Elvis Costello’s famous quip, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” seems even more Zen koan-like when it comes to trying to describe the Residents.
Since the early 1970s, the San Francisco-based avant-garde ensemble has wrapped itself in mystery, never divulging the identities of its members and appearing in a wild array of surrealistic costumes, most notably tuxedos, top hats and giant eyeball masks.
Influenced by the likes of composer Harry Partch, jazz pioneer Sun Ra and Frank Zappa cohort Captain Beefheart, the Residents’ music can be difficult, comical, brooding and beautiful. Defying perceptions of what constitutes a “band,” making music is almost always part of some larger conceptual, theatrical or multimedia work.
The Residents will be at Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points tonight to present “Talking Light,” a powerful new performance piece about memory, dreams and death.
Though the group doesn’t give interviews, Hardy Fox, who may or may not be one of the Residents, acts as a sort of official spokesman, offering a fitting blend of bemused and serious answers to questions about what the heck is going on.
Here’s a bit of what Fox had to say during a recent call to the Residents’ San Francisco headquarters.
Music: The Residents aren’t about playing music as much as they’re about playing ideas and the realization of ideas. They don’t even think of themselves as a band. They didn’t want to do concerts. Concerts are sort of a dated thing. They really wanted to do more of a performance art and theater thing.
Touring: The Residents have never been really big on touring. They didn’t even do their first tour until the ’80s. Their instrument was the studio. They didn’t really make music in real time. But things such as sampling keyboards are what allowed them to go out and take the studio with them. That opened up a whole new thing.
Technology: Pretty much when there’s been new technology there’s a new perspective that comes out of the Residents. They went through that whole period where they were doing the CD-ROM game development.
That lasted for close to 10 years.
“Talking Light”: It’s a show that involves death. It’s very much about dead people and ghosts — more like a Day of the Dead show. A lot of it has to do with how people deal with stress. And a lot of that stress is centered on dying. It’s a universal experience. But our culture tends not to prepare people for these kinds of experiences.
Our culture tends to be in denial about death.
8:30 p.m. Feb. 5, $27.50. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 404-524-7354, www.variety-play house.com .
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