, soon to celebrate their 40th anniversary, has to offer? Could there still be tickets available now? It's not like Vancouver gets a lot of chances to see them live...

(The Residents on the Talking Light tour)

Without further fuss, here are a few snippets of my conversation with the Cryptic Corporation's Hardy Fox, not used in the Straight or Big Takeover pieces.

So if I could ask about the issue of retirement – I gather a member or members have retired from the Residents?

I suppose you mean Carlos...

Okay. What’s the story with Carlos?

I don’t think we can talk about Carlos. Yeah, can’t really talk about Carlos. Maybe next year. It’s tied to a project, and the project is still in development.

Can I quote what we’ve said thus far?


There was also something, though, where one of the band’s recent tours was mistakenly announced as being a retirement tour?

There was a venue, I think in Boston, that said, “Final tour of the Residents” or something like that. I think it only said that for three days or something because somebody contacted us and asked about it, and we said, “what are you talking about?” – so it was quickly pulled, because it’s obviously not true.

Okay. Is there also a plan to tour in 2012?

Um. That’s being worked on, yeah. It’s less of a plan, it’s more in the hands of agents. Because Residents don’t plan tours, they just play them. It’s all handled by promoters and agents and venues and stuff – it’s far too complex for any of us to comprehend.

Okay. So, I'm curious - there seems a chance, since both the Residents and Harry Partch were musicially active on the west coast in the early 1970's, that they were aware of each other - that he could have heard their music, at the least. But I don't know...

I don’t know either. Yeah, I have no idea. But I did not have any connection with him or any of the people he worked with. I did see a concert one time that was done on his instruments. That was after he was dead, though – they had organized his instruments and his musicians to play some of his compositions, and it was quite remarkable. That was here in San Francisco – something like that may never happen again, I don’t know. I do wonder what happened to his instruments, though.

There’s a Hal Willner project, Weird Nightmare, that’s recorded on his instruments.

Oh really?

Some of them, anyhow.

Yeah, I’m not familiar with it.

It’s his tribute to Charles Mingus, so it has a bunch of his music, interpreted by a really diverse crowd of artists – Diamanda Galas is on it, Leonard Cohen, Chuck D., Henry Rollins, with Harry Partch’s instruments being used.

Wow. Y’see, I would think that someone would license those or something for a sampled set, for samplers, for people to use!

Yeah! So the Residents have never had contact with Partch, nor Partch’s instruments, then?

No, none whatsoever.

But they’ve designed their own instruments, at times.

They have. But they’re very project-oriented. They don’t think long term, like, building instruments for the rest of your life. You might build something because you need a specific sound for this project that you’re doing now, for the next few months, or something. So it’s never anything elaborate or very pretty.

Okay. In terms of projects where they built their own instruments – Eskimo is one, right?

Yeah, but Eskimo has got an awful lot of lying in it. They claim that they play with frozen fish, and they didn’t do that.

But they do have some invented instruments on that? Can you give me an example?

They have some specially tuned, sort of marimba-type instruments that they built for the tuning that they were using for that album, only because they needed those notes. They’re actually wooden, a wooden instrument, but they claimed that they’re played on bones. They’re not played on bones. You know how it is with mythology – you gotta say what sounds pretty interesting, where the reality is pretty boring.

Were there ever any Inuit reactions to Eskimo?

There was – we got very positive reactions, even totally acknowledging that the term “Eskimo” is somewhat insulting… The people that we heard from – I mean, there may have been people who were insulted, but the Inuit people that we heard from loved it, because they really understood that it was totally fictional. It’s an invention of the fantasy concept and the romance of being an Eskimo, not of being an Inuit, because Inuit life isn’t like that at all. Inuit life is much more boring than that, as far as we were able to tell, when research was being done about Inuit – it’s not the most exciting world to live in.

Was there ever any attempt to mount a show of Eskimo up there?

No. There’s never been a show of Eskimo. There was work on one – a show was designed, but it was designed for an opera stage. It was a big production – it was an opera, basically. It was for a festival in Germany decades ago, and basically it didn’t get funding, so it never happened.

Okay. Are there any other projects where they’ve come up with their own instruments?

Well, what happened was, pretty early - I guess it was around 1984, or something like that – they really went digital. They started really working with samplers. And at that time, instead of building anything, they would collect samples of things and create instruments digitally, because it was so much faster. So anything they did would have been in the 1970’s, and there really wasn’t that much call for it. They did some things with electronics pretty early on, but I don’t know if any of that actually got released, now that I think about it. We’ll simplify it and say no.

Okay. Anyhow - the pieces on Randy’s Ghost Stories have all been developed for the live show? These were written for the show and now films have been made around them?

Yeah, these were all stories that had been in the show. The show is not the same every night.

The Unseen Sister” is in every show, though?

“The Unseen Sister” is sort of a prime piece. It always gets performed, and I’m sure that’s going to be true for the upcoming tour as well.

And then – “Talking Light” has been in every show?

Yeah, it’s been in every show. They’re sort of bookends, like, the opening and ending.

