Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Residents Return to Vancouver: a Homer Flynn interview, with added Poor Know Graphics

It is a little tricky, interviewing the guy whom, Wikipedia asserts, is likely - hell, according to them, is practically scientifically proven or something - to be the singer of the Residents, who nonetheless does not acknowledge that he is or ever has been a member of the band. You get, for example, a whole new kind of pronoun confusion: I keep asking Homer Flynn about the Residents using "you;" he keeps bouncing it back to me with "they;" it gets so that I start stammering a bit ("Why did you... I mean they..."). Which is fine - he answers all my questions, and I don't really want to get into the whole question of who the Residents are, anyhow; already had that conversation with Hardy Fox back in 2011 (see here and here), and I don't much expect that, now that they've spent 40 odd years being anonymous, that Flynn is going to suddenly break down and admit everything to me (or narc on the "real" Residents, whoever they may be).

Besides, I want to ask questions about the WORK, the WORK is what's important; but even writing my piece for the Westender, I'm kind of obliged to do a little bit of the "identity dance." It's a bit like that Leonard Cohen poem where one of the links in his armour is a blue butterfly, which none of his enemies can help but aim at, even though it is his one invulnerable spot.

But I wanted to start by asking Mr. Flynn at least one or two graphic design questions, since this is work he actually acknowledges he does. We started with one of my favourite-ever record covers, The Third Reich 'n Roll - the first Residents album I ever bought, off New Creation discoverer Ty Scammell at the Vancouver Flea Market, back in the 1980's. I had heard other Residents, but it was Third Reich 'n Roll that I fell utterly in love with, and for many years it was the only Residents album I owned or wanted.

I started with a stupid question, asking why his Dick Clark Hitler was holding a carrot, with Flynn explaining that it's because Hitler was a vegetarian, the name of one side of the album. (“I actually read somewhere recently where someone said that Hitler was not a vegetarian,” he added, “so I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that was the reason for the carrot.”)

Okay, so that was dumb of me. My Mom's in the hospital, folks, whattaya want? But I think there's some pretty good stuff amidst the outtakes. (Going to do something else with it, too, folks, this was not all just fat; there's a German magazine that runs some of my stuff from time to time...).

AM: Are there any fun stories behind that cover? 

HF: It’s interesting. I have a good friend who tells me he was in Dick Clark’s office, twenty years, fifteen years after it came out, and he swore that Dick Clark actually had a copy of it. Ultimately that's all I know. The other thing was that I had someone at one point look at the cover and tell me, ‘How can you possibly do that to Captain Kirk?’ So (laughing) there’s certainly different ways that people can interpret the graphic.

Were you surprised that the Germans censored the album cover? 

Yeah, as a matter of fact, everybody was pretty much caught off guard. In general, here was a lot more reaction to the swastika than everybody expected. Y'know, the Residents kind of naively felt like, "well, that was World War II, that was way back in the past." But when the album came out, they did a window display for a store called Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley, and the window display had a picture of one of the Residents wearing a giant swastika head that they had made for, like, promo pictures. There was such an outcry in Berkeley, the home of ‘free speech,’ of this swastika being in the window that it was immediately taken down. So I would say there was a lot more reaction to the swastikas in general... but the reaction in Germany was not at all expected.

This was years before the eyeball head was invented, right?

Correct, yeah.

By the way, how do you like  your company to be represented? I see it's in the movie as P-O-O-R    K-N-O-W graphics. Do you want to keep with that spelling?

That's fine. We've actually spelled it different ways over the years. I've actually spelled it P-O-O-R   N-O, or P-O-R-E   N-O, y'know - whatever, but the way it's in the movie it's fine.  

I'm also reading today about the cover of the Baby Sex tape - that does sound kinda pornographic! Did that get any sort of distribution? 

