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Wednesday, Oct 26, 2005
Arts & Living
Arts & Living
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Posted on Thu, Aug. 18, 2005

Still DEVOlutionary


Godfathers of new wave now older and 'wider;' sporadic tours spawn new generation of fans



Beacon Journal staff writer

Western society favors trends.

Fashion, food, television, technology, cleaning products and, of course, music skip from one trend to the next.

In music, record companies try to get a handle on trends before they lose steam, whether they be genres or subgenres such as Crunk music, the '80s post-punk revival or the recent trend of classic bands reuniting.

The Pixies, Gang of Four, Queen (sort of), Loggins & Messina, Wire, Motley Crue, Van Halen have all reunited recently to give it at least one more artistic -- or at least financially advantageous -- go around. But in their typically unique style, the Akron- and Kent-born and -bred music pioneers Devo, who will perform at Scene Pavilion tonight, have been ahead of the curve for about a decade.

``Well, we did one show at Sundance nine or 10 years ago,'' singer/songwriter Mark Mothersbaugh said from a tour stop in Washington, D.C. ``Then the next year we did Lollapalooza for a couple of years in a row only doing a couple of shows, then we did Boom Boom Huck Jam with Tony Hawk and now we did 12 shows last year and 16 this year.''

These short touring jaunts have kept the band not only in front of their devoted Spuds, but have also served to introduce them to younger concertgoers who were still in diapers when the band members went their separate ways in 1991 and who may know the songs Freedom of Choice and Whip It primarily as television commercial music.

Besides, Mothersbaugh says it's still fun.

``Though we all have day jobs and are doing other things, Devo was when we were angry young artists in Akron, Ohio, and that was the statement we made, and I think most of the time artists tend to make permutations of their original statement throughout the rest of their career, so for us it's a good place to visit,'' he said.

``Ironically we sound and play much better than we did 30 years ago, and three out of four of us are double-wide compared to the old days, but we actually sound better, so it's something that's pleasurable and it's kind of amusing that we get a really good reception everywhere we go,'' he continued. ``There's a younger generation who spent time going through their parents' vinyl collection and have hit upon our band and there's this younger generation that's into Devo now.''

Though they haven't recorded much since 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps, between the periodic touring and periodic product -- including compilations and a recently released dual disc version of the band's Devo Live 1980 -- the band (Mothersbaugh, singer/bassist Gerald Casale, guitarist Bob Casale, guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh and current drummer Josh Freese) has never quite gone away.

Concocted in 1972 while Mothersbaugh and Casale were students at Kent State, Devo was built around the basic concept of ``de-evolution.'' The idea that man as a society and an animal is regressing, ``devolving'' as individuality gives way to the acquisition of stuff and a mentality that discourages people to think and act for themselves.

``That's America's idea of freedom, isn't it? Having stuff,'' Mothersbaugh said.

The band, whose classic lineup of the Mothersbaughs, the Casales and the ``human metronome'' Alan Myers, honed its vision in a basement and in gigs around Kent and Akron including long-gone downtown Akron haunt the Crypt.

In 1976, a short film by the group, The Truth About De-Evolution, was seen by David Bowie and Iggy Pop and shortly thereafter the band was signed to Warner Brothers, where it worked with ex-Roxy Music member and pioneering producer Brian Eno, unleashing Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo on an unsuspecting world in 1978.

The band's tense, rigid rhythms, yelping vocals, plastic uniforms, ``energy dome'' hats that resemble upturned flower pots and Mothersbaugh's unsettling ``Booji Boy'' character were confusing to most, but their herky-jerky deconstructed cover of the Stones (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction and originals such as Mongoloid and the punky Uncontrollable Urge brought it much attention and helped make it defacto pioneers of New Wave.

Devo's uphill climb continued with 1979s Duty Now for the Future, but 1980's Freedom of Choice pushed them into the mainstream with taut singles including Girl U Want, the title track and, of course, the single Whip It and its accompanying and then-controversial video, which would sit in regular rotation on MTV.

The album proved to be the band's commercial peak, though its follow-up New Traditionalist contained the surprisingly nonironic Beautiful World and geek call-to-arms Through Being Cool.

Subsequent releases Oh, No It's Devo, Shout and Total Devo were met with less critical and commercial enthusiasm and the band devolved into other projects, which for Mothersbaugh meant a blossoming career in film and television scoring under his Mutato Muzika company, which also includes both Bobs.

Mothersbaugh's music can be heard in The Rugrats cartoon series and films as well as Pee Wee's Playhouse, the Cleveland-set Welcome to Colinwood and the films of Wes Anderson (which include Rushmore, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) and numerous television series.

Gerald Casale went on to direct videos and commercials and Alan Myers is out of music.

Now that punk is pop and new wave is hip again, Mothersbaugh said he sees plenty of bands he thinks are talented and finds Devo's influence on them an interesting and satisfying phenomenon.

``There's a lot of bands out there that aren't very good but there are a lot that are really good. I think Green Day is great. They're good writers and great performers,'' he said. ``It's kind of fun to play on the same bill with (younger bands). I feel like we are in a place now for those bands where guys like Captain Beefheart and Chuck Berry were for me when I went to see them at Kent State or the Draft house and tried to get backstage to see them.

``I see these kids now doing the same thing to us and it's kind of interesting to go full circle from a young band that no one's heard of to being the old grandpas that everybody treats like an invalid.''

Gerald Casale has long maintained that Mothersbaugh holds the key to unlocking any new Devo music.

Mothersbaugh says his bandmate is oversimplifying the situation, but he is glad that Devo's inactivity has spurred Gerald Casale to record a solo album that Mothersbaugh loves and that fans at the concert will hear as pre-show music before the band takes the stage tonight.

``He just finally got so frustrated waiting for the rest of us to finish working on film stuff long enough so we could do an album together, that he just went and did it,'' Mothersbaugh said, adding that the album is really strong. ``It's got some old songs we never played outside of Akron or Kent, some original stuff he was writing and some newer things we wrote together, and music for other projects.''

Also Devo recently finished a new project in cahoots with Disney called Devo 2.0, which features the band playing old songs and two new ones with vocals provided by children. Mothersbaugh doesn't rule out the idea of the band gathering in the studio, eventually, to record a new Devo album.

But among the many projects that stand in the way of that event is family. Mothersbaugh and his wife plan to travel to China early next month to adopt a baby girl.

Whether that baby will be donning the Booji Boy mask in future endeavors remains to be seen.


Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or mabram@thebeaconjournal.com

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