Ostrich Ink Interview with Mark Mothersbaugh
Looks like Ostrich Ink, the great online magazine written by a bunch of young Angelenos including myself, is kaput! Kyle’s stopped paying for the domain, and all the archives are inaccessible.
I thought then that it might be a good idea to post here, as my first blog, an interview I did with Mark Mothersbaugh somewhere earlier in the decade, that was finally published in Ostrich Ink in 2003. Here it is more or less verbatim, with none of the fancy graphics it used to have when it was in OI.
BY ME, ORANGEHAIRBOY
For a genuinely good artist, there’s no fate more horrific for his art than to have it showcased to a bunch of ignoramuses who can’t appreciate it. Yet as his art becomes more popular, it’s this type of audience he’ll likely have to face: one primarily concerned with the look and the commodity of the art itself, with no knowledge or interest in actually engaging with it. If he shows them work that’s too absurdist, or satirical, or ironic, his simpleton audience won’t be able to see past its humor and novelty to what’s beneath – they’ll mistake his masterpiece for a lighthearted joke, one that doesn’t seem very funny stripped of its context.
It’s sad, then, to see that exact kind of flippant fandom when it comes to DEVO, a band so witty and weird, so poignant and creative, only a culture of truly backward-thinking blockheads would dare to pin them down as a one-hit-wonder band with no impact on music today.
Part of this gross misconception comes from the bad job that music historians have done in chronicling DEVO’s lengthy stretch of musical activity. When most people think of DEVO, they still probably think of them as those cutesy guys with the funny red hats who played “Whip It” on MTV back in the eighties, just another New Wave band with a Casio and wacky costumes, cut from the same cloth as the B-52’s and A Flock of Seagulls.
In reality, DEVO were radical avant-garde freaks, soaked in the late sixties/early seventies drug culture, pop culture, and acid electronica. Fans of Andy Warhol, they’d noted his attempts to reach into the world of music with the Plastic Exploding Inevitable, and starting in the early seventies, they took the opposite approach – using their raw musical skill as a vehicle to launch themselves into film, video, performance and visual art – even culture jamming, though that phrase did not exist yet. Unlike Warhol, there was a strong political and surreal sheen to DEVO that captivated those early audiences and paved the way for the eighties fame that more people are familiar with.
This is how I had always felt about DEVO, anyway, so I felt very vindicated when chance or fate led me into Mutato Inc, the round green building on Sunset Boulevard where the remnants of DEVO now spend their days composing scores for television and movie shows. That part of the DEVO legacy has been chronicled elsewhere – but what has not is how Mutato Inc. still maintains a spirit of play, spontaneity, and childishness, even more so perhaps than DEVO in its heyday. The inner corridors of the building are decked out with more than 300-odd keyboard driven instruments, everything from accordions, to vintage synths, to Farfisas, Vox organs, Yamahas, Casios, and several peg-board synths as well. It was in the middle of all this clutter, on a busy workday, that I was able to corner Mark Mothersbaugh, whip out a cassette recorder, and garner my goldmine of an interview:
ORANGEHAIRBOY: I actually have a question about how you guys got involved with Brian Eno. I know he produced your first official album.
MARK: Yeah. It was, um, we were playing in New York, uh, that summer, and, uh, started to get kind of a [yawn] following…Excuse me. We started to get kind of a following, and we never got paid. We were playing at Max’s Kansas City and, um, CBGB’s, and we never got paid really. But, but the shows would be crammed. They’d be totally filled with people. And our guest list would be, like, sixty or seventy people…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Ha ha…
MARK: And they’d have everybody; there’d be like Jack Nicholson, and all the Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa band, and stuff like that. You know, there’d be all these people, and they’d say, “It’s alright with you if Frank Zappa…puts his band right here…listens to you play?” We’re like, sure!
MARK: “Alright with you if, um…Candy Clark is on your guest list?” And we’re like, okay. And so Bowie came and saw us one night. And we’d done some interviews, and people said, “Who’d you like to have produce you guys?” And I thought of all the people I could think of, I thought it would either be David Bowie or Brian Eno. I, I liked their music, and I thought maybe they would understand what we were trying to do.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: And, you know, like, understood the synth pretty well, I guess.
