The '80s Strike Back: Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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Last night at Washington, DC's 9:30 Club, it took only the first sting of synthesizers to rocket the packed house straight back to 1982.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. MARK MOTHERSBAUGH (Devo): (Singing) Everybody needs a good thing, everybody wants a good thing, everybody. Ain't it true that everybody's looking for the same thing. Ain't it true, there's just no doubt, there's some things that you can't do without. That's good!
CONAN: The band, of course, is Devo, and it's back touring the United States. For the non-spuds in our audience, Devo took the new-wave genre by storm in the late '70s and early '80s with hits like "Whip It" and the song "Through Being Cool." Devo was born in the post-industrial Rust Belt of northeast Ohio. The band took its name from the concept of de-evolution, human being and society devolving, not progressing.
Mark Mothersbaugh's one of the founding members of Devo, and he joins us in the studio now to talk about his work in and out of the band. If you have a question about his career, looking forward or backward, evolving, devolving, whatever you want, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, Mark Mothersbaugh, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Oh, thank you. Good to be here.
CONAN: Now we say Devo's back. Did it ever really go away?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, in the sense that we were actively touring and putting out albums for about a decade and then kind of got sidetracked into other activities, and then about seven, eight, nine years ago started touring again, like, in small little, you know, bits and batches here and there.
CONAN: Well, you've had some considerable success in those other lines of work that you're talk--we'll talk about those later. But what is it about the band that made you want to, you know, put the band back together?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, we all still work together. The band was basically two sets of brothers. So we still see each other every day. Bob 1 and Bob 2 worked with me at a company called Mutato, and Bob 1's scoring the "Rugrats" spin-off show, "All Grown Up," and Bob 2's our producer/engineer/in-house guy. And so it wasn't like, you know, we don't see each other for the last 30 years. It just turned into a thing where we started realizing that de-evolution was more true than it ever had been in the past, and the things we had talked about had all come true.
CONAN: Like what? Give me an example.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Things falling apart, where things are going in our country, where things are going in the world. Information, lack of it. School systems in the country. You can go anywhere you want. It used to be 30 years ago, people would come up and be really upset. They'd go, `How can you say we're devolving?' And now we take a poll every night and, you know, just like Fox, we have our own jury-rigged group of people that are being polled, but everybody screams in unison. They know that we're all Devo.
CONAN: (Chuckles) I wonder, this was both a band and an act. I mean, there were so many aspects to Devo that really got a lot of attention--the outfits you guys wore, the glasses. The glasses are great, by the way. But I wonder, when you thought about touring again, did you think about bringing the stuff back or not?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, when we do a show now, we're not really--we don't have a new album out, so we're not trying to, you know--we don't come out and do two songs you know and then play an album that you've never heard before, and then do two more songs. We come out and do basically the same show we did in CBGB's in 1977 or the Whiskey A-Go-Go on the West Coast. And it's the same show we did when we first started and we were just young little spuds. And it does have a lot of the same clothing and we do the same, you know--everything's the same except some of us are double wide now.
CONAN: Yeah. Might have had to let those things out a little bit.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, you know, it's like, we looked like cheeseburgers anyhow with our yellow plastic suits, and now a couple of us just look like double cheeseburgers.
CONAN: Do you still enjoy playing the old hits?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah. You know, that's what we did, you know, when we were angry young men. That was our big statement, was Devo. And I don't know, just like most artists, I think all the things that any of us have done--Jerry and his directing career, the rest of us doing musical things--it's all permutations on a theme.
CONAN: And the theme is still de-evolution?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, we're pro-information, anti-disinformation, anti-stupidity.
CONAN: That's a never-ending career, I guess, when you think about it, you put it that way.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Oh, yeah, it sure is.
(800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us, or e-mail us: email@example.com. Our guest is Mark Mothersbaugh of the band Devo.
And let's talk with Kevin. Kevin calling from Kalamazoo.
KEVIN (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.
