Duty. Now. DEVO

It’s a matter of
rebranding: our resident mongoloid plays ball with the spudboys.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

“Same as it ever was” is a lyric that David Byrne used to
describe the future-past of a life to come and a life well lived. It held the
anticipation of what was next as well as something of the feelings, great and
lousy, of what once was.

 

DEVO certainly know those sensations. Even before that
aforementioned talking head  left design
school, two Kent State students from the Akron Ohio area – Gerald Casale and
Mark Mothersbaugh – had begun their own art project in-or-around 1972, based
fancifully but forcefully on twists on Darwin’s theories of evolution, the
breakdown of communication prevalent in their generation, the future of
technology in music, film and performance and utilizing the corporate
advertising world in which make new brands and graphic realities  based on all those ideas. Mothersbaugh and
Casale grabbed their brothers, several cheap analog synthesizers, some
industrial plastic jumpsuits and the hermetically sealed world of DEVO was born
into the pre-punk era; all angular guitars, robotic punchy rhythms, splintered frenetic
synth sounds and chicken-choked squawky vocals.

 

That last detailing of musical qualities should sound
familiar to fans of DFA production, Ting Tings, Hot Chip – everything
electronic, jerky and now. DEVO
innovated, pure and simple. But I digress. DEVO made hits and made misses and
by 1990 had petered out in terms of making new music.

 

DEVO didn’t so much as break up as they evolved into other
projects – Casale into video production, A/V based as busting and solo music;
Mothersbaugh into painting, running his own production and composing and
recording soundtracks for everyone from the Nickelodeon network, Pee-Wee Herman and Wes Anderson.

 

DEVO still played gigs, solidly and with delicious potency,
and thankfully kept the seeds of invention at the ready and willing to sprout –
what with the fact that DEVO  has now released
its first full-length in 20 years, Something
For Everybody
. This, after re-releasing deluxe reissues of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Duty Now for the Future and Freedom of Choice, re-signing with
Warners, running an internet campaign where fans chose the album’s final tracks
and hooking up with New York City
based marketing group Mother to produce satirical videos and ads about
marketing and changing their Energy Dome flowerpot hats from red to blue.

 

***

 

When I caught up the happily excitable Casale, I mentioned
how I’d witnessed a dozen or so live performances since the group’s 1990
disappearance from the market place (to say nothing of having witnessed them
live at least (30 times during their heyday – yes, I’m a fan). Remarkably, DEVO
was more potent a live act than I had remembered them in their initial glory
days.

 

“People don’t know us as a live band, but anyone who came
and saw us within the last few years got how mighty we are,” says Casale. For a
band who (then) strictly played the songs of its past, they didn’t come across
like an oldies act. Their epic weird forcefulness showed that DEVO was alive.
From that power, a desire to make new material certainly sprung up.

 

“We always enjoyed playing – it’s just that at a certain
point Mark turned his back on the business,” claims Casale, the DEVO-tee that
always seemed more driven to reunite that his partner/pal. According to Casale,
getting un-DEVO-ed for Mothersbaugh included not wanting to collaborate on new
music or going through the meat grinder of the way music was put out.

 

DEVO stayed on the sidelines and watched the music business
implode and the functions of record labels dwindle. “We didn’t see a new
marketplace no matter what came across our collective desk,” laughs Casale. “We
heard lots of talk and hot air about MySpace and sponsors and funding or how
bands could go to LiveNation and AEG and get an advance on a hundred shows. But
it all turned out to be pie in the sky.”

 

What turned thing around for Mothersbaugh and DEVO was the
music the band was asked to write and compose for the Dell XPS M1330 laptop
campaign as well as renewed connection with Warner Bros., the famed label that
released DEVO’s biggest albums.  

 

“The Dell thing excited us -especially when it made a splash
in the marketplace,” says Casale, of the Teddybears-produced music. As for
Warners (who also took notice of the Dell/DEVO success) it was simple and
practical and honest: the label owns DEVO’s back catalog and masters for perpetuity.
When Warners heard that DEVO wanted to put out new music based on the success
of the Dell campaign, they stepped up with marketing money. “It would serve them
as much as it would us. It just made sense.” It was logical to DEVO because
marketing is everything to them. In a cultural music-scape where sound has been
devalued perceptually yet released in droves. DEVO needed an aggregator. “We
wanted someone to make you fucking care. Marketing is everything. It tells
people who you are why you are and that we’re here and now.”

Nobody is more here and now than Mother, the New York City-based ad agency, who
happen to be the coolest in the biz. Mother is Mad Men times 1000 with sharper
lapels and pointier shoes. “And they get us,” laughs Casale. “They’re Dada –
totally on the cutting edge of playing with the energy and the ideas – of being
in the ad business as well as being ad busters.” DEVO loved Mother’s tongue in
cheek aesthetic. “When we sat down with them they didn’t think any of our ideas
were crazy. They went further.”