No, what happened was, there are two Residents ‘albums,’ quote-unquote, that were actually sent to a guy at Warner Brothers Records, actually before the name the Residents even existed. This is a guy named Hal Halverstadt, who was, I think, the marketing director at Warner Brothers, like in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the Residents were big Captain Beefheart fans, and they read in Rolling Stone or someplace that when Captain Beefheart decided to go out on tour, he went and talked to this guy, to help put a tour together, rather than the A&R people. And so the Residents felt, ‘If this guy was good enough for Captain Beefheart, he was good enough for us,’ so they submitted an album length reel-to-reel tape, and that was the first one, called The Warner Brothers Album. And it was actually him - they were completely anonymous at that point, they didn’t even have a name of the group. And so when he returned that tape to them, he put it to ‘Residents,’ at their address in San Mateo, which is where they were living at the time. And so they looked at it and they went, ‘Residents? I guess that’s us.' And ultimately that’s where the name came from. And about six months later they submitted a second tape to him, which was the Baby Sex tape. 

Right, right. Sorry to make you recount that story for the billionth time! But, like, where did the cover come from?

The cover from that was actually from something that came in the mail: ‘pornography from Denmark,’ and it was a just a tiny little graphic and they took that and blew it up and made a silkscreen out of it. That was the cover of Baby Sex.

Why were the Residents getting ads for pornography from Denmark? Was that normal? 

Y'know, I'm not even sure, but I think it kind of was! Back at that time, pornography is not as much out in the open as it is now, obviously at this point all you have to do is turn on the computer and pornography is thirty seconds away, whereas at that time, everything was very much under wraps and under cover, and people would actually buy mail-order pornography from Denmark. As crazy as that sounds at this point, it was open in Denmark, it wasn't that open here. And exactly where or how that mail came into the possession of the Residents, I'm not sure exactly, but that's more just the way it was at the time. You could find pornography in the back of Mechanics Illustrated magazine, little tiny ads for things that would come in brown paper wrappers. Once again, it was a different time.

Were you actually formally trained in graphic design, or studying it? 

No, actually most of my printing - I've been pretty much self taught.

And most of your work has been done for Ralph Records. 

The majority. I've done a few things here and there, but mostly I've worked exclusively for Ralph, and mostly for the Residents.

Do you have a single album cover that you're proudest of or happiest with?

I was always pretty happy with the Eskimo cover. I always felt like that was both reflective of where the group was at, at that point, and the content, and striking from a marketing point of view. So yeah, I was always happy with that one.

Are any of the members, insofar as members of the Residents exist, actually inside the costumes on the Eskimo cover, or are they just models?

Uh, no, that's uh... I think, yeah, uh, maybe Snakefinger is standing in for one of them, but otherwise, it is them.


And in terms of later things, the Tweedles! album cover, I was always really happy with that one, too.

I actually don't know Tweedles! ...I want to ask about how the masks feel, but you haven't ever acknowledged wearing the masks, have you?

No, y'know, I'm usually takin' the picture! But I have put them on. It's kind of one of those things, it's hard to have them around and not put one on just to see what it's like. I assume you're talking about the eyeball mask?

Well, one of the people in the documentary talks about how uncomfortable they are to perform in, how heavy. I was actually thinking about Randy's rubber mask. I'm an ESL teacher, I've sometimes taught in a latex mask, and I know you sweat like hell. So do the Residents have any secrets for keeping the masks from... or... do they have any tricks?

No, not really. Randy sometimes sweats quite a bit! The costume that Randy wears right now, which is sort of a all-over body suit leotard with a little kind of tux jacket, in general I've heard Randy say that it's much easier to perform in that than, say, the Bunny suit he wore during the Bunny Boy tour.

What are the costumes the other guys wear? The dreadlocks guys, Chuck and Bob - or I guess Chuck has "retired," now. But they're creepy, but kind of anonymous... they're strange.

Really, a lot of art direction for Residents just kind of evolves. It's a combination of something that is at least tolerable to wear, and something that fits into the overall design scheme. So the design scheme, the art direction for this [ie., the Shadowland tour] is sort of black and white and red, which is actually a colour scheme that the Residents have used often. That's the colour scheme for Third Reich 'n Roll, that's the colour scheme for Duck Stab. Once again, within the concept... there's particularly, black and white checkerboards in this... The sense of uniformity that goes with this is really the white sequin tux jackets. And each one wears that, and they've kind of chosen other things to compliment that, that are comfortable in terms of performing and still fit the feeling of the show from an art direction point of view.

Okay. I don't know if I can ask this without trespass, but I gather someone has retired - Chuck, Charles Bobuck, or, I mean, I'm wondering if that's Hardy Fox, is that out there? Has he stepped away from things? What's going on? 

