“Fresh” opens Devo’s long-awaited studio release “Something for Everybody,” but the song could also describe the current state of the influential new wave band’s career.
For starters, their always important visual image has changed. Those famous energy domes now gleam bright blue, while the uniforms are silver reflective titanium with matching masks. Fans helped choose the colors, album cover art and track selection via focus groups.
“We embraced marketing techniques that ad agencies use when trying to sell a laptop or cereal brand. We did it with a sense of humor, while commenting on how we live in a culture where all that matters is marketing,” explained bassist Jerry Casale from LAX, before catching a flight to a Seattle show.
“At the same time we were using those same techniques, it was fun for us creatively. That in itself was a statement. We didn’t have big expectations, so we were pleasantly surprised” by the results, he said with a laugh.
The Akron, Ohio act formed in the early ‘70s when Kent State University classmates Casale and Bob Lewis conceived a joke theory about the de-evolution of mankind. Fellow art student/singer Mark Mothersbaugh joined them and brought his own unusual ideas.
Several musician changes, warped home videos and theatrical live performances later, the “classic” Devo lineup: Casale, Mothersbaugh, their guitarist brothers (both named Bob) and drummer Alan Myers unveiled debut record “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!,” produced by onetime Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno, in 1978.
A success in America, it eventually went gold on the strength of such college/underground radio faves as “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Mongoloid” and a strange take on the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Devo pioneered the music video long before MTV came along and used the medium to their advantage. The 1980 clip for top 20 hit single “Whip It” – from Devo’s platinum third album “Freedom of Choice” - became one of the era’s most memorable. Over the next decade, the group put out five more discs before going on hiatus in 1990.
Mark Mothersbaugh became a sought after film and TV soundtrack composer, Jerry Casale branched out from directing Devo’s videos to doing ones for The Cars, Rush, Soundgarden, Foo Fighters, Silverchair and others before transitioning to TV commercials. The band reunited for Lollapalooza 1996, occasional tours and musical endeavors, but another full-length disc took forever to materialize.
“We had collaborated on things for video games, TV commercials and movie songs, but not ever written an album’s worth of material as a band in those 20 years. Mark wasn’t interested in doing anything like that,” admitted Casale.
When they finally convinced the front man they should give it another shot, it was a matter of “going back to the well and rediscovering what we used to do.”
During the 2000s, electronic/new wave music saw a popular resurgence and several young musicians cited Devo as an influence. Once word got out that the band was open to outside recording help, there was no shortage of offers.
Previously, “we always did everything ourselves. We were a self-contained unit, almost hermitically sealed. This time, we said, ‘let’s collaborate with producers.’ We never really did that [much].” So they teamed with Greg Kurstin (Bird and the Bee, Geggy Tah), John King (Dust Brothers), John Hill and Santi White (Santigold).
Everyone “gave it their own twist and said, ‘here’s what Devo should sound like.’ From a production level, we let loose the reigns for once. We wanted to see how other people make things sound.” The result was a “more ear friendly delivery. They put some fairy dust on it, but nobody sped anything up,” said Casale with a laugh.
What resulted was Devo’s strongest and best reviewed collection since “Choice.” Was it a challenge to be contemporary and retain their classic dance/rock noise?
“Not really. I’ll tell you why: we can’t help but be Devo. We couldn’t do anything else if we tried.”
Devo has been sidelined since last fall, when lead guitarist Bob Motherbaugh severely injured a hand that required major surgery and recuperation. “That was scary and protracted,” noted Casale, who kept busy with the upcoming “What We Do” video, which utilizes interactive 360 degree technology as well as continued work on a proposed Devo musical (“a chance to bring back the narrative and concepts behind the musical spine of Devo and actually tell a story”) and long gestating film biopic (“I’m not going to give up on it”).
Now Casale is anxious to start a short run of West Coast and Texas dates. “Believe me, I love playing live and wish we’d been doing it a lot sooner.” If Casale had his way, the band would tour and record more often, but “that’s just the way Mark wants it.”
Photo by Joshua Dalismer/courtesy of Warner Bros. Records