Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 12:58 pm | Fair 72º


Jeff Moehlis: Find What You’re Looking For with Negativland’s Mark Hosler

A roundtable workshop and experimental music concert will be held Thursday at UCSB

Negativland Click to view larger
Negativland’s Mark Hosler (left) and Wobbly will be visiting UCSB next Thursday for an afternoon roundtable workshop and an evening concert. (Stefan Müller photo)

Mark Hosler is one of the founding members of the experimental music collective Negativland, which has pushed the boundaries of sampling and appropriation in ways that have led to artistic triumphs and legal headaches.

Hosler, fellow Negativland member Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly) and local artist Irene Moon will be at UC Santa Barbara next Thursday for a roundtable workshop at 2 p.m. and a performance at 8 p.m. Click here for more information on these free events, which are sponsored by UCSB's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Music.

Negativland's first album came out in 1980 while Hosler was still in high school, and the band broke through to college radio with the 1987 album Escape From Noise. They gained some noteriety when they claimed that one of the songs from that album inspired an axe murderer's rampage, a hoax that the band actually created to avoid having to go on tour.

Along the way, Negativland coined the term and advanced the notion of "culture jamming," an anti-consumerist movement to subvert mainstream cultural institutions. This came to a head with their 1991 release of an EP called U2, which led to four years of legal battles after they were sued by U2's record label for unauthorized sampling of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and misleading artwork.

Hosler talked to Noozhawk about his upcoming visit to UCSB, and his reflections on that tiff involving, as the band put it, The Letter U and the Numeral 2.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: Can you tell us a bit about what people can look forward to when you come to Santa Barbara?

Mark Hosler: Before the show, we're going to be doing an afternoon panel with a music professor named David Novak about appropriation and collage in music and art, intellectual property issues and copyright law. I'm sure that'll go in different directions.

At the show, Jon [Leidecker] — or Wobbly — and I are both going to be doing solo performances, and we'll probably do a duo at the end as well. And of course, the wonderful Irene Moon is on the bill. She's terrific, and she lives in Santa Barbara.

Our solo work is going to be instrumental, all sound-based. We’ve been working towards a new Negativland record and new Negativland performances, so probably the duo at the end will be us workshopping some new ideas for Negativland stuff [laughs], in kind of a loose improvisational way, where we're not worried about it being called Negativland. But both Wobbly and myself have a lot of practice exploring stuff solo, where you can do things that don't work in a group performance setting. So it's something that we were both interested in taking out on the road, and I was able to set up a few shows up and down the coast.

My live setup is a lot of homemade electronics, and all sorts of unstable soundmaking devices that I can sort of control, but they're always surprising me, so that it's kind of like I'm collaborating with the machines, and I'm trying to wrangle them into some shape that has a sort of musical form. A dynamic form, so that it's fun for people to listen to. But you're actually watching me try to figure this out, which is why I have lights pointed down at my gear.

The joy of improvisation can be this exploring, this manifesting of something being created right in the moment, and there's something that can be quite electrifying about it when it's working. And of course, it can also be the worst, most tedious kinda thing [laughs]. Hopefully, because I've been doing this for 38 years, I'll be on the better side of things.

My setup is all hardware devices all wired together. For Jon's setup for his particular performance, he has a bunch of iPads and iPhones all feeding into each other, and he's using these pitch-to-MIDI converters, which hear the sound a device is making, converts it into digital note information, feeds that to another device which does the same thing, and they do it in this cascading loop. So it's like a MIDI feedback loop. And then each device has different sounds in them being triggered, and the way the interact with each other is absolutely bonkers. It's wonderful. I actually love hearing him perform. It's really fun.

He’s playing his devices, and he's inputting some note values, too, you know, playing a keyboard, but he is also on a journey with you, the audience, as far as "where is this going to go, and what does it do?" He's done a lot of these performances now, so he's gotten really, really good at corralling the crazed out-of-control-ness of it into something that's really fun to listen to. It's always full of surprises. As we're touring, every night is going to be pretty darn different.

JM: Your legal case with U2 and Island Records is thoroughly documented, so I don't want to rehash that. But it's now 20-plus years later. What would you say is the most important thing you learned from how that whole thing played out?

MH: Personally, the value of pursuing your creative vision, and of not backing down, and doing your best to proceed in a fearless way. I credit that to the fact that I'm part of a group. This is not about that I was that strong of a person. I don't think I am. But because I was part of a collective, I think that together as a group we were able to fight the good fight, and turn that lawsuit into a giant conceptual art project which we tried to use as a way to further the conversation, which seemed at that time to really need to happen. What is property when things are digital? What is art and creativity when the world you're living in is not just clouds and the sky and flowers and trees and love songs, but it's U2 music that's playing that you don't want to hear? It's a Pepsi ad everywhere you go. It's Bank of America logos, and Wells Fargo on every corner. It's pop songs and media and information. We're just swimming in it.

So the idea that someone says, "This is all privatized and you can't touch it as an artist," to us was absurd. It was just silly. Yes, we're even going to make art using other art — that's OK. That was our argument. This ought to be allowed, because we're not counterfeiting someone's work, we're not bootlegging it. We're using bits and pieces of things to then make new work that comments on the work that we've appropriated, that uses what we're repurposing toward some actual thoughtful ends. I think the U2 record is also very funny. It was also responding to this corporate-media-saturated world that we live in. Now, all these years later, that world is only infinitely worse, because everyone's on their devices non-stop. Someone must be tracking the average number of ads that a human being was seeing in a day in 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010 [laughs]. Because that would be good to know. I bet you that number has just gone through the roof. It's sort of insane.

Click here for the full interview with Mark Hosler.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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