Devo are back! The band may not have a new album out but they are due to play their first European tour for 17 years.
Variously described as electro/techno poppers, synth pioneers, performance artists, music video innovators for the MTV generation, New Wave iconoclasts, Dadaists, Surrealists, Post Modernists, Punks, art rockers, and even fascist by the typically misguided Rolling Stone magazine, Devo are many things to many people. But, above all they were fun.
As co-founder Gerald Casale explains, 'people took to the band on many different levels'. And perhaps the key to the Devo's oeuvre is to be found on the band's current MySpace account which describes their influences as 'The Important Sound of Things Falling Apart'.
What is certain is that back in the early 70's, essentially because of the shootings of students at Kent State University they became a socially aware political band who used imaginative and innovative audio visual shows to perpetuate their concept of De-Evolution, the notion that civilisation is actually regressing, as evidenced by contemporary American society.
Back in the late 1960's Gerry Casale met Bob Lewis and his soon to be, long time collaborator keyboard player Mark Mothersbaugh and his guitar playing brother Bob. With the future addition of Casale's brother Bob on second guitar (following the parting of the ways with Bob Lewis), and drummer Alan Myers, Devo had the nucleus of their classic line-up
Early DEVO photo - Factory Scene, circa 1970's © DEVO Archives
With the rise of MTV in the early 80's and the acceptance of video's as a key components in the marketing of rock music, Devo's quirky but (essentially serious) mix of irony, satire and of course humour, slipped into the mainstream, and they achieved commercial success with their Eno produced, debut album 'Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo!' and the singles 'Freedom of Choice' and the hugely popular single and video 'Whip It', which cracked the Top 40, peaking at number14.
Three and a half decades on from their Akron Ohio origins, band members are now involved in the making of TV commercials, rock videos, film soundtracks, cartoons, recording, and even a Disney project for kids. July 2007 sees their first UK dates for years and an extended date sheet through Europe. Playing material from their entire career, the word finally seems to have caught up with Devo, as Gerry goes on to explain in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
"Are We Not Men?" era photo - 1977/78 - © Janet Macoska
So Devo are finally coming to the UK again, it's been a long time?
It has and in fact it was only because we did a 20 date tour of the States that was seen by some of promoters that it has been made possible. In fact it was the first time anyone really asked us to go to Europe in nearly 17 years. And maybe music has caught up with us now. I think we were pioneers and it's changed towards our direction finally.
So why did the band finish in the first place?
Well we never really quit. We just stopped putting out new records in about 1990. But we had still toured, and did an extensive club tour of Spain, France, England, Germany, Sweden, Denmark etc, though I don't think we did Ireland.
There's a funny quote from Mark (Mothersbaugh) that goes along the lines of , 'These guys had a bunch of ideas and no talent, and I had talent and no ideas'.
Ha ha, I'm sure Mark said that in jest, probably when some litigation was flying around with Bob Lewis. Any kind of such 'admission of the truth', was ridiculous, and in fact foundationless as I think our career has proved.
So is there a relationship between what you and Mark do now and Devo?
Well Mark likes composing soundtrack music for films which was apples and oranges for Devo, and I direct commercials, but for me it's not a primary creativity. For me it's more a case of solving someone else's problems through my input and talent. The job I do and what I do with Devo are separate things But I miss playing live, and always have, I love performing what we did, and I still need to do that. It's really not a chore for me.
Also our new tour is going to cover all our career. I've got no qualms about playing the songs again, as I think they have substance. They are easy and fun to play because they still meaningful to us. I mean if it was a case of playing a song like say, 'My Sharona', which has little substance and is silly then I wouldn't do it, but stuff like 'Jack Homo', that is different. That is art! So I'm looking forward to the tour, playing our music again. I love it and I guess I have to hold up my hand and say I really am Devo, and I'm under no illusions about that!
So how did you end up making rock videos and commercials?
Basically because of my background was directing Devo video's, and gradually other bands started asking me to do stuff for them. For example I did 'I'll Stick Around' for the Foo Fighters. The song became a radio hit for the band, and so they had to make a video, and David Grohl said if we have to do it then I want Gerald from Devo. I've made about 120 in all now. I'd also got involved with Godley & Cream and came to the UK to work with them at the Media Lab in Chelsea Wharf. That was an important place where I honed my skills. Those guys really were the best. In fact they were brilliant, and sadly I watched them break up, right in front of me. I think their wives hated each other. It was a case of something really creative falling victim to mean spirits. But I went on to direct more in the 90's and shifted more towards commercials.
Now I'm hoping to do a feature with a very talented guy called Steve Pink, who has come up with a fantastic script, and has written stuff like 'High Fidelity'. It's going to be a dark comedy based on a true life story.
We're also going to make a Devo movie. It's tentatively titled 'The Beginning Was The End'. When you think about it even that move from commercials to features was ground breaking, as a few years ago it was unheard of and now is much more common place. So I think they've worked the budget out and I will be directing his script.
"New Traditionalists" Era photo (1981) © Robert Matheu
Was Devo's role as multi media pioneers partly a case of being in the right place at the right time, with the rise of MTV?
