FOR THE RECORD, Fall 1997
FTR: I’ve been listening to Dispepsi quite a bit over the past few weeks, and now I can’t hear the word "Pepsi" without thinking of the line "The choice of the negative generation" from that album.
Hosler: Oh good (laughs).
FTR: You’ve replaced 27 years of Pepsi’s advertising with one line from your CD.
Hosler: That’s great. That’s been a side effect of the record that we were somewhat aware of as we were making it, but it’s happened to a much greater degree than we’d expected. It’s like we’ve subvertised them. For anyone who’s checked out our album, we’ve taken Pepsi’s global campaign and somehow it’s now selling our CD (laughs).
FTR: And when I see Pepsi in the stores I almost expect to see the Yin and Yang logo from Dispepsi.
Hosler: Yeah. Now that the record’s out and we’re hearing reactions from people about what they think of it, I think that’s one of the coolest things that I’ve heard. You’re maybe the twentieth person who’s told me this. We’ve changed the way that some people see all Pepsi ads now (laughs).
FTR: Were you surprised to see the Dispepsi review in Rolling Stone?
Hosler: Yeah, to some degree. Even though the way we run our business is completely outside of the record business – we’re not distributed through those channels, we don’t sell that many records at all, we sell under 10,000 or 20,000 copies of any CD we do -- we have achieved this kind of strange notoriety because of the whole U2 incident. So we realized that if we put the right spin on it, that it would be fairly irresistible even to the mass media. They’re aware of Negativland. Negativland’s done things in the past where we’ve gotten in trouble with copyright issues. It’s like "They’re doing an album on Pepsi! What the hell do they think they’re doing?" By presenting it conceptually the way we did, as opposed to making a project about multi-national corporations and advertising and consumerism that just dealt with it in a general sort of way. Instead we made a project where we picked one specific target and just amped the whole thing up. We made the whole record relentlessly be about just one product. I thought that -- besides being just an aesthetic approach that we all thought was really interesting to experiment with-- that Negativland’s had enough dealings with the media that we recognized that this package would be really interesting, even to a Rolling Stone or New York Times or whatever. I was actually very pleased by the Rolling Stone article. He really hit the nail on the head about what our record is really about. He didn’t get caught up in the more soap-opera sort of aspects of it. The funny thing, of course, is that magazines like Rolling Stone usually just review bands that buy ads in their magazine. That’s how it works. But of course we don’t do that. We have no advertising budget – we couldn’t afford it. It’s quite bizarre to be in an airport and see Entertainment Weekly on the rack and know that there’s an article in there about something that I did with my friends. Cnsidering how we operate as a group, I find that to be pretty strange and entertaining.
FTR: I read recently that PepsiCo had no plans to sue the band. That must have been a huge relief for you.
Hosler: It was a huge relief, but it was a couple of other things as well. We pretty much figured that we had a fifty-fifty chance. Either Pepsi’s gonna sue us or they’re gonna look at it and they’re gonna leave us alone. We knew that they’d want to know what this record was about. It was too over the top for them not to check it out. We did this tricky thing, too – we lied to everyone in the media about the release date. We told all the reviewers that the record was coming out September 1st. The record actually came out a month earlier on July 25th. Our idea, our hope, was that the word of mouth on this record would be enough that we’d at least get some copies out there before we got sued. We knew that a law suit would probably come about because writers would call up Pepsi to see what they thought of our CD. We didn’t think that some Pepsi executive would just happen to walk into some independent music store and pick up a copy. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. Pepsi found out because a writer from the New York Post called them up and wanted a comment. Their comment was, "Well, we’ve never heard of this." Then the online version of Rolling Stone called them up and wanted a comment. By then, Pepsi had actually heard about it and was looking into it. We refused to be interviewed by the online version of Rolling Stone because we just didn’t think that we should participate in our own crucifixion. We’re not trying to be difficult, but if you’re calling Pepsi then you’re just making news. Pepsi’s finding out about it because you are telling them it exists. We consider that to be pretty irresponsible and we don’t want to participate in that. So we