Don’t let the crazy costumes and on-stage high jinks fool you: Devo are deadly serious about their work. Central to everything they do is the theory of “de-evolution” – that the dysfunction, dumbing-down and herd mentality of Western culture is leading mankind to regress rather than progress. And, according to co-writer and “chief strategist” Jerry Casale, these founding principles are just as relevant today as they were when Devo formed nearly 40 years ago.
“De-evolution is like global warming. When it started out everyone thought it was – how do you say it in England? – naff,” he says. “It was something that people actively disagreed with, now it’s a fundamental building block of what we believe. The same thing is true of de-evolution: it’s happened and we all have to live with it. The evidence is plentiful: now it’s not an argument.”
There’s probably no need to ask, but what’s the evidence for this? Jerry splutters. “The dumbing down of culture has been exacerbated exponentially. It’s the way people think – or don’t think. Less and less people can form an analytical critical thought: they don’t know how to process information, and just live in the world of soundbites and mindless regurgitation of slogans.”
How does he square up this sense of righteous anger with the fact that Devo, more than ever, seem to be having a lot fun at the moment? New album Something For Everybody, their first in 20 years, is a resolutely upbeat affair. And anyone who caught their live show last year would have borne witness to five middle-aged gentlemen enjoying themselves enormously – marching in military formation, tearing bits off each other’s boiler suits, and doing upsetting impersonations of cheerleaders.
According to Jerry, there’s much more to their on-stage fun and games than pure entertainment. “It’s integral to the Devo aesthetic. There is substance behind our fun. There are reasons we move the way we move; we are trying to project what we are thinking through lighting, costumes, props and movements. Most of all we were not trying to be like other bands or move like other bands. And we know what we can’t do – I can’t dance like Michael Jackson, for instance.”
“Less and less people can form an analytical critical thought.”– Devo’s Jerry Casale on de-evolution
“Mostly it’s the machine aesthetic: a true group presence. I remember when I first saw The Clash and they had that. They were in these white boiler suits with a lot of patches and pins on them, and they were thrashing away with one rhythm all together and it looked… powerful. It was power, a team. There’s a certain unique quality to that – a different kind of sexiness than just a lone performer standing there wiggling and thrusting. It’s sexy to see teamwork.”
What would a Devo show be like if you just stood there and played your instruments? ” I would never tolerate that. It would be shameful – it’d be like someone trying to have sex without moving. Devo was always known for the energy, the precision, the group-oriented antics, its machine-like presence, a team – it’s different to most bands and it’s what people want to see.”
And the new album? Some might call it a Devo party album. “Well, we don’t like to hit people over the head right away. We like to ease them into it. The album starts off fun and ends more soberly. The party turns dark.”
Was it enjoyable to write and record together after a 20-year hiatus? “Well, yes – I can only speak for myself, but this is what I chose to do in life and it’s what I would do first and always. To finally be able to collaborate again with the Devo hat on, so to speak, was great. There was 20 years of nothing – well, 20 years with no new songs and no voice in the marketplace.”
The two creative forces between Devo have hardly been idle in the last two decades. Jerry is a successful director of music videos and advertisements, while collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh has carved a lucrative niche writing music scores for films, computer games and TV shows (notably several of Wes Anderson’s films and the kids’ TV show Rugrats). So what was the catalyst to get back together?
“I can’t speak for that. You would need to ask Mark Mothersbaugh: he was the guy with all the conflicts. No-one else in the band had any. Who knows? I can only speculate. Maybe he was making enough money scoring movies that he didn’t feel like wanting to risk exposure. When you put out a new record, it is you: it’s not like me directing a commercial, or him coming up with the theme for an animated kids’ movie – it’s you! You’re the one being judged: it’s your voice, your thoughts, your art. Your butt is on the line and you’re going to get criticised. Maybe he wasn’t ready to get criticised – I don’t know. I’m foolish enough that I really don’t care about criticism. It’s like rain, it’s going to happen, so what do I do? Change my whole life so that I don’t get criticised? I don’t think so.”
“Your blocks are wobbly and rusty but after that it’s full speed ahead.” – Devo’s Jerry Casale on the band reuniting
Sounds like it was a choppy ride getting the band back together, but were things smooth once everyone was back on board? “Yes. Then it was like riding a bike, when it only takes you a few minutes to learn it properly again. Your blocks are wobbly and rusty but after that it’s full speed ahead.”
