By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'Twas an esteemed watchdog of modern society who once said, "I say, whip it. Whip it good!"
The music of Devo is chirpy and chilly, perky and punky, and the pioneering synthesizer band's early hits are enshrined in the seeming fluff of 1980s pop culture. But when Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale assembled the band in the late '70s, they had serious social commentary in mind.
The name itself is a shortening of "de-evolution," an idea that humankind actually regresses as it moves forward in time, instead of evolves toward an ever-brighter enlightenment. In the cold but still tuneful medium of electronic new wave, Devo was able to match the message to the medium, producing catchy but often controversial songs about the apeman on the train next to you ("Jocko Homo"), the perils of having "Freedom of Choice" and a rockist-riling cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."
The latest revival of the Devo brand came this year with a new studio album, the lively and toothy "Something for Everybody," and a new tour, which includes a stop this weekend at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.
Mothersbaugh spoke with the Sun-Times about the band's revival of misfortunes, how they have tried to use advertising against itself and the pitiful state of the world overall:
Q. What drew you back to the studio after 10 years?
A. We're old-timers, and we forgot what made us stop in the first place. Kidding. Actually, we met with our label [Warner Bros.] and instead of pontificating to us about what a record company is and what an artist does, they said, "We're trying to reinvent ourselves. Maybe you can help us."
Q. The brave new world you've been singing about has arrived. Why join them on their quest?
A. We always want to be a part of something new and changing. The Internet has changed the way musicians and artists create art, and the way audiences experience it. It's even changed what art is. I like it. To me, YouTube is much more interesting than MTV ever was. For what you lose in some sort of quality, just the idea that you can watch this incredible encyclopedia of all sorts of music and art and information, well, I think it would be a really great time to be 20 years old and thinking, "I want to be an artist, but I don't know what to do."
Q. Your first experiences with Warner Bros., I'm guessing, were not open, round-table discussions.
A. [Laughs] There was a marketing meeting when we first landed at Warner [in 1977]. We're sitting around a table with these guys, and one guy goes, "Here's the marketing plan for your music: We're going to put life-size cut-outs of you in every major record store in the country." And then he just leaned back and smiled and the other guys tipped their coffee cups. We looked around. That was it. We said, "How much will that cost?" $5,000. "Can we have that money to make a film instead?" They were like, "A film? What can we do with a film?" We took the $5,000 and made the "Satisfaction" video, and they indeed had no idea what to do with it. We mostly showed it on a screen before we started our shows. But we kept talking about sound and vision, sound and vision. Then along came MTV, and instead of killing rock outright it kind of propped it up for another 10-15 years.
Q. Why is Devo always wrapped up inextricably with marketing and advertising?
A. It goes back to our beginnings. Gerry [Casale, the other Devo co-founder] and I were at Kent State in 1970, protesting the Vietnam War. Gerry was there the day they shot the kids on campus. I was protesting because, OK, they're commies, I don't care. They can have bad government if they want; I don't want us to be napalming them for it. After the shootings, everyone went quiet. So the first thing we learned was: rebellion is obsolete in capitalist culture.
Q. Even though that's the founding image of rock 'n' roll.
A. Exactly, but look how they all change. The Sex Pistols turned into groovy fashion statements. Anything political they were about was turned into a way for capitalists to make money. We wondered: How do affect change in a democracy? Who does it best? Even then, it was Madison Avenue. They don't do it by attacking, they do it by hugging you to death. So while we don't like most of the things they sell us — it's mostly conspicuous consumption and mindless consumerism — the techniques they use work. So we thought: What if we use those techniques for good instead of evil?
Q. You had this conversation with a major record label?
A. This time we did. They wanted us back. We said, "On one condition: Let us use an ad agency for marketing instead of you guys." We talked them into hiring Mother [a new ad agency in Los Angeles], and we talked to them about marketing a brand that had been off the marketplace for 25 years. We did focus groups, color studies, all kinds of things. We wound up using advertising techniques to skewer themselves but also advance our cause, so to speak.
Q. Haven't Devo songs have been used in ads for years, hawking all manner of products?
A. We've licensed Devo songs a thousand times, always have, always wanted to. "Whip It" has been "flip it" and "strip it" and Swiffer, I think, made it "Swiff it." To me, if that stupid commercial puts Devo in your head, and some kid who doesn't really know the song hears it and makes a connection to Devo, maybe he'll be proactive to find out what we're all about, hear the real lyrics, make it more important. It's like when "Freedom of Choice" gets used in a beer commercial. I don't drink beer, but if a beer drinker hears the lyric and it makes him think, "What do they mean by that?" that's better than not thinking it.
Q. You play both sides of this game. You write a lot of music for TV commercials. You even used to slip in subliminal messages, right?
A. I did do that early on, yes. I'd sneak in Devo catchphrases, like "Duty now for the future" and "Be like your ancestors or be different." If I didn't like the product, I'd put in "Sugar is bad for you" or "Question authority." It's easy to do. I lost interest after about 40 of them. It's funny, though, when you're unveiling these things in meetings, and you get to the part where you can barely hear "Choose your mutations carefully." I have to be careful not to blush.
Q. Why did you stop?
A. It's not necessary anymore. More people believe in our original concept of de-evolution than ever. Years ago, they thought we just had a bad attitude. We're just about the Captain & Tennille at this point. Honestly, I didn't think de-evolution would happen so soon. But here we are waiting in incredibly long lines at the airport for incredibly old planes with not enough food or water or air, and we have way too many people and no one is talking about the biggest problem on the planet, which is overpopulation. I never thought it would be like this so quickly. But, hey, we do have portable cell phones.
WITH DIRTY PROJECTORS
• 7:30 p.m. Thursday
• Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
• $35-$100; congresschicago.com
• 4 p.m. Friday
• Grant Park, Michigan and Congress
• $90-$850; lollapalooza.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.