The Art of The Residents:
How a Rock Band’s Look and Feel is Guided by
the Hand of a Faithful Craftsman, i.e., Homer Flynn
by George Petros

The rock band known as The Residents consists of four anonymous individuals wearing over their heads giant eyeballs, hiding secret identities therein. Twisting pop music into playful abstractions since 1972, they’ve blossomed into beloved avant-guardians of all that’s bizarre. One should think and speak of them as a singular entity, an unblinking collective eye that sees all.

Their music draws upon jazz and Americana. In addition to home-made compositions, they’ve tackled the work of George Gershwin, James Brown, Hank Williams, and John Philip Sousa. They’ve sampled Michael Jackson and John Cage. They complete that oft-cited trio of spectacular sonic weirdos: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Residents.

But who are they? Who’s behind the eyeballs? Anonymity engenders multiple layers of significance; not knowing who they are only makes their music sound better. The Residents spare their fans the burden of a personality cult — and relieve themselves of the spectacle of being aging rock stars. The band professes, and practices, its own “theory of obscurity.” No other rock act has embraced anonymity as successfully. To this day, nobody knows who The Residents really are.

They assert responsibility for the first rock video (The Third Reich ’N Roll, 1975), the first use of consumer-level four-track recording equipment for a rock release (Meet The Residents, 1974), first use of a TEAC stereo tape recorder for a rock release (Santa Dog, 1972), first use of a sampler for a rock release (Tunes Of Two Cities, 1982, on which they employed an E-mu Systems Emulator, serial number 004), first MIDI recording of a rock release (God In Three Persons, 1987), first interactive rock CD-ROM (Freak Show, 1994), and for being the first band to work under the aegis of their own truly independent record label (Ralph Records, founded in 1972). Those accomplishments only hint at their musical prowess: additionally, an array of graphic firsts tops off their résumé. The Residents first applied many now-familiar computer graphic programs to their videos, album covers, and web site.

While the musical sector of the Residential universe retains anonymity, the art department is a different story. A real human being lurks behind the graphics. Meet Homer Flynn, a friendly fellow from Shreveport, Louisiana, who presides over the band’s various visual projects. He’s worked with them since time immemorial. Flynn: “Historically, I’ve done most of the graphics and visual imagery for the group. In the day-to-day operation, I’m one of the managers, babysitters, handlers — you know, communications interfacer, whatever.”

Flynn was born April 11, 1945. His artistic experiences reflect a folksy, unaffected attitude: “I’d studied some in college, and had done a small amount of photography and commercial art, and was just really interested in it all. I learned as I went along — I had an inclination and an aptitude.” His poetic Southern accent underscores a homespun heritage. Of his early association with the band, he says, “Initially I did a lot of work helpin’ — shall we say, slickin’ up things a little bit.

“I’m pretty much self-taught. I operate based more on my limitations than anything else. My work is based on what I like rather than on what I’m influenced by. I was inspired by Fellini, M.C. Escher, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, Bo Diddley, and my parents.”

With charming humility he lauds his anonymous employers, side-stepping his own indispensability: “They had a lot of rough ideas, and more or less put things together; I kinda helped ’em, you know, create a more professional realization of what it was they were doing.” They — that unknowable collective entity at the heart of Residency — are an unstoppable machine. Like B-movie mad scientists they toil in secret studios, stressed out, too busy to eat, their work always pressing them forward. One version of Homer Flynn sits off to the side, a mere messenger waiting to deliver their next dispatch to an impatient public. Another version of Homer taps a pointer on a blackboard, and The Residents all come to attention; he addresses them in urgent tech-speak, punctuating his talk with equations in chalk. Still another Homer, oblivious, works a complicated gizmo of unknown origin. He patiently processes everything. The invaluable link in the chain, unappreciated and overlooked, he’s the real flesh-’n-blood Homer who’s the human face of that collective unknown, the all-encompassing “They” to whom paranoids and Residents fans refer.

They concentrated on the music; Homer concentrated on packaging and image. He founded Porno-Graphics, the design studio intimately intertwined with the band. Of their anonymity he says, “The idea was to have a different image with every product. If you look at the stuff from the early 70s, you see the newspaper suits and radiation suits and Santa Claus suits with funny-lookin’ eyes — the idea was to do something different every time. Then when the eyeballs came along in ’79, there was a new level of sophistication. There was a general level of acceptance and interest in this image from the public. It was a hit; people liked it. Of course, the eyeballs cost a lot more money than taking a bunch of old newspapers and folding them up into Ku Klux Klan suits.”

The eyeballs were Homer’s visionary gift to the world. He defers: “It was the band’s idea. Like I said, they put it to me to realize it. The eyeballs are solid spheres — the pupil in the front is kind of like a little porthole with black mesh over it. A problem was that visibility and hearing was limited. That made it really difficult to perform. As the design became more sophisticated over the years, the band had special performance eyeballs made out of plastic mesh.

