As someone who is scarily obsessed by music (we’re talking Tom Cruise-Thetan Level 8 of mindless obsession), it’s so easy to sometimes be swept up in the euphoria of nostalgia. Why wasn’t I born when Metallica were still good? How come I never saw Elliott Smith play? Why did I only discover Desmond Dekker when it was too late? In reality, the present is just as brilliant a time for music as it ever was.
And with less than a week before Devo hit our shores, UK audiences have the chance to see some true legends for the first time in over fifteen years. Hurray! I was listening to Billy Ray Cyrus or some shit last time they were here!
The magnitude of Devo’s effect on music is one that is horrifically overlooked… something that completely baffles me. Here is a band with everything required. Great catchy songs? Check. Insane live show? Check. Uber-intelligent members with a penchant for witty socio-political satire? Check. A sound completely different to everyone else? Check.
For many, Devo are just ‘that band’ who wrote ‘Whip It’ and wore red flower pots on their heads. In today’s musical landscape of funny costumes, sperm-destroying skinny jeans and general debauchery, this seems pretty tame. But you have to realise that both their look and sound were completely different to everything going on around that at the time. This was when punk music was taking off; when ripped T-shirts and spikes were de rigeur. There were only three chords to a song, and certainly no keyboards or synths.
What Devo did was decapitate the evolution of music. Their sound was not the next genesis of what had come before them. They envisioned a sound and distilled it, as opposed to (99 per cent of other) bands that merely mix various influences to create something ‘new’.
I was lucky enough to catch the band’s Gerry Casale for some extremely rare interview time. As anticipated he was rather friendly and jovial. More importantly, every word uttered was gold.
With all the increased touring activity and you guys spending more time in closed conditions, is there a possibility for new Devo album?
If it was up to me there would be a new Devo album, but so far I haven’t been able to get Mark (Mothersbaugh) to focus. It requires commitment and collaboration; that’s what Devo was. He’s not answering questions like that.
Are relations between the two of you… on good terms?
Oh they’re fine. He just… once he starts scoring movies, he just ceases to be available to use his energy in Devo.
You’ve also mentioned the possibility of a Devo movie at some point. Any news on that?
I’ve been working on that with this writer, Matt Beale. He used to be a Rolling Stone music writer. He’s a big Devo fan and knew a lot about us already. So we conducted these interviews and we’ve given him all kinds of archival material, and we came up with the story of the early days of Devo. It’s kind of like …Spinal Tap with brains. It’s as entertaining and insane, but instead of being dim-witted, they’re crazy artists.
Recurring drummers theme as well?
(Laughs deeply) Yeah – it’s got it all. We actually got lost in the same hall that’s alluded to in …Spinal Tap. It’s this thing union stage hands would do to musicians.
Will there be new music be ready for that?
Of course – it will be wall to wall.
So it’s not a Devo rockumentary, but a story of sorts?
Yeah totally - a fictionalised-from-reality drama. It is a black comedy.
Just doing my research, I’m guessing you guys formed – or at least you met each other – at Kent State about the time of the shootings. Am I right?
I was right in the middle of it and I knew two of the four students that were killed.
Jesus, that’s horrendous. Were you politically active at that point?
Yes, I was a member of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and we were protesting the illegal expansion of the war in Cambodia, by Nixon. In retrospect, with the president we have today, Nixon was interesting. We used to have a smart evil man, now we just have a dumb evil man. Nixon did this without an act of congress, back when we still cared about a constitution and the bill of rights and of course any politically active student knew this was a breach of the three parts of the government.
That governor at the time was extremely right wing and knew there’d be protests. So he stocked the campus the night before with the National Guard who camped out on campus in the heating plant, so no-one could see them. Then they just sprung the next day as soon as they knew when and where the protest would be. They sprung into action and certainly none of us thought the guns were loaded. They were given a command: the first row knelt, the second row stood and they just fired for about 12 seconds straight into the crowd, like a duck shoot. At first you’re just stunned. It can’t be real, everything kind of goes into a slow-motion sound enhanced interlude then it snaps back to real time and everyone’s screaming. Then I turn my head and see a girl laying face down with an exit wound in her back as big as a grapefruit with blood rolling down the sidewalk in the noon-day sun. Women screaming, crying, and that was Alison Kraus. I didn’t know it was her straight away, but I found out later on. I knew Jeffrey Miller and Alison Kraus. I passed out. I knelt on the ground and passed out… it was just so hideous. THAT was the day I stopped being a hippie
It changed everything: no more mister nice guy.
There was always a degree of social satire in Devo’s music – what with you guys having endured the Reagan years as well. With the increased return of right-wing values after Clinton had his little yuppie dream, and the fact that we’re back to unnecessary wars abroad and a level of paranoia of Cold War proportions, do you still feel socially aware or have you slipped into apathy?
No, it’s more disgusting than ever. I have so much rage that I don’t know what to do. I can’t turn homicidal. Everyday… It’s like the Orwell quote about the future being the boot coming down on the face of humanity. Everyday is a huge insult to any people of reason… any rational humanist. It is one huge insult. Idiologues and fundamentalists of every type have taken the world hostage… The tail wags the dog. We have a moron here who’s basically the same as Bin Laden; he’s anti-democratic, he’s Christian fundamentalist, he’s an ideologue that refuses to base his decisions on information or science and he stokes the fires of fear and hatred. He plays like somebody on a clown show against Bin Laden. It’s disgusting. Devolution is real. Devolution happened and now we live in a devolved world completely.
