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interview: Homer Flynn of The Residents

By Anthony Garone

Take a deeper look inside the top-hat-wearing eyeballs.

SPECIAL THANKS

Extra special thanks to Mama Ralph (Lorrie Murray), social media director for The Residents, for making this happen!

Special thanks to Caustic Casey, purveyor of Hellish Foods . He manned the cameras and the audio recorder to ensure we had an error-free experience. Also, special thanks to Jenna at Reverie Cafe  in San Francisco for letting us set up and record in their beautiful garden.

Interview video

Interview Audio (Podcast)

(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).

Or, download an mp3 .

Some Context

This is one of the most challenging interviews I’ve ever conducted. It was very difficult to interview a person about a nameless group of artists that’s, as he describes them, “a faceless façade.” There are a couple dozen interviews with Homer available online and most of the questions are the same.

Most people are concerned with the lore, particular releases, the story of the group. I’m more interested with the process, the art, and the creativity.

Plus, I was a little nervous all day about not screwing up the opportunity.

So, I don’t believe I was at my best, but Homer provided wonderful insights nevertheless.

Homer Flynn has always been associated with The Residents as an owner of The Cryptic Corporation, but not much is publicly known about him. As soon as I saw photos from a public art gallery show of his work , I knew I had to talk to him. To me, the art is just as much a part of The Residents as the music.

Weeks after some inquiries, I was able to get an interview set up, but Homer was so busy we postponed it for several months. The stars aligned and we were able to meet and chat on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 3PM in San Francisco.

Don’t know who The Residents are? Check out our intro video and article!

Interview transcript

Anthony: This is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I am here with Homer Flynn. Homer, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Homer: Sure. Hi, Anthony.

A: Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

H: Yes. My name is Homer Flynn. I am one of the owners of the Cryptic Corporation . The Cryptic Corporation is the managers, handlers, PR interface for The Residents. The Residents are an art, music, and performance collective in San Francisco since 1972.

A: And how has the band–what’s unique about the band? There’s a movie called Theory of Obscurity  and it’s primarily about The Residents and their history, but…

H: Well, I suppose the most unique thing about The Residents is they have chosen to present themselves as a sort of faceless façade. The group members have never been identified. They’ve never actually shown their faces. No one really knows if it’s the same people now that it was in 1972 and, as far as The Residents are concerned, that’s not quite important.

A: They have quite a storied history  going from playing in a small shop to touring the world. Can you tell us about the evolution of their growth?

H: Well, that’s a…

A: It’s a big story. 40-some years.

H: Right. It’s a big question. Once again, they’ve been doing this since ‘72, so a lot of their evolution, I suppose–they started out sort of as the ultimate studio group. They didn’t tour. They didn’t perform live for the first 10 years. They were very influenced by people like Frank Zappa, people who used the studio as a tool, as another instrument.

Really, they came at it more from a point of view of non-musicians. They had an attitude that they learned to play something just well enough to get it recorded and then they would record it and never play it again, which is pretty much the opposite from a normal band where you get several people together, they all practice and practice until they get to the point where they can play a song, or a series of songs, well together. The Residents never did that. So, that kind of put them in their own space, more or less, from the beginning.

There was interest in them playing live, but they felt like their studio sound was so–once again, it was a very complex sound. It wasn’t complex because they were great musicians. It was because of the layering they would create with their recording techniques. It was such an interesting and unique sound they felt like people would be disappointed if they couldn’t re-create that live.

So, for the first ten years, they didn’t play. All they did was record. And then, with the invention of samplers, at least on a broad level, the first thing being emulators back in the early 80s–at that point, they started feeling like maybe they could recreate their studio sound to some extent. That’s when they first started touring.

Another thing about The Residents is they’ve always felt the visual side of their work was equal in many ways to the music side from the point of view of how they valued it. So, they were very early doing music videos. I’m the person who’s done a lot of their album covers, most of their album covers. I always felt that album covers were very important in terms of you giving some sort of signal as to what this project was all about.

So, once again, they started touring in the 80s, they did three tours in the 80s, they began to computerize in the early 90s when they first started doing MIDI. MIDI, of course, kind of took the real-time element out of music for them. And a lot of ways–you know, they weren’t great musicians, so that just made things a little easier, or certainly more flexible.

