An Interview with Mark Mothersbaugh
By Jason Hall
DEVO is one of the most influential bands still active, but maybe not for long. Desert Daze is bringing them back to the stage for a very rare and possible final performance. Their live show is definitely going to be a highlight of the festival and will be leaving festival goers in awe. This part performance art and full on energetic rock show will not be forgotten.
DEVO was borne out of the massacre at Kent State University. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were witness to the de-evolution of the political state of our country during the Vietnam protests of the late 60s and early 70s. With their motivation firmly in place, DEVO hit the scene running. It didn’t take long for DEVO to be noticed. They are still one of the most influential and covered bands ever.
Mark Mothersbaugh along with Gerald Casale are the figure heads behind DEVO. Mothersbaugh has gone on to have a very successful movie scoring career as well as being a visual artist. 30 Years ago in 1989, Mothersbaugh purchased an iconic circular building on the Hollywood Strip and dubbed it Mutato Muzika. This would become the home of Mothersbaugh and all of his future endeavors. Mutato Muzika also allowed Mothersbaugh to further his collection of often bizarre and unique music instruments.
Mothersbaugh has made a name for himself in the film industry by utilizing his unique instruments and artistic genius as well as collaborating with obscure musicians. He composed the music for the show Rugrats for its entire run, as well as the movies Rushmore, The LEGO Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, and countless others. He’s also scored many video games. He’s done all of this while maintaining a visual art career and finding the occasional time to perform with DEVO.
Mothersbaugh was nice enough to put some time aside for us in the midst of writing a musical.
Coachella Valley Weekly: How does Devo decide which shows to play, and why Desert Daze?
Mark Mothersbaugh: “It’s just juggling schedules. I’m mostly up to my neck in the film world right now. I’m working on a musical right now, but this one was close enough to home. Because it’s in the desert, we didn’t have to fly somewhere. Also, I looked at the line-up and it was really interesting. There’s a lot of bands I want to hear. That’s what made me want to do it.”
CVW: I noticed Fred Armisen is going to be performing at Desert Daze. Will he be sitting in on drums again?
Mothersbaugh: “No. We’re going to use Jeff Friedl who’s kind of our second drummer at this point. It was fun playing with Fred, but he’s got enough stuff to do this weekend.”
CVW: Was the transition to film score fairly easy?
Mothersbaugh: “No. Yeah! It was accidental. It was yes and no. I had always been interested in film scores, but I hadn’t studied for it. I was a visual artist at school. I didn’t even think we were going to be a band. I thought we were going to be more like an action prop group and more overtly political, kinda more of an art movement. In a perfect world, Art-DEVO would have been an art movement focusing on the insanity of the human species. It would be a warning against de-evolution.”
CVW: It’s obvious that you have an interest in many different genres of music, and many different instruments. We have a mutual friend who has worked with you on some TV stuff doing some turntable scratching, DJ Swamp. How did you come to collaborate with somebody doing something so different from the “norm?”
Mothersbaugh: “That’s when I feel liberated; when I’m doing something that doesn’t just fall into a cliché genre. He, at the time we went to work together, was doing something I was jealous of. I wished I could DJ like that. There are a couple DJs I really like right now and he’s one of them and always has been. I also really like this guy DJ Z-Trip. I like the DJs that are aggressively putting positive mutations on the music they’re working with. That’s what I thought about DJ Swamp. I loved what he was doing with voices. He could take things I was working on and we’d put voices on disc and he would scratch that. It added a lot to what I was working on. I really respect the people who are doing that medium right.”
CVW: Aside from music, you are an accomplished visual artist. Has visual art always been a part of your life?
Mothersbaugh: “Yeah. Pretty much from when I got my first pair of glasses when I was 7. I just felt like I was trying to record things that I couldn’t articulate. Drawing and painting was the best way to do it when I was a kid.”
CVW: Are there any upcoming gallery shows?
Mothersbaugh: “I’m in one right now in New York City called ‘Beyond the Streets.’ It’s graffiti artists and has a lot of graffiti in it, which is how I got in on it because back in the late 60s and early 70s when I started at Kent State University, I would wait for everybody to leave class at the end of the day. I would stay and have the whole printing department to myself so I could burn screens and print things. In one night I could finish a whole piece of art instead of it taking a month. I was printing these things that were kind of a smaller size, similar to what Shepard (Fairey) was doing when he first started, but this was 1969 so there was no such thing as graffiti artists yet. That’s the way I met Jerry Casale. He was a grad student and I was a freshman or sophomore. He found me somewhere on campus and said, ‘Are you the guy posting pictures of astronauts holding potatoes standing on the moon?’ And I went, ‘Yeah! What of it?’ He asked, ‘What do potatoes mean to you?’ So we started into this discussion. He had this whole awesome theory about potatoes being the proletariat of the vegetable kingdom. A friendship started there. We started collaborating on visual projects before the shootings at Kent State that closed down our school. He’d come over to my place and we were writing music together. I had access to an early mini Moog. He was playing bass. We were waiting for school to open up which was four months away. We thought, this doesn’t seem like evolution. It doesn’t seem like things are progressing in a positive way. That’s when we decided we were observing de-evolution on the planet.”
CVW: I noticed this billed as a farewell tour, but have heard conflicting stories about this. Are there any other Devo shows in the works?
Mothersbaugh: “Not currently. This could be it for DEVO performing on this planet for all we know. We’ll see.”
CVW: Can we expect any new music from Devo?
Mothersbaugh: “Well in the basement of Mutato where I write music every day, I have a tape library of DEVO tapes. We used to write every day. This was from the late 70s to the early 90s. I used to just run a tape a lot of the time. I haven’t gone through all of the tapes because there are thousands of tapes. We’ve gone through some and found songs we’ve totally forgot about. In fact, when we played the Hardcore DEVO show, half the material was stuff we’d only ever played in a basement in Akron, Ohio. It’s very possible.”
CVW: Any chance of slipping some Dove, The Band of Love songs into the set? For instance, their rendition of “Worried Man Blues?”
Mothersbaugh: “Hmm. It depends on how we do. If things go well at rehearsal we’ll bring some of that old stuff out. I’d love to do that. Dove, The Band of Love was a lot of fun to do. We used to love getting shouted off of stage. People would be shouting, ‘DEVO,’ loud enough so they wouldn’t have to listen to us. We were doing ‘born again’ versions of DEVO songs. We’d wear mutton chops and century 21 outfits out on stage and except for the people in the front row, nobody recognized us.”
DEVO will be performing at Desert Daze on Saturday, 10/12/19, at 6:15 pm on The Moon stage. Their set will be followed by Ween performing Chocolate & Cheese in its entirety. Single day passes and weekend passes are available at desertdaze.org.