It's understandable that you might know Negativland only for the controversial moments of their career -- the mockery of U2, which got them into legal trouble, or their satire on the soft-drink industry in the album Dispepsi. And maybe you've even heard about their pranks on the news media. If you're a longtime Bay Area resident, maybe you've caught their radio show, Over the Edge, on KPFA, though you might not have known who the masterminds behind it were.
If that describes your level of awareness, here's something else you need to know: Negativland is a great band. They are a truly talented group of media slice-and-splice magicians that originally came from Contra Costa County and are now spread as far away as Seattle and North Carolina. And their newest album, It's All in Your Head, is proof positive that they have the skills. A powerful media collage that comes in the form of a radio show savaging organized religion -- specifically fundamentalism -- the album features audio wizardry that blows Radiolab out of the water. And it was done live in front of several audiences.
It's All in Your Head was officially released today. It comes packaged in a Bible. To highlight the group's first album in six years, we checked in with three members of Negativland -- Mark Hosler, Peter Conheim and Don Joyce -- and asked them questions about the new release and future plans for the band.
How long have you been performing It's All In Your Head?
Peter Conheim - It's All in Your Head was birthed as a live performance in 2005 with two shows in Canada, having been drawn from our member Don Joyce's Over the Edge radio series, which he had been doing for 20-odd weeks. So much of the material was already there to work with. It's always been the same show, but like all of our work has been, it evolved gradually through improvisation and discussion over the five years we performed it. And new material was brought in, which would sometimes throw us interesting curveballs, but the arc of the show remained the same.
Why record an album this way?
Mark Hosler - Negativland's first record came out in 1980 and our first performance was in 1980. We got asked by a local club in the San Francisco Bay Area to perform after our record came out. They mistakenly assumed because we were "a band" that we had a set that we could do. But we had never played live in our lives! I was still in high school; we made this stuff in our bedrooms. So when we were asked to perform live, we were thrilled to have the opportunity but we didn't know what the hell to do because there was no way to replicate our record on stage. This was 1980; the technology did not exist.
So we got together in a room with the instruments that we had and we said, "What can we come up with three-or-four of us in a room? What can we do?" And it sounded like what we were doing, but it was its own unique thing. So from the very first performance Negativland ever did, it had nothing to do with our records whatsoever. Nothing.
But why should we be duplicating our records on stage, even if we could? That's just kind of boring; [that's] not interesting to us. It's not playing around and being creative enough. We just like to mess with things and do things in an out-of-the-box, unconventional way. If any of us have an idea that's different, that isn't normal, we always want to look at that and consider it. That goes for how we do promotion, how we do PR, our press releases, our press photos... Every aspect of what we do, we think of it as part of the art.
When we started developing this show that we would eventually call It’s All In Your Head, we realized that what we were crafting was so interesting to all of us, we thought that perhaps we would make a finished studio project that was sort-of done in reverse to how we would normally do it. We would actually take the recordings as we’d done them in front of an audience and use that, because what we were doing live had its own quality to it that’s very different from our studio recordings. It’s something that we came up with that's all of us on stage, performing in real time. We're not using laptops; it's all being mixed and layered and cut up and collaged right in front of you, in real time. It became an interesting, different approach for us to take; essentially it's a carefully-constructed studio recording, but we're building it out of parts that we all recorded live in front of audiences.
Besides what you perceive as the obvious detrimental effects of organized religion, were there any direct inspirations for the piece? What are the origins of the work?
Don Joyce - There's no "besides"; taking these ancient mythologies as fact does cause all kinds of big and little problems in modern societies -- all the way up to summary execution for not believing them.
I'm fascinated with human gullibility and the dangers it poses. I've been creating religious collages of various kinds all the way back to the beginning of Over the Edge broadcasting. Thirty years, and it still hasn't changed much.
The effect [of religion] is that for masses and masses of people, intellectual integrity does not require truth. That worries me.
What is the scariest part about organized religion for you?
DJ - The God concept. This concept of a "Creator" of all this, with a personality and all, is obviously the ancient human's personification of evolution and their "reason" for existence.
