Annette Brown, Lifetime The story of June Carter Cash comes to life in the…
- Posted on Jun 18th 2010 12:30PM by Chris Mugan
Calling your first album in two decades 'Something for Everybody' sounds like a hostage to fortune. What happens if it stalls at 30-something, suggesting it should be called 'Something for Hardcore Fans Only?' At least Devo have done their level best to avoid that eventuality.
It feels like the band have been have been building to this moment since they split after the lukewarm reception for 1990's lacklustre 'Smooth Noodle Maps.' The band, originally from Akron, Ohio, got back together for some reunion shows five years after its release, gradually building momentum until they were touring a recreation of 1978 debut album 'Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!' to fans old and new.
For 'Something...,' the new-wave pioneers have turned to crowd-sourcing. Over the past few months, fans have been invited to vote on the album's tracklisting while focus groups have pulled apart the band's new outfits and artwork.
Best of all, Devo have returned with a cool, crisp sound that suggests they haven't been hibernating all that time. Instead, they have knuckled down to work properly with a producer -- Greg Kurstin -- and farmed out tracks to current names -- John White and Santi White of Santigold fame, John King of studio duo Dust Brothers and eclectic Swedish outfit Teddybears.
Spinner caught up with founder member Mark Mothersbaugh in London to ask if we could be Devo too...
You seemed to have enjoyed touring your debut album around the world. Did that make it easy to get the band working again on new material?
If you'd asked me three years ago if Devo were ever going to do another album, I'd have said, 'Nah, I don't think so.' What happened was, two-and-a-half years ago, an ad agency Mother wanted to license a Devo song, which we'd been happy to do, but people kept asking for the same tracks over and over again. We'd just been touring and were jamming during soundchecks so had a couple of ideas -- and Mother went for 'Watch Us Work It.'
They took it but asked if they could get the Teddybears to remix it. Before that, we would never have said yes, because we were so insular and protective. People who tried to produce us would get fed up and stop turning up at the studio, because we wanted it to sound like the demo. The Teddybears remix came out really good, so we talked to them and they explained the world was different now – record companies are falling apart and open to new ideas; which is what we were hoping for back in 1977.
And you were more open to working with other people...
We were really surprised by how much better our track sounded when Teddybears remixed it -- they took a drum beat from a song called 'The Super Thing' we'd recorded in 1982. It made us excited about the idea of collaborating with people for the first time in our career.
In the past, they'd get angry when we talked about de-evolution, saying we were cynical or crazy. Even our record label didn't know how to describe us, so they'd call us quirky and musical clowns. Now these guys understand what we're about and they listened to us when they were younger, so they say they know how we should sound now.
What was it about Santigold and John King that made them stand out?
We talked to a lot of people before we did the record who voiced some sort of interest. I remember playing at a festival in Japan when we'd just started writing and were on between Justice and Fatboy Slim. Both of them were fun to watch. I was like, s---, I should have been a DJ. It's so much easier than killing yourself every night.
They were both really nice and said they wanted to do something with us, but, you know, because of schedules it never happened. But we started giving out tracks we recorded in my studio to producers, people that liked our music and had an opinion about it. We liked what came back.
So how did you get from remixing to focus groups for the album title and online polls for the tracklisting?
We always felt that we never got used to our full extent. We had ideas about TV programming before there was an MTV. We were creating products in that medium six or seven years before that, but we weren't marketing students, we sounded like crazy artists.
In the last four years, I've worked on films and I've watched focus groups and sat in on them. They've made decisions that made me change music, even if I didn't agree with it. But they allowed the directors and producers, who were hyper-focused on certain problems and couldn't see the bigger picture, to have a fresh view.
Warners allowed us to choose Mother to do the marketing, which was great, because record companies can have 200 bands and if half a dozen are successful, they high-five each other at the end of the year. Ad agencies, they have a few clients at a time and they can't let any of them not be a success.
It was a fun idea, poking fun, and it eliminated any arguments within the band, because we could all put up our choices for things like the album title and put them to a focus group. We let the public choose the title.
Are Devo an argumentative bunch?
Some of us, especially now when we're old geezers, we've been around a long time. It's like being married, it's a lot of work and if it's four or five people that multiplies the difficulties exponentially. We have arguments, but the great thing about Devo is that it formed us as artists as much as we formed Devo, because we did it at the beginning of our artistic careers, so anything we've done since then has been permutations on a theme. When we work in other mediums we're still Devo.
Outside Devo, you are probably best known for your soundtrack work, particularly on 'Rugrats' and the Wes Anderson films like 'The Royal Tenenbaums.' How does Devo relate to that?
My personal politics and aesthetics were formed in Devo and I filter everything through that. It determines why I do certain kinds of films and not others and how the music sounds.
You said using focus groups was a way of poking fun at things, contemporary mores I imagine. Is that something reflected in your songs? The album seems to feature a lot of 21st century anxiety with lines like 'Love is mind games' and 'Don't taze me, bro.'
Thanks. I think it is a Devo that is 30 years further along and has a lot more information at our disposal. The funny thing is, while people were calling us pessimists, I thought we were optimists. By talking about de-evolution, we were encouraging people to avoid the stuff that happened to us.
The message is still fairly intact – we're pro-information and anti-stupidity, we're about people empowering themselves through finding out what their choices were. So much of the music for the past 20 or 30 years has been about there's nothing we can do, things are hopeless or just grab what you can get.
So how happy have you been with the process? Is it something you will carry on further down the line?
You know what, [the focus groups and pollsters] had songs we already liked. We didn't give them out until we were happy with them. It wasn't like we gave them the drums or the pen. They just gave us an idea of how they imagined Devo.
I don't know, it's not totally up to us as we're in a partnership with Warners, but so far it's been more pleasurable than painful. It might be the last record. We're both trying to figure out what we're doing and that's the exciting part about it.
'Something for Everybody' is out now.