Music News & Reviews

The world's now weird enough for Devo

However unwittingly, Lexington has played a role in the evolution of de-evolution — or more specifically, in the makeup of the veteran jump-suited pop purveyors who have come to symbolize such social regression: Devo.

It's a small part. But it's one that sprang to mind for Devo co-founder frontman Mark Mothersbaugh as the band prepared for its first Kentucky performance, this weekend at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville.

"I drove through Kentucky once," Mothersbaugh recalled. "It was in Lexington at a Salvation Army store around 1975 or '76 that I bought five matching pairs of tuxedo pants. A caterer or a tuxedo rental place had probably gotten rid of a bunch of stuff. So I bought them for the band. They were in fashion, too."

This summer, Devo is in the midst of a full-scale career renaissance. Though active since 1973, save for a few dormant years in the early '90s, the band released in June its first album of new songs in 20 years, Something for Everybody. That has upped the band's visibility considerably, resulting in TV appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Colbert Report (with host Stephen Colbert even donning an official Devo jumpsuit and "energy dome" hat for the occasion) and The Jimmy Kimmel Show.

So why now? Why has Devo re-entered a record-company arena it left in disgust two decades ago, an environment that has all but corroded record labels out of existence ever since.

"It came about through the whole collapse of the record business," Mothersbaugh said. "At least, in the way we came to know it. They had this business model that we lost interest in. But their feeling more recently has been, 'We're an endangered species, a dinosaur that's about to sink into the tar pit. We'd like to give one last go at reinventing what a record company is. We think you guys might be the right band to collaborate with.'

"That was a totally different way to think about things than what was going on in the record industry in 1977, when we were being pontificated to about what it is to be a recording artist."

With that, Devo did the unthinkable — it re-signed with Warner Bros., the label that introduced the band to the world in the midst of punk rock and New Wave revolution with the 1978 Brian Eno-produced debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!

Comprising two set of brothers — Mothersbaugh and sibling Bob, along with Jerry Casale and his brother Bob (the siblings were designated in early album notes as Bob 1 and Bob 2) — Devo moved heavily into keyboard-dominant pop at the dawn of the '80s, resulting in the career-defining 1980 hit Whip It.

Augmented since 1995 by drummer Josh Freese (of Weezer, Nine Inch Nails and A Perfect Circle fame), the band of brothers downshifted its workload in recent years in favor of other pursuits. Mothersbaugh, in particular, has been a prolific composer of scores for films, TV and video games. Among his newest projects was the score for the 2009 animated movie Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

"Three years ago, if you said we would be back with Warner Bros. I would have said, 'That's impossible. You're smoking something if you think that's going to happen. But I'm kind of pleasantly surprised. There have definitely been bumps. There has definitely been turbulence. But we're trying to turn the concept of what it means to be a record company upside down on them.

"Record companies are going to have to figure out how to redefine and reinvigorate themselves as something relevant. And there is a good chance they won't. They're not really needed anymore. Everyone with access to the Internet has access to a forum and an audience. It's changed the way musicians make music. You're no longer making music to please a record company. You making it to make yourself happy and to be true to your art, all while finding an audience on your own."

With all the changes in the record industry, the music of Something for Everybody sounds more like an update than a reinvention of Devo's music from the '70s and '80s. The single Fresh reasserts the band's expert and efficient pop drive, while What We Do lyrically emphasizes a routine but regimented dance-savvy agenda in its chorus ("What we do is what we do. It's all the same. There's nothing new.")

But Don't Shoot (I'm a Man) brings a concept of de-evolution — born in no small part of the 1970 shootings at Ohio's Kent State University, which occurred while Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were students there — into the 21st century with a hapless, hybrid-driving character confronting paranoia, dashed dreams and omnipresent violence. It concludes with the sobering, mantra-like chorus of "don't Taze me, bro."

"You have to understand, we were never celebrating de-evolution," Mothersbaugh said. "We were just warning people about it. We were always like, 'You know what? Things are failing apart.' We just didn't know how fast they were falling apart. Thirty years ago, we didn't have a crystal ball. I mean, who would have known there would today be a 24/7 underwater cam of a spewing oil well?

"To me, that's the most significant sign of de-evolution in our culture. But in a way, that's made things easier for us. People now have a handle on us that's more accurate than it was 30 or 35 years ago. Back then, Devo was shocking, weird and even threatening to some people. Now, maybe, we're kind of in our time."

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