Perfect Sound Forever

Negativland interview

by Jason Gross (June 2000)

Certain things that you can't quite figure out or describe are bound to keep you guessing, wondering and scratching your head. This is why I've probably been fascinated by Negativland for years. How do you honestly describe them? They're a bunch of guys, six or seven of 'em, plus or minus Pastor Dick and Crosley Bendix. They're a 'band' but they release records very infrequently and even then, it's been tapes of radio show for the last few years and they tour even less frequently (calling themselves 'the least touring band in show business'). But 'bands' usually play instruments and they usually don't, so to speak. They use a lot of taped fragments and sampled sounds to make up the bulk of their material and then play and manipulate this. Alright, this might not be a big deal in light of Zoviet France or Halfer Trio but since they start at the beginning of the '80's, no one's done it quite as well or as funny or as poignantly as Negativland (hey guys, what's with the Neu! reference?).

Their real instrument is the media, which they play like the expert artists they are. Their "Helter Stupid" (1989) scheme pitted one of their songs on a teenager's murder, letting speculation run wild about this even though it was entirely false. This was small potatoes compared to the whole shit-storm that got stirred up in the early '90's with "U2" (their cover of "I Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"). Since they've written a whole book detailing this surreal story, briefly imagine that one of the world's most popular bands has their record company come after you and take away your records, tapes and a lot of your money and then you have to fight with the record company that put out the record for you in the first place! (The Dead Kennedy's "Frankenchrist" suit is only comparible experience that comes to mind.) Deciding that they were on fertile ground, they went after the gun industry, Pepsi and the whole media machine again.

2000 marked one of their infrequent tours in what perennial leader Mark Hosler describes as a van that's barely alive. He also frets over all the attention the band has gotten from a headline on their website that says the band has broken up. Nevertheless, the band did show up in New York for a typically atypical show that had the boys in white coats hunched over their equipment (including an old project played by a band member), surrounded by four screens. In their fine anarchist spirit, they inform the crowd "feel free to record the show any way you want to." After which, the crowd is treated to a screaming psychedelic overload, lush strings, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," subliminal Pepsi ads, a folk tune about soda, a talking head narrating a song, a disco version of The Sound of Music, a polka version of "U2," Jack Benny excerpts, an '80's ballad ("True") complete with disco ball, a religious puppet show and a melange of information overload ("you don't know if anything is real").

In the middle of all this madness, I cornered the 'master tape-manipulator' of the group, Don Joyce, online to find out some of the methods behind Negativland's madness (especially since the FAQ on their website is nicely unhelpful!). Don would like to first say: "THESE RESPONSES REPRESENT MY VIEWS ONLY AND DO NOT NECESSARILLY REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE REST OF THE BAND." As if that was possible...

Is anything I said 'accurate' or anything Don says below 'true'? We will let the gentle reader decide.

 PSF: Though you joined the group after it started, what did you see that they were doing that appealed to you and made you join them? What do you think was intention or impetus of the group at the time?

 I became involved with the group through my radio show, Over The Edge, at about the time of the third album, A Big 10-8 Place. By the fourth, Escape From Noise, I was a studio participant. But first the group began coming up to my show and mixing live on air in what was then and remains today a collage mode of broadcasting. Up until then I was a pretty straight DJ who had just given up painting and gotten into a childhood love of radio instead, but pretty much doing it like everyone else, one record after another, unusual combinations of genres but nothing very different for radio. Their instinctive approach to the broadcast studio as a mixing machine was a revelation I never came up with myself, even though I had vague rumblings that this radio thing could be ART too...

Anyway, I jumped right in and it's been OVER THE EDGE ever since. Their (or my) intentions were not all that clear at the time, little was planned or thought out or discussed. They just showed up and we all began doing it. Our sensibilities just seemed to jell together easily and appreciatively. If there was any overriding impetus at all, it was to have fun and be humorous with it. Humor bypasses EVERYTHING and is it's own reward. It's the greastest motivator there is while successfully resisting "explanations" of any kind.

 Yes, I was aware that we were also doing some serious revising of what radio was (and still is) expected to be, we were sampling from all media even then, I brought a now huge collection of clips galore, we were "composing" in some chaotic fashion yet still concerned with content and meaning, I began editing "razor tapes" which involved rearranging found stuff to say things they never intended, etc, all of which certainly looks more "serious" in hindsight but it was all actually being pursued by us as more of a big radio prank of some sort. Who knew? This "training" (augmented by my own interest and experience in radio production, tape machines, etc) allowed me to then fall easily into the studio aspect of Negativland's work.

PSF: Do you see Negativland as a kind of band that uses samples and sound-bites as its instruments?

