Devo was, and is, the ultimate future-proof band. When they first entered the public consciousness in the late ‘70s, Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale and company seemed impossibly ahead of their time — in a primitive-futurist kind of way — and they still do. There’s very little that you could consider dated about the 50 cuts on their new career retrospective, “50 Years of De-Evolution 1973-2023,” since their worldview always kind of seemed to be trained on offering up dystopianism with a smile and a jacked-up synth-rock beat. De-evolution, for better or worse, is timeless, and so, apparently, are the men who introduced it to the world.
Beyond the just-released Rhino collection, the band is engaged in a round of touring that will take them up and down the west coast through the first three weeks of November, including a show at L.A.’s YouTube Theatre on Nov. 16 and a festival date in Orange County two days later. (Scroll down for the full list of dates.)
They admit they may not be timeless in every regard. Mothersbaugh tells Variety how it felt being on tour in Europe recently: “I really enjoyed doing the European shows. It reminded me enough of the old days that it was fun. And I mean, we don’t look the same. But when I was a kid I loved to go see Hound Dog Taylor and different old blues players. And you’d look at their album covers and then you’d see them in person and you’d go, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty hardcore.’ Like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, that was 15 years ago or 20 years ago, when the album came out.’ And so now you see kids in the audience give you looks like that. They’re looking and they’re going, ‘Wait a minute, what’s this? He didn’t have that on the “Freedom of Choice” cover.’ And you just give him a scowl and scare him a little bit.”
We spoke with Mothersbaugh and Casale separately for this story, conjoining some of their quotes in a Q&A that has been edited for length and clarity. Among the subjects, beyond the new compilation and touring, we also hit on their early days as “young alien types” in Akron, working with Brian Eno, some brief encounters with Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger — now, at last, the story can be told about why Keith Richards wanted to physically harm Mothersbaugh — and whether planet earth is doomed.
The tour listings on Ticketmaster say “Devo: The Farewell Tour — Celebrating 50 Years.” But the word is, you’re not really saying farewell, right?
Mark Mothersbaugh: God, it’s so irritating that somebody in our camp let the promoter write “farewell tour” so he could sell a few extra tickets. That’s irritating to me, but I think we probably won’t be the first band that has more than one farewell tour. We can have a “Hello!” tour next, I guess, next year. We’ll do the “Welcome Back Tour” or something. …
Gerald Casale: That was a promoter-run idea. They weren’t listening to us. We said, “Listen, this is the 50th anniversary of de-evolution. So we’re saying farewell to the first 50 years of de-evolution because there’s going to be a lot more.” Because you’ve got to agree that de-evolution’s real and exponentially ramping up in front of all of our faces. And they just wanted to run with “farewell” for ticket sales. I think clearly if Devo was going to do a farewell tour, we wouldn’t call it that. I would call it the “Beginning Was the End tour,” with a snake eating its tail with a Devo hat on. And I would reconnoiter the show and add more video interstitial elements and almost tell a historical narrative.
Mothersbaugh: Are you coming to the show?
Mothersbaugh: Well, then, if you come, I want you to also put it in your mind to stay healthy and I want you to come to 2073. I want you to come to our 100th anniversary show. We may not be there in flesh. We might be like those little robot things that deliver food around West Hollywood. But if we have all our sentient thoughts in that one unit, who knows? We might find out it’s even easier than being flesh and blood. We might like it better. But just keep it in mind that you want to be at the 2073 show.
I may have to send my avatar to that one, to watch your avatars.
Mothersbaugh: We’ll make sure you get your computer.
The new boxed set seems necessary for Devo. You’ve had full-album collections, but not a proper multi-disc best-of. Did you get very involved with that or just kind of sign off on Rhino’s efforts?
Casale: Oh, we actually were working in close collaboration with the people at Rhino. They wanted that, and of course we wanted the same. So I feel really good about how it came out, and I think we curated it pretty well. And I like the package. You know, maybe 20 years ago, WEA out of Japa, assembled a complete collection of every release we ever made on Warner as a collection of CDs with the original artwork and everything, just scaled down, in a box. It was really beautifully done and well thought out and kind of a novelty, and that’s the only other thing I’ve ever seen that was really quality. I felt like we needed this.
Mothersbaugh: I helped with graphics and that area, mostly. And also, there are a lot of recordings down in my basement here, right underneath where I’m sitting [at his headquarters/studio on Sunset Blvd.). So I had a lot to do with collecting all that stuff, and then I let people that are more passionate about what songs to choose do that, because for me, my favorite Devo songs change every day. … I have to go look at it again, because I don’t have it in front of me. But I always like it when something Booji Boy sings is on (a project), so I hope there’s a Booji Boy song on it.
