DEVO interview with GERALD CASALE interview by JEFF HO
Photography by DAN LEVY
American history is riddled with senseless acts. What comes of those are generally not actionable results but, once in a while, action causes reaction. Devo is one of the most recognizable art reactions that continues to inspire generations. Gerald Casale has a mind that thinks creatively and practically at the same time, making the sounds he creates both insightful and riveting. What he does musically is revolutionary and we celebrate him. Here is a talk between two pioneers who are proof that having conviction and unwavering vision can change the world. – INTRODUCTION BY DAN LEVY
JEFF HO: Congrats on the newest addition to your family, your baby daughter Inara.
DAN LEVY: Thank you. It’s overwhelming and life changing. Everything is new and I am in total shock.
I bet. When you were a kid, how did you start getting interested in music and art?
I started drawing first and then I started beating on tin cans or anything I could find because my parents were poor and the school program didn’t provide instruments. Eventually I got an acoustic guitar.
I understand that you took art classes when you went to college at Kent State. What were you studying?
I studied everything. I took art classes, literature, sociology, philosophy and all of that and I bought myself a bass guitar because of the British Invasion. It was the great revolution of music coming from England with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and those groups and I flipped out. I was completely converted.
Which one of those groups might have been the most influential?
It was the Rolling Stones over the Beatles, but I had a real soft spot for the Yardbirds because I just loved how creative and wack they were and how iconoclastic they were. I liked each iteration of the Yardbirds, from Eric Clapton to Jeff Beck to Jimmy Page, and they each only existed for about two and a half or three years, but all three of those guys were major parts of the band with an album release.
The Yardbirds were great. During that time, I remember the peace marches and the protests. There was a movement that started up in Berkeley and then went to Santa Barbara and all over California.
Yeah. I got politicized in my senior year of high school actually. I traveled with some of the liberal activist professors to Washington D.C. to a Ban the Bomb rally. I followed that the next year with a protest where we joined all the black people that were there fighting racism. Martin Luther King spoke and Dave Van Ronk played. All these folkies played. Joan Baez was there. In 1968, I joined SDS, when Mark Rudd came from Columbia University in New York and started a local chapter of SDS at Kent State University.
Tell people what the SDS stands for.
Students for a Democratic Society.
Okay. Do you want to talk about Kent State? I’ve heard that it was a pivotal point in your life with all that happened there.
Being an anti-war activist and a member of SDS, I was front and center for the May 4th protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The reason that was such an outrage was because people were aware of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and how government was supposed to work, and the separation of powers between the three branches. When Nixon went into Cambodia without an act of Congress, that was an outrage. That was an abuse of presidential power. It was the same kind of bullshit that you see today where there are tyrants and authoritarians that are completely willing to rip down the tent poles of democracy. So that May 4th protest at Kent State was one of many across America because he had done this. In our case, Ohio was a red state. There was no such term then, but it was a red state. The governor of Ohio, Governor Rhodes, was a real right winger and a real pro-Vietnam, anti-student guy, and he got together with the Dean of Kent State University, and they conspired to bring the National Guard on campus in anticipation of what they knew was going to be national protests against the expansion of the war in Vietnam. We thought it was all a big ritual. You get 18-year-old and 19-year-old students on the first day that there’s nice weather and you can just wear a light jacket and not be cold. You think you’re just going to face off against local cops and chant and do your thing and it’s going to be all ritual. Well, it wasn’t. They came fully armed with loaded guns and we didn’t know that. There they were with the gas masks and the bayonets on the M-1 rifles and they had it all planned where they would coral us and force us to go over the hill from the area called the Commons where we all met and then drive us over the hill by the journalism building, into the student teacher parking lot where they had buses waiting to arrest us and bus us to the Portage County Jail in Ravenna, Ohio. That’s the way it was going. We were being herded like livestock, but then it all changed. At some point, they stopped at the top of the hill and we stopped and we faced off. We looked at them and we were chanting, and they were in full formation. We watched as