“Thirty years ago, people said that we were cynical, that we had a bad attitude,” says Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. “But now, when you ask people if de-evolution is real, they understand that there was something to what we were saying. It’s not the kind of thing you want to see proven right, but it does make it easier to talk about.”
“The world is in sync with Devo,” says his band-mate and co-writer Gerald Casale. “We’re not the guys who freak people out and scare them - we’re like the house band on the Titanic, entertaining everybody as we go down.”
And so, now is the time. More than three decades after the release of its visionary debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, and a full 20 years since its last studio album, Devo is back with the aptly titled Something for Everybody (2010). The long rumored, wildly anticipated album (which was launched with a memorable performance in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics) features the band’s classic line-up - Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald and Bob Casale - joined by drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, Guns n’ Roses). Produced by Greg Kurstin (The Bird & The Bee), the album also includes contributions from John Hill and Santi White (better known as rising hip-hop star Santigold), John King of the Dust Brothers, and the Teddybears.
Though the twelve songs on Something for Everybody are built on Devo’s signature mechanized swing, the recording and presentation of the album saw the band experimenting with an entirely new approach. Greg Scholl was brought in to serve as COO for Devo, Inc., and - working with the advertising agency Mother LA - conducted a series of studies through the www.clubdevo.com site to help the band with its creative decisions, from color selection to song mixes.
“We decided to actively seek comment and criticism from outside people and use that as a tool, rather than shunning or ignoring it,” says Gerald Casale. “Our experiences participating in secondary creativity - things like corporate consensus building, focus groups - make you appreciate the connection that an artist has to society.”
“In the past, Devo was very insular,” says Mark Mothersbaugh. “This time, I became intrigued with the idea of having people who understood Devo actually work on the songs, and to do to our songs what we did to “Satisfaction” on our first record. Don’t put any boundaries on their production style, let them bring what they needed to make Devo be what it should be after waking up from suspended animation for 20 years.”
His revelation came when the Teddybears did a remix of the song “Watch Us Work It,” an idea initiated by the Mother agency. “They took Josh Freese’s drums off and put on a sample from something we did back in, like, 1982. And I thought, ‘That actually is better!’ That was when I first really saw that Devo had something to absorb, as well as something to impart.”
Certainly Devo has had plenty to convey since Gerald Casale founded the group in Akron, Ohio, in 1973. The band was an extension of a multi-media exploration of the concept that mankind’s progress had ceased, and the process of de-evolution had begun. Devo’s early work caught the attention of such icons as Neil Young and David Bowie, and, with such hits as “Whip It” and “Girl U Want”, and the accompanying, revolutionary music videos, the group became one of the defining acts of the 1980s.
Devo’s sound, style, and philosophy have been an influence on artists from Rage Against the Machine to Lady Gaga. Kurt Cobain once said, “Of all the bands who came from the underground and actually made it in the mainstream, Devo is the most challenging and subversive of all.”
In 1990, Devo morphed from a recording and concert act to putting more focus on individual pursuits and various creative enterprises. Mark Mothersbaugh, along with brother Bob, and Bob Casale, began making music for films and television, working on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Rugrats and the movies of Wes Anderson. Gerald Casale directed scores of commercials and music videos for the likes of Miller Lite Beer and Mrs. Butterworth’s to Rush, The Foo Fighters, and Soundgarden respectively. (“Everything we’ve done outside of Devo is basically a permutation on the theme we started with,” says Mark Mothersbaugh.) Meanwhile, Devo’s music remained a staple in movies, commercials, and videogames.
After appearing sporadically in concert and working on 2006’s Devo 2.0 project - with kids providing the vocals to Devo songs - the band began the stop-and-start project of making new music. “It was now or never,” says Gerald Casale. “We’re all still alive, and we can all play and sing - probably better than we ever did in the past. These new songs, like “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” or “What We Do”, are as Devo as anything Devo has ever done.”
Especially notable on Something for Everybody is the focus its songs bring to the vapid absurdity of so much contemporary speech (don’t miss the closing wail of “Don’t tase me, bro!” on “Don’t Shoot”). Mark Mothersbaugh points out that, for all the attention usually given to Devo’s funky robot sound, this has always been a central aspect of its work.
“We grew up in a time when we saw hippies become hip capitalists, when the real punks truly destroyed themselves, and we came to the conclusion that rebellion was obsolete,” he says. “We saw subversion as the most successful form of change, so we always had an attraction to loaded phrases that you can reshape and subvert to fit your own needs.”
Gerald Casale adds that Devo really was looking at today’s world when writing the new songs. “The tautology of a line like ‘What we do is what we do’ is taken straight from hip-hop,” he says. “And words like ‘bro’ and ‘dude’ - we’re surrounded by it all the time, 20-year-olds don’t even see any irony in it anymore.”
A band that evolves, even as the world around them confirms the decay they have long suspected. With Something for Everybody, Devo has gained from experience, honed its attack, and stands ready to sound the alarm for another generation.
“As angry young men who have been validated, we have the possibility to do something that resonates like it did back in the early days,” says Mark Mothersbaugh. “It’s the same car, just now with air bags, power brakes, and steering.”
“We’re inspired by reality,” says Gerald Casale, “because the world is so ridiculous and stupid. DE-EVOLUTION IS REAL.”