Interview: Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo
Devo, the legendary new-wave band famous for herky-jerky pop hits like “Whip It,” adheres to the theory of “de-evolution”–the idea that humanity is regressing rather than evolving through societal dysfunction and follow-the-pack mentality. But when the industrial suit-wearing oddballs made Something for Everybody, the band’s first record in 20 years, they did everything they could to appeal to the masses: its twelve subversively catchy synth-pop tracks, which contain references to things like the Taliban and the infamous University of Florida Taser incident, were cleared through an extensive focus group approval process.
Appealing to the masses might sound counter-intuitive to Devo philosophy. But mass appeal is the point, says Mark Mothersbaugh–a Devo co-founder and prolific composer of movie soundtracks, T.V. show theme songs and music for commercials–who maintains that the only way to change society is through subversion. In a recent phone interview ahead of Devo’s performance in Balboa Park on Sunday, July 18, as part of the San Diego Pride Festival, Mothersbaugh talked about the focus group process, humanity’s continuing de-evolution, and how he inserted subliminal messages into commercials.
Tell me about this focus group process. How did that work?
We hired Mother LA [an ad agency based in Los Angeles, who list Devo as their only client on their website], and we talked about the things that changed a lot in the world for us as Devo. Back in the ’70s, if you asked people if they believe in de-evolution, they would say, ‘You’re insane! You’re an asshole! You’re a cynic!’ and now, you say it and people go, ‘Yeah-hoo, let’s party! Things are devolved, let’s go!’ We felt it was time to ask people what they thought about Devo and de-evolution, and we took it to heart.
What kind of feedback did you get?
Well, we did a color study and people decided that the Devo red hat was too aggressive and thought we should change it to blue. And we did.
Did they pooh-pooh any songs you were really into?
Yeah, there were songs that we were surprised they didn’t choose. There was a radical mix of “Don’t Shoot.” I still think that’s going to come out because that’s so radical. It’s maybe the most radical thing that we did in the last three or four months—the last six or eight months, I mean. During the whole time of this record, the last couple years.
What was radical about it?
A band called Polysics did a remix. They really took out a lot of it. They sped it up. Some of the part in the middle where it slows down and there’s a speaking section—they took half of that out. They took out a lot of the “I’m a man”s. It’s a lot of [voices fast rock groove] “Don’t shoot!”, “Don’t shoot!”, “Don’t shoot!” It sounded more like “Uncontrollable Urge” from our first record.
It’s been twenty years since Devo last released an album. To what extent do you think society has de-evolved in those twenty years?
It’s a Mike Judge movie now. It’s like the whole world’s kind of turned into Idiocracy, in a way. People make decisions based on anything but the facts. They have access to more information than ever, but yet they’re filled with more misinformation than ever. Just look at where the last twenty years have taken us, you know, with our own government. Things have just gone downward. Education is last in line for funding and bombs are first in line, once again. I think the dumbing-down of the planet is not hard to recognize.
Have you ever worried that maybe you’ve succumbed to de-evolution yourself?
Oh, I know I have. Certainly physically. It’s like—you know, sitting at a desk writing music for the last twenty years and [I] went back on a stage and realized it was a good thing that those yellow suits were so big. I’ve been losing weight for the last year or two and it’s hard when you’re old. It’s easy when you’re twenty.
I was listening to an interview with you and you were talking about how you were at the protest at the Kent State shootings in 1970. I see a parallel between the shootings and the Tasering of the guy at the University of Florida, which you make a reference to it in your song “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man).”
I think what we learned and took away from being idealistic young people–who said, “You don’t have to napalm humans in my name over there in Vietnam! I don’t really think you need to napalm them and pay for it. I don’t think I want to be doing that. I don’t think I want to be represented like that. I think there’s other ways to do things”–we found out that rebellion could only go so far in a democracy. The ideal is that you could speak your mind. But in reality, it was given limitations.
What I think we took away from it was that rebellion was obsolete, and that the only way you really change things in our culture is through subversion. So we looked around and came to the conclusion that maybe Madison Avenue was the best at influencing people indirectly.
In terms of advertising?
Right. Unfortunately, most of Madison Avenue was for bad stuff. But the techniques were valid.
I heard you talking about that on NPR recently. You said you guys were inspired by commercials.
Yeah. When we were kids, we listened and watched everything. It wasn’t just like we listened only to, you know, radio—either FM or AM or pop or alternative, if there was such a thing, which I don’t think there even was back then. We listened to everything. We listened to film soundtracks. We listened to music when we were at the mall. We listened to music in elevators. We listened to music on TV commercials. And understood the validity of all of it.
