Devo's Gerald Casale discusses the business of art

Devo's Gerald Casale discusses the business of art

After revisiting their past with a brief tour that found them playing their classic albums Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and Freedom Of Choice on successive nights, central Ohio’s favorite ape descendents have returned with their first new album since 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps and a run of shows that includes a stop at the Minnesota Zoo on Saturday. Sibling pairs Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald and Bob Casale have worked together on a handful of projects in the interregnum, including a new composition for the Rugrats movie, but apart from a handful of brief summer tours, they seemed prepared to go their separate ways. Both Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale moved into the advertising industry, which profoundly influenced the direction of the new Something For Everybody. After creating songs whose lyrics rifle through the cast-off catchphrases of popular culture, they turned the process over to the mysterious L.A. branch of the advertising firm Mother. Conducting online focus groups whose presentation was ironic but whose results were meant to be binding, they solicited input on song mixes, track selection, and running order. (The band ended up exercising a modicum of veto power; the commercial version of the album is labeled as “88% focus-group approved,” and the fan-selected version is available only via download.) They enlisted producers ranging from Santigold to Sweden’s Klas Åhlund to put a modern gloss on Devo’s sound without losing the feel of its earliest recordings. And they engaged in a cleverly diverse media blitz, which ranged from an appearance on The Colbert Report to a webcast listening party staged exclusively for cats.

On the day of the band’s Colbert Report taping, Casale met The A.V. Club at Warner Bros. New York offices. In an iridescent purple suit with matching shirt and tie, his hands in constant, jittery motion, Casale talked about the anachronistic notion of selling out, the key role that visuals have always played in Devo’s development, and the group’s ill-fated attempt to reach out to the Radio Disney generation.

The A.V. Club: You subjected just about every aspect of Something For Everybody, from song selection to the new color for the band’s iconic “energy dome” hats, to testing from an online focus group of Devo fans, and had Mother craft a campaign centered around the process. The process actually overwhelms the product to an extent.

Gerald Casale: What we wanted to do was make a comment on the fact that, in corporate society today, the business of putting out content, whether it’s a new cereal or a new band—art is the business of art. It’s one and the same. There’s nothing left. Talking about selling out is so completely moot. We’re past that.

AVC: If it’s still a meaningful term, what’s the difference between what you’re doing and simply selling out? 

JC: Believe me, the crowd just loves sellouts. We could not in all good conscience do it in any other way except to actually make the process the point of the art. That was our experiment this time around. What made us Devo this time around is to do what Devo never did, which was play ball with corporate society, but in such a way that you’re wondering if we’re playing at all. And it’s great, because Mother L.A. does not exist. [Laughs.] The agency does not exist.

AVC: At all?

JC: Mother exists in [London and] New York, and they’re kind of like the Adbusters of ad agencies. They’re where Wieden+Kennedy was when they were the new bad boys on the block. Their sensibility so much matches ours, and their understanding of how you brand content in today’s world is so perfectly right on it.

AVC: Devo came up concurrently with what has since been codified as the punk movement. One of the purported cores of that movement was an anti-corporate undercurrent. Devo doesn’t seems as it was ever conceptually of a piece with that.

JC: Devo didn’t really represent any of the working-class outrage or nihilism or anti-intellectualism that I associate with the hardcore punk movement. What was funny to us about the hardcore punk movement was that it had just as many rules as they wanted to break. They were very orthodox, those punks. They decided you had to do x, y, and z to be punk. We figured that we were really what was punk about punk, because punk is supposedly irreverent or disrespectful or questioning a very core assumption, and we certainly were doing that. We were all going, “Look, nobody even knows in this society what they pretend to know. Nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. It’s devolving. It’s not evolving.” We were pointing the finger and laughing, and we were including ourselves in that self-effacingly. But we did have ideas. So we were manic. We weren’t nihilistic.

AVC: People normally associate Devo with synthesizers and electronic music, but if you listen to “Girl U Want” or “Gates Of Steel,” they’re hard-hitting rock songs, with powerful guitar riffs.

JC: Well, Devo—we were like Kraftwerk with pelvises.

AVC: Is that in retrospect, or were you aware of that distinction at the time?

