Devo : Shrivel Up
In February of 1978 what sounded like a dream pairing of new wave art rockers Devo with producer Brian Eno was turning into a nightmare for the latter. Eno would later describe Devo as "anal", neutering almost every attempt to do anything other than replicate the demos. Eno described the situation to Andy Gill of Mojo :
‘They were a terrifying group of people to work with because they were so unable to experiment . . . I’d be sitting there at the desk, and there are EQs, echo sends, all those kinds of things, and my hand would sort of sneak up to put a bit of a treatment on something, and I could feel Jerry Casale bristling behind me. It was awful! He would stand behind me all the time, then lean over and say, “Why are you doing that?” ’
You have to listen closely for Eno-isms on Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!. The pinging sounds at the beginning of "Shrivel Up" and some of the effects on "Space Junk" made it past Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, who later admitted :
For more on the sessions at Conny Plank studios in snowbound Germany, there's the following article, written by Jon Savage for Sounds Magazine.
ARE WE NOT READY?
Devo: the phenomenon and where they're coming from.
The first thing you notice on arrival at Cologne Airport is the modernity and organisation. No baggage queues. No prefab ramshackle buildings. Instead you get sweeping architecture and lavish decoration: glass walls, marble, straight lines, expensive consumer items in glass display cages. If you're bored, you can find a chair with a small TV set on one arm: just insert pfennigs to watch.
Cologne itself was largely flattened by Allied bombing in WWII. The reconstruction of the town around it results in grey, bland uniformity. Not depressing, just hardly there. Not dissimilar to Britain, except Germany seems further on down the Affluence Road: "A fake chandelier in every living room!"
Conny's Studio is a converted Victorian farm on the outskirts of Wolperath, a small village thirty kilometres east-south-east of Cologne. It's high up and snow-bound: as a greeting, the weather turns and remains its coldest for many winters. The studio itself is a converted stable, its unpretentious façade hiding what would be one of the best computerised desks in the world.
Conny - Konrad Plank - has worked since the late '60s producing bands such as kraftwerk in their earlier days, Neu!, Cluster (with and without Eno), La Düsseldorf and Harmonia (Michael Rother and Cluster). His knowledge about this end of German music is virtually encyclopaedic. It was here that Eno mixed down four tracks of Before And After Science last summer: both are now working on Devo's first album.
Devo themselves are, to say the least, in an interesting position. No record contract, no production contract (as everyone is at pains to emphasise), no manager - Jerry Casale handles all that - and apparently little finance, yet they're in the middle of recording an album in an excellently equipped German Studio with Brian Eno producing and David Bowie expected to appear.
Thus far, in the UK at any rate, Devo amounts to two 45s, occasional adulatory press, and a hefty cult. As for now, they're a media phenomenon, a gimmick almost, rather than a band. Sometimes too much press can be counterproductive, but these guys are totally ready for it, all the same. Jerry Casale (bass) and Mark Motherbaugh (synthesizer) have been working together for about five years, while the group as it is now - with Jim Mothersbaugh (guitar), Bob Casale (guitar) and Alan Myers (drums) - have been together for about eighteen months. Hardly overnight sensations.
But there's a lot of pressure all at once. The pressures of moving out from Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, playing other American cities, emerging into the global spotlight as Bowie takes them under his wing. And apart from the simple acclimatisation from the USA - this being their first time in Europe - they're here working what amounts to twelve hours a day in freezing conditions. It's hardly the most relaxed situation.
So who are these people? Devo aren't exactly going to let it all out. This fits in with their chosen image: a corporate unit, with the individual members and their history unimportant - for instance, no pictures were to be taken of them without their Devo suits. It made sense: the strength of Devo as a phenomenon so far has been their consistent, brilliant presentation of the group as a total package: music, visuals, image, ideology, language, films - each referring to itself and each other.
That said, it's possible to reveal that Devo are in fact human beings. Most communication is with Jerry or Mark, the others being friendly but low profile. Jerry is the principal organisational force - he's taken on the chores of a manager - while Mark could be the spark at the bottom, being responsible, if nothing else, for the pinhead routines and the synthesizer that's at the root of their sound. "It's one of Mark's specialities, projecting insanity."
Both Jerry and Mark are creators of the band's visuals: familiar elements wrenched out of context, or once-used images re-presented in a different form. They've both been in contact, in various degrees, with the Image Bank, a Canadian art organisation which could be superficially described as working in similar areas. The band are very American, clever, and a paradoxical mixture of sophistication and naivety.
In all this, the music is easily forgotten, but shouldn't be. Conny's Studio is the first time the band have been let loose on twenty-four tracks. The two singles were recorded on a four-track, Mongoloid on a Revox in their garage in December 1976. There was no heating: the weather was so cold that Mark played with his gloves on. It could be why it sounds slow.
The 45s are being re-recorded for the album, and even in their unmixed state the versions are very different, Mongoloid for instance featuring a drum snap/slap nowhere to be found on the original. The album will probably contain twelve tracks, including stage favourites Uncontrollable Urge, Too Much Paranoias, and maybe Gut Feeling. Studio time is booked until early March, when the group plan to come to Britain to play a date at the Roundhouse on March 11.
The studio process in itself is simply unglamorous and very hard work. The group had gone through the first flush of getting most of the basic tracks down, and were in the middle period of getting the tiny elements right, adding overdubs, before the final remixing could begin. This involves constant listening and re-listening, constant decisions as to the prominence the various elements are to take in the mix, quite apart from the choice of the elements themselves.
