Interview: Getting Down to Business with Negativland
Whether you look at its career, music, aesthetics, or interpersonal workings, nothing about Negativland is straight forward. The group specializes in foiling expectations and sending contradictory messages (whenever possible) through every kind of media available.
Negativland is often categorized as a rock band for market convenience and as "media pranksters" by the straight press, who are usually unable to grok what the group actually does. On occasion, the group has referred to itself as a "modern noise collective," but that too simplifies the breadth of its work. I consider Negativland an experimental-art group, especially in light of Negativlandland, an exhibition currently at Gigantic Art Space in New York City, which runs from September 8 to October 22, 2005. Described as a "mid-career retro-future-introspective," the exhibit includes one-of-kind art works in a variety of media, specially designed instruments, and even an animatronic Abraham Lincoln.
My first attempt at an interview with Negativland took place in 2003, shortly after the release of the brilliant but disturbing CD/book Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak (Seeland 2002). Although the members are spread out across the country, our first meeting coincided with the impending relocation of the enigmatic David "the Weatherman" Wills. As a result, I was able to meet with Wills, Richard Lyons, Don Joyce, and Peter Conheim, who were assisting with the move.
The interview included visits to the studios of Joyce and Conheim and ended unexpectedly at the home of the Weatherman. The Wills home was like a museum of audio artifacts. But unlike your typical museum exhibit, nearly every piece of gear was in full operation, filling each room of the house with sound, from recordings of Fats Waller on organ to police scanners and outdoor mics picking up local traffic noise. It was like being treated to a personalized version of Joyce's Over the Edge radio show. Unfortunately, none of the audio I recorded that day is useful as an interview, though as a pure audio document, it's a blast to listen to.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2005: Following the release of No Business (Seeland 2005), I got another chance to cover the group. No Business includes a CD, a booklet with an essay about Fair Use called "Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain," as well as a video and, appropriately enough, a whoopee cushion with the Copyright symbol printed on it. This time, I was granted a phone interview with North Carolina-based Mark Hosler, one of Negativland's co-founders.
My main interest was to learn how the five full-time members (and various auxiliary members) collaborate with each other while separated by great distances. Obviously email and the Internet play a major role, but Negativland is a group that, in the interview a few months before, prided itself on still working primarily in the analog domain, such as editing and mixing analog tape and using radio-station cart machines.
What made you guys decide to set up an art show?
Over the years we've done photography, films, puppets, lots of records, books, writing, lectures, radio shows. Getting to do an art show is something I've fantasized about for 15 years. I thought, wouldn't it be fun to do installations? We're going to do a large area that's an audio/visual installation—with audio, video and lots of imagery, dirt, and car parts—that is all based around the Deathsentences project. That's an entire, separate area. There's going to be a lot of work there that, we hope, no one's ever seen. There is this whole other side to what we do that isn't mass-produced art at all, it's one-of-a-kind pieces. Everyone is flying in for the show: Peter, Richard, Don; and Dan Lynch and Tim Maloney, who are satellite members of the group in a pretty serious way. My mom and dad are coming. The only person who isn't coming in is the Weatherman, but he'll be there on the telephone.
There's going to be about 70 pieces of art in the show. Lots of original stuff and new stuff, and lots of video work no one has seen yet. David has built a new Booper for the show, a custom Booper. We worked with Shawn Wolfe, a long term collaborator of ours, to design a really nice faceplate that goes on it so even though there is only one, it will look mass produced. We're going to have that for sale: you can buy your very own Booper.
I think the gallery is a bit confused by us, though, because they're used to dealing with single artists, and we're a collective. And we don't even want to sign our names to the front of anything we’ve made. That's another fun aspect: the fact that the gallery doesn't really know who's in the band means that we can say anybody is! [laughs] But in case you happen to get into some of the particulars [in your article] of want any of us does, I just hope you qualify it by saying that everyone in Negativland tends to do a bit of everything.
The ideas that come up in our group—quite often I'll have to really think hard about who thought of what. The way I experience the creative process of creating Negativland work, it’s as if we're all one brain. I don't have a strong sense of which idea was whose, and who did what, and I don't care. It just doesn't matter. If the idea's great, and it's evolving and good, then I'm excited.The sum is greater than its parts.
We've never emphasized anyone in the band. It's not secretive like the Residents, but there's just no point ever made about who's in the group and who's doing what. This kind of working method and our dealings with the public is so entrenched in how we work, that it's all about Negativland. It's not about me, or Don, or anybody. So there's not the dynamic that often comes up in groups that have been around for a long time where they're fighting about who get’s credit for what. We're fighting over whether or not the ideas are as good as they can possibly be, and not about...
