The narrative of Devo follows a labyrinthine maze through the shattered idealism of the ’60s, the record-label monopolies of the ’70s, and the cocaine-addled New Wave scene of the ’80s. Recently reemerging for present-day collaborations with artists like Adam Freeland and Teddybears, the sometimes famed, sometimes infamous Devo have been busy of late. After completing a 2006 tour clad in the requisite yellow jumpsuits and creating “Watch Us Work It” for a Dell campaign, the band sued McDonald’s for use of its trademarked “flower-pot” or “energy-dome” hats in Happy Meal toys. Now on the cusp of releasing a new album after 19 years of silence, the band will be performing new songs at SXSW‘s BMI showcase on March 20 in Austin, Texas.
Earplug’s Sara Jayne Crow met with Jerry Casale — co-founder, vocalist, bass guitarist, and synthesizer maestro of Devo — in his Santa Monica home over the course of several months. The following interview is the first installment in a series covering the long Devo history, De-evolution as a philosophy, the nature of the new album, and the real meaning of “Whip It.”
Earplug: After all this time, you’ve come together to release a new album. But initially you were brought together again to do music for a commercial for Dell, “Watch Us Work It”…
Jerry Casale: Yes, and the commercial got such a huge response. It was popular with listeners, and more importantly, it was popular with record companies. We gave it to Teddybears, and they produced it.
EP: This was during your 2006 tour?
JC: Yeah. I liked Teddybears, and their record had just come out. Paul, the creative director of Mother agency in New York (who hired us to work on the Dell commercial), knows them. He suggested that they do something with the song, and we thought that was fantastic. We loved what they did.
EP: I like that it updated the Devo sound.
JC: It was perfect, because it sounded like Devo, but it didn’t. People were like, “Is that Devo?” And then they were like, “Oh yeah, it’s perfect, it’s Devo.” It kept what people had in mind about what they think Devo should be without literally being self-parody, or something, which is a good fine line. I don’t think anyone would want Devo to come out and not sound like Devo, at this point. They wouldn’t accept that.
EP: How are you grappling with creating something new for the Devo sound while remaining true to the original direction, philosophy, and rawness?
JC: The way we decided to deal with this was to just use the same process we used in the past for writing, and to see what would happen, because it had been so long since we did that.
EP: The process being what?
JC: Everyone contributing ideas, sounds, and musical figures, and only developing the ones that everyone likes. With “Girl U Want,” like so many of our songs, we could tell in the first five seconds that they were recognizable as non-generic. We develop from there. That’s always what I was good at, taking things from different influences. “Whip It” was actually four songs, pieces of tape, and four different time signatures. There was the riff, chorus (a very slow, almost classical piece with no drums), and the bridge was a rock song, and the strange beat was an experiment that the drummer of Captain Beefheart, John French, would hang out with Mark [Mothersbaugh] and jam. A version of that beat that was too jazzy came out of that time. Once we had that beat, I had the idea of taking the other three pieces of music and unifying them. I had these “Whip It” lyrics from my attempt at doing a Thomas Pynchon parody. He did a bunch of parodies in Gravity’s Rainbow, and I liked them so much that I wanted to do one. So for me, “Whip It” was a parody of the whole Horatio Alger “You’re number one, there’s nobody else like you, you can do it” thing.
EP: Cheerleading stuff? Isn’t it ironic, then, that people generally think the song is about sadomasochism? Because, viewed in light of the theory of De-evolution that Devo stands for, the mindset is sort of masochistic.
JC: We like the irony. We knew people would think that. That’s why I made the video I made for the song. I said, “OK, let’s just give ’em what they want, or what they think they want to see — except we’ll be making fun of Ronald Reagan and Americana. At that time, he was campaigning for the presidency on this whole rancher thing with the cowboy hat, on horseback.
EP: The lone ranger?
JC: Yeah, so we did this sort of “down at the ranch” video, but made it S&M. It was disturbing to everybody because there was a band playing in the corral, and Mark’s whipping this girl’s clothes off while cowboys cheer. It made us laugh, because it’s so horrible.
EP: It’s so demeaning…
JC: To all of us! To everyone.
EP: Yes, it’s an equal opportunity demean-er.