Eno's role as producer is that of intermediary between man and tape, an interpreter almost: with twenty-four tracks also, organisation is all important. It's a difficult task, to balance the almost scientific quality of running through a tape for the hundredth time with the feeling that must remain. So far the results were impressive...
The interview took place in between breakfast and lunch in the studio. It was the hardest I've ever done. I felt like the fly in the ointment rather than the fly on the wall. Barring Jerry, the group didn't want to talk in an interview situation, and the atmosphere of unwillingness and suspicion was strong. It was insisted that all the group were present, but unless stated, all Devo replies are by Jerry Casale.
Can we start with why you came out to Germany to record?
"We were told to. We didn't know what we wanted. It was just as easy to be told where to come. It was through the Bowie connection, but we could go further than him, right now, if you know what I mean."
Can we talk about the production on the singles?
"It was a combination of our degree of organisation and the amount of money we had with what was available. So it represented really a random point in time. Mongoloid was recorded in December 1976, and Satisfaction in August/September 1977.
I was puzzled by the cover art of [The Rolling Stones'] Satisfaction - no doubt the idea...
"Yes. It was a parody of slickness. Those glasses were 3D glasses. Just Hollywood. A parody of sexuality - plastic tits..."
So what's the situation now with your record contract?
"Mmm. We don't want to go too far into it, but don't be surprised if you see a big WB on the album jacket."
There's that whole argument that when you enter the business you get sucked in by it...
"I don't even think that's a question: you get sucked in. But if the choice is between being sucked in and not being sucked in, I'd rather be sucked... I really think that's up to us. That's what becomes the creative process at that point - the creative process then is so inexorably connected with business that it's impossible to separate them."
Can you explain the idea of Devolution?
"Devolution's a big idea about the way things are. Everyone has a big idea about the way things are whether they admit it or not: a lot of people's ideas masquerade themselves as non-ideas, which we find the most dishonest. Devo just has the biggest, best and most interesting ideas about reality that allow people to discover things, which is exactly what other ideas don't allow. Other ideas begin by ignoring what's there so their idea doesn't account for the whole picture. It's like when people thought that the earth was at the centre of the universe, but the movement of certain planets didn't really match because their idea of what was happening was, at basis, wrong. And when the premise is wrong, everything else that follows is sick."
Do you feel that our culture is accelerating almost to the point of implosion?
"It's in the centre of the most highly industrialised part of the United States. It's hilly, grey, like culturally stripped. There's one thing different about Akron, though, and that's that it's safe. It made it really easy to just watch everything happening that was going on everywhere else but not really to be in it, but be aware of it. It wasn't so isolated that we didn't know what was happening."
With Devolution, what you're saying is we've reached any limit of expansion?
"Right. The consumer attitude can only go so far. When you've eaten everything on the plate, what's next? Goo, Yeah - Evo/Devo, consume/shrivel up. The idea that people have of themselves and their purpose on the planet has got to change."
Devo to me is an example of a strong undercurrent, a wish to express 1978 disorientation, to break down the way we think...
"The breaking down musically has occurred - punk and Devo are here to mutate. Devo's just the clean-up squad of the '80s, the Smart Patrol."
When did you start playing outside of Akron and Cleveland?
"When they wouldn't let us play anymore. April 1977. We went to CBGB's in New York."
What was that like?
"Perfect. We got on stage at two o'clock in the morning"
Mark: "Got into a fight with The Dead Boys".
"The crowd loved it. It had nothing to do with music - it was the aliens against the spuds. The Dead boys attacked us onstage during Jocko Homo..."
You must have really gotten to them?
"Sure. They took it personally. 'If the spud fits, wear it.' And the crowd loved it... we continued to play all through the fight and ended up looking good. Mark offered himself up first, being in the front line."
(Tape 2, with Jerry Casale the next day.)
What was involvement with Iggy?
"It was probably a superficial involvement. Iggy's always in a plane slightly obtuse to any kind of tangible relationship. He drifts in and out of focus."
Could you tell me more about the origin of Devo?
"Devolution was a combination of a Wonder Woman comic book and the movie Island Of Lost Souls, the original, with Bela Lugosi, Charles Laughton. That was various things I'd been thinking about - devolution, of going ahead to go back, things falling apart, entropy. It grabbed every piece of information and gave it some kind of cohesive presence - it was a package. Just as our music and our identity exist as a technique rather than a style."
There seems to be a new way of approaching rock'n'roll: a few bands are emerging with their own ideology, package.
"Yeah. It's the next logical step. It will ensure the existence of vital rock'n'roll. If rock'n'roll is going to maintain its position, its purpose, then the emphasis has to switch, otherwise it'll become a vestigial organ, meaningless."
You're in an interesting position now.
"Yes. We're like stored energy about to become kinetic."
Devo appear sure they have the answer. They are impressive, and make good, clear-headed sense, although some of what they say isn't so omniscient as it seems, and veers on occasions towards sweeping generalisations. It could be the arrogance of pressure, paranoia, or everyone bidding for you on a world scale, or it could be merely to provoke, to polarise. It doesn't matter now.
The album so far signifies that Devo are putting their actions where there mouth is, and more. Like the film, the album is already shaping up as an attractive, yet disorientating mixture of the familiar and the cliché, mixed around and stripped to sound like nothing you've heard before: exactly right in its remoteness. They could be THE transitional band as records give way to video discs - they're already waiting...