Yeah. Or some subtle—or not so subtle—way that could adversely affect the work because, you know, people might resent someone else who gets more attention than they do. Or someone is trying to get their stuff more into the work than someone else is and get the credit for it. But basically, you don't get credit for what you do when you're in Negativland. [laughs] When Peter started working with us, we said "You understand, don't you, that if you start working with Negativland, you're never going to get many props for what you do." Because we just don't make a point of who's in the damn band.
Which is refreshing.
Yes, it's highly un-American. The art show in New York is the same way. It's very much a collective thing that we're doing with all this visual art. It's a hell of a thing we're tying to pull off this time. It’s a gigantic project.
Now I better go talk to Peter, Don, David, and Richard and find out what they told you to make sure I get the story straight as we talk!
They didn't tell me anything! Basically, Peter took me over to the Weatherman's house...
Oh, you're that guy! You do realize that you're the only writer who's ever done that? That's highly unusual. No one ever talks to David. No one even asks to talk to him. I've always thought that if someone printed just an interview with him, it'd be unbelievably different than the interviews that are done with, say, Don or I.
What's interesting for me is that someone in the band, in an earlier email, said "we don't like to talk about our gear." That's all he [the Weatherman] wanted to talk about. He knew the exact model and year of everything he owned. Everything was, of course, sparkling clean. And it was fascinating because he would not stop talking. [laughs] It was beautiful. I knew his voice from your records, but I had no idea what his role was in the group until that point. Now I see that he is constantly doing this thing that he does—creating sound. To see him in his living environment was fabulous.
We actually videotaped him showing off his house before he sold it. The DVD we're working on is going to have a bonus in there called "At Home with the Weatherman," in which he shows you around his house and his audio set-up. Though, the first 10 minutes of the 20-minute video is of him cleaning his shoes before going into the house. He's very OCD: he's very phobic about dirt and germs, and stuff like that.
Ultimately, it shouldn't matter. You should be listening to the sound...
But I do the same thing: if I see a group doing something weird, I'll walk up to the stage and do my little bit of gear-gazing. You know, "I wonder what is up there."
The funny thing is that nothing he owned is made anymore. [laughs] Everything he has was made 20 or 30 years ago. He's got a battleship radio, and he couldn't wait to show me how it worked.
Did he show you the gigantic oscillator he has, with the one knob on the front?
Yeah, that thing's great.
That's fine: if people think we make our records with nothing but that stuff, that's hilarious.
It's unusual for this magazine: some of our readers are into vintage stuff, but not to the degree he is.
You must have seen his huge collection of scanner radios.
Yeah. Then I received Sonic Outlaws on DVD and watched that demonstration of him picking up...
...the gay lovers quarrel! It doesn't have a lot to do with the movie, but the filmmaker loved that so much that he left it in.
It does make a point to see how hard it is to collect all the audio source material. Sometimes you just have to stand there with an antenna for 20 minutes.
It's true: people hear our records, and they seem to think there's some trick to collecting all the material. You have to actually spend thousands of hours wading through crap to find all the little good bits.
Who is the voice of Abraham Lincoln in the art show?
This particular part of the art show works at a lot of levels. It's outtakes of the voice-talent actor who plays Abraham Lincoln in the Disney attraction "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." These recordings were made in 1963 or '64, the animatronic robot of Lincoln debuted at the World's Fair and then opened up in Disneyland as an official attraction in 1965. It was the world's first animatronic robot, and we have an inside guy at Disney, who—we've never met him—has access to all the audio archives. And he, one day, appeared in our email inbox and said "Hi. Would you like any of the things I have access to? I love you guys. I'll send you anything you want." We said "send us any outtakes, any weird rarities, and especially the audio from all the attractions that have closed down." Things like "Rocket to Mars" and "Monsanto's House of the Future"—we have all that now. The "Carousel of Progress." And then what we get [from him] are all the individual elements. He won't just send the soundtrack: He'll say "Here's the music bed. Here's the sound effects. Here's the voices." We have all the separate stuff.
On its own it was very funny. What happened was, we left the engineers corrections intact. They are as he said them. But the Lincoln bits, we took them and messed them all up. He ended up using the words "right" and "might," and we've actually made him talk about "might makes right." And how we "must have faith that might makes right."
So, for all those reasons...that's how we know when something's done. When it has that many levels of interest and meaning and concept, then it's like "Ooh, that's good!" It's really juicy.
