"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Synapse MAY/JUNE 1978 - by Pat Gleeson
Devo is five young expatriates of Akron, Ohio: two pairs of brothers, and an unrelated drummer. Alan, the drummer, as drummers are wont to do, went to a baseball game instead of the interview. This is not crucial in terms of getting a total impression of Devo. Although they spend much time explaining each other's eccentricities, they have a peculiar oneness about them which goes far beyond the actuality of other groups I have known, and even approaches the ideals of unity so expoused by groups in the '60s. Mark or Jerry, the older of each pair, will begin to talk about something, and a younger brother (both are named Bob. For convenience, Bob 1 and Bob 2) will add a soto voce comment which is somehow inserted without interruption into a space prepared for it. Often, the idea will be completed by a third Devo; and then, in the tradition of the Greek chorus, will be given final, brief, usually ironic comments by each Devo in turn. For this reason, the individual responses in this interview have been collected under the group name.
Devo: Synapse... we thought it was a medical journal.
Pat Gleeson: It is, on the grounds that electronic music is good for you. Bruce Conner was telling me that you were composing some of your music using synthesizers, then transferring the ideas over to other instruments. Is this true?
Not repeatedly. I think in instances we did. You Got Me Bugged we started off on the sequencer and we tried to use instruments to imitate what the sequencer did.
For the bass line?
For everything. It was the melody, then we took it down into the bass. It was a PAIA sequencer, and we used it to turn on three different synthesizers, so it was doing all the parts. Then we expanded it by breaking it down and taking something that was totally electronic and copying it with different instruments.
How did you keep it in sync?
Well the PAIA sequencers, although they're really crude, have gate outs for each of the steps; so as many steps as you have, you can send information to several synthesizers.
You guys have a special affinity for low budget equipment. Why is that?
Lack of funds. Financial reality. But you can make that work for you. Once you get used to shitty equipment, good equipment lets you down. You have to get to really good equipment so that you can re-approach what you can get with shitty equipment. It's the whole middle ground that's always a drag - as it is with everything. The best synthesised equipment allows the crudest sounds, although consciously chosen and easily repeatable. And there's your full circle - from crude chance with crude instruments to the appearance of crudity with sophisticated electronics. We had that problem in Germany, and also at your studio, using new Minimoogs. Our Mini is so beat up that it always sounded distorted anyhow; and then we were running it into Teac boards and tape recorders, which had higher distortion levels. So when we recorded at your place and in Germany, we were using brand new Minimoogs and expensive boards and recorders, and it sounded like Switched-On Bach. It was too clean.
But what I noticed when I listened to the tape that Mark brought by after the record was finished, was that you could hardly tell the difference between the tracks that were recorded at Connie Planck's studio, and the tracks that were recorded at mine. Then, when I compared the garage tapes with the record, again there were very few differences that I could hear.
Exactly. We work hard for that. The only differences might be the noise levels. No one wants to buy a record with a lot of noise on it. But we always sound like DEVO.
How did that come to be?
Well you can take the boy out of the country, but...
...usually you can't get the country into the boy. How did you get that kind of assurance so soon; how did it happen?
No one grew up right. I don't mean they had horrible childhoods. I mean no one grew up; no one figured out how to be an adult.
How soon in life did the two pairs of brothers meet?
We avoided each other as long as possible. Then we got the two younger brothers to do what we wanted them to do - they were the only ones we could get, because what we were doing wasn't socially acceptable. No one wanted to hear it. People who like electronic music generally didn't feel that we were making electronic music because we weren't pretty, we weren't reverent, we didn't worship electronic sounds, we had no classical background. And what they thought of as electronic music was basically keyboard antics switched over to electronically engendered sounds, or highbrow, serious art, like Subotnik. We were applied, and in that sense real folk electronic art.
Mark, what have you got on your guitar wrapped up in all that silver tape?
It's called a "Frequency Analyzer." Just some device that Electro-Harmonix made for guitar players. And nobody ever wanted it, so they immediately dropped to about twenty-five bucks. Then everybody that bought one gave it away 'cause they didn't know what to do with them; they didn't sound pretty. So we got one.
It makes some ring modulator sounds.
Yes, it's got a fixed oscillator which you can set yourself, and your instrument is the other input...
So it's really not a frequency analyzer at all.
It calls itself that with real psychedelic lettering though. And nobody else uses it like we do - no one else has sought out dirty visceral sounds the way Mark has. and applied them to a three minute format.
