Well, here it is. I'm finally putting up the DEVO interview I did back at the end of June when I saw them in NYC. Yes, it's short, but that's all the time I had, so I wrote up a show review to go with it. A version of this (in comic book form!) will appear in the next issue of Translate, which ought to be out probably by the end of October. Also, this interview/ review ought to be showing up in the next issue of The New Scheme as well.
I was a nascent young spud back in the early 80’s when MTV came on the air. My already musical mind began to catch visuals of the same records that my Dad would play around the house- Genesis, The Clash, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello. Eventually I caught a video by a little band called Devo. In my youth I couldn’t quite grasp just what the hell was happening with the “Whip It” video, but the song was awesome and the visuals were hilarious. Who knows what the point was, all I knew was that I loved it.
That was probably around 1982. I was five. Fast forward to 2008 and I’m thirty, and in a trailer where the members of Devo are donning their trademark radiation suits and energy dome hats, and I’m in there about to interview them.
How on Earth did this happen?
How did I go 25 years of being so influenced by the sounds and ideas of this band, having never caught a glimpse of them live, and then jumping straight into interviewing founding member Gerald Casale right before they take the stage? I’ve never considered myself all that crafty, but I suppose when you envision a goal, when you’ve got your eye on the prize, and even a bit of the eye of the tiger, there’s simply no compromise. It’s destiny and it has to happen.
The actual story goes something like this: Devo were playing New York City and that’s the closest I’ve heard of them playing for as long as I’ve been paying attention, and come hell or high water I was going. Upon tracking down all the pertinent details I came across a couple minor ethical dilemmas- the first being that this gig would run me about $60, which I didn’t have. Not a huge deal, I’d figure it out. Second, it was a Live Nation/ Clear Channel event, which aside from being a terrible business, they ripped me off of $25 once. It’s just not how I roll. I had to hatch a plan.
Seeing as I’ve dabbled in the zine medium over the years, as well as the occasional freelance writing gig for other fine publications I set forth to see about doing a live review of the show as a fast track around purchasing a ticket. I’m not beyond bartering work for a free show!
There was a contact e-mail on the official Devo website and I hit it up, wondering if there was a publicist I could talk to. As luck would have it, the webmaster was also their publicist and he immediately seemed enthusiastic about my proposal and offered me a shot to interview Gerald Casale. I thought this might have been a joke, but I played along, expecting basically nothing. I agreed, but didn’t take it too seriously. I just wanted to see the show.
So it wasn’t until I found myself milling about McCarren Pool Park in Brooklyn, waiting for the guest list to appear. And it did. And I was on it! And, sure that made me feel like a dork, but it was nothing compared to impatient 40-somethings who acted like the poor cute girl behind the table (who was obviously on her first day and learning the ropes) owed their greasy asses a favor.
The park is quite literally a massive empty pool surrounded by a big wall on all sides and a giant stage at the end. It was about as good as one could get for a 6,000 capacity outdoor venue.
It was about halfway through Tom Tom Club’s set when Devo’s publicist got myself and some Aussie photographer together and brought us backstage to do our press stuff. It was weird. Some stuffy old hipster/ schmoozey types were hanging around trying to either cling to some semblance of their former coolness, score some drugs, or perhaps snag some free cantaloupe from the deli tray.
Off to the side Mark Mothersbough was on his phone doing something no doubt important sans Devo getup. Yet seeing that guy wander around in those trademark specs was sort of surreal. While killing time the photo guy and I made small talk and he used me as a guinea pig for how he wanted to photograph the band. I did my best Run DMC pose for him and it seemed pretty tough.
The Tom Tom Club finished up their set and all walked back towards us where they were instantly greeted by a gaggle of fake hanger-on's. I gotta say, Tina Weymouth still looks great. Chris Franz, on the other hand, looks like a bloated soccer dad. I don’t know what happened there. I think I caught him alternating between wolfing down a hot dog and pulling some fake sophisticate snob voice when he called to another snooty admirer, “Darling!” It was weird. I mean, just because he played in one of my all time favorite bands (Talking Heads) doesn’t exactly grant him a free pass on current crimes.
So, a few more surreal moments later some manager type guy calls to me and says I have five minutes to interview the band, so here we go. I was hoping for a bit more time, but hey, I wasn’t about to complain.
I walk into their trailer and they’re all getting into their yellow suits, hats already donned. I gotta say, it was one of the more bizarre moments in my life. But it was also one of the better ones. Sure, this interview is brief, but what do you expect out of five minutes? I feel like the necessary details were addressed and, fuck it, I got to interview Devo. What did you ever do?
RYAN: In past interviews you’ve been noted as saying that you used to be a self-professed hippie, previous to doing Devo. What were you like back then?
GERALD: I definitely had a pre- 9/11 mentality. You could accuse me of that. I was a lot more naive. I really thought that, fundamentally, there was a possibility of justice and that there were just some bad eggs, and that activists could really make a difference and change the world.
R: So you think that they can’t now?G: That’s right.
R: Wow, alright. Well, seeing as the music you make is very catchy, very poppy, very accessible... a lot of people can get into it-
G: - It only seems like that now. We were considered extremely radio unfriendly and bizarre. People wouldn’t even question it. They’d hear us and say, ‘that’s not a song! Those aren’t even songs, they don’t have hooks!’ And now, it’s different.
