Ostrich Ink. DEVO will perform Freedom Of Choice at the Fonda tonight." /> L.A. Record


November 4th, 2009 | Interviews

nathan morse

Stream: Devo “Planet Earth”


(from Freedom of Choice reissued now on Warner)

The world is now a DEVO song, and so Warner has just reissued two vital early DEVO albums barely containing some of the most annihilating reality ever twined into vinyl. And so L.A. RECORD’s Dan Collins reissues this vintage interview with Mark Mothersbaugh from the archives of the defunct Ostrich Ink. DEVO will perform Freedom Of Choice at the Fonda tonight.

You and the Residents were making videos so early—where do you think the idea came from?
Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals/synthesizers/etc.): A lot of that was owed to the time we grew up. Artists that we were interested in were people like Andy Warhol, who was a multimedia guy. He designed clothes and he silk-screened and he painted and he photographed and he produced bands, and he made movies and put out a magazine—you know, that guy’s so cool. That’s what I want to do. I like it because he’s about ideas rather than just being about an instrument or a technique—rather than an old-time craftsman. We really liked what he was doing. And other people like him that were multimedia artists. Chuck Statler, who Jerry and I had gone to school with at Kent State, had gone to Minneapolis while we were still kinda struggling in Akron. He came back and he had this Popular Science and it said, ‘Laserdiscs: The Wave of the Future.’ It’s 1974. We’re like, ‘Laserdiscs? What are those?’ ‘Well, it looks like a record, but it holds visual and audio information.’ And we thought, ‘Whoa—sound and vision! That’s great! That’s what the future is going to be. And rock ‘n’ roll—we can bury it once and for all!’ We were certain that sound and vision was going to kill rock ‘n’ roll and create a new art form. And the artists that would carry weight in the populace would be artists that thought visually. So he came back and said, ‘Let’s make a film.’ And we said, ‘We don’t have any money—how are we going to handle that?’ ‘I’m working in this company. I’m trying to do commercials now. I can get us free editing time and I can borrow a camera and all we have to do is come up with money for film.’ Our first seven-and-a-half-minute movie took about four months to do because we didn’t have money. But we made it for like three thousand dollars. General Boy was a lucky accident. What happened there was there was this lawyer that was a friend of ours—this young guy that was kind of an asshole yuppie guy.
Is he the one parodied in the in the later videos?
Mark Mothersbaugh: No—that’s other people that we liked much less. But this guy did us a favor because he said, ‘You know, I don’t think it’d be good for my reputation to be in this film you guys are making.’ Oh no—who’s gonna play General Boy? Because we’d written the script. And Jerry goes, ‘Mark, would your dad do it?’ ‘I don’t know. Let’s ask him.’ So we went and asked him, and he was like [in bold announcer voice] ‘WHY YEEES!’ At first he didn’t get the idea. But once he saw himself on screen, he like totally got the acting bug.
He’s a magnetic actor. He really is good.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah—some latent desire to be an artist that was thwarted by World War II and the Depression. He painted a bit and played music a bit, but he never really pursued it because he came from a family of coal miners. The idea of being an artist was like if he would have said, ‘Hey Mom! Dad! I’m gonna be a man from the moon!’ You know—they’d go, ‘Whut? Whut tha fuck yew tawkin’ about?’ He didn’t really pursue that at all. He wasn’t driven enough or obsessed enough to do it and just instead opted for survival. But he did good on his General Boy. Actually I remember on our first tour, we opened at a show in Minneapolis. We were playing at the Walker Arts Center. And one of the roadies—one of the security guards says, ‘There’s an old guy at the back door with an army outfit on and says he’s General Boy, and he wants to talk to you.’ And we’re like—he drove from Akron, Ohio, to Minneapolis? So my dad comes in and he goes, ‘Mark, I’ve got this opening speech I’ve written so I can introduce you boys.’ He was more DEVO than we could ever have been. He had his whole own perception of what DEVO meant—what devolution meant. And it was filtered through the eyes of a guy who’d been in World War II and who was a salesman who sold fire alarms and and vibrating pads and stuff like that. His schooling stopped with the Dale Carnegie book. You know—‘Look ‘em in the eyes! Give ‘em a handshake!’ ‘Make a friend and a sale at the same time.’ He was that kind of guy. So his take on it was kind of interesting. It kind of freaked us out a little bit, but at the same time we kept encouraging him, and he ended up writing lyrics for songs and stuff.
[Mark leaves, and comes back holding a banjo as the interview continues. Imagine the rest of the interview as if it were being accompanied by the strumming of an Appalachian mountain boy.]
