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.
More of Hosler's thoughts on noise and accessibility are on the next page.