Devo emerged in the mid-1970s from the rubber-manufacturing capital of Akron, Ohio. Catalyzed by the notion that humanity was regressing instead of progressing—and disenchanted further by the Kent State student killings in 1970—Devo's members manifested their theory of "de-evolution" through spasmodic, robotic rock that was augmented by banks of analog keyboards, mordant lyrics, satirical uniforms, and DIY, ahead-of-their-time videos. Early LPs like Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Freedom of Choice (1980) have proved to be influential to legions of bands melding dance music with rock. Now Devo—original members Gerald Casale, Bob Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Bob Mothersbaugh, with super-session drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, etc.)—are playing the aforementioned albums in their entirety on a North American tour. The Stranger interrogated keyboardist/vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh about these works' enduring value, Brian Eno's studio demeanor, how they got "Satisfaction," and other topics.
What was the motivation for doing these two albums in a live setting? And why did you skip your second album, Duty Now for the Future?
[Laughs.] This isn't a new concept, the idea of doing entire albums. We got involved through All Tomorrow's Parties. We played in London at the Forum in May of this year. I went over thinking, "This is kind of a silly idea. We've done these songs for 30-some years, and we never put 'em in this configuration." The idea of running through them in order like that seemed counterintuitive. But then we played the show and had a lot of fun. I thought from a fan's point of view, that's almost an ideal way to see a band.
So when we got back from London, our senses hadn't returned to us yet and we said, "Wouldn't that be fun to do here?" One thing led to another, and it devolved into us doing albums one and three.
I understand that Freedom of Choice was a big hit...
That was kind of the reason for doing it in the U.S. But I was the guy who was pushing [to do] album two. Even as recently as this year, we were doing festivals and shows where we played a lot of material off of album two. Some of my favorite Devo songs are on album two, like "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA." I thought that's the one that would make sense and didn't think all of the songs on [Freedom] were worthy of performing live. We never played "That's Pep" or "Ton o' Luv," and a couple of others. But then we started rehearsing them, and I started loving the album and the sequence of it. It's been kind of fun to play. I'm still memorizing some of the lyrics that I haven't sung since 1980, but I think that's going to be a good show.
Do you find it paradoxical that this is a nostalgia tour? Devo's initial impulse seemed to be anti-nostalgia.
It's fucked up. We're in the wrong part of the universe. Here, the ribbon of time flows in one direction.
I know what you're saying... But this tour is going to put it to bed, because next year, Devo hardcore fans beware: We're doing new music. They better brace themselves for that one. If you're into us for nostalgia, now is the time to make your move.
I realize that the third album is a better live album than it is a recorded album. I knew that "Freedom of Choice" and "Girl U Want" sound much better live than on tape; that's not uncommon for us. We always have more success onstage than in the recording studio. I felt our recordings either sounded overworked or like a demo too many times.
These last couple of weeks we've been playing Freedom of Choice [in rehearsals], and it sounds really great. The songs that we never played before are now some of my favorites. I like the guitar parts. The lyrics are kind of weird on some of the songs. We sang a lot about love on this album, for some reason. I'm trying to remember what was going on in our lives. [Laughs.]
Have you encountered any difficulties in relearning these songs in rehearsals?
The hardest part has been finding instruments that would play the sounds that we played back in the day. Anything we did on a Minimoog... some instruments just die; they weren't meant to last 30 or 40 years. I don't think Minimoogs are meant to last forever... I carry these two Minimoogs: one from 1971 and one from 1972, and it's really like taking your grandpa with you onstage. You don't know if they're gonna work right. So if one of 'em goes senile on me during "Smart Patrol," I quickly switch over to the other one. They're like my M1 rifle... I had an EML that was difficult to make work right back then, and now it's really crazy to get stuff out of it that makes sense. So we had to come up with alternative sounds on about four songs. So it sounds similar, but not exactly the same.
Some of the signature synth sounds in "Cold War"—boy-o-rowr and it has this weird warping noise in it, like you're running analog tape backward—I couldn't make that sound again because it came out of a Prophet 5 [and] all the memory banks got erased somewhere in the last 25 years. So we remade the sounds. It didn't ruin the songs. The Minimoogs still work in the studio.
Do you find that some of the songs are really strenuous, physically demanding to play, like "Uncontrollable Urge"?
Yeah... But the weird thing is, the music sounds more like it was supposed to in some ways. Everybody knows how to tune their instruments now and set their sound onstage, and we know how to sing better. We had all the kinetic energy before; we just didn't have it under control, so often it was just a wall of noise.
What was it about Josh Freese that made you want to work with him?