they knelt and the second row stood and it looked like the Civil War or something. Then they lowered their rifles with the bayonets pointed at us, and we thought, “Okay, they’re going to march at us with the bayonets and scare us and we’re not going to have anywhere to go. We’re going to get arrested.” But no. They shot. Some guy in a gas mask gave a physical command. Boom! 31 rounds. I was about halfway down the hill and it was all of the kids behind me that got shot and killed, I think it was because the National Guard was about the same age as us, so they were shooting over our heads. We weren’t wearing gas masks, so they could see us and they knew who they were shooting. They could actually shoot us, like sitting ducks, kids that they could identify. If they shot over our heads, this is my theory, then they could feel like, “Okay, we didn’t really try to kill anybody.” Everybody that was getting hit was behind me, so it took a second or two and everything kind of went into slow motion. It was like Scorsese’s Raging Bull where the violence goes into slow motion, where it’s surreal. I spun around and realized, “Oh, my God. That guy is shot! Blood is running down the sidewalk!” It was Jeffrey Miller, and I knew him. I realized it was Jeffrey Miller and he had a hole in his head. Alison Krause was a little further away and blood was coming out her back and people were hovering around her. Four students were dead and nine were wounded and one is paralyzed for life. It was unreal. I had what probably is a nervous breakdown. When you see real violence and you’re not expecting it, you can’t move. I just sat down on the grass shaking. All of these graduate student monitors with the black armbands that always showed up protests were screaming, “Don’t move! Don’t move!” It was like, “No shit. You don’t have to tell me. I’m not moving.” We were there for two hours while the ambulances came and took these bodies and wounded away while the National Guard surrounded us. Then there was a plan to march us off campus, and so we did in single file. We were sent off campus and the whole campus was yellow taped, like a crime scene. That was my senior year. I graduated in absentia because there were no ceremonies and I wasn’t allowed on campus. I got my diploma in the mail because as a student activist, you were verboten. You were not coming back.
That must have been horrifying. I can’t imagine what you went through. After you realized that this had gone on and they had shot at you with real bullets, and killed your friends, what did that do to you?
It changes your life. It changes your life because now you see that history is determined by those who control the media and those who can write it. Most people back then were pro-guard and pro-war, and their sentiment was that more students should have been killed. Not only did the guard get away with it, there were never any repercussions.
There were never any repercussions or anybody held accountable for it?
No. No accountability. There was an attempt at a class action suit, and that failed, and that was it. You watched history being rewritten. You were the bad guy and these guys that shot you were the good guys. In addition, there were many repercussions where there was an organized push by universities against any anti-war groups or student activists and SDS was at the top of their list. I lost my scholarship because I was going to go to graduate school in Ann Arbor. I lost that because anybody who had been a member of any of these groups was not allowed to attend a school out of state because we were the perpetrators. We were apparently the guys that were going to go to another college and infect the poor, innocent students with these radical ideas. So I stayed in Kent and, suddenly, my whole trajectory of what I was going to do changed. I think that’s when my friend and I, Bob Lewis, started talking about how fucked up society had become, and that’s where these ideas about De-Evolution started, in 1971, before there was a band. Before anything, we came up with this whole concept, and shortened it to Devo for an art movement. I was doing Art Devo. That’s when I met Mark Mothersbaugh.
From what I understand, you said that they labeled you an outside agitator, and they deemed you not fit to go on to graduate school in Ann Arbor.
Right. So I went back to some of my professors that liked me, at Kent, and they advocated for me and so my only choice was to go to graduate school at Kent. Nowhere else was going to take me.
At the time, how did you feel?
I was pissed off.
Yeah. How did you even stay there at Kent State? It’s just horrifying.
I had no prospects. I was a blue-collar kid and this was my only option at that point. I had been a typical kind of live-and-let-live liberal hippie student with good grades. I was a nice person and now it was, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” I became confrontational, and Dadaistic. I really wanted to fuck with people. I wanted to be creative, and get back at them.
There you go. That’s motivation. Wow. So let’s go on with the De-Evolution and the movement that you started, and how you got into music.
