On Record: Devo
For their first new album in 20 years, punk provocateurs Devo (helmed by Mark Mothersbaugh) hired an ad firm to launch the Devo Song Study, where they let their fans choose the material. The result, Something For Everybody, ranks among their best. Are they not songwriters? They are Devo!
Tell us about the Devo Song Study.
I said I would never sign with a record company again, but half a year ago, we met with Warner Bros. and they said, “We’re an endangered species. We’re going to be gone in a couple of years unless we re-invent ourselves, and that’s why we’re interested in signing you guys. We want you to help us make ourselves relevant in the world again.” It made us interested in accepting that challenge. So we hired Mother LA, and they came up with the idea.
It’s all good, because I think the CD is the least important presentation of the music. The world has changed, and the world of music and art has changed dramatically since the Internet came along. Obviously, that’s what killed the record companies. The way musicians create and disseminate music has forever changed, and the way an audience finds an artist and observes an audience has been forever changed. I think it’s a great time to be in the arts.
Which track did you write first?
We wrote a song three years ago for a Dell commercial because we were kind of bored with the idea of licensing “Whip It” for the one-hundredth time. We wrote this song called “Watch Us Work It” that was perfect for the spot, so they took that and used it.
The ad agency asked if we minded letting somebody remix it. You’re talking to people who have already let “Whip It” turn into “Strip It,” “Dip It,” and “Flip It,” so we’re like, “Knock yourself out.” They let the Teddy Bears do a remix of the song, and we thought, “That’s better than the way we did it.” They changed up some of the drum tracks and sped them up a little, and did a few other instrumental changes and made it sound really radio-friendly and fresh. It kind of inspired us to want to do a whole album. Next thing you know, here we are.
You obviously don’t mind licensing your songs for commercials.
My feeling about that stuff is that’s a way to plant little tiny brain bombs that will go off later in people’s heads, in people’s minds – people that would never listen to Devo, people that were like “Oh, Devo is some bullshit art band; I’m into Ronnie Dio,” or “Just give me Rod Stewart, just give me Incubus” or something. Then they watch this commercial and we plant little tiny seeds of change in them. Also, we were really influenced by And Warhol. I think that if he was alive, he would be impressed by what Devo does.
You’ve composed a lot of film scores as well. Do you have a favorite?
People really like the stuff I did with Wes Anderson. With The Royal Tenenbaums, I was almost done scoring it, and I had a harp player come in to play all the harp parts. She had a solo she had to play while Margo and Luke Wilson’s character, they’re standing on the roof smoking cigarettes, and talking about being a Tenenbaum, and I needed the harp player to do an improv, kind of a “floating-in-the-clouds” ad lib on the theme from the movie. It turned out that it was 9/11 the morning we met, but it was 8 o’clock in L.A., so everything had already been happening in New York. It was so weird because we’re all at work, and we’re all in shock and nobody knew what to do about it or what was going on exactly. I watch that movie and I hear that harp part and it still gives me goose bumps, because I remember what was happening when we recorded that.
“Whip It” has been a staple of your repertoire for many years. How do you feel about it in 2010? Do you still like it?
It’s interesting because it was never my favorite Devo song, and to me it was a lot more minor than it became when we wrote it. I thought we wrote it in response to being in Europe and being frustrated with Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, saying, “We like the United States, and we like Americans, but we think your foreign policy sucks and we think your President needs to get his ducks lined up in a row, and needs to have a more realistic policy.” We were like, “You can do it, Mr. President,” when we wrote that. Then within a few months, we were going into radio stations, we’d be sitting outside of a DJ’s room, about to go in and talk to him live on the air and you’d hear him go, “Yeah, you know I’ve got the band Devo here, they did the song ‘Whip It.’ I “whipped it” just this morning.” We were like, “Okay, that’s our legacy.” People are going to turn “Whip It” into a lowest common denominator stupid song. But the fact that it worked on that level got a lot of people to pay attention to Devo that wouldn’t have paid attention otherwise.