Maybe it was the rubber masks or the flowerpot hats or the plastic hair, but to this day Devo can’t quite shake their reputation as a novelty act. To the faithful, though, Devo were more than a joke and even more than a band: they were a multimedia collective intent on exposing the artificiality of modern life and the way it degraded human existence, a process they called de-evolution. And their goofy props and pioneering music videos and sophomoric album art were as crucial to this mission as their songs.
As the band’s popularity waned in the late 80s, front man Mark Mothersbaugh embarked on a more straightforward career path. His Mutato Muzika studio, which employs Devo members Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, is a veritable Hollywood music machine, responsible for the sound tracks to more than 100 TV shows and movies, including Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Thirteen, the new Lords of Dogtown, and all of Wes Anderson’s films. But it’s also a promotional machine for Mothersbaugh’s visual art, which he’s been making lots of since before Devo existed. His oeuvre includes a “diary” made up of thousands of postcard-size illustrations mixing painting, collage, and text; in the late 90s he began exhibiting some of these.
Next weekend a new show of Mothersbaugh’s work, “Beautiful Mutants,” opens at Aron Packer Gallery. The 15 to 25 images that will be shown are part of a larger collection of antique photographs he’s “corrected” to create perfect symmetry in the subjects, usually with freakish results. Mothersbaugh wasn’t yet sure at press time if he’d appear at the reception, but he will be in town later this summer, playing with Devo at the House of Blues on August 25.
Peter Margasak: Could you describe your visual art for people that might only be familiar with your music?
Mark Mothersbaugh: I’m kind of a contemporary social scientist. The pieces that are going to be in this show are sort of like Rorschachs of human faces. What I mean by that is looking for information that people normally try to hide from you when you meet them every day.
PM: I’m thinking of your visual art in general, including your postcards.
MM: The postcards are a longer-ranging project. I refer to them as postcards, but that’s only because that’s about the size of them–I also do larger pieces. Instead of mailing them out and giving them away I started collecting them and considering them kind of a diary over 30 years ago. Probably when I croak I’ll have a sumi-e paintbrush in one hand and a piece of four-by-six cardboard in the other, and I’ll be using them to try to pull the catheter out of my nostril.
PM: Was the aesthetic behind the postcards an ingredient in Devo?
MM: A lot of them I did to amuse the band while we were on tour. A lot of times they would be in response to some frustrating or absurd or ironic thing that we all had an emotional response to, and I could make these cards and the guys would all laugh at them….If you look at my old books you can find early images that were mutated into the first and third Devo album covers. That’s where a lot of the graphics started.
I recently have been looking at some of the ones from the 70s, and I don’t think the same way I did back then. You see the threads of thought when you don’t edit what you’re thinking and you’re not trying to make something on purpose–it’s kind of like you took a blood sample every day and broke it down and saw what was in your system at any particular time. Some of the old ones I really love, and some of them I think, “I certainly was obsessed with women back then.”
PM: You’ve been a pretty obsessive collector of images from a young age.
MM: Everybody has reasons why they do things. I don’t even know what mine are for sure. Maybe one thing that contributed to it is that I was considered legally blind. I still am. If your hand is six inches away from your face, it’s not a hand, but a fuzzy color that’s mixed in with everything else and they’re all equally close or far away, like a washed-out watercolor. I’ve been like that since I was born. But it wasn’t until halfway through second grade that it finally occurred to them to test my eyes. I left an optometrist’s office and we were on the street that my school was on and I could see it. I’d never seen it before. I’d never seen what houses looked like before, except what you could see of one from six inches away, and I never saw the top of a tree, I never saw telephone wires or birds or what clouds looked like. I remember being blown away that day by what clouds looked like. It never occurred to me that someone should’ve paid attention a little bit sooner in my life. To me it was like, Wow, I just got a bonus today.
I started drawing things, including trees because I’d only known the trunks of them when I’d run into them. In second grade Mrs. Avery said, “You draw trees better than me.” It was the first time it wasn’t one of my teachers spanking me or putting me in the corner or yelling at me for the umpteenth time that day. I was like, Whoa, nobody at school ever said anything nice. She probably set me on a path.
PM: When did you start doing the “Beautiful Mutants” stuff? What were you thinking when you started doing it?
MM: I think it was around 1997. I’d already been obsessed with mirrors and mirror images. I had used Xerox machines to take my artwork and make mandalas and sort of Rorschach versions of artwork I was working on. I loved the symmetry. When you’d look at nice cabinetry work and…they’d slice two pieces of one-thirty-second-inch veneer off of a tree and set them together inverted, and you’d have this great pattern created out of what was a seemingly random pattern before that. I don’t know what inspired Mr. Rorschach in the first place. During the time period he invented Rorschach patterns there was a vogue for people signing things; you’d dip a quill in an inkwell and after you’d sign your name you’d fold the paper in half and unfold it and you’d have this graphic image that was created that was like a Rorschach blot. There was a period in England, and I think in the U.S. too, in the 1800s where people had autograph books and they did that.