JC: Well, of course, we were first working in obscurity in basements, and when we first became aware of Kraftwerk, we were kind of crestfallen in a way that somebody beat us to it. But then we listened and said, “This isn’t really what we’re trying to do.” We love what they did. But there’s no sexuality there. Devo was primitive and driving sexuality at the same time. It was using cerebral concepts and synthesizers.

AVC: Oddly enough, one of the things that really brings home the sexual undercurrents in Devo’s songs is the Devo 2.0 project from 2006, where you and Disney assembled a group of tweens to sing revamped versions of Devo songs. Not only is “Girl U Want” changed to “Boy U Want,” but the references to watering mouths and an “aroma of undefined love” are completely reworked.

JC: That’s the best story. The Disney people, in the beginning, go, “Hey, how would you like to repurpose your material for a 4-to-8-year-old audience?” And we went, “Really?” They said, “Yeah. We want you to do a whole DVD. What would you do?” They gave us about a week to think about it. And I said, “Well, what if we did it like The Monkees? What if we cast a bunch of kids that can actually sing and play, and they will play Devo songs, and I’ll shoot videos with them, and we’ll tour them at middle schools.” “Yeah, that’d be great. But we want to pick the songs.” And we said okay. So they picked 12 songs. What’s fantastic is, they must never have actually listened to those songs. Because deep into the picture, at the phase where we’ve recorded everything and we’re shooting the videos and I’m turning in a video budget—it’s at that point that somebody upstairs in the Disney Taliban would like to see all the lyrics printed out. I don’t think I’m hiding anything, so I send the lyrics. Oh my God. Unbelievable, the next thing that happened—the firestorm that started. They’re poring over these lyrics, executives in their 30s and 40s, suits at Disney poring over these lyrics and for the first time paying attention to the songs they loved and picked. So it was like, “So listen, um, ‘Beautiful World.’ We’d really like that on the DVD, but you can’t say ‘It’s a beautiful world, but not for me.’” And it was like, “Oh really? Gee, that was kind of the whole point. What can we say?” The guy goes, “How about ‘for me too?’” And it just got better from there. 

My favorite of all was—there’s a verse in “That’s Good” that I wrote the lyrics to in 1982. And the verse goes, “Life’s a bee without a buzz / It’s going great ’til you get stung.” Meaning, basically, you can get surprised. You can get ambushed, and that’s the point. They go “You gotta take that whole verse out of there, or replace it with another verse, or edit the song.” And I’m going, “What do you mean?” They go, “We know what you’re talking about, Casale.” And I go, “What do you mean? What am I talking about?” They go, “‘Life’s a bee’ means ‘Life’s a bitch.’ ‘Without a buzz’ means unless you’re getting high. And ‘It’s going great until you get stung,’ meaning as long as you get away with it, unless the cops pop you.” And it was like, “Who was I talking to here? P. Diddy?” Their sensibility had been so formed by hip-hop and current music that they were reinventing meanings in my words to go along with urban street culture now. The words were written 30 years ago, basically. You went beyond getting mad to just like going, “This is proof of devolution. This is it.” We thought it was really funny. 

The final one was “Uncontrollable Urge.” That just had to come off the record. It was like, “What do you mean?” “Well, Mark, we know what ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ is. It’s sex.” And Mark goes, “Well, I never say that in the song.” And they go, “Exactly. It never defines the uncontrollable urge, so therefore you think it’s sex.” And he goes, “So if we define the uncontrollable urge, it would be okay?” “Yeah, I guess that would be okay.” They said, “Make it about junk food, then.” Mark just like threw up his hands and walked away, and I wrote a couplet for the pre-chorus: “Before dinner, after lunch, I get a snack attack and I need to munch.” And they went, “Now that’s great.” So here was this 13-year-old girl, just on the verge of growing breasts, singing that couplet, and you wouldn’t think that anybody would let you do that. So they made it far dirtier than it was, and we thanked them. [Laughs.]

AVC: So it’s okay for a 13-year-old girl to sing about eating disorders, but you can’t say “mist,” because we don’t know what that is.

JC: Because those are bodily fluids. We know when it’s wet, it’s desire.

AVC: It’s amazing to look back at Ohio at the time and see that there were so many distinct, vibrant music scenes: Cleveland and Akron, later Dayton and Columbus. What was going on there?