And then in the 90s, they were very involved in CD-ROMs. They put out three CD-ROMs  that were very well-accepted. There was so much working on that kind of material. [This is where Homer got a phone call and we had to cut.] So, anyway, in the 90s, The Residents virtually did not perform at all. They were involved in CD-ROM projects. That world kind of went away. And then they started touring again in the late 90s. And they’ve been touring fairly regularly ever since. Although, once again, things continue to change and evolve.

Their performance stuff–The Residents really do performance art, they’re not really a band playing songs. So what they do really is very theatrical. But in some ways, as things come full circle or whatever, the kind of shows that they’re doing now are really more band-oriented. In some ways, the version of The Residents that exists now is called “Randy, Chuck, and Bob .” Randy, Chuck, and Bob have been referred to as “the world’s greatest Residents cover band.” So, anyway, that’s a sort of capsule summary of 40 years.

A: That’s wonderful. It’s interesting you had mentioned The Residents didn’t tour until they were able to replicate some of their sound live. However, now, these “covers” by Randy, Chuck, and Bob–these performances are so different from the original songs.

H: Right.

A: Was that a matter of maturity, growth, confidence? Or is it just a different era of the band?

H: Yeah, honestly, I was say maturity, growth, confidence is probably hitting it pretty closely. You know, when they first started contemplating touring in the early 80s, they didn’t have any confidence in what they were doing. They really felt like–which is not to dismiss what they did at that time–but at the same time, they kind of felt like they needed a certain amount of smoke and mirrors.

When they took their first show out, The Mole Show , in ‘82, I think–they had 20 gigantic backdrops. The backdrops were 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, I think. It took them, literally, 4-5 hours to set up just the backdrops before every show. That tour lost anywhere from 10-20,000 dollars depending on whose accounting you went by and you were lucky if you got any accounting at all from anybody. It was a complete and total disaster and ultimately, as their confidence and maturity has grown, they’ve become much more efficient about what they do. Ultimately, I think that efficiency pays off.

A: How about you as an artist? Your art has evolved quite a bit. Did you go through similar stages of development as you worked alongside The Residents? Were you going through something similar?

H: Sure. I would say so. My own evolution–I try to do things a lot simpler now than what I used to. I used to feel like things needed to be very busy and complicated, but once again, that also has to do with the evolution and changes in the technology and the culture.

A: The efficiency of the tools, too.

H: And the efficiency of the tools, but it used to be that when you did a primary graphic for an album, it was an album cover. It was 12 inches by 12 inches. You had a lot of space there to fill up. Now, ultimately your primary graphic or marketing tool is something that’s gonna be maybe 2 inches by 2 inches and show up on iTunes. You better be pretty economical with that. So, once again, all these things have changed and evolved. If anything, what I’ve learned over the years is that you have to learn how to surf the changes. You can’t fight the changes.

A: Ah, interesting. So, speaking of which… The music industry has completely changed. The way people participate with music and art has completely changed. What are some of your thoughts on the way people do that now as opposed to, maybe in the 1970s when it seems that maybe there was an artistic prime in those kinds of industries and tech wasn’t invading everything?

H: Well, I have mixed feelings about all that. I mean in some ways I can understand what you’re saying and on the other hand I see how tech has opened the doors wider open than ever. At this point in time, anybody with a laptop, if not a phone, not only has musical instruments, but they have a studio right there. Ultimately, I could sit here at this table in this coffee shop and I could create a song on my phone. I could post it on SoundCloud  and I could have something up and out for people to consume within an hour, were I so inclined.

A: No record companies.

H: I think that’s great. On the other hand, by the same token, there’s a massive amount of garbage out there. If you are a consumer weeding your way through all of that garbage, it can be pretty daunting. It used to be, when I was young I’d go to a record store. You’d thumb through some albums. If a cover caught your fancy, maybe someone would play a little bit of it for you… Once again, the choices were a lot simpler, the times were a lot simpler. But, again, you surf the changes. You don’t fight the changes. I try to find what I feel is the good part of the way things have changed.

