Mark Of All Trades: An Interview With DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh
by: Kate Messinger
photography by: Magda Wosinska
May 24, 2014
Mark Mothersbaugh may be best known as the lead singer of the iconic new wave band DEVO, but he’s much more than just an 80s pop star. Composer, musician, cartoonist, rug maker, video artist, writer, actor and activist, you probably know Mothersbaugh’s work even if you don’t know his name.
Whether you remember the red plastic energy dome hats and yellow jumpsuits of DEVO, the theme music from Rugrats or Pee Wee’s Play House, the soundtracks from the movies of Wes Anderson, the jingle in that Swiffer commercial, the weird sounds from your Sims video game, or the drawing teacher from your toddler’s favorite episode of Yo Gabba Gabba, Mothersbaugh has infiltrated the system and hidden in our subconscious. The WILD had the pleasure of talking with the man of many hats (or energy domes) to learn about DEVO’s original vision, the work that came after, and the art of subliminal messaging.
“It seemed that subversion worked better in our culture than rebellion.”
You do a million things, how would you describe your job?
I guess I am a stream of consciousness… forward moving, really lucky guy.
You met the other members of DEVO when you were in college at Kent State. I understand that the May 4th Massacre of 1970, where four Kent State students got shot while protesting the Vietnam War, had a lot to do with starting the band.
Gerry Casale and I were both art students at the time and we started collaborating on visual projects together. We joined Students for a Democratic Society, and then the shootings happened and the school got shut down. They werenâ€™t going to reopen till September so Gerry, his brother and my brother, would just come over to my house and play music. We were trying to figure out what we were observing going on in the world from our vantage point of Akron, Ohio. It was a kind of cultural wasteland at the time and we realized that we were observing things falling apart. Not the evolution, but the de-evolution. We wanted to report on that and talk about it in our art.
We had no resources but a ton of energy and ideas, and what we were doing was not a band, that seemed cliche; we thought we were starting an abject prop group. We thought we were the devolutionary version of Jehovaha’s Witnesses meets pre Blue Man Group. Akron’s version of Andy Warhol’s factory. We thought we would put out music and theatrical shows, and groups called DEVO could go out on the road and perform them. We wanted to send four or five DEVOs out there, but we didn’t think we would have to be the performers! We thought we were gonna stay at headquarters and just create new art!
This was a time, at the beginning of the 70s, with all the shootings and everything, that the government said: “We’ve had it, all you Hippies! We’ve had it with all your non-American attitudes towards American imperialism.”
They finally had enough and shot people [at Kent State] and it was so easy for people to wuss out. It was easy when they were killing people, millions and millions of Cambodians and Vietnamese over there, but when it came home, everyone got scared. Everyone went to sleep. All the political aspirations and idealism shriveled up and music turned. “Forget Bob Dylan, we’re going to listen to the Village People now!” It was corporate rock. And that’s when disco showed up and the politics of the music was: “We’re white, we’re stupid, we are misogynists and we are conspicuous consumers and we’re proud of it! Yeah!” Disco was like a really hot chick with no brain.
That was the politics of the 70s but we thought there was a dialog that hadn’t been addressed, that had been interrupted. We looked around at who was changing things. It wasn’t the Hippies; they had been co-opted and became capitalists. It wasn’t the Punks; they were nihilists who committed suicide and no one cared, they just became t-shirts. Who changes things in our culture?
I remember seeing this commercial that used “Pachelbel’s Canon,” that beautiful overture, but they had turned it into a jingle: (singing to the tune) “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders won’t upset us / All we ask is that you let us / serve it your way!”
And I remember going: Holy SHIT! They’re selling garbage for people to eat using this classical song! The people that are able to influence our world the most are evil! But their techniques work! We were impressed with Madison Avenue, that they could talk people into doing things that were bad for them. But what if you used those techniques to spread good information?
Do you think the success of the song Whip It helped DEVO spread this good information?
Our interest in the beginning was to put our music in front of people, and be true to what we were, and then get it on the radio and the public mainstream. It wasn’t until our third album that we made something idiotic enough and benign enough to fit on mainstream radio. That’s when “Whip It” happened. It was perfect to me because it was one of my least favorite songs, but it had a point. We wrote it after touring countries that loved America and American youth culture, but hated our foreign policy and thought our president was a wuss, We thought of “Whip It” as a Jimmy Carter you can do it! song. It was a joke and it took us into the belly of the beast.
I remember in 76 when we did our first film and played it at the art institute and this woman came up to us all angry after the show screaming: I saw it! I know what you guys did! I saw the words SUBMIT and OBEY flashing across the screen!
We had no idea what she was talking about but we thought: Hey, that’s a good idea! So we became really into subliminal messages and we wanted to use that when we got a record deal to incorporate DEVO and devolution into our culture. And licensing our songs to commercials was a perfect way to do that, like putting little DEVO time bombs out there. It seemed that subversion worked better in our culture than rebellion.
“It wasn’t until our third album that we made something idiotic enough and benign enough to fit on mainstream radio.”
Over the past couple years you have helped out a lot of small galleries across America by giving them your art work at low or no cost? Why do this?
I wanted to interact with people that still loved art, like I loved it in DEVO. So I started calling little galleries run by skateboarders and graffiti artists, and set up shows. It was good for them because it would get people to come to the galleries, and get them press, and it gave me a chance to meet people who cared about art. You kind of lose that in Hollywood. You get neurotic, you get lost. To be in these shows the last fifteen years was a really great, healthy thing for me. I tried really hard to price the work in the lower end of the price range so that college kids could go: “I could get a keg for a party, or a whole bunch of ecstasy or something, or I could spend $250 and get my first piece of art!”
What are you working on now?
I am working on a show with MCA Denver, like a retrospective, that I have never shown anywhere. Some big pieces, like sound sculptures. A lot of art I do is for myself, or for my family, so for the Denver show I will be able to share it.
Finally, what is your WILD Wish?
To find out that I actually live in a part of the universe where the ribbon of time folds over itself, where I can actually take the opportunity to go back in time instead of being where the ribbon is just going one direction. I would love to come into a knot where you could have multiple choices of which direction to go.
Originally printed in the BOLD Issue.Spring 2013.