Mark Mothersbaugh Interview: They Are DEVO! New Wave Pioneers Return with 'Something for Everybody'
Co-founder of the new wave band DEVO, musician, composer, singer, and artist Mark Mothersbaugh was born on May 18, 1950. The DEVO lead singer’s other musical projects include work for television series, films, and video games.
Mothersbaugh attended Kent State where he met Jerry Casale and Bob Lewis. In early 1970, Lewis and Casale formed the idea of “devolution” of the human race. Motthersbaugh was intrigued by the concept and built upon it with elements of early poststructuralist ideas and oddball arcane, most notably unearthing the infamous Jocko-Homo Heavenbound pamphlet. This culminated in 1973, when the trio started to play music as DEVO.
"It ('Mongoloid') was kind of questioning … in the bigger sense of things it was questioning man’s calling himself superior to all other forms. It was just calling into question the insanity of what our value system was."
DEVO later formed as a quartet and recruited Mark’s brothers, Bob Mothersbaugh and Jim Mothersbaugh. This lineup lasted until 1976 when Jim left the band and Alan Myers was hired as the new drummer. The band’s albums include Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Duty Now for the Future, Freedom of Choice, New Traditionalists, Oh, No! It’s Devo, Shout, Total Devo, and Smooth Noodle Maps.
Something for Everybody is the ninth studio album by the band and was released on June 15, 2010. The two lead singles off the album were “Don’t Shoot” and “Fresh!” The band utilized focus groups to determine which color (for the album) would be most pleasing to audiences and organized studies to determine what tracks they’d use for the new album.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mark, are you on tour now?
Mark Mothersbaugh: We’re playing a show this weekend, but I’ve been off for a couple of weeks playing catch up.
Melisa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The show was awesome in Atlanta, but it certainly was hot.
Mark Mothersbaugh: It was more than hot. It was steamy. I felt like I was sucking in the nozzle of a teakettle when I was singing, so that was interesting. It was probably good for our complexion, though (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How hard is it to choreograph the video that plays behind the band on stage?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Once upon a time it was difficult when we used to do it back in 1981 or 1982. Nobody had ever done it before and it was complicated to the point where we had to have a click track (series of audio cues). There was no such thing as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and we had no way to hook up to any kind of time codes.
Back in the old days I’d have a click track on the film (we used real film back then) and my drummer would just have to have all of the clicks memorized. If he dropped one, we’d be in trouble the rest of the night. He never did, though, because he was always very good at it. Now it’s easy. The drummer still has to start us off, but once it gets going we can line it up to what we’re playing. It’s almost too easy now, you know? I’m like, “Where’s being nervous for the whole show?”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of being nervous, do you suffer from stage fright?
Mark Mothersbaugh: That’s a funny thing, I don’t think I ever had stage fright. I did when I was a little kid, but when I was in a band, for some reason, it was different. If I had to go up in front of class to speak I could not do it. I would dread it, worry about it, and try to find some way out of it.
I guess because there are other people in a band at the same time on the stage, it’s easier. You could probably get me to do just about anything on stage except sing really good and dance very well (laughs). Everything else I can do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love the new album. I am constantly moving or dancing while listening to the music!
Mark Mothersbaugh: Thank you. I think that’s a good sign.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Most definitely. Why the 20-year wait to release a new album?
Mark Mothersbaugh: We had done many albums with Warner Brothers and Enigma. After that run we were just kind of like, “Okay, been there done that and lost interest in it.” Everybody went off to do other things. I had a fairly busy career doing feature films and television shows. For a long time I thought that was more interesting than putting out albums.
I just didn’t enjoy the process of working with a record company. Then we were watching what was going on in the world and as record companies started collapsing, it just seemed like an interesting time to get back into it. It seemed like there were more possibilities now. Just the whole nature of being an artist just making albums, the way you present the music to your audience, and how an audience absorbs the music is all so different now. It kind of seemed exciting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you feel fairly confident about letting focus groups choose the tracks for the album?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Well, you have to also take into consideration that we wrote about 35 tracks and out of those, we picked 20 or so that we sent over to the focus groups. So they were already songs we really liked. We got interesting feedback, though.
