Michael Stipe Successful touring musicians often live fishbowl lives…
- Posted on Jun 15th 2011 12:15PM by Mike Doherty
Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images
This means is that they're no longer the subject of harsh criticism, as they were in their more confrontational earlier days. Nonetheless, the group is still largely misunderstood.
On the eve of Devo's summer tour, featuring a free AOL-sponsored show at Toronto's NXNE festival on June 18 at Yonge-Dundas Square, Spinner caught up with frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and singer-bassist Gerald Casale for a rare interview about the respect they've gained from their peers and the battles they've fought against their record label, their own followers, and humanity in general. Oh, and also "stupid" Sarah Palin.
The recent live videos on your website show the band playing, and audiences responding, with undiminished energy and enthusiasm. Gerry, you've talked about the "fine line of being smart and appearing stupid" and the "ironic idiocy" at the heart of Devo. Are fans meant to enjoy the music by celebrating the irony that you're putting forward?
Gerald Casale: Yeah, you would hope so, but it can work without that, too, luckily. There's a lot of people who are in on the intentional irony, definitely. But they asked Bob Dylan a long time ago, after 'Like a Rolling Stone' was a hit, did he think people understood him? And he said, "By the sheer numbers of the crowd, hopefully not."
You did play your hometown, Akron, in support of Obama in October 2008. Was it a bit weird for you to be so straightforwardly supporting something? I assume at one level you'd have to strip away the irony in order to do that.
Casale: I suppose it's like scientists suddenly opening a bar. Once you roll in the mud by applying your theoretical deeds to reality, then you make enemies -- real specific ones. We found out a lot of our fans weren't Obama fans quickly that way. It's interesting, we never dealt head-on with politics. We were just for smart solutions no matter who came up with them, and logic and innovation over fear and superstition. As soon as we did that benefit [concert], we found out a lot of our fans who bought into that theoretical rap were in fact more to the right, the libertarian end.
Mark, when you were singing certain lyrics, would people be jeering or expressing dissatisfaction because of the context?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Waving an American flag during 'Freedom of Choice' -- we think they're cheering for one reason, and maybe they were cheering for another reason. Maybe they weren't cheering for the irony.
Casale: We were wearing Reagan masks.
Casale: We thought that they understood.
You've given the song 'What We Do' to remixers for the 'Remix Cornucopia' EP, and on 'Something for Everybody,' a number of producers give the songs their own flavour. On your debut, 'Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo,' Brian Eno played synth lines that you muted because you had very specific ideas of what should happen. Is the new collaborative spirit something that's changed about Devo over the years?
Casale: When you've been hermetically sealed from the beginning, there's no need to do that again. In the 20 years between the last album and this one, everything has changed upside down from the commercial world that we were in. So it was fun to deal with Greg Kurstin or Santigold or [the Dust Brothers'] John Hill. We wanted to go wider and deeper on that. A lot of people's schedules prevented them: Andre 3000, James Murphy from LCD [Soundsystem], Danger Mouse, possibly Snoop. It would have made sense, 'cause they all said, "When we were growing up, you influenced us and made us want to play music."
It was interesting for Mark and I to let somebody else show us what they think Devo should sound like. We always decided what Devo should sound like, and we were criticized by Rolling Stone magazine for "not playing ball" -- really we were so experimental and cutting-edge that we didn't feel that anybody understood back then what we were trying to do. We felt they wanted to pull us backward when we were trying to go forward. And that just isn't true right now.
In a way, you've created your own potential collaborators.
Casale: Yeah, it's fun! It is nice when somebody does something that you like and you didn't have to think of it.
Mothersbaugh: And it's the upside of not getting to be the new, fresh thing. It's like getting to be the Rolling Stones [when they] come over to their manager's office and hear Gerry and me playing a 45 of our version of 'Satisfaction,' and going, "Oh, that's pretty cool!" We got to do the same thing. It took us that long to be on the other side of the disc.
Gerry, you've called Devo "pioneers that got scalped." At this point, is there a sense that people have come around to you, that you have gotten the recognition you deserve?
Casale: I was talking more about financial success than critical acclaim, but it is flattering to have people whose work you respect, who are a lot younger than you, actually even giving a s--- about you at this point. You don't really hear many people in their 30s or 40s talking about a band from the '80s the way they talk about Devo. You realize, "OK, we did do something right."
Given how popular electronic music has become in recent years, with 'Something for Everybody,' your sound seems closer to the mainstream than it's ever been before.
Casale: I wish that opinion was shared by major radio. We thought it was about time to be in sync with your culture, not ahead of it. I'm glad that electronic music is more commercial and mainstream, because it sounds like stuff that we like anyway.
Mothersbaugh: It's come a long way. When we first started writing songs, there was a time where you could get people upset just by having an electronic drum kit on your song. You could get attacked for having a song without a guitar in it. And it's been interesting to watch things go to the point now where kids love that mechanical voice sound of AutoTune, where it kind of makes everybody sound alike. I'm only jealous that we didn't invent AutoTune.
The marketing campaign for 'Something for Everybody' involved a focus group making decisions about artwork and songs, and videos that seemed to spoof your label, Warner Brothers, just as you were ostensibly involving them in the process. Was everyone at the label on board with this?
