Negativland Interview

Negativland is a seminal noise band with a twenty year career behind them. Their radical cut-and-paste collages started way back in the cassette-trading era in the 1980s, and continues through to today's digital mediums. In a Better Propaganda exclusive, we talk about Negativland's ongoing career with band member Don Joyce.

Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Don Joyce of Negativland

Better Propaganda: If someone's never heard of Negativland, the musical group you're part of, how would you explain it to them?

DJ: Wow wow.There's nothing like an example, but... I call it modern noise- that's what I call it- just to be brief. Basically we're a sample-happy band, we use a lot of found stuff, found sounds, found dialogue, found music, and then combine it with our own sounds and music and there you have it. I guess the one single thing that it usually is, is collage.

BP: I remember first becoming aware of your stuff probably in the late 80s, and it was avidly traded amongst cassette collectors, uh, Plunderphonics was what it was called back then, right?

DJ: Um, I don't think we had anything called that, no.

BP: That's not your guys' thing?

DJ: No, that was John Oswald probably, yeah.

BP: And he's associated with the group?

DJ: Not really, he's up in Toronto. But he's sort of a pioneer in this cut-up stuff too.

BP: Uh-huh. You guys have become very well known for the cut-ups. I remember hearing stuff that was definitely Negativland back in the 80s, you would tell like some CRAZY narratives with found sounds - you know - make a new story out of other people's words.

DJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We used to just make stuff out of anything we found, anything that came to us, like from the thrift store LP to the TV and the radio, you know. We would be recording stuff all the time and make pieces out of them, after a lot of editing.

BP: And you guys have changed the technology quite a bit, I mean you went from tape... I'm assuming you're in a digital area now with your work?

DJ: Yeah, pretty much, yep. Yeah. Some of us are slow getting into it but... (laughter)but yeah, pretty much I work on the computer now, ProTools pretty much all the time.

BP: What kind of gear were you using when you started making this stuff as Negativland?

DJ: Oh it was all tapes, all reel to reel. We had a half track and an 8 track, used to master our own records on the 8 track.

BP: You guys are obviously known really well for the U2 record you put out in the 90s.

DJ: Yeah.

BP: And you went through some lawsuits, and became experts on copyright law...

DJ: Yep, yep.

BP: ...and became sort of poster boys for people trying to fight the man. Looking back on it all, was it a worthwhile experience in the end?

DJ: Well, I don't know. There was good stuff that came out of it, and there was bad stuff. So, something like that's always a trade-off. You know, it just happened, and... I guess we got a lot out of it. But I don't know if I would have wished it on us at all. It sort of ruins your life for awhile - you know - when you get sued. It just takes up everything, and all this paper work, and it goes on and on, and threats and counter-threats you know.

There's nothing great about it. I would never do it voluntarily, to make a point. No, no, I don't think so. I will make the point, and if they sue me, fine, but that was not my goal.

BP: It's so difficult in a world where artistically, its obvious, you know, especially if you look at say, painting or photography or something, where appropriation has been a clear, valid form of expression for decades...

DJ: Yeah.

BP: ... and then you get into a musical arena where it's owned by some corporations, basically...

DJ: Yeah.

BP: And the legal system, it all becomes a different situation. That must be maddeningly frustrating to you as an artist. How do you deal with that even today, you still want to sample, don't you?

DJ: Yeah. When I got into sound, my background's actually in visual art, I got a master's in painting, and did that for many years, and didn't get into music until my thirties. And at that point, I approached it pretty much like a painter, you know... (laughter). You could do anything. Any subject is okay. Any content is okay. Just like a painter thinks. But no, you hit a stone wall, it's like a whole different thing. Music is no longer just an art, it's a commodity, it's a business, and painting is not really, you know. A painting is one single precious object. And you can get a lot for it, but it's not about reproduction very much. Music's ALL about reproduction, it's based on being reproduced now in order to get around. So there's all this reproduction technology, which I immediately saw as having great potential in collage, which I was interested in. And started just taping stuff and dubbing stuff and putting it all together, and mixing it together. NO, you can't do that. (laughter) No, no. Stuff's all COPYRIGHTED. So it was a surprise. It was actually a surprise. I was very naive that it was so controlled as to content, especially when what you thought you were doing was art. So yes, there's a conflict there, and it hasn't really been resolved.

