DEVO AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE WIPEOUTERS
INTERVIEW WITH MARK MOTHERSBAUGH
INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
Any lil intro to these guys is worthless. Read the interview then make your own decisions. And if you think, that’s good enough . . .
What is your position?
[laughing] Usually in the typical record company position where the artist is receiving, down on all fours.
What is your newest project?
Well, it’s all the same guys from Devo that are involved. We just put a new album called The Wipeouters. And it’s kind of a funny project. It was the band that Bob Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh and I were in when we were in junior high.
This was your first musical experience?
Yes. What’s funny was that it was surfing that inspired us. And not surfing like people surf out here, it was different. It was like surfing in Ohio.
Can you elaborate on that?
Well, there were the two Bobs, and a mid-westerner named Josh that hung out with us and we used to get picked on by the older high school kids. When everyone liked Elvis, we were interested in other music. And they were like “Elvis is King, you retards.” But we became inspired to write music by a harrowing experience that was repeated during our junior high years. The older kids in Akron, Ohio (there are a lot of rednecks there) would grab us and put us in the trunk of the car and drive to Lake Erie. We were all pretty little guys.
“After the shooting that summer, the FBI came to our house, like Men in Black in a 1969 black Dodge Dart. They showed my mother pictures of my brother Bob burning the American flag while firemen tried to put out the fire at the Roxy Building at Kent State the day before the killings. We were all kind of involved and it had an impact. It influenced us a lot at the time. It probably had a lot to do with our view of the world – calling our band Devo – which was a contraction for de-evolution. That’s how the band started.”
And they were bullies.
Yeah, and they’d take us out of the trunk of the car and skip us like stones across Lake Erie. The first time it was very terrifying. The second time, Bob McKendrick who is now head of the sheriff department of our township, was skipping me across the water I realized that I could change the angle of the way we were skipped. You get seven or eight skips out of it and we were crashing into piers and buoys and all kinds of stuff. I realized I could have some influence over where I was going as I was flying over the water. I could avoid the stuff floating in the water. Something that was horrifying became exhilarating. In our excitement over this experience we decided to write music because we had no other way to describe it. I mean if we tried to tell our parents, “Hey, we got commandeered up to Lake Erie and they skipped us like stones across the surface of the lake.” Our parents would be like, “What are you talking about? I thought you were in church this morning.”
At first we called it “skipping” and that didn’t sound macho enough so we started calling it “surfing”, not knowing that in a few years something called surfing was going to happen on the West Coast.
For these guys to be able to skip you they had to lift you?
Yeah, we were like 50 lbs. We were small.
And one guy could skip you?
Oh yeah. These guys baled hay. When there was a fight at our school, these guys would show up with tractors and hook a chain to the middle and that’s how they settled their arguments. That’s the kind of school that I went to. I remember once we paid Homer Pattengill, we all collected money and we paid him 70 cents to jump off the roof of the school.
So you were surfers?
Yeah, surfers, not skippers, surfers. So we would get together over at Bob Casale’s house. His dad was a tool and dye man in Kent, Ohio. They’d let us use the basement to set up our amps and guitars and a set of drums and we decided to start a band to celebrate what we were calling surfing.
What year was this?
In the mid ’60s.
Were The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean happening yet?
No. Some of those bands were releasing songs at the same time we were but in reality those songs were pre-released by about two years so they weren’t even written yet. So, in a way those bands could have been influenced by us and we never got our proper dues. When we heard Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys we were appalled. We were like, “Wait a minute. This is a barbershop quartet with a little Mickey Mouse band.” We were upset by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. We were embarrassed every time we heard one of their songs. We felt bad for them. We said, “I guess that’s the best they can do, probably.” And then to make matters worse, when we finally did get out to California as Devo, the Bobs said, “Let’s go down to the beach and go surfing.” We had heard about the muscle builders at Venice Beach and we figured we could find a few assholes to throw us across the water. We got down there and they were cheating, they were using boards. We were like, “What’s that about?” We were again embarrassed for them. To us, it was like using training wheels.
So, we’re in the band, in the basement, writing these songs. It lasted the whole summer. Then we had our big break. Mr. Casale bought his wife a suprise gift — linoleum tile for the basement. So we got to move upstairs for two weekends and set up in the garage. That was pretty great. We got our first and only audience. I got to roll the garage door up on the second Saturday and 30 or more people on banana seat bicycles or driving by in their cars laid witness to the band as they drove by.
Did they stop?
They stopped to yell, “You suck.” And then they just kept on driving.
This was pre-Devo?
