Devo Whips Sundance Into Shape With New Doc

There has only ever been one Devo — and there will likely never be another. The new wave band best known for their 1980 megahit “Whip It” was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1973, when two sets of brothers — Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald and Bob Casale — met at Kent State University and decided to create an art collective.

The name came from the concept of “de-evolution,” a kind of reverse Darwinism that posited, tongue in cheek, that humankind was moving backwards. But then they bore witness to the infamous Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970, in which Ohio National Guardsmen killed four unarmed student war protesters — pushing Devo into the realm of performances and protest art. Along the way, they created surrealist art videos to accompany their music, including 1976’s short film The Truth About De-Evolution, which became an underground phenomenon, drawing the attention of David Bowie and landing them a record deal at Warner.

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The band’s story is told in a new documentary from Chris Smith (Wham!, Fyre) that screens Sunday at Sundance with the band in attendance. They will follow that up with an event Jan. 27 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to showcase their newly restored and remastered film and video archives and celebrate their 50th anniversary.

Director Smith, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to reminisce about Devo’s unlikely rise to pop stardom.

Chris, why did you want to tell the Devo story?

Smith: I grew up in the Midwest, and we had aspirations of doing things that could go beyond the Midwest, and there weren’t a lot of examples. One of the ones that influenced me and my friends most was Devo. Before the internet, there were few things that really cut through and that felt different and unique and singular, and Devo was one of them. I think it spoke to us on a level artistically that few things did.

You’d get a VHS of Andy Kaufman that would go around with all your friends, and it was the same thing with the Devo video where those tapes got worn out by the time you were done passing them around. You would just watch them on loop. The Devo video was one of those things that I think really opened our minds to what was possible artistically and creatively.

Watching the band come together is so interesting. Could you talk a bit about the tragedy at Kent State, and how it bubbled up out of that? Because it’s such an unusual way for a band to germinate.

Casale: And yet not. We were products of our time and place, but then what we found in that time and place was something that’s universal. That’s all any creative person ever does, is try to see the significance of what they’re dealing with. And rather than forget it or suppress it, they dote on it or obsess on it, and that’s exactly what we did.

It was a horrible time in history, not unlike now, where you had a completely divided, polarized country. You had a made-up war; you had real deaths; you had Nixon.

I had joined SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, when [anti-war activist] Mark Rudd came to campus from Columbia in 1968 to recruit a Kent chapter. That protest in 1970 was just about the expansion of the war into Cambodia without an act of Congress, so once again the divisions between the three rails of government were being usurped by an authoritarian guy — familiar story. We didn’t know the guns were loaded, and that’s where it all changed.

Mothersbaugh: Bob and I were at the protests that happened on the two days prior to the one that Jerry was at. I was at one where they marched down to the army recruiting center and started throwing rocks through the windows, and Bob was there the next day when they burned down the ROTC building. So, by the time Jerry showed up, they had loaded their guns.

But out of something like that, you would expect a very serious song like Neil Young’s “Ohio,” something very earnest and downtrodden. But from that came Devo, which I associate with just mayhem and fun and a lightness. So, can you dot the lines just in terms of how it went from this horrible experience to an otherworldly art installation?

Mothersbaugh: When Devo started out, it was not pop songs. It was not connected to what was happening in pop music at all. It was very experimental and very dark. The first stuff we were writing, Bob wrote songs in 11/4 time. Jerry wrote lyrics that were angry, beatnik, over-the-top lyrics. And I was looking for sounds that nobody had ever heard before. I was looking for V-2 rocket and mortar blasts and ray guns and things like that that hadn’t shown up in music yet. It started off much more angry and aggressive than where it went by the time we started putting records out with Warner and Virgin.

Casale: The trauma went deep and got absolutely conceptual. It wasn’t on the nose, as they say, about writing political songs. It was about feeling really alien — not alienated, but alien. We just looked at humans, and at that point we said, “There is a serious flaw in human nature.” It led to the meta concept that we needed an alternate worldview, because the mainstream view was not explaining adequately what was going on with human beings. Devo was just a huge art collective idea. It was very important to us that we were going to be a multimedia band.