And it’s sort of variable what happens elsewise?

It’s variable what happens in between.

Things like “Lizard Lady” has been reworked for the Lonely Teenager CD. Will that be performed live?

You know, I don’t know. I don’t know – because there have been no rehearsals for this tour yet. They start Monday. And I would think it might show up at some point – I don’t know if it would be played at every show. Y’know, they obviously have been working on it, so it’s going to be familiar – it was recently done. I wouldn’t be surprised – I don’t know if it’ll be in Vancouver or not.

Okay. Let me ask you about “The Unseen Sister,” then. That’s a very disturbing story – where did that come from?

You know, I’m not in any real position to be able to tell you that. I’ve never asked!

Some of the surrealists had talked about being interested in things that couldn’t be easily explained, images – I’m thinking in particular of the smoking toaster in the video. It really has an impact, but it’s not all that easy to unpack what it means. So I’m wondering if the Residents in writing songs follow a surrealist strategy of coming up with things that aren’t easily explained, if they want their images to be irreducible, uncategorizable, or if they want them to be decoded…

Well, they do make giant jumps sometimes from one thing to another. I’m not sure, but it seems like I heard something that the toaster originally sprang out of this piece of toast that Madonna’s image appeared on. It can be that obscure of a connection, though. I think it sold on eBay for a lot of money.

I wondered whose face was on the toast. It doesn’t really look like Madonna. In the video, that is. Not on the actual toast. I haven’t seen the toast.

I don’t think it is, in the video, no. There’s sort of references to Renaissance qualities – religious paintings and things…

And sort of subverting those with the toaster and the burning toast.

Yeah. It’s not just toast. It’s burning toast.

Yeah. Okay. You know – do the Residents encourage people to try to analyze things? Because I’ve worked up quite an analysis of things that I see in “The Unseen Sister,” but I wonder if in some ways if that’s foolish to do. If the point isn’t to unpack meaning and arrive at a statement – “this song is about that” – but rather to just process it for the emotional and aesthetic effect.

I know for sure that their point of view would be that there’s no answer to that. That people should take from things what they get from it; that there is no correct meaning, and that often the artists themselves can’t see the depths of the work, because they’re too close to it.

Tell me about the actual dynamics of the tour – how many people, how much gear travels with this show?

Surprisingly little. It’s a three person show. It’s Randy, Chuck, and Bob. Because Carlos is gone. So it’s down to the three of them – they’ll tell you about that. They’ll tell you about that onstage.
A couple of other quick questions – Lonely Teenager, the CD. Were the Residents lonely teenagers?

Ahhh… I dunno, isn’t it required to feel lonely when you’re a teenager?

Do they feel less lonely now?

Well they might feel less teenager, if nothing else. No, I don’t think they’re lonely now, probably because they just stay so busy. They’re filled with ideas to realize and I think they know at this point that they won’t live long enough to accomplish all the things that they’ve started that haven’t ever been finished.

Are there plans to – plans afoot to put out the next volume of the Mole Trilogy or the Baby Sex album or the Warner Brothers album – are there plans to go back?

Well, like, Baby Sex and Warner Brothers weren’t Residents albums, so they won’t go back to those. They won’t go back any further than Residents.

Okay, and the American Composers Series – there were plans at one point to release a lot more?

Yeah, well, they don’t really want to do that anymore, and I don’t want them to do it either, because it got into royalty problems and accounting problems that I just do not want to entertain anymore. It was too complicated on the business end.

A different question - it sometimes occurs to me that Jandek might be inspired by the Residents model of maintaining anonymity.

Who is that?

Jandek. He’s a guy in Houston, Texas who has released forty or so albums and remained more or less anonymous. Most people know his real name, but he won’t grant interviews, won’t talk about himself.

Yeah… he’s anonymous to me!

There’s a film about him, anyhow, called Jandek on Corwood. Speaking of which – there’s people trying to make an independent documentary on the Residents. Is that something that the Residents would want to encourage or discourage?

I haven’t heard about it.

Do you think the Residents would encourage it?

No, they would not encourage it.

Why not?

Because their whole world is contrived as a piece of mythology and documentaries are not included in that. Except a fake documentary.

Is there anything else I should be mentioning? Plans for the 40th anniversary?

There’s not really any plans right now for the 40th that can be talked about, probably because this last tour needs to be completed. And that’s taking precedence for energy. The thing is, they just came off tour at the end of November, and went immediately into production for finishing up Lonely Teenager and getting this stuff all done, as well as taking a little time off. So now they’re going back into rehearsal to get back up to go back out again. They’re sort of getting tired of touring, actually. But they’ll make it to Vancouver!

1 comment:

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

The Residents have always liked to reach for things just beyond their reach and far beyond just about anyone else's. Maybe they even grasped what they were reaching for with "Eskimo."

It was their videos, something I have come to require great doses of gravol when viewing to prevent my being overcome by much gut ripping retching, that attracted to me the band. Few bands have been quite as subversive with the form since.