Casale: I think on paper they were on board, and in reality, individuals created pushback. We wanted it to go big and broad, and it was capped. We wanted people to be inspired and turned on and excited about the idea even if they weren't Devo fans -- where CNN would report it, where 300,000 people would be voting on not just what songs belong on a record, but what version of a song belongs on a record. Do you like this vocal or that one? Do you like this guitar and synthesizer? Would you like it if Justin Bieber sang it instead? But we just never got it that far up the flagpole. When there's a month delay on your launch of focus groups because of quality and assurance, and you can't find any logical reason for that, you're left scratching your head.
It's almost as if you needed a focus group within the label in order to proceed with what kind of campaign they wanted you to run.
Mothersbaugh: You're right. Where were you a couple years ago when we needed you to say that?
Casale: The campaign was about campaigning, and the marketing campaign was about the nature of marketing, so that would be perfect.
What were Devo's very first fans like, back in Akron? The people who did actually enjoy what you were playing and doing? What kind of groups did you get?
Mothersbaugh: You say "group" as if there was more than one [laughs]. But it was people that Gerry and I knew from school, mostly -- we had a few friends that were in the Art or English Department. That's how it started, and the "wad" [the masses], they were the ones who were angry about what was going on, and they just came to clubs to hear their hits being played by a band while they got drunk before they went home after work.
Casale: There were only cover bands, really. This idea that started happening in the early '70s of bands playing a whole night of original music was unheard-of, and the punk era really fostered that. The 100 misfits and people who felt disenfranchised or were artistic types -- we found them quickly, and exhausted the fanbase, so we had to get out of Akron.
And from the number of people who seem to have attacked you in those days, from the people in bars to punks when you played at CBGB's, did you become quite good fighters?
Mothersbaugh: We were good at defending ourselves, I guess.
Casale: I think the confrontational/agit-pop/street aspect of our art was strengthened by the attacks and adversity. The exhibition 'Art in the Streets' at MOCA [The Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A.] -- the history of graffiti and confrontational art, images pasted on windows and billboards and street lamps -- we were doing all that.
Mothersbaugh: We were primordial taggers.
Casale: The reason I even found out who Mark was is that I saw an art decal plastered on a trophy case in one of the buildings at Kent State of a man puking on the moon, and then I said, "Who is this guy?" I'd go to art openings with holy cards of a guy named Gorge and hand them out; Gorge was a psychically and physically disfigured outcast, kind of like Freddie Krueger, but he was attacking ideas, not killing people. I had a sidekick, Poot Man, and every time Poot Man would pretend to take a s--- on one of the terrible pieces of art in the gallery, I'd feed him milk from an enema bandolero that I wore, and I'd last maybe five or ten minutes before security came and kicked me out. This is what we were doing then -- 1972.
Mothersbaugh: Gerry's notoriety preceded him. I think we both knew of the other one before we met.
And so in a way, this getting kicked out of various galleries and venues sharpened your urge to be confrontational?
Mothersbaugh: I think being a lightning rod for negative energy back in Northeastern Ohio at that time was really attractive to us.
Did you feel at that point, even though the music press would be scathing about certain things you did, it was just water off a duck's back, where you were impermeable in a way?
Casale: We were more sensitive than that, but we started to get thrilled and empowered and get more resolve from that kind of stuff in the early, early days. Whenever it was really mean, we went, "Wow, we pissed that guy off! We're really doing something right." When we got paid to quit playing, we were high-fiving each other and took all the money they gave us and went and bought pizza and a bottle of wine and had a little party and laughed about it. Nothing that followed those early years was anything compared to that shock we were experiencing. And besides, Devo wasn't for the faint of heart: you either loved it or you hated it.
A lot of people have called you "cynical" over the years. What do you make of this characterization?
Casale: I was so naïve in the beginning, I was hurt by that [laughs]. I know now that anybody who tells the truth is called cynical, so it doesn't bother me.
You've talked about how humankind continues to devolve; was there an evolutionary peak that happened at a certain point before devolution came in?
Casale: I'm not sure if I have enough perspective to know where that peak was. If I talk to other people that are prone towards musing and theorizing, they think it was earlier than the 20th century that it peaked. We thought it was right after the A-bomb, a last hurrah.
Mothersbaugh: In that the slide towards de-evolution got an extra kick in the pants.
Casale: If you were writing the new Bible, instead of BC and AD, it would be AB, after the bomb.
What do you make of Sarah Palin's bus tour across America to historic sites?
Casale: Say no more. We rest our case. We've often said this, but if somebody in 1980 with a crystal ball had showed you the world in 2011, you would have thought it was a cheap, B-movie sci-fi dystopia that would in fact never happen, and dismissed it. Now it's here, in all of its horror. You talk about stupid, you can't beat Sarah Palin!
Is Devo's continued existence proof that there's some hope?
Case: [Laughs] If we had been embraced by radio, I would agree with you, but our continued existence is threatened by the accuracy of our predictions.
Mothersbaugh: The path is there. If something is going to change, it's going to have to be a radical dissection of the planet as we know it now. Certainly it's going to require a large removal of humans from this planet. We're doing it to ourselves. The species is taking care of that. We're going to survive our way into our own demise.
Case: We're the predators with no other life form around to keep us in parity. When you run rampant, you start to take that proverbial s--- in your own backyard, and you can't get rid of it.
So do you feel like a Cassandra figure as a band, making correct predictions that no one listens to?
Case: We are more like a pooper-scooper.
Mothersbaugh: There's more poop than there is scoop.