Transcript of the Residents, Homer Flynn Interview

All hits with fewer commercials -- it's Silicon Valley Radio. For 25 years, the mysterious performance art troupe the Residents have been at the forefront of multimedia entertainment. Homer Flynn, head of the Cryptic Corporation and spokesperson for the group, recently talked about the Residents' eye for dark tales, weird characters, and unusual CD concepts.

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We wanted to start by going over a brief history of the Residents.
Homer Flynn:They were classic loners who had never particularly fit in back in the South where they were from, and they kind of migrated separately to the Bay Area, formed, or just really started doing experimental music in the early '70s, very early '70s, in San Mateo, California, just south of San Francisco. And what started out as kind of informal experiments ultimately resulted in a release, "Santa Dog," in 1972; and they just enjoyed what they were doing and they were having fun so they continued. And most of their reputation, at least up until the last couple of years, has been built on their musical output, which is 25 albums or so, at this point. But they always had a very strong visual side that they weren't really able to realize that much, and CD-ROM has kind of allowed that to happen for the first time in a very substantial way. They've always done music videos; their performances were always very theatrical, very visual.
SVR:How will that translate to the Web, as far as you see it?
Flynn: Well, at this point the Residents haven't done too much experimenting with the Web; they're kind of like watching it to see what happens. They've done two primary CD-ROM projects, Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway, both of which are very carnivalesque-type projects. Freak Show really operates on the level of physical freaks. And with ideas it tries to show how the people inside these freaks aren't that different from the rest of us. Whereas Bad Day on the Midway more concentrates on people that are physically normal, but mental freaks.

And I think what they see is that both Freak Show and Bad Day on the Midway represent a kind of cyber carnival that could go up on the Web. And to create this cyber amusement park, it would be, you know, Disneyland online, but a very twisted version of it. To be able to do that and then constantly be updating it and adding on -- it would be exactly the way they do Disneyland: now there's a new ride, so everybody wants to come back, and they check out some of the old things but they mainly want to see the new ride. I think that this is what they see as a forum that would work really well for them online. But right now, for them, the business opportunities are coming with CD-ROM.

SVR:The Residents have made money with CD-ROMs. Do you think there's an opportunity for an art project like the Residents to make money on the Web?
Flynn:I think that potential exists out there in the future, and it's obvious that people are making money with stuff like that now. The Residents would really like for their next ROM project to be DVD-ROM. I was at a DVD conference in L.A. about two weeks ago and met some people there that were doing a lot of online gaming stuff. And I was shocked at the dollars that these people were talking about that they were making with text-based games.

I had no idea that that kind of thing was even capable at this point. So, I don't think there's any question that money can be made from it. I think for the Residents, it's a matter of looking for the right opportunity.

SVR:What have you liked so far on the Web, things that have appealed to you, that you thought were well done, that may not exist in other mediums?
Flynn:I've been checking out 3-D programs. And they have a beautiful Web site. It's really great. One of my biggest complaints is, I think [for] a lot of people in terms of American culture, there seems to be so much style over substance. And as tools become more and more sophisticated, it's a lot easier to create style, you know, and mask a void of substance.
SVR:What have been some of the more unusual anecdotes that you've witnessed or have been part of since your affiliation with the Residents?
Flynn: One of the odder things that immediately comes to mind [is] the first time the Residents toured. Their career has kind of broken down in different ways: the first 10 years they never left the studio; they did exclusively studio stuff. The next 10 years were more devoted to video and performance with continuing studio stuff.

So their first tour was based on an album, a series of albums called "The Mole Trilogy." Then the show was called "The Mole Show" and it was about a series of underground people that were forced to migrate from their home. And they had Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller, who was the narrator of that show.

And his role was really sort of antagonistic towards this artsy-fartsy show. And so ultimately what happens is that during the show, Penn has a total breakdown. The show stops. He has to get drug off the stage by the stage manager and then ultimately he gets brought back on stage handcuffed into a wheelchair, to have to be forced to watch the rest of this, you know, crazy show.

But anyway, what happened was that the climax of the show is like a big war that happens on stage between these moles, the underground people, and the chubs, the overground people, you know. And in the process of doing this war, the lights are flashing, smoke envelopes the whole stage.

Well, a fan -- that may not be the right word -- a deluded audience member came up on stage and started choking Penn Gillette, who is handcuffed into a wheelchair. And because the stage is covered with smoke, nobody could see it. And you know, poor Penn is sitting there completely freaking out, before finally enough of the smoke clears that somebody can see this guy and go out there and tear him away and drag him off. There have definitely been some strange things that have happened around Residents performances, but that was probably the strangest one.

