The Residents

by Larry Kay
(c) 1995

When I was flipping through what I assumed was another catalog of computer-related junk mail a couple of months ago, I saw something that made me do a double-take; there was a new Residents CD-ROM, The Gingerbread Man. I wasn't surprised at the inclusion of the Residents in the catalog, but that I'd seen or heard nothing about this release-no reviews, blurbs in major magazines (which I have to admit I hardly ever see anyway), no nothin'. Of course, being adventuresome and generally knowing that when I plunk down some cash on a purchase I'm only seeing described in vague terms designed to strictly whet my appetite, I'd better have some confidence in what I'm getting myself into, but we are talking about the Residents here-I ordered immediately. Not that I expected anything less than spectacular. I was already well-familiar with the Residents own high standards via their amazing debut CD-ROM, Freak Show, which practically set new landmarks for levels of user interactivity. Freak Show was also released as a regular album and a graphic novel, and as you tour through the freak show that is the subject of the disc, you get to experience all the songs on the album, some of the graphic novel, and additional insight into the lives and personalities of the characters who inhabit the oddball carnival of semi-lost souls.

Unfortunately, that cursory a description (no matter how glowing) doesn't even really scratch the surface or do justice in any manner to the massiveness that is the Freak Show. Aside from the individual performances and life glimpses of the freaks, an audio/visual Residents database of sorts is there too-you just have to poke around a bit to find it. This archive has clips and, in some cases, complete videos of all the Residents recorded visual work (both in the studio and live performance), as well as a complete discography with soundbite samples from each release. Plus, other little tidbits make exploring the CD-ROM fun every time.

But enough of the Freak Show for now, The Gingerbread Man is one of two new releases of Residentia; the other is Hunters, the soundtrack to The Discovery Channel's "Hunters: The World of Predators and Prey" series.

Spurred by these two completely unheralded masterworks, I figured it was time to place a call to the Cryptic Corporation, the organization that handles all the Residents' affairs regarding dealings with the general outside world. It's a fairly well-known fact the Residents have never granted an interview in their 21 years of creative output, anonymity is key. The Residents have never felt a need to let the public know where they're headed or what they're doing, because they may not know (there are plenty of other reasons I won't go into here, as well). Cryptic Corporation, as spokesperson of the Residents, does grant interviews on occasion and we were lucky enough to have Hardy Fox (who, along with Homer Flynn, is the heart and soul of Cryptic) reply to our request for more information within a few days. In the curious case of the Residents, in their own almost-CIA-like level of "need to know basis" security clearance, being a public representative can be a bit dodgy; while certain general things can be revealed and personal opinions of those who've closely worked with the group can be taken as representative of the opinions of the Residents themselves, specific questions about methodology and motive are unanswerable and left up to the mind of user. It's like traveling in uncharted waters and making the map up as you go; everything is personally empirical.

Hunters is a beautiful, careful album. What makes it unique is its release on Milan Audio-a label known primarily for bad film soundtracks (that's both bad films and bad music) and a Popol Vuh re-issue series-independently of the Residents. Though the group wrote, recorded and produced all of the sounds, the album (as a release) was entirely compiled by Milan from episodes of the show. The recording was done in standard soundtrack style, the band viewing the finished footage and composing music to accompany it-the Residents were contacted by the producer of the series. The result is a dense work that nods toward orchestral moods more often than not. The Residents, Fox explains, were almost more apprehensive about initially putting the music together than waiting to see how it had been compiled for an audio release (which was unplanned when the music was recorded). "Originally they were very afraid. Even though the idea was they wanted to do this show on predators, and they wanted it to be somewhat vicious. And at the same time they were really afraid of maybe it being too dark, and they [the producers] were asking that it be given somewhat more of a classic Western sound."

The classic Western sound The Residents achieve on Hunters is a closer cousin to sweeping movie scores from the '30s and '40s rather than classical music, but insidious rumblings lurk within all the pieces. "'The whole thing is written in non-Western tunings," says Fox, continuing to expand on the originally desired concept of viciousness. "Which is one of the things that makes it interesting. It's consistent to a tuning but it's not a Western tuning."

Picture the average Discovery Channel viewer with his big-screen surround-sound system going when the predatorial stalk of "The Deadly Game" creeps out of the speakers. It's just different enough from what the Western ear is used to to demand notice; it's almost insidious.

Moving back to the CD-ROMs now, the levels of complexity led me to guess it took a year to complete the Freak Show, and maybe only slightly less for the Gingerbread Man. Though the second half of my intuition was right (but for all the wrong reasons), the first part was way off. "Freak Show took two years," Fox says. "Gingerbread Man was much faster than that. But Gingerbread Man wasn't conceived of as a CD-ROM, it was conceived of as an audio album. That's why the box says 'Expanded Album' on the front, and why it will play in your audio CD player as well as your CD-ROM player. That was one of the requirements."

Requirements. Commonplace for artists who want to keep a hand in every aspect of a production, but for the Residents it goes far beyond control to overall theories and plans of action. Fox explains the rationale behind the expanded album, and why it came to fruition.

"It was a really different idea from Freak Show. If it had been something that was in that general direction, I don't think it would have ever happened. But because it was so radically different from Freak Show, hopefully it would be- the Residents think of it as an extension of the album as opposed to a CD-ROM, which is a total experience sort of thing. In fact, they've said that what they see it as is it gives you something to do while you listen to album. 'Cause they say that people no longer have time to sit down and listen to albums, you have to be doing something while you listen; whether it's driving or something. We're past the day when people just sit still and listen to music. On occasion you do, but for the most part you just don't do that anymore. So they said that they felt responsible to start preparing things for people to do."