 We actually MIX found dialog with original and/or manipulated music and sounds. Sometimes the dialog is "played" like an instrument and sometimes it's not. I don't know exactly what to call it, it's certainly very content conscious for music, but then again it's very musical for speech making...

PSF: How does the group compose pieces? Does an overall idea come up and then you work to find appropriate material for this particular theme?

 It varies somewhat, but most often it seems that particular source material we come across will inspire all the rest to then be worked out around it, making a piece. Inspiration always seems to come from what happens to be available, we have hardly if ever sought out material to create an idea we've come up with in our heads. We are impressionists, probably influenced more from the outside-in than from the inside-out, easily swayed by the world around us. We work from different geographical locations so things are passed back and forth by mail, Mark will come up with and record most of the musical ideas, and then we get together to mix it all down, do final edits, etc.

PSF: Negativland has been compared to Firesign Theatre a number of times. Do you think that's a fair call?

 I have to bow to a general rule, since this comparison has been made many times now, but I do wonder why exactly. I guess I have to assume that the keynote in our work for many people is the whacky and sometimes surreal humor and that's why we are compared to a whacky and surreal group of comedians like Firesign.

 Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered to pieces really since they have been an inspiration to me since I began buying their records in the 60s, and I would credit those records with being a primary inspiration for my getting into radio and doing funny production stuff there, as well as impressing me with how OFF THE WALL INTELLECTUAL entertainment could actually be. However there are distinct differences going unnoticed I guess - we ARE a musical aggregation in our own minds, not a comedy group, even though most questions we get concern our (often humorous) content and not our musical techniques or the attempt to maintain collage as an emotionally relevant artform in the 21st Century. I also don't associate our major penchant for the use of found sound "actualities" from the real world, or our media pranks in the real world, or our conscious preference for low tech solutions and homemade improvising with the Firesign esthetic. I will always love them dearly though, and if those roller maidens are listening, THANKS!

PSF: One consistent theme with Negativland is playing the media. One example is the whole "Helter Stupid" and "Christianity is Stupid" stories and the headline on the band's website that the group is breaking up. What's the thinking behind these kind of media stunts?

 Well, are you going to believe what I say? You see, that's the point. That's what the TRUE/FALSE tour idea is about. That's what our collective intellectual life is all about today. When almost every bit of information we pass around every day is gotten as hearsay from the media, and almost every opinion we express is an acquired opinion based on what some machine told us, and none of us can personally verify the absolute truth of any of this, and in fact we are constantly reminded by mutually negating contradictions, and revised analysis, and reworded mistatements how unreliable all of it is at any given point, then you might begin to think that everything you know is wrong (there they are again!) or soon will be.

 From "hard" news, to science, to health, to you name it - the "truth" seems to last a very short time before it's discovered to actually be false. Or visa versa. In all this daily tidel wave of "important" information, we are ultimately learning that none of it is really trustworthy. It's all so obviously filled with bias, agendas, promotions, and ulterior motives, and yet as individuals, we can no longer discern exactly what is true and what is not because our intellectual ideas and preoccupations no longer come from our own experience in a real world we move through but from our experiencing of media output in that tiny, confined, unreal space between the screen and our eyes. Nothing is happening to us, it's happening for us.

 Helter Stupid was an early toying with this realization in the form of putting out an obviously (we thought) phoney press release about our being unable to tour because our song "Christianity Is Stupid" was implicated in a real parent axing by a kid in Minnesota. This was right on the tail of several media news flaps over how music might influence kids to kill and we considered it no more than a parody of that tendency in sensational jounalism. However, we soon discovered the story being taken seriously, tailored as it was to what they WANTED to eat up at the time, and not only being believed, but being passed on from paper to paper over the wires, appearing in magazines, and finally our local 6:00 TV news came by to interview us and ran the story. This could have stopped anytime any of the journalists involved simply called Minnesota to see if this association with us was true. It never happened. It became obvious that JOURNALISTS ARE NOT CHECKING THE FACTS. They are simply cannibalizing OTHER sources and rewriting and reprinting stuff without ever checking themselves as to whether it happens to be true or not. If it's something juicy enough and they want it enough, the truth doesn't matter. How much news is done this way? Your guess is as good as mine. True or false?

 Saying we were breaking up after this tour, now that happens to be true - can't you tell from the rest of the explanation?

