Instant Amnesia: An Interview with Devo

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When the name  Devo comes up, half the room begins to immediately hum “Whip It,” the group’s famous single that earned them not only a place in pop culture, but a steady cult following. Originally composed of brothers Bob and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald and Bob Casale, the band’s very name is interwoven with the new wave movement of the 70s. With their vivid music videos, flamboyant stage wear (including the signature sculptural hats that look like a cross between a disk and an Aztec pyramid), it’s easy for someone unfamiliar with the group to dismiss them as a silly, one-off, pop culture phenomenon.

Not only is Devo much more than just a one hit wonder, they are far from silly. Some of the earliest pioneers of the music video, the group’s videos—and songs—often deal with themes of social decay and “devolution,” the inspiration for the band’s name. Their oddball music style has influenced a whole generation of new wave artists, who draw on the band’s aesthetic and unconventional style as inspiration. The band that made “Whip It” has proven to be one of the most  influential groups of the past 40 years, and few know it.

Devo is still going strong today, despite the recent deaths of Bob Casale and longtime drummer Alan Myers. With Casale’s passing, the band is going on tour once again to honour his memory and to raise money for his family. We gave Gerard Casale a call to talk about devolution, Animal Farm, and the history of the band.

Could you introduce yourself?

I am Gerald Casale, from Devo.

Devo is currently touring songs from 1974-1977, why that era in particular?

It was a conscious decision to go back and rediscover our roots. We wanted to look in the mirror and face who we were in a much more innocent, pure time of becoming.

How has your relationship to these songs changed in 30 years?

It’s one of quizzical amazement. “We really wrote like this? We really sang like that? Those words, that’s what we were doing. Wow.”

What about the audiences? Are these the same people who were coming to shows 30 years ago or are there fans who weren’t even born at that time?

In recent years we’ve had a mix of generations. That really began ten or fifteen years ago, and kept gaining momentum. Millennials and Gen-X and -Yers see things on the internet, they look at all of our old TV performances and videos and they know as much about Devo as fans our own age. It’s always a nice feeling to see that mixed crowd.

Devo is intertwined with the concept of devolution. For the younger generations, kids hear a lot of talk about theirs being the worst generation ever. Do you think humanity has devolved since you began with the concept?

Yes. We were kind of depositing an intellectual data manifesto that was partially humourous, we didn’t really think things were going the end up the way they did. We didn’t really want to be right. But now it’s not a theory. People used to look at us as outrageous or crackpots. Now it’s “Devolution, sure.” It’s just accepted as a fact of life that it happened.

I think young people are really getting a short shift in life. I really feel bad for them in a lot of ways. What they have to put up with, in the reality that they’re surrounded by, compared to the relative innocence and freedom that we experienced…

What do you think are some of the key indicators of devolution now?

Well, they’re cultural, social, and political. It may just have something to do with how many more people there are on the planet than there were since 1965. It went from one billion to seven billion. We’re depleting our resources and Western culture has reached a dead end in terms of its vision and its ideas. The free exchange of information has devolved down to disinformation and the general mentality of people has been dumbed down. The decimation of the education system over the last 30 years has produced people who can’t concentrate, who can’t entertain critical thought, who only live by soundbites, who have instant amnesia, who can’t even remember what was said the week before about the same subject.

That’s how political leaders get away with whatever they want, because they change the story. It’s the like rules on the side of the barn in Animal Farm. It’s only a couple horses who remember that it said something different last month, while the sheep all go “What are you talking about?” They only read the latest. The story is allowed to change. There can be no grounded basis for decision making or analytical thought. It’s gone. It’s a culture of morons.

With devolution taking place, are we getting closer to the Spudland portrayed in Devo’s music videos?

[Laughter.] Yeah, absolutely.

That’s… unnerving. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

Well, I’d like to say we can’t forget why we’re doing this tour. This was an idea that my brother [Bob Casale], who suddenly and shockingly died in February, and I had previous to his demise. Now we’re following through on that idea as a memorial to him and to raise money for his family, who are in dire straits. That’s a serious reason.

Devo play the Commodore Ballroom on June 26th. Tickets are available here.

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