It was fun to do that because the first time around DEVO was very protective about what we were doing. People didn’t understand us. It was really difficult to talk to people about the music. Rolling Stone magazine reviewed our first album and said, “You call this rock ‘n roll? There are two songs with no guitar on them.” They reviewed the next album and said, “I can’t believe it. There’s a song on this album that doesn’t even have drums. It has some machine playing instead.”
We were pioneers back then. But we were constantly doing that battle which kind of got exhausting after a while. So when we came out this time it’s like now people have a reference, people refer to our music and now it isn’t so crazy. We kind of fit in now.
As far as devolution, people called us cynics back in the 70s when we talked about things falling apart. But I think if anybody could have looked in a crystal ball and observed what it was like to travel on an airplane in 2010 or watch that oil well gush into the Gulf of Mexico and everybody just flapping their arms helplessly, they wouldn’t have believed it back in the late 70s or early 80s.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe the study group’s least favorite song was “No Place Like Home.” Do you think that was because fans do not want to hear DEVO perform ballads?
Mark Mothersbaugh: I don’t know. I don’t think we got enough information to know exactly what the reason was or why that one wasn’t a favorite. That could be it. It was the one that was the least typical. As a matter of fact, to be honest, I wrote the music for a film and score last year called Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I thought “No Place Like Home” was going to be the main theme. Then I kept writing more music for that movie.
I came up with something else that we ended up using for the main theme so that kind of fell to the side. I forgot about it until about a month before we were done writing and I put it on a CD for Jerry. He came back the next day with lyrics for it. It seemed so atypical for us that we kind of enjoyed it. So we put it out there to see what people would say.
I would have liked to have taken it further with the focus groups. I mean, I remember talking to Jerry about six months ago, saying, “What if they don’t like any of the vocals and suggest that we should get Adam Lambert to sing for us?” Jerry said, “I don’t know, what do we do?” I said, “I’d be up for it and I would ask him. I’d call him up, tell him we need a good voice, and ask if he wanted to sing on the DEVO record.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will the other songs that were not chosen by the study group be released later?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Somehow or another they’re all going to come out. I mean, eventually they’ll all … people can find whatever it is they want. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that there are alternate mixes to everything. We mixed and recorded the songs in my studio and then turned them over to different remixers to finish them off.
Somewhere along the line we’ll get around to releasing the versions that we had done that were kind of like our demo mixers. They have their own particular sound. I think they’re less radio friendly but they sound more like historical DEVO in some ways.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think my favorite song on the album is “What We Do.”
Mark Mothersbaugh: There are many people that like that one. I really like that song. There’s talk about it being a single.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a favorite song of all the ones you’ve recorded?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Well it changes. I wrote on most everything and actually in all those songs no matter who it says wrote them, everybody contributes to them. I don’t know how other bands work but it has always been that way for us.
We share the publishing so we don’t have a lot of people fighting about what song gets on the record. We all just kind of do our best to make them all work so sometimes I’ll listen to a record and like one thing or another. One that I just happen to like and I don’t know if it will ever get much attention, is “Human Rocket.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That's a great song. Mark, some radio stations banned “Mongoloid” when it was released in 1976. What is the meaning of the song?
Mark Mothersbaugh: It was kind of questioning … in the bigger sense of things it was questioning man’s calling himself superior to all other forms. It was just calling into question the insanity of what our value system was.
You’re right, there were people afraid they weren’t being PC enough. It can’t be played on the radio in England anymore although the album did very well over there. They had an outcry against it back in 1978 and so it got banned from being played on the BBC. But the odd thing is that we got a lot of fan mail from the parents of Down Syndrome kids who got all excited when they heard it and said, “It’s a song about me.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The song had a positive message indicating they too could be productive members of society.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah and they were happy to have a song about them. They weren’t going, “Oh, someone is making fun of us.” It wasn’t making fun of mongoloids. It was kind of questioning why the value system of humans is about going out and getting a job, just mindless toil.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did the idea for the “Whip It” video come about?
