Devo: “Kraftwerk from the waist up, Elvis Presley from the hips down”

Gerard Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh on being bombarded by hippies at Knebworth in 1978, being told off by Neil Young, and their unreleased jam sessions with Bowie and Eno in Cologne

We are Devo … ‘Overnight we went from a tiny club band to blowing up on the national stage.’
We are Devo … ‘Overnight we went from a tiny club band to blowing up on the national stage.’Photograph: PR

Could Devo have existed without the shootings at Kent State University, Ohio on 4 May 1970? Flashbleu

Gerald Casale (vocals, bass, keyboards): I was a member of the student organisation that organised the protest against the expansion of the war in Vietnam into Cambodia. I knew two of the four students, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, who were shot and killed by the National Guard. We saw it happen and we saw the Kent newspaper say “Students kill guardsmen”! We realised everything we’d been told was a big lie. We were already making music, but when you see something like that it changes you for ever.

When I saw Devo at Knebworth in 1978, supporting Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jefferson Starship and Genesis, docile, stoned hippy types suddenly became enraged and hurled missiles at the stage. Have you come across animosity on that scale since? bhunabhoy

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

Casale: The difference between UK and US electricity cycles meant our effects units made these hideous warbling sounds. People started throwing things but because the stage was so high they were missing us and hitting other people at the front. The crowd started fighting each other. We got to watch a display of De-Evolution [the band’s idea that mankind is de-evolving] where it looked like Planet of the Apes. We have faced that scale of animosity since and try to bend it to our advantage.

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

Mothersbaugh: In Ohio, nobody would hire us because they just wanted bands playing Top 40 hits. Often after our first set we’d get paid to quit! So we had a lot of time to work out our aesthetic, with the yellow hazmat suits.

Casale: We came to television fully formed. Overnight we went from a tiny club band to blowing up on the national stage.

When Ronald Reagan was elected [in 1980], you commented: “America turns to a bad B-movie actor to solve all its problems – that’s even more Devo than we could have predicted!” How much more Devo do you think we’ve become since then? Has it all been decline? JPH1964

Casale: Of course. Now we’re seeing the obliteration of truth, which clearly serves the oligarchs, the billionaires and authoritarian rightwingers that want to pull the strings of power, because the population is confused and numb, and ready to do anything they tell them. It’s very Orwellian.

In your classic 1979 album Duty Now for the Future you claim “the future’s gonna be maintenance free”. Are you disappointed with how it has worked out? judgefloyd

Casale: That’s a line from Clockout, a song about toxic masculinity. The idea was that in the future women wouldn’t need men any more because they’d have too many sex toys … and, uh, it’s kinda true [laughter].

Famously, brothers in bands can be fractious with each other. How does it work when there are two sets of siblings? HenleyRegatta

Casale: This was Mark and Bob 1 [Mothersbaugh] and myself and Bob 2 [Casale]. It worked like nuclear parity.

Will your recording sessions with David Bowie ever see the light of day? BluesBuddah

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

Mothersbaugh: While we were setting the gear up, people were hanging 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 gets illuminated at some point, so it will probably come out.

Devo playing at Max’s Kansas City in New York, 1977
Club kids … Devo playing at Max’s Kansas City in New York, 1977. 
Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

There seemed to have been tension between yourselves and Eno during the production of your first LP, resulting in a lessening of his influence. Would you consider asking Eno to remix the tapes now to present his vision of the album? David1

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

Casale: The “tension” has become apocryphal. It wasn’t real tension. Brian was into his Zen period and we had come from Akron, Ohio, steeped in industrial brutalism. We didn’t want our songs to be pretty like he did, but we were never at loggerheads. We loved him. We’d love to hear him remix those songs now. That would be funny at this point.

Is it true that you wrote a song using a washing machine as the rhythm section? CanMeckie

Casale: I played guitar to my mother’s machine – it had this sorta kerchunk-kerchunk rhythm.

Mothersbaugh: Before drum machines we’d write songs sitting in the car to the rhythm of the windshield wipers. Our first drummer, Jim Mothersbaugh, was a circuit bender and he invented the precursor to electronic drums.

How did the Neil Young collaboration come about? Fruitcoverednails

Mothersbaugh: The actor Dean Stockwell hired me to score an off-Broadway play for him – Dean had shot films for Neil and introduced him to Devo.

Casale: Neil had our self-produced single. We met, Neil loved us and asked us to be in his Human Highway movie. We played Hey Hey, My My together.

Mothersbaugh: Neil told us off for selling merch! He said: “Merch isn’t cool. It’s not part of rock’n’roll.” [Laughter]

What’s the story about Johnny Rotten joining Devo? 1234Ramones

Mothersbaugh: In winter 1978, we were sleeping on couches at a friend’s house. In Bob Casale’s room the windows had blown open and in the morning he was covered in a foot of snow. [Virgin Records boss] Richard Branson called and ask if we wanted to get together in Jamaica. Bob and I went to this hotel, where there was a pile of really strong marijuana. Richard waited until we got really stoned and told us that Johnny Rotten was in the next room and he wanted him to be the singer in Devo. I couldn’t stop laughing and told him it was the most absurd suggestion I’d ever heard. Later, Richard almost killed us. He took us to eat in the mountains and afterwards drove so fast the Jeep slid off the road and got stuck on a tree. We were in the back seat, Bob had landed on top of me and, as I looked down, it was a 100ft drop. Richard started laughing like a crazy ninny.

Do you still play Mongoloid? MagnusPym 
How do you feel about Mongoloid now? 

Casale: Mongoloid is a politically incorrect term, but the song was attacking people who used it to put other people down. I think I probably wouldn’t write that song now, though.

Mothersbaugh: We still play it. It’s one of our core songs, but in those days we were totally uncensored. In the song’s defence, we got dozens of letters from parents of children with Down’s syndrome, saying: “My child is so happy there’s a song about them and they love the song.”

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

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

Mothersbaugh: I listen to these bands and sometimes think: “Oh, we should have done that.” We went to a Polysics show in Tokyo – they do their own music and some homage stuff – and the kids were making hand gestures and intense movements like we wanted at our shows. We used to play easy-listening, instrumental loungecore versions of our songs before we went onstage – parodying ourselves, but people loved it. Warners refused to put it out so we released it ourselves and sold thousands.

Mark said that while he had Covid-19 he suffered hallucinations and imagined a new work for Devo. Will we hear some new material? Agustina_argentina

Mothersbaugh: When they were moving me around in intensive care, I got hit in the eye. I pulled the tube out of my throat and a guy holding me went: “Sedate him!” The next thing I knew I had these crazy dreams of performing on these inflatable objects five storeys high, with people watching us from below. It was a pretty good show! So new material … yes, of course. I feel like we’re at the halfway point of Devo. We’ve got another 50 years.

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

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