The Residents’ Mysterious Archivist

When a band are as secretive as The Residents – it’s understandable that the identity of their archivist would be a mystery too. One Quart Magazine talks exclusively to The Residents’ Mysterious Archivist about communications with the band and working on their reissues.

When a band are as secretive as The Residents – it’s understandable that the identity of their archivist would be a mystery too. One Quart Magazine talks exclusively to The Residents’ Mysterious Archivist about communications with the band and working on their reissues.

Karstein Volle

One Quart Magazine: Hello, ‘The Residents’ Mysterious Archivist’.

The Residents’ Mysterious Archivist: Hello. And hello Finland! I lived in Helsinki for a year and have lots of Finnish pals, so it’s nice to talk to you.

QRM: Cool! OK, first question – who are you?

TRMA: Ha – you know I can’t tell you that. I’m sure somebody out there will tell you for the right price.

OQM: OK – fair enough. So, second question – how did you become ‘The Residents’ Mysterious Archivist’?

TRMA: Well I have a long association with Cherry Red Records, going back over a decade, and have worked for them in various capacities over the years. A while back they published a book on The Residents – an update of Ian Shirley’s excellent biography – and I was involved in that, and had a very passing brush with The Cryptic Corporation as part of that project. So Cherry Red were aware that I had that interest and connection, and are long-term partners with MVD in the USA, who have been handling Residents product for a long time. I’ve no idea how or why it happened, but Hardy Fox decided to leave his long-held position with The Cryptic Corporation, who have handled The Residents’ affairs since the 1970s, and the opportunity arose for Cherry Red and MVD to become involved quite deeply with the group. Once the idea was out there it felt like the four parties, including myself, all seemed quite an obvious fit, and so far it seems to work.

OQM: Yes, Hardy leaving was a bit of a surprise wasn’t it? So you don’t know anything about that?

TRMA: No, I’ve never dealt with Hardy. I was surprised, yes, but I gather he has his reasons. As a fan I felt a little sad – I think The Residents maintaining their anonymity for so long has been one of the great artistic statements, and I can’t really think of anybody else who has approached show business with such a pure aesthetic and clear conscience, so it seemed a shame to interfere with that.

I think The Residents maintaining their anonymity for so long has been one of the great artistic statements

OQM: But nevertheless, that shake-up seems to have inspired the band to dig back into their archives?

TRMA: It does seem to have done that, yes. My understanding is that when Hardy retired from The Cryptic Corporation he sent The Residents a huge archive of their tapes, which put them in an unexpected, nostalgic kind of place they’d never really been in before. They’re probably more familiar now with their back catalogue than they have been in a long time, having done a handful of different tours performing that stuff in the last ten years. I guess the timing was right for them to take a look inside the boxes that arrived from Hardy. Who knows, a couple of years ago or a couple of years in the future they might not have been so bothered, but here and now they just happened to go with it and take a peek. So I think we’re very lucky in that respect.

OQM: Definitely. And what were your first impressions on beginning to work with the group – presumably you’re a fan?

TRMA: I am a fan, and I knew the band’s story pretty well through my involvement with Ian’s book. But I should point out that I’ve never knowingly spoken with a Resident. But then has anybody? I’ve dealt with them exclusively via Homer Flynn, who manages their affairs on behalf of The Cryptic Corporation and has been very willing to take my questions and suggestions to the band, which I presume has been his role for a long time. So asking Homer a few questions and waiting a week or so for a reply from the group has been the extent of my contact with them. But The Residents have sent a number of tapes and other items to my office – handwritten notes and running orders, instructions on editing, weird gifts and so on – so I have had some kind of relationship, albeit one way. They use a courier – it must be somebody they know who is based in the UK, I presume – who dresses in the most ridiculous disguises but has never said a word. Truly. He must have been to my office at least a dozen times in wigs and false ears and dog masks – you name it – and he’s only ever communicated through hand-written notes. It’s really quite a strange situation.

He must have been to my office at least a dozen times in wigs and false ears and dog masks – you name it – and he’s only ever communicated through hand-written notes

OQM: Ha – that does sound like it’d take some getting used to, and slightly old-fashioned given their reputation as technological pioneers.

TRMA: Well I don’t know if The Residents themselves have ever been particularly technically-minded or whether The Cryptic Corporation – particularly Hardy in terms of the audio output and Homer on the visual side – have taken care of all of that for them. From what I’ve seen, they can barely write, let alone email.

OQM: And how did you get on once you got used to their working methods?

