Mark Simpson meets Mr Devo turned Mutato
(Details magazine, 1998)
Before the First World War, a bunch of Italian avant-gardistes called the Futurists, who didn’t get out much and got turned on by steam trains, thought technology offered the possibility of a revolution in human consciousness and believed that artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past, abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats.
Before the Third World War, a bunch of Ohion avant-gardistes called Devo, who didn’t get out much and who got turned on by pocket calculators, thought that technology offered the possibility of a de-evolution in human consciousness and believed artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past and abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats.
Apart from proving that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second time as pastiche, especially if you attend art history classes at Kent State University, the nerdy, cynical ’70s New Wave band Devo’s greatest achievement was to, quite simply, change the world. We are all Devo now. The ‘kooky’ blend of performance art, film, choreography, and music they pioneered mutated into MTV: nerds have come out of their bedrooms and knocked IBM into a cocked hat. Techno is everywhere, cynicism is a way of life and New Wave is back in vogue – verily the geeks have inherited the world.
However, Devo proved to be the embodiment of their own belief in the second law of thermodynamics – that everything is unravelling and cooling down. After the debut singles, the sublime ‘Mongoloid’ (1978) and the robotoid, sexless, ‘Satisfaction’ (1976), possibly the smartest, funniest, most blasphemous cover version in rock history – a kind of Mick Jagger for lab assistants – and two great albums, Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Freedom of Choice (1980), which attracted the attentions of Brian Eno and David Bowie, Devo petered out. Hastened by the huge and terrifying world-wide success of ‘Whip It!’ (1980). However, they went on to record another thirteen albums and toured up until the end of the eighties.
As so often happens when you change the world, the world turns out not to be so grateful or interested. Having accepted their fate back in 1990, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, the core members of Devo, are now Mutato Muzika, a factory producing music for TV shows, films and adverts, housed in an electric green flying saucer shaped building on Sunset Blvd where I am today, that used to be, appropriately enough, a plastic surgery hospital. Credits include Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, Liquid Television and ads for Coke, Nike, Microsoft and scores for films such as Johnny Mnemonic.
Nice work if you can get it, I’m sure, but isn’t this all a bit of a come-down for pop stars – let alone avant-garde ones?
‘Not at all,’ counters Mark Mothersbaugh, his face, which was always strangely middle-aged, now actually middle-aged, but contradicted by his stainless steel thick-rimmed glasses, sneakers, jeans and slightly intense, slightly shy, slightly adolescent demeanour. ‘We’re very lucky. What’s a better gig than being paid to write music and do artwork every day?’
In a way you’ve mutated yourselves into… ‘…what we always wanted to be,’ interrupts fast-talking Mark, who has a habit of finishing sentences for you, in an impatient but friendly way. ‘And we influence more people than we ever did before. People don’t hear the name Devo or Mark Mothersbaugh, but you know that our music is being heard by millions and millions of people every day – of all ages. There’s a whole generation of people who know Bob and I as the composers of Rugrats and Adventures in Wonderland. Sometimes they say, “My dad used to listen to you twenty years ago when he was at college”.’
But after being regarded as the wave of the future, isn’t it all a bit disappointing? ‘No,’ reasserts Mark, politely. ‘I mean we called ourselves Spuds, we knew we weren’t Royalty. You know, we came from working class households and none of us went to clairvoyants and found out that we were Egyptian kings in some other lifetime.’
But, frankly, some people will look at Mutato Musika and just think: oh, has-been pop stars looking for something to do. ‘Yeah,’ agrees Mark with disarming honesty. ‘Everybody does! And it could be bar-tending. But somehow I was lucky enough that people liked my stuff enough for me to become a composer.’
The problem of growing old disgracefully as an ex pop-star, or for any of us nowadays really, is how to grow up but not ‘grow up’ – how to mature but not become your dad. Devo, like a whole post-sixties generation, appear to have achieved this by immersing themselves in juvenile pop culture – TV, film, ads, jingles – the pop culture that their music, in fact, de-evolved out of. Maybe this is why the offices of Mutato Musika, with their curved walls, Day-Glo colours, strange sounds, and proliferation of TV and computer monitors resemble a cross between a Dutch crèche and an American teenager’s bedroom. The de-evolution that Devo represented was ironically partly the traditional rock message of not growing up into what you were supposed to be – a refusal of manhood: ‘Are we not men? We are Devo!’
