Negativland’s Don Joyce lived and breathed sound collage—’til his heart stopped beating on July 22, 2015 at the age of 71. “I’ve been more interested in what’s already out there than creating some new, so-called ‘original,’” Joyce told me in a 2003 interview at his home studio in a seedy part of Oakland, California. “I really like arranging what’s already there. I have a satirical bent of mind—so when I do collage, it’s satirical collage.”
Although he and his impish experimental group are not household names, Negativland’s forward-looking art and ideas left significant traces on popular culture. Joyce, for example, coined the phrase “culture jamming” back in the early 1980s, and since then this irreverent form of media criticism has been embraced by new generations of activists, scholars and journalists. Negativland eventually distanced themselves from that term, preferring (a la Groucho Marx) not join a club that would have them as a member.
Culture jamming was originally inspired by “radio jammers” who interrupted ham radio broadcasts with jokes, fart sounds, surrealistic banter and other goofy pranks. Joyce and the rest of Negativland, who never took themselves too seriously, viewed these juvenile hijinks as a kind of metaphor for what they were up to.
Painting with sound, their primary pallet was drawn from radio and television broadcasts that they digested—and then puked them back into the ether. Decades before the term “mashup” became common parlance, Negativland and their aural insurrectionist peers (such as Iowa City’s Tape-beatles) planted the seeds of what is now called “remix culture.”
Negativland, who never took themselves too seriously, viewed these juvenile hijinks as a kind of metaphor for what they were up to.
Don Joyce first began developing his unique aesthetic in 1981 on a weekly radio show, Over the Edge, which aired on KPFA in Berkeley, California. Because this radio station broadcasts at a hefty 59,000 watts, Over the Edge could be heard throughout much of California every Thursday night at midnight. It was akin to ham radio jamming, but on a massive scale.
“I discovered Over the Edge by chance in 1985 as a fifteen-year-old kid,” said Jon Leidecker, a Bay Area artist who records under the name Wobbly. He said his first encounter with Joyce’s radio show was “instantly life-changing” (Leidecker has gone on to international prominence as a solo electronic composer, and he eventually joined Negativland). As the youngster listened to Over the Edge for the first time, he was drawn into its sonic world.
“I realized it was actually five to ten things at once,” he said, “talk radio recordings and TV advertisements cut in with each other and twisted into dialogues, while loosely-played guitars and keyboards mingled with fragments of canned pop and soundtrack albums. Only when the sound of a disconnecting line terminated the guitar riff did I make that final connection—a number of the lower fidelity instruments and tapes were being contributed by live phone callers.” Years before Web 2.0 was just a gleam in a coder’s eye, Don Joyce had already pioneered networked collaborative creativity.
Don Joyce—whose initials were, appropriately enough, DJ—began inviting the teenaged Leidecker to the KPFA studios to “play” on the show. Joyce played a similar Sonic Elder role with the members of Negativland when he began collaborating with them back in 1981 on Over the Edge. “When I first started it, I didn’t know Negativland,” Joyce told me. “They were a bunch of kids who were making records in their bedroom, and were doing a lot of collage musical stuff, collecting sounds.”
“I invited them up to the show,” he continued, “and they brought keyboards and instruments and noise makers and sound generating devices and electronics, and they set it all up and started playing live.” As the group wrote in a statement on its website soon after Joyce’s death, “Negativland had found its ‘lead vocalist’ without even realizing they were looking for one. It was Don who took the idea of reshaping previously recorded words—in a pre-sampling age—and ran with it to an extent and depth never before heard, and never equaled.”
“I think that, by 1983, Don was playing live with Negativland onstage,” founding member Mark Hosler recalled. “We decided, ‘let’s all move in together and build a studio in the living room,’ and we worked on Escape from Noise.” Released on the influential indie-punk label SST, that 1987 album was Negativland’s critical breakthrough—though it was their 1991 U2 release that made them infamous (this U2-sampling satire provoked one of the first highly visible music copyright infringement suits). “We may not have had a hit single,” Hosler has said, “but we had a hit lawsuit!”
Negativland’s catalog contains its fair share of unconventional albums, but it’s safe to say that their most recent release is unprecedented in recording history. With the help of Archive.org, the group has released 941 downloadable episodes of Over the Edge—an astounding 3,200 hours of dense sound collages culled from Joyce’s personal archives. If you listened for eight hours a day, seven days a week, it would take well over a year to get through all this material.
Filmmaker, animator, and Negativland member Tim Maloney spent the past three years digitizing the analog tapes of old Over the Edge shows—running three cassette decks simultaneously, burning through several machines. “Don was getting older, he was never going to save them all, and why not start?” Maloney said. “I’ll never forget. Don looked at the pile and said, ‘Well, that’s it. That’s my life’s work. Okay, you better take it.’”
After Joyce died in July, the torch was passed to Jon Leidecker. “Don mentioned several times to me that he wanted the show to continue,” he said. “It’s an overwhelming inheritance. … Eventually there will be a title change, because I’m not Don, and there’s already a new direction coming into focus. But there will be continuity.”
Discussing Leidecker’s connections to the experimental music scenes in the Bay Area and across the globe, Hosler observed, “It could become an incredible space for all kinds of other collaborations and performances with people, in a way that’s different than Don did.” Leidecker also has hundreds of hours of Joyce’s media archives that he can play around with, ensuring that his dearly departed bandmate will remain a specter on the spectrum.
“Though he’s dead, we now have enough of Don to keep editing him into radio shows long into the future,” Tim Maloney said. “He’s like Brian O’Blivion—the character from Videodrome—a film Don used to play samples from.”
Kembrew McLeod is not a college professor, he’s a collage professor. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 186.