Interview: Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo
October 14, 1978. It was the fall of my senior year in high school. My buddy’s parents were out of town and you know exactly what that meant: throw-down! The keg was flowing and the party raging. It must have been about midnight. I was walking down a long hallway toward the living room and as I was passing the den I glanced in and saw my friend Jane staring at the television. I asked her what she was looking at but she just glanced at me, shook her head, and pointed at the screen. I walked over and there they were, clad in their yellow hazmat suits, jerking back and forth…Devo. Maybe I’d heard about them in the music magazines, I really don’t remember. What I do remember is that by Monday morning just about everyone I hung out with had the first Devo album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!.
That famous Saturday Night Live performance in October of ’78 burned Devo into the national consciousness. But, in fact, some configuration of the band had been together since 1973 when Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald and Bob Casale, and others — art students at Kent State University — formed the group. Both Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale had been politically active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and Casale had been present on the fateful day in May 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen murdered four Kent students. Devo was formed as part political statement, part cultural critique, and part performance art project. The band rapidly metamorphosed into a rock and roll juggernaut.
In a lot of ways, Devo was the perfect vehicle for lashing out at the failed promise of the 1960s. As the country wrestled with the hangover from a failed war, economic stagnation, and political scandal, Devo’s on-going critique of the nation’s mindless consumption and rampant stupidity struck a chord. This was a band with an ideology that was made for an America that seemed to many to be on the downslide. But then the band had no idea that some 30 years later incompetence would be a national character-trait, that a major national political party could run candidates that essentially renounce science, and that a brain-damaged turnip like Paris Hilton could achieve international celebrity.
Q: Are we not men? A: We are prophets!
Devo reached the peak of their popularity with the release of the 1980 classic Freedom of Choice. The single “Whip It” went to number fourteen on the pop charts. But over the next decade, despite some modest success, the band entered a prolonged period of warring with their record company and internal conflicts. In 1990 the band called it quits. Mark Mothersbaugh started his own music production company, Mutato Muzika. He has provided the music for numerous children’s television shows, and most famously he has contributed the soundtracks to a number of Wes Anderson films, most notably Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. For the past few years, Devo fans were tantalized by rumors of an impending album.
Then in June, after a 20-year hiatus, Devo released the critically-acclaimed Something for Everybody. The long hibernation seems to have re-energized the band’s energy domes. The album is the band’s finest since Freedom of Choice. For most of the summer, Devo has been an almost ubiquitous presence on late-night television. By just about any measure it has been an impressive victory lap.
So what does it all mean? How can we assess Devo’s place in our pop cultural history? I had the pleasure of chatting with Mark Mothersbaugh over the phone. This is his State of Disunion Message.
I wasn’t really going to start out with this, but I got the press for the new record and there is a description of Devo’s use of focus-groups to choose songs and the aesthetics of the new uniforms and album cover. As I was preparing for this interview, I began to notice a pretty violent reaction in the music press and in the blogosphere — real frustration — about whether this was true; if you were actually doing this, or if this was yet another Devo put-on. What made me laugh — because it really doesn’t matter to me whether it was true or not — was the fact that you had to tell them one way or another. (laughter)
How has the world changed in the last 20 years? Is irony completely dead? Are people going to understand what Devo is all about today?
Well actually, you know, irony didn’t even exist back when we got together the first time around. (laughter) We were constantly defensive and we were constantly fighting. Almost every interview we ever did turned pugilistic almost immediately. And we became very insular because of it. I feel like that was the reason we were so careful; that’s why it was so important that we were not misquoted. We had to be really careful during interviews when we were trying to explain who and what we were because people would twist things just because they didn’t get it.
Actually, people really took offense to what we were talking about at one time. We had to contend with people being upset that we were suggesting that things were falling apart. At one time, I guess, people wanted to believe in evolution.
The “myth of progress” I guess.
Right. But now I think you just have to look at the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico 24/7 and it is hard to deny that things might just not be perfect. They might be falling apart.
The funny thing is that I remember the first wave of what they called “punk rock” and how diverse it was, and all of the sounds that were coming out then that were so interesting and so challenging. I was 17, I think, when the first Devo album came out. And Duty Now For the Future was our soundtrack album my senior year of high school. We loved it. And part of the reason was we thought it was so funny. You’re at that age when you’re Holden Caulfield and everything around you is artificial and everyone is a phony. Devo captured that while — at the same time — challenging us with these new technologies.