refused to talk to rollingstone.com, but they called Pepsi up anyway. Then Entertainment Weekly, of all things, called and wanted a comment from us. They were gonna call Pepsi, too, so we refused to talk to them as well (laughs). Finally, when Entertainment Weekly talked to them, Pepsi had heard the record. Pepsi’s comment was "it’s no Odelay, but it’s a pretty good listen." Which I thought was very interesting. It’s like they were trying to be hip by mentioning Beck. Of course we’ll never know, but I think what they did was that they looked at this project, and at who was calling them for comments. And the magazines who were calling them for comments were magazines that targeted Pepsi’s demographic – the very people that Pepsi wants to buy their soft drink. I think they said, "Well, if we go after these guys, it’s just gonna look really bad on us and it’s gonna be written about in magazines where we like to place our ads." We also put the record together very carefully. If you look at the liner notes, there’s a suggested reading list that mentions the Pepsi-Burma boycott. Those suggested readings are in there for two reasons. One is that we wanted to mention that stuff to people- we did want to recommend them because they’re good books to read. But the other reason is that we wanted to suggest to that one attorney at Pepsi who was looking at this and deciding what to do next, well, we wanted those books and the mention of the boycott to contextualize this record to that Pepsi lawyer as a form of free speech. To really make it clear that to them that, although you may not like this and you may find it somewhat confusing and strange, it is a kind of activism and a form of protest art. And, of course, we didn’t put anything that was trademarked by them on the cover of the record.
FTR: You came very close…
Hosler: Right. That was very intentional on our part, too. Because trademark law is very different from copyright law, and, nowadays, we know this. We had five attorneys who were giving us free legal advice and they all said, "You know, if you don’t want to be sued, don’t put this record out. But if you are gonna put it out, you should choose your battles wisely. Don’t set yourself up to get sued over trademark infringement because they will kick your ass. You will lose. You have no defense. But if they sue you over copyright infringement because you used their commercials, then you have a very good defense that would be worth fighting." So that affected our decision on the cover art, which originally was going to say Dispepsi right on the front, done up in a Pepsi style font. .That prompted us to scramble the title in the design and come up with the "word-of-mouth hotline" idea. In the end, we thought that was cooler anyway (laughs). We put this record out where we didn’t tell anyone the title. They all had to just figure it out.
To get back to your original question, when we found out that they were not going to sue us, we felt like we’d just thrown a piece of bloody meat into shark-infested waters, and the sharks just shrugged and swam away. I was personally very relieved. I was having a heart attack every day for two months waiting for the lawsuit to drop. Because it would mean that any money we were making from selling this record would completely go to pay off all the lawyers. My whole life would have been consumed by this and it would have taken years and years. I’ve been through two lawsuits. I know what it’s like. It’s horrible, horrible, horrible. It’s like having psychic zombie vampires attached to you. We made the record, we took the risk, and to some degree we were prepared. We were working with our volunteer lawyers and preparing responses to the judge and to Pepsi. We were trying to be ready to act instantly if they sued us. But I still was mortified. I felt hugely relieved, but I also felt disappointed (laughs). I have to be honest. There was a part of me that thought, "Aww, well that takes away part of the drama here" (laughs).
FTR: Was this kind of reaction more along the lines of what you expected over the "U2" record?
Hosler: Actually, yes, to be honest. This was more like what we thought would happen. We thought there’d just be kind of a shrug. The other thing, though, is that we perceive U2 as a band to be a kind of corporate product. They are, arguably, artists making something creative. Pepsi, on the other hand, is just selling a product in its commercials. It's not art. I think that a judge or a jury would be far less sympathetic to Pepsi’s claims. Whether you like Pepsi or not, you don’t have to be an Einstein to notice that you are bombarded by this Pepsi thing. You are made aware of Pepsi almost against your will. Unless you go live in the middle of the Appalachian mountains in the middle of nowhere, you cannot avoid these things.
FTR: I liked how you described Dispepsi as a form of self-defense in the liner notes.
