With new corporate partners and a focus group-approved album, Devo return after a 20-year hiatus.
Still whipping it good
"Today," says a grey-haired, grey-suited executive, named as Greg Scholl, COO of Devo Inc, "everyone seems to agree that de-evolution is real. That's great news!" His expression is bland, and he has the soothing tone of a telephone call centre's recorded message. He continues: "We're pleased to be part of that new reality as we announce our partnership with Warner Brothers Records. Together with them and an award-winning advertising agency, we will now deliver the promise of a journey that has delivered us smack into the 21st century. The new union will enable us finally to put the 'Inc' back into Devo Inc."
The video clip, one of dozens the band Devo have created and put on their website and YouTube channel to promote their new album Something for Everybody, goes on for a couple of minutes in the same manner as a boardroom PowerPoint presentation, outlining plans for "an arsenal of new songs, videos, fashions, apps, toys, games, live performances and more" and promising that Devo Inc will keep "fighting the good fight to spread the Devolutionary message across the globe".
Other clips show focus group members being asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how much they like holding various objects (scissors, cotton wool, an apple), or to answer questions like "When you wear red pants, do you feel like the boss, or do you feel like you're being taken advantage of?" At Devo's recent comeback performance at the California rock and pop music festival Coachella, the same man who conducted these interviews stood on stage with a handheld gadget, claiming to track the audience's response to the performance. All of this is explained, with Devo's usual deadpan delivery, as market research, conducted by the band's "corporate partner", advertising agency Mother LA.
The "result" of all this is Something for Everybody, Devo's first studio album in 20 years. It's a long hiatus for a band who previously released eight records in 12 years, starting with the pioneering new wave record Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in 1978 and culminating with Smooth Noodle Maps in 1990. Their biggest hit was the jerky dance-punk track Whip It in 1980, which was helped by heavy airplay on MTV in its earliest days (Devo had started making music videos before the format existed). Since 1990 the band have toured intermittently between other projects: founding member Mark Mothersbaugh has found work scoring films such as Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, indie writer-director Wes Anderson's first four films, and kids' cartoon TheRugrats Movie, for which he persuaded Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Jakob Dylan, Beck and a host of other art-rock royalty to provide the voices of singing babies.
Devo was formed in 1970 by the Ohio art students Gerald Casale, Bob Lewis and Mothersbaugh in the aftermath of the killing of four students at their university, Kent State, by police at an anti-war protest. The band's name was taken from their driving idea that humans were "de-evolving", a concept mined in early hits like Jocko Homo (translated: "ape-man"). Like Kraftwerk in Europe, Devo were early adopters of a synthetic sound, using keyboards, singing in a robotic-sounding shout, and wearing matching outfits straight out of a sci-fi B-movie.
Part of this look is their "energy dome" hats: red flower pot-like plastic structures that the band have worn, unchanged, for most of their careers. According to Devo's members, this hat "re-circulates energy that escapes from the crown of the head and redirects it back into the medulla oblongata". Earlier this year, they revealed their new (supposedly market-driven) look: grey and silver jumpsuits, with grey masks hiding the upper half of their faces, making them look like cyborgs.
Devo are clearly unafraid of taking risks in the name of art: Mothersbaugh has talked with relish about early gigs at which the band chanted the same phrase for 20 minutes until the audience members started rioting, and in a recent interview for American magazine The Believer, he railed against musicians who are only in the game "to become a big, fat rock star", saying: "It's people who write music because they are obsessed that I like; because they have something to say and no other way to say it."
Their current extracurricular activities back this attitude up: the videos, performance shenanigans and album artwork ("now 88 per cent focus group approved!") mocks groups who are more interested in sales figures and giving their audiences what they want than in expressing new ideas. But Devo themselves are still a part of the corporate system: they're with a major label (Warner Brothers) and have previously teamed up with Disney for Devo 2.0, an album and tour for which a bunch of stage-school teenagers sing the band's hits.
Some might say that by satirising corporate rock they're having their cake and eating it too; according to the band, they're subverting the system from the inside. In the style of big-selling hip-hop and R&B albums, there are lots of guest contributors attached to Something for Everybody, which has been kept tightly under wraps until the date of its release. Produced by Greg Kurstin, of the jazz-pop duo The Bird & The Bee, the record also features NYC electro star Santigold, and John King of dance music producing team the Dust Brothers. The first track to be made public from the album is Fresh, which is available to stream now on Devo's website and which features the band's usual combination of whip-crack beats, sharp-edged synthetic sounds and staccato vocals, with lyrics that seem to be selling the song itself: "So fresh it almost makes me want to cry/ So fresh it's given me a second life."
In an interview with the culture blog Flavorwire, Mark Mothersbaugh says that the lyrics to Fresh are also about chasing new love, and? thermodynamics. "Artists tend not to forget what they knew in high school," he says, reminiscing about the mnemonics he used to remember physics equations. "That's what I like about artists. Part of them doesn't grow up. They don't get ashamed of those impulses.
"I don't like people who do things in a spiritless way. "If you're going to bother doing it, try to do a really good job. Concentrate and be there, and try to really be good at what you do." Devo's output in the past has proved that the band's musicians are good at what they do, and from the sounds of Fresh, their creativity isn't going to get swallowed up by the industry machine any time soon.