But he's a dirty visceral guy.
Wait a minute, he's wearing tuxedo pants.
And, for the record, iridescent blue plastic shoes.
Plastic - exactly. We're the only people who aren't worshiping electronics or ignoring them on some hippy principle that they're against man. All they are is a possibility - it's a wider vocabulary, a whole new range of sounds that lets you get closer to something essential and basic. Most people don't realize that. They actually use electronics to get further and further away from the center by adding layer on layer of pretty and pretentious electronic musings. Were not doing that. We're reducing it down to minimal, basic pieces of discreet sound.
Do you think that has anything to do with the reaction you've had from audiences so far? You've certainly had the most extreme reactions of any group 1 can remember as far back as the early '60s.
That's what's being imparted to the people, that basic essence they've moved away from, and that, consciously or unconsciously, they are seeking out.
People are fighting to get closer to the stage. They come dressed as Devo clones. There's this hero worship, and your first LP isn't even released yet. People are beginning to take their styles in life from your styles. That must seem strange, even a little funny...
It's not funny, but it's necessary for those people.
When that happened in the '60s, the groups that were involved felt some responsibility for those people.
Well, it happens because we're performing and responsible. It's not because we get that reaction that we feel the responsibility. We get the reaction because we're responsible to begin with. Anybody could be doing what we're doing, and the same thing would happen, but no one else wanted to. And the way the electronics relate to that, and will continue to relate to it on an even wider scale, is to provide an experience which is not fantasy and escape, but is more like catharsis. And only the most uptight kind of people avoid that sort of experience because they don't want to remind themselves of what they're avoiding or what they forgot. But the great majority of people who don't have a voice, want to have someone do it for them.
Well, now. let's talk about record companies. The last I heard, the Warners album was off and the Virgin album was on. and Warners was going to sue you - is that all straightened out?
We got a movie script out of it. We had a sketchy script about the record business a year and a half ago. We were playing most of the parts; but now we have the hardcore data. We don't need any more material. That script's completed.
Let's just say that the way we've been testing and experimenting is "Devo takes on the music business." Needless to say, we found out more than we wanted to know. Maybe it was some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, since we could have predicted what would happen; but being spuds ourselves, we had some sort of perverse urge to actually have it happen. It couldn't just be a paranoid fantasy, we had to actually see it and hear it.
We went too far. They tricked us; they all trick Devo.
This seems to be a good time to get into something like your latest equipment acquisitions.
Yes, we just got some real cases for our synthesizers, so we don't have to carry them in cardboard boxes anymore. This is going to save money on gaffer's tape too.
What've you got on stage now in the way of synthesizers?
The Minimoog, and an Odyssey. We looked at a Sequential Circuits Prophet too, but we can't get one; everyone's backordered. We did get a Sequential Circuits programmer for the Mini. And we're planning to re-introduce our electronic drums again soon.
Whatever happened to the originals?
Oh, the ones that Mark's youngest brother made? Well, they started out as Barcus Berry pick-ups attached to each drum, just to add a little something. Then we incorporated a graphic and an echoplex - finally they got out of control. We have some interesting tapes of them going out of control. The cymbals sounded like an international silver string submarine band and the little rascals junior - did you ever hear that? Just like a garbage can that's at one end of a hundred foot long pipe, and your ear's on the other side. Anyway, it just added a metallic unpleasantness. Then we refined it, and put together our own pick-ups that were on practice pads, and we mounted these on chrome muffler tubing... Then we ran all the pick-ups into ring modulators, and some other effects, and finally we added a trigger device so we could get it to play the synthesizer. Then it all broke down. We started a graphics shop so we could get the money to put out our first record...
You know, there's something about what you're doing, even though you're playing about $4.19 worth of Synthesizers on stage, that makes you an electronic music group. I don't know what it is; I feel the same way about Terry Riley, who doesn't play synthesizers at all. Maybe in Devo's case it has to do with the automata quality, which people are always trying to get away from, and in my opinion wrongly.
