Poachers Turn Gamekeepers: Devo On Singing The Corporate Anthem

Emily Bick talks to founding Devo member Gerry Casale about hip-hop materialism, the problem with _American Idol_ and consumerist culture

So Devo are back, then, with Something For Everybody, their first album in 20 years. They’ve re-emerged into a warped world where the music industry is beyond parody: Simon Cowell’s sausage machine pulps cash’n’pathos out of seasonal crops of warbling hopefuls, and chomps on ahead to the next Tesco-till filler. Even weedy bedroom enthusiasts now have to cope with not just making music, but thrashing out 24-7 cycles of paranoid social networking PR. Oh, and album sales and royalties? Lolocaust.

But Devo? They’ve gone one better–joined forces with ad agency Mother, conducted online surveys and tests and focus groups to give everyone pure product satisfaction, from the choice of album tracks to their shiny new energy domes. Well, if you can’t beat’em, join’em to the point of utter ridiculousness, right? As founding member Gerry Casale explains, it’s the Devo way.

I’d like to ask about the concept behind Something for Everybody. How did you decide to make this a kind of concept album about market research?

Gerry Casale: It seemed like that was a fact of the business world, putting out creative content in corporate society is in fact the art itself. It’s all that’s left because we live in a time literally when music’s been devalued, and people don’t feel they have to pay for music, and everybody’s putting out music the whole time, ten thousand CDs a month or whatever, and there’s a glut. It’s information overload. And the only force that determines how you think of music, why you know that its there to begin with or why you should care about it, is marketing. So we were making a comment on that and using it at the same time [laughs].

I thought it was interesting how on your website, you’ve got the Swedish brand manager – I thought that was maybe a comment on Spotify and some of the streaming services that play music for free but there’s a lot of advertising in the middle of it.

GC: Isn’t that kind of what goes on with all the hip-hop hits where they all name products throughout the song? Patrón, you feel they must own a record from all these people… and Corona.

Before this record, you’ve had Devo songs in a few advertisements… and you’ve directed some ads yourself. I know you had a good one with Target, with ‘Beautiful World’…

GC: Yeah, everything’s a commercial, it’s the only way you get paid! The only way a band makes money now is to license their material, if they’re lucky, to a commercial or a video game or a TV show. Until recently they also made money touring, but that’s really getting difficult, because the promoters put the squeeze on.

There are a lot of people who have to pay promoters to be support bands now. And that’s the greatest myth now, that people get paid for touring and that’s where all the money is, but really people are getting less and less for that too.

GC: It’s brutal! And that’s the world we live in – there’s the implosion of the record business, not any viable model to replace it, and it’s probably a worse time for creative people than ever.

This is something Devo predicted, since you set up the band as a corporation, marketing yourselves and having a very strong brand image and brand identity. Now, to be any kind of musician or creative artist at all, the branding comes first. Is there any way out of that?

GC: No… no. And you know, whatever it is, we were being satirical, and we were doing it ourselves, to ourselves, as an art pose, and it wasn’t cynical, it was playful. Today it’s all business, and they mean it. Unfortunately, I don’t see what you can do outside of that, currently. I guess it was bound to happen, wasn’t it, given all the forces that were set in motion? And just the way things have gone in general, I mean, even beyond the music business. It’s pretty devolved out there, as you can see… with the meltdown of social services, infrastructure, corporate accountability, financial markets… you know, planes going into towers, the tail wagging the dog, a man in a cave making the western world cower. It’s all pathetic. If someone had shown you that in 1980, you would have thought it was a cheap, b-science fiction dystopia.

But it all happened and it’s getting worse. Do you think it can get any worse?

GC: It’s going to get worse [laughs]. It’s definitely getting worse, no doubt in my mind about that. Just given human nature, you know. Everybody’s got their head in the sand, and it’s going to have to get so over the top. Everybody’s just going to wait until it’s too late.

That’s kind of like one of the songs on the new album, ‘We Do What We Do’. Your press kit compares that one to a hip hop tautology, or something along the lines of ‘Don’t hate the player, hate the game,’ where everyone’s in it for themselves. Is it that kind of mindset that’s gotten us here?

GC: Right. They don’t question the game.

But do you think that’s a really hip-hop thing? Using that phrasing…

GC: It’s just that hip-hop celebrates the spiritlessness and material obsession of our society.

But is that maybe more honest? Because if it’s something we’re all stuck in…

GC: Yeah, and I’m sure that’s why it sells so big. Because on the most basic level it really works – like on the level of a rat in an experiment hitting a lever for a reward.

Something else I wanted to ask you about were the new costumes, and the new outfits and the new blue energy domes? Why’d you choose blue?

GC: Well, Mother really did this colour study for a long time, and blue won. We thought it was funny, and it was ‘time for a change’, you know? Why? Because that’s what people say. You know, people always want to change, for whatever reason, just because they want a change, tautological. We’ve got a blue that will be our colour, and we found this amazing rare fabric to make suits out of, it’s got titanium thread in it, and it’s super-reflective on stage, so we glow, which is good, because it kind of obscures the absolute outline of your body and just becomes a glowing hologram. That’s good for guys who are now having to dress in age-appropriate clothing. Who aren’t skinny anymore.

Well, I saw you guys play in London at Shepherd’s Bush a few years ago, and you sure weren’t dressed in age appropriate clothing by the end of it. During ‘mongoloid’, some of you were getting your clothes ripped off, and I think Mark was playing in his underwear. It was really funny.