Well geographically it was the opposite. We were in Akron, Ohio, which was the wrong place at the wrong time (laughs). But the good thing about that was that people pretty much left us alone, so we incubated and formed ideas. So when they finally saw the band, we already had 2 shorts, and a ten minute film, plus about 24 songs. On top of that we had real stage presence, we had fully formed stage characters, and we had costumes, the whole thing. We had been working in basements and garages for over three years, so you know Devo didn't just happen overnight, as lot of people thought at the time.
As regards MTV it was both good and bad. Our experience of MTV gave us a good grounding in the music business. When MTV started it was only running in three cities as a sort of a test broadcast. And back in 1980 they virtually begged us for our videos, as all they really had was stuff like a Rod Stewart video and David Bowie's 'Ashes To Ashes', and maybe The Buggles 'Video Killed The Radio Star'. So they ended up playing our video's day and night, which was great for us.
But then as soon as MTV went national, they started with censorship, and didn't want to know us. We got treated very badly. In fact our biggest break came with an appearance on the comedy show 'Saturday Night Live'. Before doing that show, the biggest crowd we had played to was about 400 people at Max's Kansas City, so our films had only really been seen in clubs.
Our manager Elliot Roberts negotiated with the programme to allow us to show our film, and we won and overnight it changed everything for us. Suddenly we were seen by 17 million viewers.
Immediately afterwards we had a club tour booked and they all sold out, and they had to reschedule those to bigger venues etc.
There's another great quote from you a few years ago that said, 'Devo is a musical laxative for a constipated society'
I think its more relevant now than ever. At that time I thought Devo was the house band on the titanic and it's even more so now. The whole concept of evolution is not real. Things are going down to critical mass. We're living in a neo-corporate feudal society with a right wing government. If we had outlined what is going on now ten years ago, people would not have believed it. (This is a reference to everything from Bush to Iraq) We are still like the soundtrack to ship going down.
So given your views and the band's radical background, how did you deal with record companies?
That was always a paradox for us, because the fact is that no matter how smart you are, you still end up going through the meat grinder. They dictated the deal from the beginning, so when you question anything, you get the response, 'that's a deal breaker'. You ask them for example, why you are only getting say 90% of something, and they say, oh that's 'cos of this and that, or when you ask about a 40% reserve on sales, they say, it's because they might get returns etc. So we were under no illusions about record companies.
Do people have to understand your concept of De-Evolution to understand Devo?
No kidding, that's not a bad idea (laughs). No really, different people enjoy different bits about the band. I mean they enjoy Devo in different ways just like someone who goes to see a great film, and they love it without really getting what it was really all about. I don't have a problem with that.
Did you consider yourselves pioneers of electronic music, and further did you use synths as a metaphor for technical autonomy, reflecting the loss of spontaneity, and perhaps the suppression of emotion?
Yes we were pioneers in the sense of what Mark did with synths. He actually took control of them as opposed to using them as synthetic version of real instruments (like for example ELP). Mark actually exploited them and used their cacophonous industrial noise possibilities. He used them for a specific purpose. Mark did that sort of thing way back in 1972 before synths were invented. So we had a clear idea of what we wanted them to do for the band, rather than being restricted by them. So we were never victims of technical autonomy.
How did your first major record deal come about?
David Bowie had seen our film 'The Truth About De-Evolution' and was interested in getting us a record deal. We talked for a while, and it was all a bit slow, and then David delayed things, and eventually the deal we were offered by the Bewley Brothers was really onerous. Then David had to go off to work on the film 'The Hunger', by which time we had decided that we couldn't wait anymore. But he did recommended Eno to produce us.
Was Eno a kindred spirit?
No really, it was more like a juxtaposition of a nice gentleman and aristocrat of the avant garde, with industrial brutes, which was us. We probably scared him. I mean we used to make fun of everything. We were edgy and tasteless, and loud and he was this Zen like figure with his deck of cards and his oblique strategies. But I think he was fascinated. But the relationship seemed to work, and at one time we were playing for 12 or 13 hours or more in a farmhouse in Cologne in Germany.
Were you aware of similar outsiders like Zappa, Iggy Pop, and The Tubes?
We didn't know the Tubes at the time, probably not until we were on song number twenty or so, but we got to realise they were deep into what we were doing, while both Zappa and Captain Beefheart were an inspiration to us. So we were encouraged, but we also liked Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, and thought that if they were there then it all seemed to be coming round to what we were doing.
I saw Roxy Music in Cleveland around 1975 and they were fantastic, what with Eno and his feather boah's etc.
How did you hook up with Neil Young?
Well Elliot Roberts who was our manager also managed Neil Young. He told us Neil liked our songs, and that he would like to meet us, and we were, like whaaaat? Neil Young? Wow!
This of course was the same Neil Young of course that sang about the Kent State shooting on his song 'Ohio'?
I guess there was common ground. Elliot set up the meeting and we worked on his film 'Human Highway', and in fact I got to direct a 5 minute scene on it. It was another important stepping stone I guess and a great confidence booster.
So were you both surprised, or embarrassed by commercial success when it happened?