In the mid-90s I went to a Bruce Conner art show in LA. I was struck by these things where he’d taken ink blots that were like miniature Rorschach patterns, but he put like 200 of them on a sheet of paper and it kind of looked somewhere in between ancient Japanese calligraphy and Space Invaders. It made me think of how I had played around with mirrors in the past.
I started setting up photographs where I would put things behind a mirror and photograph them, and I kept getting a line in the middle. I went to three or four special-effects houses in LA and had no luck find-ing a lens that would do [what I wanted]. A kaleidoscope has three lenses that reflect the image in the middle, so why wasn’t there a cam-era with just one lens that did that? I would ask DPs [directors of photography] if there was a lens like that. They’d say, “I bet you they could make that up for you so easy.” I talked to people and nobody could do it for me, an artist. They might’ve made it up if I was Sony or Warner Brothers pictures; they might have said, “Oh, sure, we can make it up for you for half a million dollars.” But it wasn’t until someone was forcing me to learn some things on Photoshop, which I didn’t want to learn…[that] I found out you could do what I was trying to do, and it was seamless.
Some of the first ones were kids I went to school with, teachers I hated, stuff like that. I realized that I liked using older photographs, from the turn of the last century, for a number of reasons. In the old days, because they were putting them on glass or tin, each photo was really precious. Things that were in the picture were usually on purpose–the fabric, an outfit that someone was wearing, an expression on a face. Through experimenting with this stuff I started finding that people tended to have two different sides to their face. We are basically, for want of a better word, pseudosymmetrical. We have two ears, two eyes, and they balance each other out in a rough way.
But if you take somebody and slice them right down the middle, it’s not so symmetrical, especially if you flip half of a person over and compare it to the left side–it’s kind of interesting how nonsymmetrical people are. What kind of surprised me is that people tend to have a dark, angry, confused, unhappy, and negative side, and then they have a happier side, a younger, healthier, prettier, cuter side. I was looking for something in that, some meaning. On one hand it was this stupid, sophomoric seventh-grade exercise. It was kind of like erasing the pupils out of eyes in a magazine. But on the other hand, the more I did of them the more I started to love these people I was creating, or discovering, and I wanted to collect more of them.
About five years ago I showed them to Benedict Taschen, who was snooping around LA for people to do books. We ended up not doing something together, but it made me determined to do something with them. The sizes in the gallery show are much bigger, but my personal collection–I’ve been collecting picture frames that are for images that are between one and four inches. I found these frames that were made during the Civil War, when people used to put amber types and tintypes in little precious boxes that they would carry around with them. These boxes, over 150 years, have gotten beat up, lost parts, been repaired, and they’ve rotted and worn out. I’ve been putting these images in these cases, and they’ve become like a family for me.
PM: Have you done this with photos of yourself?
MM: Yeah, and my personal favorite was one that turned me into a guy that looked like he had a jaw that would fit on a salamander, and a big forehead, and a very disturbing-looking face. I got invited to be on a panel at some festival, and they asked for a head shot, so in the program this photo was in between George [S.] Clinton–the guy who scored the Austin Powers thing–and Stewart Copeland. I saved that one.
PM: You’re a busy guy–what’s a typical day like for you?
MM: I get up in the morning and I’ve got two pugs that come to work with me. I’ve got a building with, depending on if we’re in the middle of a film, anywhere from a dozen to a couple of dozen people. Some of the people help me organize art shows. I have a couple of rooms where I can just work on artwork during the day. Bob Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh from Devo are here every day. Bob’s working on a TV show–Rugrats–and Bob Casale is an engineer working for both of us. I’ll write some music for a movie, and Bob will mix it in with the picture, and while he’s doing that I’m in another room working on some art. Pretty soon it’s been nine or ten hours and we say, “OK, let’s go home.”
We all have good work ethics….I’m from the midwest and Akron’s like a Chicago wannabe. It was a factory town, until they closed our factories down and we had nothing to do. I’m one of the lucky ones who figured out how to make his own conveyor belts.
PM: You once said of playing in a rock band, “It’s really cool when you’re 20; it’s a really great job. When you’re 30, you’re thinking it’s time to move on; and when you’re 40, shame on you. If you’re 50 and you’re doing it, you’re just pathetic.” But Devo is touring this summer. . .