R: Sure. I’m 30 and when I was a kid I would hear that music and think, “that’ s catchy!” This was the early 80’s and I thought it was catchy music.
G: I wish more people would have thought so. We had an accidental hit with “Whip It”, but we were met with great resistance with radio and that’s the truth.
R: Right. So given that, how do you feel about now, where more people can listen to and understand Devo, as opposed to back then when it was a lot more difficult for the general public to get into it?
G: Well, it’s interesting because we’re sort of getting re-discovered as if we’re some sort of prehistoric curiosities, which is cool. So that’s a whole new audience, and they get it immediately. I think it’s because the songs were ahead of their time, and now they’re not. They’re contemporary.
R: So going back to the hopelessness of change thing you mentioned, how does that pair up with the sound of Devo, which sounds very cheerful on the surface? What was it on your musical path that led you to say, ‘this is how I’m going to present this music’?
G: Well, we tried to keep it a secret, but there’s a lot of talent in this room (indicating the rest of the band being in the room). So that’s why we did it. It’s just what we do.
R: I understand that on the surface it sounds catchy and simple, but beneath it you can hear weird time signatures and so forth.
G: Yes. The parts don’t really fit together in an expected manner, and the progressions had some surprises at times. The lyrics were not your typical subject matter of rock n’ roll.
R: I have a couple somewhat off-kilter questions. The first is I wanted to ask about your Jerry Jihad project and what happened with it?
G: With Jihad Jerry what we were trying to do was to create a character, an alter ego, that was commenting on the fact that we live in a fear-driven climate where the citizenry was more than willing to give up all their freedoms to preserve ‘freedom’. That is, the democratic way of life they were willing to trash in order to catch Osama bin Laden. Of course, no one sees the supreme irony in that, and that’s the problem. Jihad Jerry was trying to point out that his was not a holy war. It was a war on stupidity. But nobody thought I was funny and I got viciously attacked and hate mail, and so on.
R: Another thing is that you do a lot of work for commercials and much of it seems seems like things you’d criticize in Devo. I take it you separate the two?
R: Do you try to interject a bit of that into the commercial work?
G: You always try to do that. I mean, it’s apples and oranges with Devo. This is us. This is our self-expression. It’s like we’re poets and we’re being paid to be us. What we do is what we do. The commercial stuff is problem-solving. We don’t go to them, they come to you. You’re not the primary creator.
R: So when a beer company goes to you to come up with a campaign and you tell them, ‘OK, here’s my idea- beer is dumb, how about that for a commercial’?
G: That’s pretty much what I did. Any commercial I did for a beer company I was pretty much saying beer is dumb. And creatively, they were OK with it!
R: Last question- you’re a bass player and you play left-handed, and an upside down right-handed bass. How did that come about?
G: I was left-handed and no one in my town of Akron, Ohio a) had any left-handed instruments and b) was left-handed and played an instrument to show me.
R: So you never changed?
G: It was too late by then!
Exactly five minutes later I was finished with Jerry, shook all their hands, and was on my way.
While the schmooze party continued outside I helped myself to the fruit tray and saw Dan Deacon loading up on food as well and figured, ‘hey, this guy seems alright.’ He had opened the show earlier as a one man sound whirlwind, and playing right in the middle of the crowd, as opposed to the stage. Typically, I hate the laptop/ effects computer music DJ types, but he kept it fun and got not only some ridiculous circle pit going, but a conga line that wrapped around the whole venue. It was pretty entertaining and quite audience friendly to say the least. And he was an alright fella on top of it all, despite catering directly to the enemy... er, I mean hipsters.
In the meantime, Devo were taking pictures with Tina Weymouth from Tom Tom Club/ Talking Heads. Say what you will about putting people on a pedestal, or nostalgia-ladden gooberism, I was spitting distance from the bassist of one of my favorite bands of all time. I thought that was pretty cool.
Moments later Devo took the stage and I danced around like a little schmuck the entire damn set.
So here’s what I got to go on: If anyone has ever seen the 1980 Devo live video that was released a couple years ago this was pretty much the exact same thing. They set up exactly the same (drums on the far left and up front), the keyboards were still from the 1970’s. They had the exact same stage moves they’ve always been doing- that grouping of all the members and hopping in step to the break in “Uncontrollable Urge” remains exact. The gradual ripping of the outfits until they’re down to t-shirts, short shorts, and kneepads went like clockwork. They only played the most familiar songs- “Gates Of Steel”, “Satisfaction”, “Whip It”, “Freedom Of Choice”, and so on. After all, why change it? Why mess with a good thing. They know exactly what’s worthwhile and what’s filler. And you know what- every damn second of it absolutely ruled.
Now if I already knew most of what they were going to do why was it so awesome? Well, here’s the thing- if maybe I’d already seen them 20 times perhaps I’d be sort of used to it, maybe a little bored even. But that’s not the case. I’d never seen Devo. And being there right up front while they went through their routine with a ton of other people dancing was excellent. Sure, their set is almost as robot-like clockwork as their intended android stage moves. But it’s done so well and played so perfect (hell, they’ve had 30 years to get it right) one can’t help but be bowled over with how entertaining it all is. Clearly I walked out of there beaming with a smile that lasted a good week.