Hosler: Yeah. When people ask us what they can do about all this advertising, obviously there’s nothing that you or I can do to make it go away. In fact, what we see as every day goes by is that they’re finding more and more places to put their advertising messages. Every single film I see out of Hollywood has product placement in it. I bet at least 90% of them have it. I wish they would have some kind of warning before each film…"Warning: this film contains scenes of a graphic consumer nature that may be offensive to some viewers. The following products will appear in this film: Wheat Thins, Taco Bell…"
Hosler: Marlboro, Coke, or Pepsi." (laughs). I just saw this film, "The House of Yes, " and that film has a scene where two characters are drinking Rum and Pepsi. Not Rum and Coke, and they make a very big deal about saying the words "Rum and Pepsi" twice. Then they hold the Pepsi can up and you can see it really well. That’s not in there by accident. That’s something Pepsi paid money for, and they used that to help them finance their movie. I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone out there that this is something that’s increasing in our lives. Some people are gonna react against it. And the more you understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why, in a certain way you’ve taken some of their power away. You’ve taken some of the effectiveness away. The whole thing becomes more transparent. Therefore, I think you can be less affected by it. I’d like to hope you can. I will also say that no one should ever think that they’re not affected by advertising. No matter how smart you are, you’re affected by it.
FTR: Along those same lines, do you recall a band from a few years ago named Sigue Sigue Sputnik?
Hosler: Sure. Yeah.
FTR: You remember how they had actual commercials in between the songs on their album?
Hosler: You know, I never listened to them very much. I was aware of them somewhat. Did they actually get the companies to pay them money or agree to do this? (laughs)
FTR: I’m not really sure. I know that the commercials were for real products, though.
Hosler: (Dejectedly) So we’re not the first people to do product placement on a record...damn.…
FTR: I guess not. Sorry. But you are the first to dedicate a whole record to one product. What really surprised me about the whole Sigue Sigue Sputnik thing was that the idea didn’t catch on. I thought other young bands might begin to sell ads on their albums to pay for the studio time.
Hosler: Well, with audio you can’t avoid it. If you listen to the record, it’s there. Whereas, in a movie, when there’s product placement, you’re following a story line and you can ignore it. Kinda sorta. You can look elsewhere. "Oh, I really don’t wanna notice that they’re eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, I’ll just follow the story line" (laughs). So maybe it’s just more offensive when it’s on a record. It’s just too over the top. Who knows. Maybe they were ahead of their time. It’s very possible that it could become more acceptable. I think that as kids are growing up in a world that’s become so completely and totally corporatized, you maybe internalize that world as being normal. You don’t know that there’s any difference. You don’t know that there’s any other source for news besides CNN or the USA Today. It’s not even a choice anymore.
FTR: These kids can’t even go to baseball games where the stadium isn’t named after some corporation or product.
Hosler: Right, right. I was just speaking at the University of Arizona at Tucson. They invited me there to talk about copyright law and property issues, and the room I was speaking in was sponsored by Bank of America! (laughs). Many of the rooms on the campus were sponsored like this by various businesses. So you internalize that this is normal. Like Channel One. You don’t realize that you’re seeing advertisements in the classroom. School districts are starting to take money from corporations because everyone’s voting to lower their taxes. So there’s not enough money to run our public schools, and the public schools end up getting money from Burger King to underwrite them. So Burger King gets their ads into the schools. How many people do you see wearing Nike "swooshes" now? It’s just become fashionable to wear a corporate logo. You’re a walking advertisement. You pay money to advertise for them. But that’s not how anyone thinks about it. How does a corporate logo become fashion? Maybe it’s this idea that we’re so corporatized that we now just reflect that back by wearing their logo on a sweatshirt. I know this guy who runs a tattoo parlor in Detroit, and he says that you wouldn’t believe how many Nike "swoosh" tattoos puts on people.
FTR: It’s amazing how many people are just walking billboards for larger corporations.
Hosler: But they don’t see it that way. They just think it’s cool. I did it, too.I remember, as a young kid, that there was a motor oil called STP. For some reason, it was really cool to have these STP stickers. They were red, white, and black stickers that said "STP" on them. I didn’t drive a car or anything – I was only 10 – but it was just really cool to have these stickers on your bike or the headboard of your bed. And I couldn’t tell you why I thought it was so cool. I wasn’t interested in cars.
