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Oh Yes, It’s Devo: An Interview with Jerry Casale
By Brian L. Knight

The band Devo is definitely worthy of the term "enigma". To most, they are the 1980s band that produced the hit "Whip It". To others, they are the #1 band of Vic Damone, America’s greatest scumbag from the 1980s flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who had Devo posters in both his bedroom and locker. To others, they are the band that created quite the stir with their completely off the wall version of the Rolling Stones’ "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction".

There is so much more to the band Devo than what we see on the surface. "Whip It", Vic Damone and "Satisfaction just happen to be the tangible aspects of the band. The band came together in the early 1970s at Kent State College amidst the chaos that is historically associated with the small Ohio school. The beginning core group consisted of Mark Mothersbaugh (voices, synths), Gerald V. "Jerry" Casale (bass, vox), Bob Mothersbaugh (guitar) and Jim Mothersbaugh (homemade electronic drums). Through the use of primitive technology, outlandish homemade costumes and characters such as Booji Boy and the General Boy, Devo alerted the masses to American avant-garde rock. Only bands such as the Residents or Pere Ubu could match Devo in producing against the grain American music.

Beneath the quizzical nature of their music and physical presence, the band Devo was supported by a whole philosophical tenet known as devolution (hence the name Devo). To display the bizarre nature of their theories, here are the five basic components of the Devolutionary Oath:

 

1. Wear gaudy colors or avoid display

2. Lay a million eggs or give birth to one

3. The littlest may survive & the unfit may live

4. Be like your ancestors or be different

5. We must repeat

The precise principles that guide the theory of devolution are as slurred and distorted as the music of Devo. What is known is that man has devolved. Technology has reduced us to nothing. That was the 1970s-1980s speaking – perhaps the Internet has devolved humans into mindless beings? Who knows?

What has become of Devo since "Whip It" and the subsequent demise of mankind? Devo founder, Jerry Casale, is now a commercial making mad man. He is the man behind the Dick commercials for Miller Lite. "We did the best thing that we could do for a bad beer, which was not concentrate on the beer. Not make any claims that the beer tasted good." The Vermont review talked to Jerry Casale, who was in San Francisco doing post -production for a Tang commercial that he was working on.

Vermont Review: Besides the commercial that you are working on right now, what else have you been doing in the last couple of years?

Jerry Casale: Mostly commercials and some music videos. I used to do a lot of music videos but it trickled over more into commercials. Other than that, Devo has played now and than. We pit together songs for movies and TV shows.

VR: I read that you did a video for the Foo Fighters…….

JC: I like Dave Grohl. It was good working with those guys. They have an interesting approach. They are all kind of veterans yet they are pretty down to earth. They know what they are doing so they are neither naïve nor living the cliché of a rock star.

VR: I saw the Foo Fighters a few weeks ago and they put on a really good show.

JC: It is funny how easy it was for him to step out from behind the drums.

VR: What are some specific things that Devo has done recently?

JC: We did a song for the Power Puff Girls, the TV show for the Cartoon Network. We did a song for South Park. We did some thing for a commercial too…..(pause)…….which one was it……..(more pause)………..things are blending together……..I am senile.

VR: Did you produce the South Park Chef Aid album or did you contribute a song?

JC: We contributed a song. The process was not much funny for us. This guy Rick Rubin, who has a big name and reputation, but what a terror. He took producer credit and he didn’t produce it………we did. We said, "What are you doing?" He said: " I am Rick Rubin. I am American Records. I am keeping this money." It never stops in the music business. We are still chasing tens of thousands of dollars were owed from Rugrats (The Movie) and South Park (Chef Aid Album). They find so many ways to abscond with your money.

VR: Going back to your early days. You were present at the Kent State shootings in 1970. How did that day affect you?

JC: Whatever I would say, would probably not all touch upon the significance or gravity of the situation at this point of time? It may sound trite or glib. All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was white hippie boy and than I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherf&*$#ers. It was total utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks – none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running. I sopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.

VR: Does Neil young’s "Ohio" strike close to your heart?

JC: Of course. It was strange that the first person that we met, as Devo emerged, was Neil Young. He asked us to be in his movie, Human Highway. It was so strange – San Francisco in 1977. Talk about life being karmic, small and cyclical – it’s absolutely true. In fact I just a got a call from a person organizing a 30th Anniversary thing. Noam Chomsky will be there and I may go talk there if I can get away. I still remember it so crystal clear like a dream you will never forget…….. or a nightmare. I still remember every moment. It kind of went in slow motion like a car accident.

VR: You said that the Kent State shooting sort of served as a catalyst for your theory of Devolution, which spawned Devo.

JC: Absolutely. Until then I was a hippie. I thought that the world is essentially good. If people were evil, there was justice and that the law mattered. All of those silly naïve things. I saw the depths of the horrors and lies and the evil. In the paper that evening, the Akron Beacon Journal, said that students were running around armed and that officers had been hurt. So deputy sheriffs went out and deputized citizens. They drove around with shotguns and there was martial law for ten days. 7 PM curfew. It was open season the students. We lived in fear. Helicopters surrounding the city with hourly rotating runs out to the West Side and back downtown. All first amendment rights are suspended at the instance when the governor gives the order. All of the class action suits by the parents of the slain students were all dismissed out of court because once the governor announced martial law, they had no right to assemble.

VR: Which came first, your reading the book The Beginning of the End or May, 4 1970?

JC: Devolution definitely had been in the air and we had been involved in the art movement, Mark & I were doing it, for three years before we saw that book. When we saw the book, it was too much – we could not believe it.