‘It was about choosing your mutation consciously – mutate don’t stagnate,’ explains Mark, still animated by his ideas after all these years. ‘Rather than letting things be thrown on you that culture and the world wants you to buy into, wants you to become a part of, wants you to get skin cancer and die – but which kills you long before that spiritually.’
‘This was what ‘Mongoloid’, our first single was about – kind of “breeders v. readers”
The difference between the people that just kind of bought into the rap and were able to sleep their way through life – the wad. Versus those that would consciously make a choice to go somewhere different. You’re probably too young to remember but in the early seventies your choice of music was disco, a beautiful woman with no brain, or hard rock, a big pompous over-inflated, you know, thing that went out and wobbled around on a stage.
‘And we were watching things fall apart all around the world. We were seeing things devolve. We were saying: wait a minute, things are not getting better, things are getting crazier! But we ended up being promoted by Warner Bros and Virgin as you know, like wacky, kooky clowns because instead of figuring out what we were about it was easier to market clown versions of what was going on.’
While Mark acknowledges the influence of the Futurists, he traces the inspiration for the title and motto of the band from a 1930s movie called Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi he caught on late night TV.
‘Laughton is this scientist on a tropical island and he’s trying to turn these animals into humans in a laboratory called the House of Pain, but they never quite become humans, so they become subhumans, kind of zombie-like, running around the jungle and generally unhappy and depraved. But when they began to get restless Laughton would stand on this rock and he would crack his whip and they’d all cower in fear. And he’d go “What is the law?” and crack his whip again, and they’d recite “Not to walk on all fours. Are we not men?”
And I’m watching this in 1972 on a little crappy 13 inch black and white TV in my bedsit and go oh my God! I know all those people! They all live in this town! All these hunched over subhuman characters looked like they were just falling out of the rubber factory after a hard day of work.’
Growing up in a town like Akron Ohio in the seventies can make you very weird. In its ‘heyday’ the Rubber Capital of the World, by then Akron was just a corporate, post-industrial, depressed, overcast dump full of overweight people who spent their spare time reproducing, listening to Foreigner and bouncing up and down on the heads of artistic people with ideas above their station – i.e. any ideas at all – like Mark Mothersbaugh. In other words, Akron Ohio was much like any other place in the seventies. Devo was Mothersbaugh’s revenge on ‘breeders’ everywhere. ‘We didn’t drive a van, we didn’t like hard rock and we couldn’t afford drugs so we had to form a band.’
Not surprisingly nobody wanted to hear their music in Akron. ‘We’d only get to play shows by lying and telling people we were a top forty band, but by the second or third song they’d know something was up, because we’d have like these janitor outfits on and there’d be all these hippies out in the audience. Then we’d say, OK, here’s another song by Aerosmith and we’d play “Mongoloid” and then the police would have to be called.’
Mothersbaugh’s mischievousness and anti-Akron sentiment lives on in Mutato Musika. Mark confesses that they are putting subliminal messages in their TV commercial sound-tracks.
‘The first was in an ad for Coke – I think it was “Biology, Destiny”. Then there was that candy commercial for kids and we put in the message “Question Authority”. The funny things is, we’d be a bit scared but then we’d go to meetings with ad agency people and they’d be sitting there snapping their fingers and bobbing their heads to the music going “Yeah, Yeah” and then I’d come in and say “Be like your ancestors or be different, so shall your species survive.” And I’d blush and Bob Casale would break out in a sweat and they wouldn’t hear it. Not once has anyone told us “take that out”.
Mark’s ambition is that Mutato Musika will become a world-wide franchise. But then the band of self-described ‘suburban robots here to entertain corporate life-forms’ will become a corporate life-form themselves. Which may have a bearing on a dream Mark tells me he had recently.
‘I was octopus-fishing on a boat out on Santa Monica Bay with about seven other people and we pulled in the net, but there were too many octopi, and too big – they chased us around. I woke up just as this one old guy that kind of looked like Popeye had an octopus wrapped around him which pulled his false teeth right out of his mouth.’
Maybe Mutato Musika is the octopus? ‘Maybe,’ shrugs Mark. ‘That would, I guess, make me the old guy having his false teeth sucked out.’