From The LA Times (2/4/97)
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They were a remarkable and perplexing sight when they burst onto the new wave rock scene in 1978: five self-described "spud-boys" in yellow lab suits, jerking and twitching to a cunningly deconstructed version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" and declaiming a dystopic notion of backward progress--the theory of "devolution." Were they a punk band? An art project? A weird prank? Were they not men? They were Devo.
"Basically, we were the thinking man's KISS," says Jerry Casale, a founding member of the group from Akron, Ohio, and director of its groundbreaking videos. "We were always a real rock band, but we were also conceptual and we were visual. We used the same four chords as everybody else, but we twisted them up weird and set them to a strange beat.
"We didn't have the label 'performance art,' but that's what it was. And if you liked Devo, it was either a badge of courage or a prison stamp. We were the original nerd band when rock was supposed to be macho. Now it's OK to be a nerdy rocker, then--it got you beat up."
It's been quite a while since allegiance to Devo provoked pummelings. In fact, the band--whose last studio album was released in 1990--was received warmly by a new generation when it regrouped to tour as part of last summer's Lollapalooza festival. Still, the erstwhile spuds haven't lost their taste for heady tweaking of the pop mainstream. They've simply gotten sneakier.
Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo's bespectacled co-founder, are seated in a small, stark conference room within the gleaming, high-tech confines of Mutato Muzika, the music production company Mothersbaugh founded six years ago. Mutato, housed in the shocking green "Little Forum" building on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, isn't so much a departure from Devo days as perhaps the most logical culmination of the Devo aesthetic.
Amid the dada sculpture and future-chic furnishings are three state-of-the-art recording studios and a number of computer workstations where Mutato composers work on music projects that range from sitcom themes to national ad campaigns.
"Devo's never really gone away," says the soft-spoken Mothersbaugh, whose friendly manner belies the band's cold, cyber-geek image. "But Mutato became the way that we could make music and not have everybody assume we're wearing red plastic flowerpot hats. We can work with a jazz trio, a klezmer band or an orchestra and nobody expects us to be in yellow jumpsuits.
"It also gives us a chance to write music and be involved in pop culture at a more subversive level. It's not the same as going out on stage in front of 50,000 people with songs you wrote. But on the other hand, you write music for an ad on Monday, and on Saturday 20 million people are listening to it."
The odd, multimedia world of Devo, complete with its theory of a world devolving into corporate-enforced blandness, was developed by Mothersbaugh and Casale when they were art students at Kent State University in the early '70s.
Eventually they assembled a band that included Mothersbaugh's brother (Bob #1), Casale's brother (Bob #2) and drummer Alan Myers. With the release of its debut album, produced by Brian Eno, the band quickly achieved notoriety with its mix of high art, low comedy and brainy presentation.
Its commercial success peaked in 1980 with the Top 20 hit "Whip It," but Devo's influence has been felt deeply in other ways. By melding mechanical sounds and rhythms into pop song structures, Devo's work prefigured much of today's techno and industrial music. And Devo was inventive and innovative in creating films for its songs well before MTV made the rock video a requirement for most bands.
Mothersbaugh's first effort apart from Devo was as a composer for "Pee-wee's Playhouse"--Emmy-winning work that quickly secured him more offers to write for TV shows, films and CD-ROMs.
Today, he oversees a boggling variety of projects at Mutato Muzika--from scoring TV's "Rugrats" to producing tracks for a new David Byrne album; from the restoration of classic "Popeye" cartoon scores to the sound design for Sony Playstation's Crash Bandicoot to ads for McDonald's, Coke and Toyota.
The Mutato building also serves as Devo headquarters, where the band's 2,000-plus archival tapes are stored. Bob Mothersbaugh, an Emmy-winning composer in his own right, is part of the Mutato team, and Bob Casale is Mutato's chief engineer.
Jerry Casale, though not part of the Mutato staff, is a frequent visitor and recently used the facilities to develop a new Devo CD-ROM interactive game. Most of Casale's time is spent directing rock videos. He has worked with such bands as Soundgarden, Silverchair and the Foo Fighters.
But Casale and Mothersbaugh don't rule out a return to recording or touring as Devo. Casale particularly was heartened by the response the group got from the Lollapalooza crowds.
"Our music sounded oddly contemporary," he says. "It may have been cutting edge in 1980, but now younger bands and older Devo sound very much alike. We were playing for appreciative crowds, even if they had no idea who we were."
That appreciation puzzled Mothersbaugh a bit.
"It was a thrill to be out there, but it's a little weird to have huge crowds cheering for Devo. I remember playing for 12 people in these tiny clubs in Akron, where the reaction was mainly outrage. Guys would rip off our rubber masks and scream, 'Play Aerosmith!' To be honest, I kind of miss the really confrontational days."
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