Yeah, and Jerry Casale would yell down the stairs when we were in the basement rehearsing, “Shut up you little creeps!” And that was about it. He wasn’t really into the band. It made it all the more gratifying when we reformed the band about a year ago. He actually offered to write lyrics for one of the songs. It was kind of nice of him. We got all the Devo guys to play on it. My little brother Jim was actually the first Devo drummer – he was in all the early films and on all the records we did in Ohio. He went on to invent one of the first electronic drum machines. So, we had all the guys from Devo back together. It was a surprise to get the band back together. Nobody had really thought about The Wipeouters for a long time.
Who came up with the name?
Bob Casale came up with the name, but the reason we got back together was because I had been asked to write a theme song for a television show called Rocket Power. It’s a cartoon about radical skateboarders and snowboarders and all these little kids that do all this skateboarding stuff. I was looking for a song and I thought we should use a Wipeouters song. We got together and started to play. And it turned out we remembered them all. Not only that, now we were all capable of tuning our guitars which we weren’t that good at back in the ’60s. The songs sounded pretty good and we did the theme song. The guy that created the TV show owned a record company and said, you should put this music out. It was kind of accidental.
How did Devo start?
Devo started when Gerry and I became friends in college at Kent State. We were there for the shootings.
Yeah, Gerry was standing about 15 feet away from Allison Krauss, the girl that got her head blown off. And we had all been kind of active. I didn’t want to go to Viet Nam, to be honest. And my brother Bob was still a sophomore in high school and he demonstrated with us. After the shooting that summer, the FBI came to our house, like Men in Black in a 1969 black Dodge Dart. They showed my mother pictures of my brother Bob burning the American flag while firemen tried to put out the fire at the Roxy Building at Kent State the day before the killings. We were all kind of involved and it had an impact. It influenced us a lot at the time. It probably had a lot to do with our view of the world – calling our band Devo – which was a contraction for de-evolution. That’s how the band started. Once Gerry and I started writing together, it just made sense. There was no one we could talk into being in the band besides our family so we recruited our younger brothers.
What kind of influences did you have besides the way the world was crumbling. Did you have influences?
Yeah, we were interested in all kinds of stuff. We were all fascinated with film music and commercials. One that we really liked a lot was the Burger King “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce” commercial. We thought that was a pretty subversive act – to turn a classically universal beautiful piece of music into some inane ditty to sell greasy hamburgers. And we were all influenced by pop art. We were products of the ’60s. Andy Warhol influenced us all. He was kind of my hero. He was a fashion designer, photographer, print maker, a painter, a party thrower, a record producer and he didn’t care what median he was working in. He was interested in ideas and concepts. He wasn’t boxed in. And that kind of thought inspired us. We didn’t want to be in a band, or we didn’t want to be dancers or filmmakers – we wanted to be all of the above. We wanted to be social reporters and force the good news as we saw it through whatever median of pop culture that was available to us. And music was the cheapest and easiest. You didn’t need a big budget.
You came up with this crazy original sound. Was it planned out?
It owed equal parts to just not being interested in what was happening in pop music at the time or what you could get on the radio. Gerry and I first started writing together in 1970 and Devo didn’t really get serious for a few years. It took time to percolate. We were still in school trying to figure out what we were doing. The time when we were formulating after the shootings, it was like the whole country just went to sleep. Everyone became very politically apathetic. They realized the government was just fine with shooting people if they didn’t like what they did. There were no Bob Dylans or voices of conscious. Disco was happening which was like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains. Or there was concert rock, where usually the message was, “We’re conspicuous consumers, we’re stupid and we’re proud of it.”
But you had a few guys that were doing basic rock n’ roll like Iggy and the NY Dolls.
But they weren’t really getting support from radio or the fans. I remember seeing Iggy in the late ’70s and the club was only a quarter full. Either people didn’t know about it or they hadn’t figured it out yet. It was a meager time in the early ’70s. And the NY Dolls never really toured the US. They always stayed in NYC at CBGBs. Those were small clubs compared to Foreigner playing Dodger Stadium to 60,000 people. You had to search out the good stuff.
Did you tour to the West Coast or East Coast?
A friend of ours had a van – and we could fit six people – five band members and a driver if we took turns laying on top of the equipment. The breathing space in between the roof of the Econo-line and the amplifiers was only about 10 inches. One person would have to lay up there and the rest could cram into the seats. We would drive to the East Coast first because it was closer and we had been hearing about Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. Gerry drove out one weekend and acted like our manager and he booked us shows at both places. So, we drove to the East Coast, played both clubs and slept in the van in between.
