Editor’s Note: Maxwell Allison is a WNUR alum, a continuing friend of the station, and the bassist for Good Willsmith. He spoke recently with Homer Flynn, head of the Cryptic Corporation and spokesman for the Residents.
Where are you guys right now? How is the tour going?
Tour’s been great—tour’s going really well. Other than the fact that it looks like we’re about to cancel a show in Northhampton, Massachusetts tomorrow because they’re expecting two to three feet of snow.
How many shows are on this tour in total?
There were 21, now there are 20.
Can you tell us what we can expect from the Residents’ Wonder of Weird tour?
Well it’s the 40th anniversary tour, so it’s retrospective. But being retrospective, or at least being The Residents, it’s not necessarily what someone might expect—it’s not obvious. There’s no Constantinople, there’s no Hello Skinny or Man’s World. They’ve actually chosen some fairly obscure material from their catalog that has been drastically re-arranged. So a casual fan could easily go in and think “this is all new material,” but the hardcore people will certainly find a lot of familiar stuff, and a lot of little gems they never expected to see showing up in a concert like this.
The Residents are playing in Chicago at Schuba’s on Friday, February 15th—a sold out show!—and at Lincoln Hall on Saturday, February 16th. How have the audiences responded so far?
The response has been great—actually the response is very good. At times spectacularly so.
How has the Residents’ touring lifestyle changed since the days of the Mole Show and the 13th Anniversary Tour – has it slowed down at all, or is it the same as it ever was?
It’s definitely slowed down. When they were doing the Mole Show, this was their first time in Europe. It was their first time touring and their first time in Europe. So not only are there all the touring problems that are inherent in anybody’s touring situation that have to be dealt with on a daily basis, but there’s the desire to go out and see the Eiffel Tower and take in as much of Europe as possible. And after a while you start to learn what your priorities are. At this point, things are pretty calm. Ultimately it’s all about the show, and for the most part people are resting, getting ready for the show, and when we get to a theater or a club, that becomes the focus for the next few hours and then that shuts off. You can’t let yourself get distracted, or you’re not doing your job.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Residents’ Ultimate Box Set?
It’s ultimately a collection of first editions of everything that the Residents have ever released—so that’s all the LPs, all the CDs, all the DVDs, CD-ROMs, singles, everything. It’s all wrapped up in one nice refrigerated package.
I remember reading that you guys are catering more towards fine arts establishments and museums.
The Residents have gotten a lot of attention in the museum world—as a matter of fact, the last Chicago show was at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
And some of the Residents’ material is at MoMA unless I’m mistaken.
Yeah—right, they had a video retrospective at MoMA about four or five years ago and they’ve had several pieces in the permanent collection and they’ve been included in several shows. Most people are not aware of the attention that The Residents have gotten in the fine art world, so that’s partly why we’re trying to push the UBS.
I know, Mr. Flynn, that you’re credited as the Residents’ visual artist and graphic designer, and I know that you yourself have had solo art showings over the years. Could you explain your own artistic process when it comes to visual art?
In terms of my own process, in terms of creating artwork for the Residents, it’s more about trying to see what this project is all about, and then trying to capture its essence visually in as simple a way as possible. And that usually involves a lot of discussion with the group, throwing various ideas out there, and then ultimately focusing on something, but it’s kind of changed over the years. Once again when it goes back to something like The Third Reich and Roll.
Yeah, with Dick Clark on the cover.
Right—back in the days of LPs, you had a lot of space to play around with and ultimately that was your primary selling point in a record store. You wanted to get someone’s attention. Now in that same way your primary selling point is something on a computer screen that can be one inch square or something. You really have to distill things down—it becomes more about the art of the logo as opposed to the art of the beautiful painting. You have to take all these things into account. And once again, you try to find something that acts a common denominator in terms of touching on various aspects of the project.
You mentioned Third Reich and Roll and that brought up a question in my mind about the Residents and the notions of copyright and using others songs/reappropriating material. I know since the beginning, since Meet the Residents, the Residents have incorporated other pop songs or other sources—how have they managed to avoid litigation, or the kind of legal problems we see today with sampling?
It’s definitely a tricky minefield to navigate out there. When The Third Reich and Roll was done, it was really put in the context of these things not being literal but being interpretations from the Residents memories of top 40 radio from the ’50s and ’60s and nobody every really made an argument with that. Had we sold 50 million copies there probably would have been lawsuits. But as it was, in general, the Residents have stayed beneath the radar enough so that nobody has ever really come after them. Although, when it came to things like The King and Eye or American Composer Series—other things where they were rearranging other people’s material, the royalties were paid for that stuff. It wasn’t a matter of trying to appropriate it when indeed it was very obvious what the original material was.
What benefits have The Residents seen from remaining anonymous over the years? Do you think concealing their identities makes your job harder or easier as a member of the Cryptic Corporation and their manager/representative.
In some ways, a little of both I suppose. It makes sure that there are no artists popping up to contradict you—on the other hand, if you say the wrong thing you certainly hear about it. For the most part, I can’t say that it’s made my job any harder—it’s just a different way of dealing with things.
I’d like to dig into a little bit about the history of the Cryptic Corporation and Ralph Records. Firstly, I’d like to say that WNUR is a student-operated radio station—an independent college station. It’s our mission to promote and champion programming that’s more experimental that wouldn’t find airtime anywhere else. I’m wondering, what are some of the tactics that the Cryptic Corporation used to promote and popularize the Residents?