Unfortunately, it is such a potent form of causal imagination in the human psyche that taking this lie seriously has been stuck in us right up to now. Organized religion has successfully institutionalized and legitimized this misguided form of mass delusion.
But all in all, thank God for religions of old, which were probably responsible for taming the brutish cave man in us and making gatherings of people living together in towns and cities workable.
Many of Christianity's medieval absurdities were weeded out in the Renaissance to keep it going and plausible as times modernized (though Islam has never done that), so we continue to comfortably pay undue respect to our organized religions with no end in sight.
MH - I think Islam has modernized a lot more than you think, Don. It just doesn't get good press in our country because our mainstream media prefers its own dumbed-down good/evil narrative. And I think Don’s other comments kind of imply that our project is straight up atheist and that his points of view are the points of view of the work itself. It's All in Your Head tries to express a wide range of critical perspectives on belief, and with some compassion and empathy for the fact that religion arises from a very human need to know why we are here, why we exist, why do good and bad things happen to us, what does all of this mean. Religion then gets hijacked for all sorts of terrible and violent and controlling things, but I don't think religion's basic origins are bad or hard to grasp.
Me, I cant stand fundamentalism of any kind, and that includes atheism.
If you read any polls, it's all kind of going away in the West anyway, and rather rapidly. So-called "Millennials" here and in Europe don't believe in this stuff nearly as much anymore. In a few more generations, religion as we know it may largely be gone from the West.
For such a serious subject, there's some truly silly bits in It's All in Your Head, with "Wildlife Tonight" being the silliest. It's practically a Monty Python sketch. Is there some commentary there that I could be missing, or do you guys just like to be straight up goofy, even when tackling such serious subjects?
PC - It was much more exciting to have a live chimp on stage for those sections, actually being shaved, then to use samples or canned sound effects, that's for sure. You said it, which is that our work is shot through with humor. That's what we do. In the case of "Wildlife Tonight," this was pure Don Joyce, insofar as it is very much in keeping with the flow of Over the Edge, our radio show, and It's All in Your Head was designed to be Over the Edge live on stage" (and indeed, the v.1 CD release has that as a subtitle).
You have to laugh at horror. That's the only way to get through it. And furthermore, we thought some levity was needed in a show like that. We're basically presenting you with an "aural documentary" or even – perish the thought – a lecture, so some humorous illustration seemed worth bringing to a live audience. And also, we realized that it sets the listener up to basically have the rug pulled out from under them, from an emotional standpoint, in Act II, which comes right after that and is tonally completely different.
MH - We performed that show (I think) 35 times and I was the chimp. And to do the chimp sounds, for as long as I have to do them each night -- it's 10 minutes of the show -- it's excruciatingly painful, as it turns out. As we were developing that portion, the original idea was that the chimp would be prerecorded. and I just for the hell of it, I said “I wonder if I can make chimp sounds.” And I tried it and thought “Oh, that actually sounds pretty good! But then I thought, "Oh my God, I'm committing to do this every night and it's going to kill me!" And it did.
I think sometimes the audience could tell the endurance part of it when they were watching that part of it during the live performance. I hope there was some laughs to be had not just from the dialogue (which I think is great). But you're watching me slowly just completely dissolve into physical pain, just to keep being the chimp through the whole thing. It was kind of a nightmare. I really did want a banana afterwards.
DJ - I'd say shaving the chimp is evolutionistic silliness added to a serious treatment of a subject that is already full of silliness.
Was the audience blindfolded for the "Head" shows? If so, did people actually keep them on? Also, you now work with a video artist -- was that to enhance the live shows or were there other motivations?
PC - Yes. We handed out paper "piñata" blindfolds at each show. Depending on the show and the city, the audience might remain 50 percent blindfolded or more. But oddly, in Boston, NO ONE wore them. It was almost a statement of defiance on their part. But the entire concept of the blindfolds was to directly remind the audience that they are listening to "radio." Indeed, one of the lines in the introductory script was, "there's nothing to see here. This is radio."
