Henry Rollins once pronounced that there are two kinds of people: those who get Devo, and those who don't. Early on, the members of Devo put themselves in a treacherous position: By making commentaries about the de-evolution of the human race in a tongue-in-cheek and sometimes cartoony way, the group was often written off as a novelty act that was too absorbed in its own joke to have anything serious to say. Ultimately, this damaging image, cultivated by the guiding hand of record companies who went for the fast buck, led to a loss of interest by the public and a quasi-retirement for the band. Now, seven years after its last album, Devo has come back to set the record straight with a handful of high-profile Lollapalooza dates. The Onion recently spoke to vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh and vocalist/bassist/keyboardist Jerry Casale (see sidebar) about the outside forces which hurt the band, as well as Mutato Muzika, the production company Mothersbaugh now runs to provide background music for commercials and the occasional TV series.
The Onion: Tell me about Mutato Muzika as an entity and an extension of Devo.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Mutato Muzika is headquarters for Devo at this point. We're located on the beautiful Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, in a fluorescent circular green building that looks a little bit like a spaceship. That's where life after rock and roll takes place. We're kind of like the subversive extension in the sense that a lot of our clients don't know that we were ever in Devo. That works to our advantage at times, because sometimes our clients have preconceived notions of what the music should sound like if they think you were Devo. In this particular situation, we are able to work with full orchestras, with klezmer bands, with metal guitarists, with accordion players, with ethnic musicians and singers. Our client doesn't have it filtered through the Devo red hat.
O: What kind of commercials do you work on?
MM: We do everything from regional to international spots. We were just asked to collaborate on some projects for McDonald's which would include doing in-store merchandising for them, creating albums worth of music which would impart the message of Ronald McDonald and Barbie. Little do they know, our clients, that it would be through the filter of Devo. Our subliminal messages would be fully intact, and attached on like antioxidants working their way into the system.
O: What kind of subversions do you plan to unleash upon a nation of underage hamburger consumers and Barbie fans?
MM: Well, in general, we've done commercials for Hawaiian Punch, Toyota… I dunno, just about everybody. 7-Up, Hershey's, Nestle's. Nike. Fila. We have hundreds of clients. The one thing we found out early on was that you could insert subliminal messages into commercials without too much difficulty, without our clients being concerned about it, or even noticing in most cases. A few times we even told them we did it, and they just laughed. They didn't care. It's strange. We put our own subliminal messages in. Depending on what the product is… If it's something we kind of approve of as a product—certain computer products, for instance, or something that's healthy for people—we'll put in one kind of message. On something where it may be uninspired, sugar-coated crap, maybe we'll put in subliminal messages like, "Question Authority" or "Choose Your Mutations Carefully." We even did "Sugar Is Bad For You" once. I think sometimes subliminal messages hold a lot of weight. The very first Devo films were made on a budget of… The first one, The Truth About De-Evolution, was made for like 2,200 dollars. We put the words "Submit" and "Obey" in the film, and it won every film festival we sent it to. It won first place in film shorts in the Ann Arbor Film Festival in '76. It did quite well. We would play it onstage before we would come out. There was no such thing as MTV in the mid-'70s. There was no way to show the stuff, so we would just string a sheet up and then show the film in front of us. Then we'd pull it down and play a set. It seemed to work every time. It seemed to program people perfectly to enjoy an evening of…
O: De-evolutionary fun?
MM: Of celebrating the downward spiral.
O: I'm a bit embarrassed because I believe I've been mispronouncing Devo [pronounced de-VOE, like Bel Biv Devoe] as Devo [pronounced DEE-vo]. Wherein lies the difference? Has it always been pronounced like that?
