Two members of Negativland with some of the band's equipment. The group brings its ‘greatest hits’ show to the Crepe Place on Feb. 26.
A few years ago, I got my first chance to interview Mark Hosler, a founding member of one of my all-time favorite groups, Negativland. Starting out in the Bay Area in the early ’80s, Negativland developed a style of rock-based, sample-saturated musical collage that quickly grew in fame—and infamy—with each successive release. With their first concept album, 1983’s Contra-Costa-County-baiting A Big 10-8 Place, and 1987’s everything-baiting Escape From Noise, the group found its groove: hilariously subversive cut-ups of found material from every corner of American culture—with a beat.
Honing their skills on their weekly “Over the Edge” radio show on KPFA in Berkeley, the collective (Hosler, Don Joyce, Richard Lyons, Peter Conheim and David Wills, a.k.a. “The Weatherman,” plus various collaborators) has pushed the limits of both musical experimentation and media pranks—sometimes turning the latter into the former, as on 1989’s Helter Stupid. They got into legal trouble when U2’s record company sued them after their incredible 1991 EP “U2,” which combined the Weatherman’s crazy reading of Bono’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” lyrics with tapes they had been given of Casey Kasem cursing up a storm behind the scenes of American Top 40. (The whole saga is told in their 1995 book Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2).
But in that first interview with Hosler, we mostly talked about his new role as the go-to expert on copyright issues, and the mash-up YouTube culture which Negativland had a huge role in pioneering. So when I found out the group was playing the Crepe Place in Santa Cruz on Feb. 26, I took the opportunity to talk to him again, this time about Negativland’s music and ever-evolving live show, which now features their twisted take on the concept of “greatest hits.” This is part one; part two runs next week.
SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: Despite starting out in the East Bay, it doesn’t seem like you’ve played Santa Cruz very often. Have you ever played live here?
MARK HOSLER: We have not played in Santa Cruz since 1981. I remember we started with the song at the beginning of A Big 10-8 Place [“Theme From a Big Place,” which features the names of cities in Contra Costa County as shouted by the Weatherman, with the repeated refrain “Very stupid!”]—obviously we call it “The Stupid Song.” We did a weird, totally distorted version of that in Santa Cruz in 1981, and I remember that we rewrote the lyrics so that the cities were all referencing, like, “Ben Lomond! Scotts Valley! I like Aptos!” Somewhere there’s a cassette of that show, and I don’t know that it was that good of a show, but I do remember something went wrong with the bass guitar, and it was all distorted and messed-up, but in a way that on the recording it sounds kind of fantastic. David was screaming all these regional names over the top. That was our shout out to Santa Cruz County.
You’re really doing something weird on this tour—well, for you. For any other band, it would be normal. What is this “Greatest Hits” show like?
When you see us play, you aren’t going to see us do anything that you’ve ever heard from any of our records…until now. About a year ago, we thought: after all these years of always confounding people’s expectations—because you always want to see your favorite group do the songs you like off their records, right?—after 33 years of doing that, what if in our own snarky, fucked-up, Negativland way, we did a show that was a greatest-hits show? And it was like the lame, aging band who can’t do anything but the old stuff people like, because no one cares about their new stuff, or they don’t even have new stuff. I thought we could take that idea and mess with it. We don’t treat our own work with any respect. We fuck it all up, we mutilate it. But at the same time, we’re kind of giving you that old stuff. It took a while to get everyone to agree to do it, it was kind of a struggle. But I remember thinking it had great potential, it would be fun, and I thought: It’s an experiment, let’s just see what would happen. We sort of gave it a trial run about a year ago, when we played a show in Oakland, and the audience went crazy. They loved it! They were reacting so strongly that I remember smiling and laughing the whole time, I couldn’t believe it.
And you’ve added a new visual element for the show, as well?
I’d be very remiss if I didn’t mention that what also made this come together in a really good way was that we’re working with an old friend of ours named Steev Hise, and Steev is a cut-up collage musician and video artist. We’ve known him for 20 years, and he seemed like a natural fit to work with us, because we wanted to do stuff that tightly worked with our pieces, and yet he was improvising with us visually, in a musical way. He’s going to be on stage with us…And an artist called Wobbly, he’s a huge part of our current show. His name is John Leidecker, and we’ve worked with him for 25 years. He’s done our radio show, and we’ve collaborated with him, and he’s kind of been peripherally in the Negativland camp on and off, kinda sorta.
You’ve told me before how all the members bring different talents and expertise to Negativland, but what’s the process like in a collective with several strong personalities working on every project?
We’ve been working on the new Negativland album for a number of years, and it’s going to come out in the next maybe four months. And the email battles we’re having over the tiniest details, you wouldn’t believe them. It’s sort of incredible the number of debates we have about whether or not to add a millisecond of white noise here, or some little thing. This is about the sounds, the mixing, the design, the text, the credits, the press release, the PR photo—every single thing we have these gigantic, duke-it-out battles. Occasionally, an idea will emerge where everyone goes, “Yes, that’s great!” It’s always frustrating to work this way, but the sense I have is that if everyone can sign off an idea, out of this small group of incredibly picky, critical guys, I think it’s probably a good idea.
What can you tell me about the new album?
This new project we have, we are really excited about it. I’m not going to give anything away, but what happened was, the project has been in the works for years, but a couple months ago, Peter came up with this idea of how to package it. It was just brilliant, it suddenly frames the whole thing perfectly in this way that’s really provocative, almost inflammatory. It definitely is going to make anyone who picks this up look at it and say, “What the hell is Negativland up to now?” That’s the kind of thing we’re looking for, but that’s not easy to come up with. I mean, I think that’s hard to come up with even once! I feel like we’ve pulled that off over the years a number of times, but it’s hard to keep that up. I think we have a pretty good intuitive sense of “aha! Oh, my god, this is going to be great!” I know that we had that around Escape From Noise, Helter Stupid, the “U2” single, the Fair Use book that we did, Dispepsi. There are other projects that we did which I also love, but we didn’t have as much of the “aha!” about. The Over the Edge CDs, I really enjoyed them, I’ve very fond of those things and I certainly think they’re good works, but we didn’t have that same sense of, “Oh, my god, we’re so excited!” And that’s what you want. Certainly we don’t do any of this because it pays well.
Next week: Looking back at Negativland’s greatest hits.
Negativland plays Wed, Feb. 26 at the Crepe Place in Santa Cruz ; $10/$12; 9pm.