Do you feel like it’s pretty obvious what people want in a collection like this? Or were there any sort of eras or songs where you were thinking, Okay, here’s a chance to give this a little bit of an airing again, things that were not hits.
Casale: The answer is yes to all of that. With Devo, hits and misses are really an irrelevant misnomer kind of thing. It’s either sounding more in the zeitgeist or way out, far out on the fringe. We like it all because we were an experimental collaborative group, and we weren’t cynically trying to write hits. So if we put something on a record, we liked it. And some of those things were esoteric tastes that a lot of people didn’t like and other things connected with a larger group, so we span that whole gamut.
A bit earlier than this new set, you had a limited-edition collection that just focused on your earlier, pre-commercial years, “Art Devo.”
Mothersbaugh: Those actually required more digging around the basement than the Rhino release. I like both releases, because they do have a different tilt to each one, and we tried not to overlap, though I’m sure there’s a couple things that do. But that one is a lot of stuff that nobody’s ever heard. Matter of fact, I hadn’t even heard a lot of the stuff till we dug the tapes up and started transferring them to digital and cleaning them up. I like both of them. They have different mandates that complement each other.
You’ve said that when you were coming up in Akron in the mid-‘70s, there were basically two clubs in the area you could play without getting physically attacked, or something like that. Fair to say you felt alienated from the culture of your contemporaries at the time?
Casale: I guess we were alienated, but we felt more like aliens. We weren’t alienated like, you know, existential punks or something. We felt like we were looking at a world that seemed like another planet. It’d be like if you were an alien in a spaceship with a monitor and you were just watching life on earth and commenting on it. That’s how removed we felt.
It’s always fascinating to look back at musicians in the ‘70s, when we were coming out of the counterculture years, who were resisting that as well as the old culture that the counterculture was supposed to be rebelling against. Artists like yourselves who didn’t have a lot of regard for maintaining traditions of any sort, musically or in your attitudes.
Casale: Yeah. I mean, we still were using 12-tone scale and mostly 2/4 and 4/4 beats… although we got into 7/4 and 11/7 and a couple other wacko things. I just think that when any “counterculture” congeals into orthodoxy and becomes the thing that it railed against, that’s when something pops out on the other end, like a carbuncle. And that’s what started happening, these things that didn’t fit the mold and certainly weren’t part of what was driving FM radio and stadium rock, You heard Kraftwerk, or you heard Giorgio Moroder, or garage-band stuff out of New York, like what Suicide was doing. Then came of course the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and it was just a revelation, at least for me. I saw the Damned in 1977 at CBGBs. I saw Patti Smith and saw Television and it was like, OK, something’s really happening, and we’re not isolated. Other people are out there thinking what we were thinking in Akron, but we didn’t know that they were doing that and t hey didn’t know about us.
But for a Patti Smith or Television, costuming is not going to be a big part of it. Did you feel like there were antecedents for some of the theatrical or really conceptual stuff?
Casale: Sure we did. In college, I studied art history extensively and had a great professor who showed us all the stuff I’d never seen before during the Bauhaus era. Dadaists were actually doing performance art before there was a word for performance art. And they would put on these theatrical performances that were confrontational, and they would wear outrageous costumes, designed to piss off the audience, actually, or be clowny, or whatever. And of course, the immediate antecedents were the Beatles and the early ‘60s London scene and, frankly, American R&B — people trying to look good in cool suits and flashy clothes that made them appealing. But we took it more from the Dadaists: OK, we’re meta. We’re gonna wear these three industrial suits that are foolish-looking by many people’s standards, but we’ll be able to rip them off because they’re disposable, and we’ll be able to use it as a theatrical device live. It was really effective, and we were multimedia on purpose from the beginning, and making short films was part of the mantra. It was confrontational and we would get threatened, attacked, beer bottles thrown at us, you know, people jump on stage, rip the microphones out of our hand, push us around — all of it happened. And of course that excited us. We thought, wow, if these people that we’re looking at hate us that much, let’s keep doing it.
Because we were so isolated in these basements and garages, we honed our “act.” So we showed up on the scene fully formed, and people were stunned, either positive or negative. But I think that’s what sold David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop; they all got it. And we found ourselves in Germany with Connie Plank and Brian Eno and visits from David Bowie in these insane, intense, 12-14-hour days in a barn for three weeks in the winter.