Well, if the Residents felt the tug of responsibility, creating the first-ever regular audio-CD-compatible fully functioning CD-ROM is one hell of a response. It's also nothing short of the boldest, risk-taking move the Residents have engaged in over their entire career. Inventing a new format is pretty heavy, especially for something whose significance Fox almost dismisses. "Gingerbread Man is actually an in between project, it's the new album. It was really just the new album that was coming out, and taking it to an interactive level was sort of an after-thought."

The Residents have used popular cultural iconography throughout their long career. Cutting broad swaths from the "American fabric," beginning all the way back with the phenomenal Third Reich and Roll album in 1976 (which is the greatest covers album-medley of all time). They've worked with the music of James Brown, George Gershwin, Hank Williams and John Phillip Sousa in their two-part "American Composers Series," which in some ways led them into and culminated with Cube-E: The History of American Music in 3 E-Z Pieces and The King and Eye . (Which takes on Elvis, and proves him to be bigger in death than life-all an extension of America's loss of innocence in the '50s.) Freak Show is another natural extension of the group's fascination with the roots of American culture.

The freak show, in it's original form, was popular throughout the US from the 1850's through the 1950's. After World War II, the advent of television and the growing acceptance of "freaks" as medical/chemical mishaps (as in a "Dolphin Boy" being merely regarded as another Thalidomide baby, not promoted as part man-part fish), put the nails in the coffin. The Residents, however, use the freak show as a means of self-exploration. When they returned from touring Cube-E, they felt their dark broodings on American culture had in some ways turned on them; their own self-placement outside the mainstream made them the freaks. In an attempt to probe this, and reflect on how society in general wants to hide away all things "ugly" (especially those within the self), turning to those who use exploitation of their uniqueness as their sole method of coping (a method no longer favored in these P.C. times) seems logical. The success of Freak Show, apparently helped the Residents deal with those feelings, but led them into anther realm altogether-coming to grips with their own aging.

Not that the Residents are old men or something, the average age of the group is probably hovering around 45-50 (of course, this is one of those areas where no information is disseminated). The Gingerbread Man deals with aging, jadedness and dying.

The "album" features the tales of nine characters, each connected to the next (though in interactive mode there is no order) through the cookie cutter cut-out of "Ginger," the gingerbread man, whose theme weaves through all of the character's songs as he spins and contorts between each character, entreating you to follow. From "The Weaver," "The Old Woman" and "The Dying Oilman," who reflect on isolation and impending death, to the frustrating mid-life crises of "The Sold-Out Artist," "The Aging Musician" (both portrayed by Todd Rundgren) and "The Confused Transsexual," dealing with personal rather than collective demons is one of the underlying themes.

Everything takes on a new life in the interactive mode, however, and here the creative genius of the Residents allows the user to manipulate just about every aspect of all the characters. As the CD-ROM plays, the computer keyboard becomes a multi-media controller; hitting certain keys changes the background images displayed behind the rotating, singing heads of the characters (all digitized from brilliant clay sculptures by the Residents' animator Jim Ludtke), depressing other ones can change content of the songs or make thoughts and images fly out of the characters' heads. The mouse also become an interactive tool in conjunction with the famous eyeball-in-top-hat logo. At certain points during the disc the eyeball comes to life, spinning and rapidly displaying letters, when you click the mouse on the eyeball during these periods of activity affects the character being displayed-but in a random, indescribable way. Simply put, this is an experience you must have first-hand; no written description will ever do it justice.

As if all that isn't enough to digest already, Bad Day On the Midway, the CD-ROM sequel to Freak Show, is in development. As with Freak Show, there will also be an album and a book-all slated to be released simultaneously in October. Fox describes it as "madly being worked on at this moment," and there's no reason to doubt him.

One thing which has made the process somewhat easier is that, as a result of the continuing success of Freak Show, the Residents have signed a research and development deal which has them underwritten by Warners/HBO. This is enabling the Residents, according to Fox, to "develop a much more sophisticated project this time. And the spin-off projects, which are all a part of it because that's the way those guys think."

Some mention should also be made of UWEB (Uncle Willy's Eyeball Buddies), the Residents' official appreciation society, the only fan club I can think of that releases CDs of otherwise unavailable material-with the band's permission-on a semi-regular basis. UWEB put out the book (and accompanying CD) Uncle Willy's Highly Opinionated Guide To The Residents about two years ago. Aside from being entirely translated into Japanese, where release of a new edition is imminent, Fox relates the plans for the book's electronic debut. "Actually, the plan is that entire book, which will be updated constantly, is getting ready to go on a Web site. So that anyone who wants information, historically speaking, can research it very easily. If the Residents weren't doing anything anymore it would be fine (for just a book to be published), but since every year it goes out of date it doesn't make much sense."

This brings up the Residents connection to the Internet, details of which Fox was also happy to relate. "There is a web site under construction. There actually is a very good Web site up in Canada, that's a Residents web site, it's not an official web site. It's mainly taking the time to put it together, but we hope it won't take too long before both the mail order catalog and the Uncle Willy book will be there. As well as what's coming and what's being worked on."

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