What was the reaction?
It was pretty good. From the very beginning we got a good response. You know we had spent all this time by ourselves in the basement. At that point we had about 40 or 50 songs. If we were ever able to get a job in Ohio, we knew we’d have to be a cover band and do two sets full of material, so we wrote enough to cover it. We’d go to a biker bar and go, “Here’s another one by Foghat and it’s called ‘Mongoloid’.”
And after about five or six songs, these angry biker hippies that had just gotten off work at the rubber factory would go, “Are you calling me a monkey?” In Akron, we were a lightening rod for hostility. We would get paid to quit playing.
You were more accepted in New York?
Yeah, it’s a different crowd.
A little more art friendly.
And five guys in yellow paper suits get up on stage and start ripping them off and jumping around. And through their heroin haze they went, “What was that?” So, we got invited back.
What year was that?
The tail end of ’76. So, after the first show people were saying, “We just saw the most fucked up band”. The second time we played New York we had all the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Robert Fricke, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and the whole NY art scene. We had these gigantic lists. At the end of the night, it was like, “We had five paying customers, so your take is zero.” But we were kind of the band to see in early ’77.
I hate to use the word, but you were the buzz.
Yes, I can see why you hate to use it, but I guess that describes it. We were a band that didn’t have a record deal. We didn’t have management. We didn’t have any records out but we had this film we made.
The one with the mad scientist?
Yeah. So, this was late ’77. We’d just hang a sheet up and show the film. People would go, “What was that weird film?” Then we’d play afterwards and we’d play two of the songs that were on the film. And people were like, “Huh? Look, they made a film for their songs.”
Did you get to meet Warhol?
Oh yeah, of course. As a matter of fact, the only time I ever went to Studio 54 was on a double-date. I was with Susan Blonde. She was an actress and the hostess on something called Blue Channel, an early cable semi-hardcore porn show. She was my date and we were double-dating with Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol. I was like, “What the hell!” I didn’t care she was a porn star. And Michael Jackson was still black; he still had his original color. He had just done The Biz so he had the big hat look going with patchwork on his bell-bottoms. And we’re sitting there and I’m feeling like “I made it.” Andy Warhol was dressed like Lil’ Abner with bib overalls and no shirt. And Andy goes, “I’m going to make you a star. You’re my latest find.” And Michael Jackson passes me a joint. And in Ohio, if we had enough marijuana to fill an aspirin we would talk about it all week. We would call it ‘African trance weed’ and finally on Friday we would get together and we’d drink enough wine first so that when we each got our tiny little smidgen of a hit we’d all think we were high. So, when Michael Jackson hands me a joint, I’m like “Whoa, you bet.” So, I’m looking around and no one is grabbing it out of my hand. If I were in Ohio there would be five savages grabbing for it trying to find some escape from reality. So, I had a hit, then I had another couple of hits and passed it on. Then Susan Blonde says, “Let’s go dance.” And I said, “I really don’t even know how to dance. I can only do it on stage. Don’t ask me to dance to some disco.” And so the dance floor at Studio 54 had this huge tower of disco lights like a countdown towers for drag strips and they had nine of them. It was like a tic-tac-toe board over top of the dance floor. They’d turn them around and rotate them slowly and lower them down and twirl them. I’m watching Susan dance and the song playing was “It’s Raining Men”. The towers of lights are coming down and there’s something wrong. They’re not coming down properly. They start twirling around and hitting people in the head. And I’m seeing all these people getting hit in the head and there’s all this blood and all these people getting hurt. I run over and grab Susan and go, “Come on. Let’s go.” And she’s like, “What?!” And I said, “I just saw all these people get hurt by the lights.” And then I look over and it’s all gone. And she’s like, “Are you okay?” I said, “I just saw all this blood and people getting hurt by the disco balls!” And she said, “Did you smoke the angel dust? Oh, no. You smoked the angel dust.” I said, “What’s angel dust?” So, she put me in a taxi and got me back to my hotel room and we got to the door and I thought she was coming in and she put her foot on my ass and pushed me through the door and said, “Good bye, good luck.” And I just sat there and fried all night. That was my date with Andy Warhol.
When did you guys come to the West Coast?
We were out here before our record deal in the late ’70s. We came out a couple of times. A and M Records had seen one of our films and mistakenly thought we were going to be the next Tubes who they had signed recently and they had invested heavily in. So, they paid for us to drive our van, gave us gas money to get out here and money to stop and spend the night along the way. And we got out here and we stayed at the Oakland Garden Estates in Burbank.