American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music

They are armed with tapes, samplers, a wicked sense of humor and an eager yen for media manipulation. Technically, Negativland is a band since it is a collective of people. And it follows that the members of Negativland are musicians though they don’t play any ‘instruments’ so to speak. Their recordings and broadcasts are full of their own ‘material’ though it usually doesn’t consist of notes, melodies, rhythms or any other niceties that we traditionally assign to artists in the music industry. As ‘master tape-manipulator’ Don Joyce sees the twenty-years-and-still-going-strong San Francisco group as finding a unique way to construct their work: “We concentrate more on a combination of found and original music and noise combined with dialog or spoken samples of various kinds. This results in ‘dialog music’ or ‘musical dialog’ – more content heavy than music and more musical than speech making. If you can’t quite define it categorically, then I’m all the more pleased with it. We are a collage band I guess – that is our style and that is our motivation – to recycle the culture we find all around us and which we’re a product of into something filled with this culturally familiar material but resulting in something utterly new that reflects on it all at the same time.”

Though the group is far from being political with its work, the very nature of their sample-based work has put them at the forefront of the current debate on intellectual property issues surrounding MP3, Napster, etc. and the members of the band have published numerous comments on the subject. It’s been almost a decade since Island Records sued Negativland for their use of the name U2 as well as material by that band for one of their own albums, but they have not been silenced.

Negativland always tries to convey a message to its audience. To them, it is important to question the myriad of facts and news that are constantly thrown at us. As Don sees it: “I would like to impart the idea that the almost totally one-way flow of ideas, impressions, speculations, opinions, agendas, and ulterior motives we are commonly exposed to everyday is neither sacred nor untouchable. As a form of intellectual self-defense, one should make every effort to MESS WITH IT, turning it into something that makes sense to you as an individual who has been left out of this cultural loop. Make your own culture or someone else will make it for you.”

From American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music
By Jason Gross and Steve Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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