Michael Stipe Successful touring musicians often live fishbowl lives…
- Posted on Sep 17th 2012 4:00PM by Kenneth Partridge
"That was one of our earliest thoughts," singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and noted film and commercial composer Mark Mothersbaugh tells Spinner. "We saw holograms back in 1970, and we were certain by '71, '72, '73, there would be such things as animated holograms. That was all part of the original concept."
When talking about Devo, that word, "concept," is key. Not many rock bands have them any more, and over the last 40 years, few, if any, have stuck closer to theirs than these Akron, Ohio, smart alecks.
"The underpinnings of Devo was a lot of philosophical positions and poses and stances," explains bassist and synth player Gerald Casale, who linked up with Mothersbaugh and fellow art student Bob Lewis at Kent State in the early '70s. "It was an art movement."
From the beginning, the band has based its music, videos, live performances and overall aesthetic on the theory of "de-evolution" -- the idea that mankind has ceased intellectual progression and is actively getting dumber, backsliding toward extinction.
From that cynical -- and let's face it, 100 percent accurate -- notion comes the group's name, as well as tunes like "Jocko Homo," the choppy nerd-punk mission statement that appears on their 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
"You have to understand, we had nothing in common with all the people that lived with us," Mothersbaugh says, looking back on the early days. "Devo was how we entertained ourselves. We created it for ourselves first. And then realized that it wasn't as much fun to get beat up by people in Akron for playing your own music."
But somehow, Devo did catch on. By 1977, they'd grown popular enough to travel to New York City and play underground rock mecca Max's Kansas City. They didn't yet have a record deal, but David Bowie introduced them onstage, and on that same trip, they got to hang with Blondie's Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who were then a couple.
"We went over to some loft kind of area downtown where Chris and Debbie lived," Casale recalls of the band, who they're currently touring with. "We went out on the roof. Debbie had a great big industrial push broom, and we were pretending to be garbage in our yellow suits, and she pretended to sweep us up."
Seeing them as more than trash, or maybe just trash they could sell, Warner Bros. signed Devo soon after. That decision paid off in 1980, as the group's third album, Freedom of Choice, spawned the single "Whip It." Thanks to the accompanying video, which features the band members wearing their patented "energy dome" hats, the song reached no. 14, and Devo became MTV fixtures. Before long, housewives, jocks, teeny-boppers, Joe Schmoes and other folks not likely to grasp Devo's schtick began turning up at their shows and buying their records. Such audience 180s can be daunting (see: Kurt Cobain, circa 1992), but Devo kept right on being their weird selves.
"We knew early on from specific experiences we were not going to be in control of it," Casale says. "We were trying to do was be really good at what we did. We created this hermetically sealed alternative universe, a kind of music with sounds and lyrics that was unlike everything going on at the moment -- costumes, videos, philosophical positions -- and tried to put it out the way you could put out a McDonald's burger."
Following Freedom of Choice, Devo continued to release albums through the 1980s. They split in 1990 but regrouped in 1996, and in 2010, they released Something for Everybody, their first album in 20 years. While they never matched the Top 40 success of "Whip It," they've influenced numerous bands, among them the Hives and Green Day, whom they're rumored to have collaborated with on the early-'00s side project the Network.
Devo are particularly notable for their use of synthesizers, and asked what they think of today's EDM boom, Casale and Mothersbaugh are quick to point out that they were early adopters of electronic instruments.
"It's easy to like something you already liked 30 years ago," Casale says.
"What I like about it is [EDM artists] use these really layered sounds and combinations of audio elements, and over the top, they put something really poppy and silly, almost a nursery rhyme," he adds.
Does that mean that if Devo were a young band just starting out, we'd see them at Electric Daisy, moving the sweaty masses alongside Skrillex and Deadmau5? Mothersbaugh and Casale seem to think so.
"Jerry would have a backward baseball cap on right now as we were talking," Mothersbaugh says. "I'd have aviator specs on."
Alas, Devo isn't an emerging band, and fans can expect the usual red headwear and yellow jumpsuits in concert. Sadly, there won't be any holograms, and the band has had to cut back on some of the effects from its commercial heyday, but that's the upside of being so forward-looking. Time hasn't passed Devo by; it's simply caught up.
"We do as much as we can -- what we used to do in the past would cost so much money now it's not workable," Casale says. "We have a lot of really great video content that's in-sync with our live playing. We play to a click, so the edits work with our live music. A lot of the things we did in 1982, people are just starting to do now."