Devo 1.0 returns
Talk about least likely to succeed. Who would have figured a quintet of pop-culture nerds from Akron, Ohio, would stand front and center as art rock barbarians at the punk gate? Certainly not Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, the Kent State students who conceived "de-evolution" some four years after the infamous National Guard shootings on their college campus in 1970.
De-evolution suggested that man had regressed, not progressed, represented by kitschy sci-fi trappings, matching uniforms, plastic wigs, and red flowerpot hats better known as "energy domes," all satirizing the corporate world in the embrace of the most loathsome qualities of conformity. Was this punk or music as art?
Fueled by synth-heavy, danceable pop-rock, Mothersbaugh and Casale developed de-evolution in a musical context with avant-garde video and film as early as Devo's conception in 1974. Two years later, the band's award-winning film short "The Truth About De-Evolution" made them cult figures. In 1978, Saturday Night Live introduced them nationally.
"When MTV came along, we'd already created five music videos. We thought we were just making film shorts featuring our songs," explains Casale, calling from Mothersbaugh's Mutato Muzika headquarters in Los Angeles. "Then it turned on us. MTV would only play videos if you had a radio hit. They quit playing our videos. We were the pioneers who got scalped for real."
Scalped is right. In those long-ago days when MTV played music videos, Devo saved modern music from mediocrity with outrageous imagery in "Jocko Homo" and "Whip It." Vinyl albums such as 1978 debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, Freedom of Choice (1980), and New Traditionalists (1981) yielded wildly popular singles like "Freedom of Choice," "Beautiful World," and "Girl U Want." Devo's ability to fold, spindle, and mutilate the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" into a brilliant, postmodern hiccup made something else crystalline clear: They were excellent musicians.
Devo's music was never intended for the masses, yet their common geek denominator held widespread appeal. The "cube-top, squared-off, eight corners, 90-degree angle" protagonist of "Blockhead" is your neighbor in the corporate cubicle next to you. This was the sound of a "spud boy looking for a real tomato." Not exactly the sort of music to cause an audience to revolt, but that's exactly what nearly happened in Houston, November 1982. Casale's arrest seems especially ludicrous in light of the band's distinctly nonviolent nature (see "Working on a Chain Gang," below). Devo's music was too cerebral, in Mothersbaugh's estimation.
"Our message was never about ho's and shooting cops and doing drugs," chuckles the band's frontman. "It wasn't even about being young and horny like the Beatles. It was a few interesting statements and questions. That stemmed from Devo being pro-information and anti-stupidity from the very beginning. Devo is kind of like rock & roll with vitamins: pop music with something extra added."
The "something extra" wasn't strong enough to keep Devo from stumbling, first when 1984's Shout tanked, then when Warner Bros. dropped the band. The group split, reformed in the late 1980s, then parted ways again.
"When Mark found out he could make money scoring TV shows, he didn't want to collaborate anymore, didn't want to create new material, and was disinterested in performing," reflects Casale on the years before reconciliation. "We were a team, and once somebody loses the spirit, it's like trying to run an eight-cylinder car on four cylinders. It doesn't work."
Mothersbaugh is more casual about Devo's rocky midyears, allowing that he lost interest in making albums because "record companies were so reprehensible, it was not even pleasant to do business with them anymore." He's more interested in a future that allows the band to make music and bypass record companies altogether. With a CD's worth of material nearly ready, Devo is once again poised as a DIY model amid the failing record industry.
In fact, both Mothersbaugh and Casale have always pursued alternate avenues of popular music. Mothersbaugh has composed dozens of film soundtracks (Rushmore, Thirteen, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and television programs (Pee-wee's Playhouse). One side project was Disney's Devo 2.0, teens performing Devo songs.
"I have two kids, and both of them were shocked when they found out that there was a Devo 1.0," says Mothersbaugh proudly about his adopted children. "They were like, 'Daddy, what are you playing those kids' songs for?'"
Eight years ago, Mothersbaugh opened his own production company, Mutato Muzika, where his brother and longtime bandmate, Bob Mothersbaugh (Bob 1), also works. Casale's brother and Devo member, Bob Casale (Bob 2), is employed there, too. Just as busy is Jerry Casale, who not only directed Devo videos such as "Whip It" but 1990s clips for the Foo Fighters ("I'll Stick Around") and Soundgarden ("Blow Up the Outside World") as well before reteaming with Mark Mothersbaugh. He recognizes elements of Devo in contemporary acts such as the Ting Tings, the Kills, MSTRKRFT, and LCD Soundsystem and looks forward to Devo's return to contemporary pop.
"We're using South by Southwest as a springboard to tell the Western world, or whoever's interested, that Devo is back," proclaims Casale. "We have a complete CD, new show, and new look. And a tour."
Which brings to mind how aging musical insurgents – Casale is 61 and Mothersbaugh 59 – feel about donning yellow radiation suits when Social Security is closer than puberty.
"It gets more difficult with 'mature' artists," admits Casale. "When we were young and skinny, we were sandwich boards for any crazy fashion that came along. Luckily, we were willing to be strange and foolish and never worried about being cool. When your whole act is sex, what are you supposed to do? Dress in leather at 50?"
"I designed the South by Southwest tote bags about five years ago," laughs Mark Mothersbaugh, who has also participated in SXSW Interactive. "An overexuberant agent gave all mine away, so I'll be going to flea markets looking for one. We do a lot of international festivals and see a lot of bands, and you hear people talk about South by Southwest, you know? Whether you're in Tokyo or Barcelona, it's like the Sundance for music."
He pauses, then chuckles, remembering Ozomatli.
"And hopefully, nobody gets arrested this year."
Working on a Chain Gang: Jerry Casale's 1982 Houston bust
"We had to play two shows, and because the place was sold out, the cops tried to stop the show and put it all on me when it didn't [stop]," recalls Casale.
"[The charge] was something about defying a direct police order and inciting the crowd to riot. The crowd didn't believe the cops were hiding in the wings, so people couldn't see them. We were asking the crowd to sit down or we couldn't keep playing, and they thought we were fucking around with them: 'Fuck you! Fuck you!'
"The cops grabbed me in the dark between songs and said, 'You stop this, or you're going to jail!' So I went back to the mic, and the lights come on. I said, 'Really people, there are little piggies backstage, hiding behind me, and they're serious!' I wave [at the band], and they start the song anyway.
"That did it. We were doing two shows a night, so it was already 1 in the morning when they took me off to jail.
"The cop turns on the lights in the cell and wakes up all these humans in for bar fights and knifing their wives. The place smelled like puke. He hits the bars with his billy club and says, 'Hey everybody, yew got yoreself a rock star here!' and throws me in. I was in a cold cell all night in my stage clothes, which were sopping wet.
"Yeah, the whole thing was real, too real. When I was on that bus to jail after getting arraigned, chained with ankle chains to real convicts looking at me like, 'Oh, he's got a pretty mouth,' I was hours from a Deliverance scene.
"Because of the time difference, they couldn't get anyone [from the label] up – we didn't have cell phones then. They had to call the lawyer's house and wake him up. I was on the bus to jail when the bail came through from L.A. Frightening."
Devo headlines the BMI showcase Friday, March 20, at the Austin Music Hall, 12mid.