Late last month, the Concord-born experimental band Negativland released a new album, The Chopping Channel. Included in its packaging were artifacts from the band's history, such as some of their loop cartridges or "carts," and, more notably, a few ounces of crematory ashes from Don Joyce, the long time Negativland member who died last July.
Their morbid packaging became a viral story on the internet, covered by Pitchfork, NME, the AV Club and even NPR. Over 500 articles were published online. But if the members of Negativland are to be believed, only two reporters asked to listen to the album. (I was one of them.)
Good arts journalism dictates that reporters should make themselves familiar with the art they are reporting on, so it's disappointing that so few made the effort. If they had, they would've been treated to a display of sampling virtuosity by masters of the form, set against a recurring Monty Python-flavored sketch skewering shopping-channel consumerism.
Negativland has always favored sly subversion over preaching, and instead of smashing the listener over the head with "consumerism is bad," The Chopping Channel delivers graceful uppercuts of comedic timing and black humor. One of the album's running gags is "Man of the World," a character who, by his accent, is clearly "of the world" -- but emerges as a greedy, chakra-hustling guru from Sausalito. As a comment on the dismal economic state of music, "Bud Choke," the disembodied voice of Joyce, repeatedly informs the listener that "music has never been cheaper." As for the songs, they're reminiscent of Chrome, hometown heroes of psychedelic punk, at their weirdest.
When the band sent the answers to my questions this week, they informed me that this would be the "definitive" interview for this album. Presumably this means no outlet has asked about The Chopping Channel in such detail, so here it is, uncut. (Okay, two questions were cut, but that's because the questions were dumb.)
Is including the ashes of Don in the album's package the most morbid prank you’ve ever pulled?
It’s actually not a prank at all, though we were well aware that we’d have to make sure people knew it wasn’t a hoax. A “prank” is a trick, but putting Don into the CD is not a trick: indeed, a CD buyer doesn’t automatically receive the ashes gift without specifically ordering from our website, which clearly explains what you get. For those folks purchasing through other streams of commerce, there’s a note inside of the CD itself saying they have to write to ask for it. Which we will send out to you, for free.
It was a leap of faith that committed fans would recognize this as the gift that it is, and treat the reality of it with a bit of respect. Of course, we also realized the sensational aspects of this kind of limited edition, and weren't surprised that it went viral on some outlets that chose to emphasize it as a morbid bit of morning news banter (and just what exactly does one do with the ashes of a person whose creativity you have enjoyed, but whom you have never even met?).
The entire gesture is also tied to the content of the album, which imagines a shopping network where everything and anything can be productized and offered up for sale, including things made from human remains and bodily fluids. So why not add Don into the mix? It was too perfect of a gesture for us not to do it, as this was already slated to be our next release at the time of his death. It quickly took on new significance to us as a tribute to Don and his oft-stated commitment to art as his entire life's purpose. He once spoke casually of committing suicide if the Over the Edge radio show were ever canceled! He prioritized his art over sleep, health, a social life, and family; he was his work. So it made sense to transform it into a kind of memorial release, have it literally be Don, and, if our idea worked, bits of him would eventually be in the care of over 1,000 different people, literally all over of the world. It would be taking our 37 years of re-use/re-purposing ethic and aesthetic about as far as we could possibly imagine going with it.
It's worth mentioning that Don was once on board with the idea of selling his teeth as a release on our web site, including the gold crowns, after he had a full-mouth extraction. It never happened, though, because he spontaneously just threw them out instead!
What was the concept behind this album?
In the late '90s, "The Chopping Channel" became a recurring theme on our weekly Over The Edge radio program, a framework in which we could collaborate with fellow sampling artists (People Like Us, Yasuhiro Otani, Thomas Dimuzio and others) in the guise of a 24-hour-a-day shopping network, selling music by the second, atomized into easy-to-use fragmented streams; "More Music in Less Time." The project was even performed in concert a few times. It took on a new dimension when we brought in longtime collaborator Mark Gergis (a.k.a. Porest), whose autodidactic ethnomusicology with the Sublime Frequencies label naturally led us to a new character: The Man From The World, an authentic foreigner from everywhere, here to sell you products extracted from the very soul of the world. His charisma and invaluable credibility forced us into uncharted territory, selling much more than just music -- who would like to buy an hour of their own life? Or invest in ethnic prosthetics? Order now, and find out how.
What made you want to take on consumerism?
That's a theme that we have been dealing with in our work since our very first LP. But as they keep upping the ante in selling our own immaterial experiences and beliefs back to ourselves, we have to keep pace. While we hope it’s “funny” in a sort of Dada way to listen to, we hope that by the end of The Chopping Channel a larger view is evoked about the utter insanity of the unsustainable socio-economic system that we all find ourselves trapped in. You are the product!
