Reproduced from Punk Torrents - submission by The Balding One
Devo Is Dead. Long Live Devo.
It's the final night of Devo's latest reunion tour, and keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh and his bandmates are jumping around the stage in identical yellow radiation suits and crimson flowerpot headgear. One of the weirdest groups to rise from the ashes of punk rock, Devo racked up one major hit - the MTV smash "Whip It" - in 1980 and has performed sporadically in the 15 years since its last proper album. But to the audience at the LA-area Canyon Club, the band is as relevant as ever. "How many of you believe devolution is real?" bellows singer Gerald Casale as the quintet prepares to launch into another song. "It's certainly more believable than intelligent design!"
Devo was always as much an art project as a rock band, and devolution was its core concept: the notion that society is becoming less, rather than more, intelligent. The group, which started out in Akron, Ohio, backed up this proposition with pseudoscientific explanations, including mutation, nuclear radiation, and the legacy of mankind's origins in the cannibalistic brain-eating rituals of prehistoric apes. These tales gave the band's albums and videos a satirical edge. But they were also an outlandish way to make sense of the political and cultural chaos Mothersbaugh and Casale saw as students at Kent State University, where National Guardsmen killed four student protestors in 1970. "We wanted to describe what was going on around us, and it wasn't evolution," he says.
Today, the attitude of ironic subversion the group pioneered pervades the cultural landscape, from U2's PopMart tour to the icon-obsessed art of Takashi Murakami. Mutants, malformed and misunderstood, populate blockbuster movies like X-Men. The presentation of rock bands as faceless brands, which Devo lampooned in its costumes and robotic sound, has reached its commercial apex in the cartoon hip hop ensemble the Gorillaz.
In short, the world Devo propounded is all around us, and Mothersbaugh, 55, is providing the soundtrack. Over the past 15 years, he has scored nearly two dozen movies, including Lords of Dogtown, Herbie: Fully Loaded, and Wes Anderson films like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums. He has supplied the music for more than three dozen television shows, not to mention nearly 100 TV commercials for household names like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike, and Toyota. His latest gig is scoring Big Love, HBO's new series about a polygamous family.
At the same time, Mothersbaugh is reviving the visual arts career he put on hold to become a rock star. In 2007, Cal State Fullerton will exhibit Beautiful Mutants, his series of manipulated photographs, with a full-scale retrospective to follow.
Even his band is flush with renewal. It recently extended the brand, helping Disney launch Devo 2.0, an ensemble of 10- to 13-year-old kids who sing Devo classics. Is it evolution or devolution that a band once considered too odd for radio is the latest offering from one of the largest media companies on the planet?
The Sunset Boulevard office of Mothersbaugh's production company, Mutato Muzika, looks like the set of a '50s sci-fi flick - or maybe an '80s Devo video. The building, designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, is a lime-green concrete saucer. Inside, the receptionist's desk has bicycle wheels for legs, and the hallways are cluttered with old synthesizers, custom guitars, and a battered electric harpsichord. Employees' children and small dogs have the run of the place. In the central studio, a pug trots in and jumps up on the couch, wheezing loudly. "Ooh," Mothersbaugh coos, looking into the dog's eyes like a worried parent. "Do you have a hair ball?"
The Devo tour is over, and Mothersbaugh has traded his hazmat suit for a bright print shirt and settled back into the West Hollywood home he shares with his wife and newly adopted daughter. As he talks, he peers through the thick, black-rimmed glasses that have been his trademark since the Akron days.
Mothersbaugh started making music for television after Devo peaked and began to peter out. In 1986, Paul Reubens, star of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, asked him to write the show's theme song. He quickly discovered that composing soundtracks required a different sensibility than playing with a band - especially for television commercials, where an ad agency's creative director wields more power than a record company executive. But there were compensations: Scoring opened a new palette of creative opportunities.
"On one level, pop music is incredibly boring," he says. "What are the chances that you could do something in five-four time that goes to three-four, then stops and kicks in at three times the speed?"
Mothersbaugh conceived Mutato Muzika as a nom de compositeur so potential clients wouldn't think he was limited to writing Devo-style songs. In essence, he mutated himself to adapt to the new environment. "The idea behind the name, the mutant part of it, is about reinventing myself," he says.
