For the past 14 years, the circular lime-green building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles has belonged to Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo frontman and founder of Mutato Muzika, a production company devoted to TV and film soundtrack music. Sandwiched between late-night eateries and nearly dwarfed by a giant billboard for the 2011 Jaguar XG, it's a refuge of sorts for Mothersbaugh, who's collected nearly everything he's worked on the past three decades. Vintage synthesizers, calculators wired to sound like keyboards, and a variety of guitars are scattered about the rooms.
Looking like Andy Warhol these days, Mothersbaugh sports a pair of silver-rimmed glasses fitted with special lenses to accommodate his horrible eyesight (he's legally blind). His hair has turned a silvery gray too. But that hasn't stopped him from keeping Devo alive. On June 15, the group will release Something for Everyone, its first album in 20 years. They'll promote the release with appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Colbert Report, and Live With Regis & Kelly. It's a welcome second wind for the nerdy misfits who began performing together in Akron in 1973.
"There wasn't a scene [then]," he says. "Devo was formed at a time when people would go to bars to listen to cover bands, because that's what they wanted to hear. For us to play somewhere, we usually had to lie and say we were a cover band."
Even though the early shows were often confrontational, a shift came in 1977, when the band finally made its way to New York to play clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB. "Devo showed up, and it was like aliens from this crazy place called Akron," he recalls. "We showed films that we called re-education films, because there was not such a thing as promo videos."
Suddenly, Devo were cool. Some of the Rolling Stones and actors Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper started showing up at their concerts. At one Max's gig, David Bowie announced to the audience that Devo were the "band of the future" and that he would produce their next record. But Bowie got too wrapped up in a film he was making, and Brian Eno ended up producing the band's 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Eno put up the money to make the album and flew Devo's members to a studio outside of Cologne, Germany. With sarcastic songs about consumer culture and gender stereotypes, the album established the brainy nerds as new wave's resident weirdos.
Devo somehow found a commercial foothold with 1980's Freedom of Choice, which yielded the Top 40 hit "Whip It." "In some ways, I feel like 'Whip It' was the beginning of the end for Devo," says Mothersbaugh. The rest of the group (Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, and Bob Casale, along with drummer Alan Myers, who left the group in 1987) struggled to find work after Devo took a hiatus in the late '80s, but Mothersbaugh kept busy. He wrote the music for his friend Paul Reubens' TV show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, and that led to a steady career scoring movies and TV programs (including Rugrats, Big Love, and several Wes Anderson films).
But he never completely abandoned Devo. They were surprise guests at some 1997 Lollapalooza dates, and in 2007 they penned "Watch Us Work It" for a Dell computer ad. They even performed at this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Now their record company is reissuing some of the old albums, loading them with bonus tracks that Mothersbaugh and his bandmates found in the vaults.
For the upcoming Something for Everyone, Devo worked with hot producers John Hill and Santi White (from Santigold), the Dust Brothers' John King, and the Teddybears. "Everything has definitely caught up with Devo," says Mothersbaugh. "There are people out there that feel really inspired by Devo and that they know what Devo should sound like."
"Human Rocket" and "Signal Ready" have a techno edge. Other songs, like the manic "What We Do" and "Please Baby Please," sound like classic Devo, with vintage synths and sardonic lyrics about consumer greed and sexual fears. "The part that is important is the basic message of the band," says Mothersbaugh. "I think that's still there. It's unfortunate that our philosophies were proven true.
"I would have wished that we could have been proven wrong," he concludes. "We didn't enjoy the idea that things were devolving. We thought that we were just musical reporters telling everyone that the boat is leaking and that there are problems in our DNA that need to be fixed. Unfortunately, we've watched the world not adjust to it."
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