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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008
Devo uphold their duty now for the future
As I sit down opposite the gray-haired man in a black shirt and glasses, someone comes to clear the clutter off the table — a stick-thin, retro-futuristic guitar that has been rigged for its strings to explode at the climax of a solo. His flame-haired partner takes a seat; he's wearing a full suit — blue shirt and silver jacket and trousers — and is unflinching in Chiba's stifling summer heat. Are these not men? They are Devo.
Bursting out of Akron, Ohio in the late 1970s, Devo are the archetypal new-wave band. Touting an unmistakable artistic flair and a philosophy that society is not evolving but regressing, or devolving, the band pushed the boundaries of synth pop, writing avant-garde songs that flirted with strange time signatures and brazen sloganeering. It was more listenable than The Residents; more willfully obscure than The B-52's; more organic than Kraftwerk.
"If you listen to everything that happened at the same time we were out, the music didn't really fit in with everything else," says Mark Mothersbaugh, the gray-haired one. "You had all these different groups of bands that all related to each other, and Devo's just kind of, 'Well, there's nobody else in their category.' "
Pioneering not only the sound of the new-wave genre but also the pop-music video and the big-production live show, the band (whose shifting lineup mainly revolves around brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Jerry and Bob Casale) went on to become one of the most influential bands in recent history. Despite their music rarely troubling the charts, they have been covered by Nirvana, Robert Palmer, Sepultura, Melt-Banana, Soundgarden, Operator Please and more, and are revered by a current crop of bands such as Brit hopefuls Late of the Pier and Japan's no-wavers Polysics.
"Actually, Polysics helped us out," Mothersbaugh says of the Tokyo band who copied Devo's visual style so acutely it goes beyond flattery and becomes a bit embarrassing. "We had a case with some of our smaller things in it come off the plane upside down (when Devo arrived in Japan), so one of our key sample triggerers was out. But Polysics had the exact same piece, so they let us program our songs into it. They came to the rescue."
Polysics have never been shy to admit their love for Devo — every Polysics album carries a thank-you to the Ohio band, and when asked for his influences in interviews, frontman Hiroyuki Hayashi has said, "Only Devo." But when both bands appeared just hours apart on the same stage at last month's Summer Sonic festival, both dressed in boiler suits and using similar stage play, it was pretty clear who were the innovators and who were their emulators.
Devo don't seem to care. When asked how it feels to have had such a direct influence on a band more than 10,000 km from home, Jerry Casale, the redhead, says, "Nice. We were always liked by other artists and musicians. We always were embraced by other creative people. We might not have inspired critics," he laughs, "but we inspired other creative people."
Among these were David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who, in 1976, saw the short film "In the Beginning Was the End: the Truth About De-evolution," which presented Devo as the identikit worker drones they themselves saw on America's streets. In between performances of the songs "Secret Agent Man" and "Jocko Homo," each of which tied compressed guitars and analogue synths to an oppressively tight rhythm, a freakish giant baby declared, "We're all Devo," implying that there was no escape from the dumbing down of modern life. The film's pointed message, playful visuals and groundbreaking music impressed Bowie and Iggy so deeply that they secured Devo a deal with Warner Bros, for whom Devo recorded the Brian Eno-produced debut album "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!"
The album became a cult hit, but it was their third, 1980's "Freedom of Choice," that saw them cross over into the mainstream. The single "Whip it" reached No. 14 on the Billboard chart, and its video received constant rotation on the fledgling MTV. But this taste of commercial success didn't last; Devo would never chart so highly again.
"We were considered too radical," says Casale. "People said, 'These aren't really songs; this is noise.' And obviously you listen to it now and you're going, 'Well, they sound like pop songs, really.' "
Perhaps they were too far ahead of their time — after all, they sound right at home in today's alternative-music landscape, where jerky synth hooks and geek chic are all the rage. (Even McDonald's has ripped them off: Devo threatened to sue the artery-hardening burger chain after it copied the band's trademarked Energy Dome hats, as worn on the "Freedom of Choice" album sleeve, to adorn the head of an "American Idol" Happy Meal doll named New Wave Nigel. "We don't like McDonald's, and we don't like 'American Idol,' so we're doubly offended," Casale reportedly commented in June. It was reportedly later settled out of court.) In other words, the band who once declared they were "through being cool" are now considered by many as heroes.
"We did something right," says Casale. "That is why there is a current interest and why it didn't die. Part of it is timeless. It's more in line with young bands today. And the songs don't sound noisy and weird, and the structure is there in terms of songwriting. If you look at 'Girl U Want,' 'Jerk it Back and Forth,' 'That's Good,' 'Whip it,' 'Freedom of Choice,' 'Big Mess,' all these songs, they're pop songs."