MARK: So they – yeah. But David Bowie showed up one night, when we were playing, and [yawn] after…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: At Max’s Kansas City?
MARK: Yeah. And on the second set, when we came out, before we came out, he came out and introduced us, and he goes [in a canned carny voice] “This is the band of the future!”
MARK: “I am producing them in Tokyo this winter!” And we’re like, okay, we’re sleeping in a car tonight; that sounds good to us!
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Heh heh heh.
MARK: We’ll go to Tokyo. And then, um, afterwards, he said, “Yeah, I really want to produce you guys. Um, the only thing is, I’m up for this movie called Just a Gigolo. If I get it, I have to go to Berlin for a couple months. So that would push it off.” And we go, well, we don’t even have anywhere to go when we leave here.
MARK: We’re homeless, you know, so we don’t know what we’re gonna be doing for those two months. And, uh, the next week, we played again, and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno came.
MARK: And they invited us over to Robert Fripp’s house after, afterwards. And he fed us. And they both said, “We would want to produce you guys, if you were up for it.” And we said, well, Brian, David Bowie last week [laughs] said he was producing us in Tokyo! And Brian Eno starts going “He’s full of shit.”
MARK: And, uh, at the time I didn’t know that Brian Eno was kinda pissed at Bowie because he felt he didn’t get credited properly on Heroes. And Low.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Hmm. That’s weird. How did you get…
MARK: So they were having a little bit of a…tiff at that time. But anyhow, Brian Eno told what he said – and then Bowie called up and said, “Yeah, I’m doing Just a Gigolo, but we could do it in the summer.” And, and, uh, then Brian Eno called up and said, “Let’s just go right now. So, I’ll tell you what. Don’t even worry about a record company. I’ll loan you the money. We’ll go over to Germany, at this studio I work at all the time: Conny Plank Studio.” It’s place where bands like Birth Control, and Guru Guru, and Kraftwerk, and, uh, other, uh, all, you know – Can, another German band, Moebius, Rodelius, those people, they all recorded at that studio, and, you know, used it a lot. He had just recorded, um… what was John Fox’s band called?
ORANGEHAIRBOY: [Who the hell is John Fox?] That’s a good question.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Ultravox, sorry…
MARK: He had just recorded Ultravox about a month before, and, so we’re like, sure, that’s great, you’re gonna pay for us to go to this. Okay, so, he, he flew us over to Germany.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: What did…
MARK: David Bowie of course still wanted to be involved and showed up every day…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Ha ha…
MARK: …on the weekends, and hung out with us, and then bickered with Eno about things, but, but um…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Well, he might have done a bad job like he did with “Raw Power,” so maybe it’s all for the best.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Bowie mixed “Raw Power.”
ORANGEHAIRBOY: It’s one of the worst, watered-down mixes of all time.
MARK: Then again, he also did “Lust for Life,” so…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Yeah, “Transformer,” too.
MARK: He did some good stuff.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Well, what did all those bands think about you guys since you, uh, I mean, you have a synth, and it’s very synth heavy, but it’s still like an analog band: real drums, real guitars, all that. Whereas Kraftwerk was totally machine, or “man-machine…”
ORANGEHAIRBOY: How did they perceive you?
MARK: Well, while we were in Germany, I got a call from the band Kraftwerk, and they said, “We’re gonna go on our first tour, and we would like to play your…” We only had one film at the time. We had this film called, Truth About Deevolution.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Oh yeah, I’ve seen it.
MARK: They go, “We wanna play your film in front of our show on our first tour.” And we said, okay. So, in 1978, in the spring of ’78, when they went out and toured, they took the DEVO movie as their opening act.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: That’s actually like a good way to go, since I’ve got so many questions for you. But um, one of the things you guys are famous for is being one of the first video pioneers. Like, I guess you and, uh, the Residents were some of the first guys to conceive of that. Um, I heard the story about how you actually sent ORANGEHAIRBOY Ackroyd a copy of your video and he threw it away at first, or…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Um, where did you first start getting played, or how did you get the idea to do these little musical movies?