MM: No, no. In the world dictionary, you're pronouncing it properly, 'cause we are DE-vo. De-VO is a personal pronunciation that members of the band have used amongst themselves from the very beginning. It had a lot to do with the early imprinting of the contraction down into four letters. Before it was a band, we saw DE-vo, or de-VO as an art movement. We were tracking history as art deco, art nouveau, art de-VO. It's kind of like how "fuck" can mean something really great and it can mean something really bad. You can be fucked-up, or, "I just got fucked." You can just get fucked and it can be good, or it can be bad. It's kind of the same thing with de-VO. You could say, "Those two people over there in the polyester double-knit body suits driving that gas-guzzling Cadillac are more DE-vo than we could ever be. Or you could say, "That young girl who just had surgery to her ears so they look like Spock's, and had a Pan-Pacific slant put to her eyes on purpose even though she's from Europe—she's very de-VO. So it has kind of more of a French feel when you're talking about high de-VO, and it has more of a hillbilly feel when you talk about low DE-vo. It's subtle differences that are absolutely meaningless to just about anybody other than half a dozen people who created the concept twenty-some years ago. You shouldn't worry about it.
O: You said Mutato was a subversive extension of Devo. Would you say Devo wasn't subversive?
MM: In our purest sense, we were always attempting for subversion. We learned something from the hippies that, unfortunately, the punks at the same time didn't learn, and that is that rebellion is obsolete. In a healthy capitalistic world, rebellion is just something else to market. Even quicker than the hippies became hip capitalists, the punks became just T-shirts and bumper stickers. We took our cues from the Viet Cong and the subversives during World War I and World War II in Europe, as opposed to from the hippies and the punks. In a certain context, when I say that Mutato has the ability to be more subversive than Devo, I think that, in the mid-'80s, people fixed a concept of what we were and who they thought we were based on misinformation that was generated by and disseminated by people who should have been working with us. I'm talking about record companies and magazines. You have to understand, during our career, that we were resisted vehemently by magazines like Rolling Stone and all the powers-that-be. Even MTV, soon after they got their payola structure established, cast us aside, even though originally we were the only band you would see on the hour every hour with a different video when it first came out. That was because nobody else was doing it besides us.
O: Is it true that Devo once opened for Sun Ra?
MM: Yeah, in 1974. He almost never came out on stage, because there were fist fights between the audience and Devo. They were doing tequila sunrise out of a big 50-gallon vat and taking… What drug were they taking? Oh, the one you inhale. Laughing gas or something. It was Halloween in Cleveland, Ohio, and somebody hired Devo as a joke. We were dressed in janitor outfits, and they were all dressed like hunchbacks and vampires, and permutations of lowest-common-denominator Halloween costumes. LCD horror. They ended up getting really pissed off at us and the music we were playing. At the time, we were a lightning rod for hostility. We would play a song like "Subhuman Woman" for seven minutes. We'd play "Jocko Homo" for 30 minutes, and we wouldn't stop until people were actually fighting with us, trying to make us stop playing the song. We'd just keep going, "Are we not men? We are Devo!" for like 25 minutes, directed at people in an aggressive enough manner that even the most peace-lovin' hippie wanted to throw fists. We were in a negative-energy vortex back in the mid-'70s.
O: When all these fist fights were erupting, were you guys able to hold your own? Were you able to fend off the apes?
MM: Actually, the double-edged sword in some ways was that we were so insular. We started in Akron, Ohio, and there were just the five of us then. We did everything ourselves. We saw Devo as something bigger than a rock band. We thought that was the most boring thing you could do. We wanted to be a clearing house for concepts and ideas. That's where art de-VO came from. That's why we made films: Even though we had no money, we made the film The Truth About De-Evolution. We designed our own costumes, designed our own artwork and graphics. We designed every album cover that we ever had control of. The downside of doing everything ourselves and directing our own films and producing our own films and going out and getting the props and coming up with the concept and the ideas was that we didn't really collaborate a lot. It's like, at the time, everybody wanted to work with us. Bowie, Eno, Fripp, Iggy Pop. I stayed at his house for a couple weeks. He wanted to record our first album before we did. I was like, "No, we want to do it first," and he was like, "Shut up, this would be so good for you." He was crazy during that time.
O: That must have been his drug-addled phase.