Mark Mothersbaugh: When we did “Whip It,” musically it ended up being a dance song in a way. We were trying to do DEVO’s version of electro funk, so that’s what we got. That was probably as funky as DEVO ever got other than “What We Do,” which is kind of funky.
We had just gotten back from being on tour in Europe. When we did interviews over there people were saying, “Well, what’s going on with your president? We think he’s got a terrible foreign policy.” The president was Carter and he was vacillating all of the time. He was changing his point of view constantly at least as far as it looked like in Europe. It looked like he couldn’t make his mind up about anything. So we were thinking the song was kind of a Dale Carnegie, “You can do it Mr. President!” pull it together type of song.
By the time we did the video it was not our first single. “Girl U Want” came out first. I think it went into the Top 20, definitely into the Top 40, but it didn’t go any higher so while we were in Japan on a tour they decided to release “Whip It” as a single and it was catching on.
They said, “Well, let’s do a video for it.” By that point we’d been to radio stations where there were deejays saying things like, “I have DEVO waiting out in the hallway right now. They’re going to come in soon. All I’ve got to say is, ‘I whipped it just this morning, ha ha ha.’” So we thought, “Well, okay we see this song kind of works on a couple of levels.” That’s probably what made it successful.
On one level it was a dance song and then people could interpret the lyrics however they wanted. I think DEVO at our best has always been subversive with getting into TV commercials for the express purpose that hopefully people would sometime later hear the song and remember it was in a commercial and say, “But the lyrics are different. What are these lyrics really about?”
We were just always looking for ways to break through and to come up with a different point of view to get it in front of people so that they would listen to it. In some ways I think “Whip It” was kind of subversive from that point of view.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How has DEVO’s music evolved from 20 years ago?
Mark Mothersbaugh: When we first started this record, I thought, “Oh we still have the original synthesizers and some of the original equipment that we used on our first album.” I said, “Let’s pull those out of the basement and let’s use a four-track tape recorder like we did when we were writing all of that stuff. Let’s do a record that sounds like it could’ve been side three and four of the first album.”
Everybody was looking at me like that was a dumb idea. I tried to hold out for that then I realized it was a dumb idea after a couple of months (laughs). The reality is that no two DEVO albums sounded exactly the same from a technological standpoint. We always were and especially me … I was excited when new electronic instruments came out; drum machines and synclaviers. Every time something new happened we were always talking to the people who designed it. Often times we were putting our own musical patches into the equipment by the time it became commercially available.
We were just really excited about technology and what was happening back then so it wouldn’t be true to DEVO to not still carry forward with that kind of a thought. We used my studio that’s been tapeless for about 10 or 15 years now. We used the new software and plug-ins for this album, but at the same time we still paid homage and used the same synthesizers that we used to write some of the very first albums.
The thing about DEVO is the way we write our songs is more important than what the actual instruments we use are. We construct our music, whether it’s Bob or Jerry or me who’s writing the music, kind of like in Lego blocks. DEVO songs aren’t hard to play. Any DEVO album is like a good album for a kid learning how to play a guitar or a keyboard (laughs). The parts are fairly simple. We just look for parts that are essential and get rid of stuff that isn’t necessary.
As far as from a lyrical standpoint, I think we’ve been true to DEVO from the beginning. We talked about everything in the world but we have our own point of view. It’s like when DEVO sings a love song. It’s not like, “She loves you, yeah yeah.” It’s not like an Elvis Costello love song. When DEVO sings a love song it’s more like the psychology of desire. We talk about love from our point of view. This album falls true to that form. We never really changed that so I think other than the technology that we used on it that made it fit on radio better, nothing was changed.
