Why Negativland Packaged Late Bandmate’s Remains With New LP
Anarchic sound-bite manipulators Negativland are one of the longest-running groups of their kind: early adopters of sampling and musique concrète collage techniques in an indie-rock context that never grew closer to mainstream acceptance during all of their 30-plus years as a unit. They’ve satirized everything from subliminal backmasking (1989’s Manson Family-baiting Helter Stupid) to cola advertising (the entire subject of 1997’s Dispepsi), and consistently broadened the limits of what constitutes music, and art itself.
The most exposure they’ve ever received, though, was when one of the world’s most rich and famous rock bands sued them into oblivion following 1991’s uproarious single “U2,” which wed a profane Casey Kasem bootleg to a kazoo rendition of — then at their commercial zenith — the titular band’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Packaged with a cover reading “U2” in huge lettering and “Negativland” in far smaller type, the release invited a lawsuit that ultimately bankrupted their label SST (originally home to legendary '80s acts like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth). The group penned a book about the experience (Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2), and have taken more legal advisement ever since; Dispepsi scrambled the official album title throughout its packaging.
But this year’s home-shopping-themed Over the Edge, Vol. 9: The Chopping Channel made an unprecedented number of headlines for the first time since “U2” due to the group’s conscious decision to include carefully distributed bags of their late member Don Joyce’s ashes with the album purchase. The group suffered not only the loss of Joyce in 2015 from heart failure, but also member Richard Lyons this past April from nodular melanoma, and when I spoke to surviving member Mark Hosler via phone on Wednesday, November 9, it was even more grim due to the unthinkable election of horrifying, authoritarian bigot and alleged rapist Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency over presumed victor Hillary Clinton.
While we couldn’t avoid deconstructing the malevolent political turn of events for the first half hour of our conversation, Hosler and I eventually brought ourselves to discuss his new album and what the intent was behind including his fallen friend’s remains in one last art project; the press and packaging for The Chopping Channel reads that they’re “pretty sure Don would’ve wanted it this way.” Below is an edited transcript of our chat.
MARK HOSLER: Hello! That was right on time.
I’m surprised myself. It doesn’t seem like a day when I would be in order.
Yeah! I don’t want to talk about my stupid art project now. Who cares?
Haha, I was gonna say ... Jesus fucking Christ.
Jesus Christ. I was trying to suss out how did this feel in a pivotal, emotional way. And I’ve lost more people than you know: three people in Negativland, and my parents died in the last three years, too. I have almost no family left. I realized waking up this morning that it feels how it felt learning that one of my close friends or family died. That level of dark — everything’s [going to] change, but we don’t know how. What is the new normal? Everyone’s going to have their own way of describing it, but I thought, half the damn country feels that way. What a weird, extraordinary moment of shared grief, shock, agitation, anger. I’ve been having this feeling like I really wish I could call my mom today.
And then I’m normally a bit of a news junkie, but I just can’t bear to read it. There’s always going to be the hand-wringing and the second-guessing and the attacking … the firing squad thing that happens on the left a lot. And then on the right, the gloating. I’ve wondered over the years, just watching the sociopathic, batshit insanity of the right wing, what it would be like if they actually got what they wanted. I don’t think they would actually like living in that world. And it’s going to be shocking what the House and the Senate will do to the meager bit of progress that Obama’s managed to do in the last eight years. In the long arc of history, maybe something good could come out of this. But in the immediate now, we’re all having a collective, “What the fuck?”
Negativland’s work actually covers a wide range of things; we just finished touring Europe, and we have a piece about climate change in the show. It’s a wacky, goofy-ass take, very much a Negativland weird approach to it; it’s not didactic or anything. But it’s absolutely about climate change, which is, in a way, the single most important issue. Because you can have all the political debates you want, but if you don’t have a planet to live on, it doesn’t matter. [Laughs] And the mainstream media never once asked about climate change in three debates. And that’s an amazing indicator of what’s going on.
To me, personally, our work is so much about the context it’s in. And with this moment we’re in, I thought, “Wow! I don’t know what the fuck to do!” I haven’t spoken to the other guys yet today. I was just looking at the list of pieces we’ve got for our next project, and I’m just like, "Wow, what does it mean in the context of this election?"
Do you expect a larger audience next time after the unusual release of The Chopping Channel has gotten a lot of press?