MM: Oh, man, it sure was. I have tapes of Devo rehearsing in his living room in Malibu, and him grabbing the microphone from me and starting to sing wild shit over the top of our songs. It was a wild period. The insular part kind of made it hard for people to come in and take over anything. On the other hand, we missed out on plenty of opportunities. People like [Virgin Records head] Richard Branson flew me and Bob Casale [keyboards/guitar] down to Jamaica once, got us really stoned, and we were like, "Whoah!" In Ohio, we would sit around with enough pot to fill up a thimble, and we'd stare at it all day. Everybody would know for a week in advance that we were going to smoke this pot during the weekend. By Saturday night, everybody would be like, "This is that African stuff that's really hallucinogenic," and it was probably just picked off the side of the road in Mexico or something. We would finally roll this pencil-thin joint, and like eight people would all desperately try to get a little buzz off of this really bad pot. We'd all be like, "I think I'm high. Maybe I'm high. Yeah, I might have felt something. My throat's definitely feeling raw." It was that kind of thing. So, Bob Casale and I go down to Jamaica, where we've never been before, and we have no money. We don't have a record deal or anything. Richard Branson gets us really high 'cause he's got this big pile of pot on the table. We're there with all these South Americans who were a part of Virgin Records, and he goes, "What do you guys think of the Sex Pistols?" I go, "You know what? We just saw them last week. They came over to where we were staying in San Francisco 'cause we were both playing there on the same weekend, when they played their last show. It's a shame that they broke up." And he says, "Well, I'll tell you why. We have Johnny Rotten in the next room, and he wants to be the new lead singer for Devo. If you guys are up for that, we have the press from England here, and they're ready to take photos and do articles if you guys want to announce right now that Johnny Rotten is the new lead singer for Devo." Bob and I are like… This time, it's not like, "I think I'm getting high." It's like, "Oh, shit. What the fuck are they doing?" It was one of those horrible events where you realize you're sitting on the floor, and all these people are sitting around you, and I never realized how big Richard Branson's teeth were until that day. He's, like, staring at me with this big smile waiting for me to just say, "Yeah, Johnny Rotten can join Devo." Maybe you've been to school before, and in a situation where there's something totally absurd; it's a totally mundane normal experience that seems surreal and absurd, and you're fighting back laughter. You stifle laughter, and that just makes it worse, and then you can't help it.
You're laughing so hard you can't stop. I'm in front of this guy who's a multi-millionaire already, and famous because of the Sex Pistols and Mike Oldfield, and I'm going, "Oh my god, this is not the way to start up a relationship." I'm trying to go, "We're not laughing at you. This is a great idea, but really, come on." We couldn't stop laughing. We were laughing so hard. So it just made us pull the wagon trains even tighter when we finally got a record deal—the way people were attacking us in such a carnivorous manner. That was our only defense. As it turned out, by the time we got with Warner Bros., they just wore you down through the pure 1984 double-think of everything. Warner Bros. had their own methodology of pummeling you and taking away your spirit. I remember going to visit [Warner Bros. head] Mo Ostin about six to nine months after audio cassettes became a big deal. Before that, people were just buying vinyl, but then, audio cassettes were becoming the most sought-after item. People were not buying records anymore; they were buying these little audio cassettes. They were paying [us] less money for an audio cassette, but there were articles in all the papers about how much cheaper it was to make an audio cassette than it was to press vinyl. So I went in and had a meeting with Mo Ostin, who was the president of Warner Bros. Records, and said, "You know, Mo, I need to ask you something really important. Why is it that in our deal, you have it so you're paying us substantially less money for every audio cassette that you sell than for every piece of vinyl, yet you make a bigger profit off every audio cassette?" He just smiled and looked at me like I was his dense, naive son. And he goes, "Because that's the way it is." That was his answer. And I just left his office going, "Oh. Six fingers. Hold up your hand. I'm seeing six fingers." It was in some ways more appealing than being with the smaller pigs in the world who just sat there and bled you like parasites and vampires. At least he was totally up-front about it. He was totally unashamed that there was no justification except for power.