Now, 30 years later, that technology is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere — or, in some cases, already defunct. We laugh it off, but you guys were frighteningly prophetic in a lot of what you were doing and talking about. You captured that youthful zeitgeist in the ’70s. But here we are now three decades later, and after a 20-year hiatus. What was different about making this record? What ultimately do you have left to say given the trajectory of our society in that long period? Did you want to say, “See we told you so?”
I don’t even think it is “See, we told you so” as much as it is just [that] we feel like what we were talking about then are the same issues that drive us crazy today. [Those issues], I think, are the key issues that kids — if they’re given a chance to think about it — it’s the stuff that bothers them about the world they’re entering. You’re leaving your moms and dads and you’re going off on your own, and you’re looking around and you’re saying, “Wait a minute, people are assholes!” (laughter)
Humans have this incredible potential and they aren’t living up to it. We don’t have to go for the lowest common denominator, but we do it all the time. Kids are smart. They have brains. They don’t believe things that politicians tell them, and for good reason. They question authority because they’ve been told, “Okay, now you’re free to use your own brains, you can make your own decisions, but these are the only decisions you get to make.” They’re finding out that there is a ceiling to freedom and democracy in a capitalistic society. It is disillusioning when you realize there are these limitations — we talked a lot about that when we were younger. We kept thinking, You know what? People have brains. They can use their intelligence. But it wasn’t happening. We saw decisions being made in our name for things we just didn’t want to be a part of. And we were always kind of anti-stupidity. (laughter)
Now we have access to all these new information technologies. It seems like we have access to more information than we have ever had before. And yet, at the same time, critical-thinking skills we need to be able to filter through this bombardment don’t seem to be there. You’re right — freedom of choice is out there for everyone to partake of, but I wonder if we’re capable?
We’re reaping a lot of the benefits of scaling back on the educational system in this country. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, a Communist or a liberal or an NRA guy, for sure — but I am pro-education. I’ll vote for any candidate that is pro-education almost every single time. That is my primary concern with government. I feel that is the most important issue.
What made Devo come back now is that we started observing a shocking window of opportunity in the world. I’m in the music industry, so I’ve had to listen to people moaning, lazy record executives who are saying, “Oh no, people aren’t buying our records anymore.” And I want to say, you know what, that is not how people historically have disseminated and listened to music in the history of mankind. It has only been a really short window since Thomas Edison invented the wax disc and then the record companies could start selling platters and then tapes and then digital discs. It has only been a short time. Record companies could control the process of what kids could listen to, which influenced what artists were able or allowed to create.
I think the internet — for all the bad warts and [the] creepy dark side of it — I think the internet is the most amazing thing that has happened. As far as being an artist, I think now is the greatest time to be an artist. If I was a 20-year-old kid and I was a musician — I’m jealous of those people who get to be that young — I think it’s so great to be 20 and have access to the internet and use that as a tool in creating and disseminating art and ideas. When I was a kid, I’d go to a record store and you’d go down the aisle and at the back of the store there’d be this bin, a little section called “Other Stuff.” After I’d walked past Annette Funicello and Bobby Vinton and Lawrence Welk and the accepted rock and roll people — whoever they were, whatever bubble gum music, or whatever the record companies decided you were allowed to listen to — then you’d find this one little area that had, like, Captain Beefheart, or Wild Man Fisher, or Silver Apples, and electronic music. You’d find this stuff where people were dealing with ideas. Now, kids can wake up in the morning and say I want to hear some “cowboy Chinese computer death-metal.” You put those four terms into a search engine, something is going to come up. Some band is playing that kind of music. That is so amazing to me. That is so exciting. It is so inclusive.
There was a time when the thought of being a recording artist seemed so exotic. I was in Akron, Ohio, and I would look at album covers and I would think, How does your band get a record deal? And how do you get to go to a place like a recording studio? It seemed so exotic when I was a kid. And now kids who are 16 have cell phones that have more powerful recording systems inside their telephone than the Beatles had to do their first album. The technology is amazing. And who needs a record company? You start a website and people from every corner of the planet now have access to your music.
In a sense, you must feel some validation, given that Devo as it was originally conceived was about not just music, but art and ideology and performance and film. You guys were among the first to experiment with music video. We used to go down to our local record store three times a week because they had a copy of The Truth About Devolution, and they would run it over and over again on this little television. But now, of course, the use of images is everywhere. You were way out in front of that. I guess that’s why I keep harping on this line of questioning; how things have changed for the band over the last 20 years. Of course, I know that all of you have been involved in a ton of other projects, but by the same token the place that Devo has in the culture is very different — so the experience of it must be very different.
