By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
In medieval times, a form of recreational torture involved placing a condemned person's head inside a heavy, cast-metal church bell and ringing it until he or she went insane. Forget about going deaf. We're talking flipped-out, gone-down-the-road wacko, Nurse Ratched. Such nerve-shattering law and order instilled fear into a nation's beleaguered masses; more important, it guaranteed the nation's monarchy a steady supply of obedient ding-a-lings.
Inspired by such extremes in human depravity, Negativland -- an experimental music and art collective from San Francisco -- released Escape From Noise in 1987, a landmark album that dabbled in forms of auditory punishment much more fun than Quasimodo could ever imagine and took the group's prior experiments with noise perversion to new levels. Obsessively reassembling found sound, spoken word, rhythm loops, field recordings, car bombs and generous helpings of cartoon noise, the massive collaborative effort resulted in an astonishing work of studio-enhanced kitchen-sink sound collage. Escape amuses, educates and disturbs -- sometimes simultaneously.
Today, after devoting twenty years to the game -- and amassing a body of work that includes eighteen CDs, the video Sonic Outlaws and a body of text on copyright law titled Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 -- Negativland is once again bringing its traveling media circus to the people. In what is perhaps the group's final outing, the True/False 2000 Tour attempts to discern fact from fiction in today's stifling, desensitized shut-up-and-buy culture. It purportedly embodies what founding member Mark Hosler defines as "psychic self-defense," a healthy response to the ever-growing chaos of commercialized 21st century info glut. "The self-defense that we're practicing -- dealing with this kind of corporate-media advertising-overloaded society we're in -- is the work we do," Hosler explains. "That's how we process it and deal with it. To literally take it in and chew it up and spit it out again, hopefully into something artistic and compelling. But if I try to just reduce it to a simple little soundbite, I think it's gonna make the show sound kinda dopey."
After a seven-year break from touring, True/False 2K promises anything but brand-name music for brand-loving listeners. (In its last outing, Negativland employed the slug- salting talents of perennial Denver goofballs Little Fyodor and Babushka as openers; this time around, with a show nearly three hours long, there's no need for a warmup act.) The thirteen-person "band" includes Hosler, Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, Peter Conheim, Pastor Dick (who provides the opening prayer and convocation for each performance), Crosley Bendix (the man credited with discovering squant, our oft-overlooked fourth primary color) and Marsha Turnblatt (who often discusses the benefits of spanking children), plus various auxiliary performers and "emergency backup humans." Using mostly analog A/V equipment -- old 16mm film and slide projectors, dated radio-station cart machines, synthesizers and turntables -- the spectacle will also offer a puppet show Hosler guarantees to be "appropriate for all ages." In other words, the revolution will not be digitized. And don't worry about the physical absence of David Wills, the "Weatherman," who needs to stay home and tend to his cats and germs. "He's in the show in a huge way, but he's not actually there," Hosler notes. "He appears via the miracle of high technology." Despite such logistical configurations, Hostler maintains that the content of the performance is in no way predetermined. "It is very live, what we do. It's all being thrown together in real time as you hear it. Which means it's fraught with the possibility of it all falling apart and going wrong. Eighty percent of the show you will never have heard anywhere on any Negativland record. We sample ourselves and recontextualize it into new pieces."
Such sleight of hand has always been Negativland's stock and trade, a quality that places the group in the musique concrète with experimental composers like Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, John Cage or the Tolerated. Negativland still draws comparisons to satirists like the Goon Show and Firesign Theatre and has been dubbed "sonic deconstructionists," "hick-nerd wise-acres" and "information highwaymen" in varied critical reviews over the years. "Culture-jammers" is the term the collective coined for itself in 1984, four years after the founding members (Hosler, Lyons, Wills, Joyce and Chris Grigg) met at the Audience Studies Institute -- an after-school job where they phoned people about their favorite TV shows -- and discovered a mutual interest in making funny noises. They began dragging gear to one another's bedrooms to experiment and create. "For me, it was like discovering fire or something," Hosler recalls. "Miking faucets and running it through a phase shifter. I was absolutely thrilled to death to combine all these sounds together."
Over the years, the group garnered a reputation not just for manipulating sound but for manipulating the press as well. Consider Escape's 1988 followup, Helter Stupid, an album inspired by David Brom, the Minnesota teenager who killed both of his parents with an ax in 1987. Taking a cue from the media scrutiny surrounding the alleged suicide-provoking qualities of Judas Priest's music and the urban legends of subliminal messages encoded in the back-masking of Beatles songs, Negativland issued a phony press release implicating itself in the murders; the release suggested that the tune "Christianity Is Stupid" (from Escape) might have driven Brom to bludgeon his mom and pop to death. (Featuring the "found" vocal of Reverend Estus Pirkle, the cut contains the repeated slogan of its title and others like "Communism is good!" over a droning metal score). Neg's press release also included a decree from a fictitious federal official named Dick Jordan, who advised the band not to leave town pending an investigation into the slayings. Soon afterwards, the press came a-sniffin', and the band received requests for interviews from the San Francisco Chronicle, Pulse, BAM, Penthouse, The Village Voice and several fanzines. Determined to satisfy the public's appetite for the sensational, CBS television's Bay Area affiliate KPIX ran a lead story emphasizing links between murder and music and supplied footage of the Brom family -- killed two time zones away -- being carried from their home in body bags. After exposing the incompetence that passes for news, Negativland decided to depict the entire media odyssey on Helter Stupid, an outrageously strange and funny brand of public performance art.