After seeing Devo perform live, I realized their true genius — from a marketing perspective. Of all the cerebral things they did — nothing was more strategic than the nerdy, sci-fi, futuristic personas they created! Why? Because 20 years later, their nerdiness is preserved perfectly. Look at a boy-band after puberty — but would you want to? What have you got? Look at Michael Jackson … after his voice change (and a few alterations) and you hardly recognize him. Ha … I remember seeing The Rolling Stones back in 1980 and thinking “Man, these guys are on the downhill slope, and it shows.”
As Mick and the boys so aptly phrased it, “Time waits for no one …”
Yet Devo didn’t set the bar very high, in terms of sex appeal and virility. They opted instead for brain appeal … a quirkiness factor, that is still intact. And a mature quirky simply becomes eccentric … It works.
Brilliant! More about the show later … first … an interview.
Mark Mothersbaugh is my trophy!
Ha … what I mean is that I am grateful to him, and I am ready to put his interview high up on the shelf. There have been many interviews over the years, but some just stand out above the crowd. I am ready to put Mothersbaugh up there with my Ravi Shankar … with Stevie Ray Vaughn … with yes, even Joe Strummer.
Here’s why. Listen to every recording ever made PD — pre-Devo. There was nothing like them. No matter what you thought of Devo when they came out, or no matter what you think of them now. How easy is it to come out with something totally unique? Totally innovative? Totally fresh?
Devo did. I mean, I was scratching my head to come up with influences for these guys. Kraftwerk maybe? Sparks? I don’t know … and darn it, I didn’t get a chance to ask Mothersbaugh about my favorite band from the Fatherland.
But we did take time to chat it up just before Devo did Dallas, on their way to SXSW.
In preparation for the download, I watched an interview from about 1979 on YouTube. Bless his heart, the TV anchorman in the clip interviewing Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale had his hands full. The guys were wearing plastic hair pieces, atomic glasses … and wouldn’t give the guy a straight answer. It donned on me … The reporter was having the same sort of disconnect as the American press corps who first interviewed The Beatles — about 15 years earlier. Have you seen those tapes, where John, Ringo and the boys have their way with the press … making chimps of them?
OH … I guess that is what Devo is all about — making chimps … or de-evolution and all that. I remember reading about a class of middle school kids back in the day — so enthralled with Devo and their de-evolution manifesto, that the kids wrote letters demanding they all “get their monkey tails back.” Heady stuff.
So, I made The Beatles “hard-days interview” analogy in conversation with Mothersbaugh. He chuckled, admitting that was a new one to him …
“The reporters that were interviewing us, they wanted to ask the same things that they were asking everybody else,” Mothersbaugh said. “And we weren’t about the same things that other bands were about. And so it was frustrating for us too.”
Thank goodness Mothersbaugh seems to have mellowed over the years. He was very cordial during our time together on a tiny love seat, backstage among crates and rock posters, in a noisy loading area behind the stage at The Palladium. Before we met, I wondered if I would get a straight answer out of him. Would he remain in-character?
Having just returned from SXSW Interactive Festival, weary from reading and sending a multitude of tweets on Twitter, it begged a question about “following.” It seems many people on Twitter, follow the big guys, retweet and don’t add much to the conversation. This duplication or mindless information cloning is somewhat similar to Devo’s early warnings — when people give up freedom of choice … “to be cool.”
“I don’t think technology is evil inherently,” he said. “Our problem isn’t with Twitter or with the Internet, or with any of the technology that exists. It’s with the human mind, or lack of it, on this planet.
“You know, no matter what time it is, there is still going to be 95 percent of people that are going to be unenlightened and making foolish decisions unless you educate people. ”
Well said. Let’s talk music. I wondered what Mothersbaugh would say if I told him my favorite Devo song was “Gates of Steel.” I admitted to him that I first heard it — get this — played for the kids on the old Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. (I didn’t tell him this lead me to purchase the 12-inch photo imprinted disc of the single …)
“I really enjoy playing that one, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to play it tonight,” he disclosed. “We’re actually going to play three songs we’ve never played ever before.