Well, I had been playing bass at that point, and I was in a band called The Numbers Band. They were famous locally. 15-60-75 The Numbers Band, we played blues. I was a student of the blues. We played all the Blues greats, like songs by John Lee Hooker and everybody, and we were pretty good at it. Bob Kidney was an amazing guitar player and we had Terry Hynde who was an amazing sax player. He was Chrissie Hynde’s older brother, and a real jazz fanatic and a great horn player. I was doing that while going to Kent State, and being in SDS and I think it all gelled with this De-Evolution concept. I thought, “Wait a minute, why shouldn’t I apply to music what I applied to art? I’m doing this art that is polarizing, confrontational and original, but I’m playing blues roots music. Why can’t I just write original songs? What would Devo music sound like?” I started trying to make Devo music and I started talking to Mark about it too. We started experimenting together, agreeing that, if the music started sounding like another genre, we had to stop. That’s how we arrived at the tabula rasa of Devo music where we didn’t sound or look like anybody else. It was pure art. I was writing on the bass and Mark was writing on the keyboard. He had a clavinet and a Minimoog and an ARP Odyssey.
Who is the first person outside the band that helped you with your musical career?
Good question. In short order, it was Toni Basil, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. It all happened in 1977.
“Don’t let the subhumans take over. Keep fighting. Stand up for your rights.”
Were there any particular artists whose work influenced you in your art?
When Mark and I were coming of age, you wear your influences on your sleeve and it was like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jim Dine. There were these guys called the Hairy Who out of Chicago that we’re doing this really transgressive art. There was Tomi Ungerer who was doing basically porn art.
How did Devo come out to California?
Well, we were in a boot camp in Ohio surrounded by people that hated us or laughed openly at us and made fun of us, but we kept it up because we were confident that, if they disliked us, we were doing the right thing, because we didn’t like them either. We were like a little insular enclave surrounded by goons, and you get really good at what you’re doing when you have no other outlets. There were no distractions. There was nothing like, “Oh, let’s go do this thing tonight that everybody does in Akron, Ohio.” So we spent all of our time in garages and basements honing our ideas until we got really good at them and we started playing locally in clubs in Akron and Cleveland and Kent. People would holler and scream and laugh and throw things at us. We got really famous really fast. It was like, “You’ve got to see these guys. You’ll hate them!” That put us on the map because, independent of us, this punk scene was happening in London and New York City and that was fueled by anger and nonconformity. They heard about us because of our nonconformity, even though it was a different kind of thing than punk. It was more conceptual and it wasn’t anti-intellectual. That got us in the eyes and ears of people on the West Coast in the music business. Because we were a visual band, I was spearheading that with my friend Chuck Statler, who was a filmmaker who had a 16mm Bolex, and we made The Truth about De-Evolution, a 10-minute film. I finished it in 1976, and got it on the traveling circuit of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. People at the Fox Theater in Venice, California, which was a real theater at the time that ran art films, flipped out over it. People at A&M Records saw it and they called me up in Akron and offered to give us $2,000 to drive to Hollywood and showcase at the Starwood. So we did that and we flopped because we opened for a hair metal band called Clown. Clown was a big deal, but the crowd for Clown hated Devo.
Well, the genre of music that you guys were doing was a little different. How would you classify what you were doing then as compared to punk?
Well, I guess what we shared with punk was a real raw urgency. The speeds of our songs were punk and the anger was there, even though it was a different type. What happened was that Steve Samiof that ran Slash magazine saw us and loved us. He lobbied David Knight, the promoter of the Starwood, to let us come back and headline and said he would run an article a week before in Slash to help promote it. That’s when Toni Basil showed up with Iggy Pop.
Wow. Do you consider yourself a punk rock guy or new wave or what?
Well, I certainly loved the best songs that punks had to offer. I loved the Sex Pistols record. I love the Damned. I love the Clash. I learned how to play the songs because I liked them, but we were more like punk scientists.
Punk scientists. I like that. Did you ever play the Santa Monica Civic?
Oh, yeah. The first time we played the Civic was New Year’s Eve ‘77. We opened for this rockabilly guy, Mink Deville, who was a big deal. At the time, he was commercially successful and he did himself up in rockabilly suits and the whole deal.
Did you like rockabilly music?
