Negativland Interview

Originally printed in Spinal Jaundice #9 – 1989


For the past 10 years or so, Negativland has been the virtual epitome of ‘experimental’ music. Their records display the extreme auditory mish-mash; always characteristic of themselves, but no one has really surpassed the degree of ingenious experiments that they use. Their latest effort is an LP on SST, “Helter Stupid,” a subsequent document from the phony press release they issued saying that the band, or more specifically, their song “Christianity is Stupid,” sparked a 16-year old Minnesota boy to murder his family. It made television, got Rolling Stone magazine asking about ‘backward messages,’ and no doubt got the interest of anyone who would listen. You won’t be the same after you listen.

MJ: Who is in Negativland?

MH: I guess there’s myself, I’m Mark Hosler. And there’s Richard Lyons, David Wills, Chris Grigg, Don Joyce.

MJ: Tell us about “Helter Stupid.”
MH: We sent out that press release, of course we made the whole story up. There was no connection in any way, shape or form between us and that kid and those murders. I hope it’s pointed out clearly in those liner notes it wasn’t intended as a publicity stunt. At all. It was intended as really an experiment of seeing what happens to information when you send it out into the media. We figured that they would check up on their facts, and they would discover very quickly that there was no basis to the story. What happened was that they didn’t check out their facts. We never even really said it was true. In our original press release we said there was a rumor that there was a connection between our song, “Christianity Is Stupid” and the quadruple axe-murders in Rochester, Minnesota. So we never even said it was true ourselves. What happened is the media kept re-reporting the story and the language slowly changed, it got distorted. So by the time it was getting on TV and in the chronicles they weren’t saying it was a rumor anymore, they were just saying it was true. Since the record has come out though, we have gotten phone calls from TV stations in Minnesota and gotten written up in a Minneapolis newspaper which is pretty close to where the incident happened. Much to our surprise, the information had gotten all the way back to the town, to the lawyer, and to the boy. We weren’t involved because we were interested in the murders, we were interested in seeing in a real immediate kind of way what would happen with the media experiment. We certainly had no intention of turning it into a record album. But once the story took off and got bigger and bigger, it really got out of control. We realized that the only really responsible thing for us to do was to finally tell the truth. The idea of the record, it’s really carefully put together so that it stands alone. I mean we’re talking now, but for anyone who buys the record, they don’t have a little chattering Negativland member sitting there to explain what it means. The record has to make sense on its own. We were very careful about those liner notes and how we put that together, for anyone who takes the time to buy it. And I think a lot of people won’t. But that’s up to them. If you do take the time to really listen and read, the whole story should become pretty clear. And any conclusions to be drawn by the listener.

MJ: Obviously a lot of press information went into the album, but how about since its release?
MH: Well we’re just starting to find out. It looks like we may be getting into even more trouble. “Helter Stupid” makes some really strong general points about the distortion of information. However, the way we chose to make those real general points was by being very specific. We’ve named writers and newscasters, and now this obviously doesn’t make them look very good. I’m not exactly clear what’s going to be happening. Some of these people on the audio of the record and in the liner notes have taken notice to what we were doing and are not happy. I don’t think that we’ve actually done anything wrong but I think that the copyright laws are pretty outmoded these days because of what’s happening with the technology of Xeroxing, and digital duplication of information with computers. But whether we’re in the right or not, we’re small and don’t have any money for lawyers or anything, so one of the big corporations could try to stop production of the record. It’s pretty disturbing. There’s two things that were going on here. One is that a real murder happened. A really horrible tragedy. Something that’s probably beyond understanding, that you nor I can comprehend. The other thing that’s going on is the media story about what happened. In which the media took what happened and chopped it up… I guess that’s a good word to use basically…and turned it into another good, entertaining news story. How much of what comes out of the news that really has to do with the truth, I really don’t know. I don’t think a lot of writers really do try to be objective. They have got an editor to please, they’ve got a career to worry about, they’ve got a time slot to fill and they have got to make it entertaining television. Or good reading. Particularly TV, regardless of how good your intent is, it’s inherent in how you present information on TV that it’s just going to reduce the information to the lowest common denominator. The simplest description possible. We’ve already tried to talk to a few regular news sources about our story and it’s impossible. What we’ve tried to do in “Helter Stupid” is very complex. It doesn’t come across well on TV or something. They always want to reduce everything to what looks good on TV. We’re dealing with something that we’re sort of calling in the liner notes ‘factual fiction,’ or I’ve heard other people call it ‘infotainment.’ On the other hand, this really did happen. There really is a David Brom and he was tried and convicted. And to imagine this kid who has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life, on top of that he has to live with someone who made a record out of it and put his picture on the cover. That’s not something that I think Negativland feels too good about. Someone described the whole project to me. He said, “The whole thing is kind of like one of those really weird kind of sick ideas that you have, but no one would actually do.” But we went ahead and we actually did do it and acted on that impulse. We put out that press release and let it fall as it went. There was no master plan. That’s why we put that statement at the end of the liner notes. I don’t like a work of art that tries to tell me how to think, and we try not to do that but because of the subject matter being so incredibly touchy and loaded, we had to make some sort of statement. It was to let the listener know that we had some ambivalence about the ethics here. It was just so fascinating watching from the inside how the media was operating and usually it’s viewed by outsiders, but this time we were the subject of our own experiment.