What about commercials in particular interests you?
I just like the creativity that’s involved. I ended up working in commercials for a long time, or at least writing music for commercials just out of curiosity about the media. There was a commercial in the early 70s that I really liked, and I paid attention to, because it made me laugh. It was Burger King and they took Pachelbel’s Canon and turned this beautiful piece of music–one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the classic music world–and they turned it into, “Hold the pickles / Hold the lettuce / Special orders don’t upset us / All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” That was successful. And then they proceeded to change that into a country-western version, and a folk version, and a rock version, and a funk, Motown kind of version.
Early on in our career, we made this movie called The Truth About De-Evolution. The Akron Art Institute showed our film. It’s seven and a half minutes long, it wasn’t very long. I remember this woman coming up being really upset, going, “I know what you’re doing! I can see what you’re doing!” And we were like, “Uh, what? What’s that?” She says, “I know what’s going on here! I saw subliminal messages. I saw the word ‘submit’ and I saw the word ‘obey.’” And she was really upset. She was agitated. And I remember Jerry [Casale, a founding member of Devo] and us going, “What a good idea! That’s great!”
When I started doing commercials, I used to put my own messages in them—and did it for twenty or thirty of them before I finally got bored with it because it was too easy.
Could you give me an example?
I got hired to do music for a soft drink that I thought was absolutely terrible tasting—and it was like almost pure sugar, anyhow. I put the subliminal message, ‘Sugar is bad for you.’ And in other commercials, I put messages like, ‘We must repeat,’ ‘Question authority.’
How would you do that?
You just put it right below the threshold of what people hear. They’re already listening for something when they listen to a commercial. Once you put lyrics or a melody on it, they’re following that. And so you can turn it up pretty loud.
So you would slip these lines into the jingle?
I put it underneath a cymbal or a horn riff or a guitar line or something, or a synth part that you would not right away go, ‘Oh, I just heard lyrics.’ You would be, ‘Oh, that was interesting,’ but not even recognize it. It’s not that hard to do, that’s the funny thing.
I know Devo has redone songs for commercials—like the “Swiff It” commercial for the Swiffer. Did you do anything with those?
We didn’t have to. To me, just redoing the lyrics on a Devo song was subversive enough. Because what it meant is, a kid who likes the song would go, ‘Lemme hear that.’ And then they’d hear the real song and then the real lyrics would become much more resonant. I always loved the idea of like taking our lyrics and distorting them for a commercial. Actually, “Whip It”—we have “Strip It,” “Slip It,” “Zip It,” “Swiff It”… There were like eleven or twelve different “Whip It”s out there, where you put them on a reel and you have a really crazy six minutes of viewing pleasure.
Do you ever worry that, instead of subverting these commercials, you’re actually subverting Devo or losing sight of the de-evolutionary vision?
I’m not that worried about it. I know what you’re saying. I learned to deal with that a long time ago and never felt that way. I always felt like what we were talking about, if it had any meaning at all, it would be relevant when people came back to it.
And you’re right. People can say, ‘Oh, Devo! They’re not Devo—they’re De-ho. They just let anybody use their music.’ I’m sure there’s people that think that way.
I think of Andy Warhol, who was my hero when I was a kid. If he were still alive, I think he would get a kick out of our marketing focus groups that we did with this new album. I think he would love the idea of taking a pop song and turning it into a tool to sell stupid, conspicuous crap. Maybe it does make some people interested in Hershey’s chocolate or something else, but we’re taking a ride on that, too. Because the Hershey’s chocolate people have just embedded our virus into their product. That’s how I see it. I see the Devo virus has just been further insinuated into our culture.
And, I mean, you know what? On some level, kids will never think of Devo as anything other than a kick-ass band to dance to, or to skateboard to, or to make-out to or something. They might think of it just as that, on the lowest level. But there’s a percentage of kids, somewhere along the line—it may not happen the first time they hear the record—somewhere along the line, they’re going to be saying those lyrics, singing those lyrics at work in their head or something. And they’re gonna go, “What does he mean when he says, ‘We’re pinheads now / We are not whole / We’re pinheads all / Jocko Homo’? What’s that mean? What’re they talking about?” I’m patient. I think that’s the way you change things—I think it’s through subversion.
Devo headlines San Diego Pride Fest concerts at Marston Point in Balboa Park on Sunday, July 18. For more info, check out San Diego LGBT Pride’s website.