Seminal new wave band Devo are heading to New Zealand this month for A Day on the Green with Simple Minds. UTR caught up with founding member Bob Casale to discuss their latest album, how it compares to their earlier work, how they feel about the recent US election and how politics and socio-political movements have influenced their work.
Hey Bob, where are you at the moment?
We've just finished our US tour with Blondie and now we’re waiting until after Thanksgiving to fly to Australia and New Zealand.
Are you looking forward to coming over here?
I’d like to ask you about a couple of things in regards to your latest album. Firstly, tell me about why you decided to write new material after such a long hiatus, and secondly, was there anything you wanted to achieve creatively on this album?
We wanted to be Devo again, and so you can’t help but sound like Devo – we weren’t going to try and sound like anybody else, we were just going to do what we do and try and write good songs with the same kind of attention to lyrical content and song structure as we’ve always given all of our work.
It was an interesting experiment because we co-operated with other producers which we've never really done in the past, we did focus groups to see what other people thought, and we got involved in social networking and advertising as people do in the modern corporate world.
You mentioned you wanted to pay particular regard to lyrical content: was there anything in particular lyrically that you guys were exploring on this latest album?
Well certainly had access to a kind of technology we hadn't has access to in the past. We were writing like bands do today by using programs, and we were sharing files and sending them to each other, which was an interesting process with interesting outcomes.
Tell us about working in this new way compared to working more traditionally: how was the experience different and how did it affect the output?
Well there’s no doubt about it that the way you go about creating determines the shape of the creation. What we used to do was go into a studio together – a bunker – and hole up in there for twelve hours a day and not let anybody in and not talk to anybody and then come out with something.
This was the opposite of that: this was social and shared and passed around in a serial way, like “here I did this, what would you like to do with it”. If you draw on my drawing I’ll then draw on yours.
More generally new technology – the internet in particular – has changed the music industry landscape forever. How have you found the different platform and how do you think it has affected music output?
We have to integrate into the way things are done now: the methods by which music is distributed and the methods by which it is consumed.
We’re quite aware of how upside-down the music business has become and how the function of music to the culture has changed – we knew all of that. That’s why we worked with an ad agency: we were tongue-in-cheek, having our cake and eating it too and trying to see whether we could be relevant being Devo and also accepting the way people like to do things now, so it was very interesting.
What are your thoughts on the difference in artists who becomes successful today compared to when you were starting out? Even though you guys adhered to a particular artistic vision you became very successful: do you think that balance is possible today, or do you think the framework required for a band has changed?
Oh everything has changed and I’m not sure what happens in this culture is what people want. Their mentality has nothing to do with the mentality that we were surrounded by and was propagated. We took people out of their daily lives, we tried to lift them up out of the grime and the grunge of their daily existence and give them an alternative – to turn them on in a number of ways, to remove them from the menial, petty things they had to deal with everyday.
Now, the big artists, the successful artists are completely narcissistic and self-referential. Every song is about them. They talk about themselves. They talk about what they have. They talk about what they’re going to do to somebody else. They talk about what they’re going to get. They talk about how much money they have. And then they put out a new record that talks about the last record, and it’s unbelievable that that’s what people want to hear from their artists.
Do you think that is what people want to hear or do you think that’s a reflection of something else?
That’s always a chicken and egg question. You can’t really shove stuff down people’s throats if they don’t want it. You can show them something else that they might not know about because they haven’t seen it but of course the record companies aren’t doing that.
On the other hand this stuff is selling millions and millions of copies at a time when nobody is buying music, so this must be what the audience wants, they must see themselves in these artists: “If I could do that, I could have ten SUV’s, and a big mansion, and I’d be in the club with the hoes”, that’s what they think. So these artists represent what the public wants.
Why do you think popular artists today talk about such frivolous stuff compared to what you guys were discussing, which was socially and politically aware and relevant?
I don't know. I think western society is creatively bankrupt and all it can do is wallow in the extreme indulgence of capitalism, and that’s that. They’re not telling you anything, there is no spirituality, there is no idea or concept. The concept is “get rich or dye trying”.
While we’re on the subject of music reflecting social movements, tell us why Devo started and whether those sorts of things were part of the impetus?
We came of age in the middle of a huge cultural war. This country was basically in the midst of a new civil war - the lines were drawn very clearly. There was the preppy college kid who was going to be towards the war and then there was the counter culture who embraced early Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and they were doing pot and hash and psychedelic drugs, and they were against the Vietnam War. And the two sides hated eachother, and were ready to kill eachother. It was real.
Why music as a creative outlet at that time considering you were all pretty multi-disciplinary?
I guess it was a more immediate way of self-expression that required less money and no outside permission. You try to make a film and you have to come up with the money, you need a big crew, you need to ask people for favours and get permission. If you have an idea for a song you can pretty much go into your basement with your band mates and do it.
Alongside the music you guys were one of the first bands to utilize visual medium in a way they are used today: tell us about deciding to use these other tools alongside the music.
Yeah we saw it as out of one continuous, synergistic line. We certainly understood the power of visuals and stage set-ups and video combining with the music – to us that was the most exciting thing you can do.
More recently you guys have utilized new technologies in a similar way: tell us about 'The Crate Escape' game that you have just released.
Well that was funny because it’s based on a real incident that’s very disturbing. Mitt Romney had a vacation in the eighties and took this beautiful Irish Setter and put him on the roof of his car in the dead heat of summer, and the dog barfed all over the car. It was all documented because Romney had to pull into a gas station and clean the shit off the car. It’s a matter of record so it came up in the campaign in the States because it was kind of a character deal breaker.
I don’t know about you but all of Devo and all of our friends are quite big animal lovers and protectors of animals so we just couldn't believe the story: it’s just something you would never do if you had a certain kind of empathy or sensitivity. So that’s the same guy we saw lying every day - he’d offer up a new story or take a new position and he’d act like he’d never said what he said the week before. He was a guy who would say anything to win. And it was really depressing and disheartening because he was even with Obama – it was like he could win.
I guess as a side-note there must be an air of relief considering the outcome of the election over the last couple of days?
I mean I definitely am relieved, clearly the lesser of two evils won: we dodged a bullet. We had eight horrible years under Bush mainly because of expenditure on ridiculous wars in Iran and Afghanistan as well as the monetary policy of giving tax breaks to the rich and various other things he did. That, combined with the banks being too big to fail and Wall Street crashing because they made those questionable grey area deals - we were really, really down. So here we were four years into Obama’s presidency with our head just barely above water, just starting to breathe again and Romney and Ryan would have come back and dunked our head under water again.