TRMA: In terms of ‘working’ with them, what I immediately realised is just how complex this thing we call ‘The Residents’ is, so I gave up immediately on any hope of figuring out who ‘the men behind the masks’ were – a fan’s urge I suppose. I know there are names out there in the public realm which are associated with the group and are assumed to be part of it, but my impression is that’s really a legal thing on behalf of The Cryptic Corporation more than anything else. Having seen scans of the tracking sheets and tape boxes, received notes in multiple different handwritings and waited to have questions answered by multiple different sources, it seems to me there are some very blurred boundaries when it comes to group members, their contributions and their comings and goings. It feels like there are many more than four Residents. But then, I’ve no idea if what I’m shown of that side of things is part of some elaborate hoax on The Residents’ part to lead me to this point where I tell you that and yet another Residents rumour goes out into the world. There’s just no way of knowing, so I gave up trying to know anything almost the moment we began this. But my impression is that the term ‘The Residents’ is essentially an outlet for a lot of creative people and their ideas, and extends way beyond even the most elaborate fan theory I’ve ever come across.

OQM: So where did you begin, once the handshakes were over?

TRMA: At the beginning! From the outset, working through their catalogue in chronological order seemed the only way to approach it. We compiled the ’80 Aching Orphans’ compilation and a lot of thought went into that, both on my part and on The Residents’ part, to make sure it was something more than the usual ‘best of’ kind of set. I guess I earned their trust in doing that and in being willing to try to cram their entire career onto four CDs, because that process slowly morphed into them sending me material they’d discovered in Hardy’s archive and thought their fans might like to hear. Homer tells me they had no memory of any of it, but then they would say that, I guess. I just don’t think it had ever dawned on them to look backwards. Personally, I wonder if perhaps the people responsible for Residents records today aren’t the same people as those who made those 1970s albums, and had no attachment to them until the boxes arrived from Hardy Fox…. Who knows?

Luckily somebody had been quite thorough in cataloguing all of this material at the time The Residents produced it; dating the tapes and tracking sheets – so we had good guides with regards the chronology, even if the guys who made the recordings had no idea when any of it was done, or even who played on it. Every part on every tracking sheet is just credited to ‘A Resident’. Seriously…. ‘Guitar: A Resident’, ‘Bass synthesiser: A Resident’, ‘Vocal: A Resident’ and on and on. They really took the anonymity thing about as seriously as it’s possible to do so, I think, even within the privacy of their own studio.

Every part on every tracking sheet is just credited to ‘A Resident’. Seriously…. ‘Guitar: A Resident’, ‘Bass synthesiser: A Resident’, ‘Vocal: A Resident’ and on and on

OQM: So ‘Meet The Residents’ was first up on the blocks?

TRMA: It was, yes. Between us, Homer, The Residents and I came up with the ‘pREServed’ notion – I was particularly interested in the unreleased material because that’s my role as an archivist, but the suggestion that we should contextualise each album with live stuff, alternate versions, later versions and remixes also seemed a fine idea, and in keeping with the constant recycling of their own material which has always been a part of The Residents’ work. So it begun to feel that, rather than just ‘reissuing’ these albums, we were preserving something. The albums, the unreleased material, different mixes, live work. If you want to know about this particular album and its journey right up to the present day, here it is.

OQM: That’s an interesting idea – not many acts have the advantage of having always re-interpreted their material live rather than just replaying the studio version, so that in itself is unusual.

TRMA: It is, yes. It wouldn’t work to present a Rolling Stones album in that way – ‘Brown Sugar’ will have sounded more or less identical in concert in 1975 and in 2005, and who needs to hear variations on that? But with The Residents’ freewheeling approach to their body of work it fits perfectly. In this age of playlists and so on, I don’t think anybody is expecting people to sit and listen to both discs of these 2CD sets from beginning to end, so they’re not necessarily designed with that in mind, but rather as miniature archives within themselves. So if you have the sudden urge to hear a primitive version of ‘Fingerprince’ or some ‘Duck Stab’ material performed live as recently as possible then you’re in the right place. And, of course, there’s a lot of visual material in the packaging too – flyers, photographs from the band’s archives and so on.

OQM: The response to the first two reissues – ‘Meet The Residents’ and ‘The Third Reich ‘N Roll’ – has been great, I saw lots of enthusiastic reviews. How have the fans reacted? The Residents’ seem to attract, shall we say, very ‘passionate’ fans.

TRMA: Ha! They do, and thank God for every one of them. As far as I’m aware, the fans have enjoyed hearing this stuff. I do take a look at a couple of fan pages on Facebook and so on and noticed a lot of chat and speculation about them – I think there’s something wonderful about a band whose fans can debate whether what they’re hearing is what they’re being told they’re hearing! I think only The Residents have that. In terms of the enthusiastic fans, I think there’s always been an outsider quality to the band that appeals to a certain kind of person. I’m probably on the edge of that, I do tend to hide my freak flag under a veil of respectability, but I know my way around that world and can relate to the obsessing and the collecting and everything that goes with it.

I think there’s something wonderful about a band whose fans can debate whether what they’re hearing is what they’re being told they’re hearing!

OQM: Definitely. So, what has been the most interesting unreleased stuff The Residents have rediscovered so far?

