Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are STILL DEVO!
DEVO at Olympic
It’s easy to forget today just what a revelation DEVO’s first album was when it came out. For a lot of people in those days, seeing the band on Saturday Night Live on October 14th 1978 (Fred Willard was the host!) was akin to the previous generation seeing The Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. DEVO’s appearance probably launched a thousand bands that night. It literally gave me a reason to live. The soul-less imitation of “rock and roll” we were force fed in the Ohio suburbs in those days was pretty much Muzak with a beat. Then along came DEVO and nothing was ever the same again.
In 1980 they even cracked the mainstream with their top ten hit Whip It. But just a few short years later their career took several wrong turns, including co-writing a song with would-be Reagan-assassin John Hinkley Jr. and signing with a label they likened to the Titanic the way every band on it sank without a trace. In 1995, though, a funny thing happened. Girl U Want, an obscure album track from the same LP that had produced Whip It was featured in the movie Tank Girl and all of a sudden the kids wanted to know about DEVO. The band once again donned their trademark yellow industrial waste clean-up suits (originally purchased at the MF Murdock Janitorial Supply Company in Akron, Ohio) and showed them what de-evolution was all about. For the past 14 years DEVO have been playing shows consisting mainly of their earliest material.
But now something new is on the horizon. Their first and third albums are at long last available in re-mastered versions and DEVO is on the road promoting these with a series of two-night stands across America playing the first LP in its entirety on the first night and the third LP the following evening. But what’s even more exciting DEVO is recording their first album of new material since 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps. The results are set to come out some time next year with an even more extensive tour.
DEVO at 2010 Winter Olympic Games
The new wave band, who have recently been working on new material produced by Santigold, will play at the Whistler Medals Plaza venue on February 22, with the performance set to be broadcast on NBC. Speaking about the gig, bandmember Jerry Casale said he was "really excited to have the opportunity to let everyone know that De-evolution is real!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh, writing under his alias Booji Boy Oxo, hinted that fans could expect to hear new material from the band at the gig.
"Now, more than ever before, it is time to disobey the mob and think for ourselves," he explained, adding that the band are aiming "to remind people that biology is destiny, and De-evolution is real! We are back with inspirational tomes of truth and neuro-simpatico sonic nuggets for the entire world, not just our species!"
There was a peculiar notion going around my high school in the white bread and meatloaf suburb of Akron, Ohio where I grew up that said that bands like DEVO were “wimp rock.” But seeing DEVO at the Music Box Theater in Hollywood where I had the privilege of sitting in on the final rehearsal for their current tour gave the lie to that. Even with several members of the band having passed sixty years old and the rest closing in quick, DEVO rocks like no other band on Planet Earth.
I spoke to DEVO’s front man and fellow Akron-ite Mark Mothersbaugh about all this stuff and about getting spit on by John Lennon.
Brad Warner: I’m about ten years younger than you and I grew up near Akron in Wadsworth, Ohio…
Mark Mothersbaugh: Oh! Where are you now?
Right now I’m in St. Paul. But I live in Santa Monica.
You made it out at least!
Seeing you guys on Saturday Night Live in 1978 was a big deal for me. I’d already started playing guitar at the time. But I thought rock music was over. I thought I was working in a dead art form. And DEVO was something that was cool again. It really meant a lot to me.
Well thank you.
So I’m pretty excited that you guys are doing a tour and you’re reissuing the first album and Freedom of Choice. Is that right?MM:
Affirmative. They’ll probably reissue more of the catalogue. Those are just two that are linked up with some shows we’re gonna do.BW:
That’s cool. That first album I actually wore out. It got to where the record sounded like shit because I’d played it so many times. So what’s different about this new version? Is it re-mastered?MM:
Now that it’s almost absurd to put out records, they have some little extras that come with it. I think even the regular one’s gonna be yellow vinyl and red vinyl. They’re very high quality vinyl compared to what they used to make records out of in the old days. So they’re definitely collector’s discs. And the packages are enhanced. On some of them you can get different versions of it, DVD footage and stuff like that. (NOTE: The CD reissue of the first album contains a bonus live recording of the entire album played at London’s HMV Forum in May, 2009. The CD reissue of Freedom of Choice adds the contents of the DEVO-Live EP originally released in 1980 shortly after the LP. You can also order an Ultra Devo-luxe edition from their website that contains both re-mastered CDs, plus 2 bonus DVDs and a colored vinyl single.)