FTR: Some kids today, even second- and third-graders, are collecting those Absolut Vodka ads because they look cool.
Hosler: They are?!?!?!?
FTR: Yeah. I’ve seen quite a few articles about it.
Hosler: Wow. News to me.
FTR: They rip ‘em out of magazines and trade ‘em.
Hosler: Well, you get your brand loyalty when they’re young. That’s why you market all this stuff to kids. That’s why cigarettes are marketed to kids. One thing I have yet to do, and that I would like to do, is to get into a non-confrontational conversation with some people who are wearing these logos. I’d just like to ask them, "What do you think about that? What do you think that’s about? Why do you think that’s cool?" Because I don’t get it.
FTR: Were you just absolutely floored when Wieden and Kennedy (the ad agency responsible for most Nike and Microsoft ads ) called you up and asked you to do the Miller Genuine Draft ads?
Hosler: Yeah, I was. I was shocked. And I guess I shouldn’t be. But I thought, "Oh my God. This is very depressing." Because it means that the Negativland aesthetic, our style, has reached the point where it’s acceptable fodder for a beer commercial. It also, arguably, could have something to do with why Pepsi is leaving us alone. If we’d done this same project six years ago, I can very well imagine that they would have sued us. And what’s changed is that, for a few years now, there’s been an increasing trend of corporate advertising that mocks the corporation. It’s anti-corporate corporate advertising. It’s advertising that ridicules advertising. It acknowledges that, "We know that you know that we’re just selling you something." It acknowledges the empty consumer lifestyle.
FTR: The recent Sprite ads, the one that say, "Image is Nothing," are a good example of that. They’re trying to create an anti-corporate image by saying that image isn’t important.
Hosler: Yeah. It acknowledges in this ironic way that, "Yeah, we’re selling you something you don’t really need. We’re telling you it’ll make you feel better or look sexier or get some girls if you buy this, but we know that you know that that’s not true. So we’ll just be funny about it and you’re gonna like us so much for being funny and ironic and mocking ourselves that you’ll buy it" (laughs). It’s very cynical, and it’s been very effective. The ads are really shocking when you first see them. It’s why someone like Wieden and Kennedy would want to hire us. Negativland doesn’t really have a straightforward approach to what we do. Not at all. Not as much as you’d think from reading this interview. If you compare it to some of the criticisms I’m saying now, I think our new record is a lot more surreal and obtuse. It’s very open-ended. But still, someone like Wieden and Kennedy is happy to take a critic like us and incorporate us into their work. That makes them look hip and cool.
FTR: And we can’t forget that this was the same ad agency who used William S. Burroughs for Nike ads.
Hosler: Yeah. If we tried to somehow make a "subversive" ad for Miller Genuine Draft beer, that somehow attacked the beer or advertising, they’d be happy. They’d love it (laughs).
FTR: That’s got to be the main reason they’d call you – knowing that you’d do something that was utterly in contempt of what they do.
Hosler: Yeah. And I actually told them that this whole thing was really depressing. And I also said, "Didn’t you realize that we would say no?" And they really didn’t understand. They claimed to be fans.
FTR: Gotta give ‘em points for that, at least.
Hosler: Well I can believe that. I mean, people in advertising are very smart. They’re extremely cynical. They’re very conflicted sometimes, too, because they’re quite aware of the Faustian evil deeds that they’re doing -- this deal with the Devil that they’ve made by working in this type of business. And yet it is one of the places where you have some of the most cutting edge creativity going on, in some ways. There’s a ton of money poured into these things. So I’m sure that a lot of these people love Negativland records. There’s a good article in the new Utne Reader by Thomas Frank about the idea of dissent, of opposing anything out there. The whole idea of it has just been turned into another marketing niche. It’s another way to sell you something. You see so many ads using the words "revolution," or "unique" or "be different." There’s so much of that going on that, for someone who does the kind of things we do, it puts you into a weird position. What do you do next? What do you do when they’ve adopted all the language that you’ve been using for the last 30 years? Going back to the ‘60s, you look at the kind of language that was used for resistance of government things, military things, corporate things, and for people trying to make a positive change in the world, and they’ve now adopted so much of this language into advertising and politics. I’ve heard the phrase "politically correct" used to mean just about anything. It could mean that you’re too liberal or too conservative. Even the word "liberal" has been turned into this completely evil, nasty word. That’s a word that needs to be reclaimed, I think. Like the word "queer" was reclaimed by gay people. So, when they’ve taken all of the language and the tactics of dissent to sell Sprite, it creates this really confusing situation. What do you do now? They’ve become so clever in absorbing any kind of act. That is the most likely reason why Pepsi decided to shrug their shoulders and do nothing. Because Dispepsi isn’t that different than something Pepsi might really do themselves in five years. I can imagine a very clever, covert advertising campaign would be for Pepsi to have hired Negativland and paid us $100,000 to make this anti-Pepsi record. The effect is that it gets the Pepsi name on college radio stations all over the U.S., where they can’t get because it’s not commercial radio.
