“I was at a birthday party earlier this year for some little kids, and they had this clown that the kids were all picking on,” Mothersbaugh, now a composer for filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Phil Lord, recalls at his LA studio on a recent summer afternoon. “He said to one of the little girls, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And she goes, ‘Rich!’ And then they all went, ‘Yeah!’— and started high-fiving each other.”As he replays the moment, Mothersbaugh’s eyes widen. Almost half a century after Kent State, he still looks bewildered. “The devolution of humans, you know, it’s continuing,” he says. “We were pessimistic, but not this pessimistic. We didn't think it was going to move this fast.”
"The devolution of humans, you know, it’s continuing,” Mothersbaugh says. “We were pessimistic, but not this pessimistic. We didn't think it was going to move this fast.”
Gerald Casale: Yes, the book was supposed to be even more of a dichotomy. We did elevate the mundane. And the profane. Because we liked this whole idea of fusing what we called the “high” and the “low” Devo. Because the high end would be, you know, the history of Dada, surrealism, expressionism, and the breakdown of narrative form like with Fitzgerald and other novelists and the existentialists. I was an English major and an art major, so I saw it at all. But then that's historical and pretentious. So we'd ask ourselves, what would the Dadaists do now? And we decided that would be to take the worst end of pop culture, like TV ads, televangelists, con men, all these people that were like, “You’re number one! Subscribe to my newspaper and you can become a star!”, and subvert it. So that was the fun. The fun was playing a game with conformist mainstream culture.
Casale: Yeah, irony and satire have been lost in this fascist swing to the right, because now we have a society that we kind of warned about. It went worse than we thought. In other words, even my worst fears have been exceeded. And it's not funny anymore.Do you think Devo’s tack, or a modern day version of that, can still be effective?
Casale: I don't. At least when we were doing what we did, the creative space wasn't suffocated. That is, if you were doing something really well, you reached an audience. You had a voice and the marketplace couldn't crush it. The best acts got signed. That's not true today. You could be doing something great, and you could do it for ten years, and nobody's gonna know about it except some group of friends. It's really scary.Or you could go viral.
Casale: And then it gets eaten up. For instance, my favorite thing in the last two months was Childish Gambino's "This is America." When I watched it, I was downright jealous. I thought, "Why didn't I direct that?" in the first 20 seconds, when he just shoots the guy in the back of the head and keeps dancing. It's like, fuck, this is real art. This is, "Stand up and listen, motherfucker." There was substance there, and it was original and amazing, you know, and then it's gone.
Casale: In the four years leading to the killings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, my political awareness had been growing in leaps and bounds. In 1967, a plethora of writers and politicians began attacking the validity of the Vietnam War.In the spring of 1970, I was what might be described as a smart, politically aware hippie. May 4th, 1970 changed all of that in the nanosecond of gunfire. I saw the blood running out of Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause from their exit wounds in the noonday sun. I was closer to the gas-masked National Guardsmen than they were, but the Guard shot over the heads of the crowd I was in and killed and wounded students behind us. Later, I would theorize that I lucked out, because the Guard was made up of guys the same age as myself. They might have not had the guts to shoot at students so close to them that they could see our faces clearly. They hated us because there was a cultural civil war going on. But they were teenagers too. In the next two years, I realized that the system was rotten to the core. That everything I believed was an illusion.
Casale: No one talked about brands in the 1970s in the way the word is used today. Brands were limited to Cheerios or Levis or Marlboros. Other than The Who making a joke on their Who Sell Out LP, and Captain Beefheart on Safe as Milk, there wasn’t even a nod to the irony of “rebellious” rock acts being part of the mainstream, corporate, commercial grind. I was quite aware of that disparity from the beginning. We knew that rebellion and its various poses (leather, chains, long hair) was obsolete and cornpone. We played with that conflicted duality in all that we presented, musically and visually, because that was central to the whole concept. There was nothing we did that was not on purpose. Nothing that I could not articulate. We were a a self-proclaimed canary in a coal mine warning people about the emerging dangers of technology as a god to be worshipped, rather than as a tool to be exploited, and the centralized Corporate Feudal State that seemed to be barreling full speed ahead.
Devo has been misunderstood throughout its career, but the band hasn’t acknowledged very much about it until now. Why come forth with that now, after so long?
"We played with that conflicted duality in all that we presented, musically and visually, because that was central to the whole concept," Casale says. "There was nothing we did that was not on purpose."
Casale: We thought maybe this book will give people an idea of what the Devo gestalt was about. Because of the gatekeepers and the labels and the typical rock writers, we were so truncated, so trivialized, so dumbed down to one little thing. This was a chance to maybe remind people that there was something more to Devo before our legacy is completely destroyed.