MARK: Well, it was, uh, you know what? A lot of that was owed to the time we grew up. Artists that we were interested in were people like Andy Warhol, who was a multimedia guy for, you know – he, he designed clothes, and he, um, silk-screened, and he painted, and he photographed, and he, uh, produced bands, and he made movies and put out a magazine, and –
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Oh yeah.
MARK: You know, that guy’s so cool. That’s what I want to do. I like it because he’s about ideas rather than just being about an instrument or a technique, rather than an old-time, um, you know, craftsman.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Do you think that’s how you got to where you are now with Mutato Inc?
MARK: (ignoring me) And so, so, we really liked what he was doing, and other people like him that were multimedia artists, and Chuck Statler, who Jerry and I had gone to school with at Kent State, had gone to Minneapolis while we were still kinda struggling in Akron. And he, um, came back, and he had this Popular Science Magazine and it said, “Laserdiscs: The Wave of the Future.”
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Heh heh.
MARK: It’s 1974, and we’re like, “Laserdiscs? What are those?” And they go, “Well, it looks like a record, but it holds visual and audio information.” And we thought, whoa, you know, sound and vision. That’s great! That’s what the future is going to be. And rock and roll, we can bury it once and for all…
[A phone rings rather loudly in the next room, making us both jump a little]
MARK: You know, we were certain that…
[The phone rings again, distractingly]
MARK: …sound and vision was going to kill rock and roll and create a new art form. And the artists that would be, um…
[The secretary in the next room takes the call and comes in to deliver the message]
MARK: …that would carry weight in the populace would be artists that thought visually. [to secretary] Whatchoo got? Oh, this is the AMG thing. Thank you. Thank you. [To me] Okay…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: All right. Actually, um…
MARK: So then, so he came back and said, “Let’s make a film.” And we said, well, we we don’t have any money…
[Phone rings again]
MARK: How are we going to handle that? And he said, “Well, I’m working in this company. I’m trying to do commercials now. I can get us free editing time, and I can borrow a camera, and all we have to do is come up with money for film. So, so, um… Our first seven-and-a-half-minute movie took about four months to do because we didn’t have money. But we made it for, like, three thousand dollars.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: That’s the…
MARK: [Cough cough]
ORANGEHAIRBOY: …one with General Boy that ends up being the, uh…
[Secretary comes in again]
MARK: Yeah, General Boy was a lucky accident, that… [to Secretary] Yeah? What’s up?
SECRETARY: I was just going to give you this. [Hands him some papers].
MARK: [Takes the papers] …was a lucky accident, because what happened there was, um, there was this – [to Secretary] thanks – [to me] there was a lawyer that was a friend of ours, this young guy that was kind of an asshole, yuppie guy.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Is he the one parodied in the, uh, in the later videos?
MARK: Uh, no, [laughing] that’s other people that we liked much less. But this guy did us a favor because he said, “You know, I don’t think it’d be good for my reputation to be in this film you guys are making.” And so we’re like, oh no, who’s gonna play General Boy? Because we’d written the script. And Jerry goes “Mark, would your dad do it?” And I go, I don’t know. Let’s ask him. So we went and asked him, and he was like [in bold announcer voice] “WHY YEEES!” And then, you know, it’s like, of course after that, then he turns on his…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Hee hee.
MARK: You know, at first he wasn’t, he didn’t get the idea. But once he saw himself on screen, he like totally got the acting bug. It was really…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: He’s a magnetic actor. He really is good.
MARK: Yeah, some latent desire to be an artist that was thwarted by, uh, World War II and the Depression.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Visual artist? Or…
MARK: Um, he painted a bit and played music a bit, but he never really pursued it because he came from a family of coal miners. And the idea of being an artist was like being, like, if he would have said, “Hey Mom! Dad! I’m gonna be a man from the moon!” You know, “What do you think about that?” And they’d go, “Whut? Whut tha fuck yew tawkin’ about?”