FTR: Much like the theory you discuss in the song "All She Called About," which is about the "New Coke" fiasco. What if Coke had actually planned the whole thing to get all the free publicity?
Hosler: Uh-huh. Yup. So, we were aware of these issues even as we were making Dispepsi. We knew that we were playing this really strange line. It not only is about this thing, attacking and mocking and ridiculing this thing, but it’s also sort of promoting them and helping them. When you get to end of this record, what do you remember? You remember the name Pepsi.
FTR: Or, like I do, "the choice of a negative generation."
Hosler: True. Maybe we have done something really interesting, strange, curious and rather positive in that we have subverted, in some way, their whole logo and their campaign and even their name. It's hard to know.
FTR:: Speak of the devil, that Pepsi ad with the Spice Girls just came on TV (laughs).
Hosler: Oh. I’ve never seen that. In fact, I have yet to hear a single song by the Spice Girls! I actually want to. I wanna hear what they’re doing.
FTR: Well, you haven’t missed much. It’s pretty fluffy pop stuff.
Hosler: I dunno, I like some of that stuff. I don’t spend my time listening to the sounds of trash compactors and metal grinders…although I can appreciate that kind of music when it’s well done.
FTR: What kind of stuff do you listen to?
Hosler: Oh…golly. I really like old guitar music from Hawaii from the 1920's. I like the new Howie B record, and the new Mouse on Mars record. Those are very good. I’m a huge fan of old Johnny Mathis records. I like old Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I like a lot of old jazz and blues from the ‘20s and ‘30s…
FTR: Fats Waller?
Hosler: Yeah. That kind of stuff. Early Frank Sinatra – before his voice got too deep.
FTR: Have you heard about the new Flaming Lips release?
Hosler: No, I haven’t.
FTR: It’s kind of interesting. Something that I would’ve expected more from a band like Negativland than from the Flaming Lips. It’s a four-CD set, but all four discs are timed to be played at the same time.
Hosler: The Flaming Lips? The rock band did that?
FTR: Yeah. It’s called "Zaireeka!" It’s pretty interesting.
Hosler: That’s way arty (laughs). That’s cool.
FTR: I thought that the Negativland book, Fair Use, was absolutely the best book about the music industry that I’ve ever read. I think it should be required reading for new bands, to warn them about what they’re up against.
Hosler: I would agree that with what we dealt with, with both Island Records and SST Records suing us and the way book shows you all the inside stuff you aren''t supposed to see, you get a rare look inside the way these companies are typically run and the way that they treat their artists.
FTR: To me, the book seemed to be your attempt to do with a book what you’ve been doing with music.
Hosler: That was very intentional. The book is an example of what it’s about, in that it is an example of "found" collage turned into a narrative. And then, by using the actual court documents and letters, it takes our opinions out of the loop. It allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. I thought it made for a better project. I also think it treated the audience with much more respect – we’re not gonna hold your hands and tell you what this all means. You have to figure it out.
FTR: Right. You guys didn’t have to come out and tell us that Greg Ginn (of SST Records) isn’t the kind of person you’d want to be associated with.