No quite the opposite. In fact we had hoped for more. We actually felt that what we were doing could have done better with the necessary marketing opportunities and marketing support that mainstream bands were getting. I don't see why songs like 'Uncontrollable Urge', Freedom of Choice', and Girl U Want' (which was subsequently covered by Soundgarden) couldn't be hits. I mean there never was any under the table money for independent promoters to play our music.
We always wanted to do our stuff successfully, to make it more palatable. I mean we always thought the bands we liked the best were commercial enough to be understood. After all, a good song is a good song, but it's rare you get a combination of the two as happened in the cases of The Who, The Beatles and The Stones.
Devo also brought a startling reinterpretation to some classic songs such as Lee Dorsey's 'Working in a Coalmine', and of course you cut the deconstructed version of The Stones' 'Satisfaction'. What was the meeting like with Jagger to get the OK to use the song?
I will never forget that meeting. It was in the New York office of the then Stones manager Peter Rudge. He was this formal looking figure in a 3 pin striped suit and paisley tie. This office had oversized stuffed chairs, the big fire place, an afghan rug, and we turned up with an audio cassette of our version of the song. They had a small player there but with two big speakers on the fire place. Mick was very polite, we shook hands, and we were in our 'we are not worthy mode'. He looked a lot more mature than we had thought, and maybe a little tired. He asked Peter Rudge for a glass of red wine, and turned round and said, 'OK let's hear it then'.
Mark stuck the tape in the recorder. Mick sipped his wine, and then got up and looked like he was going to turn it off. But he put his wine down and his head started bopping and then he went into a full Mick Jagger dance, right there. It was incredible. He said he liked it, and we were so elated. It was a very big day for us. So we flew back to LA and told our manager Elliot Roberts what had happened, telling him, we can go with the record. Elliot tuned round and said he'd told Jagger's manager to tell Mick to say that. So that was the kind of attitude we were dealing with in the music business.
Since then Devo have of course been involved in many projects, but probably none as unlikely as the 'Devo 2.0' collaboration with the Disney Corporation.
Released in December 2006 'Devo 2.0' broke new ground for the band who recorded some of their songs with children, and were asked to change the lyrics accordingly.
They approached us to do a project with what they called an audience demographic of 4-8 year olds. They even picked the songs. So I came up with the suggestion of casting a band of 10-12 year old children who would represent their bothers and sisters. So we recorded them and shot some video, gave them the visual dazzle and worked out the budget, and got the go ahead. We ran the whole thing up the flagpole for the Disney Taliban and past their gatekeepers. We got their full attention. But they didn't like 'It's a Beautiful World (but it's not for me'), so we had to change some lyrics.
On 'It's A Beautiful World', the original line, 'It's a beautiful world for you... It's not for me.' was replaced by 'It's a beautiful world for you...I guess me too!'
Then of course they didn't like 'Uncontrollable Urge' because they said it might be about sex. When I explained it wasn't, their view was, that it might be interpreted like that. So one of the executives said, write something else, maybe a song about fast food, you know, music for a 12 year old girl.
So I wrote 'before class and after lunch, I get a snack attack and I've got to munch' (laughs)
The original lyric was: 'It's got style, it's got class, so strong, I can't let it pass.'
On 'Devo 2.0' we get: 'Fogged in, after lunch, I get a snack attack, I need to munch.'
Corporate executives never cease to amaze me.
Where do you get the ideas for videos? You have in the past explained the origins of the controversial 'Whip It' Video as being based on a real life cowboy ranch, but what about the origins of your other startling images and ideas?
They nearly always came from a combination of junk mags, Pet TV Shows and dreams that Mark and I had. This led to verbal discussions, and we came up with the on going idea that if something made us laugh then it went in!
'Freedom of Choice' was a real point about the meaningless of choices people actually have but it was still funny.
What about different audience responses across the States in particular?
We had a few tough places early on. Texas was always a good place (laughs). I actually got taken off stage once and arrested along with the road manager and the drum tech. I think the promoter had oversold the show, and these people waited for us to stop between songs. I had said something earlier to the audience that there were piggies backstage trying to stop the show, and the audience booed. But the band didn't even realise at that point that I wasn't there. By the time Mark realised what happened, he motioned to the drummer to go into the next song (laughs).
The Devo Euro Tour 2007 opens in the UK on Monday 18 June in Brighton.
Interview © June 2007 Pete Feenstra
Saturday June 16 - Barcelona, Sónar Festival -
Monday June 18 - Brighton Dome -
Tuesday June 19 - London Royal Festival Hall -
Thursday June 21 - Dublin Vicar Street -
Friday June 22 - Birmingham Symphony Hall -
Saturday June 23 - Manchester Apollo -
Sunday June 24 - Glasgow Carling Academy -
Tuesday June 26 - London Shepherds Bush Empire -
Friday June 29 - Summer Sound Festival @ Lazzaretto -
Saturday June 30 - Azzano Decimo @ Pordenone, Italy
For tickets phone the 24 hr. ticket hotline on: 0870 735 5000
|Print this page in printer-friendly format
|Tell a friend about this page