DEVO: A SERIES OF KICKS IN THE FACE
It’s a beautiful world we live in, but you already know that if you know Devo, and you know it gets more and more beautiful every day—especially compared to 1974, when Devo were coming up through the mud in Akron, Ohio, and making music that got them arrested, fired and physically attacked. The two volumes of Hardcore Devo contain some of the earliest homemade recordings by this epochal band, recorded after work and before worldwide fame simply just to prove that Devo (and de-evolution) were real. Superior Viaduct has reissued Hardcore Devo and co-founder Gerald Casale works hard now to raise L.A. RECORD’s profile with the NSA. This interview by Chris Ziegler. Our thoughts are also with the family of Devo’s drummer Alan Myers, who drummed on several of these recordings and passed away today.
What Devo songs do you think Edward Snowden has on his iPod right now?
Gerald Casale (bass / synth / vocals): Ha! I wish there were. I wish there were. What might he have. Maybe ‘Gates of Steel’? ‘Freedom of Choice’?
Do you take a little secret pride in the fact that your songs are so appropriate to somebody leaking the existence of this security state?
The cliché goes, ‘the more things change the more they stay the same.’ Circumstances that we faced when we were forming were so similar to now. It just goes on and on and on. This same thing was going on then—it’s just gotten more high tech and sophisticated.
Devo was inspired to explore the legendary brown sound [a synthesized sound that makes you shit yourself—ed.] from a secret pamphlet leaked to the Students for a Democratic Society detailing police use of possible sonic weaponry, right? You were in the leaking game since day one.
They were definitely—the government was experimenting with subsonic frequencies that would render the crowd basically incontinent, nauseous, shitting, vomiting—you were ineffective. You could no longer function.
And that attracted you as a musician?
Every artist’s dream: provoking uncontrollable shitting.
In the right song, yeah.
So the Hardcore Devo release covers music recorded from 1974 to 1977. What was a typical Devo work day like in 1974?
Of course I always had a day job. And much of the time so did Bob Mothersbaugh. And at the time, Bob Casale was working at—I can’t remember what hospital as a radiologist. When Bob Mothersbaugh and I would get done … we shared a rented house together, a beat up nasty old Akron house in the West End. Everything was set up in the basement. So we would start playing and working on whatever we had been working on until Bob Casale would show up. Alan intermittently had stuff to do or not, so sometimes he wasn’t even there, and the trick was trying to get Mark to come over. Cuz he—it wasn’t a priority for him. He was into it, but he was doing lots of other things. It would get going at 6 or 7 o’ clock and go into the 12, 1, 2 o’ clock in the morning with a short break for some crappy fast food.
What was your crap food of choice?
We didn’t have big choices in Akron. Either a hamburger or a hot dog. So if we got really lucky somebody had a car that worked and we’d drive over to Skyway and get the best burger in Akron.
Did you not have access to tacos?
No, there were no tacos in 1974 in Akron.
What was the actual room that birthed these songs like? I picture something between a bomb shelter and a crashed space ship.
There were two main places where all these songs occurred: one was the basement at Fairfield. You’d walk down all these basement steps into a concrete floor and cinderblock walls and there was a huge gas heater and a water heater next to it and we’d be playing behind the stairs cuz the stairs would come right down in the middle of the room. The most room you had was between the stairs and the back wall. The other place was a bigger house that Bob and I shared and that had a bigger basement. That was plush. That was in the Firestone area where they had built bigger homes and at one time it had been the plush area and it had deteriorated by the 70s but a friend whose parents were rich—it was one of their rental properties so he rented it to us for a pretty fair price. You could see the house had once been upper middle class. It was beaten up and weather-worn but the basement had two rooms. One I used as an art studio and the other room had a tiled floor and was big enough for a whole band to set up. We did a lot of stuff there from 76-77—that’s where we did most of the stuff. The only other place we did things was in Mark’s one-room apartment in his father’s building his father owned. Mark lived in one of the apartments free because his dad gave it to him as long as he would quote ‘manage’ the apartment building. Having Mark as a manager must have been a pretty scary thing to these old people. Believe me, his priority wasn’t the pipes. Let’s just say that things didn’t get done in a timely fashion.
What was the bond between your family and Mark’s family? I look at the credits to this and it’s basically two sets of brothers—that seems like a rare meeting of sympathetic characters.