MM: That’s the pathetic side of us. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not the guy that was pushing for us to do it. There’s other guys in the band who really want to keep it going, and God bless them that they want it so bad, because if they didn’t I would’ve figured out ways to keep us from going on the road. Because, damn it, it is a job for 20-year-olds. We’re playing like 14 shows and what’s different from when we were doing it for a living is that we were doing it for a living. We were connected to a record label, we had a vested interest in MTV playing our films and our record company being happy with our records so they would put up the payola that you have to put up to get your record played in this country. I lost interest in that lifestyle.
When we go out now we’re not trying to sell you anything. We’re just going out there and playing some shows. It’s two sets of brothers and Josh [Mancell, subbing for drummer Alan Myers] and we’re doing what we did when we were in Akron and we didn’t have a record company and we couldn’t afford drugs and girls weren’t interested in us and we were just doing it for the love of it. It’s not like going to see Billy Idol, where they play three hits and then you have to dutifully sit through an album of new stuff, where it’s kind of like an old person’s version of music he did when they were kids, and then they play a few hits again at the end. We basically do the show we did when we first walked into CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City in 1977.
I just watched two DVDs. One was from San Francisco in 1980 and it showed us playing Freedom of Choice stuff for the first time. We looked really damned good. We were these skinny young guys, and we were in shape. A couple of us were nerdy, but we looked good and strong. Then I watched a concert from a festival in Japan from a couple of years ago. We wore the same clothes at both shows, these yellow suits that we found at a janitorial supply place, and we put a black waistband around them, and those red hats that we designed. We looked great in the first one, and the second one we looked pretty damn old. But we played and sounded so much better in the second one. We learned how to tune our guitars, to sing our songs, and to play them better. Just don’t get too close to the stage–if we looked like we were yellow cheeseburgers in 1979, in 2005 we’re kind of like double-patty cheeseburgers.
PM: Are there any new Devo recordings in the works?
MM: We’re recording an album with kids singing our songs for Disney Records. We’ve changed some of the lyrics here and there where Disney was concerned.
PM: Like what?
MM: In the song “Through Being Cool” there was a lyric that said “We’re gonna beat some butts,” and by any standard of what’s on the radio today, and probably even what’s on Disney radio, I think it’s a pretty benign line. They wanted us to change it to “swing some butts.”
PM: That sounds more disturbing.
MM: That’s what I thought. Who came up with that line? We changed it so now there’s nothing there about beating or swinging some butts.
PM: Who are the kids?
MM: Oh, they’re scary kids who came and auditioned for us along with their freaky parents.
PM: Was it the band’s idea?
MM: Disney originally asked me about rerecording things for a kids’ album and it kind of turned into…this may be a horrible idea, we haven’t recorded the kids yet. The concept is that we’re picking kids that will be a little band, so if all goes well they want us to shoot ten videos to use as interstitials on the Disney channel. It could be the start of something really cool–we’re calling it Devo 2.0–or it could be the stupidest idea that anyone ever had. But it’s been fun for us because we’re pulling out our old synthesizers–some of them sound like they used to and some make us wonder why did we ever go for that sound.
PM: It seems like it was always a struggle to get people to pick up the message in those songs.
MM: I don’t know. When you’re an artist you think you’re saying something and you think you’re connecting on some level…. Admittedly we were kind of smart-assy in a way that made people distrust us, or confused at the least, or feel like we were making fun of them, which we were maybe doing a little bit. With any music you’re going to have a serious quotient of cretins. I think we had much smarter fans than Tom Petty, because we shared managers so I saw some of his fan mail. He had serial killers and people that shouldn’t be allowed to operate heavy machinery. At least we had people who were inspired to be biochemists or someone who wrote their thesis about hegemony in rock ‘n’ roll and Devo. I think we did help people think about their lives differently, instead of just going to buy some blue jeans and lighting a Bic lighter at a Springsteen concert.
Unfortunately what we were preaching about and predicting at the time came true a lot faster than we expected. Back in the 70s people would say, “You guys are so cynical with all this talk about de-evolution and things falling apart and people getting stupider.” Now you say something and people will say, “Yeah, de-evolution, woo, bring it on!” You really see what happens when your country saves money by scrimping on education and making it a stupid thing instead of something important. You end up with a country full of ninnies. It’s sad, from the people we elect and in the way people behave in their own personal lives. I’m not disagreeing with the fact that the news finds the most pathetic and disgusting stories to print because no one wants to read good news. Nobody would pay attention to the Oprah Winfrey billboard on La Cienega Boulevard right now if it wasn’t saying “I’m interviewing a baby with two heads this week!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.