Dead Set on Deconstruction

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

The show, while not entirely music-based (there is a puppet show, among other diversions), still clocks in at an ambitious 2 1/2 hours, and Joyce both admits to and is reticent about the enormity of it. He also notes that the band will be recording the tour stops -- currently at 26 dates and counting -- with vague plans for either the first official Negativland live album (plenty of bootlegs exist, but there's no legitimately authorized concert disc) or a studio album based on the True/False 2000 material.

If the live album does make it to the planning stages, it will have to wait for the next project, titled Death Sentences -- a combination book and CD coming out this summer. Like everything else in the Negativland universe, it's a fascinating concept. "One of our members, Richard Lyons, is prone to frequent wrecking-yard forays to find auto parts," explains Joyce. "He discovered, as he looked through these wrecks, he would find little scraps of paper and notes that the former owners had left in the cars. So he ended up collecting these -- some of them very weird and strange and funny and poignant -- and then taking a picture of the car he found them in. So the book is the text of the letter on one page and the car it was found in on the opposite page, and we made a sort of soundtrack. It's a very cool, conceptual thing."

The Death Sentences book is a homemade affair, from the design to the printing setup. "It's a big job, you know," Joyce understates. "We did one book before -- the Fair Use book -- and they are really a job to do. Books are not really our forte, going through the production and everything. It takes a long while, and it's very expensive." Book production might also help to explain why Negativland has been off the road for seven years, although it's certainly not the only thing occupying the band's time. The group runs its own Seeland label and a complex Web site (www.negativland.com), has been the subject of a documentary (1995's Sonic Outlaws), provided the soundtrack to two documentaries (the critical advertising tome The Ad and the Ego in '97 and Croppies, a look at the creators of English crop circles, in '98), released the brilliant advertising dissection Dispepsi in '97, put out the inflammatory Happy Heroes EP in '98 (featuring the outrageous and spot-on "O.J. and his Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole"), and recently completed work on a musical collaboration with notorious English anarchists Chumbawamba called, aptly enough, The ABC's of Anarchism.

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

With so much work behind him and so much time away from the live arena, Joyce recently ventured to Belgium to present a small solo presentation, as a bit of a tuneup for the new Negativland tour. There he was confronted with an audience almost as strange as a Negativland performance itself. "You always wonder when you look out at an audience that barely speaks English, and you're doing all these idiomatic American humor things," Joyce says of the experience. "There's not much response, they're not laughing in the right places, they're not getting it at all. Afterward, they told me that the Belgians are very cool. They don't respond. Europe is like this -- the further north you go, the less responsive they are. By the time you get to Scandinavia, they don't even applaud between songs. That's the thing; they're very serious over there about art and have much more respect, which I find disconcerting, actually."

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