I think when you’re that much of an outsider and you stick out like that, you don’t have a big pool of people to choose from who share your ideas. Mark and I were able to talk our brothers into joining because … you understand each other because you grew up together. When we’re asking people to play strange parts, most people would say, ‘Fuck you.’ But Bob and Bob didn’t. I mean—Bob was a great guitarist but he would use his technique and then twist it. And Bob Casale was a competent rhythm guitar player and he could play keyboards and he was amenable to experimentation as well. And Jim Mothersbaugh, the first person that drummed for Devo, was basically a techie egghead and he created his own electronic drums. They were all Remo practice heads that were all amplified with contacts that went back to a central mixing unit and a pre-amp and came out of speakers, and he had the whole thing mounted on a B-shaped chrome industrial drum stand that I helped him design. He had it made with a Midas muffler. He took it and had it chromed. Little bit of NASCAR and hot rod with high tech nerds.
Now this especially disturbing photo of you in the masks that comes with the reissue—is this a day off? You and Mark just hanging out, wearing some masks?
Masks were often used. Mark and I would go to the store and buy masks all the time. They were just part of the Ohio experience. Every day was Halloween for us. Everyone loved the masks. And they really freaked everybody else out. Without getting analytical about it—because we weren’t then—obviously a mask is a powerful tool cause it has a persona and you’re also hiding behind it and you’re able to do things you can’t do when the mask is off.
And now they’ve criminalized masks at protests.
Pretty much. All of society has gotten more and more paranoid and less and less free. Ginger Baker would still be in jail for the cover of the Blind Faith record because he photographed his daughter holding a foam airplane and she was twelve and topless. That would do it in modern society. Masks now are pretty much synonymous with armed robbery and terrorism. It wasn’t like that then. Society was a lot more innocent and naïve and open and it wasn’t so organized. Mark and I would go to restaurants with those masks on just role playing and people didn’t appreciate it—they’d look disgusted or whatever—but no cops came. I would wear this full gorilla mask and he had the Booji Boy head and he’d talk … like he had developed the Booji Boy voice and asked for everything to be chopped up so he could suck it through a straw because the mouth just had a hole in it. And they’d serve him a milk shake, but they wouldn’t put a steak in a blender.
What you were saying about society being more innocent—I feel like the tipping point came between 1974 and 1977. Right when Devo started.
Exactly. Devo already existed when [Nixon] resigned but it was more or less an art concept and a musical application of the Devo ideas about philosophy of De-evolution. That was just beginning when he resigned. We had played as an art group called Sextet Devo at the university once before he resigned. People had no idea what it was or what they were listening to. They were anywhere from horrified to bored.
Is that where you guys started? Between horror and indifference?
Yeah—I mean we really started getting fuel for our creative fire when we started playing the Crypt and a few other places like Eagle Street Saloon and we were getting full cans of beer thrown at us. Screamed at. Threatened. Then we really thought we were on to something. We were getting really really energized.
How come you guys never chickened out? A lot of people would use that as fuel to get a degree in accounting and never touch an instrument again.
It’s a function of that time and place. Culturally it was such a horrible place. There was such an inhospitable atmosphere for anybody that was creative. If you could imitate exactly what was being done—cover bands were revered. Still lives with pretty birds were revered. But any originality, anybody who had something different or if they were not fitting in—they were hated. But you were so used to that, even from pre-adolescence. And the people disapproving of you were such awful people—whether they were teachers or nuns or police or the jocks at school, it was just one kind of amalgam of illegitimate asshole people so for me. And my personality, it was like ‘OK—this is war.’ There was just no way I was going to chicken out. I didn’t chicken out.
What was the first time one of your creative acts provoked a response from the police?
The first one was as a senior in high school. To avoid getting beaten up and to find a way to gain immunity from jocks I had two talents. I could draw. So they would want me to draw hot rods or naked girls. And I could write parodies of like pop songs—like dirty lyrics to Beatles songs—
Give me an example?
Like … ‘She eats you/you know that can’t be bad/when she bites you/you know that makes you mad/yeah yeah yeah/I saw her yesterday/she was laying on the floor/she had a big one in her mouth and she was mumbling for more/she said she’d eat you/you know that can’t be bad/but when she bites you/damn that makes you mad/yeah yeah yeah.’ That got me out of getting beat up.
I suddenly feel like I know where a lot of Hardcore Devo came from.