VR: What was your first music installment in your tale of Devolution?

JC: It all started with "Jocko Homo". That was around for years. There were other things around that time that were on our Devo hardcore record that never made to our corporate records like "I am a Potato", "I'm so Hip" and "I’m confused". All tortured white man stuff.

VR: How does the potato fit into your thoughts of devolution?

JC: The potato is a staple that keeps us alive. It is totally unglamorous and underrated. It is also a conductor of electricity. You know that they teach you in science class how to make potatoes transmitters and potato radio receivers. They have all eyes around.

VR: So your theory of devolution does not suggest that we are all going to devolve into potatoes?

JC: No, the potato is symbol of our humble beginnings.

VR: Your new anthology, Pioneers Who Got Scalped, has one new song, "Words that get stuck in my throat"……..

JC: Yeah, It is an old Booji Boy song that only done live and they asked us we would get together in a room and play it without an audience and just put up some microphones. We said ok. It is the only the recording of Booji Boy that exists, that I know of, where he sings "The Words Get Stuck" that is not on a bad live bootleg.

VR: How does devolution work today?

JC: Devolution happened. We don’t need to talk about anymore. It was an artsy joke and turned out to be true. Now we live in devolved world. Things we were talking about came and passed. We are in it now. We are fish in the water.

VR: I am going to name some other musicians. I would love to hear what you think about them. Avant-garde rockers The Residents?

JC: They did a good job as good as they could as long as they could.

VR: electronic pioneer Brian Eno?

JC: He was new age before there was such a term.

VR: satirist/composer/guitarist Frank Zappa?

JC: Immense talent put to most banal silly use that I have ever experienced.

VR: 20th century composer John Cage?

JC: The world would be different today without John Cage. He was like quantum physics.

VR: 1970s Cleveland punk/avant-garde rockers Pere Ubu

JC: What can I say, life stinks.

VR: Author William s. Burroughs?

JC: There you go. In a downtown kind of world, all the crucifixes would be replaced by statues of William.

VR: former Glam rocker/present day ISP owner David Bowie?

JC: The most charming reptile I have ever met.

VR: 1960s avant-garde bluesman Captain Beefheart?

JC: Huge influence and my top hat goes off to him.

VR: German techno-wizards Kraftwerk?

JC: Ah well, good Nazis. I love Kraftwerk. I remember seeing their famous robot tour.

VR: I read that donated some of your favorite suits to the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland. Besides your suits, what would you like Devo to be remembered for in the annals of rock and roll history?

JC: I hope we cane be remembered giving a voice to disenfranchised people. I hope that we will be remembered for originality. For being what was new about new wave. For not taking ourselves seriously enough to not dip into self-effacing humor. For producing lasting visual icons and subject matter other than sex drugs. Some once said, derisively, that we were a "thinking man’s kiss." I thought if only that were true. If only we were that big and got our message across that well. If we had that many fans and we were the thinking man’s Kiss, that would have been perfect to me. That would have not been a put down.

VR: There seems to be quite a few band’s who came to rise during the MTV era that made a big hit, such as you did with "Whip it". It seems that so many bands try to shake their associations with that song, as if success was a boon. How about Devo and "Whip It"?

JC: Not at all. "Whip It" just another one of our songs and we didn’t like it more than any of the others. We didn’t dislike it either. We would not have put it on the record if we disliked it. I do not understand that whole ridiculous, weird, conflicted artistic conceit. It is hypocritical and silly. I don’t get it. You either did it on purpose and if you didn’t do it on purpose, you know damn well that there is no reason to disavow something that became popular when you liked it at the time. It is so stupid. Or, you did do it on purpose and now you are not even honest enough to admit that you were trying to write a hit. I don’t think anybody would accuse Devo of trying to write a hit.

VR: Its funny, people don’t try to be a struggling artist.

JC: No. What is funny is people who pretend they are after they have millions of dollars.

VR: Have any members of the Rolling Stones ever commented to you on your clever cover of "Satisfaction"?

JC: We had to play it for Mick Jagger before we put it on the record because that’s the way that copyrights were before all of this samplings and scratching. Before all of the rap artists, before Vanilla Ice, people took this stuff seriously. They said: "wait a minute – you are using the words to "Satisfaction." We said: "The music is nothing like "Satisfaction." (They said:)"That doesn’t matter. You have re-interpreted the song therefore it is not a straight cover. If it was a straight cover, you would need permission. The publishing laws already address that issue. You have twisted it." We had to play it for Mick Jagger in New York City. He was nice enough to us, but he was kind of aloof. We put the tape in and he has a glass of wine and his hand. He sits down in a chair and starts listening. He is not moving, he is not looking at us. He is looking off with no expression on his face. We go "Oh No". He gets up, turns it up, puts his wine on the mantle on the fireplace and actually starts around the room like Mick Jagger. (In his best Mick expression) "I like it, I like it." It was a moment that I will never forget.

VR: Do you remember your first gig?

JC: We asked to stop playing. We lied. We told them that we were a cover band. We got booked and we say: "Here is one by Foghat." And we would just play one of out tunes. It took people about three songs to realize "Wait a minute, that is not Foghat." And then guys started getting really pissed off and throwing beer bottles. The manager came over and stopped the set. Her said: "Listen I don’t want you playing her anymore. Here is 100 bucks, get outta here."

VR: Paid not to play

JC: Like the farmers.

VR: What do you do when you are not devolving and making commercials?

JC: I collect wines and try to have incredible sex. Stay away from morons, idiots and psychotic people.