Maybe copyright's loosening up now, I don't hear about many sampling suits for instance. I think maybe the music industry has focused entirely on the Internet, or more on the Internet now as the biggest threat, not sampling. But all the laws are still there, nothing's really been changed and they could sue any of us for doing this at any time.

BP: What is your take on mp3s? I mean, is this a valid form of dissemination for Negativland?

DJ: Sure, sure, yeah. I'm generally for letting the internet happen however it does. I'm certainly not for the corporations getting in there and controlling it and putting all distribution under their thumb - you know - like they have in every other mass medium that's out there. I think we ought to have one that's a little more free, that treats things maybe a little more like a public domain media...

BP: Or, uh, democracy you mean?

DJ: No, I mean public domain. I mean the content of the net... be considered and treated more like public domain. And maybe not totally - maybe that's impossible - but things should be looser there.

BP: I just meant democratic in that people - you know - should be allowed to have a voice, especially if there's a big opinion. Doesn't it seem silly to you that there's tens of millions of people downloading music, and then five corporations - or one umbrella corporation that represents those five telling all those people they're wrong, doesn't that seem ODD?

DJ: Yeah, it does. Well, they think they are culture. They think they ARE our culture and they own it. (laughter) And so this whole idea of people participating in it, you know, self-determining their own use of it, that's new to them. But I think that's the beauty of an Internet. Anything that appears there really is available to anyone else, and free usually. And if you have to pay for it one spot, you don't in another. It's the kind of place where you can roam around and partake in anything, really. I think that's great. That's great for art, that's great for culture. That's great for spreading new stuff. I mean, what is the Internet for if not browsing, right. You just end up browsing a lot. And finding new stuff. And if you're interested in music, you're finding a lot of music and maybe trying it out through downloads and stuff. But basically it's just browsing. It's not that you would have bought that music if you hadn't of got the chance to hear it for nothing. You don't go into a record store and buy a bunch of unknown records hoping some of them will be good, you know (laughter). So that's what the Internet's good for. And I bet it sells music in the end, because people thereby become more aware of different kinds, and different stuff they might want.

BP: So, uh, to go back briefly to the copyright law thing, it was used with you guys like as a form of censorship. Are there any ways that you would see copyright law being valuable to you as an artist?

DJ: Well, we copyright our stuff.

BP: Uh-huh.

DJ: Copyright, yes, has a use. And I think it's basically as a defense against counterfeiting. I think counterfeiting is a problem, and it is a crime. We don't want to see exact duplicates of our Negativland releases coming back over here from China by the millions, you know, just a counterfeit version for which we get nothing. That I am against, but the other stuff - just downloading as a user, that kind of stuff - does not bother me.

BP: But doesn't the Chinese government allow mass manufacturing mostly still - I mean, are they down with copyright law yet?

DJ: There's a lot of pirating going on in China. They have laws against it, they don't enforce them very well. Yeah, there is still a lot of piracy, record piracy, and video and DVD and everything over there. And a lot of it gets back here. That's the use of copyright, to protect you as the creator, from people counterfeiting your stuff. But copyright is being used to censor and hinder all kinds of new work that happens to use other work, that's the whole twisted way it's become used now.

BP: It's a tool of censorship sometimes.

