What happens when you’ve spent your whole adult life manipulating tape and found sound to expose hypocrisy, greed and stupidity while puncturing the pompous balloon of fame and power only to discover you’re now living in a post-truth reality where, literally, nothing matters? That was the dilemma facing the members of experimental music collective and legendary culture jammers Negativland when they began assembling their upcoming double album, True False.
“If someone had said to me that 40 years from now I’d still be doing this… that once we dove deeper into what we could do with collage and appropriation and found that it was an interesting way to talk about our country and culture and lives in this crazy, insane, dark, scary, weird time,” bandmember Mark Hosler tells Billboard he would never have believed it. “We never imagined that the person bringing all this out into the public conversation would be the president of the United States. Trump is a culture jammer, only he’s a dark, evil culture jammer.”
Luckily, since late-night talkers like Stephen Colbert are doing such a great job dissecting the president’s bottomless pit of race-baiting, enemy-diminishing tweets, Negativland “very intentionally” steered clear of tweaking the Jammer-in-Chief on the first of two double-disc sets they’ll release this year to celebrate 40 years of slicing and dicing reality.
“It’s low-hanging fruit… We never guessed when we were doing hoaxes and pranks in the 1980s and ’90s — making whole albums about maybe not believing what you see in the news and being more discerning about what is true and false — that we’d be living in a world where what’s being suggested by Trump and his team is that there’s no truth or reality besides what we decide is true,” Hosler says of the mysterious group known for such audacious stunts as including a bumper sticker that read “Car Bomb” in the vinyl copies of their 1987 Escape From Noise album.
Meticulously assembled over the past four years from snippets stored in the massive tape archive they’ve gathered since 1981, True False is the band’s return to all-original musical compositions, overlaid with the kinds of sampled and found recordings that they’ve mined for audio gold for decades. But more importantly for the group that lost three key members in 2015-16 — Richard “Pastor Dick” Lyons, Ian Allen and Don Joyce — the new album, due in October, was a way to pay homage to their lost brothers in Plunderphonics.
The album’s first single, debuting on Billboard below, “Discernment” features percussion from legendary drummer Prairie Prince (The Tubes, XTC, Chris Isaak) as well as key contributions from Joyce. “For us, it was a very obvious topic to be addressing in our work and that piece was based on an edit Don made quite a while ago,” Hosler says. “Sadly, it seems to be still completely relevant and as kind of a lead-in to what the whole album is addressing.”
The song features zigzagging, disorienting drumming from Prince underneath an exasperated-sounding woman repeating, “I find this intriguing/ I don’t believe it, necessarily/ Who can tell if it’s true or not true, we don’t have enough data,” as she spirals into questions about how “manipulable” we are while repeating “I’m here to drive you crazy” in a maddening loop. Prince’s pulsing drumming was so revelatory, in fact, that the group erased all the music they’d recorded for the song and composed the entire track around his percussion.
And if it all makes you feel a bit dizzy and disoriented, well, that’s kind of the point. “It was a bittersweet pleasure for us to put all these bits and pieces into the work from our dear deceased friends,” Hosler says. “Our goal was to make the record sound like it had all the complexity and layers to it that we would have had if they were still alive,” he adds of the 14 tracks on True False that tackle everything from the climate crisis to the dying-off of honey bees and mass shootings with vocal bits sampled from Occupy mic checks, Fox News hosts and ecoterrorists.
“Now kids are using Instagram and TikTok to make what would have been experimental media as [part of their] social media,” he says of how the tactics Negativland helped pioneer have suddenly become something a tween can mimic with a few clicks on their smartphone. “Finding material to use used to be very difficult to do… but once YouTube exploded people stopped asking where we got our stuff from because now there’s a globally created archive to find that stuff. Those avant garde practices have leaked into the mainstream and they’re normal activities for teenagers.”
So, as Hosler notes, taking something that doesn’t, technically, belong to you and reusing it to say something meaningful — which caused an “enormous shitstorm” for Negativland in the 1990s when U2 sued the group over a parody of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — doesn’t have the same meaning anymore. Except in the wake of the loss of Negativland’s comrades, which inspired them to find a way to bring “something really good to the table, something that speaks to the current moment.”
Hosler says the second double-album, a “deep dive” into technology’s dark, anxiety-producing impact on our brains, is due out in the spring. Negativland is offering an advanced fundraising pre-sale for the vinyl version of True False that Hosler promises will include some special “goodies” for fans who pre-order here.
Listen to “Discernment” below.