I did like rockabilly music, but I thought it was a bit silly, because we were interested in the future. We thought he did rockabilly really well and we were glad we got to open for him. The funny thing was, by that time, there was enough word of mouth because of our legendary shows at the Starwood and Whisky A Go-Go, and various other places around town, that the crowd that showed up was mostly for Devo, not Mink Deville. We didn’t know that. We were rubes, wet behind the ears. They got us to open because there were so many unsold tickets. The promoter was losing it like, “We can’t have a loser New Year’s Eve. What are we going to do?” So we filled the place out. When we got done with our set, the place cleared out and it was more than half empty. We stayed and watched Mink Deville, but most people didn’t. They just wanted to see us.
Wow. Did you come up with the red hats out here in California?
No. I’d been wanting to do that for maybe five years before we did it and it was inspired by a couple of things. One was an art deco ceiling fixture at my elementary school. Just imagine something that looked like the Devo red hat, but turned upside down on three chains hanging from the ceiling. I used to stare at that form. I was an artist and designer and I love that art deco look. It was a different number of tiers at different sizes. Bob Mothersbaugh, who was in Devo, was a comic book fan and he collected comic books. He would always show me Little Lulu comic books. In one of them, she had a red helmet on. It was a cancellator helmet. She couldn’t stand all the gossip and dumb shit she was hearing from the kids, so she put on the cancellator helmet. It was red, and looked a little bit like an Aztec temple, and it had earmuffs, so you wouldn’t have to hear people. I changed the ceiling fixture into four tiers that fit a human head and made it red because of Little Lulu and got rid of the earmuffs because we need to hear ourselves and made it out of Vaquform plastic. That was the whole point. We could never afford that before. That’s why suddenly we made the hat. It had to be Vaquform plastic.
That leads us to the question of the potato and what spuds symbolize?
Spuds are like the common man. We’re not royalty. We’re not leading men. We didn’t have Hollywood leading men looks. We were the commoners, the spuds. Potatoes are traditional sustenance. It’s the every-man food. Even the poor ate potatoes. They were asymmetrical, but they got eyes all around and they conduct electricity. Did you ever make a potato clock? They made us make them in high school.
[laughs] I don’t know if I made a potato clock, but I tried to grow them in a jar. What did you think of Iggy Pop when you first met him?
Well, I didn’t recognize him. When Toni Basil brought Iggy to our show, he didn’t look like the Iggy Pop that we knew from the Ohio days and the Stooges. He was this guy with wire-rimmed glasses and spiky hair, cut short on the sides. He was just wearing jeans and a regular shirt and he was very quiet. She goes, “This is James Osterberg.” I’m being polite, so I say, “Oh, hi.” He goes. “You might know me as Iggy Pop. I go, “Oh, right, you’re Iggy Pop, not.” He got offended because I thought he was kidding.
“I had been a typical kind of live-and-let-live liberal hippie student with good grades. I was a nice person and now it was, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” I became confrontational and Dadaistic. I really wanted to fuck with people. I wanted to be creative and get back at them.”
Wow. Do you remember your first TV show or appearance?
We got to start at the top. Our first appearance on a TV show was Saturday Night Live, October 18th, 1978.
That is cool. Okay. Let’s talk about MTV.
By the time they existed, we had five videos and that’s why they came to us. They said, “We’re not going to pay anything, but we can make you famous. Here’s what we’re going to do.” They told us about their idea for MTV. It was going to start in three cities and that’s what they did. They had our videos and they had “Video Killed the Radio Star” and one David Bowie video and one Rod Stewart video, and they ran these videos all day and all night long, over and over, because they had no other videos. They introduced their VJs and, suddenly, within a year, they explode and go national with American Express money. For the first two years, Devo was like the Holy Grail, but as soon as MTV got powerful, they made a deal with Top 40 FM radio to sync with their playlists. Their whole experiment about featuring video music and great videos, no matter where the song was on the charts, got thrown out the window. Now you have to have a hit to be on MTV. It didn’t matter how shitty the video was, as long as the song was a hit. Again, as idealists and artists, we thought it was great, and then we watched it get turned on its head. Then they told us, “Hey, we can’t play your new video. You’re not even in the top 40.”
