If you only know one thing about Negativland, it’s probably U2, the infamous 1991 EP whose cover, title, and liberal sampling of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” drew the very public wrath of Island Records. However, as any proud record geek will tell you, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For the past forty years, Negativland has persevered as one of the most keenly satirical voices in alternative music, both through their astoundingly dense sound collages and their deftly-played media pranks. Since its inception, one of the group’s central members has been Mark Hosler, who is currently embarked on a solo tour through New England; following today’s set at Waking Windows in Portland, he’ll be telling never-before-heard Negativland stories tomorrow at Ralph’s Rock Diner in Worcester, and, on Sunday, will perform a set of “accessibly weird” electronic improv at the Dorchester Art Project. We had the opportunity to chat with Hosler about the state of fair use, the joys of noisemaking, and why Negativland doesn’t steal music anymore.
BOSTON HASSLE: For the unfamiliar, could you briefly describe what Negativland is about?
MARK HOSLER: No, I can’t! [laughs] How’s that for an answer?
MH: I mean, no. We’ve been doing this for thirty-eight years, we’ve done a lot of different stuff. I would say, broadly speaking, we have always been drawn to appropriating things, collaging, mixing, recombining things– sounds, noises, things taken from movies, TV, talk radio, pop culture, commercials– and we kind of end up using our culture to talk about our culture. We make stuff that kind of chews it up and spits it out. And I’d say that everything we’ve ever done, from the most political to the most banal, somehow or other is about America. It’s about our country. It’s about this weird, strange, fucked up, amazing, beautiful, horrifying place that we live. And I think that our work kind of embraces all of that. And obviously, right now? We’re living in the dark ages. [laughs] It’s pretty bad. It’s so bad that we’ve been pretty stumped as to what to do. We don’t find it very interesting to put out records that are super topical, because they don’t date well. You know, something like Stephen Colbert’s show, he and his writing team are brilliant. It’s absolutely fantastic what they do. They really do effectively recap the news of the day, with a smart and very funny and actually pretty helpful take on it. They’re great. But that stuff, you know, lasts three days and then it’s done. And I think that we’ve really been interested in trying to do work that we hope people can revisit in ten or fifteen or twenty years and still get something out of. Because this stuff sticks around.
BH: A lot of your work, while not necessarily about copyright and fair use, has engaged with those issues, which have come closer to the forefront of the national conversation in a lot of ways. Has your work in the past decade or so grappled with that at all?
MH: Well, we certainly think about it and pay attention. When we were sued over the U2 record in 1991, we felt like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. There was this sense that we had been handed our mission from God– “We’ve got to talk about this stuff! We’ve just been sued on behalf of the largest rock band on the planet Earth, and maybe we’ve got something to say. And also maybe getting sued in a way is kind of funny.” So we felt kind of like it was thrust upon us to talk about these issues, because nobody was, in a culturally smart, progressive, forward-thinking way. There was nobody talking about this stuff in ‘91, ‘92, ‘93. But by the late ‘90s, people were. I started getting asked to speak at law schools! And art schools, and panel discussions about fair use and copyright law in art and culture, and debates over what is theft and what is property when it’s all ones and zeroes. What is the appropriate artistic response in the face of a digital world, and a world where corporations now own everything? And they claim it’s just theirs, don’t touch it, everything’s privately owned, and you’re not supposed to mess with it. So, in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s, there was more and more and more discussion, and then Creative Commons and alternatives to copyright law came around. So at this point the conversation has fully been going on for a long time. And I think that the role that we played in that conversation, we did it. We played our role, and I think that’s something that’s kind of played out [for us], because it’s now a much bigger conversation. But I would say in terms of our own work, personally, I am really not interested in appropriating music from anybody anymore to make music out of. We don’t do it anymore. It’s just not interesting, because it’s just so thoroughly done and out there.
But Negativland is working on a new album. We have enough material for two records, and I don’t know if it’s going to be a double or two separate albums. But we’re using piano, bass, drums, guitar– you know, a lot of normal instrumentation! We actually ended up with Prairie Prince, who was the drummer for the Tubes, and drummed on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the Byrne and Eno record, and the Skylarking XTC album. And Jon [Leidecker] in Negativland knows him, so he’s actually the drummer on our record! It’s kind of crazy– I can’t believe that it happened. I wasn’t there for the sessions– I wish I had been– but he’s so good that he did it all in one day. We just played him all these tracks and said “Okay, just do your thing!” And he played live drums, not on all of it, but a lot of tracks on the record. It gives a really, really different feeling to this project. So we hope the project is sort of a mix– we are doing the things you expect Negativland to do, but also not.
BH: That’s one of the things that’s always interested me with your work. Everyone obviously associates you with the sound collage cut-up stuff, but just about every album also has proper songs, and even Firesign Theatre-type skits.
