For almost 40 years, The Residents have been at the vanguard of American avant-garde music, willfully obscure and flying under the radar while attracting a passionate cult-like following. Their work spans the realms of electronica, symphonic and chamber music, jazz, pop, rock, noise, country and R&B, as well as the worlds of theater, dance, film and visual arts.
Kindred spirits have included such outré pioneers as Harry Partch, John Cage, Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne and Captain Beefheart. The Residents also have performed interpretations of the works of George Gershwin, the Beatles, James Brown and John Philip Sousa.
Wearing costumes that hide their individual identities, this San Francisco-based group has released dozens of albums since its 1972 debut single, "Santa Dog." The Residents often have toured in the United States and Europe, but they'll give their first performance in Tucson on Sunday night, Jan. 31, at the Rialto Theatre.
Members of The Residents do not give interviews. They never have. But manager Hardy Fox spoke about the group during a recent phone interview; he was amiable and friendly, but maintained the mystery that surrounds The Residents.
Fox is in a unique position to act as the group's spokesman: He is a founding member of the Cryptic Corporation, the umbrella organization overseeing the group's business. The corporation was founded in 1976 by four "friends" of The Residents. In 1982, two of the "Cryptics" retired from the organization, leaving Fox and another founder, Homer Flynn, to continue running the operation.
Fox said he has known The Residents since they were children. His job "has been one of those things that life does to you, and you don't know if you would have chosen it, but once you do it, you can't imagine doing anything else."
The group started working together as The Residents in the mid-1960s in San Francisco—but Fox said that wasn't really the beginning.
"There was a point where they decided to start using the name and to pursue the work together. It's really a situation where these are people who have known each other since childhood, and at one point, they decided they wanted to work together to create one group image, and to do so primarily in film. They really started to work together to make a movie," he said.
"Music was, at the time, a side thing, but The Residents realized that it was a lot easier to sell music as a product, to market and promote it. But they still work in all media."
In fact, The Residents don't even think of themselves a band, Fox said.
"There has always been an emphasis in the media on The Residents as a band. But they've never considered themselves a band in the traditional sense. One of the things that make The Residents different is that a band tends to pursue musical ideas that can be played on musical instruments, and then gather a certain number of instruments to perform and record those ideas. The Residents are geared toward ideas, not music. Music happens to be one of the results of those ideas."
A multimedia performing ensemble, The Residents generate ideas that also result in theater, video and film, dance, visual arts, costumes and lighting.
Fox also noted that it may well be a misconception that The Residents consist of four people. Is it possible that publicity images over the years (always in costume) most often have depicted a quartet, because that's a traditional pop-band convention and makes for a balanced visual?
"Yes, that's true," Fox said. "The idea of The Residents as a foursome is a concept. The Residents are anybody working on the given project. It can be the entire world; it can be one person."
Mysteries surrounding the identities of The Residents inspire the question: Why remain anonymous?
"They're not really meant to be anonymous. It's often a thing that's misunderstood," Fox said. "The Residents' original concept was to present to the world a group image and a group way of thinking. If you focus on the individual members, it takes away from the cumulative effect as a group, and it becomes more about the individuals and the cult of personality."
In other words, The Residents want to be known as a collective, as opposed to artists otherwise known as, for instance, John, Paul, Ringo and George.
"And the point of view of The Residents is that The Beatles were best when it was all about The Beatles, not the individuals."
The Residents released two albums in 2009—Ten Little Piggies, which has been described as futuristic electronica, and The Ughs!, a partly instrumental collection of faux naïve rock, sometimes abrasive, sometimes lulling.
But the group will play music from neither of those recordings on the current touring show, which has been named Talking Light, nor will they revisit old music.
"They're not touring in support of product, as they have sometimes in the past. This is more of a touring idea, rather than putting an album out and touring to sell it," said Fox, who has attended some of the rehearsals for Talking Light.
"It is a multimedia performance, but it's hard to tell you exactly what will be in it. They actually do not have a set show this time. It will change every night. Some of it will be more out-there in terms of music and performance, and some will be more song-oriented. Its form is still very shadowy right now."
The Residents will, however, record all shows on the tour and make them available for download on the group's Web site.