Negativland

Bandleader Mark Hosler talks to The Onion about his new album Dispepsi, the damage wrought by U2, and why getting sued for a third time would be a bad thing.

Most people know Negativland as the musical act sued by U2 and Island Records for co-opting the Irish rock band's name, as well as extensively sampling its song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on 1991's U2 EP. But Negativland isn't just some group of merry pranksters; its art is about tearing apart and reassembling found images to create new ones, in an attempt to make social, political and artistic statements. Those efforts have meant getting sued by the aforementioned behemoths, as well as the band's former label, SST Records, for losses incurred in the Island lawsuit. They have also brought about threats of litigation from Casey Kasem, for sampling his hilariously profane American Top 40 outtakes on the U2 EP. When Negativland's first studio album in four years, Dispepsi, comes out, the San Francisco band may have to face yet another legal challenge—from its most powerful target yet. Negativland's Mark Hosler recently spoke to The Onion about making an entire album satirizing a single corporate image; how advertisers have learned to co-opt anti-advertising sentiment; and what he drinks instead of Pepsi.

The Onion: Why Pepsi?

Mark Hosler: Well... [Pauses.] Because it tastes better! Why do you think? You've got the record. Why do you think Negativland made an entire record about one soft drink? As you were going through the record, did you get to a point at which you went, "All right, all right, enough with the Pepsi already!"?

O: Yes.

MH: Good. You're supposed to feel that way. That's how I feel when I drive around or walk around anywhere in the United States, and look at billboards and advertising. We could have picked anybody. We could have picked Nike. We could have picked Microsoft. Pepsi happens to have a lot of incredibly wonderful imagery associated with them that we could play with. They're very iconic in a really great way, and we happened to have a whole ton of commercials. We have all their stuff. We collect stuff, and one of the things we ended up with in our archives was all the Pepsi archives going back to when they started—from old radio ads all the way up to modern stuff. We had interviews with people who had worked on their ad campaigns. We had all the stuff recorded about the whole Coke vs. Pepsi wars, and the introduction of New Coke. All kinds of Pepsi talk and cola talk. So we were working on this project that was dealing with advertising, and I suggested to the group that it would be a lot more interesting for us as an art project if we just focused on one company. We've got all this great stuff about this one company; let's pick on them and hope that in the end, we end up with something that creates a much larger point of view than just this one company. As I've gotten older, I find that the influence the multinational [corporations] are having on my life, on all of our lives, on the environment, on public space, on our government... Surely, most people have a pretty good idea how corporations, through political action committees, have bought and sold our political process. We've watched the passage of NAFTA and GATT, and all these things that are creating a sort of de facto one-world government run by and for these corporations. Even though, in actual fact, Pepsi is certainly more benign than most: As far as multinationals go, they just make sugary, salty things, not weapons. But it just seemed like a great area to play around in. And again, whenever we work on any project, we don't set out with an absolute specific thing. We have an intuition that this is a good area to work in, and then we just sort of start playing around with it. Dispepsi started out as three or four tracks, and from there, the more we thought about it, the more it grew. It took three years to finish it. And, like a lot of projects we've done, we didn't start out thinking it was going to be as long as it was. We just played around with the material we had. Then we started trying to actually write songs. If Pepsi hired Negativland to do a jingle, what would it be like? I might sound like I'm being really serious and political in the way I'm describing this, but we tried really hard to make the record as open-ended as possible in terms of how you can interpret it. We tried really hard not to make it sound like a finger-wagging piece of didactic agit-prop. I don't think it is. I hope it's not. I sure hope to heck it doesn't seem that way.

O: In the CD sleeve, there's an essay on how Pepsi and Coke can save money. It's almost sympathetic.

MH: We're trying to help them. You know, when you finish listening to our record, the one thing that sticks in your mind is the one thing all companies want you to remember when you see their ads. They want you to remember the name of their product. That's all. Advertising is not intended to brainwash you and make you go out and buy something; that's a real simple-minded way of criticizing it. I think advertising is just designed to make you familiar with this thing, so when you go to the store... Humans like to choose things that are familiar to them; it's just normal human behavior. So I think that when you go to the store, if your brain has been hit enough times with a certain product name, you're more likely, when you're thinking, "Which tennis shoe should I buy?," to say, "Ummm... Nike." It isn't so literal that, when you see the ad, you're so stupid that you've been brainwashed to go down to the Safeway like a zombie and buy a six-pack of Coke or Pepsi. It's not like that. Though I am blown away at how successful Nike has been at getting their swoosh on everything. What's most disturbing is that we, the humans, have been tricked into being walking billboards for them. It has now become a very cool thing to wear the swoosh and have the "Just Do It" slogan on your car, on your baseball cap, on your shirt... My gut intuition is that this is disturbing and upsetting, but part of me keeps thinking, "Maybe this is just different, and I'm falling behind the times." I think probably it is a bad thing, but I do sometimes wonder.

