illegal art interview
(July 2000)

Illegal Art are, as the KLF might've put it, liberating the grooves with the release of Realistic's Smells Like Teen Disco, a clear vinyl 12" slamming together the tired old house sounds of My Love is Guaranteed and the obvious riff from Nirvana's commercial apex. A multitude of mixes are also present, notably by the Evolution Control Committee whose kinky coupling of Public Enemy and Herb Alpert (Rebel Without a Pause and Bittersweet Samba respectively) for Pickled Egg records was such a copyright-busting gem last year.

Ah yes, copyright. Given the name of the label and a back catalogue consisting of two albums constructed entirely from unauthorised samples of Beck (Deconstructing Beck) and film and show soundtracks (Extracted Celluloid) you might think that copyright was something of a target round Illegal Art's way. Not so according to spokesman, Philo, who says that the motivation behind the label is merely to "disseminate music that might otherwise never be heard." So why the focus on using copyright material then? "The focus is really on digital computer music. One of the quickest ways to get sound in and out of a computer is to sample something so a lot of artists working in this medium are often confronted with the issues of copyright laws. Because of that I chose Illegal Art as the name of the label and that immediately thrust me into a relationship with a pre-existing community engaged in this copyright battle." A community that includes renowned sample crusaders Negativland: "After we released Deconstructing Beck, they helped us with some of the legal issues and eventually re-released it on their label. They also have co-released Extracted Celluloid " Legal issues? "With Deconstructing Beck we received threatening letters from BMG, Geffen, and Beck's own personal lawyer. The real motivation for them was simply to stop the project. They weren't seeking any money from us... they just thought that we were infringing on Beck's rights. Actually because of their threats we received tons of media attention and therefore made thousands of dollars. "Anyway, they sent lots of legal notes... and we ignored them. Big record company lawyers often use threatening tactics and usually succeed without ever getting an official court order. They really don't want to go to court because it costs them a lot of money, but most artists give in right away. Besides... we did have some sort of legal argument that the project could be defined as 'parody' and therefore 'fair use' as outlined by the US Supreme Court. But there has never been a case like this where our entire project was made up of only samples."

Smells Like Teen Disco differs from previous releases in one very important way. No, the samples haven't been cleared, but it does have an in-your-face beat. Many tracks on the two compilations were avant-garde experiments the construction of music, Dadaist meta-art. The kind of thing the Wire creams itself over but not exactly listenable in your Gran's mind. So what's more important: the sound or the idea that motivated the sound? Philo: "The sound. It's all pretty listenable to my ears. A lot of other 'normal' music is completely unlistenable for myself. I really could care less what the methods are (although some of the artists may have different views)." So the Metallica project that's underway... "Metallica has taken a rather idealistic stance that digital information should be tightly controlled and we couldn't refuse the opportunity to contribute to the debate." So it's not just about music that doesn't usually get a hearing, then, because you're actively encouraging artists to take samples of Metallica. "If there is commentary involved, the source material is important. Other times it is just a starting point for abstract sound creation. I'm interested in both approaches.

"With most artists the music exists first and the copyright issues come later. It is a natural process to re-use other material and most people just do it without the intention of making a fuss over it. Don't get me wrong, we do like to call attention to the issue, but that isn't the main motivation for creating the music."

So is it art, or politics, or both? "Art... but whenever politics are involved it only increases the pleasure." Pleasure that, courtesy of Smells Like Teen Disco and a UK distribution deal, will be coming soon to an alternative dancefloor near you.

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