We used to create a lot of special radio product. One of the things that we heard early on—we would send out Residents albums to small listener-supported stations, and we would keep hearing from people that they would get stolen. So we put out an album—a long time ago—that was a sampler of Residents material with the name “Please Do Not Steal This.” It went out exclusively to radio stations. Once again, you’re kind of playing with the idea and making a joke out of it, but at the same time hopefully making a point too. How are you going to play our stuff if someone steals the record? And there were radio specials that were done a lot back during the ’70s and ’80s. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller did a radio special that we recorded and sent out to all different stations. There was a lot of stuff back then to try to work with stations and promote the Residents. [with The Commercial Album] the idea was to buy forty one-minute commercials on a super Top 40 station in San Francisco that would never play the Residents’ stuff, but played those [songs] as a series of forty commercials.
What were some of the challenges of starting the Cryptic Corporation to release the Residents’ music in the ’70s outside of a major label framework?
It was really more about supporting the Residents. The reality was that we were friends with them and knew them, and while they were great artists, they really weren’t great businessmen. So really this was not the only thing that we did, but we wanted to be able to help them find ways to secure an income so that they could continue to do what it was that they were doing without having to worry so much about the business side of it. That’s really where it came from and how we got involved in it.
I’d be interested to know about the growth of the Residents’ fanbase over time—do you think that when the ’70s albums were coming out, was there a big cult fan base or did it accrue over time?
Actually, to some extent I think both. At the time when things like Eskimo and The Commercial Album came out, I think that represented the peak in terms in raw commercial success. Those things were shipping like twenty or thirty thousand copies when they were first released, which is a lot for an independent label at the time. But everything continues to change and evolve. When the Residents were doing CD-ROMs in the ’90s, they reached a whole brand-new generation of fans that had never even heard of them before. There was a time when they had a lot of fans that didn’t even know the Residents did music until they got into them more. As the internet has grown more and more since then, a lot of other newer younger people have gotten into it.
For sure—the Residents seem to have adapted to the internet: they’re on Facebook and Twitter communicating with fans regularly. How does the Cryptic Corporation approach publicity today with all these new tools?
It’s mainly a matter of trying to find out what’s viable and what’s not. One of the problems of modern culture—both an asset and a detriment—is that there are so much choices and so much information, that you have to be very careful of what choices you make or you wind up just spinning your wheels and spending all your time chasing after things that look like opportunities but that are sucking away your time. It’s a tricky thing. I think that the fact that the gatekeepers—the major labels—are no longer there controlling anything like they were is great. Everybody has direct access to their audience now. But on the other hand, nobody sells fifty-million copies of an album any more. Everything is much more dispersed and widespread. That’s good, but you have to figure out how to work with that and find your audience.
The Residents have managed to stay productive and prolific for forty years now despite shifting trends in the industry. Other than the obvious advice you could give, which would be “make music as good as the Residents,” what advice can you give to musicians struggling today in the clutches of “the industry” or whatever that is at this point?
To be honest with you, I think it would be really tough for me trying to make an impact on the culture today. And ultimately, as old fashioned as it is, to actually put a band together and start playing and trying to gather a following—it’s almost still the surest first step that someone can make. But the other thing is that there are a million other avenues. You can make a wacky video and put it on Youtube and it can be the one that everyone watches. I think it’s great that that opportunity is there. Ultimately, it’s more about being true to your own values—whatever they are—and getting in touch with your own values, which can be the hardest part. If you get in touch with your values and you pursue your own essence in terms of what you have to say, I think doors will open. But… that’s not easy when you’re young.
What are these intrinsic values in the case of the Residents and Cryptic Corporation? Is there any kind of credo or overarching credo or philosophy guiding the Residents work?
It’s an interesting question. The Residents values as odd as it may seem are very much about entertainment. But at the same time, they’re about being challenging and intelligent—and ultimately those are the points that they’re trying to make in anything that they do. They try to use a wide range of emotions to paint those pictures and create those feelings. When they touch all those places with something, well, they’ve created a Residents project. It’s kind of like one of those things that I can’t tell you exactly what it is—but I can tell you what it’s not. You know when you’re in the presence of it, but on the other hand it’s hard to break it down into its components and say exactly what they are.
I’m going to move on into some more fan-oriented questions. I’ve been wondering about the significance of Christmas within the Residents’ history—especially given the Christmas-related visual themes on display in the live sets on this tour.
The significance of Christmas really is more about the origin of the Residents, which dates itself back to the release of Santa Dog in ’72. And then the other thing is that for whatever reason, just for the hell of it, the Residents sent out Christmas cards every year for the first few years of their existence—but they also sent out Valentine’s Day cards too, so it’s not just Christmas. But really, the red and green Christmas themes on the 40th Anniversary Tour are really all dating back to Santa Dog – and riffing off of that.
Ralph Records as a label has entered a period of inactivity. Can you explain the current state of the label?
We still use Ralph occasionally as a vehicle for new Residents products, but in essence, the original Ralph Records went by the wayside. We had two other partners in the Cryptic Corporation who left [Jay Clem and John Kennedy]—they were really more of the business minds behind Ralph Records and Tuxedo Moon and Renaldo and the Loaf and all of that stuff. Since then, the business has moved more towards licensing Residents product than actually creating and warehousing and distributing records and CDs. From that time forward, Ralph has been used in different ways—mainly a lot for the mail order business. It was Ralph for a while, and then it was EuroRalph—and those things shut down within the last ten years. Ralph has remained in there, kind of like a special marketing label. It’s more symbolic at this point than anything else.
After the 40th anniversary tour, what’s on the plate for the Residents and the Cryptic Corporation?
There are other plans, things that are being talked about, but at this point nothing is really defined enough that we’re ready to put it out there for public consumption. There are actually two or three other interesting projects that will be 40th Anniversary related—things that are being discussed, but no contracts yet—so we can’t really talk about that.
Thanks for your time, Homer!