Mothersbaugh: We thought of it like what was happening in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. We were thinking here could be a Devo cabaret or there could be a Club Devo. And then, when we first started talking about a band, we thought, “Well, we don’t really want to just go out on the road and tour.”

I remember long before there was a Menudo, Jerry and I were talking about, “Well, there could be half a dozen Devos. There could be half a dozen bands that went out and did the music.”

Casale: That idea actually came from when Andy Warhol was sending out imposters. We loved it. The art world was scandalized. The national press was scandalized. He would go to events, and it wouldn’t be him. It’d just be a guy with his wig on.

There’s a very interesting story in the film where you have to sit there as Mick Jagger listens to your version of “Satisfaction.” What were you trying to do differently with that song in your cover of it?

Mothersbaugh: It wasn’t like we conceptualized it before we did it. It happened just in one evening where we were just rehearsing. We were in this freezing cold room, and Bob Casale started playing this little riff, and it sounded pretty cool. Jerry started putting a reggae bass on it, and [drummer] Alan [Myers] had this drum part where it started with the snare, and Bob Mothersbaugh put a guitar part over top of it. I don’t know. I started singing “Satisfaction” and it made everybody laugh just because it was not an obvious fit.

Casale: It was true spontaneity, true creativity and one of those cases where it’s proof that we were an actual collective. We did it together, and it wouldn’t have happened unless we were all in that room together.

It was like a proof of concept example. Because while Jagger was singing about getting no satisfaction, it sure sounded like he was. The song sounds like sex-oriented, preening, male, rooster music. And ours sounded like that guy really can’t get no satisfaction.

I’d love to know the origin story of your iconic, red energy dome hats. Where did those come from?

Casale: Like ’74, ’75 —

Mothersbaugh: We were interested, like we said, in these art movements happening in Europe in the ’20s and ’30s. We were talking about things like Ballet Mécanique and the futurists in Italy. We loved their geometric designs and costumes.

I remember one day we were sitting at the table in Bob and Jerry’s apartment. Bob came in the room with a comic book that had a space character that was wearing that hat but it had little ear flaps on it. A couple years later, Jerry’s close friend out here in California was John Zabrucky, who started one of the biggest prop companies in LA. John connected him up with a prop builder named Brent Scrivner, and Jerry gave him a drawing of what that hat should look like.

Casale: It became something everybody laughed at and everybody wanted. They said it was a flower pot. It was like the old joke of putting a lampshade on your head, except in fact it was none of that. And the ultimate design was just based on the proportions of an art deco ceiling fixture. Just imagine it hanging, but then turn it around and put it on your head and make it scaled to the human head.

Mothersbaugh: We liked the idea of all looking the same.

Casale: We already had the Naugahyde suits, and this was the accessory — geometric hats that are evocative of Mayan temples and everything from the ’20s and ’30s and look good with the silver suits.

Did you guys ever cross paths with Kraftwerk at all?

Mothersbaugh: Yeah. Matter of fact, we were recording our first album in Neunkirchen, Germany.

Casale: February of 1978.

Mothersbaugh: And while we were there, we got a call from them, and they said they were going to do their first tour, and they asked if they could play the Devo film, The Truth about De-Evolution with “Jocko Homo” and “Secret Agent Man” in it. They asked if they could use that for their opening act, and we were like, “Yeah, that sounds great.”

There’s a similarity to Devo in the uniforms and the dehumanization.

Casale: There was a lot of crossover there.

Mothersbaugh: I think Kraftwerk are what Ramones are to punk and what AC/DC is to heavy metal. They have a very succinct voice, and it’s very minimalist, but it is exactly what it’s supposed to be.

One of the things that’s so interesting is the way that you pre-dated MTV with your visuals, and then you were in the exact right place and right time for the birth of MTV — but then MTV quickly turned on you.

Casale: It’s a familiar story that happens all the time to everyone. We were the pioneers who got scalped. They needed us because they had no content, and we had anticipated the art form, as you said. So, they took five videos and rotated them insanely.

But they were only in three cities. And then, they went national with American Express investment money, and they suddenly tied their playlist to Top 40. That vision about new kinds of music with great videos took a back seat to just pure numbers. They didn’t really care how bad a video was as long as it was attached to a hit song.

It didn’t seem like they were really interested in art.