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Heh heh.
MARK: So, you know, he didn’t really pursue that at all. He wasn’t driven enough or wasn’t obsessed enough to do it and just instead opted for survival. But he did good on his General Boy.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Hell yeah.
MARK: And, you know, actually I remember on our first tour, we opened at a show in Minneapolis. We were playing at the Walker Arts Center. And somebody, one of the roadies, one of the security guards, says, “There’s an old guy at the back door with an army outfit on, and says he’s General Boy, and he, uh, he wants to talk to you.” And we’re like, he drove from Akron, Ohio to Minneapolis?
So my dad comes in and he goes, “Mark, I’ve got this, um, I’ve got this opening speech I’ve written, uh, so I can introduce you boys.” You know, and he was more DEVO than we could ever have been. ‘Cuz he had his whole own perception of what DEVO meant, what devolution meant. And it was kinda like, you know, filtered through the eyes of a guy who’d been in World War II, and who was a salesman who sold fire alarms and, and vibrating pads, and stuff like that. And, uh, you know, his schooling stopped with the Dale Carnegie book. You know, like, “Look ’em in the eyes! Give ’em a handshake!” and, you know, “Make a friend and a sale at the same time.” You know, he was that kind of guy.
So, his take on it was kind of interesting, and it kind of freaked us out a little bit, but at the same time we kept encouraging him, and he ended up writing lyrics for songs and stuff.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Cool. Is actually, do you think he’s the character kind of, uh, who’s personified by, uh, you know, the pomp, the DEVO, uh… I dunno…
MARK: The hairdo?
MARK: No, the hairdo was –
[Suddenly a “beep beep beep” noise comes from overhead.]
SECRETARY’S VOICE: Mark!
SECRETARY’S VOICE: Spice is on line three.
MARK: Okay, just a minute.
[Mark leaves, and comes back holding a banjo as the interview continues. Imagine the rest of the interview as if it were being accompanied by the inbred strumming of an Appalachian mountain boy.]
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Let’s talk about the whole DEVO myth thing, which um…
MARK: The DEVO what thing?
ORANGEHAIRBOY: The whole DEVO, uh, I dunno, ethos, or whatever. I, I know that basically I read somewhere that you, uh, saw H.G. Wells’ Island of Lost Souls at one point, and, uh, decided that yes, humanity was devolving. This was what the magazine said. But how do these elements all combine? What’s sort of the message or…
MARK: You know, we were living in Ohio. From our vantage point, it was like being on a cultural wasteland. It was, it was like, you know…we heard about the Village in Manhattan. And we heard about Carnaby Street in London, or things happening in England, and San Francisco, and Sunset Strip in California, in Los Angeles. We heard about all these places. And there was nothing happening in Ohio. It was the Summer of Hate while everyone else was having the Summer of Love. And we were just watching everything.
And also, at the time, the economy in Ohio had collapsed. It was like, uh, the beginning of that. It was one of those areas that got hit really hard during that depression that happened in the Seventies and Eighties. Um, because all the rubber companies, all these factories – it was a factory town, for the first, you know, sixty, seventy years. And then all those factories pulled out and went to Malaysia and South America, and, um, so there were these big draconian factories that weren’t employing very many people. Everybody was out of work. Nobody knew what to do. They didn’t know what to do now. None of them were educated. They were all – they made tires, you know. It was a city full of blue-collar tire makers, and it was really a dark time.
But yet, there was all this promise. It’s like, I remember going to the Akron Art Institute, and I saw holograms that were, you know, laser projected holograms, where, like, for instance, there was a shark that was six feet long in one of the rooms, and you could walk around it. It was like, five feet in the air. And you could walk around it, and look underneath it, and look down its mouth, and look at it from the back of the tail, and look inside the gills. And it was totally 3-D, but it was a ghost. You could put your hands through.