 Look, all this is to say we have all become unwitting VICTIMS of an over infomationalized society in which EVERYTHING is suspect and the "truth" changes daily. Have you been keeping up? Do you now think chocolate is good or bad for you? Do you now think eggs are good or bad for you? That drug they just pulled off the market was perfectly OK up until when? Do you realize that corporate farm produce registers as being MORE nutritious than organically grown produce, which also tends to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria because manure is used for fertilizer?? No lie! Don't you watch the news? We have a tape in the show which repeats, "The more television we watch, the more dangerous we think the world is." And the internet, of course, hypes this phenomenon of the unknowable way over the top of plausibility like nothing else ever has. We all just end up pretty much believing what we want to believe, what we like to believe, what already fits our acquired ideologies, and that's about all there is to it. The ACTUALITY of truth hardly enters into it anymore.

 Well, maybe in our own little way we can bring you down to earth a little by suggesting first, how easy you are to fool, and second, perhaps how useless this plethora of suspect information actually is, how you haven't made any practical use of most of it, and you don't need to necessarily pay attention to more of it. Life will continue and you can survive on your own common sense whether your TV is on or not. But it's a habit hard to break, this being "informed" business. And of course, some of it IS true, and that keeps us tuned in too. This is a now critical paradox in modern perception that will continue no doubt, unstoppable, unfixable, unrelenting throughput this century. With such things, one's first and best defense is recognition. Art is a form of recognition and art can be a form of self defense.

PSF: Are you concerned that this sometimes backfires on you when you do this? I know for instance that Mark was complaining that he's gotten a lot of calls and e-mails about the band breaking up based on the website headline.

 Everything is grist for the mill. Whatever actually happens we can make some use of, I'm sure.

PSF: Does Negativland intentionally try to pick fights with companies and corporations? (It seemed like Pepsi was an obvious target of a recent single, for example) Why or Why not?

 No, we pick fights with concepts, not companies. It just so happens companies think they own concepts too and sometimes take it all personally. Pepsi was very nice to us, thank you. They were aware of our record, commented, "It's no Beck," and left us alone as an ignorable pin prick or free advertising, one can never be sure which.

PSF: Why kind of lessons do you think you learned from the whole "U2" incident, looking back at it now? Do you think any series issues about copyright were addressed or are still waiting to be confronted?

 Oh, we certainly learned A LOT! But this is such an old story and I'm so tired of telling it that I will simply refer you to Negativland's CD/book, The Letter U And The Numeral 2 for the COMPLETE tale of one band's brush with big time criminal music. And YES, there is much to be confronted still in the area best expressed by our motto, "FAIR USE FOR COLLAGE."

PSF: Did you see that U2 itself co-opted some of Negativland's ideas for their whole Zoo-TV concept?

Well, they were good ideas, not necessarily ours, and everyone should be FREE to use them IN THE CONTEXT OF MAKING ART. The dictionary does not define art as a business, yet all the arts have been colonized by the rules of commerce throughout the last century and, especially in this age of capturing technology, these proprietary rules are a THREAT to artistic integrity and very threatening to the future of art, collage being the primary victim, even though collage has been the single most influential and defining artistic discovery of the 20th Century. We have completely lost sight of the fact that art has always been and is supposed to be a SHARED phenomenon, actually used and reused by the culture that produces it, not private property immune from recycling or reuse of any kind. How instantly dead and useless do we want it to be? This is antithetical to the very nature of human art which has ALWAYS been profoundly and wonderfully BASED ON THEFT from monkey see, monkey do, right up to the present. It's how we got where we are and if we lose the ability to reshape what influences us, we will have no future. Sorry to scare you cultural "owners," let's move on.

PSF: An important component of Negativland's work is the way that it refracts the media and news stories. How do would you describe the band's stance in this regard? Are you trying to analytical, critical, satirical or some combination of these?

 Some combination of those, though I really don't consider us particular newshounds. Just here and there something usable pops up and stands out like a black eye on a news anchor.

PSF: The media themselves are turning in on themselves, devoted columns and programs to media coverage in an almost post-modern way. Does all those navel-gaising make your work harder or easier to peer into this realm?

 Oh, this factor definitely complicates things but not in an uninteresting way. Noticing how advertising, in particular, has taken on popular skepticism within their own messages, (hear the Sprite radio jingle campaign of about a year ago for an extreme example of commercial self disparagement) and how it all becomes a kind of silly house of mirrors at some point, may have played some part in my own gravitating from an interest in advertising specifics to more of the general TRUE/FALSE malaise it all swims in which occupies us now.

PSF: Do you find yourself enamored of Marshall McLuhan's or Noam Chomsky's work at all? Do you go along with McLuhan's idea of hot and cool mediums?

 McLuhan more than Chomsky. McLuhan had NO discernable political agenda, an approach to society I share, (I espouse and recommend NO IDEOLOGY) and his work is much more provocative to me. Hot or cold? Sure, except I keep forgetting which is which.