In the last 25 years or so radio has gotten very sophisticated and they have a much wider range of sounds or they have a much wider range of musical genres. It’s a really cool time to either be an artist, a musician, or to be listening to music because the Internet has changed everything.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do your daughters enjoy your music?
Mark Mothersbaugh: My daughters are adopted. The older one just turned 9. She was 5 ½ when we adopted her so she learned English watching a lot of TV and videos. She knew not a word of English in June (before she started school in September). She just showed up here totally Chinese (laughs). She first heard DEVO music because we had done something with Disney called DEVO 2.0. She learned a lot of her English singing along with the DEVO songs these 12-year-old kids were singing over DEVO music. It was kind of confusing for her when she saw her first DEVO show.
I remember I came off stage and the first thing she said was, “Daddy, why are you singing all of those little kids’ songs?” I was like, “I’m DEVO 1.0.” She kind of gets it but it’s still confusing. But they knew all the music from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs before the movie came out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You scored the theme for the children’s television program Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yes, that’s how I started in film work. It was years after being in the record industry. You’d go out and write 10 songs, record them, make a video, go out on tour for six months, come back, and start the process over again. That’s all the music I got to write.
When I did TV I got a tape of Pee-wee’s show. I would get a tape sent to me from New York on Monday, Tuesday I’d write the music, on Wednesday I’d record it, and on Thursday I’d mail it back to New York (no way to send it over the Internet). He’d mix it into the show on Friday and we’d watch it on Saturday.
I was writing an album’s worth of music every week and I thought, “This is great and exciting.” You don’t have room for mistakes and your adrenalin is up. The show was popular and I just kind of fell forward. Now I’m on TV shows 65-69. I’m doing 4 shows this year and got a couple of films going, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re also involved in Yo Gabba! Gabba!
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, although we’re not shooting a new series this year. They’re in pre production for a feature. I think it’s all about the art teacher. I’ll basically have the part of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night where I just spend my time running away from beautiful young girls. No, I don’t think that’s it at all (laughs). I hope they let the art teacher be in the film (laughs). I hope they let me be in the film, but I don’t know because I haven’t seen the script.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it easier writing songs for an album than composing music for a film or TV series?
Mark Mothersbaugh: No.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a preference?
Mark Mothersbaugh: No. They’re totally different as far as I’m concerned. When I was an angry young artist in my early 20s I felt like I had something to say and couldn’t take it any longer. I had to say something. I had to do something.
We were in Akron, Ohio at a time when nobody wanted to hear original music. We would lie and say we were a cover band just so we could even get a chance to play our music out in public. We knew that meant that by about the fifth song when we went, “Okay, here’s another song by Foghat and it’s called 'Jocko Homo,'” somebody in the audience would say, “Alright, that’s it!” They’d slam their beer bottles down and come up on stage and we’d get into an argument.
The owner would come over and say, “You guys can leave now.” We’d tell him we were hired for two sets and that we could play another set. But, he’d say, “No, no, that’s okay, you can go now.”
On the other hand, I think because of two sets of brothers it made it very … we were always collaborating and it made it easy for me to write music for film. I enjoy the process. I liked working with the directors of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Ramona and Beezus.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mark, your interest in art began at an early age. What started the Beautiful Mutant project?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Well, in general, I’ve always had an interest in symmetry, but it also came from collecting fun house mirrors. We used some in DEVO videos, I had them around the house, and I played around with them. I liked the idea of symmetrical imagery and I started taking photos that way using mirrors to make beautiful mutants. Then I found out about Photoshop, which made it very easy comparatively, and took one step out of the process. It was kind of the hardest step to technologically make it work right so you didn’t see the line down the middle of it.
In my life I have this compulsive side to me and when I start something I do it a lot. When I was working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse I was collecting Mae Tse-Tung pens back in the early 80s. It wasn’t open like it was now so it was tougher to get them. Mostly it was expatriate Chinese that had saved collections of Chairman Mao pens. I advertised that I was looking for them in Chinese newspapers around the country.
