DEVO is celebrating 50 years as a band and will play the Santa Cruz Civic on Thursday, November 2. The band that brought the world “Whip It” and “Freedom of Choice” is on their Farewell Tour and just released a four-album set of hits and rarities titled “50 Years of De-Evolution: 1973-2023.”
The current DEVO band members are Gerald Casale (vocals, bass), Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals, synth), Robert Mothersbaugh (guitar), Josh Hager (keyboards/guitar) and Jeff Friedl (drums).
SANTA CRUZ – A BIG PARTY
Mark Mothersbaugh: I remember playing Santa Cruz about 40 years ago.
Gerald Casale: The room was informal with a makeshift stage. The whole thing was almost like a party and the crowd meshed with the band. It wasn’t really like a concert where the crowd was separate from us. It was like a big party.
Mark: I’ll tell you what I remember. The stage was about a foot and a half high. At one point the lights went off and when they came back on, someone had stolen my guitar.
JM: That’s terrible your guitar was stolen! And it sounds like the way shows used to be in the 80s, with more unknowns.
Mark: Yeah. The guitar that was stolen was a 1954 blonde Telecaster. If you run into it, let me know. I’ll return it to its owner. It belonged to a guy that was part of the original lineup of DEVO, Bob Lewis.
BEGINNING OF THE END
JM: You’re on your Farewell Tour. That sounds a little sad. And you’re celebrating 50 years of DEVO.
Gerald: Somebody decided that’s what they’d call the tour. We never decided that.
Mark: We thought they said “Welfare Tour” so we went along with it!
Gerald: Believe me, if it was a farewell tour, we would have never called it that. It would have been called the “Beginning of the End Tour.”
KENT STATE 1970
JM: You two were studying art at Kent State University in 1970 and you went to a protest against the US war on Vietnam expanding to Cambodia. Gerald, you were standing not far from friends who were shot and killed by National Guard troops on May 4, 1970. Tell me how that affected you and DEVO.
Gerald: There was no DEVO at the time, but that kind of experience creates traumatic feelings, PTSD, nervous breakdowns and the kinds of things nobody talked about then. Seeing people get shot with M-1 rifles changes everything. It was just a common protest that felt like it was going to be like all the other protests, which was ritualistic. No one knew what was about to happen.
JM: A few years later, the world of punk rock opened. What was your relationship to the punk world?
Gerald: We were tangential.
Mark: We thought of ourselves as conceptualists and artists. There were things we were questioning and some of it overlapped with punk. Some of it didn’t. A lot of punk music was nihilistic and stupid. And then some of it was more thoughtful. The energy came from the gut and it allowed people to go crazy and to be able to celebrate that part of their humanity. That’s what was interesting to me about punk.
Gerald: Cooler punks were questioning authority, and it was certainly necessary to challenge an illegitimate authority at that time. And it’s never really changed, has it? We’re right back where we were. We resonated with that. But also, like Mark said, we were anti-stupid. And a lot of the punk stuff was just, quite frankly, stupid. DEVO were more like punk scientists.
Mark: We were not nihilistic. We were looking for solutions to problems. We were talking about everything. And we kept that up quite consciously. We articulated it. Each time we put out a record, it had a new idea behind it as a complete audio-visual package.
DE-EVOLUTION IS REAL
JM: Gerald, you said things have gotten even worse since 1970 Kent State.
Gerald: We thought we were living through the most horrid parts of history that we could possibly live through. And that it could only possibly go uphill from there. It turns out that wasn’t true. Given the cyclical nature of things, all the tyrannical authoritarian energy that was in play with the late 60s, early 70s — Nixon, the war in Vietnam, Cambodia — all of those things have only exponentially increased. And now we see where we’re at on a global level.
Mark: They’re much bolder now. They’re not afraid to say it. That’s the amazing thing. And nobody’s doing anything about it. Democracy doesn’t know how to deal with that.