You’ve said Eno was great as a producer of your first album because he kind of let you do your thing. And then he added a lot of ideas that didn’t really make it onto the finished mixes.
Casale: Yeah, it was funny because he had evolved. Not de-evolved — he had moved on from that guy that we knew as playing atonal outrageous synth pieces over Roxy Music songs and with a feather boa and the hair. He became this Zen gentleman by the time we met him again, and he had moved on to the “Music for Airports” and his “Oblique Strategies” card set. I think what he was trying to do is take these brutalists from Akron that were thoroughly immersed in this industrial, aggressive, challenging sound, and he was trying to make it more beautiful. He was trying to install spirit and harmony into it. And of course we had lived with this stuff and wanted the world to hear the songs the way we heard them. He was getting frustrated; if he’d play this beautiful line over the top of one of our songs, or a beautiful harmony, then slowly during the mixing session, Mark and I would be pulling the faders down. But he was fun to be with, because he was such a smart guy — so thoughtful and articulate.
And somehow you became more palatable to the wider rock culture despite yourselves… although there were deliberate shifts in sound.
Mothersbaugh: For “Art Devo,” I pulled out a lot of the stuff out of the pre-Warner Bros. days, back when Bob and Jim and Jerry and me were the band, because that to me was kind of Devo at our most high-art position. After that, we decided that it was going to require a subversion for us to enter the market. We thought people were just going to love us for what we were, and they didn’t. So we thought, OK, plan B: We’re going to sneak vitamins and minerals into their food without them knowing it. We’re going to use Madison Avenue techniques. And we started making our things more succinct, more easy to understand, and it worked.
We always thought, “Wait a minute. This should be bigger. How come nobody’s paying attention to what we’re doing?” But we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I remember a time when Joni Mitchell, who had the same manager as us, and I bumped into each other in the hallway at the manager’s office. And she goes, “Are you Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo?” I go, yeah. She goes, “Hey, I’m going to be in this movie. And I’m carrying a ghetto blaster on my shoulder, and I want a song to play on the ghetto blaster. And I’m thinking I want it to be that song on your new album, ‘Swelling Itching Brain.’ Do you mind if I use that?” I go, “No, that sounds great! Why do you want that song?” She goes, “Because it’s the most irritating, obnoxious song I’ve ever heard in my whole life.” And I go, “Please use it.”
So Joni Mitchell has somehow deliberately listened to music she considers obnoxious and abrasive. What was the result of that?
Mothersbaugh: Well, I don’t know what the part was. I don’t even know what the movie was. It just made me laugh that that’s what she had to say to me.
How did some of the other established rock giants relate to you?
Mothersbaugh: I remember back in like ‘81, the Rolling Stones were recording at the Power Station the same time Devo was. This old guy who looked like a grandpa came upstairs in a big knit wool sweater and he goes, “Hey, would one of you guys play synthesizer on my record?” And I look at him and I’m like, “That’s Charlie Watts.” I went downstairs and he and Mick Jagger and Bob Clearmountain were sitting in this room and they had this song called “Worried About My Baby” or something. [Editor’s note: likely “Worried About You.”] It wasn’t a bad song; it wasn’t their best song. They said they wanted to put a synth on it, and to me, that seemed impossible — first off, because I listened to the song and I was like, “That aesthetic, a synth is gonna trash it; that’s not gonna make it better.” That was because I thought of synths as something aggressive and in-your-face They got really stoned, and we started playing around, and I brought out a vocoder that Bob Moog had loaned us — the same one Wendy Carlos used for “Clockwork Orange.” It had a great sound and we used it for a couple songs on our record. I plugged a headphone into the mic input, and I had a synth sitting on their piano, and I ran the synth into one side of it, and then I had Mick Jagger take the headphone… I’ve never told anybody this, because for a while I was really embarrassed that I ever did it.
I got Mick Jagger to put a pair of headphones on sideways. He had this rhythm he wanted to move up. I said, well, how do you want the synth to sound? And he’s going “boom, bop, bop, doo, bop, doo, bop.” And so I put a sound into the Prophet synthesizer and he was doing that into a vocoder. … You would have had to have done the kind of synthesizer sounds that I hated to put a synth on that song… something tasteful and small, in the back of this kind of romantic, soft, lazy song. On one hand, I was totally freaked out that I was in the same room with those guys. And on the other hand, I was totally freaked out because I thought, “This song, the last thing it needs is a synthesizer.” And so I put this thing on his face and we put this part out on their song, and I think you can hear a tiny bit of it in the song at the end of the album when it came out. But … um, why am I telling you that story?