JC: It is, it really is. “Whip it into shape” is so ubiquitous, and cliché. I was trying to use lyrics that were a bunch of clichés if taken out of context, on purpose. Lyrics that are universal, but turn into some other meaning when taken together. “Freedom of Choice” was like that: starting with some slogan. We love slogans and commands, and that’s why we return to that idea. We try not to write about anything typical. One of our new songs is taken from a hunter’s safety vest that reads, “Don’t Shoot, I’m a Man” on the back.
EP: What are some of the lyrics?
JC: I get up every day / It’s a miracle, I’m told / Somehow I live to work / So I hit the road / Squeeze into my hybrid car / Drive as fast as I can / I scan the rooftops, yeah I scan the rooftops / Don’t shoot, I’m a man
EP: How is the mention of a hybrid car relevant to the song?
JC: We were just trying to paint a portrait of a modern, harried man. An emasculated, rat-race man living in a dangerous world full of crazy people and violence. And he has a horrible life, so he wakes up every day to get in his little dinky-ass, wimpy hybrid, and then is afraid for his life as he drives in gridlock to work. He’s begging, “Please, don’t make me prey.” It’s an anti-violence song. Humans feel like they’re being hunted now.
In this day and age, the whole instinctual human need for self-preservation isn’t really relevant. We’re not fending for ourselves out in nature, in the jungle. We lead sheltered, easy lives. Modern violence has less to do with the physical and more to do with day-to-day human interactions. We may not be in the jungle, but we created a new jungle. An urban jungle. And we created an unsustainable environment, and we’re doing our own species in. That’s what the song is about, in a humorous way.
We’re also doing a song called “What We Do,” which is again addressing the fact that human nature being what it is, it’s almost programmed to self-destruct… It’s like not taking two years to die on chemotherapy, or something. You’re spared if you go quickly. But of course we don’t deal with it that way. In the video we’re making for it, a hand is picking from cut-and-paste ad graphics of people and chimps. It picks certain people and chimps, and puts them in a spaceship, and then they get beamed up. It’s a reference to the stupid Scientology mythology. We’re showing these video backgrounds in sync with the music at this year’s South by Southwest.
EP: You’re performing all the new music there?
JC: Three new songs. And also showing people what we used to do before anyone used to do it, which is to play in sync with video. And now, sure, Nine Inch Nails do it, and U2 do it. It used to be almost impossible to do it the way we had to do it with the technology we had back then. Now it’s easier, it’s just expensive.
EP: So how many new songs do you have right now?
JC: We have about ten demos, and we’re working on about five. We have six songs completed and mixed and ready to hand to producers. We’re looking at a fall tour with our new CD. In the meantime, we want to get this music to licensers and producers.
EP: What’s the general feeling of rapport or camaraderie in the group right now? How are you getting along after all these years?
JC: I can only speak for myself. I have the same commitment, excitement, and urgency. I think to a large degree that the two Bobs do, as well. We do have some really good songs now. There’s one called “Fresh” that I like a lot. The lyrics are:
So fresh / I’ll search until I find it / So fresh / I’m closing in behind it / So fresh / Nothing could be better / So fresh / Like I died and went to heaven / So fresh it almost makes me want to cry / So fresh it’s givin’ me a second life / I see a fork in the road / Where it goes I don’t know / I won’t even think twice / I really don’t have a choice
EP: So it’s about… encroachment? Love?
JC: It’s about anything. It’s about fulfilling your destiny, and chasing new love.
JC: Yeah! What was the old high-school maxim? “When the angle of the dangle is proportionate to the heat of the meat, and the mass of the ass stays constant?” That’s thermodynamics! I love those hillbilly truisms and wisdom. It gets profound when you get older and think about it. High-school kids know everything already.
EP: And then you learn it over and over again, and then forget it, and then you don’t know anything, and that’s the true state of enlightenment.
JC: That’s right. Artists tend not to forget what they knew in high school. That’s what I like about artists. Part of them doesn’t grow up. They don’t get ashamed of those impulses. I don’t like people who do things in a spiritless way. Like with anything, like with sex. If you’re going to bother doing it, try to do a really good job. Concentrate and be there, and try to really be good at what you do.
Image: Jay Spencer