Gerald: We’re really on the brink. De-evolution is real. You can see that when everything is feeling upside down. Trump basically acts like Hitler and gets away with it. And his constituency loves it. Just like the followers of Hitler loved Hitler. The total lack of outrage tells you everything you need to know.
Mark: Books have been written about this; the tyranny of the minority. They’re using the law to crush democracy and they’re doing a damn good job.
JM: It seems to me the colonial democracy established in this country was only for white, wealthy men, right?
Gerald: Slave owners. Freedom and democracy was always a brand. That’s what was in our face after May 4, 1970, when the papers came out. Those who write history determine history, and they decided that more students should have been killed that day. Their accounts of what happened were completely Black Mirror versions of what really happened. You see how the lie gets going and persists. And that’s where we are now times one-hundred.
Mark: The Kent State we went to is almost an apocryphal memory. It’s this vast, sprawling machine of a campus and it’s designed to produce white collar executives.
PAID TO STOP PLAYING
JM: Is it true that DEVO was once paid $50 to stop playing?
Mark: That’s true. We were supposed to play two sets in an Akron club and after the first set, the guy gives us money to leave. We went to a nearby diner and had what we would have considered a nice meal back then. We would’ve been high-fiving each other had there been such a thing. I think it was 1975.
Gerald: Nobody wanted to hear original music back then. They wanted to come to a club and hear a band play cover tunes and their favorite songs. There was more than one club where we said we’d do that. I remember playing at some club and we said, “Here’s another one by Foghat. It’s called “Mongoloid.”” It took them maybe five minutes to figure out we weren’t a cover band and they start getting really pissed off.
JM: Many of us love the DEVO cover of “Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” How did that come about?
Gerald: Through experimentation. We’d be together all the time in garages and basements experimenting and playing. That song came out of a group jam.
Mark: We were in a garage that had no heat and we were all wearing our winter clothes. There was steam coming out of our mouths when we talked and Bob Casale started playing this little nervous riff and it sounded pretty cool. Then Alan (Myers) and Gerry fell in and it came together really quickly. In one hour we had the song and we were all laughing. I always liked that song, because for people that would ask, “DEVO? What are they?” That was something where we were playing a song they were familiar with, so it was a kind of indicator into our intentions, or what our music was about.
Gerald: We were willing to do things that other people would have stopped themselves from doing. We didn’t have that filter. I guess we were confident in our absurdity. We weren’t playing “Satisfaction.” It could have been an original song if we would have written lyrics for it, but it worked so great as it was.
Gerald: Mark started singing “Paint it Black” over the top. We were smirking and snickering and my brother (Bob) said, “Wait, this is “Satisfaction!” and suddenly it worked. “Satisfaction” was ten years old and it was a good time to be re-interpreting it. I always thought that was the best rock and roll song ever written and I still do. Both the lyrics and music.
JM: Did you play it for Mick Jagger and the Stones?
Gerald: We had to play it for them. Back then people took intellectual property very seriously and Warner Brother’s weren’t going to let us put it out on the first record unless we got permission because it was considered parody. They were afraid of getting sued. Mark and I flew to New York and played it for Mick in Peter Rudge’s office and Mick got up and started dancing.
Mark: He danced around like… Mick Jagger! It was amazing. We were all elated and went back to LA and proudly told our manager that Mick liked the song. He rolled his eyes and said, “I talked to Peter before you guys ever got there. I told him to tell Mick to act like he really liked it because he’s going to maintain all the publishing and you guys are going to make him a shitload of money.”
WHIP IT GOOD
JM: What is the song “Whip It” about?
Gerald: None of the things that anybody thought it was about! But when we tried to explain it, we’d just inflate their enthusiasm. “What? It’s not about masturbation or sadomasochism?”
Mark: It’s about the American dream and being Number One.
JM: Masturbation is a lot more exciting than that.
Listen to this interview with DEVO on Thursday at noon on “Transformation Highway” with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.
Celebrating 50 Years
Thursday, November 2, 2023
Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium
Santa Cruz, CA
Doors 7pm / Show 8pm