It’s been almost three decades since five guys in baggy yellow industrial clean-up suits sporting the letters D, E, V, and O took the Paradise stage, jerking about like robots, playing clipped, caustic art punk. In “Jocko Homo,” they asked, “Are we not men?”; their answer: “We are Devo!” Formed in Akron, but soon relocated to LA, Devo used video, theatricality, synthesizers, irony, and cynicism to suggest “de-evolution,” whereby humanity was in regression. They became early MTV favorites, and they scored big with “Whip It.” Devo’s creativity waned in the mid ’80s, and by 1991 they were done.
Sort of. Co-founding singer Mark Mothersbaugh composed music for TV, film, and commercials. Co-founding bassist Gerald V. Casale moved from directing Devo’s videos to directing other bands (Foo Fighters, Soundgarden). Devo re-formed sporadically and worked on a Disney disc as Devo 2.0 — kids singing Devo classics. This summer, Devo are touring with Mothersbaugh and Casale joined by Mark’s brother guitarist Bob (Bob 1) and Jerry’s brother guitarist/keyboardist Bob (Bob 2). The classic front four. Josh Freese takes over for drummer Alan Myers. They’re at Bank of America Pavilion with Tom Tom Club next Friday, June 27. I spoke with Casale from LA.
Are you still not men?
Unfortunately, we are men — it became all too obvious. All the ravages of the band who fell to earth.
Yet, Devo lives. How did this happen? A short history?
We worked in basements and garages, ’74 to ’78. Then we got signed and proceeded to put out records pretty regularly until 1990. At that point, Mark was scoring Rugrats and some other TV shows, and he didn’t want to collaborate, or tour, so Devo was in suspended animation. Other than doing some songs for films and occasional special appearances, we did nothing. Then they asked us to do Lollapalooza in ’97. That brought back an awareness of Devo, and then the Internet created a brand new audience. People couldn’t believe it because we seemed contemporary. Everything went in our direction: de-evolution turned out to be real, so we turned out to be right, and now we’re not far out or anything. We didn’t want it to be true. It was a warning, a posture, but over the last 30 years, you can see a downward spiral of Western society pretty clearly. I think if anybody had a crystal ball in 1980 and you said, “Here’s what the world will be like in 2008,” they would have thought you were presenting this hideous dystopia from science fiction.
We were the most misunderstood band of the ’80s. They called us Nazis and clowns. We were thinking, “Wow, Nazis and clowns, this is great, maybe we should be Nazi clowns.” I think the problem is in this culture: irony was something that got pierced, and then after 9/11 all sense of humor was lost, so it really put Devo in a bad position. Now I think people have realized, “We get it.” Life got bad enough that we make sense; we’re like the house band on the Titanic.
What’s the worst commercial appropriation of “Whip It?”
The Swiffer. It’s a ridiculous kind of a mop with some kind of chemical brush on the end that sweeps up dust better than anything else. You swipe it across the floor — you swiff it. They re-used the ‘“Whip It” sound and riff with these horrible women doing horrible dances as they work. It’s so bad we love it.
You initially had a radical sound, but it became less so.
Any band I can ever think of that I loved, like Roxy Music or Nine Inch Nails, has seminal work that’s groundbreaking and mind-blowing and establishes an æsthetic that hadn’t been there before. And they kind of work inside that, do variations.
How did the humor and music work together?
We were serious about our joke. When it came to the music itself, we never treated the music as a joke. Maybe the lyrics had satire in them because we raised contradictions — the world’s a contradictory place. We know that even messages of hope are often cynical; there are hucksters selling false hope to people all the time.
You’ve written new songs, but you aren’t playing them yet. Are the originals reworked?
They’re pretty faithful to the originals. At the time we wrote them, there were definite æsthetic and philosophical reasons why they sound like they do. The beginning was the end; we said that back then, and it turned out to be true.
How will you be attired in concert?
Well, you know there’s nothing like a disposable yellow suit that costs $9. I still like that idea.