Working with Steev Hise on video collage in our current show is just a way to bring imagery back into our live show, as visuals were historically critical in our live work, all the way up until we deliberately plunged audiences into the darkness inside their own heads for It's All in Your Head.
In a recent interview, Peter mentioned that one of your pieces was created after he and another member heard Marc Maron rant in his podcast about the idea of content. Is this typically how the pieces start? What about in the beginning, when you were dealing with tape?
PC - That's one way it happens. Sometimes you find the material and sometimes the material finds you. Steev [Hise, a new band member] and I simultaneously had the same response to Maron's particular rant on the subject and wanted to do something with it, and it turned out to feel so strong that we led off the show with it. Indeed, the show became named "Content!" as a result. But certainly, especially in Don's case and my own case, material for It's All in Your Head was definitely sought out. We needed material which addressed faith, monotheism, your brain, etc. Don tends to have multiple sources of audio (and sometimes TV) playing in his room all at once, grabbing what seems interesting to him as he goes, and has a monstrously huge backlog of content from 34 years of preparing radio shows. I tended to seek out relevant content from specific sources.
A good example that I love is Voice of America's Special English radio program, in which announcers read very simple stories and... read... them... very... slowly... and... deliberately for listeners to whom English is a second language. It's often pure gold. In this case, I would seek out stories which were about the brain or about "God." On the other hand, a record found me in a rummage sale which became a crucial theme throughout the show, called A Child's Idea of God. It's a privately-pressed record which appears to be from the late 1950s on which a teacher or other adult figure asks children to discuss their ideas of what god is. Fantastic.
DJ - As for me, my weekly five-hour radio show, Over the Edge, has me constantly collecting raw material from many sources, which then provides a huge base of raw material that can be honed down into specific stuff for Negativland projects. OTE has been a major spawning ground for Negativland releases.
Do you ever worry that you're preaching to the converted?
PC - It's an unavoidable question or concern, insofar as we are a strange group with a strange and relatively specific audience, not a pop group with mainstream exposure. But one of the most interesting dances we did while creating It's All in Your Head was trying to steer away from material which might come off as too mocking, too obvious, too easy to target. In that sense, we were trying to avoid preaching to the converted because we're trying to make you think about a variety of viewpoints and how they mesh, on perhaps THE most hot-button topic.
DJ - Yes, given what we know about our audience of "fans" out there, we are preaching to the converted. I hope at least we're doing it in a clever way.
MH - I don't think it's that simple. I like to recall what our longtime associate and culture critic Mr. Crosley Bendix once said: "Intelligence is temporary." Hearing stuff we already know, but in new ways and in new contexts and in new mediums, can actually be... new. And as Negativland worked over the years creating It's All in Your Head, we made it to challenge ourselves first of all, hoping that if it did, it would be thought-provoking to our fans and those who heard it.
Will any of the original members have to be associated with the group for it to continue, or is Negativland a concept that will live forever, no matter who is involved?
MH - One of our members is now almost 71 years old. And I started working with Richard and David 36 years ago. [Laughs] So if someone had told me then that we'd all still be doing this now in 2014, I would not have believed them. But we are, and as dysfunctional as this group can sometimes be — and boy can it be — we all seem to be committed to staying in this weird, dysfunctional marriage for the sake of the baby. The baby is Negativland and the problem with the baby is that it never grows up. You never get to say, “Well, you’re out of high school now and you get to leave the house! Go to experimental music college and leave us alone. Your father and I can get a divorce now.” We can’t do that because we have to keep taking care of this disabled little baby; it’s got too many special needs to be out on its own.
So there is that question — which has honestly come up given how long we have been at this and how extended the Negativland "family" is these days— of what might it take for us to finally say, “Okay, we’re done, we’re pulling the plug”? Would it be if any single one of us died? Or, if a particular member died, but enough other key members were still around, that we’d keep going? Well we don’t know — we're not really sure. But the original members of the group are still part of this group to this day — each in their own way, doing what they feel most comfortable doing.
This edited interview is based on a conversation with the band and email exchanges.