Synth-rock legends Devo don’t perform all that often, but when they do, it is routinely in front of sold-out crowds full of devotees, many of whom are holding out hope that the band will one day unveil new music. In a wide-ranging interview with Billboard.com prior to an Oct. 28, 2006, show in San Francisco, founding member Gerald V. Casale discussed that prospect, as well as the experiment of re-recording Devo music with pre-teens for “Devo 2.0” and the ongoing reality of de-evolution.
The band seems to have no plans to make new music at the present time. And the question is, is this agreeable for everyone?
GVC: That’s true. That’s true except that I’m the cheerleader for doing that, and I’m suddenly getting a better response.
“Devo 2.0” has sold about 7,000 copies, which is a lot less than I think most people thought was going to happen. It was Disney’s idea, right?
GVC: Right. Well, actually, not even Disney’s. Buena Vista Records. And the problem, if there was a problem, was that Disney didn’t really support their own record company in the marketing of “Devo 2.0.” They never put it on the Disney Channel. They never put it on Radio Disney. And it was purely a Buena Vista Records idea to repurpose Devo songs for a five-to-eight-year-old demographic. So we thought that was pretty bizarre and interesting, so we tried it.
It sounded like a good idea at the time.
GVC: Yeah! Yeah! And I really like the band! After three-and-a-half months of casting I found kids that could sing and play. And they were good! I went on a 20-city tour with them to middle schools on the East Coast. The kids at schools loved it. Loved it. But after the initial Target [sales promotion] you couldn’t even find it. But, you know, we live in a world where marketing is the beginning and the end. I mean, the fact that they can make Jessica Simpson and her sister sell that many records is a testament to marketing. Especially the sister.
Are there any archival Devo products in the pipeline?
GVC: We have found and remastered two live shows. One from 1978 in Bristol, England, and one from, I think, the Tower Theater in Seattle [in] 1981 when we were doing the New Traditionalists tour. They have songs on them that people haven’t heard live and always asked for, and we’re ready to put those out. But that’s just truly archival. Also, people want the Devo “EZ Listening Music” that we put out on Rykodisc years ago.
It was like elevator music.
GVC: Yeah! Instrumental versions of our own songs, done by us to sound like elevator music.
How did moving from Akron to L.A. change your sound and your act?
GVC: Well, let’s see. That was like going from a toilet to a sewer. You know, you have your personal toilet, then you move to the total sewer. ‘Cause we’d seen the picture postcards of L.A. and we believed it, and we came out and it was just one long stretch of sprawl and yellow sludge, you know? And it was horrifying. And we couldn’t believe that all of Hollywood, that was highly touted as the Mecca to all musicians, looked like Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, except worse. Yeah, it was just a bigger cesspool of a place.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about struggles with the labels.
GVC: Inevitable. Look, you’re a creative person before you make any money, right? And you’re obviously driven by something that makes it a necessity. Nobody just says, “I think I’ll be a rock musician. I think I’ll get on stage.” You know, they have to. People have to. Otherwise you’d go be … you know … a policeman. What happens is then you start to make money off of what you love doing, which is nice. Very few people ever get to make money off of what they love to do. But certainly, if you do make money off of what you love to do, you deserve it as much as the plumber that comes and fixes your sink.
The difference is, in the music business, we’re the plumbers that come and fix the sink, and then we have to argue and beg to get paid. But only when you’re a creative person is there an issue about paying the plumber. And it’s really insulting. And the more insulting it gets, the more it drains your spirit. Because, it’s like, well, “Why can’t you keep the onerous deal you made with us?” It was already stacked against us, right? We’re already indentured servants as per contract, but why don’t we even get… you know … the 90 percent of 10 points on our music that we were supposed to get minus free goods and reserves? [Laughs]. Why do we have to fight for the rest of it? So, it’s not fun.
Was there a point where it was like, “We need to do what they’re telling us to do?”
GVC: No, it never got down to that. You see, it’s like the cliche about “Life doesn’t care enough to help you or hurt you.” The record company in Devo’s case didn’t even really come in and say, you know, “Work with this producer and he’s going to write you a hit.” They didn’t even care enough to do that.
In terms of the band’s live set lists now, would you consider swapping in rare songs that fans would kill to hear?
GVC: Well, I mean, we’re playing the songs we want to play. If we were to start looking at the most … let’s say … motivated partisan fan base — you know, the extreme fans — then we’d have to do another kind of tour. [Laughs]. ‘Cause they like the esoteric stuff. But we feel it’s a pretty great selection of old to later techno to rock.
Which is why there are people here that have come from Europe…
GVC: [Group member] Mark [Mothersbaugh] says “no” to going to Europe, mostly because Europe has no money and they offer us no money. We had years of experience making no money. I mean, you’ve got to remember when Devo was at its prime, concert tickets were like $7.50. And we had a crew of 23, and we had synchronized treadmills and rear-projection film and we’re doing things nobody has done, and we didn’t even break even. And now, for the first time in our lives, we can play a concert and make money. And not have to wait 18 months to get paid from a record company who deducts things — we get paid that night.
I read once you guys got paid like $16,000 each after the Freedom of Choice tour; a $2 million tour.
GVC: Yeah. It was sad. And, you know, that only came because the t-shirts sold enough to … That included t-shirts.
If you took someone who was musically very astute, but for whatever reason had never heard Devo songs, and you were to play for them an early ’70s recording of “Auto Mowdown,” a late ’70s recording of “Sloppy” and an ’80s recording of “It’s Not Right,” they would probably have trouble distinguishing that it was all one band.