A: As you’re looking around the music industry and art today–like you said, there’s a lot of garbage–are there any great artists that you admire, whether in visual graphic design or in music? Anyone that you’re looking at, thinking “they’re doing it differently” like The Residents are doing it differently?

H: Well, it’s hard to find anybody that I can compare to The Residents. I mean, The Residents are still pretty unique even though, in a lot of ways, The Residents are not as “out” at this point as what they were in the mid-70s. There is no basis of comparison. There was no basis of comparison at that point. You can actually compare The Residents to some extent now.

But, I certainly seek out new music and find stuff that I’ll like. There’s a Finnish group called Alamaailman Vasarat . I’m an eMusic subscriber  and so with eMusic, I pay $14/month subscription and you download. It’s like a use-it-or-lose-it deal. So, if you don’t do it, you don’t get ‘em and that forces me to download new music.

So this group–I think it was just something that was recommended to me on eMusic. It’s a fairly large group, 7 or 8 pieces. Maybe 9 pieces, with horns. They were kind of lumped in with Eastern European music. They are kind of almost like a punk jazz fusion that I find very unique and very compelling.

Something else that I just downloaded from eMusic… Sometimes my deadline is coming so I get desperate. I have to download something. So, I discovered these Russian a capalla recordings. They must have 20 albums out. It’s called something dumb like “Free ‘n Easy” or “Sweet ‘n Jazzy” or something like that, but they had one entire album of Michael Jackson covers and they had this great version of Billie Jean  that I just popped up on my iTunes yesterday.

So, anyway, the point is I still think there’s a lot of interesting music being created because the tools are so fantasti, but at the same time, you have to work hard to find it.

A: Right. So, The Residents in their early stages seemed to be pretty rebellious, maybe even politically motivated in some senses with Third Reich and Roll, there’s controversy there. Not, it seems to be more thematically weird. Their music has evolved over time. Obviously not running out of things to say, but like you said, they were incomparable at the time and now they’re more comparable to music. Is that because the rest of the groups out there have caught up?

H: I think the culture has caught up to The Residents to some extent. I do because, you know, The Residents are… older at this point. There’s kind of two things there. It’s kind of hard to keep charging again like you’re in your early 20s or 30s, and at the same time, I don’t think they feel it’s necessary to do that as much now as they did then. So, I think you have both of those things working.

A: A lot of the themes, lyrics, and music are fairly dark for The Residents. I’d say there’s a lot of dark music in their catalogue. Is there something motivating that? Is it just fun and weird for them? How do they think of a story about a deranged clown like Tweedles  or Animal Lover ? Where do these themes come from and how do they motivate the music?

H: You’re correct that those things–there’s a certain dark aspect to those. From my own perspective, they’re just sort of reflecting life as they see it. There’s also a lot of humor in those exact same things. They try to balance out the darkness with a certain amount of humor. People bring that up at times and usually when they do, I say, “How closely do you read the headlines on CNN?” From my point of view, The Residents aren’t nearly as dark as real life. If you wanna go out there and start–I just saw one yesterday that’s like a manhunt for a guy who murdered his 8-month-old son. The Residents would never go there!

A: Yeah, that’s pretty interesting. In terms of the musical evoluation and maturity of the group, can you tell us about how songs come together? How do these album concepts come together? I think you mentioned in a couple interviews something about train wrecks. How do these songs come together and what inspires some of these themes?

H: Honestly, it’s hard to know exactly where some of these things come from. They usually just kind of appear on their own. Some things appear in a fairly intact way. The train wreck thing–there is one of The Residents in particular that’s had this great fascination and love affair with trains. It was really another one that suggested doing something with trains knowing how much this one loved trains.

They thought it’d be interesting to do something about trains, but typically with The Residents… What are you gonna do with just trains? You have to go somewhere with it and a lot of times these things pop up more or less intact. Other times they evolve with the creative process or with research, which can be kind of the same thing. With this one, “Okay… train wrecks. What can we do about train wrecks?”

What they found was a book for want of a better term. It’s really a Kindle download that is a collection of newspaper articles from the late 1800s to early 1900s. It’s called Death by Train . Ultimately, it’s not just train wrecks. There’s a lot of train wrecks in it, but it’s also people that fall on the tracks. The train runs over them and they get cut in half.