The band's critical decline began in 1984, with the panning of their final Warners album "Shout." A few more releases followed on Enigma, but the band were considered by the press to have run out of ideas, and after some lineup changes and a canceled tour, they eventually ground to a halt in 1991. Mothersbaugh went on to found Mutato Muzika, a successful production company that employs some other Devo members and makes soundtracks for TV ("Rugrats," "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"), movies ("The Life Aquatic," "Rushmore") and video games ("The Sims 2," Steven Spielberg's "Boom Blox"). He also produced songs for Hajime Tachibana, previously a member of the '70s/'80s Japanese band Plastics.
Casale, who had directed many of Devo's videos, went on to make promos for bands including Foo Fighters and Rush, and recently produced songs for break-beat hero Adam Freeland and indie buzz band Vampire Weekend (the latter together with Mothersbaugh).
Is there anything they'd go back and do differently if they had the chance?
"Yeah, probably everything," Mark replies flippantly. "I think we would have sequestered ourselves away from Warner Brothers a little better after 'Whip it,' because then they became 'interested' for the first time. They didn't really pay attention to us before that, and afterward they kept pushing us to do another 'Whip it,' which kind of interfered with our thought process in some ways."
"And it would've been nice to have produced the stuff differently so that it would be radio friendly," says Casale.
"But then it might have started sounding like all the other sh*t," points out Mothersbaugh.
"It might not have lasted," concurs Casale. "Well, people are listening to songs that should have been hits rather than songs that were hits," he laughs.
As you may have figured out by now, Devo didn't stay apart for long. In 1996 they re-formed, lured onto the bill of the touring Lollapalooza festival as their influence on the bands of the day became more and more obvious. The band soon released a CD-ROM video game, which they also soundtracked; in 2001, they released an album of surf music under the name The Wipeouters; in 2006, they collaborated with Disney on Devo 2.0, a Devo covers band made up of kids, for which they rerecorded old songs and wrote some new ones; and in 2007 they released the single "Watch Us Work it." The band's bold slogans, such as "Toil is stupid" and "Duty now for the future," sound as meaningful today as they did decades ago.
The band still believe that the devolution of society is "a simple fact." Casale says, "The evidence is overwhelming for anyone not too 'zombified' to notice. The toxins and pollutants in the air and water create symptoms resulting in reduced human capabilities. Cable News' 24/7 disinformation cycles hypnotize a population whose current ruling generation were products of an inferior, consciously dismantled public-education system. Masses of people are literally incapable of analytical, critical thought. Soon American society, and then Western Europe, will resemble the quasi-military prison environments of airports and rock concerts. Add to that the mesmerizing bangles of consumer need and greed for assured cultural demise. Take a deep breath and sniff the Chemtrails, my friends. Your government is hard at work."
They continue to tour, including last month's dates at Summer Sonic and Shibuya-AX, the band's first in Japan since 2003. Their hourlong set at Summer Sonic featured all the classic songs, played on beaten-up synths with the minimum of visual props. The aforementioned guitar with exploding strings was not the only trick, however — watching Mothersbaugh explain mid-interview to a member of the festival's video-production staff which number would see him ripping pieces off the other members' radiation suits, or when they would have a costume change, or when he would dress up as a baby and bounce balls into the crowd, and watching the mild confusion on her face as he did so, drove home the band's gently odd approach.
"We used to go out with big-production shows," says Mothersbaugh. "We used to always do things before anybody else did 'em. We were doing it before MIDI or any kind of syncing (system)."
"It's just frustrating not to be able to do that (now), when we already had all the ideas," says Casale. "I mean, with about a quarter of what Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) uses in his show, we could produce 200 percent of the results.
"We met with the management of Flaming Lips. We were talking about doing a big joint tour, and we'd even share the video curtain. So that could be good."
Spurred on by the success of "Watch Us Work it," which sold well by download and was used in a U.S. advertisement for Dell computers, the band are now considering making their first new album since 1990's "Smooth Noodle Maps."
"It might happen, yeah," says Mothersbaugh. "If we can put together an album's-worth of things that we really like, we think are strong enough to put out, we'll do it. If it just sounds like B material then we'll just not bother."
Does it worry them that they might tarnish their legacy if they put out an album that people didn't take to heart?
"You mean like most of the other ones?" laughs Casale.
"You know, the idea of putting an album out 25 or more years later is more complicated, not less complicated," says Mothersbaugh. "So let's see what happens."
In the meantime, Warner Music Japan recently released the "Devo Box," which collects the band's first six studio albums alongside a live set, each lovingly reproduced as CD versions of the original vinyl releases. It's the perfect way to relive the mutant moments that made Devo the indispensable force of the new-wave underground; the ultimate reminder that deep down, we are all Devo.