[Photo by Mark C. Austin]
Mark Mothersbaugh has lived through singular times. From being present at the Kent State shootings in 1970 to hanging out at Studio 54 with Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol, the Devo frontman seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the weird time.
When Paste recently interviewed him about the new Devo album in the making, he shared many stories about his past. Several of those stories were formative moments for Mothersbaugh as an artist and Devo as a concept. Here are five of them.
On how getting glasses changed his life:
I have a really bad astigmatism and extreme myopia. There are five kids in my family, and kids oftentimes get overlooked, and you can’t tell they can’t see anything, because a kid that can’t see doesn’t know it. You can see just enough light and dark to make it around a room and run around and play, and kids are throwing a ball, and it may hit you in the head, but you’re happy, and you keep running around because you don’t know that it’s any different for anybody else. It wasn’t until I was almost all the way through second grade that I got tested. Finally, the teachers thought, “We’re making him stand in the corner every single day, and we’re spanking him once a week because we say, ‘Mark, what are the numbers on the board?’ and he says, ‘What’s a board?’” So, they tested me, and they said, “Oh my God, he can’t see the big ‘E’ on an eye chart from 12 inches away. So, I got glasses right before my eighth birthday, and I got in a car and my dad drove me home, and I remember seeing clouds and trees. I had never seen what the top of a tree looked like. I had never seen a roof of a house; I had never seen smoke; I had never seen a bird fly; I had never seen the sun or clouds. And I came over a hill, and I was stunned. I was so excited. The next day, I was drawing pictures. I remember the teacher who had been cuffing me on the side of the head and totally frustrated with me and disciplining me every day and writing letters to my parents about how I was a total asshole—she said, “Mark, you draw trees better than me.” That was the first time a teacher had ever said anything nice. I was struck by it, just the fact that she said something positive to me, because I had never had a teacher say anything positive to me in my life. And I remember that that night, I went home and had a dream that I was going to be an artist.
On being at Kent State when the Ohio National Guard killed four students in 1970:
We were lucky to be at school that day. In a lot of ways, it was a major component for creating Devo. Jerry [Casale] and I, and then my brothers and his brother, we were all musicians at that time. Jerry and I had met in the art department. We were both visual artists, and we were in bands after school to help pay for our schooling. I was more into experimental music, and he was more into the blues. Our school closed down in May, so that we didn’t get to finish out the spring semester. All summer it was closed and you couldn’t really go on campus, and it didn’t really open again until September. So, between May and September, Jerry was coming over to my place, and we were trying to figure out what we were living through, and what we were seeing going on in the world. We decided that we were observing de-evolution rather than evolution. We started writing music at that time. That was the sonic portion of Devo, how it started. We ended up recruiting our little brothers to play in the band with us because at the time, it wasn’t popular to write music. Bands did cover songs. Pretty much all through the first half of the ’70s, if you went to hear a live band in Akron, Ohio, you weren’t going to hear somebody play original music; you were going to hear somebody play cover tunes. So you’d hear the stuff that was on the radio. You’d hear one song by the Box Tops, and one song by Eric Burden and the Animals, and so there wasn’t really any support for us to be writing music at the time—especially weird music that was very strange sounding. Probably the closest thing you could compare early Devo music to is sort of a semi-electronic version of Captain Beefheart.
On smoking angel dust with Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol at Studio 54 in the early-’70s:
We didn’t have a record deal in the U.S. So, these people from Columbia Records… This woman, Susan Blonde, who was on a TV show in New York at the time, it was something Screw magazine had on called The Blue Show, and she was this pretty, thirty-something-year-old woman who had been in Andy Warhol movies, and she had this heavy Jewish New York Jewish accent, she called me up and said, “Hey, I want to talk to you about Devo. You want to go out with me tonight?” And I said, “OK.” And she said, “We’re going to go out with Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.” And I went, “Sounds good to me.” So she came over and picked me up at my hotel room. Andy had some guy with him that was a protégé at the time, some young guy. So there were just the five of us sitting at Studio 54, and Michael was very quiet, and he was still black back in those days, and he had just finished doing The Wiz, so he had like a big apple hat and patchwork suede outfit. He was very quiet. I was still from Akron, Ohio, and didn’t even have an apartment or a car or anything back there, so I felt very self-conscious being in blue jeans—no, I think I even had a Dickies worker outfit. I had like a janitor’s outfit because that was kind of what Devo was into at the time. But I felt very self-conscious in this place because it was all these really groovy people, and they were listening to Donna Summer and stuff.