MJ: How about the other portion of the album, all the resurrected 70’s material? How’d that come about?
MH: We were working on it originally as a 12” single. And it expanded to a huge piece. “Perfect Cut” was supposed to be the B-side of the single and it expanded. “Helter Stupid” ended up being a 21-minute long mini-epic. The B-side, “Perfect Cut” ended up being 26 minutes long. And it seemed like a good sort of subtext of the “Helter Stupid” story was music. Music and murder. We had a theme on “Escape From Noise” and we had so much material left that we decided to use it. It’s a good B-side in the world of music.

MJ: Aside from the massive effort for each album, particularly the new one, what else has been happening since the last record?

MH: We put out 2 cassette-only releases, “The Weatherman” and “Pastor Dik.” And there’s now three of them, the other one was “Jamcon ‘84” which came out a couple years ago. And there’s going to be more. We’re just very picky about the graphics for albums. We spent a long, long time trying to get the typeface just right, and trying to get the back cover to look right…to look like something you would get at some fifty cent used record bin. Like a 1970’s record.

MJ: Yes I noticed a contrast between the front and back cover. It’s like 2 in 1.
MH: Yeah we were working really hard to make that contrast. You turn the record over and you’re kind of like, “What? What’s this? What is this band?” In a way it is kind of like two records in one but in a way I see them as both being pretty connected. Side 2 is kind of like exploring a tangent that was raised on side 1.

MJ: Were you into sound experiments prior to the initial Negativland release?
MH: Our first record was in 1980. I was just graduating from high school when that came out. And a couple years previous to that we had started just messing around with a lot of loops and sounds and noises and tapes and stuff. We were in the suburbs, I really was not aware of what was going on in independent music. I wasn’t familiar with the more ‘classical’ experimental music history like John Cage, Stockhausen, Musique Concrete. I really don’t know why it is that with all the music we were listening to, that we said well, what we want to do is make these tape loops and turn on our oscillators and mix in the sound of the TV set and my mom in the kitchen baking a pie. You know, why are we doing this. It just seemed like that was what needed to be done.

MJ: Do you do any touring? How easy is live performance?
MH: We just did a tour of the east coast, the first time we’ve ever done it. We went for just a few weeks. In live performance we don’t try to duplicate our studio work. In fact, it’s impossible virtually. We’ve done live stuff, we’ve done radio, we’ve done these albums and we’ve done video as well, and we really approach each medium separately. Each format has its advantage and disadvantage, so it’s more smart and fun and creative to try and utilize each medium to its best advantage. Live you can do neat things because people pay their money and they’re sitting there pretty much trapped in a room with you. We’ve sprayed them with smells, squirted water on them, burned things on stage, thrown stuff at them, run around in the audience and you can do all kinds of fun stuff like that. I actually did figure out how to play “Christianity Is Stupid” live. Our tour was hard to do. But the reaction we got from the audience was really amazing. It was wonderful.

MJ: Would you tell me about the origins of some of the many recordings you’ve incorporated? Where they came from?
MH: In general I could tell you we have our telephone and our TV set wired up so that we can record off of them at any time. David has microphones actually going throughout his whole house so he can record people in any room that he wants to. We’re always going through the bins at used record stores, picking up tapes at flea markets. Don listens to talk radio all the time and is always picking up some talk radio. We raided the garbage bins at radio stations where they throw out commercials. Occasionally we get sent things. What it means is you’re always listening. You really have to wade through tons and tons of crap in order to find the really good stuff. Like 97% of what you go through is no good but it enables you to the really good stuff and we’ve been doing that for so long now that we do have like a huge archive of material. Side one of “Helter Stupid” had additional stuff referring to John Kennedy, Charles Manson, John Lennon and those were brought forward from the archives.

MJ: On your “A Big 10-8 Place” album, the song “4 Fingers” showed a more traditional, ‘musical’ sound. It reads almost as though it’s some real old nursery rhyme or something. Is there more of this that you haven’t released?
MH: There’s several songs from our first albums that were more ‘musical,’ stuff like on old organs and stuff. So there’s things on there that are musical, it’s us playing instruments, not tapes stolen from somewhere. That song does sound like it’s a real old song that we found. Oddly enough, on the new record our identities have pretty much disappeared. There’s no one really in front singing or anything. But there’s lots of stuff that we’re working on so more of it is to come. There’s times when I just run out of ideas and the group doesn’t have any ideas so recordings just sit there unfinished. Then as much as 3 years later someone can say, “I have an idea for that piece we started a long time ago.” It’s kind of organic. It’s almost like the piece develops a personality or mind of its own. It’s like when it’s old enough it starts to say, “No, no, I don’t want to do that” and you just have to say okay, I guess you don’t want to do that.