I’ve seen such abject stupidity from the population that lets these maniacal leaders get away with what they want to get away with.
It’s impossible to grasp sometimes the sheer extent of the world’s descent into idiocy. Its strange as well for me, as a Brit, in that it is so easy to pin everything on America as an entity, but we effectively here have a Prime Minister who’s a lap dog flanked by a muscle-less Europe. People just accept it. And effectively the leader of the ‘free-world’…
It’s less free all the time…
Yeah, but he stole an election. Twice! But moving onto a happier area, maybe you could tell me about Devo 2.0?
Disney came to Devo and asked us to repurpose 12 of our songs for four- to eight-year-olds and “What would you do to do that?” I said, “Why don’t I put a band of kids together that represent the older brothers and sisters of this target group and we’ll record them doing our songs and shoot videos, 2D and 3D animation.” They said, “Great, come up with a budget”. Did that. Recorded them. Shot the videos. They then proceeded to censor and change everything. It was a surreal exercise. Funny because they picked the songs, then acted horrified – the top Taliban at Disney – when they got the lyrics. (Slips into comedic accent) “What? Beautiful world for you, but not for me! You can’t say that.” I’d say, “But you picked the song. What do you want me to say?” “Make it say me, too!”
It was fantastic. It was an exercise in proving our point. Even better. (Slips into singing lyrics) “Freedom of choice is what you got, freedom from choice is what you want”… “You can’t say that”. It gets better: “Uncontrollable urge… you can’t say that. It might be sexual. You have to define what the urge is.”
“Okay,” I’d say. “Well what uncontrollable urge is alright for you?”
He’d go, “Make it about about fast food”. All that for four- to eight-year-olds, because it fits in with their advertisers. So I wrote these lyrics to be a smart arse, thinking they’d reject it immediately. I wrote: “Before dinner, after lunch, I get a snack attack, and I need to munch.” I give it to them and they go, “Oh, that’s great”. It was fantastic, having this beautiful 12-year-old girl singing something far filthier than what our song ever intended.
In retrospect are you happy you got involved with it?
Yeah, it was amusing, and kids love it. So, when they get a few years older they’re gonna go to the internet and find out about the real Devo. They’re going to see what happened… otherwise it’s an audience that wouldn’t know about Devo. Hopefully it teaches them another lesson about censorship and the corporation.
By the time Devo reached its classic line-up of yourself, Mark, the two Bobs and Alan, and you released your first album, it was the peak of punk music. Did you feel you fitted in with the musical landscape that surrounded you?
We never felt one way or another about that. We were resigned that the only way people could accept us was if they could fit us in with the existing marketed label. Okay, if they wanted us to be punk or new wave, that’s fine… as long as we’ve got a voice in the marketplace. We had punk elements, but we were Punk Scientists. We weren’t nihilists or anti-intellectual. We had a degree of anger and intensity that definitely echoed punk, but we weren’t writing the same type of music. We were much more experimental. And new wave was usually just bubbly and vapid – we weren’t that because we had more hardcore concepts and industrial noises and ideas. It wasn’t just a triumph of style over concept. Devo was always Devo. We knew that, but just went along with all that…
To me, listening to your first musical output, it was like it was just so different to anything else happening. Like most other bands were just the next musical evolution of rock, but you guys seemed to have a vision of what you wanted to be; like you were disjoined to the past. Not listening to other albums trying to repackage it. Am I right in saying this, or am I just being overly analytical?
No that’s exactly true. We were totally un-interested in doing what we could with our ideas. We didn’t care if we sounded like any other band. We had a goal in mind.
Any of Devo’s stage attire you’re ashamed of in retrospect?
We were ashamed of it upfront, that’s why we picked it. We left being cool to other people. We picked things that nobody would be caught dead in on purpose. We didn’t care about this whole ‘look at me I’m sexy’ idea. What we were trying to do was present a no-nonsense unified drill team. We liked the idea of the performer as clowns. “We’re gonna do what you’re afraid to do.” We’re gonna entertain you when you see Devo. You can grin and smirk because you guys are so cool out there watching these fools. You’re going to go and feel superior.
You guys have influenced so many bands - How do you view the Devo legacy?
I think we did as well as we could, as long as we could. Everybody only has so much to say, and we met with so much resistance from radio and never got help from the powers that be, so we never really made any money. I made a little from the publishing of ‘Whip It’. We didn’t make any money. It was expensive to tour and make records. Touring never made any money because a ticket was $7 and we’d put on these vast theatrical shows because we were passionate about it. I wish Devo had made money, but it is nice to have respect from other creative people now. That is nice. It is a great feeling and something a lot of people don’t get.
Maybe it’s better to be a band that’s proud of your music than a band that hates the songs it writes but does it to roll in money?
We couldn’t do that. That’s why I don’t get tired of playing our songs. We stood behind what we were doing. I like what we did.
Devo play the following UK shows:
18 Brighton Dome
19 London Royal Festival Hall (Meltdown)
22 Birmingham Symphony Hall
23 Manchester Apollo
24 Glasgow Academy
26 London Shepherds Bush Empire
Ticket hotline: 0870 735 5000