We're an Anonymous Band: How Do You Make a Film About the Residents?

"I think that to tell this story, we should, at every point. . .try to undermine the credibility of it"

'Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents' will debut at SXSW this March. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

While hundreds of bands will be struggling to emerge from obscurity at SXSW 2015, one set of oddballs will be celebrating a 40-year home there. Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents, a feature-length documentary about the infamously anonymous avant-garde pop group will have its world premiere at the festival on March 14th. Featuring testimonials from famous fans — including Simpsons creator Matt Groening, illusionist Penn Jillette and Primus leader Les Claypool — the film delves deep into the apocrypha and mystery of the one-of-a-kind, dissonance-crazed band that revolutionized D.I.Y., presaged the music video revolution, embraced CD-ROM technology and basically trod a four-decade path of weirdness right into the MoMA's permanent collection. Working with the band's management, the Cryptic Corporation, director Don Hardy got full access to the group's archives, filling the film with tons of footage both familiar and unseen. 

So how do you do an authoritative documentary about a group who's remained nameless and faceless since their 1974 debut? "The one movie we talked about a lot early on was the Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop," says Hardy. "And how that so beautifully took the idea of celebrity and the creation of art and turned it totally on its head and on the audience's head. I think the line that Homer Flynn from the Cryptic Corporation said early on was like, 'I think that to tell this story, we should, at every point we should try to undermine the credibility of it.'"

The film will be showing on three occasions at SXSW and the Residents will play their latest show, Shadowland, as part of an official showcase. We caught up with Hardy to discuss his attempt to document the strange and mysterious world of pop culture's most dapper eyeballs.

How did you get into the Residents?
It kinda happened by accident, really. I was working on another project with an old colleague. I used to work for NBC news in San Francisco Bay Area. The project was kind of falling apart and so we decided to go out for a drink with another old colleague from NBC. So it's myself, Barton Bishoff and Josh Keppel. Josh mentioned that he had done some work with the Residentshe helped shoot on their two previous tours. As he mentioned this, I saw Bart, his eyes just kind of got wide, and he said, "You know who the Residents are?" For me, just sort of stepping back from it, I'm like, Wow this is an amazing story. Is anybody documenting this? A couple weeks later we were on the road for their 40th anniversary tour.

Once you got embedded with the Residents, how soon was everything demystified for you?
It happened pretty quickly. I approached it with that sort of wary, yet journalistic eye. I mean that's my training. . .Once you [get] behind the wall a little bit, its pretty apparent who's doing what. But I'd say the mystery that's still there is, you know, I got conflicting stories — 'cause we're talking about stuff that happened 40 years ago. Filling in those blanks and those gaps, there's still conflicting reports. There's been so many different parts of it over the years told by different people and so much of it has just been forgotten, that [it] quickly became apparent to me that I couldn't tell it like a completely fact-based account. It just wasn't going to be possible. [Laughs] You can't talk to the Residents, you can only talk to the people who have collaborated with them over the years and try to tell a story about what it's like to work with them. Ultimately, what I landed on, is it's not about the people, it's about the collective approach to trying to create art.

You can't always match a human being to an eyeball, but it's our natural tendency.
Absolutely! I've heard all these stories. We kind of poked fun at some of the famous people that [have] been called Residents over the years, Bob Seger and David Byrne and Jerry Harrison being one of the most notable. I think that mystery is so much more fun than whatever the reality would be. Even if it really was, even if it was McCartney under the eyeball — I mean, that would be pretty cool, but just not knowing and you can conjure up whatever it is, is so much more interesting.

The documentary goes so deep into the theory of obscurity, why did put your name on it?
[Pause] That's a great question. You know, we talked about it a lot early on. We don't do like "a film by" at the beginning or anything like that. But then we got to the end and it's just, in a way, so right to acknowledge that it was such a collaborative thing The initial idea was to say that everybody is a Resident and so, at the end, just say "a film by the Residents" and then leave it at that, but this film is largely crowd-funded, so we knew we were going to put all those names in there. I guess I don't have that lack of ego that the Residents have.

Was it challenging to a piece of art that has to document a visual band?
I think it definitely was challenging.  The fortunate thing is there was so much footage and music there to work with. I cant say enough about the level of cooperation that we had with the Cryptic Corporation. They let us just dig into the archives and they never were really questioning what we were doing.  There was just a level of trust there from the very beginning that enabled us to just go forward. And anything we found, we could use. 

The footage that's most unbelievable is the early Seventies footage of them in San Francisco ruining someone's open mic
Yeah, the Boarding House show. It's so great.

Their identities aren't really at all obscured in that footage! What was the decision to put that in there?
Well it's surprising because people see what they want to see, and if you look at it and you may see exactly who it is. . .but other people won't. Again those early conversations it was clear, the Boarding House was such a step forward with them, it wasn't something that we could leave out. I don't think we ever really worried too much about the identity because, yeah, we did a small screening for our crowdfunders here in San Francisco and nobody seemed to really notice who was who. . .And, you know, that footage has degraded quite a bit — [it had distortion that] we sort of tried to exploit for our benefit, to add a little bit more mystery to it.

You went to the MoMA when they delivered the Ultimate Box Set to the permanent collection…
They brought us into the MoMA and took us up to the art restoration room. You walk in, and there's like a six-foot Picasso over there on the side, and there's this Jasper Johns stuff, and there's all these amazing works of art… and right in the center of it is our refrigerator full of Residents stuff. It was just a really surreal day, and I know Homer was really touched by the care that they showed. They even brought in an analyst of some sort who ran the albums through a spectrometer, maybe, something like that, that analyzed what the shrink wrap was made out of, so they can estimate how long it will take it to decay. So, they're thinking 50 years, 100 years down the road to be showing this fridge.

My contribution to the whole thing was. . .we were sitting down and talking about how it would be displayed. Would it be displayed with the doors closed or the doors open? Would it be plugged in? And I said, it looks really cool when it's plugged in, because the lights inside are blue, and it kind of all lights up. And they're like, "Oh, great, that's a nice note. We need to get more of those bulbs, because they could burn out over time, so we need to have extras on hand, just in case.". . .It was such a nice feeling to be there, and to have Homer treated so graciously by them, and just look at them pouring over these things with such love and care.