Freedom of Choice
Devo was always as subversive as any punk rock band. Maybe more so, because they seemed so much more palatable on the surface. Forming in Akron, Ohio, in the early '70s, they applied their concept of "devolution" — that society is steadily moving backward, not forward — in a way that worked as conceptual art and pop music.
The group's synth-heavy sound and lockstep rhythms on albums such as 1978's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (produced by Brian Eno) and 1981's Freedom of Choice were a fundamental influence on New Wave, while the radiation suits and flowerpot hats of the "Whip It" video and their famous cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" on Saturday Night Live branded Devo's über-nerd image into the minds of people who were also the unwitting subject matter of "Jocko Homo," "Mongoloid," "Girl U Want" and "Gates of Steel."
After taking most of the '90s and '00s off — lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh did extensive soundtrack work, while bassist Gerald Casale directed videos for Soundgarden and Foo Fighters, among others — Devo returned at full satiric speed with last fall's Something for Everybody (Warner Bros.). Songs like "Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)," which keys off the infamous "Don't tase me, bro" YouTube meme, reveal a band as pungent and peppy as ever.
Reports vary, but as best as Casale can remember, the last time Devo played Houston before Friday's Warehouse Live show didn't go so well. That early-'80s night at U of H's Cullen Performance Hall ended with the bassist and Devo's stage manager being hauled off to jail because the band didn't end their set quite as quickly as the police officers just offstage wanted.
You'll have to see our Rocks Off music blog (blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks) for that story, though. Just find "They Fought the Law" on the drop-down category menu because, well, they did. Casale, meanwhile, had a lot more to talk about one Friday last month from his home in Santa Monica.
"It's 75 degrees and sunny," he said. "Boringly the same, but I'm so thankful that I'm not anywhere else."
Houston Press: So what's new in Devo world?
Gerald Casale: Well...what is new? I guess the fact that things have devolved quicker and quicker than we predicted. We're rather happy about it. We ourselves have become cases in point of de-evolution. Now we're proof of concept.
The fact that we exist at all and stand in front of people and play is kind of like going to see silverback gorillas at the zoo. Like, "God, they're really here and they really can still jump and sing and play. Whoa, that's scary."
HP: What led to this recent reboot of Devo?
GC: It just seemed like on the heels of eight years of George Bush, it was only fitting and just that Devo come back. Basically [laughs] I can't tell the difference between CNN.com and The Onion, you know what I mean? That's the world we live in. It's one big joke. It seemed so right for Devo — de-evolution is not a theory, it's a reality, and here we are as the projectors.
HP: Considering how much mass marketing and consumerism has infiltrated every area of pop culture, does the band feel vindicated at all these days?
GC: [laughs] In a sad way [laughs again]. It isn't like that's what we wanted to happen, [but] it did and yes, you're right, marketing is the Holy Grail. Everything is just about marketing. Everything is like A.J. Hammer on Entertainment Tonight, you know — "The Shocking Truth," and it turns out to be just one more piece of trivial pap. There's nothing shocking about it; it's more tawdry and boring than anything else.
HP: Your band was one of the first ones to blur the line between satire and pop music. How do you think that's played out?
GC: Well, we were doing it on purpose, and we were letting the audience in on it, and even in our music videos, we considered what we were doing an art form. We didn't call it music videos, and it wasn't just a commercial for the band. It was content. It had some kind of substance to it.
What happened is the irony that we were exploring was the first thing to get tossed (laughs) in the New World, so that now people do it without shame and without any sense of ironic involvement.
HP: Do you all share that sort of skewed view toward current events and society?
GC: Yeah. That's what kind of bonded us together in the first place, as a group of outsiders who had similar warped, odd senses of humor that came from, you know, feeling alienated. Certainly to be a thinking person or an artistic person, a clever person, in Akron, Ohio, was not rewarded.
So [chuckles], we were just looked upon as the poor, sorry bastards who actually spend their nights in some dingy basement or garage, making this weird music that was not going to go anywhere, and people either made fun of us or felt sorry for us. I mean, the guy [who] managed McDonald's, he was pulling down all the girls.
HP: Are you at all surprised at how influential Devo's sound has become over the years?
GC: Well, that's kind of heartening, because as an artist you like to think you say what you can as long as you can, and maybe you do some things right. The only thing I can figure out as to why a whole new generation and demographic like Devo from discovering Devo from the Internet, is because we were about something.
We weren't just some trendy band locked into a year you can pinpoint — "Okay, white shirts and skinny ties," you know? When you look at what we did, it didn't even really fit in with anything else that was going on at the time, but we got lumped in with New Wave, or whatever.
So when we heard stuff like early LCD Soundsystem, the Kills, the Ting Tings, MSTRKRFT and a number of others, we were heartened, like, "Wow! We like that stuff." Then it's like, "Oh, well, no kidding you like that stuff. It sounds like it's got Devo all through it." We like what we did in the first place, so it's hard not to like it the second time around.
HP: I didn't realize that the group's origins go back to Kent State. How much did the shootings there play into the beginnings of Devo?
GC: Speaking for myself, I wouldn't have founded Devo had that not happened. How that transformed me and how that worked me ended up manifesting itself creatively as the Devo aesthetic. All those, like, attitudinal things and aesthetic positions and theory and concept came out of that experience.
That was just a shocking, warping experience, where you suddenly grow up overnight. Until then, maybe I was more in line with the zeitgeist of the time, like laissez-faire, hippie-love guy, and then I got politicized.
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