Yeah, it is. It is kind of interesting. I never anticipated what it would be like to be here now. To be a part of the vernacular of music, even on the fringe. I mean, we were a fringe art-band. We weren’t Bon Jovi or Aerosmith or something. We were like off on the sidelines with a smaller audience. At one time in the late ’80s or early ’90s, I remember thinking, Well, I guess we’ll be some oddity in the future. In a way, maybe we were just that. But the internet has allowed people to be able to go back and find out what we were about and see who we played with and who was around. It kept the memory and music of the band alive. We’re not off on the fringe anymore. Back then, we were talking about things that hadn’t happened. We were ahead of our time. And that doesn’t always feel that good, I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s not that great being ahead of your time. It is more interesting to be in your time and to see the things you’re talking about being realized.
When we were first getting together we were art students and we were heavily influenced by people like Andy Warhol. I liked the idea that he was a filmmaker, and he was a painter, and he was a printmaker, and a photographer, and fashion designer, and he worked with the band the Velvet Underground, and he threw the best parties in Manhattan. I thought, I like that. To him, technology isn’t a barrier. Technology is what makes his art fluid and plastic — it was something that made him able to slip between mediums and use whichever medium was appropriate to whatever concept or idea he was trying to put forth. It just seemed like such a major thing.
So you take something like MTV — MTV, to me, was very disappointing. It was like a baby-step towards YouTube. It was a way for record companies to stay alive, like, 10 years longer, and for dinosaurs like Loverboy or Rod Stewart just to keep selling you the same crap for another 10 or 15 years. It didn’t turn out to be the major change in our culture that I hoped it would be. But that said, we’ve gotten to this place where technology has provided so many great tools for the artist that it has changed the way forever that people will think about music and the visual arts. It has changed the way that artists will create, present, and disseminate their art, and the way you’ll go find it. I think it is such a really good time now. Like I said, if I could be 20 right now I’d love that.
So what you’re saying is that being ahead of the curve was really about…
It was about being able to conceptualize things but not see them realized.
I see, yes, I understand.
Now, you know, on the one hand you see things falling apart. There are these people and they’re obsessed with power regardless of what it means, and money no matter what they have to do to get it. So you have people like this guy who resides in New Jersey who goes by — who proudly goes by the nickname of the “Black Hole of Wall Street,” the kind of guy who made billions of dollars and put us in a place of jeopardy for the country where we had to bail out Wall Street. And then he made billions more off of the bailout! That’s the kind of thinking that makes me crazy.
On the other hand, technology has allowed people who might be in Saskatchewan or some far-off corner of Manchuria or in the Amazon — their ideas, concepts, and creativity are available to the rest of the planet. I mean, the internet is still way out of control. Maybe that is part of what makes it great. It is kind of like when rock and roll became controllable, that’s when it became boring. Once it could literally be contained in a museum — once they could put it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — that’s when it [became] like a sex museum. In a sex museum you can display everything about sex except the most important part of the sex — that’s the part when it actually happens. That’s the same with rock and roll. You can put Michael Jackson’s glove and jacket in a museum, but that’s missing everything that was important about Michael Jackson.
I think the internet is where it’s at. It is like punk music. There was something really great about punk music that’s lost on kids today. They look at punk music and bands like, say, the Sex Pistols — they went from being something really important and scary and amazing, but now punk rock is a fashion statement. It is like something you buy in a store. It is a uniform that you wear. That is the same thing that has happened to democracy. That’s what Devo learned when we protested the war in Vietnam in the late ’60s. Jerry [Casale], Bob [Mothersbaugh], and I were there at Kent State in 1970 and people got killed. People got killed for saying, “Hey, I don’t want you to napalm Vietnam or Cambodia with my tax dollars and saying I approve of that because I don’t have anything against these people.” That was enough to get people killed in our country.
Devo saw this, and we said, well if it is not rebellion — and we watched the punks and said, if it is not nihilism and anarchy — then how do we make change? The hippies turned into hip capitalists. The punks turned into just another fashion or style. That was a way for capitalism to marginalize what was really important about Sid Vicious or punk rock in general. So we said, how do you change things in a capitalistic democracy? Who was being successful? And we started taking notes from Madison Avenue. Who does it best? Those people. They’re mostly selling shit and they’re talking you into mindless consumerism and conspicuous consumption and selling you crap you don’t need. But their techniques were the best. They used subversion. They entice people.
That’s where our focus groups came from. That’s where the idea of having people weigh in on songs and give us their opinion on everything down to our color scheme, that’s where the idea came from. We could have taken the whole idea further as far as I was concerned. I talked to Jerry about this. I said what if one of the focus groups listens to one of our songs and decides the singing is terrible? What if they said instead of you guys singing it, Adam Lambert should sing it? Or they said you should find Johnny Rotten — who, by the way, at one point wanted to join Devo.