That's another reason why our projects take a long time. Because you can have a work and say "This is good. But it needs another layer of meaning, or it needs a little contradictory stab in the side to make it work right." I'll be really curious to see what people think of the Abe piece.
After Deathsentences, it seems to me that, in one sense, No Business was a backward step for the band, because there is no added material, no acoustic sing-along on some point of the record. It's solely appropriated material.
Yes. We've never made a record of 100-percent appropriated material, though. So, it's not going back in that sense, literally. But maybe you mean going back in a different way?
It seems like, with Deathsentences, you were going into a direction of pure concrete sound. A field of sound as opposed to traditionally musical things: No Business goes back to formal structures, even though it's completely created with borrowed music, like some of your earlier works. Taking a theme, like "My Favorite Things," and using that as your material and not adding anything else. It's like you're saying, Here's the pure statement of what we want to do with appropriation.
Yep. Though I strongly doubt that we will ever do a record ever again that is 100-percent appropriated. Because that's not an approach any of us are interested in continuing to work in. It's just that it fit the project.
Very early on it was put on the table that the right approach to this project was to not add any original stuff at all. Let's just see what we can do with only appropriating and see where it goes. And we get to say there's nothing original in it at all!
I thought the riskiest part was having all the logos and trademarked icons on the cover.
That's what got us in trouble with the U2 single. More than anything, it was the cover art that drew their attention. And so, when we were working with the designer [of No Business], Sean Tejaratchi, he decided to put Mickey Mouse right up at the top. We put Starbucks right on the back.
You really went for the big ones. Not only having the Beatles in there, but having Mickey and Starbucks. Wow.
But our guess was that if anybody who owned any of these copyrighted or trademarked things gets hold of the release, and then takes it to their lawyer, I would like to think that any lawyer who looked at this is going to read that essay and they're going to say "We can't sue these guys. This essay is their defense. It's pretty clear, if you read their essay, that these guys are not just going to dry up and blow away if we try and scare them."
We've had disagreements about that. Some folks in Negativland thought this project was very high risk. I personally thought it was not. I really didn't. But then, that's what I thought about the U2 single, too. [laughs] I don't want to go through another lawsuit: they're horrible, horrible nightmares. But it seems like we've got enough lawyers around us who are interested that I think that we'd certainly be able to mount a credible defense.
You guys have been working on No Business for a couple of years.
Yes, it's a combination of things. One is that we're obsessive, insane perfectionists about wanting to try out every possible option and work it all out. The other thing is that the collaborative process can be very slow, as everyone has to sift through what everyone else is doing.
Projects quite often grow very organically. This project started out as only three tracks, and we weren't sure if it would be a full-length album at all. And it just gradually grew and grew. Each time a new idea cropped up, the project got delayed.
Did different members take a track on themselves, or was it Don doing a track and others suggesting things?
There were a lot of ideas tossed back and forth. There might be a track that one person works on more than anybody else. I've had tracks where I didn't really do a lot of the actual work to make it but I had, literally, a second-by-second critique I'd send back of what I think needs to be done to make it better. Or in the case of the robot in the art show, it was my idea to ask Joe about doing a robot with us, but the audio was put together by Don, but for the sound effect when his eyeballs pop out, I asked Richard to try and track down various noises and do a demo of what the eyeball pop might sound like. Don and I conferred on where it should go: Don made the final decision.
As I said earlier, a side effect of this is that when we work together, even though there can be tremendous debates, and bickering, and fighting over what we're doing, it's always over just the idea: Is it the best idea possible? There's very little ego involved, or concern about who originated what idea. It's very fluid.
We're always rewriting each other's texts. Anytime anyone writes a text, for any usage at all in the group, it floats around and people tear it apart, rewrite it, add stuff, and change it. It can be very painful at times, and it's slow. It can be slow as hell. But in the end you end up with something that's a zillion times better.
How do you know when it's done?
I don't know. You're a creative person: How do you know?
At some point, you just declare it's done. Or the time frame that you've set up says "No, it's done."
Well that's the sort of thing we never do. This is another reason why a project gets delayed. We sort of try and set deadlines but everybody knows that they're pretty much, you know ... no one takes them seriously.
Except when you have a gallery opening...
Except when you have a gallery opening! But when we're putting out our own project, it's different. For instance the essay in No Business: that thing got rewritten from beginning to end, pouring over it one word at a time, 50 times. And it's a 15,000-word essay. Well I can tell you that by the time it reached the 25th time, I was so sick of it that I sometimes had to put it to bed for a couple of months: I couldn't even look at it. So that would delay things.
