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AU66: Devo feature

September 15, 2010

I’ve been meaning to post this up for a while – a feature that appeared in AU during the summer to coincide with Something For Everybody, Devo’s first album since 1990. It’s one of my favourite interviews, first of all because the idea of me speaking to someone of the status of Devo’s Jerry Casale still seems pretty bloody unlikely, but also because it was such a fun conversation.

It was a bit of a saga getting the interview organised – as is so often the case with big major label artists – so that was cause for apprehension in itself. Then there are the natural nerves of speaking to someone not far off ‘hero’ status in my book. And what would be be like? He is a man in his 60s after all – would be be a curmudgeon? Go through the motions? Deem my questions below him? Maybe he would be as completely nutso as his band’s persona. Or such an intellectual that I would struggle to converse on a similar level.

You see where I’m going with this. In fact, he was charming, self-deprecating and extremely affable. Most interesting, though, was the extent to which Devo’s off-the-wall schemes are the product of carefully planned marketing campaigns. I had supposed – naively, perhaps – that their ‘Devo Song Study’ was the band’s idea, perhaps a wry parody of audience-inclusive TV like American Idol and X Factor, where everyone who wants a say gets one. Casale was quite happy to set the record straight on that one…

DEVO

Two decades after their last record and 33 years since their first, post-punk legends Devo are back with their ninth studio album, and guess what? It’s really bloody good. AU speaks to founder member and ‘chief strategist’ Gerald Casale about the album’s long gestation, the band’s peculiar marketing techniques, and why they were right about de-evolution all along…

So, what happened in 1990? Argentina lost in the World Cup final, leaving Maradona crying like a baby. Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Mikhail Gorbachev was elected President of the USSR. Your correspondent celebrated his seventh birthday with cocktail sausages and pass-the-parcel. And Devo released their last studio album.

20 years is a long time, of that there is no doubt. But for Devo – bona fide post-punk godheads, counter-culture provocateurs and icons of the MTV era – it’s been a strange kind of hiatus. Not for them the sudden break-up followed by years upon years of silence and a high-profile reunion. In their case, they kind of just… stopped for a while, worn down by diminishing returns, falling album sales and plummeting critical and commercial interest.

“After the 1990 release of Smooth Noodle Maps on Enigma Records, we never broke up but it basically became a sleeper cell,” is how Gerald Casale describes it. The 61-year-old formed the band in 1973 with Mark Mothersbaugh – still the frontman – and original guitarist Bob Lewis. Through all that time, Casale has been the bassist and – in an indicator of the extent to which the band is about more than just the music – ‘chief strategist’, becoming deeply involved in the band’s idiosyncratic visual presentation and often bizarre, pseudo-corporate pronouncements.

After Smooth Noodle Maps, nothing was heard from Devo for about five years, until they shuffled into life again, playing gigs here and there and closing the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. Over the next couple of years, activity increased to 20 or 30 shows a year, with occasional Devo songs being written for video games, films and advertising. “It laid there on one level like that until 2007 when [new song] ‘Watch Us Work It’ came out on a Dell commercial,” says Casale. “Everybody in the business started calling us up – label executives, managers… like, ‘You’ve gotta do something!’. And Mark [Mothersbaugh], who’d spent 20 years saying no, said yes.”

Something For Everyone is the result, an album that stands as evidence of a band in extremely rude health, even as the four old-timers – Casale, Mothersbaugh and their brothers, both called Bob – hover around the 60 mark. To these ears, as someone who came to Devo for the first time only a few years ago in my early twenties, it’s as if that 20-year chasm never existed. Urgent, fun, goofy and packed full of neon-coloured, synth-splashed rock songs, it sits proudly next to the likes of Freedom Of Choice and Oh No! It’s Devo as the work of exactly the same, prodigiously talented band.

“Well, of course we can’t be anything except us,” says Casale, who is frank and affable to a fault. “It would be foolish to try. A lot of bands, if they haven’t collaborated or made new music in a long time, try to be current or imitate trends and go, ‘Let’s try to sound like MGMT!’, and we knew that that was silly. We would just be us, and work from the vocabulary and subject matter that we know, and be honest about it. So that’s what we did. And it sounds like Devo, but it sounds… modern.”

So you work within certain parameters when you’re writing and recording? “Yeah, not really by decree – it just turns out that way. There’s just certain things that you do, and frankly it’s probably what people would prefer anyway. We do what we do, as the [new] song says.”

That maxim also extends to the way in which the band conducts itself publicly, except now there’s the wide world of the Internet to have fun with. Devo have always plastered their behaviour with a thick coat of irony, appropriating the language and imagery of politicians and especially the corporate world in order to poke fun at and shine a light on the peculiar way in which corporations and governments make us behave. See ‘Devo Corporate Anthem’ – the first track on 1979’s Duty Now For The Future – for a prime example, one that is used to this day to introduce live gigs.

Therefore it was to widespread amusement but no great surprise that the band launched the ‘Devo Song Study’ at the same time as announcing the new album. In it, Devo Inc. (the fictional corporate wing of the band, headed by the moustachioed ‘Greg Scholl’) ran a website featuring clips of 16 new Devo songs, of which fans could choose their 12 favourites. Fans were told that the 12 most popular would make the album. Simple. Amusing. Well-executed. And very Devo. Where did the idea come from?