He showed up when we were looking at different drummers. He had a video of him when he was 10 or 11 and his dad is shooting him on Christmas morning. He's running down the stairs with his little brother, who's now in Green Day. He runs past all the presents and pulls out a record and shouts, "I got the new Devo album!" [Laughs.] And we're like, "All right, we'll try him." He knew all the arrangements and tempos for all the songs better than we did. He had the best attitude. That's why he's so popular. He has this really great Zelig attitude. He always sends out good, positive energy. In some ways he reminds me of Tim Leary. His social mannerisms are similar. (I was friends with Tim for a long time.) He had a positive energy that would wake us up, like at 2:00 a.m. in the Record Plant, he'd tell the band how amazing a song sounded. Instead of sitting around in our own negative take on things, he'd show us the positive side. Josh is like that.
Can you discuss the working processes with Brian Eno and Robert Margouleff on Q: Are We Not Men? and Freedom of Choice, respectively? Wikipedia says you were resistant to Eno's ideas. True?
I don't know who writes that shit. Here's what happened. We had no record deal; we were from Akron, Ohio. Everybody hated us in Ohio... We were a lightning rod for hostility in Ohio. So when we went to New York and played CBGB and Max's Kansas City... we kind of became the band to see, overnight. We'd play, get paid $100, and sleep in a van, but on our guest list we'd have all of the Rolling Stones, Brian Eno, Jack Nicholson, all these actors. People asked us who we'd want to produce our record, and we'd say, "Brian Eno or David Bowie." Eno was the first synthesizer player in pop music that I thought blasted the idea of a keyboard out of the water and was just into making sounds. The first Roxy Music album blew me away. His synth playing was so amazing.
Eno... paid for the sessions and everything [in Conny Plank's Cologne, Germany, studio]. We had been playing those songs for years by the time we went to record them in '77. We had written some of the songs in '72 or '73. We knew exactly what they were supposed to sound like on an album. He imagined he was gonna sing along on the album and play all these synth parts along with 'em. And he did play stuff on top of our stuff. But right before we went to tape, Jerry and I would slowly slide the faders down on his tracks; we wouldn't make eye contact with him. [Laughs.]
[Eno] made sure that we got it to sound the way we wanted, and he did get a bunch of stuff on the album. He's singing harmony on "Uncontrollable Urge"; he did this thing with Balinese monkey chanters in the middle of "Jocko Homo." On "Too Much Paranoias," he made this great, cascading sound from a harmonizer or a pitch transposer that went beeeeedly beeeeedly [explosion noise]. It was really good, and we left it in the song. But I always had this secret wish that I could mail him the album back. He took very meticulous notes and he has beautiful handwriting, and they're all included with the 24-track masters. I'd love to hear what he would've done if we'd left him alone. [Laughs.]
What about Margouleff? Were you fans of TONTO's Expanding Head Band?
Yeah, it was that and Stevie Wonder [whose early-'70s albums Margouleff and TEHB partner Malcolm Cecil produced]. It's ridiculous to think about, but we thought Freedom of Choice was our funk album. [Laughs.] That's as funky as Devo gets, I guess.
But your cover of "Satisfaction" was very funky, in a weird way.
Oh, thank you. Every now and then we had something funky happen in us, but there was a lot more robot than funk. We asked Robert because we knew he knew about electronics and we knew he did some great stuff with Stevie Wonder, so we thought that's the perfect combination for us.
The intro for "Freedom of Choice" sounds like minimal techno way before that genre even happened. Know what I mean?
Yeah. God bless Electronic Music Labs from the East Coast. They made these synths that were impossible to tune, but that's the one we got that pow pow pow sound out of. We're from Akron, where it's all about factories anyhow. So we totally loved that factory/machine sound.
You could loop that intro and fool people into thinking it's some '90s industrial-minimal techno. It's ahead of its time.
Eh, every once in a while stuff like that happens. [Laughs.] We were way behind our time sometimes, but sometimes we were kind of ahead. We didn't develop it out as far as we should have. That said, during that time period, we did a lot of recording out of our studio on just an eight-track. It was a lot of long, extended jams, and some of it sounded like the forebears of Nine Inch Nails or something. We were really into the industrial sound without really knowing what that meant.
Are you going to faithfully re-create the songs as they are on the albums, or are you going to take liberties?
They are 99 percent the same arrangement... Josh is so good—he's within one bpm of the timing on almost every song.
Do you have any favorites or least favorites from these two records?
"Satisfaction" is always fun to play. It was the song that was a window into what Devo is all about. People would ask, "What the hell kind of band is this?" and then they'd hear that and think, "That's the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction,' kind of upside-down or updated for 1975." Then we made more sense.
Bob Casale came up with the main riff in an unheated storage room behind a car wash. It was freezing and Bob just started going dit dit dit doo doo dit dit and everybody began doing these parts and I started singing "Satisfaction" over the music, and it made everyone laugh. So that's how it happened. It was sort of spontaneous combustion. We put on guitars in this cold room, and Bob Casale started playing this dippy riff that we all picked up on. It became a very important part of what we were about.
