IDENTITY CRISIS? Well, at least the Residents' penchants for playful abstraction and enforced anonymity have remained constant.
Even if they had closed up shop 15 years ago, the Residents would go down as some of rock's most prolific pranksters. They aped the Beatles on their 1974 debut, Meet the Residents, tormented short attention spans with 40-minute songs on 1980's The Commercial Album, and skewered standards by everyone from James Brown to John Philip Sousa along the way. They spearheaded the music-video movement by bopping around to "Land of 1000 Dances" in KKK hoods made of newspaper. And in 1979, they almost snagged a Grammy for a record of fake Eskimo folk tales.
Through the '90s, they made CD-ROMs with animator Jim Ludtke (becoming the first band you might confuse with a video game); then they hit the road with the Bible-baiting Wormwood tour and the career-retrospective Icky Flix DVD. Forty years in, they've actually picked up the pace, with a barrage of new material on all levels of concept and advisability — like the serialized YouTube drama of The Bunny Boy and the songs based on insect mating calls on Animal Lover. Through it all, their penchants for playful abstraction and enforced anonymity have remained constant.
And the rest? "I don't even think the Residents themselves know who they are," says Hardy Fox, head of the Residents' management team and public proxy, the Cryptic Corporation. Fox and Cryptic took over PR duties for the group in '74, though it's generally assumed he's been with the band from their humble beginnings in Louisiana.
"It's been a few years of struggling for them," he continues over the phone from San Jose. "You may have noticed that things have changed a little bit in the music industry. They've been trying to step back and figure out how to operate."
Fox says the general idea for their current tour was to err on the side of spontaneity — a large pool of songs, old and new, shuffled around from night to night with room for improvisation. This is a big change for anyone who's ever seen the Residents, who, for all their boundary-busting compositions and oddball story lines, lean toward pretty conventional musical theater. Sets are heavily rehearsed, characters come out on cue, music synchs perfectly with projections.
This time, there's way more being left to chance. Fox says the band instructed their booking agent to get them gigs wherever he could; the result was a mixed bag of rock clubs large and small, with a few theaters thrown in. "I wouldn't say they're exactly looking forward to some of these venues," he admits. And of course, there are risks to letting the magic just happen every night. "Some nights it's going to be a fantastic show — and some nights it won't be at all."
Here's hoping this Wednesday's appearance at the Middle East falls into that former category. But rest assured, even a terrible Residents show can be inspiring. Some of their greatest moments are also their worst. (Just listen to their migraine-inducing cover of "Satisfaction.") They've always been at their best as careless saboteurs, and this time around, that may be precisely what we're getting.
"There's really nothing to lose right now," says Fox. "The biggest risk is alienating what small audience you already currently have. Otherwise, it's an experiment. It's gathering data for their own direction." And if they drop a few stink bombs along the way? Fox doesn't mind. "I'd say music is pretty overrated as an art form, anyway."
THE RESIDENTS | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | February 10 at 9 pm | 18+ | $20 | 617.864.EAST orwww.mideastclub.com