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Naming conventions: The Residents, Godspeed You! Black Emperor would rather you focus on the music

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The Residents ... whoever they are.


We complain about celebrity culture while we devour it. Jennifer Hudson gets more headlines for losing weight than she does for singing, Justin Bieber makes CNN as "breaking news" when he cut his hair, and we're all #winning with Charlie Sheen's tweets. Two bands are in town this week, however, who have maintained steadfast -- one might say obsessive -- determinations to run counter to, as well as artfully skewer, this flashy, corporate mainstream, in almost every conceivable way.

The first is the Residents, an anonymous "art collective" getting the jump on its 40th anniversary -- an unusually normal thing for it to do, considering that one of the first tours that introduced this group's offbeat, twisted and frequently hilarious mashups of bent music and jarring visuals was its 13th Anniversary Tour in 1985.

THE RESIDENTS
♦ 7 and 10 p.m. March 26
♦ The Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago
♦ Tickets, $10-$28, (312) 280-2660; mcachicago.org

Allegedly a couple of Shreveport, La., transplants to San Francisco, the Residents have managed to successfully conceal their identity for four decades. Thus, viewers and listeners are left nothing to contemplate but the art.

When is a band not a band? Hardy W. Fox, the band's manager and head of its Cryptic Corporation, is the only member of the Residents' mysterious circle who ever grants interviews. Earlier this month, he once again attempted to answer that question to Pollstar, an industry touring magazine.

"At this point when they have a project, and the concept of the project requires a band or a band's way of thinking, then they form a band," Fox said. "But when I say they're not a band, I mean they're not a band in the general context of a band. But for the tour, they're a band. It's more about accepting a different way of thinking. Bands in general, you usually have someone who's a guitarist or a drummer. They meet, form a band and bring in more musicians. This is like people who have one idea meet someone else who has one idea and they form an idea conspiracy. Then other people come in with ideas and then it's all a matter of the realization of the idea. That's what counts."

Such "idea conspiracies" have included reliably bizarre concept tours -- the Mole shows in 1981 that introduced their now-trademark tuxedos and giant eyeball masks, the Cube E shows with a creepy Elvis impersonator, the more recent download projects and film scoring -- and about 40 albums, through which the Residents have deconstructed, fragmented and satirized pop music in ways that inspired collage artists like Negativland and the genre-chomping Mr. Bungle, while owing massive debt to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart before them. You think Devo was pioneering and brave with its controversial, robotic cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"? You should hear the atonal, Mojo Nixon-being-tortured attack of that song from the Residents' 1976 album "Third Reich 'n' Roll."


GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR
♦ 7:30 p.m. March 28
♦ Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
♦ Tickets, $25, (800) 514-ETIX; jamusa.com

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is half the age of the Residents, but the usually nine-member Montreal group (also justly described as an "art collective") similarly started out behind a veil and uses its rare tours to combine long, epic pieces of music with film and visuals.

Their initial attempt at anonymity, even with just first names allowed for a while, did not survive like the Residents' did, though a Dutch journalist in 2001 described GY!BE similarly: "The music is far more important than the members of the group. The collective supersedes the individual, and the lineup continually changes. This also means no posed group photos, preferably no interviews, but in the event of one, absolutely no personal questions are permitted. And including last names is an offense punishable by death. All intended to minimize the distance between listener and music."

Most Emperor names have been revealed by now, but many fans still don't know or care who these musicians are combining classical ideas and structures with rock sounds that swing between emotional and sonic extremes -- sometimes beautifully ambient, sometimes bone-crushingly loud.

GY!BE coalesced in 1994, releasing a cassette (they made just 33 copies) and then debuting properly with 1997's "F#A#oo." The album had three tracks, each averaging 17 minutes in length, which lurched and retreated with violins, guitars, woodwinds and marimbas. The opening composition, "Dead Flag Blues," set up the band's anti-government and world-weary tone, featuring a recitative describing a bleak apocalypse with an unsettling detachment.

Inspiring similarly minded acts with quiet voices and loud music, such as Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, possibly even Chicago's Tortoise, GY!BE shows stretch out the instrumental passages and amend the music with film loops and other visuals, traveling with a projectionist.

The band hasn't recorded in nearly a decade and announced an indefinite hiatus in 2003. Rumors persisted that the band had broken up, but most of the same lineup reunited last year for a tour that continues.

Interviews with GY!BE members are rare. The aforementioned Dutch journalist described them well, but his interview was answered by an online open letter from GY!BE guitarist Efrim Menuck, who described the band's approach while lashing out: "We never claimed we were anything we weren't, never promoted ourselves as an answer to anything, did our best always to be straight about our own lostness and confusion in the face of this whole ridiculous industry which does not bend or compromise, but swallows, appropriates, destroys ... we like talking, we LOVE talking; problem is that most interviews don't involve any talking at all, more like some sort of standardized test, fill in the blanks, blahblahblah ... When I said, 'We are a collective and we speak as a collective and we will not answer these types of questions,' I was making a joke about people's conception of us."

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on March 24, 2011 12:00 PM.

Downtown Sound series lives at Millennium Park featuring Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Iron & Wine, Low, Ted Leo, more was the previous entry in this blog.

The Playlist: Rebecca Black's 'Friday,' Peter Bjorn & John, Wiz Khalifa, George Michael's 'True Faith' is the next entry in this blog.

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