So, Michael Jackson is sitting next to me, and all I notice is he’s handing me something, and it’s a joint. So I’m like, “OK, we don’t have this stuff in Ohio. I’m going to try this out,” you know, because nobody had any money so we couldn’t afford drugs. So, I took a big hit, and I went to pass it on to somebody sitting on the other side, and they’re chattering on with somebody else, and the music’s really loud, and I’m trying to hand it to them, and they’re not taking it, so I go, “Well, don’t want it to go out.” So, I took another hit, and I ended up with like two or three big hits of this joint. Finally, Susan goes, “Come on, let’s go dance.” I go, “I don’t know how to dance.” So, she pulls me out, and she makes me stand over next to the dance floor, and she goes out and she’s dancing. And they have these light towers that look like at a drag strip where they’ve got like six lights up and down the side, but it’s a three-sided thing. There were nine towers, and they lowered down right above everybody’s heads at the dance floor. I’m standing there, and I’m feeling uncomfortable while this woman’s out there dancing, and she’s having a great old time, and I’m like, “I really don’t fit in to this crowd that well.”
All of a sudden, these light fixtures start coming down, and they’re twirling in the middle of the floor, but they lower them too far, and they’re coming down, and they’re swinging like weed-whackers. They come down, and they start clipping people on the back of the head. And I’m watching people get hit with these things, and there’s blood going everywhere, and I’m like, “Oh my God, what am I looking at?” I look over at Susan, and she’s going, “Come on, come on,” and she’s motioning for me to come out and dance with her. And I’m like, “No, look what’s happening,” and it’s really loud music, and she can’t hear me, and I’m like frozen in place, and she’s going, “Come on, let’s dance,” trying to get me to dance with her. And these people are getting hit in the head, and she comes over and goes, “What’s going on?” And I go, “Can’t you see what’s happening to those people? They’re getting hit in the head with the light fixtures.” And I turn and look again, and it’s not happening. And she looked at me, and she goes, “Did you smoke some of that angel dust?” And I go, “What’s that?” Then, we go back over, and she’s dragging me by the collar at this point. She can’t believe she’s with somebody who’s totally stoned on angel dust, and she goes to Andy and Michael, and she goes, “I gotta take him home. He’s all screwed up.” So, she dropped me off at my hotel room, and I sat there and fried for hours in bed by myself that night. That was my introduction to both Studio 54 and angel dust.
On being introduced to laser discs:
When we really knew how important it was going to be that we were visual artists was in 1974. A friend of ours who had gone to school with us at Kent State had moved to Minneapolis to work on commercials, but he came back at Christmastime, and he walked into where we were rehearsing—my brother and Jerry had an apartment in Akron, and we used to rehearse in the basement there, write songs in the basement—and this guy Chuck came over and he held up a Popular Science magazine, and on the cover it was like some young middle-American couple. I think the guy had on like a V-neck sweater over a yellow shirt kind of thing and penny loafers, and she was a typical housewife-looking woman. And they’re smiling, and they’re holding up this disc the same size as an album, a 12-inch LP, which is how you bought your music back then, but it was shiny, metallic and it was called a laser disc. And in the article, it said, “Laser discs: By Christmas, everyone will have them.” And we were like, “They’re the same size as an LP, but instead of just music, it’s music and pictures?” We went, “That’s it. It’s the death of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s starting right here, right now. Sound and vision is the art form of the future, and that’s us! That’s where we belong.” And so, we started making Devo music in 1974. We decided we were making music for laser discs.
On deciding to make a new album, ending Devo’s 20-year silence:
I have a company over here and we license a lot of Devo tracks and the Wes Anderson scores for commercials. We write new music, but we also just license a lot of things. About two years ago, an agency called us, and they said, “We want to license a Devo song.” And we just said, “Would you be interested in a new one that nobody’s ever heard?” And they went, “Those things exist?” And we said, “They could easily.” Because we had just been playing some shows, and while we were at sound check we were just screwing around writing some things and had like three or four things that we had put together and sent one to them. And they said they’d love to hear us finish that song because they thought that could be perfect for their spot, so we did the song and it came out really nice. I thought, “OK, that’s the end of it. We did a song. They licensed it for a commercial and now we have a Devo song, but who wants to do a record anymore?” The business was hard enough back when you used to be able to sell a couple million records, and now it’s like it seemed impossible and it didn’t seem that interesting. When we did the song (it was called “Watch Us Work It”), we met these guys who had a band called the Teddybears. They were kind of Devo fans from Sweden and they were like, “You should do a record.” I was kind of like, “I don’t really know what the motivation is to do a record. How do you not just lose money?” They said, “Well, we just put out a record last year, and we sold 30,000 copies and we’re unknown.” And I’m like, “I sold that many singles out of our apartment in Akron, Ohio.” I’m thinking that’s a terrible number, but he said, “We licensed the record for $5 million.” So I thought, “OK, that’s it. It really is a new time where it takes a new business model to survive.”