I’d meet 60-year-old Chinese men in an Orange County, California library and they’d say, “My children don’t care about the old country. They don’t care about China, just about being Americans. They don’t want my collection of Chinese pens so I want somebody who wants them to have them.” I’d buy the pens from these guys and they’d tell me stories about coming over from China.
Beautiful mutants came about 9 or 10 years ago. I’d be at the studio working all day on music then I’d come home and make a mutant every day. It became this thing that I couldn’t stop myself from doing. It was compulsive. I just loved the beauty of them and also the pure grotesqueness of them, too.
I found that if you take the average human face, cut it in half, and then flip it and make a symmetric side to the other side of the face, humans usually have one kind of a grotesque side to them and one kind of a beautiful side to them. Rarely did I find somebody with both sides grotesque or both sides beautiful. Usually I’d get two portraits of people in the same photograph.
It became really obsessive for me to keep doing these things. I didn’t even know what I was doing it for. I was doing gallery shows already with paintings but I wasn’t showing these to anybody. I was just making my own little family album at my house. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and then finally someone who saw them asked, “Can I show these at my gallery?” That gave me an excuse for it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently had an art show at your sister’s studio.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is she an artist also?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yes, she’s got an artistic bone in her body.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any art shows coming up?
Mark Mothersbaugh: I went to having about 25-30 shows a year to about 15 just because the economy is really lousy and everybody is being really careful. I was doing shows mostly in pop-up galleries, graffiti, and skateboard galleries. Although there wasn’t much money in doing them, it was a rewarding experience for me. You could meet these people who still are excited about art the way I was when I was back in Akron, Ohio, and the way I still feel about it.
It’s just that out here in Los Angeles everything starts becoming about the deal after a while. People come over and they want to talk about the show that we’re working on, but it always devolves into talking about how they got ripped off by the studio, there’s some jackass lawyer, or there’s this or that. It’s just about the deals and I just wanted to get back working with people that still had this idealistic spirit about art. So that’s what happened to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You appear on the 100th episode of Comedy Central’s Futurama.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, I’ve heard about that (laughs). I don’t know the date and I’m sure I’ll miss it and forget to watch myself. Sometimes I’m shocked when my daughters say, “Dad, you’re on TV!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you like to watch yourself?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Not really. I like to spy on myself but that’s hard to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are some diehard DEVO fans out there in the world. What is the craziest thing a fan has ever done?
Mark Mothersbaugh: A lot of odd stuff has happened to DEVO. The one thing I’ve got to say about DEVO is we tend to spark people’s creative responses. We have extreme versions of what everybody talks about.
I’ve had people dress up like Chi Chi Rodriguez from our first album cover and walk with a golf bag into my hotel room (back when I let people party in my hotel room after the show). Well, the guy had three golf clubs and a shotgun! He pulled the shotgun out and was ready to party! Everybody, including me, quickly left so he could have the room to himself.
There’s everything from that to like very creative enamored fans to people sending me letters saying they majored in recombinant DNA at Harvard because of a DEVO song. So, there you go, it has been a bunch of different things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will DEVO be working on another album in the near future?
Mark Mothersbaugh: It could happen. I’ve got to say, we do like making music together. But, that could easily not be the case. Imagine if you had four husbands, then you’re on the road traveling. Worse than that, it’s not like somebody goes off to work and you don’t have to see each other all day.
Imagine if you all went to the same job and you had to put up with each other around the clock. It never surprises me when a band breaks up. I’m always like, “Wow, how did they last that long?” It’s tough. We’re lucky because its two sets of brothers who started the band so on some level we have to see each other a little bit. But we’ve always been able to get along pretty well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So the tours will continue…
Mark Mothersbaugh: As long as everybody’s ambulating or can at least work a Rascal (scooter). Once people can’t even make a Rascal work, then they have to hang up their red dome … or blue dome if we’re still wearing blue next year.
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