Let’s talk about the whole DEVO ethos.
Mark Mothersbaugh: We were living in Ohio. From our vantage point, it was like being on a cultural wasteland. We heard about the Village in Manhattan. And we heard about Carnaby Street in London, or things in England and San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. We heard about all these places. And there was nothing happening in Ohio. It was the Summer of Hate while everyone else was having the Summer of Love. And we were just watching everything. Also at the time, the economy in Ohio had collapsed. It was one of those areas that got hit really hard during that depression that happened in the seventies and eighties. It was a factory town for the first sixty or seventy years. And then all those factories pulled out and went to Malaysia and South America, so there were these big draconian factories that weren’t employing very many people. Everybody was out of work. Nobody knew what to do. None of them were educated. They made tires, you know? It was a city full of blue-collar tire makers, and it was really a dark time. But yet there was all this promise. I remember going to the Akron Art Institute and I saw laser projected holograms where—for instance—there was a shark that was six feet long in one of the rooms, and you could walk around it. It was like five feet in the air. You could walk around it and look underneath it and look down its mouth and look at it from the back of the tail and look inside the gills. It was totally 3-D, but it was a ghost. You could put your hands through it. And at the time, I said, ‘You know what? I want whatever’s going on in technology. That’s where things are happening.’ And also at the time, there was no voice in music. There wasn’t a Bob Dylan, and there wasn’t a Woody Guthrie or anybody that was a conscience for youth. After they shot kids on different campuses in ’70, it’s like the country went into a big sleep. And all the really politically active people—who were protesting globalization, and America and fucking around with the politics of Southeast Asia, and the Cold War and things—they all stopped. They all just became quiet. And by ’73 or ’74, the, the music that you were hearing was disco and concert rock. The Eagles. Styx. There was nobody talking about the issues. And this was a time when things like the Cuyahoga River, which we lived on—there was all this white foam I remember always floating down. When I was I kid, we’d be swimming around. In the early seventies, the river caught on fire and stayed on fire for days—weeks!—before they got it put out. Because there were so many chemicals that companies all along the Cuyahoga River had been dumping into the river that were going into Lake Erie. And that’s when all the early alarmists were saying, ‘Wait a minute, you know—our ozone’s been fucked up, there’s global warming, you know? We’re drinking and eating chemicals that are poisonous, and nobody’s paying attention to all that.’ There were a few scientists and people that were trying to speak and they were getting shouted down by the same people that are right now building roads through pristine timberland and drilling for oil. We were mesmerized by the choices that humans were making at the time. By what people thought was important or precious. And it was before having a conscience was made almost embarrassing by people like Sting—jumping in a Lear Jet and flying down to the Amazon to tell pygmies that he was there to protect them or something, you know? They’re like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ So that’s part of this whole thing about where DEVO came from—it came from a lot of different sources. We were just looking for a way to describe what we saw going on. We saw this incredible technology fucking everything up. But we saw this stuff that looked and seemed amazing. And it should be doing great things. But the quality of life was deteriorating. So there was like a bunch of things that came together at once. The movie Island of Lost Souls, with the House of Pain—‘What is the Law? Not to walk on all fours, not to spill blood!’ And this Superwoman comic book, where this mad scientist had an evolution-devolution machine. He’d push the lever forward, and there was like this vacuum capsule. And there’d be a guy that was in there. When he pushed it forward, the guy’s head would blow up like a light bulb, and his hair would fall out, and he’d look like a progeria kid. And he’d pull it backwards, and then his brow would drop, and he’d get covered with hair, and he’d be like a caveman.
[Mark gets up out of his seat and grabs a black guitar amplifier nearby. He swings it around to reveal in white letters: ‘DEVOLUTIONARY ARMY.’]
Mark Mothersbaugh: This is an old amp from way back when. We called ourselves ‘The De-evolution Band’ for a while. And then we were the Devolutionary Army, and then we trimmed it down to DEVO. It was just easier to say and it was kind of like ‘Smart Patrol’—the song was originally ‘Smart Proletariats,’ but it just didn’t roll off your tongue. ‘Smart proletariats, nowhere to go!’