JC: Well, there’s nothing else to do there. You’re in such dire straits in those environments that you have two choices: become homicidal, or get creative. Your creativity is informed by hardship and isolation, and that’s usually when it gets strong. I don’t think Devo could have existed had it started in New York or L.A. First thing that would have happened is the hipoisie and the cognoscenti would have just made their prognostications immediately. We wouldn’t even have had time to gestate. The fact that everybody ignored us or abhorred us or laughed at us meant we spent like three years in basements honing our skills and getting good at playing and making up all these moves and everything. So we have that environment to thank for being allowed to develop.

AVC: The Hardcore collections are out of print now, but there’s so much material you recorded before the first album.

JC: Right. We had 40 or 50 songs before we recorded that first Warner Bros. record.

AVC: And it has that sui generis feel of something that was cooked up in isolation. How much communication did you guys have with other Ohio bands at the time?

JC: Really, virtually none. 

AVC: You played in 15 60 75, a.k.a. The Numbers Band, didn’t you?

JC: That was a different universe. Bob Kidney had no idea why I wanted to go do that. He decided it was foolish. I mean, I got kicked out of the Numbers Band for wearing a full-head monkey mask during “Who Do You Love?” by Bo Diddley. He noticed that members of the crowd were pointing and laughing. I stood behind him to the left near the drum riser, and he looked back and saw me moving and dancing and playing the bassline, which was a great bassline. And that was it. After the set, he said “You’re gone.”

AVC: Even from the group’s name, which is a variant on classic blues changes, it was based in a certain tradition.

JC: Yes, and it was orthodox. You had to toe the line. That was church.

AVC: That segues somewhat into the visual aspect of Devo, which you’ve been particularly involved with as the co-director of its films and videos. 

JC: Always was integral to everything from the beginning.

AVC: In addition to prefiguring MTV, the visuals deepen and complicate a lot of the things that are going on in the songs themselves.

JC: We were very theatrical. Probably what we were doing was performance art, but we didn’t have a label for it then. Mark and I were visual artists. That’s how we met. And I think a lot of times, our music ideas came from starting with a visual idea, and then we found music to express it. So it was just normal for us to do that.

AVC: The natural progression is that the song comes first and the visuals are tailored to match. Did it ever work in the opposite direction? Did the visuals feed back into the music?

JC: Yeah, they certainly did. “Jocko Homo” was like that. “Whip It” was like that. There were more. “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise.”

AVC: You had an image? Like the whip in “Whip It?”

JC: Mark and I liked junk and novelties and quack books. That’s how we found the book The Beginning Was The End: Knowledge Can Be Eaten by Oscar Kiss Maerth. Believe it or not, that was his name. He said that we descended from cannibalistic apes who became psychotic by eating the brains of other apes, and that it increased the size of the brain disproportionate to the ability of the physical cranium to accommodate it. We lost our tails, we lost our fur, and we lost our sixth sense, and our only way of surviving at that point was to dominate other species and to work. I loved it. It was a better explanation than the Bible, so it became our bible. 

In one of these junk bookstores, I found an old men’s magazine. I think it was called Dude. They were largely just, back then, limited to women in panties and pantyhose, with great big breasts. But there was always an article or something in each of these magazines to justify that it was a magazine and not pornography. This one featured a guy who had been a car salesman or something in L.A. and his ex-stripper wife who moved to Arizona and started a dude ranch. It showed their dude ranch and the happy guests. Every day at noon in the corral, he put on a show with his wife. He’d whip her clothes off for the guests. It was like, “Okay, that’s it! We’re going to make that video!” Of course, we didn’t have the money to make that video, but we went ahead and wrote the song. The song was really written about making fun of these kind of Andrew Carnegie, you’re No. 1, there’s nobody one else like you [ideas]. The lyrics were inspired by Thomas Pynchon, who loaded up Gravity’s Rainbow with that kind of stuff. This is a totally clean song, but then we were going to make this video. It just took forever to get the money to make the video. So the song was already a hit before we made the video.

AVC: A lot of the lyrics on the new record are composed of bits of pop-cultural detritus. The outro to “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” is you singing “Don’t tase me, bro” over and over.