At this point, I suppose it's fair to say that things are somewhat in flux. It won't really be completely determined who or what is going forward until well past the Shadowland tour. That's kind of the state of things right now.

Is there a reference to CS Lewis, here? There's a film, Shadowlands, about CS Lewis and his conversion to Christianity, when his wife dies. So there seems some sort of overlap.

Well... I think, thematically, part of what's happening is birth, rebirth, reincarnation, near-death experience, and somehow that title just seemed to resonate, no pun intended, with the content. I think particularly if you look at near death experiences, there's just a sense of someone having gone to the Shadowland and come back, in a way.

[The Residents, Vancouver 2011, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission]

There's been a lot of death in the recent work, we just saw the Talking Light show in Vancouver, a few years ago, and it was really dark. Is that something that's really on the band's mind, these days?

Well, I think, to some extent as one ages, that’s inescapable. I don’t know how much that is consciously part of their thought process, but I think, from an unconscious point of view, there’s a point in one’s life when you realize, unless you’re in some sort of exceptional situation, that there’s more life behind you than there is in front of you. And you spend so much of your life feeling like this is just going to go on forever, particularly when you’re young: there’s always new horizons. It’s not that there aren’t still new horizons for the Residents, but on the other hand, they’re definitely not going to last for another forty years.

But it seems like in the case of the band, the awareness of mortality seems to be really driving them, you're touring more - or at least you're coming to Vancouver more - and, I mean, it seems like you're really "raging against the dying of the light." Or, uh, sorry, they're really raging against the dying of the light. 

I don't know how much it's actually raging, umm... but there's definitely been more interest in performing. And to be completely honest, if you're following the music business at all these days, and I assume that you are, ultimately touring is almost the only way anybody can make a living, in the music business these days. There are certain financial realities involved in that, too. The Residents, historically, have made most of their money from selling product - LPs, CDs, DVDs, whatever. And that has dwindled more and more, whereas touring income is actually fairly stable. So that really accounts for some of that, too.

Is merch sold at shows a big part of business? There seemed to be a lot of limited edition CDs, tour-only kind of stuff, the last time you came to town. 

Yeah, that is definitely part of it. Personally, I have often described a tour as a marketing device for a t-shirt selling business, and ultimately that's the way the economics of it work out. The Residents go out on tour, and there will be half a dozen people in the group, and it takes five of those people to earn the initial gross amount, and that's almost a break-even proposition. But then one more person can come along and, by doing merch, increase that gross by 50%. So if you think about that, it's pretty easy to see where the money is.

It's weird to me, though, because sometimes with bigger bands, because of the border situation, they don't bring ANY merch. I line up at the table and, maybe there's one t-shirt, but I was hoping to buy a record, and it's sorry, we didn't bring any...

It basically has to do with tax situations in terms of crossing borders. It's much more economical to manufacture something in another territory than to carry it with you, and part of that has to do with shipping, and part of it has to do with tariffs and import taxes, and basically, people don't want you crossing borders with goods that can be manufactured in their own country. And ultimately, if you're like the Residents, and you're only doing two or three shows in Canada, it's not worth it to manufacture stuff in Canada, and it's a hassle to try to bring stuff in. It's the fans and the band that kind of suffer from that.

How do you resolve that?

You know, I'm not really sure. Ultimately, it's the tour manager who does that stuff. I know the Residents did some shows in Australia, and there was absolutely no merch there for exactly the same reason. And whether they will try to bring stuff in this time... I don't know what the plan is this time, to tell the truth.

Okay. I want to ask you about one Residents songs, "Smelly Tongues." I guess it's the only song I really understand on Meet the Residents, or feel like I understand. It has all five senses packed into one line, "Smelly tongues looked just as they felt." It doesn't mention hearing, but it's a song, so that's implicit. So where did that line come from?

 Y'know, I'm not really sure, to tell you the truth. The song was written... The Residents used to have a friend - unfortunately he has passed away at this point - who was in a group, it was almost like an anti-fraternity, a group of guys in high school and then in college, which they called Delta Nu. The Delta Nu guys was in a way a precursor to the Residents. It was exactly the same attitude, but kinda built around an anti-fraternity, as opposed to an anti-band. And this one guy lived in Houston, and he actually became a programmer in the space program for IBM. And he was just the hugest fan of black R&B, and he loved James Brown and Bo Diddley. So anyway, when he was visiting the Bay Area, the Residents were recording Meet the Residents, and they wanted him to do a song on it. So "Smelly Tongues" was actually written for him, but where they came up with that lyric, I’m not sure.

