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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

‘Devo Is Like the House Band on the Titanic’

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In preparing its comeback album, Something for Everybody, Devo took the unusual step of inviting fans to pick the 12 songs from a pool of 16 that would make the album.

“We did it on purpose as an experiment,” Gerald Casale explains in a recent phone interview. “It’s something we had never done. We were always hermetically sealed, like little aliens that dropped down, dropped our load, took off and went home. We thought, ‘What is the thing that we haven’t tried?’ It’s like playing ball, actually involving the outside world on purpose because at this point, 30 years down the line, everybody feels like they know what Devo is, or has their own idea of what Devo is … So we opened it up to the outside world.”

That fans would understand Devo to the point where the group would give them that kind of input on a record is ironic, given the band’s history.

When Devo released its 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, the band confounded most of the rock world.

Devo’s music was spastic and synthesizer-based, and the album boasted quirky lyrics and song titles like “Gut Feeling/(Slap Your Mammy)” and “Jocko Homo,” not to mention a particularly offbeat cover of The Rolling Stones’ classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

And then there were the group’s futuristic, radiation uniforms.

It was as if the very definition of rock ’n’ roll was under attack from this group from Akron, Ohio, which included Casale (bass/synthesizers), Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals/keyboards), Mark’s brother Bob Mothersbaugh (guitar/keyboards), Gerald’s brother Bob Casale (guitar) and Alan Myers (drums).

Gerald Casale, during a 2009 press conference at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, vividly remembered the initial reaction to Devo.

“We got people upset,” he says. “We were like a lightning rod for hostilities back then, but on a number of different levels—that was the interesting thing. Rolling Stone, I remember, they wrote us off as, ‘They don’t even have a guitar on every single song. How can they be a rock band?’ Or, ‘They used a drum machine on one of their songs. How could you even do that?’ And they called us ‘fascists.’ They called us ‘clowns’ in another. Mark and I went, ‘Fascist clowns?’ It was a whole idea for another record, Oh No! It’s Devo.”

A few years later, Devo didn’t seem so dangerous. The group’s third album, Freedom of Choice, cracked the mainstream when the single “Whip It,” with the help of heavy MTV play of its quirky video, became a hit.

But while some merely saw comic relief and pure entertainment in Devo’s songs and videos—remember those familiar red flower-pot helmets?—the group’s music and lyrics were never so lighthearted in their intent or their message.

“We had a very dark vision,” Casale says succinctly. “We definitely saw the world crumbling. There wasn’t much optimism.”

Today Casale says much of Devo’s bleak vision has become reality. That, he said, makes 2010 a good time for the full-fledged return of Devo, which last released a new record in 1990.

It’s against this backdrop that Devo returns with Something for Everybody, where, once again using synthesizers as the primary instruments, the group turns out inventively entertaining songs with angular, hooky melodies in the tradition of Devo’s catchier, less spastic albums like Freedom of Choice and 1981’s New Traditionalists.

“I think things have devolved so far that Devo is relevant now in another way,” Casale says. “Now all we are is in step with the world that we all live in. I’ve often said Devo is like the house band on the Titanic, playing familiar tunes that make us feel better as we all go down together.”

Devo closes Summerfest with a 10 p.m. show at the Miller Lite Oasis on Sunday, July 4.

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