THROUGH TODAY'S LENS, Negativland could almost seem quaint.
The Bay Area avant-garde band builds their work on a foundation of found sound. These sounds could be sourced from a field recording, a tape plucked from a radio station dumpster, a thrift-store find, or a bizarre slice of talk radio or TV news caught on cassette. In the case of their most infamous release, 1991's U2, Negativland used a recording—given to them by a Portland fan—of American Top 40 host Casey Kasem angrily losing his shit over a long-distance dedication to a dead dog named Snuggles.
From this source material, Negativland constructs sound collages that offer up potent, often bitingly funny social commentary on subjects as varied as America's love affair with firearms (1992's Guns EP), fair use laws and copyright (2005's No Business), and the existence of God (the soon-to-be released It's All In Your Head).
But their rather analog approach to tracking down source material has, surprisingly, not changed much in the YouTube age, when the weirdest moments of life appear online moments after they occur.
"It's still a matter of finding the good stuff and finding smart, interesting, and creative ways to use it," says Mark Hosler, one of Negativland's founding members. "With the Kasem thing, hardly anyone had these records, so we were inspired to make that record so we could share this stuff with the world. [There are] things that surface on the internet in a second, and we're never inspired to make something with them. Our work has still evolved outside of changing technological access."
The group's desire to poke at the cultural hornet's nest hasn't changed, either. This affinity for provocation was apparent early on when they played an elaborate prank on the US media, claiming that their 1987 song "Christianity Is Stupid" was what inspired a young man to murder his family with an ax. The resulting firestorm of publicity was then used to create their 1989 album Helter Stupid. Negativland also took the big soda companies to task, twisting commercials from Coke and Pepsi into hilarious pretzels of analysis about the power of advertising.
The upcoming It's All In Your Head is a double album that explores the human need to connect life on earth with a grand creator, and they're packaging the album in an actual Bible—or, if you purchase it online, a copy of the Koran.
"If we had a bigger budget, we would pass out copies of our Bible on street corners all over the US," says Hosler. "I do know that whenever we stay in hotels, we're going to leave one in the drawer there."
Don't expect to hear any of the material from Negativland's new album on this current tour, however. The group instead is doing something they've never attempted before: a greatest-hits set that deconstructs and updates tracks from throughout their 35-year history, with plenty of room for what Hosler calls the "chaos and risk inherent in the live performance."
"We want it to be structured enough so we know it's going to be a good show," he says. "On the other hand, we want to keep it lively and interesting and dangerous to keep us engaged in the work and so things can surprise us."