“The eyeballs they wear now were made by a professional mask-maker in LA named Mark Siegel, who was working on Battlestar Galactica. For The Residents’ 20th anniversary in ’92, we were invited to go to Industrial Light & Magic and give a presentation of a laserdisc we did for the Voyager company. Mark worked at ILM — he was one of the top sculptors. He offered to make the eyeballs, as a side project. The old ones were incredibly beat-up — they really looked shitty and had been around the world several times.

“One was stolen from backstage at The Hollywood Palace, like Christmas ’85. Supposedly a friend — quote-unquote — took it, and another guy stole it from him and returned it a month or two later. Nobody could figure out how it got out of the building — it was not something you could put under your jacket. What happened was, the first guy dropped it out of a window and picked it up when he left the building. It had a crack in it. Our reaction was, ‘It’s been on some interloper’s head — at this point it’s cursed. There’ll never be another one.’ So, I’d been working with these giant skulls. One of them got painted black, and it replaced the lost-and-found eyeball — and that Resident became in-mourning.”

The oversized, unblinking eyeball personifies The Residents’ razor-sharp vibe. Flynn: “They feel that they take the world in and regurgitate it back out again. It’s their symbol of looking back at the world.”

Perhaps what first put The Residents’ art on the map was their 1975 audio-visual masterpiece The Third Reich ’N Roll. Shot with a 16mm Bolex, it looks like an outtake from Fritz Lang’s 1926 Sci-Fi classic Metropolis. After an introductory dance by atomic shopping carts, a frantic band lays down a souped-up version of something sounding like “Land of 1000 Dances.” They wear newspapers folded into all-enshrouding costumes suggestive of the KKK’s robes. Suddenly, alien-looking figures burst onto the scene, killing the surprised band with lightning-spoutin’ weapons. Then, dadaistic entities portray yet another rock band in a cavalcade of stop-action antics climaxing in Hitlerian absurdity. Contrasting the band’s happy energy, the death scenes are surprisingly convincing in a photojournalistic way. A magnificent jumble of performance art, schlock, and rock devolution, the video portended the enormously evolved body of work that is now the band’s, and Homer’s, legacy. Multi-media, improvisational, with lotsa subliminal unpleasantries — it was all there, in grainy black and white. New York’s Museum of Modern Art added The Third Reich ’N Roll to its permanent collection. Homer Flynn, artist: “If you look at the video, it’s a little world that we created and it’s very complete in and of itself. We felt Psychedelia could stand to be progressed further.” That seminal work best demonstrates why the all-seeing ones — via Homer — rank with DEVO and Todd Rundgren as pioneering rock-video artists.

Homer and the band shot many of their early videos on prehistoric Panasonic and Sony half-inch, reel-to-reel, black-&-white video camcorders — only just then available to consumers — in a format called “industrial-quality.” They went on to produce more and more videos, CD-ROMs, and DVDs, each embodying some new facet of technology — and they’ll probably continue pushing the envelope, becoming the first rock band to record with some as-yet-unimagined molecular-level bio-electro marvel.

Musically speaking, Punk and New Wave swept them along, and they nestled into an experimental, prog-rock niche, respected by pundits and collectors. They scored some big-league stuff; for example, they did music for ABC’s Pee Wee’s Playhouse (’87 through ’90), MTV’s The Big Picture (’92), Hunters: The World of Predators and Prey for Discovery Channel (’98), as well as Matchbox Toys’ TV commercials pushin’ Pee Wee Action Figures (’88). The band never wavered from their commitment to weirdness. Flynn: “We’ve always felt The Residents were more marketable when understood to be on the fringe of the rock world.”

They dwell on the fringe of the art world as well. Homer cut his chops at the dawn of the digital age, when he mixed pixilated computer printouts with photographs, photostats, typesetting, and xeroxes, as well as with ink, paint, marker, and pictures lifted from magazines. “It was a very wide-open time,” he recalls. “You had to experiment to create new things, because the technology often just wasn’t there, whereas now you can do anything you want in Photoshop.

“You did stuff that’s experimental, and you got results back that were sorta like, ‘Hmmm — it was an interesting idea…’ You mixed ink, marker, dodging-and-burning in the darkroom, a little airbrush here and there, spray paint, whatever.

“I never considered myself a really good photographer, but I was really good at touch-up. I could airbrush or paint on a photo to get it to look like whatever I wanted. When I got into Photoshop, I had ten years’ darkroom experience to draw on. I loved it. Now I use a Mac G3 with 750 megabytes of RAM, Photoshop 6, After Effects, and FreeHand.

“The Residents were usually the first to adapt the newest consumer-level high-tech tools. They always like new toys. New technology stimulates them in new directions and makes them think in ways they haven’t thought in before.”

Of course, they — and he — got into computers from the get-go. “The first thing we had in-house was an Apple ll — but I didn’t particularly make friends with it,” he says. “We had Commodore 64s and Ataris. I used a Koala Pad, a mouse that was a drawing tablet marketed to kids. I often photographed images off the monitor. When the Macs first came out, I was definitely seein’ the potential for artwork. In 1985 I did a cover for the single “Kaw-liga” on a black-and-white Macintosh. I found a service bureau that jerry-rigged a Lisa computer to be able to take the floppy discs I was using and print them as, essentially, typesetting output. For video I used a Mindset computer and the Koala Pad.”

