Famously Anonymous Rockers the Residents Train Their Eyeballs on Portland

The avant-garde rockers play the Aladdin, in a show that includes a screening of a documentary mining their 40-plus-year career.

By Fiona McCann April 7, 2016

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Still from the movie Theory of Obscurity.

Pause. “Of course not.” That’s how Homer Flynn, manager of 40-year-old band of anonymous avant-garde musicians and multimedia artists the Residents, answers the question about whether he is himself a member. With the Residents, it’s hard to know what to believe.

They’ve been on the go for more than four decades, releasing more than 60 albums, and creating numerous short films that have become MTV staples, some of which are now part of New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The LA Times credited them with virtually inventing the rock video form, and hailed their “pioneering work in laser disc, CD-ROM and video games.”

Then there are the live shows, with elaborate stage sets and video theatrics described by the New York Times as “obscure, dreamlike.”

And all this while remaining anonymous, performing their particular experimental sound always in masks and costumes, most famously wearing head-sized eyeball masks crowned with top hats.

Now they’re en route to Portland, with a new live show, Shadowland, and a special pre-concert screening of the Don Hardy documentary Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents, which follows their 40-year career, featuring interviews with Matt Groening and Primus’s Les Claypool, among others.           

And somehow, incredibly, their identities are still unclear—or at least subject to serious speculation—even as a tell-all documentary examines their most intimate moments. So why maintain anonymity for 40 years? Privacy, says Flynn. “They thought that it was important that there be a sense of privacy that they hold on to, that there was space between the public persona and the private persona.”

Their loyal adherence to this constructed public identity has spawned legions of like-minded artists—Flynn cites Lady Gaga as among them. “Even indirectly she owes a certain debt to the Residents because there’s a similarity there. The façade, the contrived identity.”

Over the years, there’s been plenty of speculation about who might be behind the eyeballs—David Byrne and Les Claypool have been frequent suggestions. Yet it seems that nobody really knows, still. So how do you keep a secret for that long? “It’s really a matter of trusting people, and trusting that they feel like they’re part of it, and they’re ultimately kind of betraying themselves if they betray the Residents,” says Flynn.

As for their Aladdin Theater performance? “This show is more accessible and more of a rock show than most of theirs have been," says Flynn. “It’s still multimedia in that it involves very distinctive video elements within it, and once again I think it’s very direct and entertaining, but in a quirky, Residential kind of way.”

The Residents play the Aladdin Theater on Tuesday, April 12, in a show that includes a screening of Theory of Obscurity.

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