PSF: While I don't really see other bands or performers doing work similar to Negativland, a few come to mind that are somewhat similar. What about the Residents? Their stance throughout their career has to been anonymous and freely work in different media. Are they kindered spirits at all? Do you think they work somewhat in the same vein as Negativland?

 Oh, I don't know, perhaps it's best for others to decide such things. I'd say sometimes yes and sometimes no for all of them. We have worked together at a Residents show once and knew them all but have lost contact and I guess we're both just two of the many wierd entities that defines the bay area music scene like no other, but not particularly similar.

PSF: Otherwise, what bands or artists that are out there now do you admire?

 John Zorn, Julee Cruz, No Doubt, People Like Us, Otomo Yoshihide, Karlheinz Stockhausen, etc etc, you know I hate these top ten, number one, best of all lists because they're really FALSE and meaningless. Who would ever want the world of music reduced to any possible FEW when what is really amazing about it is the incredible variety and multiplicity of it ALL.

 Unbelievable, and I like a whole lot of different stuff in different times, places, and contexts. Having said that, I almost forgot that I don't really listen to much music at all for my own enjoyment, just use a whole lot on the radio show. If you must know, I now find all music to be somewhat boring in general due to everything possible having already been done. This is my "music is dead" rap, something to face the inevitabilities of this new century with, which I'll leave it for another day.

PSF: For a long-time, it seemed that Negativland was doing releases of radio-shows and not record releases that were entities unto themselves? Any reason for this? How did you find dealing with the radio as a medium as opposed to being "recording artists"?

 Now this is truly speaking from my personal perspective, but radio is my favorite medium of all, much nicer, much more fun, much more satisfying than making studio recordings. Doing it every week produces a LOT of raw material and we naturally started to put out the best of it in edited form. Meanwhile, our studio works usually take years to make so we are always filling in our release schedule with the much more available radio work. For me, studio works are incredibly slow, tedious, and as Orsen would say, unrewarding relative to the regular, frequent, low pressure, relatively spontaneous, and TIMELY creative outlet the radio show provides. THAT'S where I can actually experiment with the far too many ideas I have to ever get on records, as well as interact with a real-time audience while riding that unique spark of being LIVE without being watched by anyone. Totally cool, lots of actual fun, along with the unique ability to interact with timely factors completely impossible on records which take months to come out - when George Harrison got stabbed, I scratched with "Beware of Darkness" within days - a simple trick, not something I would have done at any other time, meaningless if not right on time, so it's little things like that which make the radio show a completely unique on-the-spot form with the ability to associate with the immediacy of actual life AS IT'S OCCURRING. It keeps my creative sanity intact.

Making records is another business altogether, precise and controlled, where you're able to get things EXACTLY how you want them (impossible in live radio) and certainly appreciated by me, I work very hard on them, but by the time you're done, you're actually fairly sick of the material yourself, having listened to it too many times, and the all too eventual release is a minor blip in your excitement scale, over and done with in a day. And years to wait before the next will come... Hmmm, without radio I would give up. Didn't like this week's show? Well, hell, I get to do a brand new one again next week. And best of all, I don't have to hear it myself till it actually happens, and then it's gone in the air forever, like, NO UNSIGHTLY RESIDUE....

PSF: Right now, the band is touring with an official release so to speak. Do you find that people are confused because you're not on the regular release-tour treadmill?

 Probably. This is just another example of the cycle of poor decision making Negativland now pursues....

PSF: As we get numbed by more and more information coming from more and more sources, does that make your work harder to get across as people seem so confused by the pace of technology? It's almost as if the media itself has embraced some of your ideas.

 Yes, you're sort of reiterating the above business about recent media's self absorption and self analysis. The TRUE/FALSE tour idea is certainly about confusion with and in the media. But then WE ARE MEDIA TOO! All we hope to do is get ourselves somehow injected into that whole stream of things and stuff and try to suggest a few perspectives, couched in modern noise, from an independent and amusingly critical point of view. What effect does it actually have? Overall, probably little if any, but we do get some frighteningly dedicated fan mail which I bet is quite different than most bands attract. So whatever, it's hitting a FEW people very hard, we have become CULTURALLY IMPORTANT to them, and so we are occasionally encouraged and it remains interesting to do.

PSF: How do you see the Internet as a medium for the band to work with? Does it open up a lot of possibilities that you wouldn't have imagined before?

 Yes, we are constantly looking at all these possibilities, but the damn internet is a full time job to do it right, and it's difficult to devote so much working time to making it what it might be. More will come, but who knows when. We've got great help doing our site, a super webmaster operates it all for us with constant dedication, it's very good now as sites go, but to treat it right, there should be all kinds of new, net only concepts and features appearing there and we're often spread too thin to keep up with constantly improving and adding to it the way we should.

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