DJ: Yeah, it's an anti-art tool actually. It's being used against creative re-uses of all kinds, it's being used to prevent them. When I wish it would just be used to prevent counterfeiting WHOLE works, exact duplicates - you know - that actually compete with the artist. I don't think any of these new forms of re-uses, all the kinds of editing and cut-up we do, is any competition with the original WHATSOEVER. I just don't think they're in the same market, I don't think they effect each other, and there's no reason to prevent it.

BP: Well, I shared your guys opinion in that your U2 piece - which I heard many times - was clearly a new work. I shared your opinion on that.

DJ: Yeah, yeah. There are people who quibble about what's new and what's not, but I think it's usually pretty clear what is a creative effort as opposed to a bootlegging effort, you know. A bootlegger intentionally doesn't change anything, right The whole purpose of a bootleg is to be an authentic reproduction of something people want. That's the whole point of it, they try NOT to change it. The artist approaches it completely the opposite way- how can I change this? It's just not the same.

BP: So you guys obviously then were a super-high profile case of censorship, being victims... um... To turn the tables on that, where does Negativland stop itself in its own work. Where would you guys say "oh, we can't do that," where do you censor yourself, where is your own limit?

DJ: Well, it's interesting, and we toy with that too and I think our next release will be somewhat out there fiddling around with that idea, of "how far can you go?" It's called No Business and it actually consists of nothing of ours whatsoever, it's entirely made out of other people's music. But basically they aren't collages either anymore, some of them aren't. Some of them are straight linear edits of songs, rearranging the words in the song, to make them say other things. And so it is basically just a single work that's cut up in a different way, and it's quite amusing and funny, but nothing's been added, and I don't thing you could technically call it collage anymore- because nothing's been added- it's just the original thing, REARRANGED, recomposed. I don't know what that is exactly, but it seems like sue bait to me (laughter).

BP: It's a cut-up again. I mean, you're not adding... collage to me would be, uh... or, you're not doing layers...

DJ: No, it's not multitrack, it's just a straight linear edit. The song is... one of the songs I use is Ethel Merman's "No Business Like Show Business," right, the Broadway thing. And changed her around to say "There's No Business Like Stealing" (laughter), it's about stealing. And then it goes on, twisting all the lyrics to be about stealing music.

BP: And that song is in the public domain now I assume?

DJ: Probably not, probably not. (laughter)

So, basically you know, it may be more dangerous, I'm not sure. It's also... like it is very funny, and I hope they have a sense of humor and realize in a big way it is something new, although it's made entirely out of something old. So, it'll be fun to see what happens with that.

BP: Well, I'm looking forward to it.

DJ: Yeah, there's several cuts on it that are like that, and they're all pretty famous ones too.

Another thing about getting sued, is that nobody gets sued who uses, you know, fairly obscure stuff, and we usually do just because we think it's more quaint, you know, USUALLY. Some old kid's record you find in a thrift store is just better than Britney Spears to use, you know. It's more, I don't know...But the one time we did get sued, of course, who did we use - U2 - big time band everybody's looking at very carefully, so that makes a big difference. And a lot of the cuts on the No Business release are pretty famous, high-profile cuts. So there again, it's probably more dangerous.

BP: Do you figure Negativland itself will remain an obscure act?

DJ: I don't know, I guess so. It's been long enough to break through to the top if we were going to. (laughter) We've been doing this for twenty years.

BP: And do you plan to continue indefinitely, there's no signs of stopping?

DJ: No, no signs of stopping.

BP: So this is what you do.

DJ: No, it's too much fun, and yes, it's a life now.

BP: And you're able to make some money off it, a living?

DJ: A little. Hardly. You know, and it's up and down. Basically, we make enough to keep the whole thing scraping along, and one record will, you know, start paying for the next, and things move along. It sometimes takes us sometimes two or three or four years to make a record. Yeah, the economics are not good, but they're enough to make it survive, I guess, so that's what we're doing. Because it's just so much better to work for yourself.


You can catch Don Joyce's radio show Over the Edge at, or tune into KPFA radio on Thursday nights at midnite if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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