MH: Well, there’s a lot of music. You know, we’ve been writing our own music and stealing music– we do both. We got a lot of attention for stealing things, which is fine, but we actually do compose stuff. But the record we’re working on, I think [the songs] are, like, really catchy! [laughs] It’s weird! But don’t worry, there’s still cut-up, collage, all kinds of stuff taken from media all over it. And also, as you may or may not know, we’ve had quite a few members in the past few years who have died. And this record is filled with elements and bits and pieces of things that are from all the people who died. So it very much feels like everybody’s present on what we’re doing now. It’s really nice.
BH: Has new technology affected the way you assemble your work, or do you prefer analog– tape splicing, and all that?
MH: At this point it’s all being done in ProTools– which I barely understand how to use, unfortunately, but other people in the group are extremely good at it. We’re transferring things now from sources. After Don [Joyce] died, we went through the archives. At his place, there were thirty-four years of archives– stuff from all of our projects, and the live shows, and the radio show. There’s an enormous amount of material that was on analog cassette or reel-to-reel tape. And we worked with a guy named Taylor Jessen, who’s also the archivist for the Firesign Theatre, and he’s been incredibly kind to us. He actually digitized tons and tons of Don’s old bits and pieces of stuff, and created a database. And so, as we were working on new tracks, we would just keep poring over all these hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of discs– stuff Don left, and also stuff of Richard [Lyons]’s– and anytime we would find something we could use from their archives of material, we’d throw it in there. It’s wonderful. Each of us is drawn to different kinds of things to appropriate, so in a way that’s kind of your voice, you know? If you’re not literally singing, there’s also sort of a quote-unquote “voice” in your selection process, what you’re drawn to. And Don had an unbelievably unique sensibility about the kind of things he selected and appropriated. So we’re really happy to have that part of the Negativland personality still in the works.
But all that being said, I should also add that what I’m doing in my solo performances has nothing to do with any of the things I’ve been talking about! [laughs] Which is because it’s a completely different, unique medium. What interests me in my solo performances is that these are improvised shows, where every night is a different performance. It’s very much about what’s happening in the moment, it’s very much about “you gotta be there.” I’m not trying to replicate anything off the record. And I spent the past year, year and a half, building a whole new performance setup. I counted, and I think I have about seventy knobs. It’s kind of Frankensteined-together– it’s almost in a way like a modular synthesizer, but it’s not. It’s all these different sound-making devices, and processors, and effects boxes, and some homemade electronics made by other members of Negativland, and some boutique-type weird stuff made by small companies, and then it’s all very weirdly patched together so that I can hopefully do a good job of creating this ever-evolving electronic soundscape over the course of doing my set.
But it’s incredibly challenging. I think that’s the reason that I’m drawn to this. I mean, Negativland more or less has existed since 1978. That’s forty years. I’m fifty-six. If you’re gonna keep doing this weird shit that you’ve been doing since you were a kid, how do you keep it real and authentic and interesting? How do you keep challenging yourself, and pushing past your comfort level? How do you challenge your audience? And that’s just really important to me, and everyone in Negativland. We’re always asking that question. Because I think that it can get easier as you get older to fall into patterns, and ruts, and treading water, and just doing what you’re comfortable doing. If you’re not pushing the envelope with what you’re doing, then you should just quit. That’s my feeling. Just don’t do it, you know? [laughs] So the solo thing for me is an interesting and scary challenge because I have no safety net. I don’t have my team with me, my posse. I don’t have that. It’s just me. The other thing that I like about it, though, is that I can get as loud as I want, and no one’s there to tell me I’m being too loud. [laughs] I like that. I kinda like getting loud, as it turns out.
BH: Thanks so much for talking– I can’t wait for the show!
MH: I’m looking forward to it. Negativland’s always had a really wonderful reception in Boston, because Boston’s a great town for super nerdy, geeky-type people. A lot of times in different cities people get older and they just stop going out. I’ve noticed with Boston, when you look at the age range of who would come out to our shows, it was wider than other cities. Like, “Oh, you actually have grey hair and you’re still going out to shows!”
BH: Any final thoughts?
MH: I should also add that all of the devices that I use are unstable. I cannot control them precisely at all. None of them. That’s very intentional. It means that I’m in a collaboration with my gear, almost like it’s a duet. And part of my job is to listen to what the gear’s doing. I’m trying to wrangle it into shape, but it’ll do things that I can’t predict, and if I’m on my game, if something pops out in the mix that isn’t what I saw coming, my job is to be a good listener, and go, “Oh! That’s not what I was expecting, but that’s good! Let’s go with that!” And suddenly abandon whatever you thought you were doing and take this sudden right or left turn and follow it down that rabbit hole. So when it’s really interesting, I’ll do a set where I’m just surprised at what’s happening. It gets sometimes to the point where I’m laughing, because I can’t believe what the gear is doing. It’s like, “What? It’s doing that? Oh my god! That’s kind of great!” [laughs] And of course I’ve got the Boopers that the Weatherman [Negativland mainstay David Wills] made. Those are very unstable. But they’re always interesting, that’s the thing. I have all this stuff that’s all unstable, but whatever it does, it’s all unique.
Mark Hosler will play at the Dorchester Art Project on Sunday, 9/23