Will using cart machines become a lost art now that Don is gone?
Considering that he was, as far as we know, the only true artisan of the creative use of the long-dead technology of the tape cart machine as a layering and collaging tool, as opposed to just a delivery system for linear advertising, the art form may have died with him. If someone wants to pick up the baton, they should go for it; the gestures of juggling carts are a lot more fun than clicking and loading files. The inclusion of one of Don's tape carts is as integral to the packaging as the ashes -- those were his tools.
One of the most moving and emotionally satisfying parts of this project has been watching people post photographs of their cart as they receive it -- closeups of Don's handwriting on each label, indicating loops or cut-ups that were extremely well known to long time fans of the radio show. If you check out the release we did before this one, It's All In Your Head, you can hear great examples of the kind of real-time cut-ups Don was able to do with those cart machines, as that project was also created almost entirely from live performances.
What are some ideas Don brought to the table specifically for this album?
Most of the early shows were punctuated by Don's monologues as Bud Choke; rants about usable music, shorn down to easily controllable granules that better suit our fast-paced lifestyles. Save time by throwing away all the parts of the music you no longer need! Don’s monologues on this subject are threaded throughout the album, and he used all three limbs to inject hundreds of microsamples into the mix, surfacing every once in a while long enough to yell, “I don’t know what these other guys are selling, but I’m selling music!” He was totally a part of creating the final CD edit and wrote liner notes in character as Bud. Don also happens to be very much a part of our current live stage show, even though he's dead! We saw no reason to let that get in the way.
How much work went into doing the live radio shows?
Narrative ideas and potential products were determined in advance, but when broadcast time arrived, improvisation ruled. As when you go on vacation: only book a hotel for the first night, and don’t plan the rest in advance. Having said that, this album has more layering and editing of the original broadcasts than any of our Over the Edge albums up to this point.
What has this recent media blitz showed you? How many outlets have asked to listen to the new record?
Some things have changed, but at heart it is still media about media about media. Only now the cycles are instantaneous. Instead of mailing out a press release, the blog Boing Boing invited us to make a slightly more informal guest post, which we mirrored on our Facebook page. Twenty-four hours later, an explosion of coverage appeared, lightly re-authoring our post. Almost no one contacted us for a comment or primary quote, virtually no one asked to hear the record, and no one was trying to find out if our announcement that this was not a hoax was itself a hoax -- no time! It was fascinating to watch our casual Facebook posts and replies to fan comments become sources for certain reporters looking for more copy. We're lucky those comments were chosen in a way that seemed sympathetic to the concept, because those quotes carried far.
Almost 30 years ago our Helter Stupid prank illustrated just how vulnerable the media is to reporting outright hoaxes as facts, and how media coverage in and of itself tends to authenticate a "story" as a truth. On one level, the lessons of that prank now seem hilariously old-fashioned and trite: no one trusts the mainstream media anymore. An updated prank would illustrate how there is no dividing line between traditional media and the social media we now use to source our reality; we are even more vulnerable to confusing beliefs and facts when they are voiced by trusted online friends.
What has the media blown out of proportion or reported incorrectly?
As it went on, some upped the morbidity or sensationalism. One headline changed 'ashes' to 'charred human remains' -- a far more clickable headline, prompting a very different emotional reaction to our memorial to Don. We weren't surprised.
Have you sold a bunch of records because of the attention surrounding Don's ashes?
It turns out that 1/4 teaspoon servings of Don go a lot further than we originally thought, so we were able to make 1000 stickered packets of him. That limited edition has been disappearing pretty quickly to the core group of people who follow the group. It's certainly possible the publicity might bring curious listeners to Spotify, or YouTube.
So we know that re-contextualization is a big part of your work. Is this album an example of you re-contextualizing your own recordings?
Well, it's certainly an example of re-contextualizing one of our own members! But the album audio itself is pretty much all new. As it has been coming on four decades of work, recently some old songs have found their way into our live concerts. It's physically impossible to play them the same way we once did, and it appeals to us to mess them all up, so they end up sounding pretty different. It is admittedly fun to hear the audience cheer five seconds into a track once they recognize an opening sample. Give up!
Will a release come out of Beyond Over the Edge?
Some recent episodes of the post-Don Over The Edge have basically been trial runs for sections of the next album in progress, which is still taking shape. Some bands break new material in on the road; we break the new material in on the air!
Have you gotten any good material from this election?
It's already an artwork, or at least a narrative -- it doesn't need us. But we do love what Bryan Boyce just made about it, which nearly seems to have made itself:
Finally, what do you have against Sausalito?
We love houseboats, we are followers of Roy Harrison Kesketh and his spiritual practice there, we love ignoring alien orders. How could we not love Sausalito?
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