In Devo's heyday, Mothersbaugh and Casale wrote many of their songs only after they had come up with a concept for the video. This talent for thinking visually endears Mothersbaugh to filmmakers like Catherine Hardwicke, for whom he scored Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. A disturbing drama about a young girl who grows up too quickly, Thirteen was so heavy, Hardwicke says, that it needed a composer "who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings," someone capable of conveying emotion without melodrama. In the first scene, the main character and her friend are sitting in a bedroom, getting high on computer cleaner. "One of the girls says, 'I can hear my brain cells popping.' So I said to Mark, 'Can you make the music sound like brain cells popping?' He used this driving guitar to amp up the tension as you start to understand what the girls are doing." As the two kids literally get dumber, the action and music convey the essence of devolution in a compact cinematic statement.
Much of Mothersbaugh's most inventive work appears in the movies of Wes Anderson. The director is obsessed with music, and the two often spend hours together listening to stylistic models before Mothersbaugh composes a note. For Rushmore, it was the baroque strains of Vivaldi; for The Royal Tenenbaums, French impressionists like Debussy. These days, they're listening to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in preparation for Anderson's next production, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. "It's a dark story," Mothersbaugh says. "There's a lot of flesh eating involved."
Mothersbaugh's most striking soundtrack is the music for The Life Aquatic. One of his favorite moments comes when Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-like character who's down on his luck, shows a young man who might be his long-lost son around his boat. The music swells - along with, one imagines, the oceanographer's pride. "The guy has fallen on hard times, but he's talking about his dreams," Mothersbaugh observes. "You can see he's proud of it."
The ability to express empathy through music might be unexpected in someone who once made a career of mocking contemporary society. Yet that's one of the qualities directors most value in Mothersbaugh's scores. "Mark gets into the heart of the picture and puts forward the spirit we want to emphasize," says Randall Poster, music supervisor for most of Anderson's films. This gives his work a chameleon-like quality; there's no distinctive Mothersbaugh sound. At the same time, his ability to relate to diverse characters gives him the range to score everything from kids' shows like Rugrats to quirky family dramas like Big Love.
Whenever there's a lull at Mutato, Mothersbaugh retreats to his office to draw. He studied art before he formed Devo, and he has never stopped sketching. In fact, he has made several drawings a day for the past 30 years, mostly cartoonish illustrations scrawled on top of vintage postcards. Called Postcard Diaries, these informal works have attracted attention beyond the ranks of music fans, even turning the heads of prominent art critics. "I find his art interesting and challenging," says Carlo McCormick, who has written for Artforum. "His interest in mutants and this kind of freakiness is a great language for people to express their otherness, their alienation from society, and their connection to this sense of difference," McCormick says. "He has all the formal technique, but he doesn't keep up on contemporary art, so he's not absorbing and recycling all the same influences so many other artists are."
Mothersbaugh is currently preparing for the Cal State Fullerton show of his Beautiful Mutants series. In a small basement room adjoining a storage space filled with vintage synthesizers, he shows me a stack of 19th-century daguerreotypes, mostly portraits. He started out using a camera and mirror to make the two sides of a face utterly - and unsettlingly - symmetrical. Now, with Photoshop, he can alter the images in a variety of ways.
The subjects of the photos seem to be deformed by forces beyond their control - accidental irradiation? genetic modification? - yet they remain human enough to evoke a viewer's sympathy. They seem to be pulled between exalting in their difference and wanting to fit in, not unlike characters from a Devo song or, for that matter, a Wes Anderson film.
"It's a sophomoric exercise," Mothersbaugh admits, "but I like it."
Devo never really broke up, and it has been performing more frequently in the past three years. Mothersbaugh enjoys playing with the group, but he doesn't want to record a new album without a fresh concept. One idea: a music-videogame hybrid. Meanwhile, Mothersbaugh is working on an independent project he informally calls Butt Pong - a low-brow Pong knockoff with scatological graphics and sound.
Ironically, the perfect idea to revitalize Devo came from Disney. Devo 2.0 is a CD-and-DVD collection of the band's most familiar songs plus two new ones sung by a group of mediagenic tweens. The studio hired Devo to play the backing tracks and Gerald Casale to direct the videos.
Years ago, Mothersbaugh says, he imagined dressing up other people as Devo. The band was purposefully anonymous, he figured, so why not call in a replacement crew? Devo 2.0 updates the idea for a new generation. "It could be an interesting new way to look at Devo," he reflects. "Or it could be really stupid."
Either way, Mothersbaugh isn't waiting to find out what people think. He's too busy listening to operettas with Anderson and scoring weekly episodes of Big Love. In a devolving world, Mark Mothersbaugh has found a path forward.