Casale: Yeah, it's been heading that way. At least we were the answer to a question on “Jeopardy” two weeks ago. Something to do with the red hats I designed, because even people that’ve never bought a Devo record know that hat. It's always about “Whip It,” you know? When we did Freedom of Choice, that was just a song on the record. It isn't like we focused on that, or liked that more than anything else at all. In fact, naming the album Freedom of Choice was on purpose, because Mark and I liked “Freedom of Choice,” the song. And, you know, that got passed over completely, which is so perfect.
Mothersbaugh: We thought what we were making was always a multimedia concept. We didn't even want to look like a band. It was bad enough that we had to play in clubs. We tried to play at museums or other locations, and even in those days, we were already thinking we should pitch a circus tent and go city to city performing in that. Just so we're not in the same venues.
Why didn't you want to be associated with those venues?
"The first time they wrote about us, Rolling Stone said, 'They call this rock and roll? It doesn't have guitars! It's not rock and roll!'" Mothersbaugh says. "They were certainly not wrong. We never called ourselves rock and roll."
Mothersbaugh: Because we thought rock and roll was dead already. We thought rock and roll had been used up, and it was intellectually vapid, and there was no reason for it to continue. We were thinking that we were working towards a new medium, which we thought was laser discs, but it became film and music mixed together. And we thought, well that's going to kill all of the rock dinosaurs. They're all going to die because none of them can make films. They don't know how to do art; they only know music. We were sure that all the Tom Pettys and bands like that, they were all just going to fall away, and it would be artists who would take over pop music. That's where we were trying to go.
Mothersbaugh: It became a thing where we were constantly trying to double think everything, overthink everything. We’d think, what could we give them, so they're happy and they promote the record? We'd watch somebody like Prince or Tom Petty do an album, and they’d instantly throw all this money into it, and we never got anything. We’d always just be sitting there and doing things on a minimal budget. So it just made us try to figure out, how do you trick the people that don't understand what you're doing into being on your side? That was what we were trying to do after the first album.
Mothersbaugh: We kept trying to figure out, how do we give them a song that they can maybe put on the radio? We were a totally different kind of band. We decided early on, well, they give us a $100,000, what are we gonna do with it? And we go, well, let's pay each band member the same amount of money a Los Angeles school teacher gets. We did that so that we'd have money for our art experimentation and for our music experimentation and so we could make those films independently, and didn't have to depend upon Warner Brothers to finance things for us.
Did you know what you were getting yourselves into with the labels and the music industry?
"We knew we were stepping into a sewer. We didn't know how bad it stunk."
Mothersbaugh: We knew we were stepping into a sewer. We didn't know how bad it stunk. It was tough, we were never 100 percent happy about anything that was going on. And even when we finally had a song that did get hit radio play, “Whip It,” it seemed like that worked against us, because all of a sudden, you know, we were this band. It was almost like a cartoon, where you'd be in the studio working on something, and all of a sudden Joe Schmo from Warner Brothers' head would pop up and say something like, “Hey! How are you guys doing? Do you need anything? Just wanted to remind you, you can do anything you want, anything you want, just write another ‘Whip it!’” It was obvious they weren’t getting it. We were never taken very seriously.What do you think Devo would look like if the project formed today?
Casale: I feel so sorry for anybody trying to do anything now. It's so overwhelming. But things were also pretty horrible when Devo started. Maybe we'd make the film that we weren't allowed to make, because we'd have a way of doing that without asking for millions of dollars. I think there would be kind of a Banksy component to it too, like striking here and striking there. Almost anonymously, like, Is that Devo, or was it somebody else doing Devo for Devo, you know? You could almost have a Devo army that gets the idea and then they go do things, like ISIS, but creatively, rather than malignly—they're in the spirit of Devo, doing Devo's work for them. If it was up to me, we would be out there actively, with a voice in the marketplace. I need to find people that've got the spirit. I direct TV commercials to make a living, but I have no delusion about what that is. If Devo’s not working and not able to tour and make a record, you have to live. So maybe I’ve got to get a bunch of young Devos and get them going. I know there's a lot of people who get it, and there's a whole new generation of fans that discovered us on the internet, and they love it. We need a big rock band to cover “Freedom of Choice,” or a rapper sampling it would be even be better.Mothersbaugh: I think somebody could come along and do what we were trying to do back then, and they could do a really effective job of it. I think our priorities were right. We were not sexist. We were not money grubbers. We weren't trying to get rich. We had all sorts of dreams.Devo: The Brand / Devo Unmasked is out now via Rocket 88. Order it here.Andrea Domanick is just a spud girl looking for a real tomato. Follow her on Twitter.