KEVIN: I grew up in Northville, Michigan. And we were incredibly into the Ramones. You know, I saw the Ramones in concert in 1980 in Ann Arbor. But, you know, you're--from, you know, eighth grade, 1978, till 2005 when I'm 40 years old, you know, going to weddings and hearing "Whip It," when I was on the practice football field hearing "Whip It" when I was in eighth grade. But then when I got into college, it was the "Mongoloid" song, which I see you got an advertisement our for--you sold that song for an ad. And I think that's so cool, but I like the lyrics better. So I'm going to definitely go see you in concert. And when are you playing in Michigan? And fantastic. This is great.
CONAN: When are you playing in Michigan, do you know?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: I don't know. We're just--it's a short tour this time. I--the other guys are a little upset with me, but I cut the tour short because I'm going to China on September 2nd to adopt a child. So...
CONAN: Oh, congratulations.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: So it...
KEVIN: Hey, fantastic. You know, one more thing. My sister had a friend that worked for Sony in A&R, P&R, and I think his name was A.J.--I don't know if you knew him. Does that ring a bell?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: A.J.? Probably.
KEVIN: OK. But anyway, got to see you. I'll travel to see you because...
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: We're in Cleveland, that's as close as we get.
KEVIN: I'll see you. I'm in pretty good shape, though.
CONAN: OK, Kevin, thanks for the call and good luck.
I have to ask, do the Chinese authorities know what you do for a living?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah. And, you know, it's a long process. It takes...
CONAN: It takes forever. Yeah.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: ...over a year and a lot of paperwork, in typical Chinese fashion. I thought I was going to go before the tour started, and the paperwork kept taking longer and longer, and I was afraid it was going to be in the middle. And instead, it chopped off some shows at the very end. So...
CONAN: Well, you got to keep your priorities straight. It sounds like you do.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, it's worth it.
CONAN: Yeah. Getting back to what Kevin was talking about, have you--I know you do a lot of commercials. Have you transmogrified any of Devo's music to the commercial backing tunes?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, there's been different things that have been used. "Uncontrollable Urge"--Mitsubishi used it for something. And "Freedom of Choice" got used by somebody, and "Whip It" has gotten used a half a dozen times for people that...
CONAN: Feather dusters, wasn't it?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, well...
CONAN: I don't suppose they're feathered, but...
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, it was the one that was, like, the litmus test for us. Like, it was so embarrassing that, you know, it's like sometimes you're kind of like looking for that area where you're, like, being subversive and sneaking in, and this was one of those ones where we kind of felt like we should've changed our name to DeHo.
CONAN: (Laughs) Let's get Aaron on the line now from Chagrin Falls in Ohio.
AARON (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
AARON: I had a couple questions about your process in creating a soundtrack for a film. I believe the last one you did was for "A Life Aquatic," unless you've worked on something newer.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, there's a couple that came out this summer called "Lords of Dogtown" and "Herbie: Fully Loaded."
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: But, yeah, in some ways...
CONAN: Right at the top of the resume, that one.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, you know, they're a whole different trajectory, you know? Some...
AARON: Yeah, as opposed to writing songs for your group.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: But "Life Aquatic," that's fine, you know. That's--I've done all of Wes Anderson's movies, and...
AARON: How was working with him?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: And it's pretty great. We hit it off from the beginning. I started with "Bottle Rocket." And each movie, I started working with him earlier in the process, and he's the only director that--when we worked on "Life Aquatic," he was sitting in my recording studio with me with his laptop writing the script, talking about a character that was in the movie that was a composer. And so I'd be writing music and say, `What is it, like this?' And we were coming up with the musical sound for the movie while he was still writing the script. So...
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: ...that's about as early as you can get in the process.
AARON: (Laughs) Yeah.
CONAN: How is it different? I mean, do you--composing music, one would think, would be a pretty solitary task.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Most of the time it is, especially if you're doing TV shows. I've done about, I don't know, somewhere between 35 and 40 series for TV. And usually after the first episode, you just get a tape on a Monday, you write the music on a Tuesday, you record it on a Wednesday, send it back to them on a Thursday, and it's on TV next week. But with film, depending upon the directors, they're more interactive and some of them have more say. A lot of times people by that point in the film--'cause it's just about the very last thing that happens--they're off to other projects already and they're just glad to be done. But some people, like Wes, he just stays there with me the whole time.
