Ian Shirley talks about bringing his comprehensive 1990s biography of the cryptic oddballs up to date in a new edition
A lot has changed in the world of The Residents since biographer Ian Shirley last visited them in 1996: removing their eyeball masks and appearing live as a power trio in 2010, for starters. Shirley was inspired to update his original biography when he heard about Don Hardy’s new documentary film about the group, The Theory of Obscurity.
“The entire book was researched and rewritten and I dug out some fantastic information especially from fresh interviews,” Shirley said. “Two of the best stories were how a drug dealer kept his cocaine stash in The Residents' Sycamore studio/residence without them knowing about it and the fact that when they were bored one day, The Residents went out and tried to make a porn film. Saying that, the book now takes The Residents history right up to date.”
Removing the eyeball masks, and some degree of anonymity, could be seen as the ultimate perversity for a group that prides itself on perverse storytelling and general weirdness, but it was more of a costume change than a grand reveal. “Randy, Chuck and Bob were actually just new disguises that allowed The Residents not only to refresh their mythology, but tour in a leaner manner as well as connecting musically and visually with a new generation. The fact that Randy looked and dressed like an old man complete with a grey bald wig was offset by the fact that Chuck and Bob looked like digital Rastas.”
Through the book, Shirley describes The Residents' early and theatrical adoption of technology from their earliest days, to their embrace of rudimentary websites and CD-ROMs in the 90s and their multimedia shows today. One of the greatest changes in technology since the previous edition of the book has been the explosion of social media, and the ability to find out almost any secrets online with the right application of Google-fu. Would it even be possible to create a project with The Residents' cult mystique now? “Damon Albarn tried with the Gorillaz who were supposed to be anonymous at the outset, but his record company got nervous and let the cat out of the bag,” says Shirley. “But saying that, the internet does allow the concept of obscurity and mystery to be weaved around artists and bands.” The glut of free musical content online is also a problem. “The modern internet is a visual and musical deluge where thousands of songs and pieces of art are being uploaded on a daily basis. There are thousands of bands and solo artists recording and giving away their music. Also, the major issue is the modern curse of the short attention span and access to everything that dilutes impact. If a friend tells you about a band you can be listening to them within minutes on YouTube or Soundcloud and never buy a CD, LP or even see the band live.
“Then again, music and art is about creativity and although it might be hard to create a new Residents, there will be other young bands that will generate great music and art that will attract fans. Also, Homer Flynn of The Cryptic Corporation told me that The Residents are still making music and playing live so people can still enjoy the old Residents before they find the Mark 2.0!”
Never Known Questions: Five Decades Of The Residents is published by Cherry Red Books.