Saturday, September 29, 2018

In Conversation with Hardy Fox: "A Lip Involved in Both; or, It's Not Just Toast" (from 2011)

There has been some ambiguity this past week about whether Hardy Fox - the now-acknowledged principal composer of the Residents - is still alive, but it appears that he is. A week or so ago, the Residents sent out what seemed to be a final communique from Hardy, which suggested he is either now departed or was so soon to be that it made no real difference. Fans of the band were leaving messages on Facebook and telling Hardy how the Residents have changed their lives. Hardy's website also, as of a few days ago, had a banner that gave his year of birth and death (1945-2018) - though that has since disappeared, and possibly was something that Fox had posted himself (maybe he took it down, himself, too). 

The slight ambiguity here (whether deliberate or not) has prevented people from posting obituaries - the Wire seemed to go ahead and then apparently retracted the piece, since it's no longer on their site. There is a communique from the Residents online that clarifies matters, saying that  "Mr. Fox is still alive," and adding that "we prefer to celebrate his life rather than dwell on his impending exit" - though it is, as always, unclear what they will tell us, should Fox actually pass (it would not be entirely out-of-keeping with the bands ethos to leave things ambiguous).

But in the name of celebrating his life, then, it seemed like a good time to re-post my old interview with Hardy, since it can hardly hurt for people's thoughts to be with him, now. (It might not help much either, but I guess that's down to what you believe). Fox was the Resident I spoke to in 2011 for the Georgia Straight in regard the Residents' Rickshaw show, on the Talking Light tour. Fox did a pretty amazing thing that night that convinced me he was not, in fact, an active member of the band, all evidence to the contrary: after they finished, and I was coming out of the doors to the theatre into the Rickshaw's lobby, I ran into Fox entering the Rickshaw from outside. (I recognized him, hailed him, and spoke to him, so there's no question it was Hardy). While other members of the band, on a subsequent tour, confirmed that yes, indeed, Hardy Fox had been onstage that night - his final appearance in Vancouver, it would transpire - his sudden appearance at the front of the venue, that evening, when he had, to all appearances, only just gotten offstage and should still have been in the back completely convinced me he was not actually an active Resident, after all. (Did he go out the back door and jog through the alley, up Main Street, and around the corner to be able to fake people out? Dunno, but he sure fooled me). No idea what actually happened, but I drew conclusions from it, which, it turns out, were incorrect.

In any event, I enjoyed talking with and meeting Hardy Fox (and Homer Flynn, too, whom I spoke to the next time the band was in town). They both seemed very down to earth, generous, and plain spoken people, whose outward demeanor in person gave no clue as to the deep weirdness that they put in their art. That comes somewhat as a relief, actually. It wouldn't feel entirely safe or comfortable talking to someone who was actually an acknowledged member of a band so strange; the veil of anonymity around the Cryptic Corporation made it a little easier to proceed (though also harder to have a deep conversation about their music, since you can't/ couldn't be sure they were in fact the people responsible for making it).

I might have published bits of it before, but in any event, here's most of the conversation with Hardy that made up that Straight article.

How should I be describing your role, exactly?

Well – I have a unique situation, in that I go back, basically, to childhood with these people, and coming out to San Francisco in the 1970’s, I just found myself falling in with them, as interesting people, and helping them out in doing things, until eventually, I turned it into a career. As far as what my role is, it’s referred to usually as “manager,” because that’s something that people have a definition for. But in reality, it’s like someone who is eager and willing to do a lot of the footwork to help make things happen.

You’re not at all musically involved with the band?

I’ve played. I’ve played on albums. I’m not really musical, but I don’t know if they are, either!

Are you on the current tour?

I will be going, yeah. I don’t always do all the shows, but I do most of them when I can.

Is that true of other people involved with the Residents – that they come and go?

They have different staff in the United States than they do in Europe. Some people just do the US, and then there’ll be different people in Europe. We’re not talking onstage, we’re talking offstage.

Onstage there’s a core membership that is relatively unchanging since the 1970’s.

Oh yeah, definitely.

Okay. I’m convinced – I’m probably wrong, but I’m convinced that I can hear Captain Beefheart singing on Not Available – that one of the voices is his. Is there any truth to the rumour that he was (likely mythological Bavarian avant-gardist and guru to the band) N. Senada?

Well, that’s pretty easy – neither are true!

