Feb. 19 2013 03:17 PM

After 40 years, San Francisco experimentalists take on their most personal project yet

The Residents released their debut single, “Santa Dog,” in 1972.
Photo illustration by Poor Know Graphics

Homer Flynn works for a company called The Cryptic Corporation. His main job is to serve as a spokesperson for The Residents, an avant-garde band from San Francisco whose members maintain their anonymity. Many have long assumed that Flynn is a Resident himself, but he carefully sidesteps the suggestion in an interview with CityBeat.

"That has been mentioned on more than one occasion," he acknowledges, before moving on to the next topic.

The Residents have been together for more than 40 years. Since the beginning, they've presented themselves as a faceless, nameless entity—a clearinghouse for visceral music and multimedia art. Along with videos, CD-ROMs and DVDs, they've put out more than 60 albums, all of which are astounding in their strangeness, featuring foreign electronic textures and freakish, pitch-bent vocals.

Some of their albums dig into the American pop canon—or parody it, as with 1976's The Third Reich 'n Roll, a mutated medley of '60s pop tunes. Others explore foreign, even imaginary cultures: For 1988's glorious synth opera God in Three Persons, a man with a thick southern drawl narrates a dark tale of Siamese-twin faith healers. In the process, they've constantly toyed with audiences' expectations, often with the help of striking costumes and elaborate marketing ploys.

"If you know anything at all about The Residents, nothing ever plays itself out in a straight way," Flynn says. "They love getting people to feel like, you know, OK, I see what's going on here. Alright, that makes sense. And then—bam!—all of a sudden, something comes out of left field that's totally unexpected."

Lately, The Residents have turned their high-concept lens on themselves. For recent live shows, they've revealed their "real" names: Randy, Chuck and Bob. A couple of years ago, they stripped down from a quartet to a trio, explaining that their drummer, Carlos, had retired to take care of his ailing mother in Mexico. 

Of course, those almost certainly aren't The Residents' real names. ("The truth is always a fluid substance when it comes to The Residents," Flynn points out, his Southern accent vaguely resembling that of God in Three Persons' narrator.) But by revamping their image, they've been able to toy with the public's idea of who The Residents really are.

And the truth is, The Residents are old. "Santa Dog," their debut single, came out in 1972—back when the Vietnam War was still raging. In a nod to the band's age, Residents singer "Randy Rose" plays the part of a senile retiree, donning a ghoulish old-man mask onstage and getting cantankerous on his Tumblr page as he chronicles stops on their current Wonder of Weird tour.

In one, he writes: "Hey Everybody! Iím getting behind here! My plan was to take a picture of every venue but then we got to NYC and I thought the club sucked so I didn't take one. But right across the street was this weird NY buggy thing that dumb fuck tourists ride in because it gives them the romantic idea that they are someplace cool like Paris or Venice when they're are [sic] really just sucking smog from buses and cabs."

To be sure, even these older, grayer Residents still have their absurdist, ambitious pluck. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Santa Dog," they're hawking the Ultimate Box Set, a 28-cubic-foot refrigerator packed with the first editions of seemingly every Residents release (including "Santa Dog" and their fantastically warped 1974 debut album, Meet The Residents), along with one of their trademark eyeball-and-top-hat masks. 

The Ultimate Box Set costs $100,000, and they're also selling a "secret box" for $5 million. Flynn declined to say what's inside the box, but said the contents are "not tangible."

"If anybody goes for that, it's definitely a one-time deal," he says. "There's only one of those."

After all these years, one might wonder why The Residents insist on keeping their identities secret. On tour, they've offered an oblique hint: While his bandmates conjure mercurial electronics and fuzzed-out guitar, Randy shows up onstage in a raggedy Santa Claus outfit, emphasizing The Residents' magical nature. 

Much like Saint Nick, you need to really believe in The Residents (or at least the idea of them) to truly enjoy them. Otherwise, all you see are some old guys dressed up in costumes, passing through town like any other band.  

After all these years, Flynn seems pleased that so many Residents fans have kept on believing. 

"The Residents are extremely grateful to have the opportunity to still be doing this—that people are still interested, people like you still want to do interviews," he says. "After 40 years, to find that kind of interest, to find that kind of support, you know, it's very validating, and theyíre really thankful for that."

The Residents play at Belly Up Tavern on Tuesday, Feb. 26. residents.com

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.