Negativland's latest record comes with two grams of a dead band member's ashes
by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)
"Oh, there's a big bone fragment, look at that!"
"Like, what could that be? Part of a tooth? A leg? An arm? I don't know."
The band member holds the bag up to the camera so you can see the "sticker of authenticity" certifying the approximately 2 grams of sandy substance it holds is, in fact, the remains of Negativland founding member Donald S. Joyce.
"There's Don," he says. "Oh, Don."
A journey into Negativland's America
The late Don Joyce (1944-2015) met up with members of Negativland around 1981.
The band, which was started in the late 70s by some high school friends, was pioneering live mixes of found sound and making records that had the air of a consumerist nightmare. As hip-hop brought sampling to the mainstream, Negativland was already ahead of the curve, cutting up commercial voice-overs and scattering them into their compositions. It was sly, angular, satirical music.
Don Joyce called it "modern noise."
In the 30 years he spent with Negativland, Joyce created characters and voices to satirize media and consumerism. He hosted an influential radio show called Over the Edge, and he cut up audio, reconfiguring voices, layering them with meaning, chopping up the coarse by-products of the culture.
Now Negativland, in the weirdest consumer give-away ever, is chopping up Don and gifting his remains to anyone who buys their latest album.
"I would only imagine he would fully endorse the idea of literally giving himself to his fans and listeners to be reused however the listener saw fit," says Peter Conheim of Negativland when he spoke to me on Day 6.
Don, is that you?
Negativland has punked the media before, convincing a TV station their music inspired a crazed fan to commit mayhem. The callow TV news coverage of the phony story shows up on Negativland's record Helter Stupid.
But Conheim is adamant that the cremains of Don Joyce are real.
"We knew we didn't want it to be perceived as a joke or a prank," Conheim says.
"It's a tribute to him from us that's actually very loving. And of course, it's morbid on a certain level and we have to laugh at it, which is what he would have wanted. He wouldn't have wanted it to be a solemn occasion, he would have wanted it to be fodder for discussion which… Well here we are."
But Joyce didn't bequeath his remains to his fans. The band made this marketing/scattering decision on his behalf after his death.
I asked Conheim how he could be sure this was what Joyce wanted.
"When he was alive," says Conheim, "After he had a full mouth replacement of his teeth, we considered selling his teeth or auctioning off his teeth -- which were encrusted with 24 carat gold -- to a lucky Negativland fan."
"He was down with that idea."
'"I think all of us close to him would say that he couldn't care less what happened to his remains."
Get it while it lasts
Whether you believe the remains are real or not may actually be beside the point. The new record The Chopping Channel is a critique of consumerism, a popular theme with Negativland, their fans, and the late Don Joyce.
"He was," says Conheim, "Integral to the concept of this record which is all about consumerism and its most impossible-to-believe forms."
"And so it aesthetically matches the content of the record in many ways that we would chop up Don and have him available."
"This record is all about selling you back your life."
Conheim says there isn't much more of Joyce left to give away, so I asked him if he would, in his will, pointedly bequeath his remains to the band to be used in a similar campaign.
At first he said no.
"I don't consider my own personal life to be so intrinsically connected to this particular project that I would bequeath the remains to these freaks."
But then, he settled on a contradiction and said maybe he would, in the end, leave his body to the band.
So, depending on the number of albums they sell, the scattering of the remains of Don Joyce may be nearly complete.
But as long as there are still other members of the band alive and willing to do the bagging, there may be more dust to share in the future with Negativland's fans.