And then No Business was such an elaborately designed package that it took forever to figure out. It took almost a year to track down, figure out, and manufacture the whoopee cushions, for example. And finally, the other reason that the project took so long is that we were very nervous about every aspect of the manufacturing, having somebody raise objections about our work legally. So we had six different manufacturers: we had one person make the CD sleeve, another company make the CD disc, another person make the whoopee cushion, another person make the booklet, another person make the die-cut sleeve, and another person make the sticker on the outside. I had to coordinate all this stuff, and my concern was, if we set a release date, and we're in the middle of manufacturing and one of the makers of one of the parts says "Hey! There's a Starbucks logo on here. What is this. We're not doing this." Or the CD plant listens to it and says "Hey, wait a minute. Do you have permission to do this? We're not making this."
So we did an interesting thing: We actually manufactured the entire thing before we even told our distributor when the release date was. And of course, we had to raise all the money to manufacture it in advance.
We also discovered an interesting little trick which may or may not be true of all CD pressing plants. It turns out that our CD pressing plant doesn't audition the audio unless you're printing over a certain number of discs. So if you're printing under a few thousand discs, they don't listen to it. So we had the disc pressed in a very small number. Then after a month we called and said "Hey, it's doing great: We want to do a repress." Then we did a really big repress. The guess we made was, of course, that they don't listen to it the first time because we ordered a thousand or under. And then the next repress, when we order a lot more, they don't listen to it because it's a repress.
How did you find this out?
Accidentally. I was talking on the phone with the rep. We were just talking about quality control things, and it just came up. And as soon as he said it, I was like "Oh, wow!"
All of those things puts Negativland on an incredibly tortoise-like path with our schedule.
You have five people in the group who don't see each other often, and they have to collaborate on these complex projects. Do you ever get together to mix? Or do you just OK mixes and masters via email?
Well, we used to all get together to mix, absolutely: we had to. Our mixes are very complex. We only had a 1/2-inch 8-track.
There's a scene in Sonic Outlaws where you guys are sitting there with your hands on the controls of a mixer.
And that's what we did. You can learn only 30-seconds at a time. The audio elements on every track of the 8-track were constantly changing: various spoken-word bits, and sounds, and noises. Every sound had to have a different pan, maybe a different effects send, a different level. So you might learn 30 to 45 seconds of what you can do with six hands reaching in. There would be three of us leaning over the board, mixing it at the same time, each of us taking two channels. It would mean that we could sometimes get about a minute mixed every three hours or something. It was painful.
Now, because you can do all this automated mixing stuff, and you can save your mixes, Don actually can send me a mix, and I can just say "You know that one sound is really too loud," and stuff like that. Lots of people are making records this way, of course.
Do Richard and David get in on the specifics? Are there specific roles in the band? I know David is responsible for creating a lot of sound that is manipulated.
It's pretty fluid. I'd say that there might be a lot of mixes where the final decisions are made more by Don and I. But I have to just emphasize that these are just tendencies: There's no rule.
Everyone sort of gets kept in the loop on a project. And at some point in a project, someone may say "You know what, you guys go decide that. I don't need to be cc'd on every email. I'm fine with you guys making a final decision." Other times, someone will be quietly reading our email exchanges with no comment and then suddenly chime in with a whole new great idea.
When an idea comes up for a project, it's like it has no owner. Here's an idea, and everyone takes it and runs with it. There's really no sense of "Well, I need to be careful and delicate with you because it's your idea."
I hate to say this, but it sounds very corporate.
Take a brand like Starbucks. They put out something, but you don't know who came up with the idea. It's just a bunch of people throwing together ideas until they get this final result. And in a way, you guys being the anti-brand, operate in a similar manner.
That's an interesting analogy that sounds like it might work. But the other analogy, really, is that it's pretty nonhierarchical. It's more like an anarchist kind of collective decision making, as well. So, who knows, maybe the creation of a new version of Frappuccino is similar to the nonhierarchical decision making process that creates a protest march against the WTO!
So what you're saying is that there's an anarchical aspect to Starbucks.
I don't know. In the end, there's still some boss there who's the boss. And somebody says "this is what we're doing."
The shareholders want results, and you don't have....
We don't care about our shareholders, because we already know we ain't making any money. But in the sense that the shareholders are the audience, we absolutely care about them. Even though we're trying to do weird, experimental, fun, unusual stuff, we don't do it thinking "I don't care what people think. We're going to do what we're going to do." We're definitely aware that there's a crowd out there for our work.
To me, if you really dig in to Negativland's work, you will see that, besides all this serious, political, and intellectual stuff, there's an aspect of our work that is completely silly, very surreal, and also just pure Dada. Just goofy, and an aspect of it that's very banal, and mundane, and suburban, and all that is mixed in together: I see all that as being equal parts of our work.