Yes, we think so. It's some kind of mentality about acoustic sounds. A lot of people play electric guitars, which are electronic, like some kind of great big acoustic instrument, where we always consider them to be what they are, electronic. We like the way Pete Townsend played guitar in the '60s. That was a nice innovation. He played it like an electronic instrument. Since then nothing's happened. A bunch of people who've made a lot of money in the business have bought themselves expensive toys, and all you hear about is sweetening and enhancing and endless layers of keyboards and guitar tracks electronically modified to augment an essentially outmoded way of thinking about music. It's like the way cars still looked like horse-carriages even though they had engines in them; because people hadn't hit on the idea yet that there was no longer any need for that form for something that carried them around using an engine. So this change is just happening now in music. We think in terms of electronic instruments, and we think minimal. And we make everything make the most immediate basic sounds that we can think of in our bodies. Which is what these instruments are for, as far as we see it. We're making songs, which is another important thing - not extended pieces of pure music. Our music has lyrics, and an applied purpose.
I remember that the tunes we cut at Different Fur were all right around three minutes - within a few seconds - to begin with. By the way, how did you like Who's Next when that first came out?
Yah, Townsend was right. He was going in the right direction. It was nice to hear things like Won't Get Fooled Again, in terms of the rhythm tracks being done with sequencers. But we like Hound Dog Taylor too. He played a guitar so cheap it just sounded like transistor radios, white noise, with tonality.
What kind of guitars are you playing now?
Usually a Gibson L6-S. We're still playing too many notes, and we're hoping that once Mark gets more synthesizers, and we add electronic drums again, and the guitar players can plug in through Avatars, something like that, we can further reduce the number of movements we make for sound.
You've played the Avatar?
Just in stores, window-shopping. But they seem to apply to some of our more minimal stuff, particularly the older stuff. The only thing wrong with our older material is we didn't have the sounds to go with the ideas, like with the original electronic drums. The paradox was that the way they were, they were more limiting than the original acoustic drums, so people OD'd on the sound faster. So until you come around to an electronic sound that is wider in its possibilities than the original acoustic sound, you're even worse off than before in terms of attention span. So now it's coming around - then too, we may have been too much in love with crudity.
By the way, speaking of limited sounds, how did you like the new Kraftwerk album ?
Oh, the disco one. It sounded like disco. A lot of it sounded like a rip-off of Giorgio Morodor. It sounded a little dry.
It was very dry. I liked the album; I didn't expect to.
I heard they were getting robots to play the music on stage so they could watch their own concerts.
You know, this past month almost everyone has been through here - a lot of different kinds of synthesists - and the funny thing is, hardly anyone has a good word to say about anyone else. I wonder why that is.
It's Western Capitalist Society - obviously people are not geared to work together.
Sometimes I get uncomfortable with someone who's doing something along the lines of my own music, and I don't know whether it's just self-criticism projected onto someone else, or whether I think I can do it better, or just what it is...
What about Brian Eno? Musically, I mean - I know you got along well with him personally, and that you thought he was a good producer...
Oh, musically. Well, he's refined. He's refined himself into a nice little slot. But what can you say about anyone? We hear things in almost everything that we can use, and we hear groups that we think we would like if we were producing them.
Suicide, a band out of New York, and Pere Ubu from Cleveland.
You'd like to produce them?
Yes, but I doubt it would be reciprocated.
None of the other New Wave groups have anything good to say about you guys.
Well, because they have a certain religious reverence for what they're doing, which they're calling something else... even with New Wave there's a certain basic dishonesty about what's being done. Essentially that it's not new. And we're presenting them with the truth, and they don't like it, just like anybody who's being dishonest doesn't like to be confronted with it. So they try to dismiss us with comments like "visually too perfect," or "silly" or "commercial."
There may be something like a feeling of impotence a group might have if they look at another group and suspect that they have a potential to reach everybody, whereas in their own case, the audience may be very limited in its potential, both as far as the size goes, and the time the audience goes on...
Well, everything's limited. The society encourages it, and creativity is just another manifestation of that - of being one-dimensional; and most groups are one-dimensional. They have just a piece of one idea, and we have balance...
...not the first word that would occur to me in connection with Devo...
...exactly. But they have to see that the insanity is programmatic, and that's what they're threatened by.
You're making this movie with Neil Young. How did that get started?
Well, Dean Stockwell's in the movie. He's a DEVOtee. He knows Iggy well. Iggy brought him to see us in Hollywood, then Dean played Neil some of our songs, and Neil liked them. Even though they're stylistically different, they appealed to some part of his sensibility, and he probably thought it would be hip to have the total incongruity of Devo in his film, his cosmos. And we were into the absurdity of it from our end; and then, too, we're bimbos for footage of ourselves.
It doesn't matter how they edit us, how they use the footage, they can use the footage or not... Neil was the only one five years ago who was into insane one note guitar, so we like him.