And at the time, I said, you know what? I want whatever’s going on in technology, that’s where things are happening.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: So a 3-D shark encouraged you guys to get a move on, and you started founding a more technologically-sounding –
MARK: (ignoring me again) But at the time, it was like, what was going on then is that there was no voice. There was no voice in music. There wasn’t a Bob Dylan, and there wasn’t, you know, a Woody Guthrie, or anybody that was a conscience for, for, um, youth. Because after they shot kids, you know, on different campuses in ’70, it’s like the country went into a big sleep. And all the really politically active people – who were protesting, uh, you know, globalization, and America, you know, like, fucking around with the politics of Southeast Asia, and the Cold War and things – they all stopped. They all just became quiet. And by ’73, ’74, the, the music that you were hearing was disco, and, uh…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: The Eagles?
MARK: Concert rock, yeah. It was like, yeah, and Eagles, Styx…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: “Take It Easy.”
MARK: You know, things like that. You know, it was, um…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Neither one actually, like, addressing any of these things going on.
MARK: Nobody. There was nobody talking about the issues. And this was a time when things like the Cuyahoga River, which we lived on – there was all this white foam I remember always floating down it, to when I was I kid we’d be swimming around, and there’d be these big chunks of like foam floating in. And in the, uh, early Seventies, the river caught on fire and stayed on fire…
MARK: … for, uh, days, weeks, before they got it put out. Because there were so many chemicals that companies all along the Cuyahoga River had been dumping into the river that were going into Lake Erie. And that’s when all the early alarmists were saying, “Wait a minute, you know, our ozone’s been fucked up, there’s global warming, you know? We’re drinking and eating chemicals that are poisonous, and nobody’s paying attention to all that.” And there were a few, you know, like, scientists and people that were, like, trying to speak, and they were getting shouted down. You know, they were getting shouted down by the same people that are right now, you know, building roads through pristine timberland, and, you know, that’re drilling for oil in, you know…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: And it seems to me that DEVO sort of embodied that, that thing they were actually fighting against. It seemed to have, like, taken on the image of, you know, like, the Businessman, the Scientist, um, and the lyrics of the songs seem to support that as well. And it was sort of like, setting up almost something to, uh, to parody and to fear. Um, do you think that’s valid?
MARK: I think it’s like we were mesmerized by, you know, the choices that humans were making at the time. By what people thought was important or precious. And…you know, it was before, you know, like, having a conscious was made almost embarrassing by people like Sting and…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: [laughing] Yeah.
MARK: You know, like, jumping in a Lear Jet and flying down to the Amazon to tell pygmies that he was there to protect them or something, you know…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Plus, it’s always easy…
MARK: They’re like, “Who the fuck are you,” you know?
ORANGEHAIRBOY: It’s easy to give out charity when you’re really rich.
MARK: And when you have a carload of MTV cameras with you, you know, that are there to film you doing it.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Philip Morris is good at that kind of stuff too.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Well, um, actually another thing I’ve heard is that, uh…
MARK: So that’s like, part of this whole thing about where DEVO came from and what – it came from a lot of different sources. We were just looking for a way to describe what we saw going on. We saw this incredible technology fucking everything up, you know. But we saw this stuff that looked and seemed amazing. And it should be doing great things. But yet, the quality of life was deteriorating. And so, you know, uh, there was like a bunch of things that came together at once. The movie Island of Lost Souls, where, you know, with the House of Pain…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Yeah, absolutely.
MARK: And um, “What Is the Law? Not to walk on…not to spill blood…”
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Yeah, I know the “Are We Not Men” thing…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: …definitely seems taken from that.
MARK: And there was um, there was this Little Lulu comic book with, uh – I mean no, I mean a Super Woman comic book, where, um, this mad scientist had an evolution/devolution machine. He’d push the lever forward, and there was like this, um, vaccuum capsule. And inside that there’d be a guy that was in there. And when he pushed it forward, the guy’s head would blow up like a light bulb, and his hair would fall out, and he’d look like a progeria kid…
MARK: And he’d pull it backwards, and then his brow would drop, and he’d get covered with hair, and he’d be like a caveman.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Nice, nice.