Wow. Let’s talk about the video that you did for “Freedom of Choice”. How did you connect with the skating world? A couple of the guys that I used to sponsor are in that video. How did that come about?
Yeah. Our minds were blown by the skate culture. It was just something so different. As guys from Ohio coming out here, it was shocking. We were like, “What? Look at what these guys are doing. Why do they do this?” We couldn’t even believe anybody came up with this and did it and took it so far that they were hurting themselves and doing acrobatic tricks. It was mind-blowing. We were playing the Mabuhay Gardens a lot in San Francisco and some guys from Rector came and offered us this gear.
Right. You got the Rector pads and the whole deal.
Yeah. When we were about to do the “Freedom of Choice” video, people from the skate community and Dogtown had introduced themselves to Devo and I wanted to feature skaters in the video. There was that skatepark in Marina, so I talked to the DP about how we could shoot the skaters and try to capture what they do. We did it as well as we could at the time on a no budget thing, but that’s where we met Tony Alva and some of the guys. It was unbelievable and I loved it. It was exciting. It was so cool, and the fact that they liked our music, it made it mutual. It was like, “We love what you do. You skate to our songs. This is great.”
Do you consider yourself an artist making music or a musician making art?
I’m an artist making music. I’m competent and I understand music and I play pretty well, but there are musicians that could play rings around me. They could play many more notes than me faster than me. There are singers that could hit many more notes in a bigger range than me, but what they don’t have is the ideas that Mark and I put out. We took it and did something that others didn’t do. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, which was making statements and putting out records. I was writing music and lyrics for songs that I hoped would get under the skin of millions of people. That’s what I love doing. I would start with an idea and usually the idea had a visual component. I was always writing with a video in mind. We already had an idea of what the video was going to be when we were writing the song.
Did that lead to you directing videos?
Yeah. That’s why I directed videos. It made total sense for me to direct because that’s how I was thinking to begin with. It’s like “Beautiful World”. That’s one of my favorites where it all came together exactly how I thought about it. I think “Beautiful World” is even better for me than “Whip It”.
How did you feel when you first pissed off your audience?
[laughs] It was energizing. If you’re going to stick yourself up on a stage and say, “Look at me!” think about that. What line do you cross as a performer where you decide you should be in front of people and they should watch you? It’s a thing that only performers understand. If you’re going to perform, you can’t be a shrinking violet like, “Oh, they don’t like me.” If that’s what you’re going to do, you better go home. Give it up. Go home. Get off the stage. I was energized by their negative energy.
“That’s when my friend and I, Bob Lewis, started talking about how fucked up society had become, and that’s where these ideas about De-Evolution started, in 1971, before there was a band. Before anything, we came up with this whole concept, and shortened it to Devo for an art movement.”
What is the message today?
Good question. Certainly, an artist moves on from that first stage of reinventing the wheel and being strident and confrontational. You still have things to say, hopefully, but the things you say are changing. You’re right. What’s the message today? It would be more self-reflective. It would be like, “Look people, we’re all full of shit.” Nobody knows what the fuck they’re talking about here on this planet. We only think we know things. We don’t know shit. If you don’t know shit, be tolerant and kind to other people, and quit acting like you’re important.
There it is. You said it. Be kind. I love it. Are you working on any projects now?
Yeah. I can’t help it. I think, when you’re an artist, you did art and you did music before. If you lucked out, you made money and became famous. When that ebbs, you’re still the guy you were, so you’re still going to do what you did the same way you did it before you made it. So I put out things. For the last two years, on record store day, I’ve worked with the incredible drummer, Josh Freese, my friend, and Steve Bartek, the guitar player from Oingo Boingo, and the engineer and producer from Miley Cyrus, Paul Hager and his brother, keyboardist and guitar player. Last year I put out an EP called I’m Gonna Pay U Back. I made a video for it using a new technology that a friend of mine, Davy Force, is the king of. He’s an animator who uses great AI programs to mix live action into animation. I did a new EP this year called The Invisible Man using the same techniques. I worked with the same people and then Martyn Ware from Heaven 17 did the remixes. You can watch the videos at GeraldVCasale.com. If you haven’t seen them, you’re going to like them. I guarantee they are as entertaining as any Devo video ever was.