The thing - I don't know if we want to go here, but I'm an old acidhead, I used to like LSD a great deal, and one of the things that happens with acid is synesthesia, where one sense bleeds over into the next, so that sounds have colours, smells have textures, and Wednesday is orange. I mean, some people don't need acid. But the song seems quite synesthetic, so...

I will say that there was quite a bit of drug taking in the Residents’ formative years. I’m trying to think if that leaked as far into Meet the Residents, that would have been 74... I’ll put it this way, they may have been taking acid at that point, but they were definitely starting to wean themselves from it in 1972/73, when that would have been recorded. But there was plenty of it before that!

[Photo of Randy Rose by bev davies, not to be reused without permission]

A final question about the film, Theory of Obscurity. It interests me that Don Hardy doesn't really try very hard to make it seem that the Residents weren't actually present in the film.

That they were actually present in the film, or that they weren't?

Well, it really does feel, in the end, like we've been listening to members of the Residents speaking for themselves, and not members of the Cryptic Corporation speaking for the Residents. You know what I mean? He doesn't try very hard to create the sense that there's some other guys out there who are off camera, declining to be interviewed.

Right. Well, I can see that. I hadn't really thought of it that way. There were certainly no setups created that created the illusion that, okay, they're over here, in this little crazy house but we can't really get to 'em. There were thoughts of things like that, I suppose, but ultimately I think, the course of the film sort of dictated itself, and Don sort of followed that.

The Residents appear tonight, at the Rio Theatre, after a screening of Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents. 


B said...

Good interview! Let us know if they did bring merch to Canada... seeing them in Montreal next Friday and was hoping to nab a bunch of things.

Allan MacInnis said...

Sure thing, Bear Cub! I like merch too!

B said...

Thanks! So how was the show and movie?

Allan MacInnis said...

Movie is great, lot of revealing stuff; for me the best of it is the early footage of the band, which I had in no way seen before, but the whole thing is very nicely handled, and has a good solid through line, doesn't get too digressive or so forth (which has been an issue with a few music docs I've seen lately, like the one about the Damned. A music doc should run around 95 minutes max and know what to leave for the extras; The Residents doc scores on both counts. It has DISCIPLINE!).

The show was great too, even without Chuck (who has some health issues, but he's got an able replacement, Rico). The film plus concert together, mind you, makes for a very full meal for the audience, so come with stamina, or drink coffee, because the Residents do a full set, or at least did in Vancouver... it more or less followed the track listing on the Shadowland CD, tho' with a few tweaks ("Constantinople" made the set, "Betty's Body" didn't). Randy really gave it his all, though - he's quite the showman; and the video component - little ghostly narratives that punctuated songs - was consistently interesting.

Merch, tho', compared to their 2011 show here, was slightly less varied, and will be more exciting to noobs than seasoned fans. Fewer limited edition CDs, no vinyl, only a couple t-shirt designs, and if I recall, only the doc on Blu and DVD, no Icky Flicks or other video material. (Who knows, by the time they get over there they might resupply). But there WAS merch, so that's good! High points of the merch table visit for me - ie the stuff I actually bought - were the novelisation of Bad Day on the Midway, which I figured is prolly going to be harder to find in shops in Canada than some of the other items, and the doc; the Blu has lots of extended scenes and cool-seeming extras that I'm eager to check out.

On the other hand, they did have a Lonely Teenager CD, back in print (I guess) in different packaging, and a Demons Dance Alone, both of which are terrific albums, if you don't already have them (and if they still have them around by the time they get over there). Lonely Teenager had cooler packaging than the old jewel case version I got, too, though not so much cooler that I upgraded. But there were only a couple of CDs I didn't actually already have (The Bunny Boy, say). Mostly it was about ten different titles, all to be expected: the CD of Shadowland, Eskimo... nothing too obscure. I had thought I might buy a Tweedles! but no Tweedles! manifested itself.

All the same, overall it was a great night! Hope you feel the same way.