So the theory of de-evolution is more relevant than ever to the content of Devo’s music and live shows. But, to Jerry Casale, its influence seeps much further below the surface: into the music business itself. With one foot in the camp of artistic expression and the other in the commercial world, he has strong views about the music business’s failure to keep up with changing trends. Has the music business de-evolved alongside society? A resounding yes.
“The power and influence of the labels has crumbled. They used to have control over the means of distribution in the past – when people actually bought records – which gave them a lot of power. Now you get music through your computer, or on your mobile device, or on a chip on a T-shirt that you bought – and nobody believes that they should pay for it.
“Back then they made a lot of money: so they’d sign bands and give them a nice hunk of money, but would own 90% of everything that the band did and would recoup everything that they gave the band, from the band’s 10%. Basically the bands were slaves, but people bought music then, so there was money floating around.
“Most of what the labels are doing now is just posturing. They say ‘we want to be partners,’ but what they mean is ‘we can’t make money from your music so we want to take money from your merchandise and your tour’. It’s an attempt to redefine what a label does, but it’s not keeping up with things. If they really wanted to move into the future rather than just disappear like dinosaurs, they would study more closely what ad agencies do. They would start hiring people of the quality of kids who come out of school to go into advertising business. Then they’d get as good as a successful ad agency at marketing. And what they’d be marketing is music content and everything related to that: maybe it would involve films, video games, a musical. They have such a terrible track record now that when they do release a CD by a new band, out of 100 new bands, eight or 10 get through if you are lucky. It’s worse than Vegas odds. What I’m saying is they need to do something new.”
Admittedly, for established artists like Devo, relying on touring to make money is a comfortable way to make a living. “We like playing live. It was always something we did: people had no idea what we were about until they saw us live. But it’s only the really established artists who are in as good as a position as they always were, because they have other ways of making money now that no-one wants to pay for music.”
Things might be OK for Devo, but Jerry feels for anyone trying to break through in the current climate. “There’s a glut of music coming out that nobody wants to pay for: there are so many good bands and so many good songs that never see the light of day. That didn’t used to be true – the way things were, it was pretty hard to bury a great song or a great group – the industry would find them and the system would bring them to the top. Now none of that is true: a great band can languish for four or five years. Maybe they have 10,000 friends on MySpace, and maybe in the local clubs they are happening, but the pressures of having to put out all that energy without making a living out of it finally makes the band disperse. When they should have had three or four hit songs.”
“In Western society marketing has become the be-all and end-all of the capitalist system. Certainly democracy has lost out to capitalism.”– Devo’s Jerry Casale
And touring’s no better if you’re a young and inexperienced group without the power or know-how to call the shots. “Promoters have now found a way to cheap out on all the artists: they start scaling back, knowing they can squeeze everyone. They said ‘hey, these bands are making too much money, let’s squeeze them. Let’s dictate how much we are going to pay them.'”
With all the references to advertising and marketing, I’m reminded of the fact that the final track listing for Devo’s new album was chosen by conducting focus groups consisting of people who have “an interest in Devo”. According to Jerry, “our ad agency were doing focus groups like they would with a new breakfast cereal. We have the focus group approved version, the one approved by our financial partners, and the full version.”
Now maybe we’re unfairly skewed by the experiences of Blair’s Britain, but doesn’t all this talk of focus groups, financial partners and breakfast cereals represent a kind of dumbing down? Possibly a kind of de-evolution?
“Ha ha! Well, obviously we were making a satirical point of it. We were happy to go through with the results because we only put songs that we liked into the research, so we couldn’t lose.”
But in general, how can you reconcile the work of marketing and advertising agencies with your strength of feeling about a dumbed-down, de-evolved world?
“I don’t think you can reconcile the two. But in Western society marketing has become the be-all and end-all of the capitalist system. Certainly democracy has lost out to capitalism. But you’re not going to escape it. I can make a distinction between good and bad advertising, and our agency are more like the ad-busters: they’re the bad boys, they’re smart and clever, and they’re not aiding the dumbing-down of culture.”
Who’d have thought it? Art-school graduates and renowned counter-culturalists Devo conducting focus groups and defending the work of ad agencies. But desperate times call for smart people. Jerry clearly believes that poor business practice has brought the music industry crashing down; and only smart marketing can save it. Just as the apparently light-hearted irreverence of Devo’s music and live shows shouldn’t be taken at face value, so their combative outlook shouldn’t be read as blind anti-corporate prejudice. Whether you’re in music, in business, or somewhere in the middle, acumen beats anarchy any day of the week.
Devo’s album Something For Everybody is out now through Warner.