LA Beat Interview: The Residents

Video artist John Sanborn (left) and The Residents ex-vocalist Randy, seen in the God In 3 Persons Promo Film, produced for the MOMA premiere in 2020.

Following acclaimed performances at New York’s MOMA and in their hometown of San Francisco, The Residents are bringing the fully-realized production of their 1988 opera God In Three Persons to the Alex Theater in Glendale. While live appearances from the group have become more common in recent years, this particular ball of wormy wax is an elaborately staged narrative work, produced through a collaboration with video artist John Sanborn and stage director Travis Chamberlain. Through live action and prepared visuals, the story of a travelling salesman/ con artist who becomes entangled with a pair of conjoined twins of indeterminate gender, who may or may not possess magical healing powers, unfolds.

“I feel the Residents have had an interest in story-telling from their very earliest work,” says Homer Flynn, officially a representative from the Cryptic Corporation who acts as a spokesperson for the Residents, being that the band members themselves have been anonymous ever since their first release in 1972.The premise of a musical group whose members are completely unknown is pretty hard to maintain in this modern world, though Flynn says the group still likes it and would like to keep it going for as long as possible. In fact, that veil of secrecy has been pierced a little in recent years since the passing of Hardy Fox, now acknowledged to be the primary composer for the group since its formation. Fox left some writings in his final years that explained some things for those who desire explanations, and an article in Texas Monthly painted a portrait of him that I’m glad I got to see. Even though I felt I never really wanted to peek under the eyeball masks, it felt like the right time to finally do so, and as you might guess, his story is quite interesting.

Perhaps as a result of this newfound comfort with getting up close and personal in his professional life, Homer spoke with the LA Beat over the telephone about what he likes to eat when visiting his hometown, why restaurants in converted gas stations appeal to him, his experience growing up in the Southern church, and while denying any connection to the group Steely Dan, he shockingly admits to a connection with the group Judas Priest. Read on for the gory details.

One thing that has occurred to me as the Residents are coming to this point in their history, there is an interesting parallel to another popular group. This group also formed in the eastern US, moved to California and initially were heard primarily on recordings, but now seem to tour nearly every year. And this other group is not exactly anonymous, but have had so many people in them that it could be just about anybody playing the notes at any time. So I have to ask – are the people in the Residents the same people as Steely Dan?

Uhm… well, I suppose I should say, there easily could be some crossover. But to my knowledge, there aren’t any Steely Dan-ites crossing over from the Residents.
Steely Dan, wow, I didn’t know that much about ‘em really. They had some pop music that I liked about twenty or thirty years ago, but I thought it was just two guys and I don’t really know if they’re still there anymore.

I saw that you were traveling through Louisiana, and my wife and I are very fond of Louisiana. We got married there and spend time when we can. What do you like to eat when you go back to Shreveport?

Well, my favorite place lately has been an old converted gas station called Marilyn’s Place. And Marilyn’s Place serves kind of Cajun/southern food, and I had a bowl of gumbo there. My wife and I ate there about two or three days ago. I had a fried catfish po’ boy and a bowl of gumbo, both of which I thought were excellent.

It’s an interesting restaurant. Because it’s an old gas station, it has kind of a cool funkiness about it and Southern gas stations, I grew up with my grandfather owning a gas station, a Gulf station, in a very small town called Oak Ridge, Louisiana. In the very northeast corner (of the state). So, both that food and the gas station have kind of a warm spot for me, so I try to get by there when I can. It’s relatively new, maybe five or six years old. A lot of charm.

I wanted to talk about the prevalence of religious imagery in the Residents’ work, the way those themes seem to pop up either in discussion of the themes themselves or people who are consumed by religious beliefs. I wanted to ask you where that comes from and how that has affected your work or your worldview as things have gone on.

Well, I know some of, maybe all of, the Residents, grew up as Protestants, white Anglo Saxon Protestants – WASPS – as did I. My personal experience was with the Methodist church. And when you grow up, you just accept these things, you don’t really think about it that much. Really, (it wasn’t) until the Residents started working on their Wormwood album in 1999-2000, that I started, really, personally reflecting on all that.

For when I left the South, it was 1969, it was George Wallace times. I was much more escaping than I was anything else. But time passes, and you reflect. You know, I look on my time with the Methodist church, I’m not a religious person, but I actually look back on it and see it as having a fairly liberal for the South, and progressive, and kind of a relatively, open, inclusive, loving environment. And my dad died, about 11 years ago, and I was back dealing with some things. And the minister, he still went to this same church, St Luke’s Methodist Church, he was a construction guy, he actually built that church. And the guy who was the pastor from that church, I interacted a little bit with at the time, and I felt like I got that exact same attitude.

Whereas unfortunately too much of so-called Christianity has been taken over by the religious right, which I feel is really kind of too bad. I think there are a lot of people that really embrace that loving, inclusive attitude, and unfortunately, they don’t really get too much attention.

I couldn’t help but wonder if part of the desire for anonymity in the construction of the early Residents, was partly borne out of a desire to not have the people from your hometown know what you were doing.

Well, there was certainly a desire to create space or separation between one’s personal life and one’s public life. And I don’t know how much they expected there would be anybody that would be noticing them from back there. They certainly were not looking for that kind of attention when they started.

I mean, it’s interesting. I connected, and because of me the Residents too, with some people [back there]. You know, for me, any time I went back there over the years, it was all about family. And really, there was not much conversation around the Residents or my involvement with the Residents.

But I connected with a group of people [following Hurricane Katrina]. After that there were a lot of films that had been funded and were ready to shoot in New Orleans that just couldn’t go. And they wound up creating kind of an alternative film center in Shreveport. Which was almost, kind of unknown to me. But there was one guy in particular, who got in touch with me.