Sounds great. So why are you doing this now?
I think for DEVO we’ve decided that we’re shocked that no one came along to take our place. So we have to go back out there and start talking about de-evolution again and remind people what’s really wrong on planet Earth. So early next year there will be new music coming out. But for the uninitiated and those who were somewhere else when it happened we’re putting out some of the essential listening material to help bring them up to speed. And we’re doing shows to accompany the releases in a number of cities around the US. We’re literally doing album one on the first night starting on side one track one of the vinyl. Almost like you’re hearing live vinyl. We’ll play through the first side of the album and we’ll flip over and play the second side of the album.
And the next night we do the same thing with Freedom of Choice. If you would’ve asked me a year ago if that sounds like I good idea I would’ve said that doesn’t sound like a great live show. What changed my mind was last May we played All Tomorrow’s Parties in London at the Forum and we did album one. I just thought, we never put them in this order and that vinyl was supposed to be act one and act two of a listening experience. It doesn’t have the same build as a live show. It’s something different.BW:
I thought this is gonna have weird energy to it. But it was really great! It’s not a new concept. All Tomorrow’s Parties started a long time ago. And a lot of people are doing their albums live.BW:
Yeah, I saw Brian Wilson do Pet Sounds live.MM:
There’s a lot of people doing that. Now I finally understand it. I had never thought about it. But once I heard us do it I could think of a couple dozen bands I’d love to hear do their first album live. It made me think of when DEVO played Inland Invasion a few years ago. And Billy Idol came out and he played "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell" and everybody was going crazy. Then he said, “Now here’s my new album!” And everybody’s kinda like… the wind went out of the sails. And the audience was kind of polite. Then after about 40 minutes of that he played "Dancing With Myself" and everybody went crazy again.
That’s gotta be a weird experience, though. Cuz for you or for him it’s like this is what you did 20 years ago and it must not seem that relevant. But if the audience is into it…MM:
Yeah. But there are some things about doing that that are interesting. We play every year, though. The last 13 years we’ve done festivals, a lot of European and Asian shows, Australian shows, and a lot in the US. We played Lalapalooza a few times back like ten years ago. We’d do like three weeks a year, four weeks a year at the most and then that was it.BW:
And this time you’re putting it back together.MM:
Yeah. But there is an element where you’re going, I remember the first time we put on these yellow suits. I proudly felt like I was a McDonald’s cheeseburger in that yellow plastic box. And now 30 or 35 years later, I still feel like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. But now maybe it’s like a double patty cheeseburger!BW:
I was gonna ask you about that. Cuz it kind of surprised me. I was living in Japan in 1996 and I read about you guys putting on the yellow suits again and that was the last thing I ever expected to see DEVO do. But on the other hand it sort of made sense. Cuz you guys were never anti-commercial as such. You were trying to do it your own way.MM:
In defense of that, there aren’t any other bands that come to mind that all wear plastic yellow suits unless they’re DEVO tribute bands.BW:
Everybody wears blue jeans. That’s the uniform of the last 50 years. People wear it and they don’t even know they’re wearing a uniform, but they are. That is the uniform. I think our yellow suits, when people call ‘em a uniform it makes me smile. Because at least ours was creative. We created it ourselves as opposed to just buying into Levi’s ads. DEVO wasn’t really about being sexy. We weren’t really anti-style. But style meant something totally different to us.BW:
Sure. That’s pretty evident.MM:
We wanted to look like a machine. We wanted to look like a team. At the time it was like Kenny Rogers…BW:
I remember! God, that was awful. Talk about denim uniforms!MM:
Or it was like Elton John and his band, or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We wanted to look like parts of a machine on stage. We were more influenced by Agit Prop from Germany and Europe in the late 20s and 30s and Bauhaus, geometric shapes and the Italian Futurists and the Russian Suprematists. We were interested in pure art. And the yellow suits always felt to us like we were art. We thought we were in some ways much less commercial than anybody else because of that.BW:
Yeah. It’s funny that it became commercial. That’s interesting to me. You did "Whip It" and all of a sudden everybody was into it. But there was always that problem of did the mass audience really get it. Or did it even matter if they got it? There was that whole thing about "Whip It" being taken as sexual innuendo and all that.
