By Noah Lopez
Arizona Summer Wildcat
Since its inception in 1980, the San Francisco noise collective Negativland has been nothing if not controversial.
The band has taken a strong stance on Christianity, handguns, and the music industry, evolving from masters of tape manipulation and the novelty song to bonafide experts in media manipulation and copyright law. The band quickly learned aboutÄand used to their artistic benefitÄmedia manipulation in the controversy that ensued from their track "Christianity is Stupid", fueling a small rumor into the major media blitz that was documented/mocked in their 1990 release "Helter Stupid." That impressive collage of found dialogue, news soundbites and '70s theme music was nothing, however, compared to what would follow.
In 1991, the Bay area group released its first single "U2", which dealt with the band's perception of the group U2 "as an international cultural phenomenon ... therefore particularly worthy of artistic comment and criticism." Negativland's scathing criticism of U2, and the music industry in general, led to years of legal wrangling with U2's label Island Records, Negativland's own label, SST Records, and, oddly enough, Casey Kasem.
Negativland has emerged with the hefty tome "Fair Use," a print documentary of the entire case, complete with actual press releases from all sides, the actual legal papers, humorous fax exchanges, and off the wall interviews and accompanied with the band's new CD. In addition, the band's interaction in the U2 snafu is documented in Craig Baldwin's film "Sonic Outlaws," which comes to Tucson this weekend bringing with it the director, as well as Negativland member Mark Hosler who will perform at a screening of the film at Club Congress on Sunday night. The Wildcat spoke with Hosler by phone last week.
Wildcat: It's a couple years after the whole U2 incident ... what's still going on. Do you still owe SST a lot of money?
Mark Hosler: Oh no. It's almost all paid off. (SST owner) Greg Ginn had said that we owed $93,000 and that it wouldn't be paid off (with royalties) until the year 2223, but I think it's down to about a thousand dollars now. I don't know if you know about the book that we did ...
WC: "Fair Use"?
MH: Yeah. Have you seen it?
WC: Yeah, I've tried to get it ... It's pretty big.
MH: Well the proceeds from that went to pay off the debt. The book is the complete story and it comes with a CD. The CD is somewhat related to the book. It's about art and our legal system.
WC: What have you done since the controversy. I know there was the "Guns" single, and I know you've put a lot of the radio show stuff out on (the band's label) Seeland ...
MH: The "Guns" single was the last thing we did for SST. We've released the book, which comes with our brand new CD. We released a studio album before that. We've put out a lot of collections of material from our weekly radio show, which is just a bunch of mixed up chopped up cut up material. We're working on some new stuff now. An instrumental album, and an album which takes on a major international soft drink conglomerate. We're also working on a book, "Negativland's Guide to Disneyland." It's a real tour guide
type book that you would actually take with you to Disneyland. It's an interesting perspective. It goes into untold detail about what that place is about and how it's run. We've interviewed a lot of former employees, and we've researched a bunch of old employee manuals. We're interested in doing more writing. That's something that came about with "Fair Use" we get more excited about doing more books. Our label's been helping other artists as well. It's run like a collective. We're trying to take everything we find about the music industry to be vile, and restructure it so it totally respects the autonomy of the artists.
WC: What do you think of "Sonic Outlaws?" How does it differ from "Fair Use" or the other material that's out documenting the case?
MH: Well, Craig obviously goes off in all these other directions. Our book gets into the nitty gritty of what happened. It also has a huge appendix of supreme court decisions and things like that to help people. It's a document of our soap opera, and that's exactly what this is, but it's also a really good reference. We felt like we had to do it. This stuff wasn't really being talked about. And then Craig started doing his thing. His is sort of the Hollywood presentation of it, and then our book is the novelization that you would get at Safeway. Craig's own aesthetic is about appropriation Ähe is the perfect person to have made the film. I could think of other people that would have come to do it that we wouldn't have trusted.
WC: Has the band reached a point where they're just tired of talking about the whole U2 controversy, or...
MH: That's one of the many reasons to put out the book. Normally we require interviewers to have read the book before they do the interview, just to make sure they know about everything that's going on.
WC: I read a version of the story. It wasn't as big as "Fair Use." It was just a magazine of everything that had happened up to that point.
MH: We were sued for puttin that out. We were sued for putting out a magazine about being sued for putting out a single. We've fought that though, and the magazine is reprinted in the book. In the meantime, a lot of other stuff happened, so it documents that. If people read the book, they get the big picture, and avoid a lot of questions we get tired of answering. We've been pretty politicized about music, and we're trying to think clearer about how we think of the greater world in general. This next project takes us away from the music corporate world, and takes us to...well, the multinational corporate world. That's why were doing the instrumental album. That's just fun. 'Cause Negativland has always been into cool sounds and cool noises and tapes and one of those tapes had Casey Kasem on it and that was pretty cool. We never thought there would be a documentary about it though.
The Screening Room presents "Sonic Outlaws" June 8 and 9th. Club Congress takes over Sunday night with a full screening of the documentary, coupled with 15 minutes or so of live performance by group member Mark Hosler. The book "Fair Use" can be purchased at Zia Records, or from the band by mailing $20 to the band at 1920 Monument Blvd. MF-1, Concord, California, 94520.
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