Devo plans to release its first new studio album in 20 years in 2010, but the band that’s touring now is rooted firmly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Four original members, plus a younger drummer (Josh Freese), are revisiting their two most noteworthy albums, both just rereleased by Warner Brothers. First is the taut, guitar-driven debut, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” (1978), perhaps best known for the herky-jerky cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Then, the philosophy-minded new wavers exchange their yellow jumpsuits for red Energy Domes to perform their synth-happy commercial breakthrough, “Freedom of Choice” (1980), which spawned the band’s signature hit, “Whip It.”
Singer/songwriter/keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh, a prolific soundtrack composer (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “Rugrats,” most of Wes Anderson’s films), said he wasn’t keen on the idea of performing entire albums until the band re-created “Are We Not Men?” at an All Tomorrow’s Parties concert in London in May.
“I just totally wasn’t convinced when we rehearsed it, and then we played it, and then all of a sudden I started thinking, I could think of about 50 bands I would love to go hear them play their first album,” Mothersbaugh said on the phone from Los Angeles, where the band was kicking off its tour.
Here are some highlights of our conversation:
Why he makes no apologies for these shows being rooted in the past: “I remember playing at Inland Invasion in Southern California a few years ago, and they lumped together a bunch of people that were, for lack of a better term, ‘80s bands. So we were on the same bill with Blondie and Flock of Seabutts (sic) and Billy Idol, and I kind of really wanted to see Billy Idol, and he came out, and he played ‘Rebel Yell’ and something else, and everybody was going crazy, and then he said, ‘And now here’s the new album!’ And then everybody kind of went ‘whoaaaaa’ and had to listen to like 2005 or 2006 versions of what Billy Idol was up to.
And honestly I wasn’t that interested in what he was up to. I felt like he represented a specific time, and that made his new stuff not as resonant or relevant to myself and apparently other people in the audience.”
The show’s format: “It’s short and sweet. We show some films first, from the day. And then come out and play the album starting on Side 1, Track 1, and play Side 1 of the record, immediately flip it over and play Side 2 without any interruptions. We do an encore with a couple of later songs just to kind of help ease the pain of albums (being) 35 minutes, 40 minutes long.”
On trying to stay true to the original recordings: “I’m trying to get back into that kind of eunuchy chipmunky sound I used to have. My voice is lower now just in general. Puberty finally set in.”
On whether he thinks “Are We Not Men?” and “Freedom of Choice” are Devo’s best two albums: “‘Devo: EZ Listening Muzak’ is my favorite album.”
Producer Brian Eno’s greatest contribution to “Are We Not Men?”: “The best thing he did was in ‘Jocko Homo’: He took Balinese monkey chanters and started this kind of contra rhythm where the music breaks down after the third verse, and I’m ranting, ‘Are we not men?’ and then the guys are answering, ‘We are Devo!’ ...We tried to include it in the live show for a while, but it was too hard.”
Whether “Freedom of Choice” was a conscious pop move: “We thought we were doing Devo’s version of an R&B record. We liked stuff like the Ohio Players and wanted to get a little bit of that into our sound. ... I mean, you know, how R&B is Devo going to sound?”
Whether the band knew “Whip It” would be a big hit: “No, we thought ‘Girl U Want’ was a hit. We thought that was a great song.”
On Pearl Jam’s live cover of “Whip It” on Halloween: “I haven’t seen it yet. About six months ago I had dinner with a couple of the guys, and we talked about doing a Christmas ‘45,’ because I guess they do one every year.
They said, ‘Hey, what if we put a Pearl Jam Christmas song on one side and a Devo Christmas song on the other side?’ I don’t know. I’m scared of the Nativity, so I’ve kind of pushed it out of my mind. But who knows, maybe next year for Halloween, Devo will go as Pearl Jam.”
Why “Freedom of Choice” has “a double-edged reputation” with the band: “Warner Brothers, when they hired us, they already had like Captain Beefheart and Wild Man Fischer and Frank Zappa and other people that didn’t make any money but were cool art-credibility kind of artists. So they added Devo to that stack. And we always stayed in the black, but we never made them millions of dollars. So once we made them eight figures, then that changed everything for them. Then on our fourth album (“New Traditionalists”), it was like the president of Warner Brothers showed up in the studio, kind of startled us because everybody had left us alone in the past, and he showed up, and he goes, ‘Hey, need some help mixing any of this stuff ?’ We’re like, ‘Be my guest.’ And he’d sit there and play with faders for a while and then not know what to do and then leave and say, ‘OK, do whatever you guys want to do. Just do another ‘Whip It.’”
Which show he’d recommend for someone who could see only one: “I’d have a hard time choosing because ‘Are We Not Men?’ has a lot more crazy monster energy, like nihilistic and punky and really representative of a late ‘70s kind of sound. But ‘Freedom of Choice’ sounds really good, and it sounds like the forerunner of a lot of that kind of more electronic music that’s happening now. If you go to only that show, you would have a whole different idea of what Devo was and is than if you went to the other show.”