JC: Everybody had a big laugh at that poor guy. He was the wrong kind of victim. There are victims that, instead of inspiring empathy, inspire that kind of laughter, like someone slipping on a banana peel, mean-spirited like, “I’m glad that’s him, not me.” Just his behavior as he’s getting tased. Everybody saw the video. It just stuck in my head. I wrote those lyrics way back when it happened. I just couldn’t use them for anther two years.

AVC: You were quoted as saying you pushed the album back from a 2009 release date to allow for “radical remixing.” What did that entail?

JC: In the spirit of using all these techniques with the agency Mother, and also in the spirit of playing ball and not doing it ourselves like we always had, where we were hermetically sealed like aliens who had dropped a package and left and didn’t care what you thought, we wanted to see what younger producers who grew up with Devo did with Devo. Because they had ideas of what Devo should sound like. So even though we provided them our playlists of instruments and the composition and the arrangement and the lyrics, they didn’t change any of that. But they completely went at it from what they thought we should sound like. That’s what Klas Åhlund did from The Teddybears. That’s what Greg Kurstin did, who had just done Lily Allen’s album. And that’s certainly what John King from The Dust Brothers did. In every case—even what John Hill and Santi [White] did, we like. What they did brought something to it that we hadn’t thought of, and that was fun for us. Finally, somebody else is helping us. We never got any help. Believe me.

AVC: Was there a song in particular that was dramatically transformed by that process?

JC: I’d say the ones that were most dramatically transformed by production are “Mind Games,” which sounded very little like that in our version, and “What We Do.” 

AVC “Mind Games” has that pouring-water-down-a-drain keyboard sound, and “What We Do” has that heavy, dance-club keyboard bass. It definitely stands out on the record.

JC: And we’re just being so brutally honest in that song. We like the idea that people could dance to these slightly depressing lyrics.

AVC: Having a song whose chorus is “What we do is what we do, it’s all the same, there’s nothing new” on the first album you’ve made in almost 20 years is kind of a perverse statement of purpose. “Same shit, different album.”

JC: A non-mission statement. A brutal acknowledgement that we can only do what we do as a society and as artists.

AVC: You’ve done so much publicity in the lead-up to the release. These days, the day the album comes out is almost the end of the promotional cycle rather than the beginning of it. 

JC: That’s right. And they’re almost like loss leaders now.

AVC: Which is in part because albums are getting out there in so many ways other than being sold.

JC: Nobody wants to pay for music. Music has been trivialized in its position, in its importance in the culture. There’s no artist out there who’s the new Bob Dylan, like, “What’s he going to tell us in this new song?” Nobody’s waiting for anything like that. In fact, if somebody did, they’d say, “Oh this pretentious twit.” It’s like, “I don’t need to hear this shit.” Then add to that the fact that everybody and their brother is in a band and making records in their basement or living room, and having a MySpace page and a Facebook page and going to be the next big thing. It’s just a glut. And you have the implosion of the music business on top of that. So there’s no A&R staff out there of guys that know the history of music and are excited about finding the next great song. If there was a great song in the past, it didn’t fall through the cracks. Now, I have heard personally probably a dozen honest-to-God great songs that should have been hits that never saw the light of day because, for one reason or another, the band did not get the ear of corporate partnerships. Nobody helped this band out, and in three years, they break up. And that’s that.

AVC: In some cases, the music blogs take care of that. And in some cases they don’t.

JC: It all haphazard. That’s the other comment we were making, if you look at that cultural landscape that music comes out in. And what does music mean when you have the BP oil spill? I know what a spill is, and I gotta tell everybody right now, that’s not a spill. That is a fucking eternal fountain of filth. It’s a gusher that will not quit. None of our technology has any chance of stopping it. The attempts to stop it were fantastically pathetic, further proof of devolution, and they sounded like Jerry Bruckheimer action films: “Top Kill” and “Junk Shot.” What can I say? We read The Onion, and it’s like it makes more sense than CNN or Fox.

AVC: No doubt you read the Onion article about the uncontrollable stream of bullshit issuing from the BP executives’ mouths.

JC: [Laughs.] That’s where our sensibility is. Or like the movie Idiocracy, which wasn’t really a well-made movie. But the script was fantastic, and Mike Judge is funny as hell. That’s the movie Devo should have made. He made us a Devo movie, basically.