Ultimately what happened was, the young creative types who grew up in Shreveport always left by the drove until this happened. And the business community, very intelligently created a lot of benefits for the film community there. I know there was a sort of thriving community and I kind of connected with it and that was pretty cool, but I think for the most part, that may have moved on by now.

So, at the time God In Three Persons was released in the 80s it was not really performed. Can you enlighten us about the circumstances with that record and what happened with it?

Well, there were a couple of the Residents that were ultimately kind of involved in, I don’t know, personal crisis. And they ultimately took that negative energy and poured it into God In Three Persons. You know, taking negative energy and turning it positively, from a creative point of view, to me, is one of the best things that someone can do with that kind of energy. And this is definitely the path they were on and what they did with God In Three Persons.

And at one point, they hadn’t finished it, they really kind of wanted to tour it, and they had some interest. I remember they had some conversations with BAM in Brooklyn about potentially doing it there, but then that fell apart.

And then around the same time, they had the idea of doing the King and Eye, which became the Cube-E performance. And they felt that doing something that was based on American music historically, and Elvis, they felt like they would find a lot more interest. They felt like that would be a much easier show to tour. Whereas God In Three Persons, they felt like, was going to be more challenging. Both in terms of, the music was more difficult and they just felt like they needed a lot of visuals to support the text of it. So, they kind of made a switch, fairly early on, from God In Three Persons to King and Eye and Cube-E.

But they always held God In Three Persons pretty highly, as the primary piece that, if they had the opportunity to develop it further, they would jump on it, and it finally came. Thirty-five years later.

Who are some of the collaborators that are going to be working with you on this in Glendale?

Well, the primary collaborator is a video artist by the name of John Sanborn. And John is an absolute world class video artist. And he has collaborated with the Residents on quite a few projects, maybe going back to the late 70s or 80s. And John has taken the text of God In Three Persons, which is so colorful from a narrative point of view, and created visuals that absolutely underscore and reinforce the text.

From my perspective, his contribution has taken the piece to another level. I’ve always thought that the text and the music were very strong. But John’s visuals have really taken it to another level. He’s the primary collaborator.

They’re also working with a New York director, a guy named Travis Chamberlain. And they’ve worked with him, there was, one of the Residents did a solo show called Sam’s Enchanted Evening, about ten or twelve years ago, and that made it to New York. And Travis was the director on that, so they connected with him, and the producer, Steve Saporito, at that time. And that show was over they said, okay, what else would you like to do. And everybody said,“God In Three Persons!” And ultimately, we’ve all kind of been working on it kind of ever since.

We recently lost Bruce Anderson of Mx-80, probably the most conventional rock band on Ralph Records, though not a very “conventional” rock band compared to other rock bands! Can you talk a little bit about how they became involved with the label?

Well, you know, there was a point where ultimately, the Cryptic Corp, this was about 1976-77, the Cryptic Corp took over running the business for the label. And ultimately, we felt like our mandate was to support them being the Residents. In other words, to support their artistic vision wherever that path led. But in order to do that, we felt like we needed some more commercial acts for the label. So, we started looking around, and ultimately the local acts that we found were MX-80, Tuxedomoon, Snakefinger and a group called Chrome.

At that time, this was like New Wave era, and at that time it was trendy to put out these compilation albums that took groups from a certain metropolitan area, you know there was one called No New York and another one called Yes, LA! And so we put out one called Subterranean Modern. And each of the groups, Residents, MX-80, Tuxedomoon, and Chrome each got one half of one side of an LP. You’ve got ten to fifteen minutes’ worth of time. And the only criteria that we gave people was, each one had to do their own version of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” And so that’s what connected us with MX-80 and Tuxedomoon, and ultimately putting out albums by them.

What do you think the future holds for the Residents? We had talked about the possibility of a new piece of work involving the history around the band Judas Priest.

Well, they have just created about an hour’s worth of demo material, backing tracks, for what they hope will be a very modern theater piece. And you know, they’ve been in conversations with a guy who is a young, ambitious classical composer and conductor. And they just sent these tracks to him, to let him digest them. And these tracks, along with four pages of the plot points of what they see as the story of this. And it’s all based on a trial, I think back in the 80s, where two teenagers with far too much drugs and alcohol attempted suicide. And their parents then took Judas Priest and whoever their record label was, to court. The parents taking no responsibility for their kids on themselves, but of course, it had to be this horrible, negative heavy metal music. And they took them to court. And this was the late 80s, early 90s, something like that, and it got quite a bit of attention at the time.

Well, there was a filmmaker who went to see the trial and shot a documentary based on it, and he discovered that one of the two teenagers had only partially succeeded at blowing his head off, and he survived, and the filmmaker found him and actually shot interview footage with him. And, you know, seeing this interview footage is like a train wreck that you can’t take your eyes off of. And the Residents saw this and became extremely fascinated by it, and have been interested in doing a piece based on this ever since. And so, that’s what this is. The working title for it is Dr. Dark. And it’s something that, the material that’s been done so far will almost undoubtedly form the basis for their next album, and hopefully will be this kind of modern theater piece/opera somewhere two or three years from now.

I think the documentary is called Dream Deceivers, and I think it’s available on Youtube.

Do you foresee a time at which these pieces that have been developed as theater pieces might be performed outside of the Residents? Possibly become part of American theater lexicon.

Well, you never know. The God In Three Persons piece that they’re performing now, I feel like they have elevated the stature of that (the point that) that could be performed by somebody else, which I think to the Residents and myself, would be a fascinating development. I think that could easily happen.

The Residents present God In Three Persons at the Alex Theater, Glendale on Saturday, June 18. Tickets, from $59, at Ticketmaster

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