Devo: ‘Richard Branson almost killed us in the mountains of Jamaica’ | Devo

Could Devo exist without the shooting at Kent State University, Ohio on May 4th? 1970? Flashbleu

Gerald Casale (vocals, bass, keyboards): I was a member of a student organization that organized protests against the expansion of the war in Vietnam to Cambodia. I know two of the four students, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, who were shot and killed by the National Guard. We saw that happen and we saw the Kent newspaper saying “Students killed guards”! We realized everything we were told was a big lie. We already make music, but when you see something like that, it changes you forever.

When I saw Devo at Knebworth in 1978, supporting Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jefferson Starship and Genesis, the stoned, obedient hippy type suddenly got mad and threw missiles at the stage. Have you found hostility on that scale since? bhunabhoy

Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals, keyboards, guitar): We only played small clubs before, so we didn’t even have a crew. We set up our gear by wearing blue work gear, running to change into our yellow stage suits to perform, then changing into blue overalls again to drop off gear. The band before us ended their set waving a giant Confederate flag, which the crowd loved. Then we entered.

Casale: The difference between UK and US power cycles means our effects unit makes this awful chirping sound. People started throwing things but because the stage was so high they lost us and hit other people in front. The crowd started fighting with each other. We have to watch the De-Evolution display [the band’s idea that mankind is de-evolving] where it looked like Planet Ape. We have faced the scale of hostility ever since and tried to bend it to our advantage.

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Your appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1978 [performing a radical deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction] permanently etched into the minds of nearly everyone in America who was 15 to 30 years old at that time. Can you describe how your life changed in the following weeks? JSpicoli

bastard: In Ohio, nobody wants to hire us because they only want bands that play Top 40 hits. Often after our first set we get paid to quit! So we had plenty of time to perfect our aesthetic, with the yellow hazmat suit.

Casale: We come to television fully formed. Last night we went from a small club band to explode on the national stage.

When Ronald Reagan was elected [in 1980], you comment: “America turned to bad B-movie actors to solve all her problems – it was even more Devo than we could have predicted!” How much more Devo do you think we have since then? Has everything gone downhill? JPH1964

Casale: Of course. Now we see the eradication of truth, which is clearly at the service of oligarchs, billionaires and the authoritarian right-wing who want to pull the strings of power, because the population is confused and numb, and ready to do whatever they say. It’s very Orwellian.

In your 1979 classic album Tasks Now for the Future You claim “the future will be maintenance free”. Are you disappointed with how it works? judgefloyd

Casale: It’s a line from Clockout, a song about toxic masculinity. The idea is that in the future women won’t need men anymore because they have too many sex toys… and, uh, that’s right. [laughter].

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Famously, the brothers in the band could fuss with each other. How does it work when there are two pairs of siblings? HenleyRegatta

Casale: This is Mark and Bob 1 [Mothersbaugh] and me and Bob 2 [Casale]. It works like nuclear parity.

Will your recording session with David Bowie be successful? BluesBuddah

Casale: Bowie was supposed to produce Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, but he has a complicated schedule so locked into Brian Eno. But then Bowie showed up in the studio [in Cologne].

bastard: While we were setting up the equipment, people were running around. [Dieter] Moebius and [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius, Holger Czukay. We all ended up jamming with Bowie and Eno, which was recorded on a two-track tape. Everything will be illuminated at some point, so it will probably come out.

Devo playing at Max's Kansas City in New York, 1977
Kids club … Devo playing at Max’s Kansas City in New York, 1977.
Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

There seems to be some tension between you and Eno during the production of your first LP, so its impact is reduced. Would you consider asking Eno to remix the cassette now to present his vision of the album? David1

bastard: Brian was great to work with as he let us do what we wanted. I mean, Eno and Bowie would come back in the evening and add our songs, like Tibetan monkey chants, some of which we used but mostly we didn’t. But he never forced that on us.

Casale: “Tension” has become apocryphal. It’s not real tension. Brian enters his Zen period and we come from Akron, Ohio, immersed in the brutality of the industry. We didn’t want our song to be as pretty as hers, but we never had a disagreement. We love him. We’d love to hear them remix the songs now. That would be funny at this point.

Is it true that you write songs using a washing machine as a rhythm part? CanMeckie

Casale: I play guitar on my mother’s machine – it has a kerchunk-kerchunk rhythm.

bastard: Before the drum machine, we wrote songs while sitting in the car to the beat of the windshield wipers. Our first drummer, Jim Mothersbaugh, was a circuit breaker and he invented the precursor to electronic drums.

How did Neil Young’s collaboration come about? Fruit cover nails

bastard: Actor Dean Stockwell hired me to score a Broadway play for him – Dean had made a film for Neil and introduced him to Devo.

Casale: Neil has a single that we produce ourselves. We met, Neil loved us and asked us to be in his Human Highway movie. We played Hey Hey, My My together.

bastard: Neil told us to leave for selling merchandise! He said: “Merch is not cool. It’s not part of rock’n’roll.” [Laughter]

What is the story of Johnny Rotten joining Devo? 1234Ramones

bastard: In the winter of 1978, we were sleeping on the couch at a friend’s house. In Bob Casale’s room the windows were open and in the morning he was covered in a foot of snow. [Virgin Records boss] Richard Branson called and asked if we wanted to meet up in Jamaica. Bob and I went to this hotel, where there was a very strong pile of marijuana. Richard waited until we were completely stoned and told us that Johnny Rotten was in the next room and he wanted him to be a singer in Devo. I couldn’t stop laughing and telling him that was the most absurd advice I’ve ever heard. Then, Richard almost killed us. He took us out to eat in the mountains and after that drove so fast that the Jeep skidded off the road and got stuck in a tree. We were in the back seat, Bob landed on top of me and, when I looked down, it was a 100 foot drop. Richard started laughing like a crazy ninny.

Are you still playing Mongoloid? MagnusPym
How do you feel about Mongoloids now?

Casale: Mongoloid is a politically incorrect term, but the song strikes a chord with those who use it to bring others down. I thought I probably wouldn’t write that song right now.

bastard: We still play it. It was one of our core songs, but in those days we were completely uncensored. In defense of the song, we’ve received dozens of letters from parents of children with Down syndrome, saying: “My kids are so happy there’s a song about them and they love the song.”

Uniform appearance … Gerald Casale, left, and Mark Mothersbaugh in 2011, 38 years after Devo formed in 1973.
Uniform appearance … Gerald Casale, left, and Mark Mothersbaugh in 2011, 38 years after Devo formed in 1973. Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images

Have you seen the British tribute band We Are Not Devo? How do you feel about bands like that doing your music? Wearedevo

bastard: I listen to these bands and sometimes think: “Oh, we should have done that.” We went to a Polysics show in Tokyo – they made their own music and some homage stuff – and the kids made the hand gestures and intense movements we wanted in our show. We used to play easy-to-listen loungecore instrumental versions of our songs before we went on stage – parodying ourselves, but people loved them. Warners refused to release it so we released it ourselves and sold thousands.

Mark said that while he Covid-19 he had hallucinations and imagined a new piece for Devo. Will we hear new material? agustina_argentina

bastard: When they transferred me to intensive care, I got shot in the eye. I pulled the tube from my throat and a man holding me said: “Let him go!” Next thing I knew, I was having this crazy dream of performing on top of these five-story inflatable objects, with people watching us from below. It was a pretty good show! So new material… yes of course. I feel like we are in the middle of Devo. We have another 50 years.

Devo has been nominated for this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The inductees will be announced in May.

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