Mark Hosler of Negativland: "Being on the Internet is about sharing the weird shit that you find."
Mark Hosler with his Booper
Mark Hosler is Denver Noise Fest's headliner for Saturday, April 25th at Rhinoceropolis. Hosler is best known as one of the founding and continuous members of legendary experimental band Negativland. That project earned a lifetime of notoriety for the 1991 release of its U2 EP. That art prank proved especially effective, considering U2's then upcoming album Achtung Baby had yet to be released.
The band's mischievous sense of humor and keen intelligence has kept it a relevant entity, but it's more than just ideas: Negativland's creative use of sound collage and cultural appropriation are enduring all on their own.
Hosler never performed as a solo artist until a couple years ago, and he will be throwing caution to the wind with an improvised set created for Denver Noise Fest. Just talking to Hosler, you get a sense of his native curiosity and energetic pursuit of creative projects.
Westword: As a creative person, you do more than music or sound art, though that's what you may be best known for.
Mark Hosler: For me personally -- I can't speak for the other guys -- that's one of the reasons I'm still doing this: That we get to wear so many creative hats. We get to do music, noise, sound collage, sing, visual art, costume design, sets, radio shows, lectures, books, make movies, do animation, have art shows. That was always one of the ideas from the very beginning, that Negativland would be this umbrella to do whatever it is that we want to do creatively.
Did you start recording onto tape when you were in high school?
Yeah! Or even earlier. David [Wills] was recording stuff when he was ten...I think most of us started messing around then. I started when I was about twelve. But really when I started experimenting with sound was when I was sixteen. It would be things like, 'What happens if I put a microphone in the bathroom and stick it into a phase shifter and run it into something else? What if I put chopsticks into guitar strings or put a guitar pickup on an oven grill and then brush the grill with some drum brushes?" Anything to experiment and play with sound.
It was so thoroughly exciting because I didn't know a lot about the history of people doing that. So to a large degree, my naïveté really worked to my advantage. When I got to know David and Richard [Lyons], David showed me how to make tape loops. Any young person now might not know what that means. But the idea that you could splice a piece of reel-to-reel recording tape end-to-end and play sound over and over was mind blowing. It just seemed like an impossible magic trick.
It was thrilling to play with tape speed and slowing them down and speeding them up and making echo. I remember going to record inside of a huge racquetball court because it had all this reverb. These are all things you can do now easily with software but back then that stuff was thrilling. I also realized how sound was so plastic because you could chop it up and mess with it, play it backward, mix it, layer it and all that.
It sounds like you were doing what today is called sound collage. But at the time, it may not have had an umbrella term that mixed the visual and audio concepts together.
Yes. I love all kinds of music, and I did then, too, but it was something I wanted to hear that I couldn't find much of: The mixture of noises, sounds, put together with a pop culture sensibility. There was something about it that was a mixture of high- and low-brow. Accessibly weird.
I found little bits here and there on some of the records I was listening to, but I wanted a whole universe of that. Where's the whole record album that sounds like that one thirty second segment from this record I thought was so cool? I remember specific tracks on a Pere Ubu record or Faust or Cabaret Voltaire or This Heat. There were certain records that had a little glimpse of that.
When I met David and Richard they were experimenting with sound as well. David had built something he called a "booper," which was made up of clock radio amplifiers feeding back on themselves, creating all these howling, clicking, chirping, crazy, electronic alien insect noises. I found it totally silly. I didn't know you could do that, but he built it himself. We've built more of them over the years. The show I will be doing solo myself is using lots of boopers.
They can feed into each other and modulate each other. They fight, basically, because they're each trying to do their own kind of stupid thing. Two of them or three of them are kind of hilarious, because they sound like a stumbling, falling, crazy, farting weird thing that quite often makes us laugh when we're performing.
Would you say that amusing yourself fed your creativity to some extent?
Absolutely. That's true of everyone in Negativland. If anyone has an idea that makes it funny, we'll almost always go for that. That's just in our nature. It's not contrived. It turns out that when you're doing something that's kind of intellectual, political, weird, avant-garde and kind of out there, if there's a lot of humor in it, it gives people a way in. I think that's worked to our advantage.
Going back to your original question, our earliest work was just pure, surreal, Dada, goofy, experimental weirdness. It's only as we kept doing more work we gradually started realizing, "Oh, you can use collage to talk about things with some interesting depth." You know: about our culture, the media, the insane world we live in in America, about power, government, military, money, religion and advertising. There are ways we can use the culture to talk about the culture.
That's why we kept doing it. The work had to keep evolving for us to stay interested. I think that's been a strong credo or ethic that everyone in Negativland shares -- that we've always got to keep trying new things and experimenting with what we're doing and push at our own edges. And sometimes run the risk that our audience may not like it. We may not please everybody. We hope we do but we've got to keep doing that. Especially now. We've been doing this for 34 years, and I think after that amount of time it would be easy to fall into a kind of pattern or just tread water. Luckily, everyone in the group has pretty good bullshit meters about that stuff. We don't always agree but everyone wants to see us doing things that are on the one hand uncompromising and challenging and yet be somehow weirdly accessible and interesting to people. And hopefully thought-provoking as well.
