The legendary American art collective and band the Residents is shrouded in mystery, lore, and misinformation. For about half a century, the group has worked in nearly every artistic medium—their early videos are even in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—and pioneered a style of transmedia insanity that has inspired everyone from Devo to Simpsons founder Matt Groening to the rapper Earl Sweatshirt. So, it was interesting but not shocking to hear that their newest work, a pulpy novel titled The Breakeaters (Process Media/Feral House), takes its cues from some decidedly contemporary material. (The group will appear this coming Monday at Rough Trade in Brooklyn to celebrate the release of the book.)
“Honestly, I think one of the things that was probably the biggest influence on the Residents was the TV series Breaking Bad,” Residents “spokesperson” Homer Flynn told me over the phone recently. (The group, famous for their giant eyeball masks, remain technically anonymous to this day, choosing instead to be represented by members of their management company, the Cryptic Corporation.) That show, in which a high school chemist slowly morphs into a drug lord, set a new precedent for narrative and tone in cable television. “Before Breaking Bad, anytime somebody came up with an idea similar to that, it would have to be seen as a comedy,” Flynn said. “The fact that the producers and the writers were able to create this more as a drama, to take something that was that absurd and then ground it in a way, that was really interesting to [the Residents].”
Flynn told me that the book is the band’s stab at a Breaking Bad-style hybridization of drama and dark comedy. “In some ways I think it was almost written more as—or at least as much as—a very long form treatment for a short TV series,” he said. “The Residents would love to see somebody get interested in producing it.” The novel follows an alcoholic journalist from Los Angeles as he chases a story that brings him to a small town in Missouri. What happens after that is the slow unfurling of a conspiracy-driven narrative, with the journalist acting as the narrator, centered around two main characters whose origins are loosely based on those of people described in two real New York Times articles.
“Both articles were written, published in July of 2010. So, almost exactly eight years ago,” Flynn said. The first story deals with a career criminal who flips out after a short period away from crime. The man steals a Cadillac and, after a series of events that includes the robbing of a string of formalwear establishments, runs it into a ditch, and dies. Like the novel’s analogous character, the criminal carries with him an oxygen mask and tank. Flynn told me that, while reading the piece, the Residents had a vision “of this crazy old guy walking into a Felix Formalwear Rental place with a gun in one hand, toting an oxygen bottle behind with the other, and they found it so remarkably kind of dark and pathetic.”
The second article has to do with the business of content screening, which is the act of reviewing and removing flagged offensive videos from online platforms like YouTube. In the book, the Residents go into detail about the nature of this media, which leads to some disturbing details—a very relevant form of digital pulp. “These are people whose job it is to sift through the dregs of humanity,” Flynn said. Ultimately, the Residents extrapolate and merge these stories; Flynn told me that the book is the group’s attempt to “create a buddy movie with these two very unlikely characters.”
Using the decidedly Californian nature of the narrator as a cipher, The Brickeaters has a complex relationship with its setting, sometimes mocking but also full of enduring details that seem to suggest a familiarity with the region. I wondered if the group’s history with cross-country touring had any influence on these choices. “Needless to say the Residents don’t play some place like Clinton, Missouri, but at the same time, the bus stops in these places to get a hamburger or something,” Flynn said, before mentioning a time the group had a “memorable breakfast or lunch” at a diner in Fargo. “So, yeah, they certainly have a love-hate relationship with that kind of Mid-American culture,” he continued.
This sense of ambivalence has been a constant in the Residents’ long career. The group has roots in the town of Shreveport, Louisiana, but their career began in earnest in 1969 in San Mateo, California. A few years later, the group moved to San Francisco, where, according to their official Twitter account, they continue to be based. During this long run, the band has moved along the contours of a variety of creative systems, the art world included. “They’ve always felt a little bit, or maybe a lot, like outsiders, trying to figure out what their place is,” Flynn said, of the group. “In some ways, I think maybe they feel more comfortable in the art world than anywhere else, because if nothing else, there are fewer rules in the art world. It’s kind of like an anything-goes situation, and it’s up to you to convince people that you’re valid.”
It would be hard to summarize nearly 50 years of output from a group that is perhaps best known for their music and videos but has also dabbled in everything from then-nascent CD-ROM technology to live theater. According to Flynn, there is at least one thread that connects their seemingly disparate output. “The Residents really see themselves at this point as storytellers, certainly not exclusively storytellers, because they’re mostly known for their music, but at the same time, they’ve always felt like their music was coming from characters with interesting stories to tell,” Flynn said. “So, they’ve always had some stories that they felt like were too long or too complicated, or both, to fit into a musical format. And, to be able to get this book published—to get The Brickeaters published—has been very satisfying.”