Just last weekend, The Residents performed their latest theatrical piece, God In 3 Persons, for two days at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City.
Originally released in 1988, God in 3 Persons was the first album by The Residents to appear on CD. Without the constrictions imposed by the two sides of a traditional LP, the band decided to compose one long, flowing work. Mr. X, the sole narrator of God, delivered the libretto in verse, using trochaic octameter, an obscure poetic meter. It's the story of a calculating huckster, aforementioned Mr. X, who meets conjoined twins — one male, one female. The twins have the power to heal people of serious ailments, merely by being in their presence. Mr. X takes the unnamed twins under his wing and creates revival shows to bring in people to heal and line his pockets. When he falls in love with the female twin, he discovers they're gender non-binary and tragedy ensues.
"I don't think The Residents intended to write a spoken word piece when they started working on it," said Homer Flynn, the band's spokesperson and long time graphic designer. "As it evolved, they realized it really needed to be a spoken word performance in the voice of the main character, so they shifted gears. They always wanted to perform it live, but it was too musical to be a theatrical piece, and too theatrical to translate to the concert stage. Most of the stuff The Residents did over the years could be developed as visual theater pieces; the question was always how to do it."
As video technology developed, it allowed performers to project images captured on film onto the backdrop of the stage, and the performers themselves, erasing the forth wall to create a new visual experience. The Residents enlisted the help of legendary video artist John Sanborn to create the multi-layered video effects for their production of God in 3 Persons.
At a dress rehearsal at The Lab in San Francisco, the band came on stage dressed in black wolf masks that concealed their faces. Vocalist and keyboard player Laurie Amant joined them, providing sparse vocal accompaniment to the dialogue spoken by the anonymous actor playing Mr. X. He was shadowed by another actor, dressed in an identical costume of dark clothing, who danced wildly and beautifully across the stage, acting out the images of Mr. X's narrative.
The videos projected on the back of the stage, and on various scrims that were raised and lowered during the performance, were startling. They alternated between playfully artistic and gruesome images: mandalas created by a collage of waving naked limbs; garish puppets doing a disjointed dance or clustering together like a crowd of curious onlookers; animated drawings, featuring images of sparks and flames and a quartet of singing faces, disguised by fabric stretched over their heads. The twins in the story, portrayed by genderqueer performance artist Jiz Lee, appear only in the projected video images, wrapped in white, gauzy veils and flowing gowns. The music is rock, freely based on riffs borrowed from "Double Shot of My Baby's Love" by The Swinging Medallions and the old Methodist hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy."
"A few years ago, one of The Residents did a solo performance called Sam's Enchanted Evening that played in Berkeley and New York City," Flynn said, explaining the process that brought God to the stage. "There was a reading of God at ACT about three years ago, but they didn't know what to do with it a typical thing with The Residents. The Residents also got feelers from MOMA in New York. Music and art by The Residents is already in their permanent collection and they wanted to do something more ambitious. They recently remodeled and have a new performance space. When John Sanborn got involved, the project took off.
"They chose 'Double Shot' for the keyboard riff because it's a song The Residents always loved. Since the story is about conjoined twins, and the narrator is lusting after one of them, it becomes a double shot. The way the music pops up and blends into the narrative is very 'Residential.' Part of the refrain of 'Holy, Holy, Holy' mentions God in three persons, meaning the Holy Trinity, which bends around the twins. And Mr. X. Laurie Amant, who was on the original recording, is your classical Greek chorus, not part of what's going on, but remarking and making commentary about it."
The Residents have been confounding expectations ever since they left their native Louisiana for San Francisco more than 50 years ago. During those heady days of the psychedelic movement, they were still learning how to play their instruments properly, but didn't feel that would hold back their career, in those days of wild speculation.
"The Residents were attracted to San Francisco because so much of that scene was eclectic and experimental," Flynn said, "Once most people found a formula that would sell, the experimentation fell by the wayside. When The Residents started making music, they decided to keep focusing on the spirit of experimentation that had attracted them to the city, and expand upon it."
As they followed their vision, The Residents created an indefinable musical style that often jettisoned the verse/chorus template of pop, in favor of free flowing compositions that included dissonance, found sound, spoken-word interludes, the use of early synthesizers, and unexpected changes in tempo. Along they way, they helped create performance art, pioneered the use of the short promotional films that would soon be known as music videos, and recorded more than 60 albums, ranging from rock to avant-garde noise.
The band still makes music that challenges the audience, but it's been a while since anything it has done has been as provocative as the records it made when starting out. Has the music world finally caught up with The Residents? "Things change," Flynn said. "The world has changed and it's harder to be provocative once you've reached your 60s. When you're younger, and trying to get attention, you try to shock. They're more accomplished now, more able to fulfill their musical desires. They've always had a broad range of interest, Lieber-Stoller to Sun Ra, Moondog to The Swinging Medallions. They've never done the same thing for too long of a time. The next album they're working on has a strong blues component and they've found a context that allows them to do that without imitating the early blues stuff. If they do imitate anything, they're doing it for a reason.
"The Residents are not as outside as they were 40 years ago, which has to do with changes in technology and taste," Flynn said. "They always came at music from an outsider's point of view. They were insular and insulated for so long, to hone in on a style of their own. Technology nowadays allows anyone who is not mainstream, or has an outside mentality, to come at it and make music. I think that's a good thing and so do The Residents."