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.
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 Digest version 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.”
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.
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.”