I think me and everyone else in the group take a childlike joy in playing with sound. We just love weird noises. I think that's something that every person performing at the Denver Noise Fest has in common: they like strange sounds. Why is that? I don't know. But going back to when I was six months old, my mother has this story about me crawling around the house and I would come up to the heat register and run my fingers along it. I just liked the sound of it. I would take cans of food out of the cupboard before I could walk and roll them on the floor. I would tear pieces of paper up. I guess I ate them too. But my mom told me, "I don't think it was really so much you wanted to eat the paper, I think you just really liked the sound of it tearing."
So there's always this nature versus nurture discussion in how we turn out as human beings. I've been a pre-school teacher in the past as well. There are things that are just innate. So I think I was, as Lady Gaga says, born this way.
With the solo show I can't do what Negativland does live, which is a much more densely layered mixture of sounds and voices and beats so I had to figure out what I could do on my own. My performance is a more a pure sound thing. I hope it's a kind of ear candy and fun and interesting to listen to. Nowadays the word "noise" means that kind of pure, distorted collage of earsplitting, feedback noise. That stuff is okay, but I'm not interested in doing that myself. I'm trying to do something that's dialed back from that quite a bit. It's too easy to do that kind of stuff.
I've got eight or nine devices and about the same number of processors and they all make these interesting, ridiculous, strange electronic sounds: bleeps, clicks, repetitive things. I've played with them enough that I can wrangle it enough to sound like an ever-shifting soundscape. Hopefully, if I'm doing a good job, you might not even know it's improvised. I'm also trying to improvise structure, form, dynamics so the show feels like a set. Not just one thing that I do. A lot of little movements in the whole thing. But that's being created on the fly.
With Negativland we know what we're going to do. We have a set and while there's improvisation within it but we know we're going to do various pieces. The solo show for me is scary as hell. It's very challenging. Going back to what I said before about challenging ourselves and for me doing the solo performances, I thought, "I think I can do this, but yeah, that scares the shit out of me." There's no back-up. I don't have my buddies to rely on. There's no safety net. My whole life all I've ever done is perform with Negativland. I've never been in any other group and solo stuff is a new thing to me in the last couple of years. So it's been a great challenge to see if I can do it.
Negativland has had some run-ins with companies and bands -- U2, or at least its record label, obviously being one of those -- for appropriating content that exists in the public sphere. Would you consider that in the realm of a prank and thus part of the humor factor in your work?
I think we have a sense of humor and a trickster, prankster-ish nature that I think permeates the work quite a bit. Sometimes it obviously really takes over and we end up doing something that gets more attention or has gotten us in trouble. Even when we're doing that, we're always trying to do really good work. We're never being shit-stirrers for the sake of being shit-stirrers. That wouldn't interest us. If there's shit-stirring happening, great. If it's mixed with doing something we think is smart, funny, thought-provoking, an interesting critique of something -- it has to have all those levels going on at once.
The U2 thing for me does that. I think that project works on five or six different levels. And one of those was that it got us into a lot of trouble. There are a lot of levels to that project, so I'm proud of it. Once we did get in trouble we took that on as an extension of the project. We didn't exactly expect that to happen but now what do we do? How can we use this to continue with our ideas about art and culture? Is there a way to use this as a "teachable moment" as a way to further this discussion. Which, back then in the early '90s, certainly needed to be had.
Nowadays it's a different discussion. I think kids are growing up now that do understand that you can take the media around you and mess it up and change it. It's not seen as a revolutionary, transgressive, provocative act like it was twenty and twenty-five years ago.
You were doing what is often attributed to Adbusters -- culture jamming.
It's interesting you think it stems from Adbusters because Adbusters took it from us. It was in 1984, and many years later a writer named Mark Geary started using it to describe a trend he saw happening in media and music and art. He wrote an essay in Adbusters and then Adbusters took it from that to describe what they were doing and from there it took on a life of its own.
From which of your works did that come?
Besides our studio records, we've released a series of CDs taken from our weekly, improvised radio show called Over the Edge. There are a series of volumes and the first Over the Edge release that we ever put out was called "Jam Con '84." It's on that. The international convention of jammers, basically. "Crosley Bendix," our resident cultural art critic and commentator, talked about something he called "culture jamming."
t's exciting for us that the term kind of took on a life of its own and people were using it to describe all kinds of activities. I will say, though, that I miss it being more of an edgy thing. It made it more exciting to do and like we were on a mission. Now there's so many people doing it, and in fact simply the act of being on the Internet is about sharing the weird shit that you find. People share that strange detritus on social media. The act of doing that has become extremely normal in the culture.
Whereas in the '80s and the '90s for someone to find all the strange stuff in the American cultural detritus and chop it up and put it in works of audio art? That wasn't something many people were doing. But there was a sort of archival aspect to it where we were presenting all this cool, weird, strange shit. The people that did that were on the fringes, the margins and the underground and there was something really thrilling and pleasurable about filling that role. Now everybody does it.
For more information on Denver Noise Fest please visit www.denvernoisefest.com
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.