SVR:What's another strange moment that took place?
Flynn:It's one of those kind of things. There's a million stories. It's always hard to think of them, and they're actually happening. Actually, one really good story was, the Residents did a show when they started their second tour, their 13th anniversary tour, in like 19 ... this was the European part of it, in 1986, I think.

Their first show was in Tromsö, Norway, which is within the Arctic Circle. And this was probably September or October, `86, I think, something like that. And they got to Oslo, Norway, and their equipment never showed up. And so then they had to travel another 200 miles or so up to Tromsö, like I say, within the Arctic Circle, and their equipment never showed up. And they ultimately had to borrow equipment from people there in the town and played their show using, totally, things that they had never done before, and they had to make costumes out of things that they could pick up in, you know, their hotel rooms or hardware stores or costume shops. And it was a very, very strange, weird version of their own show.

The people in the audience were told what was going on, and were given the option of either seeing this weird performance -- which wound up even still going on three or four hours late -- or else getting their money back. But it was a tiny little place. Everybody stayed for it. And then afterwards the Residents got this incredible salmon dinner, salmon from the Arctic sea. It was quite wonderful from what I understand.

SVR:Last time I spoke with you, you mentioned something about a Residents opera in Prague. How did that come about?
Flynn:Well, what happened was, it's the Residents' "Freak Show," which has been probably their most successful project to date. All of their more recent projects generally seem to spin off into several different versions. And "Freak Show" started off as a music album in '89. Then it was a graphic novel in '91 or '92. Then it was a CD-ROM in '94. And then it became a stage show in Prague in '95.

And what happened was this theater improv called Archa Theatre -- that had been a kind of old, provincial repertory theater that fell into decline in the late '70s and '80s -- the city of Prague owned this, and what they wanted was a theater that could be a home for modern touring productions. You know, things like Robert Wilson or Phillip Glass or Laurie Anderson.

SVR: As Web sites become more robust, and the pipes get bigger, the bandwidth becomes wider, do you think it'll mean an end to CD-ROMs?
Flynn:It's possible. I think the biggest problem with CD-ROMs right now, it's the same problems that you have with the Net, in that the technology is not really there to support what the forum could be. And a lot of this is going to improve greatly with DVD-ROM. With a CD-ROM, either you've got it or you don't. You know, you can't release part of a CD-ROM. Whereas you can put up, you know, something relatively small on the Web, and let it grow as the project grows.
SVR:When is your 25th-year anniversary?
Flynn:'97
SVR:'97. Do you have anything special planned for that?
Flynn:There are conversations right now with Random House about a really nice, big book -- it's going back to books again -- celebrating the Residents' 25th anniversary. There's also been some talk about some type of 25th anniversary tour.
SVR:You said living in the Bay Area was one of the best things that ever happened to the Residents. Want to elaborate on that?
Flynn: Yeah. The Residents have always made the comment that they felt that they loved the Bay Area, but in a lot of ways it wasn't a great place careerwise to be.

But they evolved these contacts, both creatively and technically, in the computer industry in the Bay Area, so that ultimately, by the time CD-ROM was really here, they were sort of in the right place at the right time careerwise for the first time. So it was the first time when living in the Bay Area was a great move for them careerwise. But you know, it was never really part of any plan. It's just kind of the way life evolves in its mysterious ways.

SVR:Contentwise, what do you think will work on the Web?
Flynn:I think what works the best is something that could be serialized or done in segments. Because if you look at the Web and if you look at CD-ROM you've got two interactive forms there; but obviously they're not the same. So in order to figure out how to work with them successfully, you figure out what one has to offer that the other one doesn't. And to be able to use serialized content, or content in segments of some kind that's constantly updated and changed, is what the Web really has to offer that you can't do with CD-ROM.
SVR:Do you think the Residents would ever get into an episodic Web-site format?
Flynn:They're definitely thinking about it right now.
SVR:What would it take to pull it off well?
Flynn:Some good content. The Residents recently had a trip to Europe where they went back to Prague to kind of wrap up some stuff there. And one of them started writing some ghost stories. And they got off into this whole idea of ghost stories and 'What were ghost stories?' And 'What were different interpretations of that idea?' And so to create this either maybe ongoing story that takes all these different ghost stories into it, or even to put up a different ghost story a week, I think these are the kind of things that they've thought about. The question with the Residents right now is more how much time have they got to actually put into this kind of stuff. The ideas are interesting to them. They love to explore new forms and play with new media, but right now, they just don't really feel that they have the time to devote a lot to it.

I think it's kind of frustrating for them really -- because they see this as such an interesting and emerging field but their CD-ROM stuff is just taking up so much time right now. That's why they're hoping that they can get involved with somebody that will help them codevelop their next project with a Web component.

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