INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Times JUNE 12, 2010 - by Stephen Dalton
DEVO, THE DEVOTED PRANKSTERS, REUNITE
The headgear has gone through flowerpots to "energy dome" helmets, but the Dadaist jokers are up to their old tricks.
Many decades have passed since Devo issued their first stark warnings that mankind is hurtling towards extinction. Oddly, few people took their apocalyptic messages seriously, perhaps because these deviant pop dissidents were dressed in flowerpot helmets and garish matching overalls, looking like some kind of mutant missing link between Kraftwerk and Ghost Busters. Likewise their frenetic robo-punk songs, which proved so infectiously upbeat that many of us missed their undercurrent of spiky, neurotic irony.
But now these seminal post-punk pranksters are back to finish the job with their first new album in twenty years. Still boyish at sixty, the band's white-haired co-founder and frontman Mark Mothersbaugh perches on a plush sofa in his London boutique hotel, struggling to explain why Devo have decided to put families on hold to reactivate their Dadaist disco-rock monster.
"It seems like there's a window of opportunity right now for the music business to be something we imagined it was going to be when we made our first records," Mothersbaugh muses in soft, croaky, deadpan tones. "We were hoping it was going to open up more than it did; it just took a long time to happen. There wasn't an internet when we were around the first time. That would have changed things right away."
Reuniting Mothersbaugh with fellow Devo founder Jerry Casale and their two younger brothers, both called Bob, the new album, Something For Everybody, is a polished synth-pop affair co-produced by the Lily Allen collaborator Greg Kurstin. A headlong rush of stridently mechanised rhythms, surreal lyrics and kitsch sci-fi imagery, it fizzes with mischief and misinformation. In a nutshell: classic Devo.
Rebooted and rebranded, Devo's latest visual makeover includes shiny silver suits and ice-blue "energy dome" helmets. The band claim they finalised their new look, album title and track listing via extensive focus-group testing, much like any other corporate product. This satirical piece of postmodern anti-marketing resulted in some hilarious online videos and spoof press releases, but Devo insist that they really did use the market research.
"We take our jokes seriously," Casale tells me down the line from the band's LA headquarters. "We figured it was a Dada-style experiment. With music being devalued in the culture, people feeling they shouldn't even have to pay for it, and record companies not doing their job to bring the best music forward, it just seemed like the only art left for Devo was to embrace all these corporate business techniques."
Devo's subversive humour has often been misunderstood, but it was born from real anger. In May 1970, while studying art at Kent State University in Ohio, Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh witnessed close-up the infamous fatal shooting of four students by the National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam War.
Mark Mothersbaugh explains: "That really affected us. We came to the conclusion that rebellion was obsolete. In a capitalist democracy the hippies become hip capitalists in a matter of moments, and rebellion just turns into successful record sales."
Instead, inspired by Pop Art, religious pamphlets and the voodoo science of advertising, they conceived their spoof manifesto of "De-Evolution", a caustic commentary on Man's progress towards dumbed-down consumerism and self-destruction.
Devo first dreamt themselves into life as a kind of living conceptual artwork. Stranded in Akron, Ohio, a Midwestern backwater, they built their isolated enclave of bohemia from the ground up. Composing music, directing films, printing posters and designing uniforms, they considered themselves Akron's answer to Andy Warhol's Factory. Local rock promoters disagreed, responding with hostility and bafflement.
But the cool crowd in late-1970s New York proved far more receptive. David Bowie declared Devo to be the future of rock; Brian Eno offered to fund and produce the band's debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, and helped to secure them a record deal. Mothersbaugh and Casale now shamefully admit that they were too stubborn to accept Eno's full creative input.
"Brian kept trying to add beauty to our songs, because he was a little appalled at how brutal and industrial our aesthetic was," Casale laughs. "He thought maybe he could fix that for us, but we didn't want fixing back then. Ha!" Mothersbaugh harbours a fantasy that Eno may one day restore his "director's cut" of the album.
Mothersbaugh has many wild stories from this period, including a disastrous "double date" at the fabled Studio 54 nightclub with Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson, "when he was still black". The evening turned nasty when the Devo singer unwittingly smoked a joint laced with angel dust and hallucinated a macabre bloodbath on the dancefloor.
On another occasion, John Lennon cornered Mothersbaugh to bawl a beery, spittle-flecked version of Devo's Beatles-ish homage Uncontrollable Urge in his face. "Probably the best thing that had happened in my life up to that point," he says, "other than the day I found out about orgasms."
Early in 1978, Richard Branson, the Virgin Records boss, tried to persuade the band to take John Lydon, fresh from quitting the Sex Pistols, as their new singer. "If that had happened, Devo would have probably lasted another nine months and then fallen off the face of the Earth," Casale says.
In fact, the first phase of Devo lasted another twelve years, cracking the US Top Ten in 1980 with their biggest hit, Whip It. Mothersbaugh then launched a successful sideline composing music for adverts, computer games, film and television. Casale directed pop promos and TV adverts.
But the band have never been entirely dormant, re-forming every few years to play festivals and mini-tours. Meanwhile, their highly stylised visuals and angular sound has entered the pantheon of pop, influencing everyone from Pet Shop Boys to La Roux, The Ting Tings and Lady Gaga. "We've been covered by everyone from Nirvana to Cher," says Mothersbaugh. "There's a video of Cher performing Whip It in Las Vegas, years ago, which is freakier than anything I ever imagined."
But some homages are not so welcome. In 2007, McDonald's introduced a promotional toy character called New Wave Nigel, clad in suspiciously Devo-like overalls and "energy dome" hat. The band sued, settling out of court. "Oh my God, there were so many people ripping off Devo," says Casale. "At least they were big enough to be able to pay. That was just beyond the pale. McDonald's is the Death Star."
Now the re-formed Devo must juggle music with alternative career commitments, wives and families. Mothersbaugh admits that touring will be complicated by his two young children, both adopted Chinese orphans. But Devo insist they are aiming for a proper, sustained comeback. And for once, they are deadly serious.
"It's an exciting time to be an artist," Mothersbaugh says. "There are more opportunities now than in the '70s. Maybe it's time for Devo again. The world has just devolved enough."