Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Plaza of the Mind Interview with Negativland's Don Joyce!

I picked up a copy of Negativland's Escape From Noise back in 1991 or 1992 and it was really unlike anything I had heard before. It was like a smörgåsbord of found snippets of dialogue mixed with upbeat rhythms and lyrics with a glazing of suburban humor. The band later went on to record albums such as Free, Dispepsi as well as the infamous The Letter U and the Numeral 2 (though not in that order).

Besides their musical work the band has long advocated for the fair use of electro-quoting and appropriating of images. Because of pioneers such as Negativland, the Tape-beatles and John Oswald younger suburban kids such as myself felt a sort of empowerment to have more of an active role in our intake of the outer channel media that came into our lives.

You think South Park Mexican's Wiggy sounds better slowed down? Slow it down! You think Aimee Mann's Say Anything sounds better with the last ten seconds cut out? Cut them out! You think it would be cool to see a version of Star Wars Episode One starring only Jar Jar Binks? Then for god's sake edit all of those other goofballs out!

On that note, Don Joyce graciously accepted an invitation to participate in an electronic interview for the Plaza of the Mind [and while I didn't change any of Mr. Joyce's words, I did appropriate and alter two images from the band I found online to make the above image].

[The Plaza of the Mind quotes appear in Bold-type, Mr. Joyce’s in normal-type]

Could you explain your role in the origination of Negativland?

I was not there at the beginning. Negativland was originated by Mark Hosler and friends while still in high school. They produced three albums ("Negativland," "Points," and "A Big 10-8 Place") before I knew them. About 1981 I met them through my radio show, Over The Edge, which I was doing at KPFA in Berkeley (and still am 28 years later!) when we were introduced and they came up to do the show. They brought in a lot of equipment - instruments, tapes, noisemakers, etc) and they began performing a live mix on the show, which was a revelation to me, a fairly normal record playing DJ up to that time. That changed OTE forever and it's been a live mix, collage radio show ever since. I also started working on their records at that point and became a member. "Escape From Noise" was the first Negativland record I worked on. I think I brought a sensibility for dialog editing and media clips to the group, mainly coming from my interest in radio production and editing at the time. My cassette recorder was on Record/pause all the time, recording all kinds of clips and actualities from radio, TV, soundtracks, etc. I began collecting all kinds of audio material for cutting up and editing to be used on the weekly radio show, which became a weekly found sound collage, and a lot of this material also found its way into our records.

What does an average day in the life of Don Joyce look like?

Extremely boring and uneventful! But that's what I like it to be in order to devote myself to this work, which comprises almost all my interests. I have remained single, stay up all night and sleep days in order to avoid jet lag doing the late-night radio show weekly, and am pretty much a loner and a recluse otherwise. I do not intend to assassinate the President however, and probably remain fairly sane in an increasingly sped up society that does not encourage sanity... In this context, I am able to come up with such pertinent and contrary catch phrases as: "Digital is annoying."

What has been your favorite era for the band?

We had our biggest flash of recognition (and sales) during the mid 80s, around the time of Escape From Noise, our biggest selling album. At that time, the whole idea of sampling and using found sound in new work was new to popular music (though not new in more obscure art based work) led primarily by Hip Hop music sampling at the time. Now all that is well worn and nothing new, so the "freshness" of the techniques is gone, though the social/cultural potency of found sound usage is not. But it's tougher to have any new type of effect with these approaches and techniques, it's true.

But I don't really think of the whole adventure as having "favorite" eras, it's just an evolving, ever changing bunch of points, conceptions, topics, and compositional challenges over many years. It's all been quite amazing in my mind in terms of staying together as a collaborating group for this long, somehow keeping what we have made in print, and regularly releasing new work as well. I think it's quite unusual in music/show business to last and persist this long, regardless of how our now too many works might be received. Economic success has never been our goal, which means this is a pretty rare bunch of people to work together.

I enjoyed your solo record Mort aux Vachei - it seemed a departure from your Negativland works. Can you describe your work on it?

That work was commissioned by the Staalplat label in Europe, and at that time the horrors of Bosnian ethnic genocide and concentration camps were all over TV (and will it never end?). So that work was my straightforward reaction to all that and how it keeps coming back over and over as history plods on in its usual unenlightened fashion. It's all about that familiar "...doomed to repeat it" observation about history.

Do you plan on doing any other solo material?

Nothing in particular at this point. However, the particular way that Negativland has always collaborated ranges from intensely intimate sharing in the making of our work to virtually solo efforts on various parts, pieces, and works. We are all very individual artists and collaboration has never been easy, so we often end up with all our efforts, more or less solo to more or less shared, being put under the Negativland umbrella. We actually call ourselves a "collective" in the European sense of artists banding together to work together/ and/ separately, all the results coming under one name or artistic intent, the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts.

My friend got to see one of your recent shows, I missed it. I caught you back in '99 though and it is one of my favorite live music memories - it felt like I was hanging out in someone's basement - it was so mellow. How often do you do live performances?

