Negativland leverage the surrealism of information overload to reveal absurdities and hypocrisies in politics, religion, sexuality, the media, and the entertainment industry. Their collages of weird and whimsical electronic music with sampled speech from arcane sources make for recordings that sound like a discombobulated collision between Nurse with Wound and the Church of the SubGenius. A loose aggregate of sonic and visual subversives (some of whom dwell in Seattle), they've been doing it for 35 years. Their records and performances are disorienting, hilarious experiences that leave you dazzled and smarter (Escape from Noise and Helter Stupid are sterling examples). I caught up with cofounder Mark Hosler to discuss Negativland's past, their new album about the hazards of monotheism, and Casey Kasem.
Have Negativland stopped mourning the death of Casey Kasem [whose infamous profanity-laced rant was famously sampled in Negativland's U2] yet?
No. Now we're mourning the loss of his body. They don't even know where that is.
Are Negativland under suspicion for doing something shady with the cadaver?
We've been following the story closely and, uh... no comment. I think it was interesting that they wanted to autopsy him to see whether they were going to charge his wife with elder abuse. So in a way, she's kind of absconded with the evidence. [Eds. note: At press time, Kasem's wife Jean was planning to transport her husband's remains to Norway.]
Your new album is called It's All in Your Head and deals with monotheism. Is religion the most toxic institution in the history of humankind?
Boy, talk about a leading question. Hmm, I'd say religion and capitalism. It's a toss-up.
Negativland has never in 35 years of doing live performances toured in support of any records we make. It confuses people, but each medium to us is unique. We're experimenters. We always did things in the recording studio that are only doable there. However, when we took our ethic and aesthetic into a live-performance setting, we were adamant that it had to be really live. We didn't want to use backing tapes; we're not gonna use laptops and prerecorded things. The only way to do that was to see what we could do in a room together, improvising. We have live shows coming up and a new record coming out, so the media assumes it's all tied together. That's not the case at all. The new album is not in our show in any way. We're always trying to do things differently, even though sometimes it could be career suicide. We're always going to choose what we think is more creatively interesting, unexpected, off the wall, snarky, and provocative over whatever might seem to be the smart, normal way to promote a so-called career.
You know when bands have been around a long time and have nothing new anymore and are just playing their greatest hits? We've never done that. We've never even played things off our records. We thought it would be an interesting, strange thing to do some of the stuff we know our fans absolutely love. But in our typical fashion, we fucked them all up. It's kind of the piece, but with completely different music.
You're the Bob Dylan of experimental electronic music.
[Laughs] I'd say we're messing up our songs a lot more than he does.
You guys sing better, too.
Interestingly enough, Dylan is in our show. Remember the ad he did [for Chrysler]? We got ahold of the raw voice recording of Dylan doing that ad, and we've done something with it, and that's used in our show. The show also has brand-new stuff in it. It has old material that has brand-new unheard stuff mixed in and cut within it. We're taking that has-been, greatest-hits-type show idea and having fun with it and messing it up. In more than 30 years of live performing, we've never done it. I had a feeling it would make people happy, and it has.
The next project [It's All in Your Head, whose two CDs will be packaged inside of a Bible] is our first new album in six years. We've been working on it for many years, and I think it's one of the most ambitious, grown-up projects for us. We thought, let's take on the biggest subject we've ever tackled: why humans believe in god and how we try to make meaning out of our lives. Unfortunately, one of the ways we've come up with making meaning out of our lives is by inventing religion. And that's okay, except religion then gets used as a pretext for all kinds of horrific things we do to other humans. Witness the last few weeks in Gaza.
About our new project—some of us are atheist, some of us are agnostic. Some of us were raised Christian, some of us were not. I've read the Bible. I was a Christian when I was a teenager. I just wished we followed the words of Jesus. If we did, we'd have a country that taxed the hell out of the rich, we'd have universal health care, we'd have a living wage, the redistribution of wealth. If you read the words of Jesus, he was a radical socialist. If he were around today, the right wing would hate Jesus.
Are Negativland trying to persuade people to abandon religion? Do you view yourselves as propagandists, or are you just trying to reflect certain belief systems' insanity?
For me, we're provokers. We never make any project with the idea that it's going to change somebody's mind. If we did, I think our work would be very didactic. We're aware that we're dealing with these big, serious social justice, political, economic topics in our work, but we're trying to make them work as an aesthetic experience, something you actually enjoy listening to. It's not just somebody pointing their finger at you.
Our live show is both very structured and very improvised simultaneously. Every time we perform, there's no night that's ever the same at all. The new show's about an hour long. There's enough looseness to how we do it every night so it keeps us interested. We're all committed to wanting the live performance to have an element of danger. It could all fuck up and fall apart. We have to have a certain amount of imprecision and chaos and danger in the mix there. That's when everyone feels it's honest.