Hosler: I think everyone hangs themselves by their own ropes. Particularly Greg Ginn. He blew one foot off when he treated us the way he did. Then when he sued us he blew the other foot off. We were just amazed at some of the things that kept happening. We didn’t have to tell anyone anything. All we had to do was just print the information, and it made it clear what total egomaniacal, moronic, short-sighted assholes these people were.
FTR: It was clear that Ginn just didn’t get it. Now, at the end of the book, you’re still waiting for Casey Kasem to allow you to release the "U2" single. Has anything at al happened with that since then?
Hosler: No, nothing has happened at all. We did hear some more from him via a writer for the Boulder Weekly in Colorado. Casey told him that he’d never let this song come out because, "If my parents ever heard it they’d roll over in their graves." The other thing he said is that, "I’m not like that anymore." I spoke once with Dr. Demento…do you know who he is?
FTR: Yeah. The DJ.
Hosler: Right. I spoke to him on the phone once, and I asked him if he’d ever worked with Casey Kasem – because they’re both L.A. DJs. He said that they used to work in the same building. And he said, "You know those tapes you used on your record? That was how he was all the time. The engineers who used to work with him were horrified to have to work with him because Casey treated them so badly." That told me that what we had used was not just a tape of Casey Kasem having a bad day. There’s this whole dark side of his personality. And I’d have to guess, from the way he sounds, that he was really coked up or something. There was something going on with that guy.
JFTR: He blew up way too easily, and too many times, on that tape.
Hosler: Yeah. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some kind of drug problem back then, and maybe he’s over it now. I hope he’s different.
FTR: In much the same way that Dispepsi has warped my perception of Pepsi, your U2 record has forever changed my views on Casey Kasem. I can’t hear him now without thinking of "Snuggles" (laughs).
Hosler: Yeah (laughs). Even now, when I hear U2’s "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" on the radio, it feel like it’s my song. And so, just for me and my friends, by dealing with some of these cultural icons, it does radically alter the way I perceive them. I can’t explain how weird it is to see a Pepsi can and have a totally different relationship to it. We made this whole record, and the people at Pepsi know what we did. It’s like some weird feedback loop is happening. The same thing with U2. I have a very weird, almost personal relationship with this gigantic cultural entity known as U2.
FTR: I think the Negativland name will forever be linked with U2’s in some ways.
Hosler: That might be true. More likely, though, is that the whole U2 thing will be what Negativland will be remembered for forever. I doubt we’ll ever do anything to top that…I don’t even want to try. That’s a game we’re not interested in playing anymore. We’re interested in pursuing ideas that seem like good ideas. Some of those ideas happen to be kind of prickly and kind of strange and confrontational, and some aren’t. Fans of ours who keep expecting us to top ourselves will be sorely disappointed by many of the projects that we’ll be doing in the future. But it was never our goal to keep coming up with "the next thing." It’s not our goal to keep upping the ante. We just get these ideas. And in the case of Dispepsi, just using all this stuff that we had in our archives seemed like a really good idea. It was something that I very much wanted to deal with. Not Pepsi per se, but just these types of companies and the way that they intrude into my brain. I don’t like it. It pisses me off and I know it’s bad for me and for all of us. The thing that would be nice to do more of is to do a project that is for something instead of against something. Let’s be…
Hosler: Yeah, Positivland! Well, unfortunately we can’t use that name. If you've read Fair Use you know that Greg Ginn kinda claimed it. Actually, I think if we ever do an instrumental record we’ll call it "Negativbland" (laughs).
FTR: This whole "U2" thing caused quite a bit of controversy, but that wasn’t Negativland’s first controversial situation. Would you describe for us, briefly, the background for the Helter Stupid project?