Homer drew many of the band’s album covers. His renderings ranged from the slickly airbrushed to the Flair-penned, and looked right at home beside his photographic and computer-generated imagery. Asked about recurring themes in his work, he replies, “The continuing absurdity of life.”

The band and their resident artist influenced lotsa high-profile illustrators, designers, writers, and so on. Flynn: “The Residents connect with the nerds and alienated people in every community.” Eventually other artists joined in, under Homer’s loving aegis. “More and more of it has become me collaborating with other people, like Steven Cerio, Jim Ludtke, Gary Panter — who did the imagery on the ads for Ralph Records’ ‘Buy or Die’ campaign — and Batman illustrator Brian Bolland, and Charles Burns — who did the cover for our Freak Show comic — and Georganne Deen…” The list goes on. “People love working with The Residents because it allows them a level of creative freedom that they just don’t really get all that often.” Ultimately, however, Homer alone interacts with the cornea’d ones; he guards their secrets, and keeps everyone out of their inner sanctum. “The input comes from a lot of different directions, but it pretty much all goes through me.”

No one who works with The Residents — and by default with Homer Flynn — remains unfazed. Illustrator Steven Cerio, a long-time Residential collaborator, expresses his love for them: “The unblinking eyes of The Residents stand as a constant reminder of the infinite possibilities of invention and transcendence…they’re faceless, genderless, and void of individual personalities — a brick pitched into the face of mass marketing. They are a collective of unknown human quantities shuttling along the cutting edge.”

In this brief space it’s impossible to summarize decades of Homer’s, and the band’s, output. There’re over 25 albums, each of which sparked some sorta graphic extravaganza. Of their countless videos, 17 are on Icky Flix, a DVD from East Side Digital compiling their amazing amalgam of rock, paranoia, beauty, Sci-fi, medical mayhem, and kids playing with knives. What appears on the surface to be cute and silly reveals itself to be angry and deep. Flynn: “It’s more a process of expression than an attempt to create beauty, ugliness, sarcasm, or anything else.”

Among their remarkable visual accomplishments stands the interactive CD-ROM Bad Day At The Midway (1996), a game set amidst a decrepit carnival midway. It utilizes the expertise of animation guru Jim Ludtke, an important Mac maestro who Beta-tested software from the beginning. Ludtke gives the game a seamless beauty. Players manipulate a baseball-capped kid creeping around an abandoned, partially-functioning carnival midway. Marvelous freak-show facades glow in low-watted splendor. The kid is spooked by endless rows of dummies, and by the eerily-lit interior of a Victorian-era aquarium, and by the rat-driven roulette wheel’s cheating croupier, and the roller coaster’s smashed skeleton. An atomic mushroom cloud done in neon has to be seen to be believed. A serial killer and an IRS agent lurk among the ornaments, intent on derailing the kid. This revolutionary rock video game features guest artists Leigh Barbier, Deen, and Cerio.

Many Residential video stills, posters, and photos, as well as the band’s complete libretto, reside between the covers of Miroslav Wanek and Karel Cisar’s Argo Press hardcover Eyeball To Eyeball. Both English and Czech convey the lyrics to hundreds of songs (how about this one: “Is obscurity itself the test tube of tomorrow?/Or is it just the testing done to pave the way for sorrow?”). A comprehensive listing of all their music, art, and performance projects makes it the definitive Residents roundup circa its 1995 publication date. For updated info, check out the website One can get most of the ocular ones’ music catalog on CDs from East Side Digital.

In addition to being the Resident artist, Homer Flynn’s also the official information interfacer for the band’s business persona, The Cryptic Corporation. It’s his job to be cryptic: only he and the elusive Hardy Fox, the “technical guy,” know who The Residents really are. And so he must always deflect the curiosity of others, or outright lie. His willowy Southern manner makes his evasiveness enchanting. Any prodding after bandmembers’ identities meets with platitudes like “The Residents don’t take themselves that seriously, so they have a hard time understanding why anyone else would.”

During an interview, this writer asks, “Is there a point in Residents history where you eclipse them, or become the artistic center of gravity?” Homer replies: “At least from a technical point of view, that came pretty early. I’ve always had something to offer to the process, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there. ‘Eclipsing’ is not so much the word I would use, as much as I kinda took the art over and they trusted me to take it and run with it. It’s never been my territory exclusively, because they’ve always had veto power — which at times has been used. They’ve always contributed ideas which I have embraced.”

“So,” the questioning continues, “what should we call you? I mean, are you — pardon the pun — the resident art director?”

Homer: “Well, yeah. Visual facilitator. ‘Art director’ is certainly a term I have used a lot.”

Q: “What does your business card have on it?”

A: “Director. I’m one of the directors of the corporation.”

Not bad for a guy who’s just lookin‘ to help out!

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