O: What do you think of the way advertisers are becoming more aware of cynicism about the messages advertisers send? You're seeing more ad campaigns like Sprite's, that are saying, "Ignore the advertising. Obey your thirst."

MH: Or the Miller Lite ads, where all the advertisements are about the process of creating an ad, and the people who make ads.

O: Do you think that for people who have built an artistic existence around critiquing advertising, their statements are sort of being co-opted?

MH: Yes, we're fucked. [Laughs.] Basically, what they've done is they have very cleverly adopted the language of their critics, and they've turned it into more style. It's a new advertising style, and it's an extremely clever thing. It's very funny and amusing; it comes off as real hip and reflexive and post-modern, and it's unbelievably cynical. It's extremely smart of them to do. Like I said, they've taken the language of their critics and used it to sell their products, and I really am wondering where this is going to go. When Pepsi hears what we've done, if they're really smart, instead of getting upset about it, they should pay us a $50,000 licensing fee to use some of our record as an ad.

O: Pepsi Presents: Dispepsi.

MH: Sure, right. We need the money. [Laughs.]

O: What would you do? Let's just say Pepsi comes to you and says, "We want to use your record in an ad."

MH: Well, I'll tell you what just did happen recently. The advertising agency that handles the Nike account for all of North America approached Negativland. They wanted to hire us to do a series of radio ads for Miller Genuine Draft beer. They weren't asking us to be spokespeople or something; we're not that popular. But they wanted us to use our cut-up, collagey, sound-manipulation/found-sound approach to make a bunch of ads. These guys are in their late 20s; they grew up listening to Negativland in college; they think we're just great. These are the same guys who thought it would be cool to put William S. Burroughs in a Nike ad. And relative to the world that they occupy, they are pushing the envelope. God, here we have this ex-junkie homosexual wife-murderer advertising tennis shoes all over the United States, on every television set in every home. And I can see from their perspective how this is, "like, subversive, man." It's really interesting to me how these kinds of guys have talked themselves into this way of thinking. I know it makes sense to them. They approached us, and I think they thought they were giving us this great chance. I've even had friends of mine say, "Why didn't you guys take it; you could have done something subversive!" And my response is, "No, you can't." What has happened now in mass media and advertising is not only that they've adopted the style and the look of fringe culture; that has been happening for a long time. What they've now done is gone a step further: They've now taken the very idea that there is any dissent at all—it doesn't even matter what form it takes—and made it part of how they're going to sell something. And it's interesting; I'm not sure where they go from here, and I'm not really sure where something like Negativland goes from here either. It's a really curious thing. But I do think that with this record, we were aware of all these things, and we were trying to push things that much further. We've got product placement in every movie you go see, but you haven't seen it on records. We thought it would be an interesting approach to make something that actually is, to some degree, really obtrusive and annoying and obnoxious, because you keep hearing this one goddamn fucking product being mentioned over and over and over again on this record by your favorite group, Negativland. "Why are they doing this to us?" I've been working on it for so long that my perception is skewed, but I do think the record is really fun to listen to, and we worked really hard to make it fun. Believe it or not, it was longer; the original version is even longer and even more annoying. When we were creating the final edit of the whole record, we cut some out. We said, "Okay, we think that right here at 39:20, it finally gets to the point where you're really sick of it, and you don't want to go too much longer than that." When you hear the CD, there's a lot of stuff going on: There are a bunch of layers to
the concepts going on in the record. There's a whole lot of stuff in there about how celebrities are used to market things and sell things. The last piece on the CD, "Bite Back," is really intended to be sort of a zoom-out to the big-picture piece; if you haven't figured it out by then, hopefully this will make it clear that there's a big picture here, and that we're not offering up simple solutions, and that it's very complicated. Because as much as any halfway intelligent, progressive, left-thinking person could agree with some of what I'm saying, the fact is that we're so totally enmeshed in the kind of lifestyles we have in North America, with our cars and conveniences and TV sets, that it isn't so simple as to just say, "No, we're going to stop buying what they're selling," which is what the guy on the phone says at the end of the record. But as he's saying that—making a very simple, valid point—at the same time you hear all these voices coming into the mix, saying, "But we want our cars, we want our Jell-O, we want our soft drinks, we want our television sets, we want our Kotex, we want our Kool-Aid, we want these things. So what are we going to do?"

O: Is there a part of you that wants to get sued?

