Devo get ‘Fresh’ with new album, tour, documentary
Ignorance used to be bliss. Yet somewhere along our evolution excursion, we all went ape.
Recently, our news media delivered a gem of a story, a slice of life so tasteless it made one almost wish for another aimless balloon over Colorado: the evolution of swine flu parties. People hoping to build immunity to the pandemic are flocking together to get each other sick. Are we witnessing de-evolution at work?
“Well, absolutely,” says Gerald Casale, who co-founded rock band Devo soon after he watched his friend die at the hands of the U.S. military. Allison Krause was one of four students killed on May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a Kent State University student protest.
From the bloodshed, a band was born by a gang of art students already furious with Nixon’s recklessness in Cambodia and Vietnam. Originally from Akron, Devo coined their name from a disgust with humanity’s regressive evolution in daily society. Man had resorted to primitive, chauvinistic and thoughtless action and had clearly begun developing in the wrong direction.
Man was de-evolving. Ergo, Devo.
“There’s no question that de-evolution is real. It came true. The world went backwards and down,” says Casale, whose band has unleashed a pair of remastered albums and hit the road for a seven-city tour.
“They were predictive. Now they’re reprising their past, saying ‘I told you so,’” says Robert Margouleff, who produced Devo’s 1980, “Freedom of Choice,” album, which spawned the hit “Whip It.”
Known for their minimalist synthetic sound, herky-jerky performances and uniform wardrobe—sometimes clad in plastic JFK wigs, sometimes in flowerpot-like headgear—Devo sparked two major musical movements during the ‘70s: punk rock and new wave.
“They really are the first post-modern band,” says Jade Dellinger, a Tampa art curator and co-author of “We Are Devo!,” the group’s only biographical account.
“Their ambition was to sign with one of the biggest record companies in the world—which they did—and to sort of dismantle them from the inside, which they never did,” adds Dellinger.
Warner Bros. Records—the label that dropped Devo 25 years ago after six albums—signed the band again in September. Such a move should almost be considered sacrilegious, even anti-Devo, given the band’s outspoken cynicism toward record companies.
“They’re sort of countering what they used to make fun of,” observes “We Are Devo!” co-author David Giffels. “But they pull it off in a charming way.”
“It’s the devil you know,” says Casale, who insists the music industry has dramatically changed since Devo and Warner Bros. parted ways in 1984. The bassist adds that tours, rather than album sales, bring home the bacon and Warner Bros. knows how to whip Devo into shape.
Mark Mothersbaugh, the other creative half of the Devo brainchild, admits:
“It was ironic. The old Warner Brothers we signed with, they were just thugs. I was totally ready to say ‘forget it, I don’t want anything to do with it.’ But I think we’ll be a good match for each other.”
Now flirting with age 60, four original members of Devo—Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale and their brothers, Bob 1 and Bob 2 — are backed by 36-year-old session drummer Josh Freese, who also toured with Weezer and Sting this year. Tour rehearsals commenced Oct. 21 at Mutato Muzika, Mark Mothersbaugh’s West Hollywood studio. Devo will perform back-to-back nightly shows of two early albums in their entirety (“Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” and “Freedom of Choice”). Between the albums, Devo are relearning 11 songs they haven’t played live in about 30 years, says Casale.
“We try every day to get better at them,” he laughs.
“They created their own boogie,” says radio personality Kal Rudman. “The Devo crowd in particular catered to a special niche of people, so it becomes a real treat to go see them again.”
Call it foreplay; Devo are just getting warmed up. Paunchier, angrier and more passionate about their de-evolution message than ever, Devo’s leaders say these November live dates should prove to be good practice; they’ve got a tour scheduled for spring, which will coincide with the release of their first full-length recorded project in 20 years. Just don’t call it an album.
“‘Album’ is just a term to figure out what we’re doing,” says Mothersbaugh.
He would prefer to release Devo’s new stuff online, a few songs at a time.
“We’ll see what comes out. We’re having fun so far.”
“The working title is ‘Fresh Devo,’ because it is. We’re treating it like produce,” Casale points out. “I think it’ll carry forward what people like about us.”
While submission has never been in Devo’s DNA, they’ve stepped away from the console and invited a handful of producers to remix and rework the finished tracks. Contributors include Greg Kurstin (Geggy Tah, Kris Allen), John Hill (Shakira, Jay-Z) and DJ Adam Freeland. John King of the Dust Brothers — a duo known for its textured production of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique”—will produce “Step Up,” a new Devo song.
To bookend the new album and tour, a Devo documentary will likely hit the big screen next year, says filmmaker Tony Pemberton of Go East Productions, a New York-based company.
“Our release date at the moment is for fall 2010 or spring 2011, mostly at festivals and, hopefully, immediately in theatres,” says Pemberton.
Before their new album—whatever form it takes—finds fruition next spring, Devo will continue to evolve (de-evolve?) with film and television ventures. Gerald Casale describes gradual work on his Devo biopic that follows the band from their early days in Akron to their first days with Warner Bros.
Mark Mothersbaugh, whose scoring credits include “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” “Rugrats,” Wes Anderson’s films and, most recently, the animated “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” says he plans to pitch an “Adult Swim-style show” along the lines of “a twisted, dark Dick Tracy.” It too will examine the theory of de-evolution.
“Since the beginning we’ve been kind of anti-stupidity and pro-information,” he says. “I’m all for six billion humans, but I’m not for having them on the planet at the same time.”
“Fresh Devo” won’t be the last we’ll hear from those iconic perpetrators of political prowess.
“I’m hoping that after we put this out there’ll be at least one curtain call,” Casale laughs.
For their first album in 1978, Devo chose to cover a classic song, one that likely seemed overly ambitious on paper for a band that had just inked a deal with Warner Bros. What Devo crafted remains one of the most inventive covers of all time: a rhythmically robotic version of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Well into their 60s, The Stones continue to make music and tour the world for their fans. Will Devo follow suit 10 years from now?
Mothersbaugh and Casale are, after all, the new wave Jagger and Richards: raucous, haunting, oddly sensual.
“Who knows,” says Mothersbaugh. “Humans might not be around when I’m approaching 70.”
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