The past few years have found perennial art-rock pranksters the Residents in a reflective mood. On recent tours, a mock fireplace glowed onstage on a hearth scattered with allusions to past Residents themes: a gingerbread man, a flickering black-and-white TV set. A masked old man in a bathrobe and boxer shorts would amble out in caricatured bowlegged gait, flanked by two alien-looking musicians, and madly gesticulate with art-house panache.
It’s an approach the group has used to throw a macabre light on Bible stories, circus freaks, and pretty sizable chunks of the pop songbook. Lately, though, the band has turned from broad-brush grotesques to more intimate portraits of haunted souls: the teenage outcast, the Internet junkie with PTSD.
Though still steadfastly anonymous, the Residents have evolved from prime-time pop culture trash-talkers (however opaque that talk may have been) to careful, compassionate students of the human psyche. In a way, the most faceless band in rock history is finally showing signs of humanity — and mortality.
“When you do something for 40 years, you start to realize you’re probably not going to do it for 40 more,” says band spokesman Homer Flynn. “Over the last few tours, there’s always been more of a feeling of ‘You never know — this could be the last one.’ I’m not about to say that this is the last tour, but sooner or later it will be. So there is a feeling of looking back in a pleasant and even bittersweet kind of a way.”
This winter’s “Wonder of Weird” tour, which brings the Residents to the Institute of Contemporary Art next Tuesday, celebrates the band’s official 40th anniversary. That dates to its first public release, the late 1972 “Santa Dog” single, which kicked off a long stretch of some of the oddest music ever made public.
It was with the 1979 album “Eskimo” that the band’s iconic “eyeball” costumes first surfaced. Firm believers that a body of artwork should speak for itself, the Residents remained anonymous from their start, taking their name from a return-to-sender label that Warner Bros. stamped onto a demo tape reel in the ’60s.
They made their mark with their first album, “Meet the Residents,” then lambasted ’60s pop in the maniacal cut-and-paste “The Third Reich ’n’ Roll” (the cover of which featured Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform), deconstructed nursery rhymes on “Duck Stab,” and created the faux-anthropological exercise “Eskimo.” Tribute albums to pop composers such as George Gershwin and Hank Williams roasted their tunes to a crisp.
“It’s hard for pop music to take as much space in one’s values it did 25 or 40 years ago,” says Flynn, whose official role with the group is “management” (as part of the “Cryptic Corporation”) and “art director” (he’s responsible for most of the band’s designs over the years). He’s commonly believed to be the lead singer — “Mr. Skull” during the middle years, “Randy Rose” nowadays — though he’s never confirmed it.
“When you look back at people like the Beatles or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or James Brown — these people really spoke to generations in a very social way,” he says. “They made sweeping statements that were strongly culturally connected. You don’t feel like you get that out of a Justin Bieber or a Lady Gaga. Musicians had a higher, elevated position within the culture for whatever reason. It’s kind of a fluke, I see, in the course of history.”
The Residents are thought to hail originally from Shreveport, La., but have called San Francisco home since the ’70s. They’ve always projected an air of unpretentious silliness, even in otherwise high-minded projects, including influential work in graphic design and interactive video. This year, in a joke both on an increasingly shaky music industry and the high-rolling art world, they released the “Ultimate Box Set.” The “UBS” amounts to a full-size refrigerator packed with first pressings of every item in the band’s discography, along with a genuine eyeball mask (10 of which they claim exist). The sticker price: $100,000.
The Residents’ early music may have been dissonant and meandering, but most material since the 1998 album “Wormwood” has been fairly straightforward, as they focus their demented energy on lyrics and storytelling. Left to their own devices on the band-run Ralph Records, they’ve churned out 14 full albums in the last five years alone. They follow the wayward life of an End Times believer on the album “The Bunny Boy,” and with “Lonely Teenager,” they explore themes of quiet paranoia in a number of characters.
In the last few years, the group has found a wider acceptance in the art world. A few video pieces have made it into the Museum of Modern Art thanks to the consistent support of media curator Barbara London, and Flynn’s work has shown in galleries in San Francisco, the University of Cincinnati, the Czech Republic, and last year’s Shanghai Biennial.
In the grand scheme of things, that work represents small, human-sized contributions, much like the shrinking title character in one of their signature songs, “Hello Skinny.” That diminutive scavenger made a living selling anything he could, mimicking the band’s scrappy approach with any available technology.
Now perhaps the rest of the world has caught up.
“It’s a mark of the times, really,” says Flynn. “No one could ever sell records like Michael Jackson did anymore, but that’s good in a lot of ways. The industry only ever wanted shipments of millions, but now the tools are available for anyone to make their voice heard.
“It may be a tiny little voice, but at least it’s there.”