Keith Richards was friends with my brother, Bob. He later told Bob, “What guy in your band put that part on my song? I want to stab him in the heart with a knife.”
Certainly Devo entered the culture even in subliminal ways. The words “devolve” and “de-evolution” weren’t really a concept before you guys were around, and now you hear those words all the time. Like, every time there is a political debate.
Casale: Yeah, it quit being a polarizing term. It quit being something that pissed people off. Now it’s just like oh, yeah, de-evolution, right — you know, it’s real. As a matter of fact, last year … the Webster’s Dictionary, they pick words of the year. Last year it was “Devolve.” They showed hundreds and hundreds of references. mostly political articles, some social science articles and behavioral articles about sociobiology, but it’s everywhere. And you’re correct when now you watch the news and it all seems like an episode of “Black Mirror.” I mean, you don’t need the Onion anymore because it’s all the Onion, right? It’s that devolved.
Mothersbaugh: I have to say, the word “de-evolution” first became a word in our vernacular in the ‘30s. It was Christians having a response to Darwinism, and they made jokes and ridiculed evolution. Not long after Jerry found the book “In the Beginning Was the End: How Man Came into Being Through Cannibalism,” in which they talk about de-evolution, I found a pamphlet later on from the ‘30s by a reverend from Ohio, called “Jocko Homo: Heaven Bound King of the Apes.” And you open it up and there’s a picture of a staircase on the way to heaven, and every stair says like, World War I, World War II, murder, insanity, drug use… and there’s an ape sitting there chewing on a leg bone, knelt down in front of the staircase, and then standing up behind him, smiling, there’s a devil holding a pitchfork, and across his chest it says, “De-evolution.” I think that’s maybe the oldest use of that term, and so it did exist back in the ‘30s.
Casale: Things have been borne out a little bit, unfortunately, beyond my worst fears. Beyond my most dystopian nightmare. You can go back to Obama. The blowback on poor Obama and his years that happened is just phenomenal. It’s like H-bomb time. Trump and his cohorts and the people in the House, these guys are serious. They are authoritarians, and they do not believe in democracy, and they’re willing to bring it down.
There is the saying about the arc of the universe bending toward justice, and right now, de-evolution seems more like it.
Casale: It’s more like what George Orwell said about “history is the boot coming down in the face of humanity over and over again.”
And, yet, with Devo, that can sound a little fun while that medicine’s going down.
Casale: That’s it. We threw in a spoonful of sugar.
Mothersbaugh: We were hoping that people were going to avert the kind of stuff that’s facing us right now, and they could have, but greed and stupidity allowed us to keep pushing it further and further to the brink, and now we’re going to see if we can back it up or not. And we may not. Maybe humans have destroyed the planet for all nature. Hopefully we haven’t. I think before I met Gerry. I read this book called “Population Bomb,” by a sociologist in the U.S., and everybody hated him and wrote hate letters to him for this book. But he said: Do the math. Humans have consistently doubled, tripled, quadrupled to the point where we will have depleted the oceans and have eaten everything that you can eat on this planet. And the only hope for planet earth is that the planet will retaliate against humans and kill us off with a virus and save Planet Earth. He said, the other possibility is nuclear war, and then that’s bad for all of nature. And so, at 19, I pledged I would never have kids because of that. I said, “I’m not bringing more humans onto the planet. That’s the one thing I could do. I’m not famous. I’m not rich. Nobody cares about what I think, but I could be one of the people to volunteer not to bring another human on the planet.”
Did that decision continue to feel good over time?
I stayed with that, until 20 years ago when I got married, and my wife goes, “OK, I know you said you’re not going to bring more humans onto the planet, but what if we adopted somebody that was already here? That wouldn’t go against your tenets, would it?” And I was like, “Oh, you got me on that one.” And so we ended up adopting, and I remember up until the very moment that we picked up our daughter in China, the closer we got to it, I thought, “My wife is insane. Why in the hell are we doing this? I’m an egotistical, self-centered artist. How’s that gonna be? That’s just gonna get in the way, and I’m too old for kids.” And then I saw the baby that I’d seen pictures of for the last three months because she’d been abandoned, and I remember looking and I said, “That’s Margaret. That’s my baby. I’m a dad.” And it was the heaviest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life. This door opened and it was like I felt this primordial urge to be a father. And I just remember: I both thought my wife was the smartest human I’d ever met in my whole life at that moment, and I also thought: There’s no hope for humans. It’s going to take the virus killing us off to save planet Earth. We’ll never be able to do it ourselves. Because it was so intense, the feeling of being a dad. I totally got it. … And I got two kids and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.