(laughter) Yeah I read that in Simon Reynolds’s book.
Yeah, true story. But the point is if people had said that Johnny Rotten or Adam or that Susan Boyle woman from England would have done better vocals, I was prepared to call them and say, “Hey Susan, would you be interested in singing a Devo song? Just trying it out and seeing what happens?” (laughter) At this point in time, I think people can make a sensible decision and comments on Devo and what de-evolution is because they’ve actually seen it in their time. They’ve watched new technologies show up and give us cell phones and video games, but the quality of life has disintegrated. There’s something that is not being talked about; something is not being addressed.
This kind of corporate concept — or the application of this kind of concept to the crafting of a Devo album — works on so many levels. I read an interview with Gerry recently, and he was talking about Devo as a sort of art project, and he noted that there is a business of art that can be explored and expressed in the same way. The focus groups were a nod in that direction.
By the same token, so much of the power of Devo’s early recordings was your ongoing critique of the consumer society. So what better way to critique contemporary society — especially since everything from hemorrhoid cream to the President of the United States is essentially marketed in the same way — through focus groups and Madison Avenue advertising techniques and the application of new technologies to selling something? I’m surprised that no one got around to doing it before. (laughter)
Yeah, I think it didn’t happen before because people were just lazy. The music industry is in the shape it is now because of its own doing. They were lazy. It was such a great gig — you just show up and randomly pick 20 new bands to promote this year and you made a lot of money off of it. End of story. It was an easy gig. Unfortunately for them, by being lazy and not paying attention to what was happening, the world passed them by.
The whole reason we got lured back to doing one more record for an entity that 20 or 30 years ago drove me crazy and was very frustrating — I swore I’d never sign with a record company again — was that we walked into the same building in Burbank, Warner Brothers, and we had people telling us, “We know that we’re a dinosaur, we know we’re dying, and in five years there will be no more record companies, at least as they exist now. We’re asking you guys to help us reinvent what it means to be a record company.” And I don’t know…it was just such a different take as compared to being called in and pontificated to like we were in the ’70s. I kind of got interested in it. I figured we might not be able to help them, but it would be interesting to see where we could take this.
Then let me ask you this. As I said, I was a big Devo fan when I was growing up. And I have kids, so I’m well-acquainted with your soundtrack work. I mean, I really loved it when you started working with Paul Reubens on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I thought, Perfect, how cool.
Oh, hey, I just found out that Paul has a new film deal…
Well it is about time. That guy is brilliant.
Yeah, no shit. You know, he did a stage-show out here in LA and it was frightening how good it was. He recreated the TV show set and he just looked so good. He still looks like Pee-wee. He’s smarter now. He has a lot of different things he can talk about.
It’s great to hear that. He was such an important part of my pop cultural existence at a certain moment in my life. But the reason I started to ask this question is that I am well-acquainted with this other musical life that you’ve had. I know that you and Jerry and Bob are a part of Mutato Musika.
Yeah, actually, Bob was, Bob Casale. Jerry was not so much a part. But Bob Casale was my main producer/engineer for over 20 years.
There is something that I think is very dystopian about Devo and the whole idea about de-evolution and the demise of human society. And you have that ideology and critique being expressed in the music. But also, you have a sound that is wonderfully upbeat and danceable. Then you have this other music that you’ve made — the Wes Anderson soundtracks. That stuff is gorgeous. Beautiful, hopeful…do you think there is something, anything hopeful about Devo’s vision? Or is it simply the vehicle for this dark cultural critique of the world we’re living in?
I think the one thing that people fail to get [about Devo] — and now we’re back [at] our discussion of irony. That was one of the things I was surprised that people didn’t get. We were basically optimists. We were saying that there were problems, but that people were looking in the wrong places to solve those problems. We never thought it would have turned into what it is now. No one would have believed that things could collapse like they are now.
The humor of it always sort of balanced the bleak message of de-evolution. I think your subsequent work has provided an interesting counterpoint to the Devo stuff. Then I’d also have to mention that I have a three-year-old at home. When I come home at five o’clock, she’s sitting in front of the TV watching you! The Yo Gabba Gabba artiste — and now she’s trying to figure out how to draw a flying fish, for God’s sakes.
I suspect that some people might have a problem reconciling those things. But I think I see a thread that might bind them together after all these years.
I think so. For us, the record is a chance to connect up again with pop culture in a way that focuses on Devo. We’ll see what happens. There are so many records that come out, and you only want to look at old guys so much. (laughter) But what we have to talk about is pretty valid.