All photos courtesy of Feral House
Ever see a giant eyeball wearing a top hat — outside the context of an acid trip?
Chances are that if you've even casually explored cutting-edge culture in the past five decades, you've come across the dandily-attired ocular icon. It's the signature symbol of The Residents, an anonymous creative cabal that largely invented so much of the art, music, and related mind-explosions that have come to define underground aesthetics.
Beginning with conceptual performances pieces in the late 1960s, The Residents moved into experimental music with a series of albums that pioneered electronica, industrial, and trance while incorporating lounge exotica, found sounds, tape samples, and proto-punk. While continually-astounding audiences worldwide with live tours and innovative recordings, The Residents always kept up with changing technology, creating landmark CD-ROMs and innovative online experiences.
Now The Residents have returned with a new adventure in old media: a novel, titled The Brickeaters, which has just been published by Feral House. Since anonymity is a key aspect of The Residents' allure, MERRY JANE interviewed the group via email. They responded, of course, collectively, anonymously, and in the third person. That exchange follows.
MERRY JANE: Tell us about the genesis of The Brickeaters — how it actually came to be, from initial idea to final publication.
The Residents: The Brickeaters was inspired by two articles in the New York Times — "The Final Crime Spree of an Oxygen-Toting Robber"/July 21, 2010; "Policing the Web's Lurid Precincts"/July 18, 2010.
The first was about an aging petty criminal who stole a Cadillac, drove it to New York, and started holding up formal wear rental shops. Stricken with poor health, the old man was described as carrying an oxygen bottle when he robbed the stores. While driving the Caddy back to his home in the South, the fleeing criminal was spotted in the stolen car by a highway patrol officer who gave chase, eventually pursuing the old man into a ditch where he died.
The other article was about content screeners, the people whose job it is to view internet user generated content that has been deemed inappropriate.
The Residents became fascinated by the idea of a crime spree committed by the unlikely alliance of an aging career criminal teamed up with a young techie content screener. The book was written over the course of six-to-seven years while The Residents were on tour. Once it was finally finished, about two years ago, they began looking for a publisher, eventually making contact with Adam Parfrey at Feral House.
Why a novel? Why now? And, specifically, why this novel?
While The Residents are mainly known as musicians, they consider themselves to be storytellers, constructing their albums around eccentric characters with equally odd stories to tell. While this medium has mainly proved to be satisfying, they have also written some stories that are too long or too complicated to easily fit into a musical format, so writing a novel seemed like good way to expose these long form narratives.
The Residents feel like stories are kind of like friends that unexpectedly visit you and then leave, with The Brickeaters hanging around for almost eight years. Fans of Breaking Bad, The Residents also feel it works as a lengthy treatment for a short TV series.
How many Residents worked on The Brickeaters and how was that work divided up?
The Residents are a constant collaboration, a work forever in progress. Consequently, their process is fluid, oblique, and not broken down into an easily-described workflow. In other words, no one knows. There is one who does most of the word processing but he considers himself more aggregator than writer.
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What other novels and novelists did you draw inspiration from while working on The Brickeaters?
Probably the two novelists most admired by The Residents are Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. While the group greatly appreciated Dick's inspired, eccentric, and flowing prose, they also credit Vonnegut with inspiring a worldview that sees life as a giant pinball machine.
In this chaotic environment, laughingly referred to as "civilization," we are all balls, constantly bouncing into each other while ricocheting around a reality that only occasionally allows the illusion of a finger on a flipper.
J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was also an early influence on The Residents. The protagonist or narrative voice of The Brickeaters is an unstable middle-aged writer who could be seen as an older, dysfunctional Holden Caulfield wrestling with the reality of a failed marriage and the erratic repercussions of alcohol addiction.
In what ways is anonymity like a drug?
The compelling illusion of drugs is freedom; freedom from responsibility, freedom from worry, freedom to become one's true self. Anonymity fosters the same fantasy. Nothing illustrates this concept more than the thousands of trolls polluting the Internet with ugly, hate-filled rhetoric they would be embarrassed to embrace in public.
What roles have actual drugs, per se, played in the evolution of The Residents?
As somewhat reluctant participants in the so-called Hippie Generation, The Residents nevertheless saw experimentation with drugs as an all but necessary rite of passage, with their usage primarily limited to marijuana, LSD, and other occasional psychedelics.
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Initially embracing the idea of mind expansion, while working on Vileness Fats, their wannabe epic film from the early '70s, they would often take two "bennies," smoke a joint, and go to sleep, waking up thirty minutes later to write, blissfully buzzing with unbridled creativity... or so they thought. But the idea of becoming one with the universe eventually faded and other than a glass of wine or a shot of bourbon, the group had been drug-free for at least 30 years.
Now that you've written a novel, what other previously-unexplored media most appeals to you for potential Residents projects and why?
The most compelling unexplored medium for The Residents would have to be filmmaking. They touched upon it with Vileness Fats early in their career and again recently, collaborating with filmmaker Don Hardy on The Residents' doc Theory of Obscurity. They're also currently working on Double Trouble, their contemporary Vileness Fats reboot. The "why" is that it seems like such a natural medium for a group known for its groundbreaking music videos — one that prides itself as storytellers while creating music often described as soundtracks to unseen films.
The Brickeaters is being published by Feral House. What has been your relationship with the company and what are The Residents' thoughts on the passing of its founder, Adam Parfrey?
The Residents are big fans of Feral House and the amazing catalog they have assembled over the past thirty years. They see it as an all but perfect fit for The Brickeaters and feel fortunate for the connection to such a challenging publisher. Their only regret is that Adam's unfortunate and sudden passing prohibited them from creating a long-term personal relationship with him; regardless, they look forward to continuing to work with Feral House in the future.
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What is next for The Residents?
The Residents have just completed a new album, titled Intruders, which will be released in October. As mentioned above, they are also working on Double Trouble, their film project, as well as a museum installation and performance based on their 1988 album, God in Three Persons. They also have a blues-based album in the works.
"The Brickeaters" is out now through Feral House; order a copy here
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