Don’t call it a comeback. The members of Devo instead see their current reincarnation as a sign that the rest of the music industry — and maybe even all of mankind — finally is coming around to their futuristic way of thinking.
“We think now might be Devo’s time, or so we’re hoping,” said Mark Mothersbaugh, primary singer and co-leader of the Ohio art-rock band.
Hardly a boastful statement, Mothersbaugh made this comment while talking about the broken state of the record business and the idea that human evolution has gone in reverse (“de-evolution”), two cornerstone themes of the group’s quirky, plastic-topped 1977-82 heyday. Two weeks ago, the “Whip It” hitmakers issued their first album in 20 years.
Talking by phone from his West Hollywood, Calif., studio — where he has scored Wes Anderson movies and many TV clips in recent years — Mothersbaugh said he hasn’t missed life in a rock band.
“Our last label, Enigma Records, was like a crashing airliner, where the owners of the company were looting it before it hit the ground,” he said. “After that, I thought, ‘Shame on me if I do it again.’”
However, Mothersbaugh said he and his bandmates — including co-leader Gerald Casale and their respective brothers (both named Bob) — saw opportunity amid the rubble.
“The implosion of the record industry was a big factor. We grappled with the industry the first time around, but now it gave us this glimmer of hope that we could do something new and interesting instead of being pontificated to by people that controlled the faucet.”
“Interesting,” in Devo terms, is always a loaded word. The band’s new album, “Something for Everyone,” was accompanied by an ingenious and madcap marketing campaign. The band convinced Warner Bros. (Devo’s former and current label) to hire an outside advertising firm to help roll out the album. “And that’s when we thought we could have fun,” the singer said.
The ad firm, Mother (which also works for Target), adopted an ultra-corporate approach that was so over-the-top, it suited the band’s ironic flavor. Among the tactics was a “Song Study,” in which focus groups and online polls picked the final list of 12 tracks on “Something for Everyone.” There was also a hilarious “Color Study” that’s still online (http://colorstudy.clubdevo.com/). More serious marketing work included streaming the album at “The Colbert Report” website and lining up a gig at the Winter Olympics.
“These are things that make us laugh,” Mothersbaugh explained. “But at the same time, 500 albums came out the week our album came out. How does somebody get noticed in all that?”
“I was all set for something like, if the focus group said they didn’t like vocals, that somebody like Adam Lambert would sing these songs. I already talked to (Casale) and said, ‘I’ll call him.’ But unfortunately nobody suggested that to us.”
In the 20 years since its last album, Devo actually has become more mainstream, thanks to the widespread use of its music in TV commercials. “Whip It” alone as been adapted to shill for Taco Bell, Twix, Pringles and Swiffer sweepers (“Swiff it!”).
While clearly an easy way to make money off the band’s catalog, Mothersbaugh said the commercials tied into the de-evolutionary philosophy that defined Devo since its inception in the aftermath of the 1970 shootings at Kent State University, where the band was formed.
“After the shootings, we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t through rebellion or anarchy that you were going to change the world, but rather through subversion,” he said. “And who is more subversive than Madison Avenue? No one. They can make you buy all sorts of crap that you shouldn’t buy, and they can make you do and think things you shouldn’t do and think. We all started paying attention to Madison Ave. right then and there, and wanted to employ their techniques.”
No one outside of the band was more integral to Devo’s subversive early techniques than Chuck Statler, a Minnesota-based filmmaker who attended Kent State with Mothersbaugh and Casale.
The group was more or less calling it quits in 1976 when Statler urged them to document their work on film, a project that went on to become the groundbreaking short “The Truth About De-Evolution,” that not only put Devo on the map but is also widely considered a blueprint for MTV. Statler went on to direct most of Devo’s iconic clips, and he helmed other ‘80s videos by the Cars, Elvis Costello and more.
“Chuck’s role in Devo should not be underrated,” Mothersbaugh confirmed. “He was the only one of us who took film classes and actually knew how to put a film together, which obviously was huge for us.”
“I still remember the day Chuck came over, and he had a Popular Science magazine with this married couple on the front, all smiley. They’re holding up what looks like an LP. It said, ‘Laserdiscs: Everybody will have them for Christmas.’ That’s when we decided to do what we do. We wanted to be artists working in sound and vision. We knew that conventional rock ‘n’ roll was going to be dead in a year or so.”
Statler, 66, long has downplayed his Devo duties. Instead, he praised the band’s co-leaders as “two very creative individuals who deserve a lot of credit for making their mark without a lot of help from a record label or anyone else.”
Statler is shopping around an in-the-works film on bands “whose concept goes well beyond the music,” he said, including Melt Banana, the Locust, Har Mar Superstar and — guess who? — Devo. While attending the Turbo Fruits’ concert in Minneapolis last month, Statler overheard younger fans talking enthusiastically about Devo’s upcoming gig here.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Statler said. “Those guys were ahead of their time, so in some ways they might be more relevant to today.”
“Something for Everyone” manages to sound both modern and like classic Devo. Songs such as the opener, “Fresh,” and “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” — all focus-group approved tracks, mind you — fit in alongside LCD Soundsystem or other hot bands with jittery, hyper beats, whirring synthesizers and robotic vocals.
Mothersbaugh thinks Devo’s timeliness goes far deeper than the music, though.
“Things have devolved in this world so rapidly over the last 20 years,” he said, pointing to Mike Judge’s 2006 cult movie about our dumbed-down future, “Idiocracy,” as an update of Devo’s original thesis on human de-evolution.
“We’re kind of living it. Now instead of people saying angrily, ‘What do you mean, we’re devolving?! What do you mean we’re going backwards?!,’ people get it now. I think it’s a good time for Devo to reiterate that we must choose our mutations carefully.”
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