CONAN: Is it more fun to do rock 'n' roll or is it more fun to write something for, like, "The Life Aquatic"?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: I started writing music for film and TV because I became disenfranchised with pop music and writing music for records. And, you know, it was like the thing where you would write 10 or 12 songs and you'd make a video or two and you'd go on tour for six months, and then a year later you'd do 10 or 12 new songs. And once--I started with a TV show called "Pee Wee's Playhouse," is how I first started scoring. And all of a sudden it was this thing where you absolutely had to write 30 minutes' worth of music in three days and record it. But then you saw it two days later on TV and there was this kind of quick-turnaround adrenalin rush that appealed to me.
CONAN: Aaron, thanks very much for the phone call.
AARON: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Colin. Colin calling from Waterloo, Iowa.
COLIN (Caller): Hey, Mark. Huge fan. I was that nerdy kid in high school back in the '80s that had all your records. And I was just wondering, your first couple of records had this real heavy guitar, almost a garage-band kind of sound to it. And I was wondering if you thought the band on future tours or whatever would be devolving more back into that. I mean, I know you all got into, like, a heavy synth-pop type thing and it was there for a while, which is good--I like that, too. But I was just wondering where you thought--if the band is going in that direction or what you all are doing with that.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, to be perfectly honest with you, if you were to see our show that we did last night, about half the songs came off the first two albums, and then the rest of them were just pulled out of the greatest hits of things that happened later than that. But I agree with you, that was my favorite period of the band, was at the very beginning. And I don't know, I think if we do another album, we would want to kind of maybe go back to where we started if it's possible. I mean, it may not be possible, but...
CONAN: You said you were disenfranchised from the band...
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: No, I didn't mean from--if I said from the band, I didn't--I meant from the record industry.
CONAN: Aha. The band wasn't able to keep recording, was not...
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, we predicted things like MTV, you know, almost a decade before they really happened. We read an article--one of the guys that were friends of ours, Chuck Statler, who directed our first film, had this Popular Science magazine he brought over to where Jerry and Bob were living, and we were looking at it, and it said, `Laser discs. Everybody will have them next year.' And it wasn't true, but they were the size of LPs. But they not only had audio, they had a full video picture. And we were, like, it's going to destroy rock 'n' roll. That's what we want to be part of. We want to help destroy rock 'n' roll and we want to start this new sound and vision. And we were like Amway salesmen for something that didn't exist yet, music television. We kept talking about it. And we were making product for that because we anticipated something different. When music television really came along, MTV, it unfortunately took the low route and became home network shopping for record companies and contributed in many ways to denigrate pop music, in my opinion.
COLIN: Do they even show video on MTV anymore?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: I have no idea. I haven't watched it for a decade, probably.
COLIN: I don't think they do.
CONAN: Thank you for the call, Colin.
What do you listen to? Who do you watch? Who are you interested in?
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: You know what? If I turn on a TV, I love black-and-white movies. I love old movies. And that's what I watch. And if you asked anybody in the band, they'd all have a different answer. Everybody brings in something different to what we do. But for me personally, I love movies before color came in and feel like every time Turner Classic Movies puts on a color film, I always have to--then I start to looking at the other channels and see if anybody else has something. But in music, I listen to everything. I love Aphex Twin, some other things. I like--we get odd things in the mail, people send us things, and sometimes it's stuff that you'd never find anywhere that's the best stuff.
CONAN: We just have a minute or so left, but I do want to ask you, you have an art exhibit that just opened in Florida. Tell us a little bit about that.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: When Jerry from Devo and I first met, we were both in college at Kent State; we were in the art department. And we were doing visual collaborations before we did musical collaborations. And we both always continued doing visuals. And I've been doing shows now for about five or six years at smaller, kind of more underground graffiti-interested galleries. And I don't know, I enjoy it. I do about 35 gallery shows a year around the world.
CONAN: Well, good luck with it. And good luck with the band. We appreciate you coming in today.
Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Well, thank you so much.
CONAN: Mark Mothersbaugh is a founding member of Devo, continues to compose music for film, television and video games. And he was with us here in Studio 3A.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.