So by that point we had a cogent rationalization or manifesto and I truly knew on purpose we were embracing transgressive things and stupid low culture—but we did that on purpose and mixed that with quote ‘fine art.’ We were fans of dada and surrealism and German expressionist theater and we knew of it all—the Bauhaus from art history classes. This was at college we learned about this. But in high school—because I could sing at that time and I played harmonica—they put me in charge of the entertainment for the final assembly for the senior class. Four members of the football team had been kicked off the team mid-season for drinking beer and it caused us to have a terrible record that season. And I went to these guys and I got some people from the high school band and I don’t know how this happened but I practiced ‘Rainy Day Women # 35’ by Bob Dylan. We did an arrangement with members of the band, with a tuba and everything, and I bought a bunch of near-beer and I had a keg on stage halfway through the song the guys that got kicked off the team came up and I started pouring them near-beer. The teachers in the assembly were freaking. When the song was over they ran up, and we were saying, ‘It’s not real beer, it’s near-beer, it’s near-beer!’ and they didn’t care. I was asked to leave. I couldn’t attend my own graduation. Had to get my diploma in the mail. Four years later that would be repeated because I was a member of SDS, and once the [Kent State] killings happened and the campus closed, any student who was a member of a quote ‘radical or antiwar’ group was barred from participating in graduation. Once again I got my diploma in the mail in 1970. And I was arrested for putting up posters for Devo in 1974 in downtown Kent when we played JB’s. My dad had to come and get me out of jail.
So nobody even wanted to meet you halfway. No ‘wow, seems like these guys have got a lot of creative energy.’ Instead, once you’re off the beaten track, screw you. You’re never getting back in.
That’s right. Society is getting more and more like that. Corporate. Kind of like medieval times with the castle and you work for the king and then the drawbridge goes up. Either you’re working for Google or you’re on the street.
At what point did you realize this was bigger than you had ever thought? You once had an interview where you said that artists don’t always realize how they can get swept up in giant cultural forces. At one point you mentioned that 2013 seemed like bad sci-fi to 1975. When was the true horror of de-evolution revealed to you?
It’s been a series of kicks in the face. But when Reagan became president we realized ‘oh shit.’ He empowered the religious right to become a political force. It stopped being just hillbilly evangelists and started being frightening. That was definitely a big leap. Then I guess nothing really –just more of the same. Just a slow creep until 2001, and then it was like, ‘Wow. This is a big leap. This is it.’ You know that Cheney and Bush and the neocons did a big jig when the planes hit the tower. This is exactly what they wanted once and for all—to get rid of these silly notions of democracy and institute this corporate-controlled centrist state and the erosion of 1st Amendment rights which they’ve hated since the Vietnam war. These were the guys that were supposedly on the wrong side of history back in Vietnam and now they’re all in power. It was Biblical and it was over. It is over. That was it. Obama is more sophisticated and nuanced and puts a much better happy corporate face on all the policies that began then and just runs with it.
As each generation comes along, they grow up with this as normal—there are kids who read this magazine who’ve never known anything different. So to put this succinctly—what is gone now? What don’t we even know we lost?
There were real issues. There was a real civil war culturally. The people who were for decentralization and individuality lost. It’s over. You have a population who doesn’t even know what the framers said. They don’t even understand the branches of government or why something is unconstitutional. They don’t have respect for the ideas that made us who we were. We are not that society anymore. Democracy is over. It’s gone. So doublethink and duplicity is just accepted as the foundation by which we live and that’s why kids prefer the news from Jon Stewart—cuz what’s the difference between Fox News and The Onion?
Is that what it comes down to? You get to pick the humor instead of the horror?
Our humor was always based on gallows humor. We could only laugh at the horror otherwise you’ll become homicidal.
By the way, we’re talking on Skype now. This is not a secure conversation. You’re wrecking my NSA file.
My point of view is well documented and expounded upon by people a lot smarter than myself so it’s not like anything I’m saying here is an original idea.
There’s a Kurt Vonnegut essay where he’s talking about how he’s been watching all the same things happen. And he says the reason he thinks its wrong is because he took a sixth grade civics class and got an A+ and believed every word they taught him, and he never forgot it.
That’s the problem right there. Smart people remember. It’s horrible because that’s what happened to us. ‘You said!’ And now we have a society where it’s like, ‘No, that was last week when we said that. Now it’s different.’ I think it’s Animal Farm where the rules on the side of the barn keep changing and the horses point it out and the sheep go, ‘You don’t remember that. It always said that.’ That’s really the society we live in.
Is there any kind of innocence in Hardcore Devo? What do you think when you listen to these songs now?
Definitely. I realize how much fun we were having. We were actually having a lot of fun. Didn’t realize it at the time. When you’re young and watching the lies and the hypocrisy you have a really thin skin and everything is a brand new experience—especially the first time you get hit across the head. So it’s only looking back that I realize how naïve and idealistic and how much fun we were having.
Back in the early days, you’d pose as Devo’s ‘manager’ and talk the band into getting out into the world. Can you give me the spiel you used to give back then? What were your best lies for Devo?
