Few artists have maintained such fealty to a concept as Devo, the Akron-based rock band formed around the idea that society is “de-evolving” into a tractable, regressive herd mentality – a concept dating back to 1973 which frontman Mark Mothersbaugh tells Billboard actually “resonates more now than then.”
As much a performance art troupe as a rock band, Devo ascended to national attention thanks to their outlandish costumes (firetruck-red energy dome hats, factory worker outfits) and a handful of new wave hits on the Hot 100, led by the No. 14-peaking “Whip It” in 1980.
While they might have been robotic hitmakers in funny hats for the casual observer, fans and future musicians understood there was a lot more going on, both musically and conceptually, with these Spuds. Devo’s herky-jerky new wave proved massively influential on ensuing generations of industrial, synth-based and alt-leaning artists, and Mothersbaugh’s idiosyncratic career as a composer — working in mediums ranging from Wes Anderson movies to the Rugrats TV show to the Crash Bandicoot video game series — has helped the wider public understand the depth of his and the band’s artistry.
With Devo on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot for the second time ever in 2021, Mark Mothersbaugh spoke to Billboard about his COVID-19 recovery, what he thinks about the Rock Hall, working on the new Rugrats, making a musical with Tony Hawk and a lot more.
First off, I heard about your COVID-19 fight last year — we’re so glad you made it through. How are you feeling these days?
I got a vaccine shot, because I’m old enough for it, a couple days ago. I got the response people usually get from their second vaccine shot, so I must’ve had antibodies in my body already. I’ve had a fever the last couple days, so I’m just now standing up again. That was a lot of fun.
Well, at least the Rock Hall nomination was some good news. How did you react to it? It that something you care about?
We’re in a business where you write music and there’s always somebody younger, handsomer, somebody who had a bigger hit. There’s hardly very many things to measure success or where you stand, so it’s nice to have that accolade. When we started, you never think of it as a goal, but it’s a nice thing to have. Everybody in Devo, it’s a feeling of validation. Just even to be nominated is a great thing. I thank all the voters and whoever nominated us very much
It’s an interesting place to be – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe there’ll be a mannequin with a yellow Devo suit in there, that would be funny. I think Devo in some ways resonates more now than then. We were talking about things we were hoping would never happen and we’re watching some of them come true. It’s an appropriate year [for us to be nominated] in a way.
A pandemic that some people believe is made-up certainly falls into the de-evolution category.
David Byrne said, “stop making sense.” It would be a great time for people to start making sense right now.
When you look at younger artists, do you see the imprint of Devo on them?
Oh yeah. I enjoy that. I have people call me and say, “I’m a fan of yours” or “you influenced me.” It’s interesting when it goes across a wide range. You could start with people who have covered us, from heavy metal bands to Nirvana to rap artists to CeeLo [Green], there’s a lot of different people who said we influenced them — I like that, it’s nice.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s I know a lot of the media didn’t take Devo seriously, but that seems to have changed as far as I see it. Was there a point where you realized the narrative had changed, and you weren’t just seen as the band with funny hats?
[Laughs.] I think we’re still waiting for that. But at the time even, there were people Devo resonated with, and they weren’t sure why. That’s the path you take if you decide to be a pioneer.
Your last performance as a band was in 2018. Pandemic safety considerations aside, if Devo is inducted, would you perform at the ceremony?
Well, we would certainly try. I have to say I was on a ventilator for nine days, which doesn’t sound like much, but it means a lot to your vocal cords. I’ve been working on them, trying to get them back to singing condition. Who knows? I’m sure we’d want to play. I see my brother Bob [Mothersbaugh], the guitarist, pretty much daily; we both work on film, video game and TV stuff, composing together. We have a place with our equipment set up that we both go to. And I talk to Gerry [Casale] every week, we text all the time. I know everybody would like to perform again.
You did the music for the Rugrats TV show. Which Rugrat do you think would be most deserving of a Rock Hall induction?
I think Tommy would get it, but Chuckie would be my vote. We’re working on the new Rugrats. They’re bringing it back. I worked on the theme song again, updated it a little bit, and my brother is doing the episodes and new songs for that right now.
Any other projects you’re working on?
I’m doing a musical with my wife and Tony Hawk, we’re producing. Tony and I have been friends a long time. Our intention is to incorporate a lot of Devo music into it. Devo is in the Skateboarding Hall of Fame. It’s true.
Wait, are you a skateboarder?
I have pictures of myself after my last skateboard ride where I’m being confirmed at 12 or 13, and all the kids were dressed in choir robes and I have two black eyes and stitches across my face. I took a big fall and realized my myopia was so extreme that it wasn’t my calling.
So it’s a stage musical?
It’s about a group of kids who are skaters, coming of age — it’s based on a Nick Hornby book called Slam, which is what we’re calling the musical. We’re working with the La Jolla Playhouse right now. It’s a weird time to be doing a musical, that’s for sure. It’ll be a combination of Devo that you know, a little bit of modified Devo, and I’ll have some original songs in the project also. Tony will probably choreograph the skaters, so it could look really good.
He was taking me to see things like comedians, and I was like, “eh… okay.” Then I said, “Well, come and see some musicals, my wife is a big musical fan.” So we took him to see some things, and I was going, “well, this is too small of a stage to skate on” and he was like, “No, no… in this place, we’d get a running start behind the curtain, so by the time you came out you could be flying through the air. Or else you could drop out of the balcony.” I go, “They’re not gonna let you drop out of the balcony!” I mean, he could do it. But anyhow, his involvement will be in that part of the process.
I read that you acquired Raymond Scott’s Electronium, that sort of synthesizer apparatus he made. Is it working? Is that something you play around with?
A few months before he passed away [in 1994] a friend of mine was writing an article on him, and asked if I would like to visit him. I said, “He’s still alive?” He said, “Yeah, but he’s had seven strokes.” So I went over, met him, he was crazy, and his wife took us back into his studio. She goes, “I didn’t even know he wrote music before 1970, and then we started getting these things from ASCAP for Ren & Stimpy, and we’re wondering, what’s a Ren and Stimpy?” [The Ren & Stimpy Show used a number of Scott’s compositions throughout its run.]
When he died, I helped get a repository for his things at a university in the Midwest, but they didn’t want his Electronium — which was his work in progress, an amazing instrument that looked like it was from the ’40s or ’50s but he kept modifying. By the time I saw it, it had a RadioShack computer hooked up to it. By the time I got over there after she’d cleaned up the room, the computer was already missing, so it hasn’t fired up again. A couple people helped me work on it and got one side of it to light up, but the whole thing hasn’t ever worked again. It has tube technology but also on top of that circuitry and digital things added. It’s a wide range of experiments.
I hope someday, somebody will be like, “We can get this going, make it fully functional.” He was a genius; he was a pioneer.
That’s fantastic, that you helped find a place for it at a university. So many musicians die and leave behind these incredible archives, but there’s not always a place for it or even the interest.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I have my own nightmares of my archival mess. I don’t know what anybody will say when I’m gone — they’ll take a look at thousands of hours of music and thousands of images and paintings and go ,”What do we do with all this s–t?” We’ll see. Well, you’ll see. [Laughs.]