The Media Man
Still crazy after all these years? Devo mainstay Mark Mothersbaugh speaks of TV music, obscure American synths and lunchboxes that go boom, tink, boom,tink...
With everything to his credit from records, to Saturday morning TV, to the commercials you hear in between, Mark Mothersbaugh has become a true media warrior.
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH HAS been juggling three careers lately: as a member of Devo, an artist, and a writer of music for American TV shows and commercials. A lot of TV people have come calling for Mothersbaugh's driving, percussive and synth-heavy sound. In fact, between the commercials and his work for Pee Wee's Playhouse (Pee Wee Herman's children's TV show), American Saturday mornings are exploding with Mothersbaugh's work.
Back in 1978 Devo first came to the attention of the British public with an LP, Are We Not Men - We Are Devo (produced by Brian Eno), and a charting single, 'Joko Homo'. The music was experimental to the point of being bizarre; unnatural sounds set in unnatural time signatures performed by men clad in a manner considered strange (or ludicrous, depending on your point of view) even in the area of popular music. A cover version of the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction' did much to endear Devo to the music press but the great record-buying public were bemused.
A series of albums ensued - Duty Now For The Future, Freedom of Choice, New Traditionalists, Oh No, It's Devo and Shout (Freedom of Choice spawning the classic single, 'Whip It') - allowing Devo to further their experiments in music and sound. The public remained resolutely sceptical and canned Devo off stage on the occasion of their only Knebworth Festival appearance. As if conceding defeat, 1984's Shout was to be the last word from the boys from Ohio for some years.
Four years, in fact, until 1988 brought us a revised Devo lineup and the LP Total Devo which, true to form, received an enthusiastic thumbs up from the US critics but failed to attract much attention in the UK. Back in America, Mothersbaugh's artistic career (he originally met Devo rhythm guitarist and keyboardsman Gerry Casale when they were both fine art majors at Kent State University in Ohio) also came out of a long hibernation with an art gallery exhibition.
On a smoggy day, like any other in Los Angeles, Mothersbaugh shared his thoughts on his own career and producing the band that Gerry Casale once called "the new in new wave".
"Originally, I was the engineer for Devo", he begins. "I produced and engineered all of our early singles. Somewhere around Freedom Of Choice, Gerry Casale started really getting into electronics and took over as our resident engineer. We still produce things by quorum, although there are a couple of people more interested in that than others."
Apart from the band's own contribution to the production of their music, Brian Eno was the first of a series of notable producers to be involved.
"With mixed success", concedes Mothersbaugh. "Devo is kind of a funny band to mix with, because we have such distinct ideas about how we want to sound. I really respect Brian as a person. As an artist, he's great. We owe a lot to him, not even necessarily in production, just in support. We didn't have a record deal at the time, and he said, 'I'm so sure you guys could get a record deal that I'm going to take you to Germany and we're going to record an album. I'll produce it for you, I'll take care of all the expenses, we'll worry about it later'. He loaned us 55 grand - that's a pretty cool thing to do, I have to say I've never done that for a band, when I was so sure things would happen for them. But he did."
Before signing to Virgin to release Are We Not Men - We Are Devo, Devo released a series experimental EPs on the Stiff label. When they subsequently signed to Virgin they were able to further explore the ideas they had pioneered on Stiff. Major record company backing helped Devo to build up a curious collection of equipment ranging from a Fairlight to cheap obscure and obsolete American synths.
"Total Devo was a transitional album for us" recalls Mothersbaugh. "I was in the process of saying goodbye to the Fairlight and hello to Roland samplers and synthesisers. The drum sounds on 'Plain Truth' are a combination of real and sequenced drums, because we wanted not to feel so mechanical. The opening percussive sound on that track is a combination of a Fairlight gamelan sample and something on a JX3P.
"The snare crack in 'Happy Guy' is a combination of a sampled snare and a little device made by Vox called the Rhythm Box. It was this little lunchbox-sized thing that had the same grille material around it as their amps. I think it was originally made for people playing in nightclubs to play along with, like if they were playing accordion or piano and they wanted a little percussion. It had a set of ten sounds on it, all different kinds of pink and white noise. You had these two buttons you could set, presets like the tabs on a Wurlitzer organ, and one foot or the other would play them. You also had a little tiny row of dots that looked like an elevator punchboard. You could play those by hand to go, 'boom, tink, boom, tink'. It was a very old drum machine, no sequencer. So that was the sound, kind of like a coffee can opening up.
"The 'Whip It' snare came from a synthesiser from a company that's long gone. If you're looking for weird analogue machines to sample, there's a company called Electronic Music Laboratories from Vermont or Connecticut, and they put out this weird range of keyboard instruments. You couldn't tune them to a scale that matched anything else, anything vaguely Western. They did have this weird thing that would change the scale with a slider, but the slider didn't have a centre detent, so you could never find where it was. First you had to wait for the oscillators to warm up before you tried to tune it, and then you had to set the detent position. Boy, it was an unbelievable chore. But it was a great synthesiser, and what was so good about it was that it made you ignore the keyboard as anything other than just a trigger."
DEVO'S MUSIC IS distinctive not only because of their unorthodox approach to notes and time signatures, but because of their approach to sounds. When it arrived, the Fairlight seemed to offer the best of most worlds - sampling, sequencing. synthesis. Now, for Mothersbaugh at least, its day is gone. Instead he is turning his attention to cheaper and more flexible personal computer based systems.
"I really believe that everybody will be using PC-controlled systems in a couple of years. A few years ago when I said it, people weren't sure if that was true, but I think everybody pretty much agrees now that it will get to that. It will get to the point where we're all using PCs and modems, and if you need a sound you just call up and download from a library somewhere.