So do you try not to be too pessimistic about the world, just for their benefit?
Mothersbaugh: Oh, you know what? Honestly, I’m still not that pessimistic. I’ve got a feeling that the people that are in control of governments around the world are insane, and that the people that want to be the president of this country, they’re the crazies, and it’s like, I could imagine that guy holding the steering wheel and jamming on the gas going, “Hey, I’m 85. I don’t care” and then going over the edge and taking everybody with him.
But I also imagine that there’s enough people in this world that have kids — and that’ll help if you have kids, and have a connection to the future — that are going to say, “We’re not going to let this guy do that. We’re not going to let some oligarch somewhere, whatever country that oligarch is in, destroy everything for everybody.” So I’m still voting for that side of the card.
Moving back from the fate of humanity to this tour… Mark, you’ve said that you’re comfortable playing the classic material. And you’ve said that if you go see a band of a certain age, you don’t necessarily want to hear fresh stuff. Is that how you feel, being out there and doing shows this year?
Mothersbaugh: Yeah, honestly, I don’t want to hear… OK, pick somebody. Name a band, so I don’t have to pick a band’s name.
Like, the Rolling Stones?
Mothersbaugh: [not hearing] Who?
Mothersbaugh: Oh, OK, I thought you said something else. You know, I thought I was invincible back in the ‘70s [with hearing issues], and I never used in-ear monitors or anything. And playing with orchestras is deceptively loud, I gotta tell ya. If you’re sitting in Abbey Road and you’ve got a hundred-piece orchestra in the next room crashing away on “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Lego” or “Cocaine Bear,” even, they’re pretty goddamn loud! I thought I was invincible, but I wasn’t.
But yeah, the Rolling Stones — oh, God, I want to hear the old stuff. I want to hear the stuff that was on “The TAMI Show” and their very best stuff. I want to hear “Last Time” and “Get Off My Cloud” and definitely “Satisfaction.” “Street Fighting Man” and anything earlier than that is great as far as I’m concerned, and then the other stuff … You know, sometimes you just keep doing it anyhow, and I guess that stuff means something to somebody. And it might be that somebody that was 12 years old when they first heard “Wild Horses,” and they love it. But, to me, “Wild Horses,” that’s when I said, “Uh-oh, it’s over for them.” That’s how I felt when I heard it. I thought, “Yeah, I don’t need to hear another new Rolling Stones song.”
I remember you saying in the past, Gerry, that as some of the records got pretty synthesized at some point, maybe the fact that Devo rocked sometimes got undervalued. So when you do shows now, do the shows rock? Is that safe to say?
Casale: Yes, they do. People can’t believe it, and that’s what they love. They can’t believe that these septuagenarians are actually playing and rocking out. We always did, but it got bypassed. But now it’s featured and people talk about it.
You guys tour fairly rarely. What does it take for you to get back in kind of a touring mindset and play those songs?
Mothersbaugh: I got out of touring just because, every night I was on stage, I used to throw myself around, and I would make enough noise that, by the end of the show… I remember being 26 or 27 and going, “This is really hard. I don’t know if I can do this when I’m 30.” And now I’m 73, and you know, Gerry’s even older than me. But he was jumping around on stage on these shows and he looked great. Bob Mothersbaugh plays better than he ever did. We have a guy, Jeff Friedl, playing drums now. He’s excellent. And Josh (Hager) on guitar and keyboard, replacing Bob Casale, is really good. And I’m hanging in there. You know, I had to modify some stuff — I’m not cannonballing into the audience anymore. But based on the reaction from the audiences, I think people like it and think it sounds pretty good. So I’m enjoying that.
It’s kind of fun to get out of this room you see behind me. I sit here every day for the last 30 years, writing music for like 150 different films and television series and video games. You know, my ass got too wide because of that.
Devo tour dates:
Nov. 2 – Santa Cruz, CA
Nov. 3 – Paso Robles, CA
Nov. 5 – San Francisco
Nov. 7 – Seattle, WA
Nov. 8-9 – Portland, OR
Nov. 11-12 – Del Mar, CA
Nov. 14 – San Francisco, CA
Nov. 16 – Inglewood, CA
Nov. 18 – Huntington Beach, CA (Darker Waves festival)