You also have a lot of sex imagery—it’s kind of novel in the Hardcore DEVO collections how many of the songs are devoted to really making sex look silly or gooey or messy, and it seems quite the opposite of what was going on in the seventies.
Mark Mothersbaugh: We just felt sex in America was still so Victorian, you know? A Planet of the Apes funky show-your-butt-party is much more interesting than the porno that was around at the time where two people meet on the tennis court. I think porno is like a weathervane for a culture, you know? The more interesting the porno, the more interesting the culture.
What about the covers of the Hardcore DEVO albums? You have some woman with fake breasts over her real breasts, and then they’ve got a picture of you guys.
Mark Mothersbaugh: And we all had fake breasts on, too. We couldn’t afford the real surgery at the time. There was this one photographer out here named Moshe Brakha who really played devil’s advocate—we got some of the best photos of DEVO ever during this photo session. There’s some shots from those photo shoots that nobody’s ever seen. Somewhere near the end of the photo shoot he pulled out this gigantic Nazi flag—I don’t even know where he got it—and he’s got us holding this Nazi flag for a few photos, and we’re like, ‘Whoa, what’s that about?’
How did you meet Brian Eno?
Mark Mothersbaugh: We were playing in New York that summer, and started to get kind of a following and we never got paid. But the shows would be crammed. They’d be totally filled with people. Our guest list would be like sixty or seventy people and they’d have everybody; there’d be like Jack Nicholson and all the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa’s band. ‘It’s alright with you if Frank Zappa listens to you play?’ ‘Sure!’ ‘Alright with you if Candy Clark is on your guest list?’ So Bowie came and saw us one night. We’d done some interviews and people said, ‘Who’d you like to have produce you guys?’ Of all the people I could think of, I thought it would either be David Bowie or Brian Eno. I liked their music, and I thought maybe they would understand what we were trying to do. David Bowie showed up one night and on the second set before we came out, he introduced us,and he goes [in a canned carny voice] ‘This is the band of the future! I am producing them in Tokyo this winter!’ And we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re sleeping in a car tonight—that sounds good to us!’ Then afterwards, he said, ‘Yeah, I really want to produce you guys. The only thing is, I’m up for this movie called Just a Gigolo. If I get it, I have to go to Berlin for a couple months. So that would push it off.’ And we go, ‘Well, we don’t even have anywhere to go when we leave here.’ We’re homeless, you know—we don’t know what we’re gonna be doing for those two months. The next week, we played again, and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno came. And they invited us over to Robert Fripp’s house. And he fed us. And they both said, ‘We would want to produce you guys if you were up for it.’ And we said, ‘Well, Brian, David Bowie last week said he was producing us in Tokyo!’ And Brian Eno starts going, ‘He’s full of shit.’ At the time I didn’t know that Brian Eno was kinda pissed at Bowie because he felt he didn’t get credited properly on Heroes. And Low. Brian Eno said, ‘Let’s just go right now. Don’t even worry about a record company. I’ll loan you the money. We’ll go over to Germany, at this studio I work at all the time—Conny Plank Studio.’ It’s the place where bands like Birth Control and Guru Guru and Kraftwerk and you know—Can, Moebius, Roedelius, they all recorded at that studio. ‘Sure, that’s great—you’re gonna pay for us to go to this?’ So he flew us over to Germany. David Bowie of course still wanted to be involved and showed up every day on the weekends and hung out with us, and then bickered with Eno.
What did all the German bands think of you?
Mark Mothersbaugh: While we were in Germany, I got a call from the band Kraftwerk and they said, ‘We’re gonna go on our first tour, and we would like to play your film.’ We only had one film at the time. The Truth About Deevolution. So in the spring of ’78, they took the DEVO movie as their opening act.
When did DEVO officially start?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Jerry and I first started writing music together in 1970. There wasn’t another band we were ever in together. We were only ever in DEVO. And in 1970 we were both Students for a Democratic Society. And my brother Bob, he used to come up to Kenton. At the time Bob and I were in this kind of acid-blues band and Jerry was in kind of a more of a straight-ahead blues band. They shot students at Kent State—we were protestors then—and they shot people. They closed down the school that spring. We were there. Jerry was standing right about ten feet away from one of the girls that got her—got blasted.
Did that change your perspective on what you should do with music?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, quite a bit.