So they started reading this book and what they found that was particularly fascinating was the language of that era was so elegant and eloquent, but the events that they were describing were so completely horrific that the juxtaposition of the language against the events created a kind of interesting tension. In a lot of ways, that became–at least from the point of view of the text–became a lot of the inspiration for the lyrics.

But also, too, they also wanted to revisit from a form point of view, they had wanted to revisit something similar to their Eskimo  album. In a lot of ways ever since Eskimo. So, the form of the Train Wreck album is closer to Eskimo probably than anything else they’ve done. It’s very multi-layered, it’s a collage of music, sound effects, singing, spoken word, textural stuff. So, anyway, those are the elements that sort of came together or are in the process of coming together to create that album.

A: And as a group that started out as not-great musicians, has the process of writing and assembling music become more enjoyable? More sophisticated? More fulfilling? Or, is music now secondary? As an artist, maybe you get an idea for graphics or something and you might propose that and maybe that inspires something?

H: Sure, they’re always open to inspiration. So, yeah, if I were to do something graphically inspiring to them, they could take that and run with it for sure.

A: Where do you see The Residents having impact on the world today? Obviously after several decades, they’re survivors. You said culturally you feel things are catching up to The Residents. Do you feel that The Residents have had a broad impact or has humanity changed and ideas have changed?

H: Given the fact that 9 out of 10 people that you walk up to on the street will ask you, “The Residents? Who’s that?” It’s hard to feel like they’ve had a broad impact. I know they’ve had a significant impact on a smaller group of people, both in terms of other musicians and fans. We always said or discovered that, historically, a typical Residents fan was the weird freaky nerd that couldn’t relate to anybody in every little small town everywhere.

And I don’t know if that’s quite as true as it used to be, but I do think that for the people that have found The Residents and have felt alienated, disenfranchised… The Residents have opened a door for them. They said, “It’s okay to be weird and crazy and not be trying to imitate Beyonce or Jay-Z or whatever’s popular. You can follow your own path and that’s okay. That’s a good thing.”

[This next question legitimately makes no sense.]

A: And your sense as an artist, a graphic artist and somebody who uses technology–I feel like The Residents pushed a lot boundaries for many years and your art has always stood out. You can look at a video like Constantinople and go, “Nobody does art like that.” When you look at your artistic career, do you feel like there’s this still this consistent voice that is still unique and still will carry on and The Residents will still perpetuate that, people will be inspired by that? Or do you feel like it is its own thing for that little crowd and it’s special on its own like a gift to that small crowd?

H: Well, personally I don’t see The Residents as having broad appeal. They’re never going to threaten Justin Bieber, but at the same time, I’ve always felt that to some extent that they were underexposed or underexploited and, you know the documentary, it’s gonna be interesting to see what kind of impact that has over time because, having been to quite a few screenings of that and spoken to various people about it, the response has been great.

There are an awful lot of people who, for one reason or another, happened upon a screening of it that don’t know much, if anything, about The Residents and they’ll talk about how inspired they were by it and how it makes them want to know more. Well, that’s a great thing. So, once again, it’s kinda hard to know what the future’s gonna bring, but I do think the influence and impact of The Residents will continue to grow over time.

A: I read an article  by David Byrne  and another  by Moby  about the cost of living in artistic cities like New York and how there are cities like Florence and Venice that used to be flourishing with art, but now people just visit to take things away from it and not contribute to it. Do you feel, being a San Francisco-based artist, do you feel that’s happening here? Or do you see the art community is still flourishing, thriving, and doing well?

H: Well, to be completely honest, I’ve never considered San Francisco to be much of an art center.

A: Really? I’m from Phoenix, so compared to Phoenix…

H: I think LA is more of an art center than San Francisco. San Francisco is a great culinary center. It’s a great tech center. But, San Francisco, while I do know some great artists here, it does not particularly seem to embrace or cherish its artists. San Francisco looks towards New York or London or Paris. Why that is, I don’t know. Jesus famously said , “No man is a hero in his own hometown.” I think there’s some of that, for sure.