 

Casale won’t detail all the caustic hilarity planned for Something For Everybody’s marketing,
They’d like that to surprise its audience. The same is true – to an extent – in
regard to new DEVO music. So the question became, since they had this jerking
electro crank since 1975, what should DEVO keep and what should they throw out?

 

“We can’t pretend we’re someone else or we would fall flat,”
claims Casale. “We can’t pretend we’re MGMT or the Kills. We can only be us. So
we had to decide what US
is the good US and what of US is the sucky part that we should throw out.” DEVO
went back to the drawing board and embraced the old analogue sounds that they
came up with in the first place and brought to the marketplace of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“That’s the sound that all the next generation bands didn’t grow up with but
love NOW. All the bands that cite us as an influence are intrigued by those
sounds and romanticize them like LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip. The good thing
is we love their music. But we weren’t going to try to do their music.”

 

What DEVO did on Something
for Everybody
was reproduce the mechanized humanity of their past and throw
it – sonically and lyrically – into the present. Highlighting the idea of the
driver behind the wheel of a hybrid car looking with great paranoia for a highway
sniper in “Don’t Shoot I’m a Man” shows both old world DEVO nervousness in a
contemporary setting. So, too, does the beat down of “What We Do” and “Later is
Now.”

 

In all actuality, it’s as if DEVO picked up after the
snap-crackle-and pop of Freedom of Choice and recorded this new record. DEVO took what they did then and brought it to
this new place.

 

“Right – we just wanted to remind bands and audiences that
we did us first,” says Casale with a
hearty laugh. They were also careful to not fall in to self parody either.
“Look, we knew what to expect to hear from listeners and critics – what’s great
about DEVO is that they’ve been around forever; a recognizable brand. What’s
bad about DEVO: they’ve been around forever and they’re a recognizable brand.
And they haven’t put out new music in twenty years.”

 

***

 

Something For Everybody, then, is a matter of rebranding. Part of that, too, came from its
collaborations with the likes of Teddybears, the cats in the Dust Brothers and
weirdest of all, Santi White (aka Santigold). DEVO, with the exception of
working with, say, producers Brian Eno and Ken Scott weren’t collaborative
types – they didn’t play well with others in both a literal and figurative
sense. There was a conscious choice amongst them to not be hermetically sealed
when it came to the new album.

 

“What did DEVO never do – play ball. We just dropped down
from a spaceship, hand you something then go away. This time the mission was to
not to that.”

I throw a few song titles at Casale in the hopes for some sort of Rorschach reaction:

 

Q: “Fresh”
A: “It is.”

Q: “Don’t Shoot, I’m a
Man”
A: “Our plea for non violence ala Rodney king (laughs) We live in such an
inhumane world getting direr all the time. We’re in a constant state of paranoia
and fear. This song is us diffusing it.”

Q: “Human Rocket”

A: “That’s the one
song I can’t comment on – the one tune Mark had in a lock box all to himself. I
had a ton of ideas when I heard it for arrangements but he said no.”

Q: “What We Do”
A: “It’s our definitive statement on the human condition.”

Q: “Later is Now”
A.: “It is. That should be on our blimp that we fly over America. Look
at the BP oil spill. Talk about the chickens coming home to roost. That’s the
eight million pound gorilla.”

Q: What’s more
exciting for you guys to do – the
Colbert Report or Regis & Kelly?
A:  “DEVO has always had the high and low
aesthetic – the bottom trash and the lofty. Those two things two days in a row;
Stephen’s the high DEVO and
Regis & Kelly is as low as DEVO goes.” 

 

 

Other than its banner rebranding and the idea of going
backwards to fine future footing, the biggest question with Something for Everybody – at least for me
– isn’t how this album and set of television shows go; it’s where does DEVO
head to from here. If the new album slices time and picks up now where Freedom of Choice left off, can this
band keep going? Is this DEVO built for speed?

“We’re at the starting line,” says Casale, wondering himself about that very
question. “I think it could be. We honestly have to see if anybody cares. I
would certainly like to do it again.”

And if DEVO had to stop – truly stop – Casale even has an idea for that in some
sort of Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh fashion. “I’d like to call the farewell album Back to the Cave and I have just the idea
of how to get back. The record would be a totally black CD with five pairs of
lenticular eyes just blinking – staring out at you from the darkness. It’s 1975
again and each of us is in our old apartment in Akron. Each of us has one instrument, with
one weird effect and we just jam – no overdubs – like you heard on, say Hardcore DEVO. How’d that sound?”

Great. But how do you do rebrand from there?

 

 

 

 

 

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