Experimental act Negativland will perform what Mark Hosler, one of the group’s founding members, admits is a fairly out-there, challenging show tomorrow night.
That not too surprising to those familiar with Negativland’s history. For years the band has made headlines for things only tangential to their musical output: copyright infringements, accusations of motivating murders, issues of fair use—it’s all out there for you to catch up on if you aren’t too familiar with the group.
It also won’t surprise anyone to hear that, given its nature, this show, now scheduled to take place at Sons of Hermann Hall, was originally scheduled to take place at the now-defunct Sloppyworld space. But, actually, the move to Sons couldn’t be better. Negativland’s performance tomorrow night is an interpretation of a live radio broadcast—something the Son’s old-time ballroom feel should actually enhance.
We caught up with founding Negativland member Mark Hosler over the phone yesterday to find out what we can expect from tomorrow night’s show.
Is it OK for me to record this interview? Actually, is that a stupid question given your fair use history? Well…no. It’s good that you’re recording it.
So you’re in Texas right now? Yeah, we just played last night in Houston at the Media Archaeology Festival that’s put on every year by the Aurora Picture Show, and it was an amazing fringe-, micro-cinema thing. Now we’re on our way to Austin.
And this tour is tied into your radio show? The performance piece we’re doing, it’s called “It’s All in Your Head FM.” We have a weekly radio show that we do called Over The Edge and every week we have a different theme to the show, so we’ve been building upon that. We’ve been doing that radio show since ’81 and we decided for the first time ever to take it out on the road and put it on stage for people to see what happens and see how it works.
How has it worked?
Well, it seems to be working well. If you’re trying to do creative work and keep evolving as a quote-unquote artist, it’s good to be making work where you’re feeling nervous and uncomfortable about what you’re doing so you don’t get too complacent. So, in the past, when we’ve done live shows, we’ve always had tons of visuals—props, costumes, puppet shows, very, very elaborate performances. And some people would say, “Well, the visual end was great, but it makes it very, very hard to concentrate on what you’re doing with the sound.” And when we play live, our sound is a pretty densely layered, intricate collage. And when you have all those visuals going on you don’t have to worry about the audience staring at you the whole time. So now we’re doing the opposite. We’re set up as a radio station live on stage and the only visuals we have is we have a nice “On Air” sign that comes on as the show starts.
Is it supposed to be akin to old-time AM radio show, or even the live-recorded shows you hear on NPR nowadays? I don’t think it’s supposed to be akin to anything. It’s what we do when we do radio. And the show itself, “It’s All In Your Head FM,” it’s supposed to be a new network that’s on every week that’s solely devoted to talking about the idea of God and belief and faith and looking into why perhaps our belief in a single God is causing us a lot of problems.
Well, you’re taking this tour right into the thick of the Bible Belt… Sure!
How’s that been going? Were there any worries there? Well, I think if we were doing it live at an outdoor festival for free and anyone could attend, then we’d get a different reaction. But people who are coming to our show are folks that are interested in seeing what we’re doing. It’s kind of a process of elimination right there. But that being said, there’s always that comment or critique of work where some would say that you’re preaching to the choir. So we really trying to do a show where we assumed our audience is going to be left of center, where we assumed our audience is literate and smart and follows what’s going on in the world and paying attention. So how can we put on a show for that audience that’s thought-provoking, that’s challenging, that leaves them at the end of the night with a lot to think about. So we really tried to come up with a show that was challenging to ourselves first and foremost, and we really had to talk about things that we’d never talked about in our group. I’ve worked with these guys for almost 30 years and we’ve never sat around and really talked in-depth about our beliefs in God and the after-life and spirituality and where we sort of are on the agnostic to religious to atheist sort of scale of things. And of course, we don’t all agree, so we tried to come up with a show that reflected that as well.
Does that mean that there’s a discussion element to the performance then? Well, we’ve used cut-up voices in our shows and records since the beginning, so we have mic breaks, we have characters, we switch from the broadcast that we’re doing on stage to a live broadcast that’s coming from the local zoo. We try to really make it as much like a radio show as we can, but, again, its Negativland’s version. It’s kind of like a screwed up, collaged, layered, messed up, appropriated version of A Prairie Home Companion. But also what we’re doing, the show itself is created for what we’re doing on stage and, traditionally, all the years we’ve been doing live shows, we’ve performed very little work from our CDs. We kind of approach each medium as its own thing. When you’re working on a CD or in a studio, there’s a lot things you can do that you can’t do live. And conversely, when we play live, we want it to be really live. We’re not using laptops; we don’t have everything pre-programmed in the computer. We’re really cutting out and layering and collaging, all this stuff, right in front of you. So a lot of mistakes happen, a lot of improvisation happens. The show, in fact, is fairly different every night because of that.
