It’s hard to believe that, for the first five years of Devo’s existence, no one paid any attention to the sci-fi-skewering, surrealistic and satirical electro-rock band from Ohio. But that’s because two sets of brothers, Gerald and Bob Casale and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, originally formed Devo as an art collective focusing on musical and visual interpretations of mankind’s devolution and dysfunction. Once Devo hit it big, though, releasing their Brian Eno-produced debut album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” in 1978 and filming the classic music video for “Whip It” in 1980, the band quickly achieved iconic status in the avant-garde New Wave movement.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Devo cultivated overseas success while breaking up and reforming numerous times. Mark Mothersbaugh eventually branched out into TV and film scoring, while Gerald Casale became a noted music video director; meanwhile, inexplicable side projects like Jihad Jerry & the Evildoers and Disney’s Devo 2.0 intrigued longtime fans. But in 2007, the band soundtracked a Dell commercial and scored an instant hit, eventually reuniting and, three years later, releasing “Something For Everybody,” Devo’s first collection of new material in 20 years. Since then, the band has sued McDonald’s, headlined the über-hip All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, performed on hit kids’ show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” and skewered Mitt Romney’s pet-rearing skills with a recent single called “Don’t Roof Rack Me, Bro.” Gerald Casale, who goes by Jerry, talked about the infamous 1970 Kent State shootings and Devo’s fierce DIY spirit, and shared some interesting thoughts on Florida.
Folio Weekly: Tell us about this upcoming tour, Jerry. Is it focused on new material or a greatest-hits compendium?
Jerry Casale: We’ll play songs from “Something For Everybody,” but they’re folded into an overall arc of Devo’s career. Oddly enough, all the songs we like are pretty much the same ones that the fans like.
F.W.: Since Devo formed in 1972, you’ve been credited as the main man behind the band’s meticulously choreographed stage setups and costumes. What inspired that aesthetic?
J.C.: As an artist, I wanted to use music as a means of expression, while always remaining concerned with visuals. Growing up, whenever I saw anything fantastically staged, I was moved and impressed. You’re in front of people — what are you supposed to do? Just stand there? I’ve always been pissed off watching bands that just stand there. It’s like watching paint dry. You might as well just stay home, take some drug and put on their record. I’ve always loved presentation and theatrics, so there was never any question in my mind that’s what we had to do.
F.W.: Musically, where were you guys pulling from?
J.C.: It was very conceptual. We spent a lot of time talking about things before we did them. And we liked anyone that was smart: Morton Sobotnik, Harry Partch, John Cage. But we loved Captain Beefheart and Velvet Underground, too. And whacked-out TV cartoon music.
F.W.: You’ve cited the 1970 Kent State shootings, at which you were present, as a major catalyst for Devo’s formation.
J.C.: It changed my life. I was a live-and-let-live hippie, and that day we were protesting the illegal expansion of the Vietnam War when soldiers showed up armed with M1s and live ammunition. I saw people shot, lying dead, within 25 feet of me. When you see what real gunshots do — what real violence looks like — something happens. I watched the authorities spin that so that the students were in the wrong and the guards were exonerated. I saw that history could be manipulated, that the media could control perception and manipulate consciousness. I found out that illegitimate authority wins every time, just by brute force. And it’s truer and more ridiculous than ever today.
F.W.: Devo was one of the first bands to embrace videos as a content delivery system, as early as the mid-’70s. Did you know you were revolutionizing the musical world?
J.C.: It was always part-and-parcel of the artistic manifesto and foundation Devo was built on. It was all do-it-yourself, too; there were no categories, no MTV, no video medium. We were making short films that demonstrated graphically what Devo was about.
F.W.: Devo hasn’t toured much in Florida recently. Any good memories from early visits to the state in the 1970s and ’80s?
J.C.: We remember how hot and humid everything was. And how even the valet parkers and bellboys were dealing coke. [Laughs.] But now Florida has seemingly set itself apart as the home of every serial killer, psycho and pedophile in the country. And now we’ve become aware of the Stand Your Ground law, and the fact that there are over one million legal concealed weapons in Florida. So, I’d say when we get down there, we’re going to stay in our hotel room.