To a large degree, the thing of including the ashes is that it’s not just an arbitrary thing that we did because one of our members died. It’s because the product itself is about an imaginary shopping network, selling you all kinds of chopped-up forms of music as well as things made from human bodily fluids and even remains. So, it conceptually tied in so directly to the work that it seemed like, “We have to do this — it’s just too perfect.” And Don, of anyone in our group, was committed to the work, the ideas and the art in a way that would be considered a little inappropriate or transgressive or going too far. We all felt strongly that Don would’ve said, “Yeah! Thumbs up! Go for that!” People miss the fact that it’s coming from a very intuitive, organic place. We worked very hard on the details to get it right, but it’s not calculated. We thought, this is gonna be so fascinating to see how it plays out in the world. Are people gonna believe we’re telling the truth because we have a reputation for playing pranks? Are people going to think it’s gross? Will the media glom onto some morbid aspect to it and ignore all the other stuff? Probably. [Laughs]
It’s like when we did the “U2” single; we didn’t honestly know what was going to happen. But it was just way too interesting a set of ideas to not do it. We also had the intuition that when we do this, something is gonna happen. And boy, did something happen. [Laughs]
But that’s a mark to me of some of the strongest projects we did over the years. Like when we did Dispepsi. We worked for three years on that to make it a really good record, but the basic concept, that we’re gonna do a whole album that focuses on Pepsi and Coke advertising, frames it in a certain way that people are gonna notice it and maybe engage. We wanna draw people in, we want to get them thinking, but where it all goes, that’s different for every person.
You mentioned that Don was more enthusiastic about transgressive ideas like including the remains with a release. Would this have felt wrong to do with a different member of the group?
Well, Don was fully a part of making the Chopping Channel project — he is one of the characters on the CD. The host of the show, that’s Don. It only made sense to do this with Don. There’s no plans to do anything like this with any of the other people’s ashes. I don’t think we’re gonna do another record that has something to do with human remains: “That next record’s gonna be all about cannibalism; maybe we can use Richard’s ashes for that!” [Laughs]
Your question is interesting because there’s been a number of people we’ve talked to in the media who’ve jumped to that kind of thinking: “What are you gonna do with the other guy?” I’m staring at Richard right now. Richard's ashes are inside a cookie jar that looks like a wooden log, and the top of the lid has a little ceramic squirrel. One of Richard’s greatest characters was Pastor Dick, and Pastor Dick’s announcer was named Dale Embry, who was eventually revealed to be a squirrel. And when we did it on tour, we had a squirrel puppet. It was a formerly homosexual squirrel who went to conversion therapy and is a Christian — now straight — squirrel. I always imagined how Dale looked, and when I found this cookie jar, it seemed just perfect. Richard always had a morbid sense of humor and he said, “Whatever you do with my ashes, just make sure it’s funny.”
We get inspired by what we find, and things that happen. That’s what drives the work. Obviously, Don’s death was this momentous, huge thing that we were able find inspiration from. And this was a really beautiful way for us just personally, as his friends, to process his death and this loss. Let’s make him into the art. My next thought was, "Wow, this takes the whole effort of repurposing and collage to the ultimate degree, that even our own bodies are gonna be used in our work." Literally, our bodies. An idea that Don always had was that nothing is off-limits in art. This was too good of an idea for us not to do.
Were there practical concerns with executing the idea? What kind of preparation did it require for distribution?
We had to get bag samples! To test out, like, what size bag do you want to use? And it had to be firm enough to not open when you send it in the mail. I was doing tests with my jar of glutamine powder, to see how much you can put in a bag, to feel like you’re getting something, but not so much that it runs out too fast. I was thinking about the mess you make … I don’t really want to breathe in Don’s ashes, so how do we set up an environment to put the ashes into the bag and not get too messy? It felt like a self-created ritual that we were doing [for] our friend. And seeing it actually go out there, the reality of realizing, “Wow, we just shipped out a thousand CDs of Don’s ashes … he might be the world’s most distributed person.” [Laughs]
Seeing people post photographs of what they’re getting has been incredibly moving. People are making little framed altars and things with Don’s ashes. One guy wrote us and said he’s gonna take them to the top of a mountain and dump them out. That’s what he wants to do with them. Another guy was an Uber driver in Dallas, and he’s driving all over Uber in Dallas-Fort Worth with Don in his glove box. [Laughs] Everyone’s gonna choose to do their own unique thing and be a steward, a caretaker, of our friend. It’s very powerful, very moving for us.