It’s only fitting that that would be the song that was most remembered in the United States and had the most airwave success. But that’s OK. People by nature don’t come to art or music to get educated or to get vitamins. They’re there cuz they’re trying to escape from the world. But DEVO managed to sneak in some vitamin-enriched information as a side feature and that was kinda good. Some people probably never got it and never would get it. But there were always those kids out there who wanted to know what it means. You might’ve been a fan of some band like that when you were a kid. Where you look at the album cover for every bit of information you can get. You’re looking for every clue. The posturing in the photographs, the type that’s picked for the title of the band and the album. All that stuff is really important to you at a certain age. It was to us too. We designed our own album covers and designed our own merchandise and costumes and stage shows. We totally understood the importance of all the areas of the aesthetic. It wasn’t just about sonic music or just trying to get on the radio. It was a lot bigger.BW:
The most brilliant piece of DEVO merchandise I saw at that shop Wacko in Los Feliz, the DEVO doll with the interchangeable heads.MM:
The company that did those, I wasn’t really into the style that they were doing the artwork in. I had plenty of arguments about it. But the big blow was that they weren’t doing a set of five. Because that’s what DEVO is. It’s a set of five guys. We went around in circles. And finally I said, we’re allowed to have accessories, right? They said, yeah. So I said I want it to have five heads so pole can change the heads on the dolls. A true DEVO fan would take the hit and buy five of them.BW:
Talking about other bands, I’m sure you must know Polysics from Japan.MM:
Yeah. We played with the last time we were over there.BW:
What do you think of them? They’re so DEVO.MM
They are! And they do some of our stuff better than we do it. It kind of freaks me out. And their fans love it. I don’t know what their fans think of DEVO. They’re so into Polysics maybe they don’t even know. And they’re a great band live.BW:
Oh yeah. I like them a lot. One other thing I wanted to ask you about because I’m from Akron. You guys did a show at the Akron Civic Theater last November in support of the Obama campaign. How was that to go back there? I know Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders was there and The Black Keys played too.MM
That was appropriately unpleasant and also had a lot of pleasant moments too. Of course there were members of my family who were really upset that DEVO was supporting Obama, which I could not believe. I said, you guys are in the most most depressed butt fucked part of the country. Why would you be against getting rid of blood-suckers? They could not see it.
I know. I never understood how Ohio people could support the very forces that were oppressing them.MM:
But it works. On the other hand we played at a place we hadn’t played in, in 30 years. It was almost 30 years to the day of the last time we played at the Akron Civic Thetare. And we wrote a lot of our early songs in less than a mile radius from that building. So it was kind of interesting to be back there. And Chrissy, who was kind of freaky on the phone before then, when we got to the show she was a total pro. It was really pleasant to work with her. And The Black Keys, I’ve always liked them. It was my wife’s idea. She said why don’t we do something for Obama. She was worried because Ohio was a swing state in the last two votes before that and had gone Republican at the last minute. So we went back there to say, come on exert your freedom of choice. And I think that that’s what won Obama the campaign, the DEVO concert.BW:
It probably was.MM:
Well if you want to be honest about it, probably not. But it was kinda nice to play there. The energy was really good. Everybody was really great. Akron-ites were excited that we were playing there again.BW:
Yeah, you were rejected there at the time and then you come back and everybody thinks it’s great.MM:
That’s fairly common. Bands have to leave their hometowns to get discovered. Especially if you’re doing original material. There was no appreciation at all for that back in the Seventies. We would lie and say we were a Top Forty band so we could get a gig. We’d be up there going, “Here’s another song by Aerosmith. It’s called… Jocko Homo!” At that point there’d be some out of work factory guy who was bummed out anyway, some Vietnam vet who came back and the factories are all closed he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do with his life. He’d slam his beer down and go, “That’s it! You callin’ me a monkey you mother fucker?” We’d once again get paid to quit, beat up, chased out or a combination of the three.BW:
That’s amazing. Cuz I’m friends with a guy I think you know, Rod Firestone from the Rubber City Rebels.MM:
Oh yeah! God, that’s a name from the past! We spent a lot of time with Rod during the formative years. He was instrumental in DEVO having a home base in Akron cuz he had a club that he opened and he allowed DEVO to play there. Then, of course, we ended up bringing Pere Ubu down there too. That was like the cultural island in an otherwise really dark, culture-less factory town.BW:
He always likes telling stories about The Crypt (a bar that originally catered to workers at the nearby Goodyear factory which Rod Firestone and his band-mate Buzz Clic transformed into Akron’s first punk rock club).MM:
It was a cool club. I was the soundman for a while for his band.