Hosler: Well, it’s a very long story. But we put out a phony press release blaming this very real quadruple ax murder on one of our songs. And the media picked up on it and didn’t check their facts, and it blew up into this huge story. We were amazed that our little prank could turn into such a huge thing. We ended up as the top news story on the CBS news affiliate in San Francisco. We ended up on page three of the San Francisco Chronicle and on NPR. And we decided to make a record about it, which we called Helter Stupid, that explained what we really did. It explains why we lied, it names all the names, and it gives all the detailed information. We made this audio collage piece about it. And that whole experience actually taught us a lot about how the media works. So by the time we got sued over the U2 single, we had a pretty good idea of how to respond to the mass media and get our message out through them. Basically, it’s that if you have an irresistible, shiny package that they can't resist writing about, then you can put anything you want on the inside. You just gotta have that hook to suck them in. In the case of U2, that hook was that the world’s biggest rock band had just sued this tiny little noise group for making fun of them. Now, of course, U2 didn’t really sue us at all – it was their label Island Records -- and the whole thing’s more complex than that. But we knew that the media, which likes to simplify things and make them black and white, we knew they would portray this as "big guys crush little guys." And we also realized that we had a chance to use that to address our interesting and rather peculiar ideas about copyright law – because you couldn’t write about it without addressing that. You could not do this story without addressing our agenda.
FTR: Speaking of copyright law, I enjoyed your essay on "Fair Use." Do you think we’ll see a time when some of the changes you propose in that essay actually take place?
Hosler: Well, in some ways, those changes have happened. There are thousands and thousands of people who are making visual art, and stuff on the Web, and singles, and CDs, and ‘zines, and they are just disregarding copyright law. They are just cutting things up and collaging it and putting it together. From the more top-down corporate culture end, the people who do this kind of collage work are doing it less and less and they’re paying higher fees for the right to sample this or that. They have to clear everything. So on that end it’s become very stifled and constrictive and just stupid. But there are people who are ignoring it. Whenever I’ve done talks about our work, I always encourage people to do that. If you’re involved in this kind of work at all, be it audio or visual or whatever, and you don’t have an ethical or moral or philosophical problem with appropriation, then, please don’t worry about it! Just do it. Don’t worry about being "caught" or sued or whatever, because you’re not going to be unless you do something that’s really visible or makes a lot of money. Because it’s all about money. It’s all motivated by economic concerns. So if you’re not making any money, who cares? Listen to some of the Over the Edge CDs that Negativland has done. We’ve done stuff on there that’s a million times worse than what we did with the "U2" record, and we managed to get those CDs pressed and nothing happened.
FTR: Even on Dead Dog Records (the CD that comes with the Fair Use book), you put plenty of stuff on there that could have resulted in a lawsuit.
Hosler: Well, we thought that was one of the safest places where we could go absolutely over the top. We have people on that disc that are famous for suing people: Disney, Led Zeppelin, Irving Berlin…all of them are notorious for suing people. But we figured that, if we’ve got a whole book that’s about Fair Use, it’s called Fair Use, the Fair Use clause of the copyright act is in the front, it has an audio-collage CD about Fair Use…it seemed like that was the safest place we could go over the top. Our defense would be fairly obvious. Any attorney thinking about suing us would look at this project and say, "These guys just want to be sued. They’d like to change the laws, so let’s not help them."
FTR: And I think that Dead Dog Records is some of Negativland’s best work because you did seem so free and focused on your subject matter.
Hosler: Well, what happened with the U2 single and its aftermath really pushed us towards going back to running our own label. We had done that in the early-to-mid ‘80s and now we are doing it again. We have to do everything ourselves, and it is sometimes a total drag. It takes up far too much of my time to run Seeland Records. But it also means that we are completely unconcerned with what anyone else thinks. Some attorney from Seeland Records isn’t going to tell us that we can’t put something out, because there isn't one - it’s just us. So that’s been good. It’s like we recommitted ourselves to doing what we wanted to do. We’re conscious that there could be consequences, but we make the choice to take that risk or not.
FTR: Like putting the "U2" song on your Web page for everyone to hear…
Hosler: Yeah, that’s’ true (laughs). That was also a calculated risk. U2 and Island Records got so much egg on their faces over what they did to us that we feel that, at this point, nothing else is gonna happen. And so far that’s proven to be true. But they could make a big stink about it.
FTR: But that’s one of the risks involved in doing what you do.