Were there any legal concerns? Is there a precedent for shipping out human remains?
We looked into it, and because of all the stuff we’ve been through over the years legally, we do have lawyers that advise us for free — we’re very fortunate. We definitely tried to do our due diligence; basically everyone’s reaction, including our own, was like, “It has to be illegal, right?” It seems like we’re okay. From our own amateur investigation. However, it has gotten even more attention than we anticipated, so … where can this go? I think we’re good, because I think we’re very close to having mailed out all of them. I think that part’s over.
To reach back a little bit, this was totally decided after he died, correct?
Yes, which is why in the announcement we made and the poster that came with the CD we said, “We think he would’ve wanted it this way.”
Was there already an existing plan in his will or for a burial that you had to discuss with loved ones?
No. Don absolutely didn’t care. He was not concerned with what became of anything after he was gone. What he was concerned about was that Negativland kept going. That’s a conversation we had with him very directly. It was a weird one to have, but given that he was a very important part of the brain trust, we asked him, “When you’re gone, what should we do?” He was the most fully committed human to his art practice of anyone we’ve ever known. I always felt like a flake by comparison. He lived it, he breathed it.
Part of the decision-making process is that we all have very strong bullshit detectors. So, if an idea makes it through our incredibly harsh filters, and we all think it’s good, then it’s probably good. I wouldn’t trust any one of us’s opinion for an entire project, but as a collective, I think we make up one smart person.
With this idea, did any aspects not make it past your own criticism, or have to be significantly debated or altered?
There was a period of us all needing to get on board with the idea and how we would do it. You know, I haven’t thought about this, but a lot of it had to do with tone. What it got down to was very, very involved discussions about what language we were using, and how to frame this and present it. You might not realize, but this wasn’t on sale for $30 on the website; we’re selling this for the price of a normal CD and we’re eating the cost of the postage. In a moral / ethical / philosophical way, we thought that was very important. You’re not paying extra to get some of his ashes; that’s not something we were comfortable with. If you’re an artist, a lot of the decision-making is, “Why is that brushstroke better than that brushstroke?” or “Why is that word better than that word?” To articulate that is hard to do, but we actually have to articulate to each other, “Here’s why I think this is the approach we should take.”
How long did the process take to get everyone on board?
Well, the process to get everyone on board, but also the process of refining it, honing it, getting the language right, that was actually a year. I personally was slowed down because my mother died, and then Richard’s cancer came back — which had been in remission — at the same time we had to go through every single thing that Don had for his estate. It was insane.
By and large, the public has taken this gesture in the way it was intended — as strange as it may be, as much as it may seem like something a heavy metal band would do. It’s kind of metal that we just did this, isn’t it? Yes, we’ve done hoaxes and pranks; yes, we’ve lied to the public. But in this moment, we’re telling the truth, and people know it, and they got the heartfelt intention behind doing this. It’s an artistic gesture that’s in keeping with our entire history, and it’s also an act of deep love and respect to honor our friend.
Was there anyone who was scandalized or unhappy about it?
No. I mean, time will tell. But the way these things work, you have to see how these things spin out in the media virally. I think it’s running its course. Ten years from now, I’m gonna meet people who have a story about what they did with Don’s ashes. I mean, when do you end up with someone’s ashes? It only happens with someone you were very close with. Don was a very shy, reclusive guy. He didn’t have that many friends outside of our group. For me, I have my own fistful of Don, and his favorite drink was the basic, coffee-flavored Frappucino, so I’m storing his ashes in an empty Frappucino bottle. Whenever we toured, it was the one funny thing in our tour rider when we played clubs: They had to provide a four-pack of Frappucino.
Your publicist sent over the one clip of the newscasters scandalized by it.
That’s the only one. We love that clip. Those women are so dumb and so not getting it. At that level, it felt like culture jamming. And then they say something horrifying: “I want to throw it in the garbage.” Really? You want to throw it … okay. I think it was Tim Maloney, who’s part of the larger Negativland family, who said that justified the whole thing. Our sense of humor in the face of all this is fully intact.
I trust Don would’ve enjoyed that one horrified reaction to it?
Yes, absolutely. He would’ve used it on our radio show. At one point, the one woman just exclaims, “Super gross!” And I was like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to use that on our next record.”