GVC: [That is] because Mark came from Progresso music. When I met Mark, his hair was down to his waist and he was playing Emerson, Lake and Palmer songs in a cover band and I was playing bass in a blues band. And the music I grew up to and loved was R&B and blues. I would grab typically an A&M station out of Detroit when A&M stations were king and they had huge towers and huge range, and I’d be in Ohio and Akron listening to great stuff. That was my musical basis, but then intellectually, the lyrics had nothing to do with blues and R&B lyrics. They were my experiences.
Mark, he came from a technical background and was trained in piano. And so I brought the primal ape energy and he brought the white man mathematical/architectural energy. We decided to go beyond our genres on purpose. That’s really what happened. As we worked together, we decided to forge something that was neither of what we had been doing, and that became Devo music. And Devo music is Devo music. And, I think “Satisfaction” is a good point of departure, ’cause you can point to a song that’s a classic, and go, “Well, this will show you what Devo is,” because we deconstructed a rock classic, and it tells you how we think about music, if you listen to that. The Rolling Stones were blues- and R&B-based, and I love “Satisfaction.” And so did Mark. But, once you hear it, it’s like it’s become a series of zeroes and ones. It’s almost digital the way we played it. So, that kind of was the beginning of the true break with our past genres. We made Devo music after that. You really can’t say that Devo music is kind of like the Cars. Well, it isn’t.
But you guys were a seminal punk band, and then, a seminal New Wave band.
GVC: We didn’t know we were punk, first of all. We really didn’t think of it that way, and the press never embraced us or gave us the imprimatur as a punk band. The English punks thought all American bands couldn’t be punk, because they didn’t understand class politics. That’s not really true but that was what everybody decided, right? So, the punk thing crested and then Devo missed the punk wave. We weren’t one of them. They were suspicious of us. But then somehow we fit into New Wave because of the techno aspect, and the fact that we weren’t wearing leather jackets and black jeans, and we weren’t wearing skinny ties and white shirts. We were wearing plastic. So we were the idiots that were not afraid to be uncool. We left being cool to everybody else.
If you could pick a mainstream or semi-mainstream band to do a Devo cover, who and what?
GVC: A few years ago I kept saying — everybody thought I was joking — I always said that I wished that Guns N’ Roses had covered “Freedom of Choice.” They would have made us a lot of money. [Sings like Axl Rose] “Freedom of choi-oice is what you wa-ant.” That would have been great. But right now, let’s see. The Arctic Monkeys could do “Wiggly World.” The Hives could do “Girl U Want.”
Mark Mothersbaugh: [Walking in] The Rolling Stones could do our version of “Satisfaction.”
GVC: There you go! That would really help us. Not really. She Wants Revenge could do “Swelling Itching Brain” but I don’t even think they could make it.
What year do you consider to be your heyday, both creatively and successfully?
GVC: Well, you know, creatively I still think “Freedom of Choice” was a great marriage of the past and where we were going. Like, where all of the elements came together, and the right recipe. And then we actually got more successful after that, but creatively it was there, where we discovered a new thing where we got this funky white boys…
You think more so than the first two albums?
GVC: Yeah. Oh yeah. ‘Cause if you listen to the beats and the speeds and the bass lines, it’s like funky white boys on “Freedom of Choice.” We produced a record with this guy named Bob Margouleff, who had been Stevie Wonder’s producer. So it was produced more like an R&B record.
Conversely, what do you regret most from your careers, both Devo and post-Devo?
GVC: Well, “Shout,” because the Fairlight [synthesizer] just kind of took over everything on that record. I mean, I loved the songwriting and the ideas, but the Fairlight kind of really determined the sound.
That’s actually interesting, Jerry, because a lot of people I talked to want to hear songs from “Shout” live, and also “Big Mess.”
GVC: Yeah, see, now that’s a song we do love, and yes, we realize it’s not in the set, and … um … that shows us that we have miles to go before we sleep. We still have something left to do.
Do any of the original members have any contact with [former member] Alan Myers?
GVC: No. He left a long time ago to quit. He walked away. He didn’t want to be Devo anymore. And he lost that Devo spirit. And he just kind of had the lifestyle and whatever. We’ve never even crossed paths.
Bob Mothersbaugh: He never paid attention to the interviews, and then he started reading them, and…
GVC: He objected to our politics. No, he was a great, great drummer. Great drummer. It had nothing to do with anything that we know about logically … we never had a fight. He said, “I kinda don’t really want to do this anymore.” But he was also the guy that would, like for an hour before the gig, he’d go in the bathroom and do Tai Chi. He was a Tai Chi expert. It was really intense. He really took it seriously. I really think it helped his drumming, too. The concentration — ’cause he was a human metronome.
These last questions are philosophical — Devo the philosophy as opposed to Devo the band. Was there ever a point in Devo history where you thought that humanity might actually…
GVC: Yes. Or we wouldn’t even have started. Yeah, that’s absolutely true. We saw a lot wrong, but we didn’t think it had to be that way. We were really misunderstood. You know, we really were positive. And the energy live was manic — we weren’t sucking people’s energy out of them. We were playing with them and using irony, which is a lost art in the modern world.
De-evolution is real, and everything just got dumber and dumber. If anybody would have told you in 1980, “here’s the world you’ll live in, here’s your President and here’s what he said, and here’s Osama Bin Laden,” you wouldn’t have believed it! It would have looked like really bad fiction. Science fiction. And everything got incredibly worse at an exponential rate, beyond even our kind of smart ass college joke. Sure, we worked hard at our joke but we didn’t really think it’d be real. You know what I mean? A really, really cautionary tale.
Actually, I’m actually more and more glad that I was alive when I was alive, because I do remember what relative freedom was like. And a world where people were a lot more involved in what was going on. You know, people were outraged with Nixon. That’s why, when the information came out about what he did, he was impeached. That’s why we got out of Vietnam. Today, what you have is a world where that same thing could come to light, and everybody would be like, “Yeah? So?” And they don’t care about the facts.