“We have three new songs, and one is called, ‘Don’t Shoot I’m A Man.’ We’ll start off with that, and we’ll play another one called, ‘What We Do Is What We do,’ and one called ‘Fresh’ that are all new. This we’ll be the first time we’ve ever played them out anywhere for anybody other than ourselves. So, we’re a little bit nervous about it. But I think it will be okay. You are our guinea pigs. That’s correct.”
Quick rock music footnote — “If it feels this good being used, use me until you use me up.” Translation, the new songs were pretty cool, and the visuals … oh my!
But, most people don’t know “Gates of Steel,” “What We Do,” or “Fresh. ” They know “Whip It (whip it good,) and they know “I can’t get me no … satisFACTion …” the Rolling Stones cover.
Let’s just lay it on the line, Mark, is the Devo rendition the best cover of “Satisfaction,” in like the history of quantum physics?
“You know what, Mick Jagger told me it was, back in 1977 or ’78 … Some where in that time period” he said, without batting an eye. “I think what we did with that song is we both defined what Devo is about for people who were going ‘What the hell is this band?’ And we also did … what our goal was — to take pop culture and update it. And we took a classic rock song and updated it for its time. You know, there’s other people who do that too.”
Speaking of covers … check out Devo replicas on YouTube … even Nirvana got a piece of Devo … and more recently Death Cab For Cutie, etc., etc.
“There’s people who have done that with our songs. Unfortunately the best Devo covers seem to be people that don’t have record deals. It’s usually like Devo fans send us things and we’re like, ‘That’s amazing.’ Sometimes we hear things that I have to say ‘Yep, that’s better than our version.’ There’s a hundred people who have covered us — believe it — that’s the crazy thing.”
Has Phish covered Devo? – they have covered just about everyone else, I interjected. (In fact, look for Phish’s version of Hanson’s “Oom Bop” … performed as if it were soul man James Brown doing it. It’s a treat … but .. I digress.)
“I don’t know. That’s a question that would be an easy question to answer on the Internet.”
To say the least, these guys who turned the world on to spud collars, while wearing red margarita schooners upside down on their heads have made an impact … are they still out to change the world? If so, what are the new rules, as you see them, professor Mothersbaugh?
“You know what, the one thing about Devo is that we’re about what we were about when we first started. Which, we weren’t trendy. We weren’t locked into time. We weren’t like a retro band. We didn’t really have a time. We were about being anti-stupidity, and pro-information,” he pontificated.
“And I think that still holds true. And it made it easier to write songs, easier than I thought it was going to be. I thought, ‘Oh no’ and going back and writing songs … I write songs all the time for film and TV for other people. But, to write songs for Devo again, is going to be strange. And then we started writing things and I was like, this sounds like it is from the same people.”
Mothersbaugh has scored scores of TV shows and films. He has put music to “Rugrats” and “PeeWee’s Playhouse” and numerous other projects. If you have never rented the old cult-fave “Rushmore,” do it for the soundtrack Mothersbaugh assembled, if for no other reason. Then there’s also the “Royal Tenenbaum’s,” “Bottle Rocket” … “The Life Aquatic” … blah, blah …
He did the music for the first season of HBO’s ode to bigomy “Big Love,” before David Byrne took over. (Incidentally, Mothersbaugh shared some insight on that power play … but I promised we wouldn’t get into it on the record …)
Is Devo still ahead of the music, or has the music caught up with Devo?
“Well, I mean, in a lot of ways it (music) has caught up with and surpassed us. But, that’s because we were from so long ago, back in the early ’70s,” he said. “When we first found out about a technology called laser discs, we were predicting a sound and music and music television before MTV existed.”
And Mark … that was also an era in which MTV played music …
More Devo interview yet to come … spuds!
Know what I saying?