And you would tell me.

I would tell you, because if you do a little research on Captain Beefheart, you’ll find him trashing the Residents in print on several occasions.

Oh, really!

He was not a fan.

Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s a shame.

The Residents were a fan of his, he wasn’t a fan of the Residents.

He seemed like such a crusty man.

Well, the Residents have worked with Eric Drew Feldman, quite a lot, actually, and he was like, one of Beefheart’s people. So we have lots of information – but we won’t go into that, you’re not calling to talk about Beefheart!


But no, no, no – Beefheart would never have been on a Residents record. Never, absolutely ever.

And the Theory of Obscurity (that “an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration”) in no way derived from anything Beefheart said.

Oh, goodness no.

Well, that’s one rumour shot to shit! Good! Sorry to ask about identity questions, but I was also wondering about something that came up in discussions among members of the fan club, I gather – a theory that the Residents were carpenters who came to California in the 1970’s to assemble instruments for Harry Partch. It’s a wonderful story, though it’s probably not true.

No, it’s not, but I like it well enough that we could say it’s true!

(laughs)… Really?

Nah, I guess that’s not fair. No, I’ve never even heard that one. Where did you hear that?

I found it on the internet. So… I actually – I don’t even know if Hardy Fox is your real name.

It’s my real name. It was my father’s name.

Oh really? Okay. But let me explain - I was also struck – the name Homer Flynn seems like it might be a pseudonym, and Hardy Fox seems like it might be a pseudonym; and both names have a two syllable first name, beginning with H, and a one syllable last name. Just like Harry Partch. I mean, there’s the F/P difference, but they’re similar sounds – a labiodental fricative versus a bilabial stop, but there’s lip involved in both. Hardy Fox, Homer Flynn, Harry Partch. But…

(laughs). I think you’re stretching it. I think you could probably invent some connection with anything. No, I love Harry Partch’s work, I love his tonalities and his tunings, and he was in Sausalito. But I don’t know exactly when – I don’t know about him personally that well; I don’t even know when he died.

1974, so there is the chance for some brief overlap between him and the Residents, or that he could have been aware of them. 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

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.

What’s the genesis of the current project?

The genesis of this project really came – it depends on where I want to start; with many projects, you can keep going back to an earlier point if you want to. But the more immediate is, the Residents really felt like growing older and dying was an interesting thing, it’s a universal experience. Everyone dies, and everyone who lives long enough also experiences old age. And these were interesting concepts to think about for our culture, because our culture is so youth-obsessed and so youth-promoting. And in particular, from sort of a music-show point of view, it’s designed for youth, it’s run by youth, it’s all about youth. So they thought, well, this will be an interesting opportunity to fly in the face of that and perhaps do something a little confrontational about aging and losing your mind. And eventually losing everything by dying. And so they thought it was a good idea for a show!

Does this interest in mortality have anything to do with the age of everyone involved in the Residents – everyone is in their 60’s now?

Well, you would think they would have to be, but they don’t go around telling their age. They don’t go around telling their genders, either.

Okay. Anyhow - all of this was conceived as a show before Randy’s Ghost Stories.

Well, it really started as a show, yeah. It started as some recordings, some stories and some music. Around May of 2009 was the release of the first Talking Light piece. And then over the summer the show was developed with the idea that it would be a Halloween show. And it wasn’t ready for Halloween, and it got pushed into January of 2010 when it finally hit the stage. And Randy’s Ghost Stories came out, I think, about a year later from when that Halloween show was supposed to happen. I guess it first came out in Europe in October of 2010.

And 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” [a song in which a chainsmoking woman tells the story of her malignant, invisible twin, and her complicity in her mother’s gruesome and surreal death] 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” have 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.

There could be things that people will recognize.

There will be things, oh yeah. Their motto is, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Excellent. 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. On the video, that is. Not on the 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.

Okay. What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of the Residents?

I would say that the greatest accomplishment of the Residents is to exist without existing.

I like that.

I mean, very few people have done that or even wanted to do that.

Jandek, is someone that occurs to me. I often wonder if he’s inspired by the Residents model.

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. [Theory of Obscurity: A Film about the Residents, was released in 2015]  

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 this 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!

(The above conversation took place in 2011. Thank you, Mr. Fox, for all the mind-altering music over the years, and for having been so easy to interview). 

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