TRMA: I’m in the fortunate position of hearing this stuff ‘raw’, if you like. That is to say long before it’s been edited or over-thought or placed with a running order and contextualised in any way – I just receive the material and press play with no idea what to expect. So it’s all been absolutely fascinating in that moment, not least in terms of trying to guess when a piece was recorded before asking the question. But I suppose the longer pieces particularly stand out for me, if only because, by definition, that thrill lasted longer. I can vividly recall playing a tape called ‘1-10 (With A Touch Of 11)’ for the first time and just losing my mind as it rolled out of the speakers.

OQM: Ah yes – I know that title from one of the pREServed reissues.

TMA: That’s right – some of it appeared on the ‘Meet The Residents’ thing – some editing work was done on that before it felt like something releasable that would make any sense. But in its original form that tape comprised a forty minute long improvisation piece followed by fifty minutes of what might best be described as ‘tomfoolery’. More improvisation, some very early live recordings and what we might as well call free jazz – a lot of saxophone and nothing much in the way of form or structure. It really just blew me away on that first sitting.

Also, there’s a piece on the forthcoming ‘Fingerprince’ reissue that I play regularly and I think fans are going to love to hear. It’s a 1976 tape called ‘Leapmus’, which is a fourteen minute ‘demo’ of sorts, taking in material that would end up on ‘Fingerprince’ and plenty of other bits and pieces. It’s really something. The full-length, twenty-five minute ‘German Slide Music’ tape is also fascinating. We’re hoping to somehow release these full-length, unedited tapes soon, but it’s hard to know if that’s pushing the audience too far! Maybe they should be white label LPs or something. Understated.

I also recently received the multitrack ‘Eskimo’ tapes, which have been fun to explore. I don’t know if The Residents will choose to do anything with those or not, but it’s been fascinating to sit at a mixing desk and work through them.

OQM: And what comes after ‘Fingerprince’? ‘Duck Stab’, right?

TRMA: Yep, there’s a ‘Duck Stab / Buster & Glen’ pREServed reissue coming out at the same time as the ‘Fingerprince’ one – that’s March 23rd I think – and then there are two brand new Residents albums due over the summer. But in the meantime I’m working away on ‘Eskimo’ and ‘The Commercial Album’, and also thinking about ‘The Mole Trilogy’. We have around twenty-five unreleased pieces, mainly instrumentals, which The Residents feel could be related to those albums, along with a few notes and pointers, so I’ve just about figured out where that should all fit in and have just sent it all to Homer to pass on to the band and see what they think. There’s some fascinating stuff in there, a lot of ‘Commercial Album’ type pieces, some big synthesiser workouts, ‘Eskimo’ related chants, and a very early, studio-recorded version of ‘The Mole Show’. I’ve no idea what The Residents will choose to release, but those tapes exist.

OQM: I noticed you didn’t mention ‘Not Available’….

TRMA: Ah – I wondered if you’d notice that. Well played. It’s a moot point – the less said about it the better. It may or may not happen, depending on whether or not we can keep The Residents from knowing that it’s happening (in which case it won’t). I can say there is some ‘Not Available’ related material in the archive – not a huge amount, but bits and pieces. But I haven’t heard it and I don’t know if anybody dare mention that record to the group. I gather it’s still really tricky ground. But a plan is afoot.

OQM: That sounds intriguing.

TRMA: Does it? Oh good! I’ve only been working with The Residents a year and I’ve already gotten the hang of it.

OQM: So I guess ‘The Mole Trilogy’ takes us up to the mid-1980s – is there much in the archive after that?

TRMA: Well there are all of the master tapes, and a fair few other tapes which are either unlabelled or have names nobody recognises. Things for TV and art shows, demos and so on. Undoubtedly, as The Residents switched from tape work to a more MIDI-orientated approach to their music they were recording less, and thus leaving less of a trace. But we’re already thinking about The Composers Series and that late-1980s period, including the ‘God In 3 Persons’ album. I guess my only hope is that The Residents’ interest sticks with it for long enough, but my job is to prise as much out of their hands as I can in the meantime, because it feels like now is the moment and it probably won’t happen again.

my only hope is that The Residents’ interest sticks with it for long enough, but my job is to prise as much out of their hands as I can in the meantime

OQM: That sounds like something from an Indiana Jones movie.

TRMA: Ha! Well, after a fashion I suppose it has its similarities. Certainly there are a lot of cobwebs.

OQM: Thanks – it’s been fascinating to talk to you.

TRMA: You too. Oh, one final thing, a friend told me he read online that I – or at least this ‘Residents Mysterious Archive’ character – am obviously a Resident. Can I just say that’s not the case – I really can’t take credit for any of what you hear on these reissues. I did write some sleevenotes, but that’s the extent of my creative involvement.

OQM: But isn’t that exactly what a Resident would say?

TRMA: Well…….. I suppose there is that. I’m not sure there’s a way around that. The Residential Paradox!

OQM: Yep – there it is again. OK – well, I’m glad we could clear that up for you.

TRMA: You’re welcome.

 

Find out more on the forthcoming The Residents reissues of ‘Fingerprince’ here and ‘Duck Stab/Buster & Glen’ here . Both are released on the 23rd March via Cherry Red.

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