I think in terms of supporting an artistic community here, I think it’s difficult in a lot of ways and I think, for young people, honestly there’s not much of a chance if you’re not part of the tech crowd making $150,000 a year or more, you can kind of forget it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a place to live in Oakland or somewhere in the Bay Area, but it’s not very easy in San Francisco at this point. It’s like Manhattan and Brooklyn or something. Young people don’t go into Manhattan and get an apartment, but there are plenty of places in Brooklyn and a lot of young people are there.

A: The Residents, I think it was the 40th anniversary tour, they did the Wonder of Weird. What is it about “weird?” It’s in the title of my website, but for me it’s like “a unique voice.” What is it about The Residents that they’re embracing “weird?” What does it mean to them?

H: Honestly, my point of view is that they’re not afraid to be themselves and afraid to be original. You can label that weird or not. That’s kind of irrelevant. I think most people don’t either have the confidence or they’re not bold enough to listen to their own unique voice and act on that. I think there are a handful of people out there that can listen to their own unique voice and do something that’s popular.

If you listen to Stevie Wonder  back in the 70s, the guy was just a fountain of beautiful, catchy pop music. It’s what Brian Wilson  was in the 60s and I don’t think they were trying to be popular. They were just being their own unique voice. But, so many people are unempowered or afraid to really be unique and original when that’s inherent in everybody. You could say–if you want to call that weird, that’s okay, but to me it’s “normal.”

A: Do you feel that you have found your own unique voice? Did you struggle with that over the years or have you always just kind of been you and you’ve done what you’ve done?

H: Yeah, for the most part for me I supposed that came fairly easily. I can’t necessarily say why. As a graphic artist, when I started out, I knew that I didn’t really have the chops to be able to–I was always a big MC Escher fan. If you look at some of Escher’s work and the elegance with which he would hand-cut this wood, I thought, “I could never do that in a million years.” But, on the other hand, I guess I had confidence that I could do something unique relative to me and who I am.

A: Can you tell me about that? Who are you and how does that come out in your art?

H: It’s hard to say other than attempting to be true to myself. It’s hard to say how that comes out. I think sometimes it’s more successful than others, but I think that’s true of any artist. To me, the most important thing about any kind of creativity is to be open. I feel like creativity is the process of life passing through you so that if you are truly and genuinely open to life, you open up, life comes in, it passes through you, and in the process of passing through, you stamp it or you flaw it or you beat it up and it comes out with whatever your unique sensibility is.

A: What do you feel are some of your works that reflect that unique sensibility most?

H: I was always very proud of–you mentioned Tweedles earlier and I thought that Tweedles did a very good job of–at that time, I was working with 3-D graphics programs, particularly with a program called Poser  that was/is optimized for human figures and now, I guess the program is still around but I haven’t worked with it in a while. It was optimized for human figures and animal figures and the whole idea of the program is that the little wooden mannequins that artists have used for years to create poses, well this was the digital version of that and ultimately became very sophisticated, but the program was never hugely successful so it went from one company to another to another to another. And every time somebody would add something else and it got difficult to work with.

Anyway, that was kind of the apex of my 3-D graphics short career and I felt very positive about that in terms of feeling like it kinda captured where I was at at that time and I feel like that album was that. Also, The Third Reich ‘n Roll  and Eskimo were things that I felt like really captured where I was at and where The Residents were at at those moments.

A: I look at those pieces and they’re as iconic as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. I think they’re incredibly unique, there’s never been a piece that looked like these and I feel like Eskimo and Third Reich, those two pieces stand out. So, for me, thinking about where you might have been at that point is interesting because you say you’ve developed over the years. You mentioned Tweedles, which is a recent thing, but there’s also some early work. It’s cool to hear an artist say, “I like stuff that I used to do and I like stuff I’ve done recently.”

H: Sure, to me it’s an ongoing process and I still feel like I have things to say.

A: Do you have more things to say? [Another idiotic question.] You have a wellspring in you and you’re highly motivated? Or do you feel like after 40 years of doing this, you’ve got a few ideas you want to get out and you’ll feel good after that?

H: I’m still pretty motivated. One of the more interesting things that’s happening right now is The Residents’ God in Three Persons  from 1988 is in development as a stage piece and I’m pretty involved in that. I’m very excited about it. As time has moved on, they’re almost like parallel lines of The Residents. One, of course, is the new stuff that’s still being created, but the other is continuing to sort of mine the legacy.