GC: It was grotesquely funny.

But I think that you were really cool and kind of brave because you were playing on this kind of corporate persona, but you’re also showing how it means something different doing this when you’re younger, and to do it again when you’re older and you’ve got a different physicality. It’s got a different meaning, and it’s cool how you’ve played with that, and played on it.

GC: It’s kind of self-effacing…

You came on stage with walkers at one point! But now you’re into reflecting and glowing and blinding everyone with the new suits.

GC: We liked the walker bit, but it’s only funny when you can toss them away! [Laughs] It could be all too real too soon.

It looks like you’re touring a lot, and I wish you’d come over to the UK again soon.

GC: Well, we will in the late fall. It’s very difficult to arrange for a tour without really planning, now that promoters have put a squeeze on it. People expect a show from Devo, and shows need crew, we need extra lights, we need video elements – and costs haven’t gone down anything. In fact they’ve gone up, for trucking, hotels, plane flights… and meanwhile, the promoters have slashed guarantees across the board for all bands, because they’ve found out they could get away with it. We can’t go over with, you know, just some amps and guitars.

Another thing about the blue: on your album cover art, it’s like a really Viagra blue, was that intentional?

GC: Well, you know, we learned through Mother, about the psychology of colour. And the reason we made the blue translucent, is because it becomes a more appealing, edible object. It looks like you want to ingest it, and it looks like a drug. A drug is something for everybody. [laughs]. Clearly not.

Well, can you tell me about the song study? And how that worked?

GC: People went online, and they voted for their twelve favourites, and over forty thousand people voted, you know, they had to sign in and log on and add their face to the bar graph, along with the songs that they chose… and that’s what they chose. And we’re putting out a package where it’s exactly the 12 songs they chose in order of votes. And there will be other packages as well, because, you know, corporate partners weren’t happy about being left out and not having a say in the matter.

What happened there?

GC: [The fans] hated ‘No Place like Home’ and ‘Cameo’. And there was someone at the label that absolutely loved ‘No Place like Home’. And so, you know, we’ll have a different package with those two songs included. And it won’t say focus group approved.

Do you think that that kind of internet research, or people voting on stuff, or people taking endless surveys, can lead to less interesting stuff being out there?

GC: Well, of course, yeah. That’s kind of what we’re commenting on. It’s the American Idol model, isn’t it? And you know, if American Idol, for instance, as a force, had been around in the 60s, we wouldn’t have had Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, you know, keep going… they would have all gotten booted off by Simon Cowell in the first or second heat. So that shows some kind of bizarre, over the top showcase for some vocal cords, nothing about true artistic expression… It’s supremely kitschy.

But at the same time as there is this idea of people in the audience voting to keep people on or boot people off, there are still people like the guy at your label, or Simon Cowell, who are in the position of secretly pulling the strings from behind…

GC: There always is. There always is.

So by making all this really transparent by what you’re doing, you’re showing it for what it is?

GC: That’s what we were commenting on, sure. I mean, it’s like people who think Obama really runs America. They’re naïve.

This is something that goes back to your Freedom of Choice days, it’s like you’ve got these choices and you go crazy trying to choose between them.

GC: Meaningless choices.

When did you first start thinking this way about consumer choices and politics?

GC: It was after Kent State University. I was there, and I saw students I knew get shot and killed.

How do you manage to go on and keep making music, then, and not just get all pissed off and angry?

GC: Well what else are you supposed to do? You either have a creative response, or you pick up a gun and become a part of the underground, and your life may be a six-month length from there. There’s really not too many choices in reality. And there are certain things that I can’t do.

Like what?

GC: I don’t think I could be Steve Jobs. And I sure as hell don’t want to be [Rabid Conservative Fox TV pundit] Sean Hannity!

But you were Jihad Jerry for a while!

GC: I was Jihad Jerry, and it got no love. In the humourless world we live in, you would think that a 50-year old man in a ridiculous pimp suit and a turban that was no more real than Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs – that they would get it, especially because it said ‘mine is not a holy war’, but no, people were really pissed off. And I got many threatening letters from Muslims on top of it. And then people who knew who I was, and knew, you know, this was just a persona, and a joke – like in New York a couple of radio stations said, you know, this song here, ‘The Time is Now’, we’d play that if it was a Devo song, but we’re not going to play ‘Jihad Jerry’.

I was going to ask how you keep the sound so consistently mechanical. It’s like even though you’ve got new producers, you’ve still got a very similar sound. It reminds me of the Oh No, It’s Devo! era of production – and from what I’ve read about you, you’re very particular in the studio. So how is it when you work with new producers?

GC: Well, it was interesting, because we always tried to avoid that in the past, and when we did, it didn’t work out very well. But that’s because Devo was trying to get this sound that nobody really understood, and nobody was going for, and producers didn’t get it, and now that’s not true at all. Every young producer thinks they know exactly what Devo’s about, and it’s part of their history, and they like Devo but they have their own ideas about what that meant to them. We used most of the same instruments that we used back then.


GC: Yeah. We used all our analogue synths – we did enhance it by using programmes like Logic, but we did everything the same way. We started with real drums, were used to trigger sounds that were samples that we chose, but those were being driven by an actual performance by Josh Friese. And we’re known for being tight, we’re like the white robot version of early James Brown. So that’s why it still sounds like Devo, like somebody just edited out 20 years of history and picked up from where we left off.

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