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Mark Mothersbaugh Whips Up A High Tech Empire

By: Pamela Des Barres

If you head west on famed Sunset Boulevard, just past chic Sunset Plaza and directly across the street from snooty Spago, you'll spy a round building that looks like a miniature version of the crosstown Forum, except it's painted puce-green.

Until recently, this Hollywood landmark was little more than a dilapidated putty-gray blotch, a leftover from the freewheeling '60s and a mute lament of how amusing the Sunset Strip used to be.

As a former Strip strumpet, I'm happy to say that Mark Mothersbaugh and his Mutato Muzika have brought a blast of creative fresh air back to this blazingly historic area.

"I used to have dreams about what the Strip was," the bespectacled Mothersbaugh says as we stroll the circular halls of Mutato. "I'd see pictures in Life magazine of hippie kids. In Akron, Ohio, I was getting beat in school if my hair touched two fingers above my collar. I'd see guys with hair down to their toenails, and I'd think, Man, that's wild!"

It's almost as wild as the work being done by Mothersbaugh--the mastermind behind modern techno-rock vanguard Devo--within his curved offices on the Strip. "There's a certain coming full circle that feels good," he says. "The building was such a sad loser, a pukey horrible thing, and I thought it was such a beautiful shape. Now it looks like a big tub toy!"

From this divine edifice pours forth a host of dynamic multimedia endeavors. Mothersbaugh's Mutato Muzika produces music for video games, television shows (Rugrats, Common Law and Sliders, to name a few) and movies. The conglomerate also manages the Devo Website--one of the more consistently intriguing offerings on the Web--and has just released Adventures of the Smart Patrol, Devo's first CD-ROM.

"Mutato Muzika has allowed Devo to avoid being pigeonholed," Mothersbaugh tells me. "People had their own limited version of what they expected from us: weird synth music; 'Whip It'-style dance music; or punky mosh music. Mutato gave us the guise so we could do mariachi hip-hop or classic polkas, and people were more accepting."

Until the boys donned their red plastic hats and yellow jumpsuits earlier this year for a series of Lollapalooza dates, it had been several years since Devo was heard anywhere outside of a studio. When I caught their act this summer, I was reminded just how dull the rest of rock 'n' roll has become.

So, what made them return? "For years, we would come out of this self-imposed cocoon-siesta-slumber-larva stage every six months or so, look around and zip the bag back up over our heads," Mothersbaugh says. "But this year, we took a look, and it was disturbing. Music was completely bloodless. It was time to effect a laxative on people who never got to hear Devo in the first place."

When Devo surfaced in '77, there was much head scratching by the critics. Remembers Mothersbaugh, "I read reviews saying, 'There are three songs that don't have real drums on them! It's all machine sounds, like motor blasts and rockets! Two songs don't even have guitars! Who are these people? What are they doing?' So 20 years later, every country-western band uses drum machines."

He then adds proudly that his little brother, Robert, invented one of the first drum machines. "We couldn't find anything that could make the sounds we wanted to make. We saw our thing as a total art movement: visual, political, multimedia."

I peer out one of the rounded windows at the Strip sights below and mention that it's a long way from Akron. Mothersbaugh nods. "I remember Charles Laughton saying in the original Island of Lost Souls, 'Are we not men!?' and seeing the shadows of the subhumans running by the House of Pain and thinking, 'That's just like where I live--Akron, Ohio! It's an ugly, gray factory town that was shutting down at the time we were growing up, while the vulcanized rubber companies were moving to third-world countries where the labor was cheaper.

"The Draconian factories were all crumbling. I think Devo had to come out of Akron. Everything influenced us: TV shows, commercials. I loved the really subversive [advertising] campaigns like Burger King's turning Pachabel's 'Canon' into 'Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.' It was such a hideous, amazing campaign that I wound up quoting those lyrics on our first album, Too Much Paranoia."

That industrial background was again in evidence during Lollapalooza, where Devo's quirky sets earned them rave reviews and a new generation of fans. Not bad, considering the band didn't even update its act.

"We didn't prepare anything," Mothersbaugh says. "We did the same show we did in '77--the show that John Lennon, Mick Jagger and David Bowie saw.

"With the grunge thing, bands have a club and garage mentality that doesn't translate to the big stage. We were the band designed to have the big stage show, so that was cool for us. The bands were so sweet. They all had Devo stories; some of them had recorded our songs. Even the Metallica guys were really nice."

Will Devo tour again? "I hope not!" he laughs, "If I do it again, I want it to be Devo's version of the Kiss $110 million tour."

In the late '80s, Devo signed a disastrous record deal that Mothersbaugh calls "a painful ride down on the Industry Titanic." Then, out of the ocean blue, he got a call to do the music for a Hawaiian Punch commercial that featured robots.

The ad won all kinds of awards for Mothersbaugh and led to a stint creating music for the legendary TV series Pee Wee's Playhouse. He also began to score films, starting with Revenge of the Nerds. Most recently, Mutato Muzika did the The Big Squeeze and Breaking Up.

Are these relatively tame projects satisfying for such an avant-garde musician? It all depends on how you look at it. "I grew up in an era that learned a big lesson from the hippies: rebellion is obsolete," Mothersbaugh explains. "The way to truly create change is through subversion, and that's especially so in commercial arts."

"I love to put subliminal messages into commercials: my own footnotes or things that don't even relate to what's going on. Maybe you'll be watching a McDonald's commercial, and you'll hear 'Biology is destiny.'

"I'm at a nice point in my life, because I get called up to do interactive projects. We're doing things with Microsoft, Apple and Sony PlayStation. And I just did Adventures of the Smart Patrol with [Devo bandmate] Jerry Casale. It has a lot of extraspecial things for hard-core Devo fans--songs that have never been released anywhere else, hidden archives, Devo ranting and philosophy. There are about 500 illustrations, and you can see where we got a lot of the original artwork for Devo album covers."

On top of all this multimedia madness, Mothersbaugh also creates his own art. "I'm having a showing right now on our Website," he tells me.

"There's also a little store where you can find all 18 of our albums and the Devo icons--like the red hats and yellow suits. There are Devo fans out there who are still obsessed with getting some of that stuff. Something happened to them during their childhood, so they want it."

But it's the Internet and projects related to the new medium that hold the most appeal for Mothersbaugh, who, among other things, has plans for a Web-only record company.

"The Web is going to revolutionize the world," he says. "It's so important that it could make governments obsolete. People will be communicating with each other. I grew up in fear of Communists wearing swastikas who were going to march down my street, Prang Drive, pull people out of their houses and tie them up. We used to practice diving under our desks in case the A-bomb landed on our school. Now, people are aware that people just like them live in China, Russia or Sarajevo."

And at the Mutato Muzika Forum, right in the heart of the Sunset Strip.

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