.Negativland Samples Itself

Long-running Bay Area "culture jammers" broadens the scope of their live collaging.

According to John Oswald, the pioneer of sampling and musical collage behind 1988’s influential Plunderphonics, “if creativity is a field, copyright is the fence.”

Since 1980, Bay Area multimedia collective Negativland has thrived on punching holes in that rigid barrier, with its central philosophy of “culture jamming.” Defined by an omnivorous, democratic approach to sonic recycling, a fluid membership that challenges the traditional notion of a “band,” and an inherently playful disregard for the idea of intellectual property (or anything resembling “taste”), the group weaves together elements of high-minded sophistication and lowbrow stupidity, music and spoken word, and earnestly anti-capitalist values and tongue-in-cheek product placement.  This approach led Negativland to legal conflict upon the 1991 release of U2, its infamous skewering of Bono & Co.’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which was subsequently recalled and pulled from record store shelves. Later on, 1997’s soda salute Dispepsi and 2005’s No Business (which featured Mickey Mouse and the Starbucks logo on its cover) left the band anticipating cease-and-desist letters that, thankfully, never arrived.

While the recording industry’s legal departments have largely shifted their attention away from sample-lifters and toward consumer piracy, Negativland’s core members (Richard Lyons, Mark Hosler, Don Joyce, and Peter Conheim) have continued yanking the music world’s chain. A recent tour, titled It’s All In Your Head, compounded its sample-driven themes of God, monotheism, and the epistemology of faith by supplying the audience with blindfolds, while this year’s upcoming LP of the same name will come packaged in your choice of a Bible or Quran. 

The group’s most recent incarnation, Negativwobblyland (which included San Francisco collagist John “Wobbly” Leidecker in its rotating lineup), featured improvised music created entirely with “boopers,” its collection of homemade synthesizers dating back to 1975, proving a capacity for subversion beyond the use of sampled material.

Negativland’s current live set, which you can see at the Uptown on Saturday, incorporates the collagist, booper-driven methods of tours past, while introducing a new structural approach, which, according to Conheim, began as, “our weird, mutated version of a greatest hits show.”

“We’re pulling some familiar tapes from the Negativland canon, and reworking them into a live piece,” Conheim said. “Some of the short pieces from, say, [1987’s] Escape from Noise, are in the show, but they’re not played in any way like they’re played on the record. However, when we’ve done them, people recognize the material, so we are, in a sense, collaging ourselves, sampling ourselves, rethinking the way those pieces might work live.”

A total of nine boopers, activated by various keyboards and other electronic instruments, form the overall soundscape, while a grab bag of vocal samples imparts a splintered narrative on such topics as the eeriness of suburbia and the evil of Facebook. While Negativland’s performing trio of Hosler, Conheim, and Leidecker tested this approach at the Uptown late in 2012, a subsequent Midwest tour introduced video collagist Steev Hise to the mix. Hise’s visual contributions will make their Bay Area debut with Negativland at this weekend’s show.

“Steev does live, improvised video,” Conheim said, “so he comes onstage with a whole bunch of predetermined source material, and then he does a collage to our sonic collage. Parts of it are orchestrated, and parts of it are not. There’s a great deal of improvisation in the whole thing. So, adding a visual element is just sort of a continuation of the sound collage, onscreen.” 

Conheim waxed enthusiastic about the element of chance at the heart of this new show’s exchange of visual and sonic cues, describing it as emblematic of the ideals that have driven Negativland from the beginning. “If you’re aware, as the listener, that it’s being collaged live,” Conheim said, “and that we’re responding to each other in the tapes that we play … that’s very much a statement on the whole process of culture jamming and live collage.”

The appeal of Negativland’s “culture jamming” mentality exists largely in the rich mythology the group has cultivated over the years, most notably on the airwaves, with Over the Edge, Joyce’s radio show that KPFA has transmitted weekly since 1981. The program, described by Conheim as “the Negativland mouthpiece,” combines recordings from the band’s archive with narrative radio plays, contributions from live callers, and goofy propaganda, exemplified by a fake advertisement for the “Negativland All-Night Fourth of July Stockholders’ Picnic.” 

Between three decades’ worth of weekly radio appearances, a revolving cast of members, and recent speaking engagements by Hosler encouraging progressive reform of intellectual property laws, Negativland’s scope as a musical entity has grown to outweigh that of many other “bands.” Yet, its formidable discography has greatly influenced the output of newer artists toying with the notion of ownership, including the lush sample-surfing of the Avalanches, the contextual mishmashing of Hype Williams and James Ferraro, and the Top-40-melting-pot ideology of Girl Talk. With Saturday night’s show comes the next step in the Negativland legacy, as Hosler, Conheim, and Leidecker take the collagist approach to their own back catalog.

While the fence of copyright was initially built to encourage the growth of the arts, industry powers have used it to protect the U2s and Pepsis of the world from those aiming to co-opt, recontextualize, and potentially sabotage their message. Negativland has made its mark on the art world by fearlessly claiming the greener grass on the other side.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Jon Leidecker’s name. Also, we incorrectly stated that Richard Lyons is involved in the group’s current live lineup. It’s actually Leidecker. This version has been corrected.


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