However, the media coverage, and a lot of the public exposure to our work, has been focused on only some aspects of that. That's fine: That's what writers chose to write about. They're not writing about the Willsaphone Stupid Show, they're writing about the U2 lawsuit.
The more we kept being described by everybody, being this certain type of group—the so-called Culture Jammers—it just got to feel a little frustrating and limiting. So we had a group discussion about what we were going to do next. And a proposal I put forth was let's look at the ideas we have for various projects. And if we have a project that a) we think is really great, very strong, a lot of potential, and b) it happens to go in a direction that someone would not expect us to go in, let's do that next. And everyone agreed.
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak was one of the projects sitting there on the shelf as a possible candidate, and that's what we ended up doing as our 2002 project. We knew it wouldn't get much radio play, and traditionally we've always done very well on college radio. Dispepsi was a bona fide top 10 hit on college radio. Even No Business was in the top 40 for nine weeks on the college-radio charts. We were pretty sure No Business would do well on radio, and we were pretty sure Deathsentences would bomb. Because what are you going to play? And it's dark.
And ultimately, as the Deathsentences project evolved, what became so interesting about it was, more than any other project we'd done, we were throwing all kinds of ideas at it, and they didn't stick. It's like the material sort of spoke for itself. The material was saying "I need to be left alone. I can't be presented in a way that's ironic, or has any humor, or conveys a sense of how I should be interpreted. I need to be left open to interpretation."
And so, slowly, as the project evolved, we removed all kinds of ideas. We had an entire elaborate design for the packaging that was totally scrapped because it was too funny. Everything had to allude to what it was, but not be exactly clear. And in the end, we took out all the jokes. And the one joke for me with Deathsentences, that I do think is quite funny, is that there is no joke. For someone who follows our work closely, they would've picked it up and looked for the punch line.
Not only is there no joke, but it's completely disturbing.
Right! Ultimately, if you ask me what that project is about, I don't know. It's whatever you think. We love the fact that everyone who gets it responds very differently. People think its funny, sad, poignant, tragic, creepy, voyeuristic: There are all kinds of reactions.
With everyone so far away from each other, do the members contribute to Over the Edge?
We call in on the phone. David can go on that way. There's now a way to put up high-fidelity stereo audio over the Internet and mix it right into the show, so he [David] can live mix from Seattle, from his living room.
Do the band members contribute sounds every week?
No, it varies. And we've always resisted breaking it all down to who does what, because I think it takes away something from the work, even though I understand wanting to know.
When you do appropriated works, are you registering them with performance rights organizations, such as BMI and ASCAP?
We actually do, though we don't say it on any of our records. Those organizations actually say and do things we don't agree with. ASCAP and BMI is rigged so that, if you're a really big star, you proportionally make more money per play of your tune than if you're a nobody. It's really ridiculous. And of course, their attitude about intellectual property issues is completely at odds with ours. However, there is money that's just sitting there for airplay. It's not much, but we might get about $100 a year for airplay of our stuff.
Do you register for the five members equally? Let's say the piece using the Beatles track: does that get credited to the person cutting it up?
We haven't figured that one out yet. Every record's different, and we don't split it up equally. We actually have different, arcane ways we split up the royalties for every record. It's some kind of mixture of who literally worked on the track, who consulted on the track, and who worked on the design: we look at the entire project. The tendency is to be generous to everybody else. The decision was made ages ago that, for the morale of the group, that we always cut people in, in a generous way when we come up with these splits. This is just silly, normal inside band stuff that we really don't want to get into with the public: who played what; who did what; who wrote what composition.
I find it interesting to appropriate something, and then register it as your own composition: You're putting into practice the whole Creative Commons thing on the most basic level that a lot of other artists do with their own work, which is to try and generate revenue to keep going. But now, with No Business, you're really stepping into the next level of legal waters.
We haven't even sat down to try and figure out how to split the royalties and the publishing for No Business yet. So that's going to be an interesting discussion, because it raises some different philosophical, ethical issues about how we want to do it. If "Old is New" and "New is Old" somehow generated tons of money, should we donate it to some Beatles-related charity? I don't know. But I think we'll take the money. [Both songs use backing vocal tracks from the Beatles's tune "Because."]
It is your work, right?
It's our work. Who else had the idea to take all those backing tracks and pitch shift them and layer them, and mix them all up like that? Well, we did. So, maybe we might make a few dollars from it. And that's, literally, probably all it will be, so I'm not too concerned about it.