Well that’s kind of the one thing that gets me down about live experimental music performances, when you have someone sitting there with a laptop, it’s not very visually stimulating… No, I think it’s absolutely, utterly uninteresting, actually, and I don’t get why people do it. If you’re creating something on a laptop as an audio piece, that’s great, but if you’re gonna be in front of people for performance, you’ve got to be thinking about it in that medium and that context.
And it does seem like you guys really are emphasizing the performance. It sounds almost more like a theatrical production than just a standard concert. Well, it is set up just as a radio show where there is nothing to watch, but what you’re getting to watch is us do the radio show. And we hope that it’s interesting to watch. That’s our hope.
What’s been the feedback? It’s been really good. The feedback we’re getting on the show is about what the show is about.
So a lot of discussion then? Yeah. You know, after the show people are coming up to us and no one’s asking us about the U2 lawsuit or about copyright law. Everyone wants to come up and talk to us about the meaning of life or God and death and really big picture stuff. And, for Negativland, we play live very infrequently and we hadn’t played live since 2000. We don’t go out very often. And you might mention that this is the first time we’ve ever played Dallas—ever. And, I would say, at the rate we’re going and at the age that some of the members are, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the last time we ever play in Dallas. But who knows? It’s just not something we do. We’re not cut out for life on the road. So when we came up with the new show and were having discussions about what the show would be, I said I don’t want to do a show about copyright infringement or anti-corporate this or that or advertising. We need to do a show that’s Negativland’s weird take on America post-9/11, about America in the Bush era.
And you’ve kind of already gone over all that other stuff, right? Yeah, we have. Especially right now, things have become so bizarre and so dark with the direction our country has gone in. We all know that there’s torture going on and we just let it happen. Are we out in the streets just screaming our heads off to try and stop our government from doing this? Well, no. Because our government has so successfully scared us and played the fear card that we don’t do it even though we know it’s happening. It’s not unlike the early days of what was happening in Germany. The parallels to the early days of fascism in other countries is quite disturbing. If I use that word some people will say, “Oh, that can’t happen, this is America.” Well, I’m sorry, but it is happening here. And if you read history, we’re in the middle of…well, history’s gonna look very poorly upon what happened in America after 9/11. We’re gonna be judged very harshly, I think, and deservedly so. And our feeling was, as people going out and performing art, we need to respond to that. And we’re trying to do it in a creative way and in a way that suits Negativland. But this rise of fundamentalism that we’re seeing, both in the West and in the world of Islam…it’s kind of unbelievable that, in this day and age, that we have presidents saying that God tells them what to do.
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I think that’s one thing that a lot of people respect about you guys. You see a lot of art for arts sake, but very rarely is it so willing to go our and make a statement. Especially on the experimental end of the spectrum, I think. You see a lot acts who think that, just the fact that they’re experimental is protest enough. We get really excited by ideas. We love the surface of things. We love making weird noises, we love making crazy cut-ups and all that, but what really gets us excited about our work is when, at the center of all those textural things and experimental approaches, that there’s really strong ideas there. And the other thing that’s tricky is how do you do work that really is about ideas and has sociopolitical content, but works as art and doesn’t just come off as didactic finger-wagging. It’s tricky and we’re always struggling with it because, on one hand, we always want our work to be about something, but on the other hand, we don’t want it to just come across as propaganda. The aesthetic aspect it super important.
Well, how specific do you get in your message. Do you call people out by name? We don’t. In fact, that’s the line that crosses it. Doing a show about Bush or cutting up Bush [speeches] and making fun of him, for us in Negativland, is the last thing we would ever do. It’s a boring, uninteresting approach. I mean, Bush…he’s so easy to make fun of, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s pointless. And what’s good about this particular show of ours, or at least we feel, is that the subject is timeless and also really timely. We’re dealing with timeless issues but, because of the time that we live in, it gives the show and implied immediacy that seems to really affect people. And we’ve been getting really strong reactions from our audiences. People are really quite moved by the show and affected by it, and that’s great. That’s the best kind of response you can hope for.
Anything we didn’t get to that you want to explain to people about Negativland or about your show? Not really. You didn’t ask about the ax murder stuff or the U2 things, so I thank you very much for not talking about them!
Negativland performs at 8 p.m. on Sunday, April 20, at Sons of Hermann Hall. --Pete Freedman