MH: Absolutely not. We knew people were going to think this. For me, I don't want to live in a world where I am afraid of making the kind of art I want to make. The idea that I should be afraid of publicly ridiculing and mocking and chopping up and rearranging a giant corporation that intrudes on my life whether I want it to or not every day... The idea that I have to be afraid to do that is absurd to me. I don't want to live in that kind of world. So one approach is that you sort of try and live your life and live in the world the way you'd like it to be. I think, given the scale and the size of what Negativland does, there's certainly room for a lot more dissent than what we're offering. The really amazing thing to me is that when friends of mine were seeing what we were working on over the last few years, their reaction would be, "Oh my God. What are you doing? You're going to be killed!" And I'd say, you know, what if we were making this record called Disclinton, and we chopped up all these political ads for Bill Clinton, and took his State Of The Union addresses and his press conferences, and did this whole thing on Clinton? Would any of our friends react with fear? No. Of course not. They wouldn't. They would just think, "Okay, fine. It's kind of an obvious target, but fine. Go ahead, make fun of him." I think it's really telling, even though most of the folks I know aren't very aware of trademark law and copyright law, that they have an intuitive reaction that you aren't supposed to mess with these guys. That to me is very telling, and horribly tragic.

O: Do you think you're going to get sued?

MH: I have no idea. Um, I think that we have a really good defense if they do. We have attorneys who have volunteered to help us out if they do, and we think that we're ready to fight to protect it if they do. I don't want to go through it; I've been through the two lawsuits that resulted from the U2 single, and that took over our lives for four years, every single day. It was a total living nightmare, a living hell. But on the other hand, there's just a sense that we have of, "Well, God, if everyone's so afraid to do this, someone has to." And I guess that means us, because either we're brave or we're crazy or we're stupid, or I don't know what it is. But it certainly isn't because, "Gee, the publicity's great, and we sell lots of records," because that's never been the case. I will never, ever expect to do well off of this group. I'd like to scrape by and have the thing pay for itself.

O: Has there been a truce with U2? I heard they apologized.

MH: Well, they... I don't think "apologized" is the right word. U2, their management, their publishing company, and their record label all agreed in principle that we should have our record back. However, Casey Kasem has never agreed to drop his threats to sue all parties involved if Island lets Negativland have its record back. That's a pretty bizarre ending to this whole story, but I think in the end they were embarrassed by all the bad press, and they were concerned about how bad they would look in our book. Which is interesting, again, considering the size of what we do, which is... We're smaller than a pimple. We're a very little thing. Other than that, we've had nothing to do with them, except I kept thinking maybe one day the phone would ring and they'd ask us to do a remix for their new album. The other funny thing, of course, is that the title of their new album... About a year and a half ago, when we were talking about what we would call our new record, at one point Don [Joyce] suggested that we should call it Pop. I guess we just continued to have some kind of weird synchronicity with these guys.

O: Yeah, they've been out there touring and satirizing advertising...

MH: Yeah, they just keep stealing all of our ideas. [Laughs.]

O: First they steal your song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"...

MH: By the way, every time I hear that song on the radio now, I feel like that's my song. This is just a personal thing, but I have claimed the Pepsi logo, and when I see it on cups and billboards, I feel like, "That's promoting Negativland." [Laughs.] And I think that's really interesting; I never saw this as a side-effect of doing the U2 thing or doing the Dispepsi thing, but it's a peculiar little thing. When I'm in someone's car and I hear the beginning of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," I get this little thrill, like, "I'm hearing my song." Isn't that weird? I forgot your question... Oh, U2's tour... Yeah, it's real interesting, because U2 is, in their own bone-headed, big-time way, grappling with some of the contradictions of trying to be an artist and having some integrity and doing work in a mass marketplace. They're kind of dealing with all that stuff. I think they do a disservice to the issues they bring up, because they deal with it in a way that's so superficial and simple-minded. The effect of the advertising way of thinking on our brains, and how we live on our planet, is very disturbing. It's not a very good thing, and it's not the kind of thing to just make into kind of a "ha-ha." I mean, you can do that, but like I said, what U2 has been doing in its tour is really interesting to us. I watched their television special with my mom, and when Bono came on the TV screen and said, about the Achtung Baby Tour, which was around the time that we were being sued by Island... He said, "We were just stealing from the thieves." And I actually found myself... Without meaning to, I yelled, "Fuck you!" to the TV set. And I turned to my mom, who does not like to hear me swear: I thought I was going to be scolded, but she didn't say a word. I think she has a pretty good idea what we went through. [Laughs.]

O: What soda do you drink?

MH: [Laughs.] That'd be a good question to ask Don, because he does drink them. I don't really drink them.

O: But what can you drink, if not Pepsi?

MH: I drink a lot of water, and I drink Rice Dream-brand rice milk. [Laughs.]

O: Are you a vegan?

MH: Not quite, but I'm the only person in the group where what I eat is more along the lines of your typical West Coast hippie tofu earthy-lifestyle thing. The rest of the group does not do this. [Laughs.] I'm a really skinny guy, I'm real tall, and I have a very high metabolism, so if I drink anything with caffeine in it, it makes me have an anxiety attack. So I can't do coffee, or cola, or coffee ice cream, or any of those things. They make me feel like I'm going berserk.

If you can't find Dispepsi in your local record store, contact Seeland Records, 1920 Monument Blvd., MF-1, Concord, CA 94520. The band's web URL is www.negativland.com.