Dead Set on Deconstruction

On what may or may not be its farewell tour, Negativland makes the most of an age of uncertainty

It's been seven years since Negativland ventured out to the heartland to relate its strange tales and stranger execution on the stages of America. Don Joyce, one of the band's human interfaces, can barely believe the lapse in time himself. He has one concrete fact at his disposal that makes the impending Negativland tour a certainty.

"I have the plywood," he deadpans. "We do things live rarely, even locally. For one thing, it's so hard to re-create the records onstage, which people kind of expect. But we don't do that. Whenever we do a live show, we pretty much figure it out in terms of original material that's made for the stage. So it's a big job working it up, a lot of preparation."

Twenty years ago, the collective of musical deconstructionists set a course for uncharted (and in the musical sense, unchartable) waters. In the spirit of its Bay Area genealogy and as a reaction to the whole Beach Boys-Walt Disney view of California in general, it called itself Negativland. Using real instruments over a complex and highly orchestrated and arranged cacophony of found sound collages, the members of Negativland began employing this new form as a forum for exposing inequities in the existing so- cial, cultural, and musical systems. They had their work cut out for them from the very start.

The cultural absurdists of Negativland, pranking again.
The cultural absurdists of Negativland, pranking again.

Negativland's sonic collage method was born from an artist's desire to do something radically different within the framework of traditional musical presentation, but predicated on the very real fact that the band had absolutely no means to pay for any sound or musical passage that they appropriated. They were sampling long before hip hop and rap made the term a household phrase, and they dug deep into the recesses of thrift stores and used record shops to acquire the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle for which no picture existed.

The Negativland story takes a number of hairpin twists and turns from here on out, and any attempt to encapsulate the band's incredibly labyrinthine misfortunes and legal dispositions would be the equivalent of a Reader's Digestversion of War and Peace, done with a crayon. Hosting a radio show called Over the Edge on KPFA gave the band plenty of fodder, as it made use of phone calls and samples to create insane montages that eventually showed up on albums. Always up for a good prank, Negativland released a song called "Christianity Is Stupid" in 1987 and then canceled a subsequent tour after a Minnesota teen reportedly killed his entire family with an ax. The murders were a hoax, but Negativland got plenty of press (and laughs) out of the prank.

But the single most recognizable blurb in the Negativland résumé is the one that thumbnails the band's decade-long battle with Island Records and U2 over the use of a sample of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" for the Negativland single "U2." The truly unbelievable conflict was fully explored in the band's book on the subject, Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, which detailed the almost draconian pursuit of the negligible and independent Negativland by the corporate musical machine known as U2.

That fight nearly finished the band, but in the end, Island and U2 simply gave up, and the whole incident went away after SST Records took the song off the shelves. (The only thing still preventing the single's reissue is Casey Kasem, who steadfastly refuses to allow the group to use his American Top 40 outtakes on the song.) Over 10 years later, in 1998, Negativland and the Recording Industry Association of America would lock horns over the manufacture of the band's material at RIAA pressing plants, because of its use of samples and found sonic snippets. The association tried to defend the fact that individual plant personnel were making decisions about what materials should be pressed and what should be questioned, based on a vague and inept interpretation of RIAA guidelines against piracy. The association ultimately relented and even issued revised guidelines concerning the concept of "fair use" in the copyright laws.

The theme of Negativland's current tour is "True/False 2000," a concept that has no new product to support its presentation, but that features classic Negativland polemics -- the tour arrives in San Francisco on May 27 at the Palace of Fine Arts. "It's basically the idea that, here in modern life, it is so difficult to tell what is true and what is false, especially in terms of the media flow," Joyce says of the band's banner for the tour. "And also that we, as individuals, have no way to personally verify what is true and false. The information is often contradictory, we get mixed messages, and it's a constant barrage of that. I think that characterizes life in a very unique and peculiar way. We are inundated and saturated with information, more than we can possibly use, actually, and all of it so contradictory: 'Did you hear? Chocolate's good for you again.' You never know what to believe. And that's sort of what the whole feel of the show is like."

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