Yeah, he told me you were the soundman for the Rubber City Rebels! They still play a few times a year. I met them when they did a tour of Japan. I was reading about you in David Giffels’ book about DEVO. Do you like that book, or is that a touchy subject?MM:
We weren’t part of it. We weren’t interviewed for it. It’s got a lot of misinformation in it. My feeling about that is, whatever. There was this one guy who was tangentially connected to us for a while who got involved. And it’s definitely the story of DEVO from the point of view of this guy who didn’t get to be part of the band.BW:
The story I wanted to ask you about from that book isn’t one of those stories. It’s in there about John Lennon coming up to you…MM:
I wanted to hear that story.MM:
When we started going to New York we turned into a phenomenon. Which was pretty cool. Every time we whether it was CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City after the first show that we played it was a mob scene. It was always packed. In New York at the time it was customary for people that were celebrities to be able to call Max’s or CBGB’s or the other clubs and say, this is Mick Jagger and I’d like to bring Charlie Watts and Keith Richards to the DEVO show tonight and Bianca my wife and a couple friends. And they’d go, OK and put them on the guest list. But then they’d charge that against DEVO’s part of the take.BW:
(laughs) That’s awful!MM:
So every night we played in New York we’d have people like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, all the filmmakers, all the actresses, all the people in bands. There’d be Frank Zappa’s band or whoever was in town. Brian Eno, Robert Fripp. They all showed up on our guest list. But that just meant we’d have to beg for gas money to drive back in our Econoline that held all the equipment and held the band. We didn’t have any place to stay. We’d have to crash inside the van.BW
That’s like a twelve-hour drive back to Akron from New York. I’ve done that.
Something like that. I don’t remember how long it was back to Akron. But I remember one night we were sitting outside of Max’s and we’d just played a set. I was waiting for everybody to leave so I could go in and finish unloading our equipment and drive back to Akron. I was in the passenger seat. And I looked around and it’s John Lennon and Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople. They’re really drunk and they come out and John Lennon stuck his head in the car. And he got up about six inches from my face and started singing “Uncontrollable Urge” really loud. He obviously understood that the “yeah yeah yeah” part was a permutation of what he’d done. And the opening of the song, I don’t know if you ever paid attention, but it goes like dah-dah-duh-DAH, dah-dah-duh-DAH.BW:
Oh yeah! Like "I Want to Hold Your Hand"!MM:
Yeah. I took it right off "I Want to Hold Your Hand". Then the “yeah yeah yeahs” come in. So he knew it was a mutation of him. And he sang it for me right there with alcohol stinking spittle right into my face. I was in shock and about as high as you can get for the rest of the night. I couldn’t believe it.
And him and Ian, they just kinda put their arms around each other and started wobbling down the street singing the song all the way down Park Avenue or whatever street that was.
I’m really looking forward to the tour and the new album. What’s the new stuff like?
It sounds like DEVO, that’s for sure. Some of it sounds like it’s early, some of it sounds like the third or fourth album. And some of it is like the later stuff with more electronics. But lyrically it’s the same as what we always did. If it has anything to do with love it’s usually kind of absurdist. Other than that, without lecturing, we talk about the issue of de-evolution and things falling apart.BW:
Are you bringing the guitars back then?MM:
Yeah there’s some really good guitar stuff. One of the things I insisted Bob 1 (lead guitarist and Mark’s younger brother) do was I told him he had to play a lead that outdoes Smart Patrol. I told him this has got to be his new signature solo. So we’ll see if other people think of it that way.BW:
I’m looking forward to it and to the tour. Good luck!MM:
And thank you, SuicideGirls!Interview By Brad Warner ( http://hardcorezen.blogspot.com/ )---