Jester: What brought you down to Portland to perform a solo show recently?
Mark: I have been performing solo since the release of "Sonic Outlaws", which was the documentary film partially about Negativland. Occasionally, the folks who flew me out to speak about the film want me to do something extra. I had performed improvised sets on my own in Olympia and Seattle so it wasn't anything that I had not done before. So I worked out some solo material that I could perform live at those events.
After that I toured across the Southwest with the folks from Silica Gel whose CD we released. The whole tour consisted of three people on stage with films, slides and a variety of instruments.
In the past when Negativland has played, quite often our shows have been carefully figured out in advance. I also really love being involved with improvisation because it allows to to stretch more musically. During Negativland sets, Don plays of lot of spoken word pieces from the cart machine we use. Therefore you have to try and make room in the audible spectrum when performing musically to allow for the spoken word parts to be heard. This is very limiting musically at times.
In the case of the live show that I played in Portland, People Like Us came over from England and I offered to perform with her when she was in the area. I wasn't sure what we would do together, but I figured if my name was on the playbill, it might help out with the attendance. Vicki, who is the human behind People Like Us also performed down in the Bay Area with Don as well appearing on the Over The Edge show. Now we are actually considering putting together a tour with Vicki and the rest of Negativland as one large performance troupe.
It is very unfortunate that in this field of music, women are a minority. Improvisational music is very much a 'Big Boys' club. I don't feel too good about the issue when it is brought to my attention.
Jester: I met you briefly in September of 1996 and Umbra Penumbra when you came down to speak on the topic of Fair Use for the Library's Free Speech Week. Are you invited to public speaking events often?
Mark: Yes. Don, Chris and myself often give public talks. Chris recently gave a very involved talk about Disneyland in the Bay Area based on some research we are doing for a book on the topic. Don actually was flown over to England to speak on the radio about experimental radio. I have spoken at the University of Arizona, University of Tennessee, University of Virginia, and an art center in Washington DC. I have debated the President of the Canadian National Music Rights in front on an audience for two hours in Toronto. I was just recently flown to Detroit for the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Negativland was asked down to a high school summer events program in Southern California. We worked with all these high school kids for a week.
It is odd that all of these great and interesting things have happened when I didn't even finish college. I dropped out after three weeks. It feels so weird to have all these Universities ask me to speak when I don't even have a degree. However, I suppose I saw it coming once we were involved with move "Sonic Outlaws" as well as the book "The Letter U and the Numeral 2". Those sorts of things suddenly seem to legitimize people in the eyes of academia.
So we have been brought out to take the articulate voice of the radical left on intellectual property issues. I certainly speak on more than just that issue though. I also talk about retaining a social ethical context within art. I encourage people to be more active within their artistic pursuits because I feel the worlds needs it.
This arena is certainly not something we intentionally started out to become. It has been a real slow gradual process. If you look at Negativlands earliest material compared to what we have done recently, I sort of feel that it has envolved and become more oppositional. I certainly hope that it is bizarre, wacky and weird, but that it still remains confrontational as well.
Jester: Do you think that after all these years that Negativland has become an institution?
Mark: What do you think?
Jester: Due to all the publicity you have received from the lawsuits and litigation, it has given you the opportunity to speak out. You have become more of a public figure when you speak out about copyright issues. As a result, your opponents have made you a martyr.
Mark: Oddly enough, I am supposed to do an interview with Business Week tomorrow. They are doing an article on people who are creatively resisting the corporate advertising world. Details wanted to talk to us recently because they wanted to know our opinion on the state of copyright and sample law. It is really wild to me that we have been allowed to occupy a conceptual niche in the minds of some people.
The fact is, if you look at the sales figures of our albums, which are posted on our web site, they are very low. In fact, they are tiny. "Dispepsi" has sold around 8,000 copies. It received a very good review in Rolling Stone Magazine, but it doesn't mean that we sell 50,000 records.
So we are in this strange position because we have gained a lot of attention and notoriety from our ideas. Because I am in the middle of all of it, it is hard to tell if the whole thing is because of us as people or rather the ideas we represent. However, there are clearly things we have touched upon in our work that are a lot bigger than the actual work itself.
The way I look at it is, we seem like we are more than we really are and I think that is fine. If Details magazine thinks we are some bigwig spokes-people for this huge movement and I get to talk about how much I think that the people who run the music industry are pigs, I think that is great. The only trick is to keep your head on straight. If the opportunity presents itself for you to reach more people, you have to try and be thoughtful about it.
Once these various media pranks and hoaxes started blowing up in our faces with results that were far greater than we expected. We of course realized we had opportunities to talk about them. We have been given something in a way, so we need to take advantage of it.
For example, I am being flown to Australia for three weeks starting next week. I will be talking at the Melbourne Royal Institute of Technology. I will perform with Antideluvian Rocking Horse which is another band on Seeland Records. I am going to also appear with "The Ad and The Ego", which is a documentary on advertising for which Negativland wrote the soundtrack.
