Documentary Filmmaker Don Hardy Discusses ‘Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents’
The collective music, performance and art of The Residents is otherworldly. Upon first learning of this infamous group, one enters an uncompromising creative space where audience comfort and commercial popularity take a backseat to performative engagement with the indecorous and the macabre. The initiation process is both unnerving and rewarding. Some listeners may turn away instinctively, but those who stay become members of a loyal, nearly obsessive fan base. Devotees of The Residents pledge allegiance to the unsettling underbelly of art, to the fantastic and the troubling, and above all, to the obscure.
By broad definition, The Residents are an experimental band/avant-garde collective started in 1969 in San Francisco. When filmmaker Don Hardy heard friends describe The Residents exuberantly, he recognized the opportunity for a great documentary and wanted to learn more about this mysterious band. But therein lies the crux of The Residents. The band members remain anonymous, donning complex disguises on stage and in all public appearances. Their most infamous getup consists of formalwear and giant eyeballs for heads, and this image has become synonymous with the band’s radical performances. Some modern artists, such as Daft Punk or (the recently revealed) Who Is Fancy, have similarly adopted anonymity. But unlike these performers, The Residents’ disguises, and moreover their personas, have morphed over the years along with their muse of the moment.
Hardy traces these transformations in his new film, Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents, which recently premiered at SXSW. The Residents themselves do not give interviews, forcing the filmmaker to paint a picture of the band through a collage of related figures. This includes footage from their 40th anniversary tour, interviews with The Residents’ management company, The Cryptic Corporation, and discussions with famous figures influenced by the band. Hardy also explores The Residents’ extensive cultural impact, from their early adoption of the music video form to their recent admittance to MoMA’s permanent collection.
Beyond the oddity and the intrigue that surround the band, Hardy hopes viewers will appreciate the core elements of the story: artistic perseverance, loyalty, and a do-it-yourself mentality. Though the faces of The Residents are never revealed, Theory of Obscurity delves deeper into its subject than many music documentaries of the past have done with theirs, delivering this fantastical band to new audiences via the big screen.
GALO recently spoke to Hardy just before his departure to Austin for SXSW, where the film would have several screenings accompanied by a concert by The Residents. Hardy talked about Theory of Obscurity, The Residents community, archival footage, and documenting the obscure.
GALO: One of the goals of Theory of Obscurity is to introduce new people to The Residents, a band that is both notorious in the music industry and often misunderstood by popular media. How do you think people will experience The Residents differently if they first meet them through your film?
Don Hardy: That’s a great question. I think that a lot of your opinions on film or music come through your way into it. What we tried to do with the film is make it easy to digest for new people. We have some people in there that are recognizable — and in that way welcoming — like Les Claypool from Primus, Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads, and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. If you’re new to the world, you come into it saying, “Oh, these people like this group. This is something I should pay attention to.” Hopefully, you then fall for the story: this group that never played by the rules, but always took the “do it yourself” idea to the extreme and figured out a way to do the art they want to do. To me, that seemed like a universal, relatable theme. An inspiring theme, I hope. I know putting this together, I took a lot of inspiration from it.
GALO: Inspiration seems like a key aspect of The Residents’ performance. Toward the end of the film, several interviewees suggest the band acts as inspiration for the creative community, especially for young artists, by maintaining artistic values at all costs. How do you think the experience of The Residents is different for a younger audience today?
DH: Music today is just so marginalized. It’s something people don’t see value in paying for. It’s a free thing on YouTube or it’s a ringtone. Hopefully, the fact that The Residents create concept albums makes them something people can respond to.
I’ve seen hints of that already. When I first got into making this, and I had to explain to friends and family what this whole thing was about, I would send some of the music videos or short films. I would send some of the more accessible albums like Duck Stab. I could see people’s ears perk up. They didn’t shut off like you were playing noise recordings. There’s something there. And I think that’s what allowed [The Residents] to endure for so long.
