Negativland’s latest release, It’s All in Your Head, is packaged inside of a small, black bible. It has a mock leather cover, a tassel bookmark, and an insignia on the front featuring a cross, crescent, and Star of David. Sandwiching the scripture are two CDs, which contain a religious critique comprised almost entirely of found sound clips. Likewise, the package effectively samples the religious text. Band members Don Joyce and Peter Conheim said that the Bible packaging is the best act of appropriation that the group has ever pulled. As Joyce put it, it’s a “Negativland coup.”
The “best yet” claim is bold for a group that’s been consistently producing work for 35 years. The outfit originated in Concord in 1979 with Mark Hosler, Richard Lyons, and David Wills (Joyce joined the band in 1981 and Conheim came on later, in 1996). In high school, the founding members began cutting up reel-to-reel audio recordings and reassembling them to extract new meanings. Negativland approached mass culture as something malleable, meant to be satirized and turned against itself. It’s not surprising, then, that they turned these spliced-together sound clips into a distinct brand of musical mash-up.
After four self-released albums, Negativland saw its first wave of notoriety in 1987 with its inaugural release on SST Records, Escape from Noise. The single was “Christianity Is Stupid,” which sampled a 1971 sermon by Reverend Estus Pirkle, in which he predicts that communists will take over America. The refrain is Pirkle’s impersonation of the imminent, megaphone-touting red invaders: “Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!”
When Negativland couldn’t afford to tour behind Escape from Noise, the band issued a bogus press release that implicated their single in motivating the sixteen-year-old axe-murderer David Brohm to kill his entire family. Mainstream media believed the story, which shot the band into infamy.
The group garnered another round of media attention when it was sued by U2’s record label for copyright infringement for the 1991 single “U2,” which heavily sampled the band’s music. (They were forced to pull the record off shelves, but eventually re-released it in another form). Since then, Negativland has advocated for the right to copy, and for fair use laws that better protect cultural commentary, emerging as champions of musical appropriation. Negativland responded to the U2 controversy with humor, rightly earning the band its reputation as a group of clever provocateurs pioneering an unorthodox art form.
The group has been bicoastal since 1990, but the artists have kept collaborating from afar. It’s All in Your Head is Negativland’s first full release in six years. Joyce hosts a long-running radio show on Berkeley’s KPFA called “Over the Edge,” on which he offers three hours of live sonic collage every Thursday night. In 2004, he started a nearly yearlong series on the show about religion, which he called “It’s All in Your Head.” The band adapted his radio show for live performances and toured it from 2005 through 2010, mixing samples on stage for a (mostly) blindfolded audience. After manipulating hundreds of hours of religion-themed clips on the road for years, Negativland decided to turn the live show into a recorded opus on the topic.
The result is a constructed conversation that challenges the assumptions religion is based on, and questions the psychology behind the cultural obsession with the supernatural. Like most of Negativland’s work, it’s a montage of samples. The clips form a debate that rattles around the listener’s beliefs, highlighting the absurdity of assertions that there is one true God. A patchwork of voices argue for and against the validity of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and religion in general. It’s a mix of contemporary recordings gathered from TV and radio, old sermons found online, and garage-sale vinyl, such as scratchy voice recordings of teachers and children discussing faith.
The band considers it a “culture jam” — a widely adopted phrase that Joyce coined back in 1984. It refers to the artistic practice of snatching content from mainstream media, reconfiguring it, and inserting it back into the system to jam the machinery. The idea is to pull people out of their mass-media-induced daze and disrupt the culture industry. The general practice dates back to the European Dadaist movement of the early twentieth century, which produced works such as Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “L.H.O.O.Q” readymade featuring Mona Lisa with a mustache. Proponents today include AdBusters, which publishes adulterated advertisements that criticize consumerist source materials. In a way, the now common practice of remixing content and generating memes online is culture jamming on a massive scale.
The more ubiquitous and potent the icon being co-opted, the larger the wrench thrown into the system. That’s why Negativland believes that the Bible package is its best jam yet. “The Bible is such a culturally entrenched symbol in our psyches that it’s the perfect mind-grabber as a package for a creative work,” said Joyce.
Negativland knew the Bible was the right icon to crack open for debate when it realized how laughably easy and cheap the books are to acquire. (The band bought them in bulk from a dollar store, tax free.) As of now, Negativland has spent more money promoting the album than it did producing it. “America provides such a plethora of commercial products and we have, since the beginning, been interested in appropriating from that environment,” said Joyce. “So there it is, a Bible out there for $1. How the fuck did they print a bible for $1?”
Negativland asserts that It’s All in Your Head is not a religion-bashing record. It is against the idea that there is only room for one belief system, but hopes to relay that idea by pitting others’ zealous testimonies against each other, rather than piecing sound bites together to make their own. The group decided to keep the snippets longer than usual so that they could speak for themselves. It’s true that, compared to the band’s earlier work, this album feels more like a cultural reflection (albeit a murky-gas-station-puddle kind) because the clips aren’t explicitly wielded against their initial meaning.
Joyce and Conheim said that this shift is largely a reaction to the prevalence of techniques that Negativland pioneered. Because the group’s early approach to sampling is now ubiquitous — even as an apolitical, aesthetic technique — they adapted to continue defying expectations. For Negativland, the Bible packaging and the topic of religion felt like the extra nudge they needed to keep audiences on edge. As Conheim said, “We’re jamming God, you know.”