Hosler: I don’t think that everyone who follows us realizes that. To some people we’re just thumbing our noses. Like we’re just trying to get close to the cliff without falling off. But that’s not true. We are taking some risks, but we’re taking them because somebody’s gotta do it. And we seem to be one of the only groups who seem to be crazy enough or obsessed enough. I think we’re the only ones who care enough to take the risk. And we’ll deal with the consequences. We’re thoughtful about it, too. I mean, for Dispepsi, we had five different lawyers we talked to. And they’re all people who volunteered their time and advice. And we took all their opinions and considerations…
FTR: And then went against them (laughs).
Hosler: …and then went against them! Right (laughs). But we wanted to understand what we were getting into. We said, "If you were Pepsi’s lawyer, what would you do about this? What would be your strategy?" In the end, we didn’t change any of the audio whatsoever because of the attorneys, but we did change the cover design. We actually had other cover designs that were great, but we scrapped them because the lawyers said we’d be destroyed if used them and have no good legal defense (laughs).
FTR: One of the reasons I admire Negativland as much as I do, is because you do truly seem to care about your art and your right to make it. And you’re also willing to lead the fight in your efforts to protect that right. I’ve told a lot of people about Negativland, and I’ve put that U2 song on just about every mix tape I’ve made for the last three years.
Hosler: (Laughs) That’s great. Thank you.
FTR: I don’t think that 99.9% of the rock bands out there would be willing to go through what Negativland has gone through to pursue their artistic and creative beliefs.
Hosler: Well, that’s because we’re still punk rock (laughs). Actually, I really think we are, from my own understanding of what punk was really about. It had more to do with an attitude than a sound, and we've tried to keep that attitude. My god, punk rock has been around a lot longer now than the very culture it was in opposition to – all the hippies and the bombastic prog rock of the time. When I see a 19-year-old kid now with a studded leather jacket that has some Dead Kennedys logo on it, I just wonder "what the hell is he thinking?" What does that mean to him? I’m not sure. Those groups are nothing more than nostalgia now. On the other hand, maybe those groups do still represent something very positive and idealistic in a way. They may seem pure to someone who’s younger.
FTR: Or maybe the kid just likes the music and thinks the logo looks cool.
Hosler: Yup, there you go. Like the Nike logo…
JFTR: It’s like we’ve come full circle here.
Hosler: There’s a part of me that kind of looks at myself and says, "I don’t really wanna stand up for this, but someone has to do it" (laughs). I know that when I’ve read about or heard about someone who has really believed in something and stood up for it, that’s inspiring to me. I don’t mean to sound immodest, but I can see how what we did and the way we did it might be inspiring to some people. We were able to do it without losing our sense of humor, and that makes us feel really good.
FTR: So, you’ve taken on the media, you’ve taken on the music industry, you’ve taken on advertising. What’s next for Negativland?
Hosler: Well, the "Death Sentences" book should be out in the spring, and that’ll have a CD with it. It’s a collection of things and photos that we found in automotive wrecking yards. And we’ve been working on this guide to Disneyland for many years now, and I have no idea when that will be done. We were gonna do a project on UFOs, but we canned that idea when UFOs became so popular (laughs). We planned to do this about three years ago, but that’s kind of over now. We just finished mixing a couple of new pieces last week, actually. The first piece uses a bunch of very funny recordings of Colonel Sanders trying to do Kentucky Fried Chicken ads. And he’s senile or had a stroke or something and he can’t even say "Kentucky Fried Chicken." We added all these chicken squawks so that it sounds like the chickens are confusing him and taunting him. We also did a piece where we took O.J. Simpson’s workout video adn re-edited it and made a piece called "O.J. and His Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole." We just mixed that. And these are both for another release. It’s an EP, tentatively titled Happy Heroes right now. We’re still working on an instrumental project that keeps turning into a non-instrumental project (laughs). And I just got back from Arizona where I spent a week-and-a-half going around the desert and collecting the sounds of insects and sounds you can make with the various plants in the desert. I also interviewed people about the desert. And then I got a great recording of a rattlesnake rattling at me from four feet away (laughs). So that was cool. We have a serialized novel called "Moonrock" that we hope is gonna go up on our Web site soon. We’re piecing together a tour, but we’re not sure when that’ll happen. And we’re using the money we made from Dispepsi to fix all the equipment in our studio. That’s about it. So there you go.