I think younger audiences are just as perceptive and able to embrace new things as older audiences — they just need that right introduction. Hopefully, the way we made the film can provide that. Get some new blood in there, while also remaining relatable to the people who have followed The Residents for four decades.
GALO: You mentioned that their music is different than popular or marginalized music out there now. A lot of the spread of popular music is over digital platforms. Given the band’s propensity for technologically progressive forms, have The Residents had any success with digital or social media platforms? Or are they less interested in that?
DH: They jumped onto [social media] very quickly. They are available on all the platforms, from Spotify to SoundCloud. There’s a robust and engaged audience there. [The band] just cracked 90,000 followers on Facebook. For our film, we started with [social media] early, and we have about 10,000 [followers] there.
We talked about that a bit in the film — those Ralph Records (the Residents’ original record label) catalogues with that whole idea of “Buy or Die.” The Residents realized early on that direct connection with fans was important. Social media is just the natural progression of that.
Lately, they’ve been releasing one song or a remixed song on Spotify, and then another song on iTunes. They’re kind of making their fans hunt for them a little bit. That just fits with the pattern of The Residents to make [their music] something you have to seek out. The Internet certainly allows that.
GALO: The idea of fans seeking out new material is interesting. Often, it seems awareness of The Residents is spread by word of mouth. People come across the band spontaneously. So from what you’re saying, The Residents seem to still encourage that kind of random engagement digitally.
DH: Yeah. About a year ago, not long after we started making the documentary, we started this Web series called Randyland in order to build momentum and engage people. We’ve now done 45 episodes featuring the lead singer of The Residents as “Randy.” (The band recently came out as Randy, Chuck, and Bob as their stage names.) The response [to Randyland] has been great. People don’t seem to have a problem engaging that way; we’ve been reinforcing that with extended interviews from the film.
I want to gain the acceptance from the fan base because this film ultimately could be a largely DOD (DVD on Demand) title. That’s really the way the film business is moving, as much as the music business, to online platforms. I get messages from fans saying, “I need the deluxe special edition Blu-ray.” Well, yeah, or we could build up a really nice Web portal for you to view the film, but also all of the extras. I hope people will grab onto that. But there’s also a very large collector mentality in The Residents. People want to possess it, too.
GALO: You mentioned Randyland, which is one of a number of incarnations or metamorphoses that The Residents have gone through. Do these transformations help the band constantly stay fresh? And do you believe The Residents are still avant-garde today like they were back in the ’60s?
DH: I think they’re still very unique. There’s not much that rivals The Residents. They push boundaries in the sound of the music, in the art that extends beyond music to online or visuals, and in the storytelling. The topics they decide to highlight in their music are not always for the faint of heart. That’s what helps them to endure. They keep it fresh for themselves, and so it’s also fresh for the audience.
The Residents’ management company [The Cryptic Corporation] was hugely helpful in putting this documentary together, in allowing us access to the band’s archive and everything. Early on, Homer Flynn from the Cryptic Corporation told us that when The Residents started, nobody ever said they would change it up album by album. Nobody ever said it. They just started doing it that way. Partly that was a response to what they saw as a trend in popular music: all of the creativity was drained out when [a band] found their sound or when they said, “This is what we’re going to be.” Groups became very boring. So The Residents wanted the opposite of that. [They wanted] to keep mixing it up, all in that relentless pursuit of their muse at that moment.
GALO: In the early sections of the film you tell the history of The Residents in part through archival footage. During the discussion of the band’s early film Vileness Fats, Graeme Whifler suggests that the ½-inch tape The Residents used for that film couldn’t accurately document the art they created. What was it like working with archival footage of a band technologically and artistically outpacing that very documentation?
DH: It was a real challenge. When my partner, John Bishoff, and I really dug into those archives, we wondered, “How do we look at this? How do we find something that could play this back to even evaluate it?” Some of it had been persevered in different ways over the years, but nothing had been transferred to HD. We realized we needed to preserve this material for the film and beyond.