< SWITCH ME >

Some artists are there to entertain you. Others might amuse, depress, or shock you. And then there are The Residents, leaving you with an abundance of contradictory, indescribable impressions. Even though they have been around for some 40 years, their art is still as cryptic and mysterious as it was at the beginning. How have they managed to do that for so long? And how could you strive to be so... unique?

Don't let them know who you are

It might seem improbable, but The Residents have remained anonymous throughout their existence. The enigmatic four have kept their identities to themselves, thus creating an ambience of speculation about them – some have even claimed they were actually The Beatles themselves, turned into hideous Mr. Hydes after nightfall, demonically deconstructing their own music. While they have said that they aim to divert attention from themselves and let people focus on their art, the mystery has certainly been to their advantage, not least because that provided the chance to create their own alter egos.

And indeed, if you are - by a vast stretch of imagination - a rock band, how do you perform live, if you want to remain anonymous? Simple: just make sure you conceal your face. Behind a giant eyeball mask. To make things look slicker, you could also rent a tux and put a top hat on. And if this doesn't become your signature image, nothing will.

Expand the boundaries

Put bluntly, The Residents' music, for the most part, is hardly enjoyable to listen to, but that's beside the point. What they did in the early years were deconstructions of pop songs (read: unsettling, outrageous remixes), but they quickly started to write their own, equally unsettling material. They were obsessed with notions of pure art, and even invented some musical authority to back their views. The newly formed persona of the allegedly Bavarian N. Senada (probably a pun for "en se nada", in himself nothing) supposedly conceived "The Theory of Obscurity", which the band wholeheartedly embraced.

the_residents1
Sketch by Laura Hempel (all rights reserved)
The Residents blend style, provocation, and just plain weirdness.

According to that theory, artists should not care for others' expectations and influences, so as to produce pure art. Hence, The Residents thought, we should record an album and NOT release it, or at least not until we absolutely forget about it. The eventually released and aptly titled "Not Available" does indeed sound as if no-one else was ever intended to hear it. Much of The Residents' output - whether you like it or not - has the unique quality of being music you never thought existed.

Know how to provoke

The Residents weren't always about doom and gloom - they have also embraced an obscure, post-modern take on humour. Annoyed that no radio station would play their music (except on Halloween), they made "The Commercial Album", consisting of one minute "pop" songs with a verse and a chorus, with the single purpose of airplay. And they were indeed eager to get it - in a stunt against the music industry they bought all the advertising slots on a San Francisco mainstream station, using them to play their songs. It is a travesty that they didn't enter the charts.

The subject matter of their albums is also often outrageous. In "God in Three Persons", for instance, they weave the disturbing tale of two Siamese twins who have miraculous healing powers. And if making a rock opera about Siamese twins wasn't shocking enough, they decided to narrate the whole thing in the syllabic metre of E. A. Poe's "The Raven". And they pulled it off in the most disturbing manner imaginable.

No band is truly controversial if they don't get into a religious row in some way or another. And with "Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bibile", they did exactly that. The Residents took the abundant raunchy bits from the Old Testament and created a concept album, giving a whole new meaning to the Christian Rock genre. Never has the Book of Revelation sounded so groovy. Had their identities been known, they surely would not have been allowed into churches anymore.

Embrace technology

The Residents knew which way the wind was blowing. Their early videos were aired on MTV for no other reason than that there weren't too many videos around at this time. When high-resolution computer graphics and CD-ROMs came about, they made an interactive documentary on freaks, simply entitled "The Freak Show". Their subsequent computer game, "Bad Day on the Midway", is probably the worst nightmare about a theme park you ever had. They have recently developed one of the characters in a series of short youtube videos.

Nowadays, the internet has enabled them to rise from obscurity. Perhaps this newly found online fame and virtual connection to fans is not what they had in mind back when it all started, but even though their facebook page says that they are actually Randy, Chuck, Bob, and Carlos; is this really so? And isn't not knowing the whole point?

NEXT ISSUE
IN -935 DAYS