MARK: And so, you know, we actually…
[Mark gets up out of his seat and grabs a black guitar amplifier nearby. He swings it around to reveal the white letters “DEVOLUTIONARY ARMY”]
MARK: This is an old amp, from way back when. We used to, we called ourselves “The De-evolution Band” for a while…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Oh nice, and then it turned into the DEVO later?
MARK: And then we were the Devolutionary Army, and then we turned it down to DEVO, just trimmed it down to DEVO. It was just easier to say and it was kind of like “Smart Patrol,” which used to be, the song was originally “Smart Proletariats,” but it just didn’t roll off your tongue when you tried singing that word “Smart Proletariats, nowhere to go,” so it turned into “Smart Patrol.”
ORANGEHAIRBOY: One thing you guys also do besides, uh, a lot of um, political imagery, is you have a lot of sex imagery. And I think it’s kind of novel that in 1974 to ’77, like in those, uh, Rykodisc CDs I’ve heard, he Hardcore DEVO, how many of the songs are devoted to really making sex look silly, or gooey, or messy, and it seems quite the opposite of what was going on in the Seventies. Was that a reaction to what you thought was happening with the, like, you know, disco, multiple-sex-partners scene, or…?
MARK: Well, you know, it’s like, um, we just felt sex in America was still so…Victorian, you know? A Planet of the Apes, funky, show-your-butt-party is much more interesting than, like, the porno that was around at the time, when you know, we were around, and they still make ‘em, where two people meet on the tennis court. I think porno is like a weathervane for a culture, you know. The more interesting the porno, the more interesting the culture.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: I was also going to ask you about the covers of those Hardcode DEVO albums, or CD’s, where they have, actually you have some, um, pornography. You have some woman with fake breasts over her real breasts, and then they’ve got a picture of you guys…
MARK: And we all had fake breasts on, too.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Oh yeah, that’s true. And then later…
MARK: We couldn’t afford the real surgery at the time.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Yeah, but, um, you also had like the hair pies [in the photos we’re talking about, the members of DEVO were holding up glass plates with hair arranged on them, like pies made of hair]. What was that from? Was that a photo session, or what was that…
MARK: Yeah, we did this, yeah, there was this one photographer out here named Moisha Baracca (?), who really played devil’s advocate, and really, you know, like uh, we did a very long, like either one or two day, like all day, some really long photos… we got some of the best photos of DEVO ever during this photo session that those came from.
But he was like a devil’s advocate because he even like, there’s some shots from those photo shoots that nobody’s ever seen. Somewhere near the end of the photo shoot he pulled out this gigantic Nazi flag, I don’t even know where he got it, and he’s got us holding this Nazi flag for a few photos, and we’re like, whoa, what’s that about?
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Did you guys start in ’74, or what year would DEVO have officially started?
MARK: Well, Jerry and I first started writing music together in 1970. Uh…
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Was it a different band, or…
MARK: Uh, er, there wasn’t another band we were ever in together. We were only ever in DEVO…
MARK: And in 1970, um, we were both Students for a Democratic Society.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Oh, SDS.
MARK: SDS. And, um, my brother Bob, he used to come up to Kenton. At the time, uh, Bob and I were in this kind of acid-blues band, when Jerry was in kind of a more of a straight-ahead blues band, and, um, you know, when they shot students at Kent State – we were protestors then – and they shot people, it’s like they closed down the school that spring.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: So you were actually at school during the Kent State uh… like, shooting? And…
MARK: We were there. Uh, Jerry was standing right about ten feet away from one of the girls that got her, got blasted.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: Jesus, wow.
ORANGEHAIRBOY: So did that change your perspective on what you should do?
MARK: Yeah, quite a bit.
It was about this time that Mark’s secretary came in and said that there was someone on the phone (I could have SWORN she said it was Warrant), and Mark said we could finish the interview at some point in the future. As of yet, my life and Mark’s have not met again, but now each time I watch the Rugrats or Pee Wee’s Playhouse, I think of my time at Mutato Inc, and long to be back amongst keyboard-thronged halls.