"The Fairlight... I love their sequencer, it's my favourite, although there are problems with it. You can't make sounds extend unless the decay is already that long. You can't add a gate time that's longer than a pattern...
"What I like about the Fairlight is that you have one disk you shove in and everything is there. I love how cute the Roland S50 is - you can put it under one arm - but there are all these disks to cart around. It's still not together. A PC-based system, that's what it'll be - everything you need under one roof."
Sampling has played a significant part in Mothersbaugh's music - both in his own projects and within the context of Devo.
"We do a lot of sampling", he agrees, "and we use whatever's available. Sometimes cheap low-tech works better than hi-tech. I mean, we used to have problems with Devo, where we'd go into the studio and couldn't make it sound like it did on our home recording. It'd be too clean. Although it would be nice to have a DAT and a great stereo mic to go with it, I'm not afraid to use my answering machine to record a sound.
"I haven't gone to a lot of third-party samples yet. I haven't got to the point where I've opened up magazines and ordered them from other people. But I can see that's on the cards for us. Nowadays, you have to be a specialist in sound construction. I don't know how to modify my D50 sounds myself. I'm at a point in my life where spending six months in front of a manual to learn a machine that may be outdated in four months doesn't interest me. Maybe I'm just getting old. I know so many outmoded sequencing systems, so many outmoded synthesisers. So now I have people like my trusty programmer, Ryan Scott Moore, who helps me out."
"Outmoded" would be the word Mothersbaugh would use to describe another of his instruments - a Linn LM1 drum machine.
"That was one of the first ones made, I even had it specially modified" he says. "It had locking sockets for the sounds before there was such a thing as interchangeable sounds. Before you could burn your own chips, I used to have chips burned for me. You'd take the top off the thing, lift a lever, and then carefully lift out one snare drum and put in another. For about six months there I had the world's coolest drum machine."
The drum sounds used by Devo have also played a considerable part in the band's sound. The man responsible for many of the drum sounds on Are We Not Men - We Are Devo was Mark Mothersbaugh's brother, Jim.
"Jim played on our first couple of singles, but dropped out of the band just to work on electronics - to experiment building electronic drums. He built early prototype drum sets before there was any such thing available commercially. So at a time when there was no such thing as electronic drums and percussion, we were experimenting with them.
"In our early reviews, you'd see things like, 'What is this Devo? Nothing but a bunch of bleeps and grunts and rocket noises for snare drums, mortar blasts for percussion! Who are they trying to fool?'. But now the straightest musicians in the world use electronic percussion without blinking an eye. It's so common there's barely a band you can think of that doesn't use some sort of gated noise or electronic percussion."
Jim Mothersbaugh went on to become a specialist for Roland and it was his involvement in the company that brought his brother and Devo into contact with much Roland equipment.
"Jim was pretty enthusiastic about the equipment at the company, and at a certain point I just had a reluctance to go into music stores and look at the whole mob of things that were out there. I mean, in the old days when you whippersnappers were just li'l kids, I'd go into a music store and I'd have a choice between a Minimoog and an ARP Odyssey and that was it.
"It became information overload. There was no way I could go through all those pieces of equipment and figure out what was best. So my brother got me interested in a lot of Roland products."
OUTSIDE DEVO, MOTHERSBAUGH'S first musical project came about through Steven Johnson (who was responsible for Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer' video). Johnson was the director of the first series of Pee Wee's Playhouse and called Mothersbaugh in to provide the sounds for "a break-dancing, stuttering R2D2 kind of character".
"While I was in New York working on that, they needed some music for some animation that they had to start on long before the shooting of the show. Then I found out they didn't have anyone underscoring, writing theme songs and stuff, so I said I'd do it."
At the same time Randy Roberts, who was working at Able Image Research, invited Mothersbaugh to see some animation he was working on for a commercial.
"It was the most incredible computer animation I have seen to date", enthuses the musician. "It was robots in a factory building super robots, and he asked me to write music for it. The commercial was sort of based on a Devo show - a 30-minute piece of animation that was rear projected behind us on stage, so instead of theatre lights, the same thing you've seen used over and over again by every single band in the world since time began, all they do is use more, we opted for the whole stage being a three-dimensional video set that was ten feet deep. We stood in front of these pieces of animation that were three times, four times as tall as us. And it was all in tight sync. We worked out the technology, which had not been worked out before, so that when I would turn around and point my gun at a robot, I knew she'd be right there, and she was the one that was dancing out of sync, and I could point and shoot, I'd get an explosion sound from my keyboard player, and she would explode on screen, perfect every night. Fifteen-foot characters came out and sang backup vocals for me, and a pirate chased me around the stage with a sword, and I'd duck and he'd swing over my head."
Impressive stuff. But surely the Devo that caused so much controversy back in 1978 would have frowned upon a "serious" band becoming involved in the world of television commercials.
"I see the line between commercial art and fine arts to be an interesting balance", explains Mothersbaugh. "What makes good fine art? What makes good any kind of art? I like the idea of working in commercials because that's other side of Devo.
"I really liked doing that little commercial and said, 'Wow! This is another interesting way to do things, another direction to take your art, a way to reach people, because a lot of people see it'. Commercials are... heavier than film, heavier than rock 'n' roll. The thing that attracted me to rock 'n' roll was that it was such an influential medium. It wasn't a dead medium. If I was in opera, I would still be back at the Bath Township Playhouse trying to write an opera for Akron, Ohio, for maybe a few lawyers who consider themselves the enlightened ones of the community. People would be stifling yawns, and one else would see it. Commercials seem like a more dangerous, more exciting medium to work in. A lot of people see it who would instantly turn off a Devo record."
In America that is certainly true. Over in Britain, without the exposure television commercials can bring, Devo are still an underrated cult band with a small but dedicated following. I can't help but feel that, this time at least, Americans are ahead of us.