Are they any songs on those albums that you dread playing?
No. I like everything on those records. We don't have anything that's embarrassing on those records. I would hate to have to play Eddie Money songs now. Devo never really fit in anyhow, so it doesn't seem dated. It just seems outside of time in a way. Now that they're old and people know 'em and they have references to 'em, and since then people have done stranger music, without a doubt. But I think they hold up pretty well.
Was the rhythmic rigidity of Devo's songs, especially on the first album, part of a musical manifestation of your de-evolution philosophy—like losing your humanity through robotic movements?
If it was in reaction to something, it would probably be to the popular concert rock of the time: Foreigner and Styx and drum kits with eight tom-toms and a gong and a bell tree. For a while, we were telling [original drummer Alan Myers] he couldn't use any cymbals at all. We'd put towels over his tom-toms so he'd mostly be playing a kick and a snare... he was playing too many drums and getting too musical. [Laughs.] We were taking it down to basics, especially with the drums. We wanted it to be very simple. We wanted to be the Lego-toy version of a rock band.
Your early records turned out to be very influential. There have been loads of bands inspired by Devo. I imagine you feel pretty good about that.
Go figure, huh? It's kind of ironic. It's an honor. I wish we were as good as a lot of the bands that say that about us. It's nice that you inspired people who ended up doing great music.
Is there anybody in particular you like who sprang out of your aesthetic?
Polysics, who are big in Japan but hardly known in America. They have one of the most fun audiences I've ever seen. They're hilarious and approximately half of their set consists of Devo songs. But then Kurt Cobain [Nirvana, actually] recorded Devo songs. He did a song called "Turn Around." It's a B-side that wasn't on Freedom of Choice. Shit! We should've played it! I forgot about that song!
To me, the first album is Devo at your purest. I've heard that Hardcore Devo comp of material from '74–'77, but I still think Q: Are We Not Men? is the best Devo stuff. Did Warner Bros. pressure you to become more accessible after the first album?
In some ways, maybe the worst thing to happen to Devo was "Whip It" becoming a hit. [Warner Bros.] left us alone before that. We always stayed in the black, we never spent money, we never caused problems, they never had to bail us out of jail. We even did the stuff so they didn't have to do it. We did our own ad graphics and posters and merchandising. We designed our own covers. We were really self-sufficient. They didn't have to do anything. But once "Whip It" came out, when we started on our fourth album [New Traditionalists], it was, "Hey, do whatever you guys wanna do, just do another 'Whip It.'" They became upset when we wanted to put "Workin' in a Coal Mine" on the record. They said, "Throw that one out." So we gave it to the movie Heavy Metal, and it went to number 6 on the charts or something. Which made Warner Bros. panic, because they were putting out an album without the hit song on it. So they stuck it inside as a 45, so the first 200,000 records had a free 45 in it. They were all freaked out that they'd fucked up.
Devo initially seemed to be the antithesis of rock's overt sexuality. The first album boldly went against the grain of typical rock tropes.
We had this weird idea that we wanted to do something original. [Laughs.] You wouldn't believe how much shit we took for everything we did.
A song like "Shrivel Up" is unprecedented. It goes so against the typical priapic rock mentality. When you said you were trying to do something original, I think you really succeeded with that album.
[Laughs.] Thank you. Back in the day, we got scolded by everybody.
What was the impetus for "Uncontrollable Urge"? It strikes me as one of the most intense expressions of frustration ever.
That was it—just angst, unfocused energy, that thing angry young men go through. People have to go out and kill a lion or lynch somebody or sell a lemon to an unsuspecting old lady, have sex with the waitress at the local drive-in—whatever it is you have to do to prove you're a man. It's something different in every culture. You have that energy and you want to do it; it's talking about that phenomenon.
Does it feel weird to play it over 30 years later?
There's a slight discomfort to putting on those outfits and realizing I'm no longer a single-patty cheeseburger, but now I'm a double-patty cheeseburger. [Laughs.] I just lost 12 pounds and I still got a muffin top; how sad is that?
Are you surprised to be so popular in 2009?
I dunno. I'm gratified that I got to part of something that has that kind of longevity. I don't know what it means. I do like that it resonates with somebody, younger people, too, that they're willing to come out and give it a listen.
Any theories as to why Devo have had this longevity?
By not being about a fashion or love songs, per se. Even when we did love songs, they weren't typical. Listen to the words in "Cold War," for instance. It's not your typical love-song lyrics. Because of it, it doesn't seem as dated and as corny as a lot of music from the same time period. I think wearing a yellow suit onstage is a lot less dated than wearing Sha Na Na outfits. It's sidestepped that whole part of rock and roll, which maybe kept us from being bigger than we could've been if we would've sounded more like Elvis Costello. Maybe we would've sold more records at the time, but we certainly had as much fun as he did. [Laughs.] Maybe more.