We do not play live often or regularly. When we do come up with a live show concept, it usually has not much to do with our recorded works specifically. We can't just go on stage and play our greatest hits, reproducing all that studio production live. And that's not interesting to us. So we have always put a lot of work into live show concepts, all of which have been designed for that specifically, usually coming up with whole new content for that context. As in our records, we also try not to repeat ourselves in succeeding works, trying to make every show or record significantly different from what we have done before, at least in content. So it's a lot of whole new work to put together a live show, complicated and time consuming. At the moment we are occasionally going out with a new show called, "It's All In Your Head FM," a quite different approach for us concerning the unlikelihood of the existence of a supernatural God. This is a sort of "documentary collage" in sound, the dialog being taken from all kinds of documentaries on religion, and is unusually serious throughout with humor minimized. And yes, in two parts we cover both Christianity and Islam...

I have often found that the electro-quote holds a certain aesthetic magic in it - depending on the quote and its usage [of course] - it is somehow able to say much more than if I were to simply perform the same statement. -- Any insights?

Yes, the found audio statement (meaning media content) seems to carry a lot more useful and culturally evocative baggage within it than anything I could repeat or originate myself. It just seems to be about more... Also, I am very conscious of the power of a particular voice quality as well as what it is saying. The audio nature (timber, accent, pacing, etc) of a particular found voice can impart a kind of memorability to the statement I can't. It's the "actuality" of found sound too, that gives it a whole range of impact involving out-of-context "familiarity," (the powers of surrealism) and the (possibly illicit) subversion of the original intent of the quote - changed meaning.

Are you familiar with the 8 Seasons of Chromalox?

No, I'm not. What am I missing?

What has been the strangest fan interaction you have ever dealt with?

I can't think of anything really strange. I am regularly gratified mostly, as we seem to get a surprising amount of feedback from people telling us what a big effect we have had on their lives and thinking - the kind of intellectual adjustment stuff one doesn't ordinarily attribute to mere music, at least not since the 60s...

Who are some of your favorite authors?

It turns out I don't read a whole lot, but when I do it's not really based on favorite authors but the nature of specific books. I recently finished "Shadows Of forgotten Ancestors" by Carl sagen and his wife - great background reading for our current live show, "It's All In Your Head FM." Before that I was reading Lawrence Lessig's "The Future Of Ideas." I tend to prefer non-fiction, and not just in books. I find myself less and less interested in fictional works of any kind - TV, movies, or whatever. It all just seems so redundant and unrewarding these days. This seems to be an effect of my growing older as I used to be very interested in fiction when I was younger.
Have you noticed how utterly saturated most contemporary fiction is with supernaturalism? It seems to be the main motivational factor in almost everything fictional now. We are obsessed with it for some reason, when in fact it is all utterly useless and pointless "solutions" to problems.
I realize Hollywood is just thrilled by stretching its newfound CGI abilities to amaze us, but we sure eat it up and want more as well. It seems to lead nowhere to me....

What is your favorite style of architecture?

I like Gary's monuments to unexpected whackyness, but in a smirking sort of way. Frank L. Wright is my favorite for serious elegance. But I don't really follow architecture enough to know everything that's going on or what I think...

Your work with Negativland was, arguably, at the very beginning of the sound collage style of recording [for want of a better name - how do you describe Negativland's music?], looking back, is there anything that you miss about the older style of recording rather than the new digital methods? "Digital is annoying."

I describe Negativland's work in general as "modern noise." This tends to cover it for me, though other band members don't like this term that much.
"Digital is annoying" refers more to the whole array of digital equipment and appliances around us which seem to actually produce a lot of frustration in their operation, reliability, and compatibility with whatever you already have, not to mention constantly learning how to use them as newer is constantly replacing the new. I don't remember anything like this level of "not working" in the analog world of the past. I would never forsake ProTools for audio editing, it is amazing. However, I still use analog cassette technology as well for on the run dubbing and capturing on a dime. There is still nothing quicker, easier, or more reliable in the digital world. I also use a cassette walkman as a performance instrument live too.

I've often imagined Negativland having a massive audio and video library at their disposal - are you guys hooked up to some sort of large underground network of 'forbidden audio'?

No, I just have been collecting audio since the 80s (some being sent to us unsolicited too) and now have a huge archive of such stuff. The radio show which uses up so much stuff on a weekly basis has encouraged this collecting.

What kind of music to you listen to on a day-to-day basis?

Hardly any, in terms of recorded music. I find myself listening to dialog sources in all media much more, as I require so much of that in our work and for the radio show. I do buy a lot of music, but hardly listen to it after I hear it once, and think of my music collection also as show fodder more than entertainment.

Do you ever go to the mall? I have always loved everything that I am, as an artistic person I suppose, supposed to hate. Bruce Willis movies, television, the suburbs, the mall, etc. I have always enjoyed being in those big enclosed spaces and the ambient sound. I think it was more meaningful for me in the seventies and I am unsure if that is because that was when I was growing up or if it was just better back then.

No, I never go to malls, never have.

What would you consider the pinnacle of modern recording? I read a book about elevator music and it made me reconsider what I thought about 'public exposure' of music - making the radio and cds seem somehow smaller in their influence on human kind.

I don't know. I'm totally against all "top 10" concepts in art as it is actually the incredible variety and diversity of it ALL that makes good cultural sense to me. Reducing it all to favoritism is just encouraging inevitable boredom. Art is rapidly spreading out to include all kinds of "everyman" efforts and attempts. Any individual work becomes less noticeable as the overall volume increases. Everything is becoming "niche" oriented and gathers smaller audiences as individual works in a vast sea of same. Artists' survival on their own work becomes more and more problematic. Negativland is broker than we've ever been...

I have always been completely blown away by TimeZones on Escape from Noise. I suppose this is a statement rather than a question.