I didn’t have to say much. I think my best performance was when I went to Alan Betrock of the New York Rocker magazine—I wore dress navy blue pants and a navy blue V-neck sweater, a white button down collar Brooks Brothers shirt, and I said I was Devo’s manager, Jerry. They didn’t pay attention to who was in the band. It was just guys in costumes—they didn’t recognize people. And I said, ‘We’re about to go to the West Coast and we think we got a deal with A & M Records and I’d like you to do an article on us before we get big.’ And he liked the film and he wrote up a glowing thing and I took that to CBGB’s and Max’s and they booked us. It wasn’t ever dishonest—just spinning what was real and making it seem even more.
I always thought Devo knew very well how to perform what people needed to see and hear from you.
I think you learn early on—when you live in terror of authoritarian parents and teachers, cops, you become kind of like Eddie Haskell. Except not for evil, for good—to protect your ass and get done what you need to get done. That’s how we even got locations for the still shoot and the video that became ‘The Truth about De-Evolution.’ I went in and said that I was in a fraternity and we were doing a prank for our class project and that’s what they thought they were letting us shoot—a fraternity prank. And I sometimes would say we were a cover band—that was the biggest lie.
It seems like Devo came in contact with the outside world in 1977. That’s when you started leaving Ohio more routinely. How did you get ready for the shit storm that you must have known would come?
Nobody gave a shit about us for so long that we had a long gestation period. Not only for our stage presence and our ability to play, but also our taking points and the attitude were all worked out.
How did you come up with that? Did you call them ‘talking points’ at the time?
No, there was no such word back then that we knew about. We called it our manifesto. I don’t think it was completely worked out. It was a work in progress and I think the initial interviews and contacts were a lot rougher: ‘Here’s what they’re going to try to do to you.’ So we were ready. And you can’t make fun of us cause we make fun of ourselves.
One of the first efforts to get out of Ohio was when you and mark drove out to L.A. with the demos I think must be on Hardcore Devo to try and get … Joe Walsh from the Eagles to help you get a record deal. What made that seem like a good idea? And what did Joe think when you put these tapes in his hands?
That was just so simple minded. We’d all known him, and now he was successful, and he was going to help his fellow artists from his hometown. It was fantastic. It was just surreal. He already had a lot of money and was thoroughly into coke and hash and whatever else. We go up to this house in the hills and he’s got a bunch of long haired friends around him and they’re all looking at us like, ‘Who the fuck are these idiots?’ And Joe is acting kind of embarrassed because there we are! Short hair, black shirts and black pants we’d already come up with. They’re snickering in the other room as we were playing these songs—I know we played him ‘Can You Take It.’ Then he said he had ‘things he had to do tonight’ and he walked us out and said, ‘Smell the eucalyptus trees?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, that’s what that is!’And he said, ‘If you be quiet, you can hear the hoot owl.’ And we were like … what the hell? Then he put his arms around us and said, ‘Go back and keep doing what you’re doing.’
But you did! You took his advice! We have four years on these LPs. How much of this came before any concept of making a record, and how much was prepared as an actual demo? Does it change as we listen through?
I suppose if you get to 77 there’s self-concsciousness but before that, absolutely not. We were just unfiltered. Anything we could think of we could do. Nobody would say, ‘We better not do that, that’s not cool.’ If someone outside the group said something wasn’t cool, we were going to do it even more.
What’s an example? ‘Midget’?
Yeah—really politically incorrect stuff like ‘Midget’ and ‘Buttered Beauties’ and ‘My Fraulein Done Told Me.’
Did you ever think any of this was going to come out on a label?
Weren’t even thinking about it.
What was the point of recording it?
Because we were serious! We were artists! Making evolved music!
Is there anything you were wrong about? Something you can look back on and be like, ‘Well, it could have been worse!’
I suppose it always can be worse, can’t it? We did think that by now that some rogue group would set off an A-bomb. We thought that would happen years ago.
So the answer is: ‘At least there hasn’t been atomic terrorism yet!’
In the liners to Hardcore Devo, Henry Rollins exhorts us to behold the truth contained within—what’s the truth about Hardcore Devo?
I like that. He’s putting it tongue and cheek—all the conspiracy theorists and all the propagandists and all the Armageddon people—nobody knows what the truth is, and THAT’S the truth. Humans are psychotic and the truth—we have no idea what we’re talking about and we talk about it as if we do. And that’s what Devo’s point was. We’re partly ashamed to be part of the species but we’re all Devo and we didn’t exempt ourselves. If you know you don’t know, there’s a lot of things you just won’t do. People do the worst things they do in the world when they think they know.