The Strangest Show on Earth: San Francisco-Based Art Collective The Residents at the Mill Valley Film Festival

The Residents

Shrouded in a cloak of anonymity since their debut in the early 1970s, the San Francisco-based art collective The Residents remains one of the most prolific and enigmatic musical acts in the world. Known for experimental songs and albums accompanied by equally abstract imagery, the group performs exclusively in costume, their identities hidden behind signature masks, most notably resembling giant eyeballs. At this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), they bring the one-of-a-kind experience that is their live show to the Sweetwater Music Hall.

While the identities of the band members have never been revealed, Homer Flynn, spokesperson for The Residents and president of the group’s management company The Cryptic Corporation, spoke to Marin Magazine in anticipation of the band’s live show at MVFF. “Go in with an open mind,” he advises to those new to the live Residents experience. “It’s almost certainly going to be different than any shows you’ve seen before.”

Like their music, The Residents’ live performances are trippy, atmospheric, mind-altering affairs featuring elaborate costumes, a custom light show and of course, the group’s avant garde songs and soundscapes. “The Residents are, for many people, an acquired taste,” Flynn explains. “It’s not middle-of-the-road pop music.”

“Not middle-of-the-road” is an understatement, if there ever was one, when describing The Residents’ music. In 1979, the group released a concept album called Eskimo, a collection of wind-swept soundscapes featuring Inuit-inspired chants and synth sounds. Their 2020 album Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog, features dark, unnerving tracks with titles like “Die! Die! Die!” and “Momma Don’t Go.” Needless to say, the group holds nothing back when it comes to their art.

What allows The Residents’ to be so uncompromising in their work is their commitment to keeping their identities hidden in public. Musician Hardy Fox revealed prior to his death in 2018 that he was a founding member of the group, but beyond this, the rest of the band’s identity has largely been kept secret. Flynn has been rumored to be a member of the group himself, though he strictly identifies as merely a spokesperson for the group in interviews.

“There is a veil,” Flynn says. “The Residents aren’t interested in celebrity. They would read in Rolling Stone that Mick Jagger couldn’t go out to dinner anywhere, and that didn’t look very cool to them. The veil gives them protection in a way and allows a buffer between their personal lives and public lives. For the most part, they just want to be regular people in their private lives, so the anonymity serves them in that way.”

Triple Double

In addition to their show at the Sweetwater Music Hall, The Residents are screening their new narrative film, Triple Trouble, as a part of the festival. Incorporating footage shot by the group in the mid ‘70s with new media shot as recently as 2020, the film is deeply embedded in the group’s iconography and mythos. The film will be screening at the Roxie in San Francisco, but for those who want the full Residents experience, a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Sweetwater will be a must.

“When you see something happening live and in front of you, it makes a difference,” Flynn says. “The Residents are thrilled to be in Mill Valley, and they’re really happy to be performing at the Sweetwater. It’s in many ways a perfect venue for them. Any performer would tell you how much they love playing in a situation where you feel like you have a direct connection with your audience. The live performance is going to be pretty special.”

Bernard Boo

Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.