“It came out of talks with the ad agency, Mother,” says Casale, not even trying to claim any credit for the band or himself. “Mother is this kind of ‘adbuster’ ad agency. They’re definitely the coolest, funniest, cutting-edge guys, and we just realised that in a world where there’s far too much music coming out in a month, more than anyone could ever know about; in a world where nobody wants to pay for music; in a world where the old business model has imploded and the function of labels has imploded, and a new model has taken its place; in that world, marketing is absolutely everything. Absolutely the beginning and the end.

“Why should people care about your music? How would they even know that you made new music? How do you even get them interested so that they may buy it? Well, it’s marketing. So we thought, let’s take the marketing out of the hands of a label, who only dabble at it, and give it to a real agency. And they said, let’s use the techniques that we use for Dell computers or for Cheerios, and let’s be humorous about it.”

As much as you have to admire Casale’s candour, it’s disheartening to discover that the whole Song Study schtick came from the minds of an ad agency, rather than the band itself. But Casale has been in the business long enough to know how things work, and how things have to work in order to get anywhere. He’s 61 years old – not a naïve youngster.

“The campaign is about doing business in the corporate world – how do you put out creative content in the corporate society?” he ponders. “So that was a post-modern idea of marketing it and having fun with it at the same time. You know, it goes all the way back to The Who Sell Out – it’s nothing new on that level – but we really embraced the techniques and did it, for real.

Leaving aside the genesis of the idea, the execution itself was slick and multi-faceted. The on-screen presentation was cold and eerily detached, as ‘Greg Scholl’ guided the user around a sleek, sterile interface with which to listen to snippets of the tracks. And the method of choosing the track-list was ingenious, too – a comment on the power of the hive mind in these times of instant opinions and mass empowerment of television viewers?

“Well, with the American Idol model and all the social networking models, people like to be involved – people like opinions and my god, they love to give them when they’re asked!” says Casale with a hint of mischief. “And so we invited it to see what would happen, and we really wanted to respond to the results. We probably would have taken it much further had we had more time and money. We would have even put up different versions of the same song – different mixes, different instruments, different vocal performances – and gone really far with it. It would have been funny to go so far as to say, ‘Would you like this song better if Adam Lambert sang it?’ [laughs] And then if they said yes, to try and get Adam Lambert to sing a Devo song.”

In the end, the Song Study was revealed to be less than what was promised – although the fan-chosen tracklist was announced first and will be released, it will only be as a digital download. The predetermined, ‘real’ tracklist (“88% focus group approved!”) will be what features on CD copies of the album, while all 16 tracks will be available in a ‘deluxe’ edition. According to Casale, all this was a result of commercial pressure. “We are putting out more than one version of Devo songs, because we have to,” he admits. “The different retailers demand different things – iTunes wants this and that, and frankly the corporate partners, being Warner Bros. and Mother, they weigh in because of their contributions – they wanted certain things.”

Make no mistake though – Devo are not selling out. Although they are seen as counter-cultural icons, they began on Warners – a major label – and they have routinely licensed music for use in TV shows and commercials. The use of ‘Watch Us Work It’ in a Dell commercial was the primary catalyst for this new album. And although Casale would clearly prefer complete artistic independence, he is candid about the need for compromise when you sign to a major label, as they have done again, despite his words about the current model “imploding”.

“It was the Devil Deal Or No Deal,” he says. “Frankly, all this hot air about, ‘You can create a sensation on Facebook and become famous for no money and everybody will know you’, or ‘You can go to a sponsor and they’ll give you the money to record your record and market it, or ‘You can go to big concert promoters like AEG and Live Nation and they’ll front you money for 100 shows and you can put it out yourself’… It’s a lie! We investigated all that and nobody was giving you anything, especially in this economic climate.

“Nobody’s offering any money for music, and frankly the reason Warner Bros. ponied up the marketing money is that they own our back catalogue – the masters of eight different studio records. They have a practical reason on a business level for taking the risk to give us the money to market the new record, and frankly we couldn’t have done anything without [their] money and Mother. So it was just good common sense.”

Do you feel like there’s a loss of control there, as an artist?

“Of course there is!” he exclaims, sounding – it must be said – a little exasperated. “I mean, let’s be real – nobody gives you anything unless they’re taking something from you. It’s always a compromise.”

As the album is released into the world, though, it seems like a compromise worth making. Unlike many other reformed bands we could mention, Devo are not just cruising around the world and playing the hits while cryogenically frozen in time. They have had the stones to get back in the studio, create something entirely new, and tour it the old-fashioned way. And, perhaps best of all, they get to be incredibly smug about the reason the band formed in 1973 – the much discussed, often derided ‘Theory of De-evolution’ that gave the band its name. 37 years after the band formed, what changes has Casale seen, and how do they fit in with the theory that mankind has reached its peak and is actually devolving?

“Well, it seems it all came true!” says Casale, the delight audible in his voice. “It’s even worse than we thought. If someone showed you, back in 1980, the world today with planes running into the World Trade Center and the oil spill and on and on, you wouldn’t have believed it. You would have thought it was some cheap B-movie – a bad sci-fi dystopia designed to scare people. But it all came true.

“So when we said we didn’t think the world was getting better; we didn’t see progress; we didn’t see people getting smarter; we saw massive stupidity, we were definitely having a pose or making a kind of a warning, but we never thought that this would happen. I mean, this is beyond anything we thought! So de-evolution is real now, and it’s not a crackpot theory and it’s not shocking and everyone goes, ‘Oh yeah, de-evolution – that’s true’. And so we’re just part of it. We’re in it, prophecy fulfilled and here we are celebrating it.”

20 years after their last album, it seems Devo are more relevant than ever.

Something For Everybody is out now on Warner Bros. Records.

http://www.clubdevo.com

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