Mothersbaugh: Exactly.

Casale: We were so naive to think that they would be.

According to the film, “Whip It” wasn’t supposed to be some big smash. What was it to you?

Casale: It was just a song we liked that we wanted on the record. We didn’t put anything on a record that we didn’t like, but it was just one idea. And I wouldn’t even know how you would do another “Whip It,” because it would be silly, right? What do you do, start with the same beat?

Mothersbaugh: Well, somebody did “Beat It,” and then somebody else did “Whip It Good.”

Casale: Yeah, that’s true, but other people.

It was funny to me when you came out with the “Whip It” video and its kind of overt sexual content. Then a subsequent video with just a french fry going through a donut that got you banned from MTV.

Casale: An animated french fry and animated donut.

Your relation to sexuality is interesting. You present yourselves as very asexual creatures, almost completely mocking the sexuality of the American music industry. Did you guys actually have groupies? You must have. You were really big. How did you deal with those?

Mothersbaugh: They were mostly guys.

Casale: Maybe I was delusional. I never thought of them as groupies. There’s women that like brain surgeons. There’s women that like professional golfers. Are they groupies? They’re honing in on what you do and being turned on by your expertise or professionalism or creativity. Men chase beauty and women chase success. I know that sounds politically incorrect, but it’s the truth.

OK, so it sounds like you did have groupies.

Casale: If you want to call them that. I thought groupies did it with any band that came through town.

I’m sure you did have people that followed you around and dressed like you and did the Grateful Dead thing with Devo.

Casale: Like Bob said, those were mostly guys.

Did you have a gay following?

Mothersbaugh: We did get flowers and candy from young boys that were smitten.

What was the craziest proposition ever made to you? I’m thinking a Saturday morning cartoon or a Broadway musical. Did people approach you with these kinds of things?

Casale: The most outrageous thing was Richard Branson trying to make Johnny Rotten the lead singer of Devo. That was the most outrageous.

Mothersbaugh: That’s an odd one, yeah.

What happened?

Mothersbaugh: He’d flown Bob Casale and me down to Jamaica, and we met in a hotel. He was with about three or four of the South Africans that he’d started Virgin with, and they started rolling these gigantic joints. In Ohio, we didn’t have anything like that. Probably any marijuana you got in Ohio was half oregano anyhow. And they just kept passing them to us and making us smoke this stuff.

And then, we started talking about Sex Pistols. I said, “Oh, yeah. That’s my favorite punk band of all the bands that are out there. That you signed them, that was amazing.” And he goes, “I’ll tell you why you’re here. Johnny Rotten is in the next room. We’ve got reporters from Melody Maker, New Music Express and Sounds.”

He said, “And we’re all ready to go down to the beach. Johnny is in a room. We want to go down there and announce that he’s joining Devo.” I just remember I looked at him, and his teeth were protruding, and he was leaning in at me with a crazy look on his face. I was like, “He looks like a brain-eating ape.”

Wait, Branson?

Mothersbaugh: Yeah. I said, “We love those guys, and we really want something to happen with them, but I don’t think they should be in our band. They are doing anarchy. They should flip it upside down. Devo, we’re incorporated. They should do a Sex Pistols Inc.” And instead they became Public Image Ltd.

You think PIL is related to that incident?

Mothersbaugh: I think so.

You played Dark Waves festival in Huntington Beach recently. Do you consider these appearances reunion tours or fan service? Or is Devo still a thriving unit that we can hope to continue to see and maybe even put out new albums?

Mothersbaugh: Well, I think it’s less about new albums than it is us having more of a respect for the idea of performing that music again. We wrote it back 50 years ago, some of it, 45 years ago, 40 years ago, all of it. There’s people that want to hear it, and for us it’s like, we want to play it.

I think we have an appreciation. What once just felt like Groundhog Day — to just get up, get in a car, go to the next airport, go to the next venue, play a show, go to the hotel, do it all over again every day just for that 90 minutes or two hours that you’re on stage — I think that doing that now, it’s like we’re celebrating something we did 40 years ago. We all seem to enjoy it. I think everybody liked it. The crowd did. They’re looking up at these crazy-looking old guys.

Casale: Who did something right and held up.

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