Evolving into songwriter for the Rugrats' live show

Gee, Devo! A new generation goes ape for Mothersbaugh
Published: Sunday, October 18, 1998
San Jose Mercury News
Edition: Morning Final
Section: Silicon Valley Life

Mercury News Music Writer

YOU can't help but see a certain irony here.

Twenty years ago, Mark Mothersbaugh fronted the band Devo, whose basic concept was that society had evolved from a band of insane apes and was devolving, rather than evolving.

Next month, he and his band mates play a group of monkeys in the new ''Rugrats'' movie.

Last week, Mothersbaugh and Devo gave a rare concert performance as part of the Silicon Planet show at the old FMC tank factory.

Next week, the parents who attended that show can bring their kids to hear Mothersbaugh's new music, sung by the Rugrats in their live stage show at SanJose Arena.

He's written 14 songs in an array of styles, including rap, calypso, opera and rock, that appeal to kids without talking down to them. There are even twists for adults (Angelica, for example, listing Dallas among the important countries of the world in a song).

Kids as human beings

''You can't talk down to kids,'' says Mothersbaugh. ''They can sense it. I remember when I was 8, the things I thought were funny weren't what was geared to 8-year-olds. The goal with Rugrats was to come up with something where kids were treated like human beings.''

Parents and kids will be able to relate to the theme of the nastiest Rugrat, Angelica: ''The world is a cookie and I'm going to eat it just like that.''

Mothersbaugh was signed up to do the instrumental background music for the show after one of the show's creators, Gabor Csupo, heard the Devo man's first solo album, ''Music for Insomniacs.''

The album was labeled ''Space Age Bachelor Pad Music,'' the first ambient disc to carry that label, one that was at the forefront of a genre of lounge instrumentals.

There was one song with a ''Tinkertoy, M.C. Escher, melodic wallpaper feel.'' That became the Rugrats theme song, the call to action that beckons kids away from the dinner table toward their favorite cartoon heroes and antiheroes.

(Mothersbaugh says he saw a poll that called it the most recognizable cartoon in the world, bigger than Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse. And he says he's gotten more fame from this than from selling millions of albums with Devo.)

90-minute show

The stage show, which has toured the country for a year, is similar to a cartoon episode, played over 90 minutes (with a half-hour break to ply the kids with irresistible and not inexpensive souvenirs in the form of light sticks like those in the play and a sugar buzz in the form of sponsor Mini M&M's for $2.50 a canister). It's not quite Broadway, but it's a worthy introduction for kids to a live performance. The characters are in giant heads and suits. Most lip sync, with the exception of Stu and Didi, who aren't smothered in 10-pound heads.

In its Oakland debut two weeks ago, the show drew raves from the audience. Kids can shake hands with their heroes by the stage during breaks. But the biggest shouts went for Susie, the show's African-American girl, who is the hero and helps break Angelica's evil grip on the toddlers.

And, very encouraging for parents considering a ticket purchase, seats in front aren't necessarily better than those farther back. The sound was clearer in the cheaper seats, and the show took on more television-like proportions.

So is this career devolution or evolution for the songwriter?

''In Devo, we were like musical reporters,'' says Akron native Mothersbaugh, 48. ''In some ways I think that's what happens with Rugrats. I'm making less grand statements but the philosophy and intentions are still the same.''

Devo, he says, wanted to destroy traditional rock by using sound and vision together. This was pre-MTV.

''We were idealistic. We thought we would bury rock and create a new vision that was smarter, pro-people and anti-stupidity.''

But as they lost the ability to crank out hits, and as MTV and countless new artists co-opted their vision, Devo lost its novelty and its forum.

Luckily, Mothersbaugh and partners found theirs, in Los Angeles, creating videos, commercials and interactive forums.

''I'm thankful,'' says Mothersbaugh. ''I like the idea of life after rock 'n' roll. It's like getting a chance to reinvent yourself and get paid to write music.''

Mothersbaugh's current incarnation includes a four-story circular studio building on Sunset Strip, across from Tower Records, which is the home of his company, Mutato Muzika. He and brother Bob (also in Devo), have written musicthere for TV commercials as well as ''Pee-Wee's Playhouse,'' The Learning Channel and the Adam Sandler film ''Happy Gilmore.''

He's also doing a dozen Devo shows a year, mostly at corporate parties.

''Just enough so that it's fun, but we don't become Spinal Tap.''

He says Devo was serious about its world view, but the band was forced to appear clownish by the record company.

While at Kent State, he and Jerry Casale witnessed the killing of four students protesting the invasion of Cambodia and latched onto the devolution theory, which held that mankind evolved from mutant, brain-eating apes and was slowly going insane.

Dressed in yellow jumpsuits and red planter headpieces, the band had a herky-jerky style that was supposed to be ironic, says Mothersbaugh.

Playing around Ohio, billing themselves as a Top 40 band, they would get audiences revved up with anger and hatred. Rolling Stone magazine called them fascists; their label thought they were a joke.

The lean days

''We were a lightning rod to people's hostilities,'' says Mothersbaugh. ''We figured that if we (angered) people that much, we must be doing something right.''

While they were living out of cars and crashing on friends' couches, artist and record producer Brian Eno heard their demo and flew them to Germany. The next thing they knew, they were hanging out with David Bowie and members of the German synthesizer art rock movement, such as Can.

They watched Mick Jagger dance to their version of ''Satisfaction,'' played on ''Saturday Night Live'' and had Top 10 singles. Then, their star dropped and fans turned to other jumpsuited heros, such as the Beastie Boys.

Now, with a wave of 1980s nostalgia, Devo, like Kraftwerk, is being lauded as a pioneer of current sounds.

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