A: Is it refreshing? That process? Is it satisfying to go back and sort of articulate certain things?

H: For the most part it is. I’m not someone who enjoys rehashing the past in particular, but at the same time, for God in Three Persons, The Residents always felt it was a stage piece waiting to happen and there were no resources or connections to make it happen up until the last, say, three or four years. So, the fact that there are new people wanting to get involved–a director, a producer–right now, this is set for a reading at ACT.

ACT is the American Conservatory Theater , the longtime, primary established theater group in San Francisco. So, there will be a reading of God in Three Persons at ACT in September and the fact that there are, like I said, a lot of people involved in this and excited about it, that gets me excited too. That doesn’t feel like it’s rehashing the past. It feels like it’s giving new life to it.

A: Are The Residents bigger than ever? Do you feel like they have a bigger following than ever thanks to the internet, thanks to distribution that’s easy to access?

H: I don’t know. If you look strictly from a sales point of view, I’d have to say, “Absolutely not.” But on the other hand, there are things that I think were more trendy at one time or another. And once again, when it comes to sales, nobody sells as much as they used to. You look at Michael Jackson’s Thriller , what’d it sell? 50 million copies? 65 or 70 million copies? I mean, something that sells 2 million copies now is considered to be a big hit.

So, once again, that has more to do with changes in the culture than it does with The Residents, really. I think in terms of their hardcore following, I think, “Sure, they’re as popular as ever.” The Residents just finished a tour. Shadowland , the most recent show, they’ve done close to 55 performances of it. That’s pretty successful.

A: Yeah, that’s incredible.

H: So, I suppose it just depends on what your measuring stick is.

A: Well, it’s been super-enlightening. I’m really grateful for your time. And congratulations to you and The Residents. I think you are an incredible group of people. What you’re doing has had such an impact on me and so many other people. I love your art, I love the music that The Residents make. It’s just wonderful. Thank you for doing what you and the band do.

H: Well thank you. It’s always nice to hear those things. Sometimes, you feel like you’re kind of isolated in your little studio somewhere. You’re staring at a computer and it’s like, “Is there actually a world out there?”

A: There is, man. There is a world. Casey is a big fan. He’s the guy behind the camera. I want to give him an opportunity if he has a question to ask.

Casey: No, I think it was covered. Oh, one thing! Tweedles. There was talk about it being a stage show like God in Three Persons. Why was it never put on tour? Is it because the timing was bad? Because it does seem destined for a tour, I would think.

H: Yeah, it does seem like a timing issue. I’m trying to think what was happening… Demons Dance Alone  was a big tour. I kinda of think maybe that was right before Tweedles. And then I think Bunny Boy  was right after. I think maybe Bunny Boy just felt like a fresher project when it was time to tour. But, I think Tweedles could make a very interesting show.

C: So, there’s still talk of it being a stage show as opposed to a concert type of thing?

H: Yeah. Honestly, I think it lends itself more to a theater piece than it does to a concert. You know, watching audience reactions to things… Audience reaction to Shadowland has been pretty fantastic and I think Shadowland is a good show. I think it’s a very good show, but I think it’s almost a straight ahead rock show for The Residents as compared to Demons Dance Alone or, heaven forbid, The Mole Show.

So, my sense is that audiences are–audiences have so much material to choose from that they almost need something a little pre-digested and categorized. The more you have a tendency to blur the lines of categories, the harder it is to sell it. I think that if you took something like Tweedles and you said, “Okay, this is not a rock show, this is a theater piece.” And you put it in theaters, I think audiences are going to be more accepting of it than if you tried to take it into rock clubs.

People are not going to have the attention span as they do for music. I feel like that was one of the things–the reaction to Bunny Boy was very mixed because it was very theatrical whereas if you step back to Demons Dance Alone, it was theatrical, but more purely musical. And I think that was a more successful tour, once again from an audience point of view, not necessarily my point of view.

A: Thank you so much, Homer. I really appreciate it. It was great talking to you.

H: Yeah, yeah! My pleasure.

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