Jester: You also have a CD/book combination called "Death Sentences".
Mark: Actually, I just finished mixing the tracks a few days ago. I am actually expecting it to be a huge disappointment to those people who enjoy the Pop aspects of Negativland. This project will be all noise, no beat, no rhythm, no melody, no chord changes, no bassline, no singing and no spoken word. All of the sound is aurally destroyed. The whole concept is to use sounds that make your stereo feedback. Our goal was to make the sampled sounds unrecognizable.
Jester: Is is going to sound like some of the hardcore Japanese Noise?
Mark: I don't think so. We are trying to work with really interesting sounds without relying on just feedback. All of the sounds are very dynamic and musically controlled. Of course, we don't have any delusions that this release is breaking any new ground, but we thought the music was the appropriate aesthetic as the soundtrack for the book.
Finally, We also have a new EP that is coming out in a few days called "Happy Heroes". It has a remix of a track from "Dispepsi" as well as seven new tracks.
Jester: I was very surprised to hear that you were releasing an album based on Pepsi and other cola issues. Do you feel that you are in a position now that you can release controversial products like this without fear of legal retribution?
Mark: We get ideas and they seem like good ideas when we come up with them. We certainly don't want to let a bunch of laws that we consider to be silly and irrelevant to get in the way. In fact, if you are involved with a musical project that is moving into a grey area legally, that makes it even more interesting to do.
A lot of friends who heard about the "Dispepsi" album thought were were crazy to do it. I was very surprised to hear that my friends were frightened for me because I was going to make a record about a soft drink. Isn't that fear scary itself? It made us think that it was all the more reason to continue with the project.
Speaking for myself, I have always been the type of person who ends up working on a musical project because I feel that if I don't do it, no one else will. I can see this theme running through all of our music. Some of the ideas we come up with bomb like the "Willsaphone Stupid Show", which are just as much part of our aesthetic and approach as something like "Dispepsi". However releases like "U2" always get more attention due to their controversial nature.
Now that we have the public visibility that we do now, we realize that people will see a product like "Dispepsi" for what it really means. If we made an entire record that focus on one company and used commercial samples that relentlessly lam that company, conceptually speaking, we knew that it would get people's attention. Given all the press we have received in the past, we thought we could get all of the mainstream music business to notice the record. It was absolutely successful.
Of course we were afraid of being sued, but on the other hand, I didn't want to back down from an idea because I am afraid of a corporation suing me. Ironically, nothing happened. Pepsi didn't sue us. We were allowed to get away with it. I believe Pepsi heard this record and decided that it wasn't worth it to sue us. I believe that while the copyright laws are still wrong and are very backwards, in the real world, companies are making intelligent decisions to not sue everyone.
Oddly enough, we are really not obsessed with copyright law. You might be surprised to hear that, but no one in Negativland is obsessed. It just happens that the work we do touches on those issues. It happens that we get into legal trouble as a result. To me, it is all symptomatic of a bigger problem. Corporations play too much of a role in our culture and our environment. There are a lot of ways to resist this and one of those is by releasing the music that we do.
Jester: I laud you for what you are doing. You have created your own cultural virus. You are inserting the idea into society that it is okay to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of what the current legal interpretations state.
Mark: Thank you! Just recently I have realized that I can't change the copyright laws but I can ignore them. The more we ignore them, the more meaningless they become. We are not doing anything wrong. The laws are what is wrong. For all of the hot air we have been blowing, it all boils down to a simple, common sense argument. These laws are ridiculous because they are no threat to anyone.
Jester: One of the common themes throughout your back catalogue has been debasing religion with tracks like 'Christianity is Stupid' or 'I am God'. Do you have something against religion, or is it simply an easy target?
Mark: We really try hard to not make serious parodies because it is very easy to make fun of Fundamentalist Christianity at face value. Remember, we never said "Christianity is Stupid". The Reverend Estus W. Purkle said that. I think that we all have different backgrounds in religion. I know that Richard had a strong religious upbringing and I didn't. I was actually a born again Christian between the ages of 14 and 16 on my own. There was no pressure from anyone. I used to go to Bible Rap for Teens. I hated going to church. I never liked anything organized.
I don't have anything against different forms of spirituality or believing that there is something beyond us in the Universe. Obviously I feel that Christianity has taken its tenets into areas that are very destructive and hurtful. There is a great book called "The History of God" by Karen Armstrong, which talks about the history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and how remarkably similar they are at various times in history. All the crazy religious cliche's are more modern stereotypes.
Jester: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Mark: If we are perceived by people as an institution, I wonder if that can be a good or a bad thing? I wonder if that can make us seems irrelevant. What do you think?
Jester: Historically speaking, as long as a movement remains small, society will remain favorable to them. However, as soon as the movement eclipses the public servitude and becomes self-serving, is the moment the public will turn on them. Every dissident movement has had this happen to them.