An EXCLUSIVE interview
GERALD V. CASALE
GERALD V. CASALE
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Not many bands are able to achieve critical and commercial success while challenging conventional thinking and the very industry that they are a part of – however, Devo did it spectacularly! Best known for the massive-selling “Whip It,” Devo became closely associated with the New Wave movement – Electronic music in particular – yet never considered themselves part of the hit-making machine. By the time MTV picked up on them, Devo had already revolutionized music video-making. When the band finally made their ascent into the charts, they had already built a strong following with their first two albums and their specific – and prophetic – views on devolution, which is ‘the notion that species can change into more "primitive" forms over time.’ Nearly 40 years after their debut album, social media has only confirmed that devolution is real. Very real.
Much has been said about Devo over the years, and a quick internet search will give you all that you need to know – especially if you visit the band’s website (www.clubdevo.com). However, it is the band’s early years that remain overlooked in the scheme of things. Many are familiar with their 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men?, A: We Are Devo!, and everything they’ve released since then. Yet their mid-‘70s four-track recordings are a goldmine just waiting to be rediscovered. They’ve been issued on CD – initially as Hardcore Devo: Volume One and Hardcore Devo: Volume Two, then later as a double disc set. But only the dedicated fans are wired in to those songs. Those early recordings, spanning the years 1974-77, are wildly inventive, shocking, riveting and thoroughly entertaining. This was a band filled with original ideas and absolutely no musical boundaries. Many of these tracks were never played live, and sadly enough, were never recorded again for future albums. Band member Bob Casale – AKA Bob 2 – approached brother and fellow Devo member Gerald about resurrecting those songs and playing them live in front of an audience for the first time. The concept went over well with the other band members – Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh and new-ish drummer Josh Freese – and plans were set in motion for a Hardcore Devo tour. Unfortunately, Bob Casale passed away in February 2014. In his honor, the remaining members of Devo decided to move forward with the idea and took their show on the road. Thankfully, there were cameras and recording equipment available when the band played Oakland during that tour…
Hardcore Devo Live is a triumph in every way. Not only does it reanimate the music with a fresh, contemporary approach, it even manages to convey the feeling of their ‘basement’ years with atmospheric lighting and a sometimes claustrophobic feel to the performance. Those that have never heard the Hardcore Devo releases will at least find some familiar tracks like “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Jocko Homo,” and “Satisfaction” amongst the songs performed. More importantly, there is a treasure trove of fantastic lesser-known songs that sound absolutely electrifying 40 years on. When Bob Casale’s son Alex comes out to play on the show’s final song, you can’t help but feel sadness and pride – a thoroughly enjoyable and emotional moment to savor.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Gerald Casale about Hardcore Devo Live and Devo’s career in general. So, sit back, savor a sip of wine from Gerald’s personal vintage wine brand (www.thefiftybyfifty.com) and read on…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Hardcore Devo Live has just been released. How are you feeling about the project and the reaction you’ve had so far?
GERALD V. CASALE: I’m pleased with the fact that, against all odds and by the skin of my teeth, I managed to find a way to get it filmed, and then the result was quite faithful to the actual experience of being an audience member. So, I’m happy with that.
SPAZ: This is a batch of songs that were written 40 years ago, and they still sound so fresh and exciting. What was the initial feeling when you were rehearsing for the tour? Were you amazed at how relevant all this stuff still sounds?
GERALD: Well, it was kind of shocking because, you know, on the face of it the songs are simple, but then if you try to play them – having gone through all the kind of mutations you go through in 40 years – it was like facing yourself in the mirror. Coming face-to-face with who you were. It was very difficult learning to play them right, and then changes are so strange and the fingering patterns are so strange because, in a way, we hadn’t even gelled into a kind of “Devo” sound. This was still just really, really, kind of original and eclectic and completely do-it-yourself. So, these kind of stylings are all over the map in those songs.
SPAZ: Something like “Satisfaction” – it took a few moments for the listener to fully comprehend all the elements going on within that recording – there is so much happening, different rhythms and such. I’ve always felt that Devo were probably the greatest thinking man’s band in the universe at the time.
GERALD: Well, we were once made fun of by Alan Jones, a big critic from Melody Maker magazine in England who said, “These guys are the thinking man’s Kiss,” as a big put down. We were all really angry at the time and then a couple years later I went, “You know what? Thinking man’s Kiss? That’s not a bad thing.” That’d be great…being so popular – if you added a smart message to that, you’d have it all.
SPAZ: What was the inspiration for going back to revisit this material?
GERALD: It was an idea that my brother Bob had. I thought it was a great idea. It was a chance to reaffirm who we were when we were completely experimental, completely isolated in Akron, Ohio – not respected by anybody, either reviled or laughed at by our peer group there. To bring those songs to life other than four track recordings was an exciting idea – kind of like something new. When Bob and I presented it, everybody was on board.
SPAZ: Going back to revisit the songs and learn them again, was it like learning them for the first time?
GERALD: (Laughing) Actually, harder! When you’re doing something for the first time, you’re just so excited and you’re so myopically locked into what you’re thinking then as you make it up – you kind of bypass the barriers. But then when you have to do it again, you’re aware of all the things that are difficult and possibly wrong, and then you have to forget what you’ve learned since, and go back.
SPAZ: When the band first formed, what was the Akron scene like? We all know what happened when you guys broke out – all of a sudden there was an Akron scene. At least for a little while, everyone focused on Akron.
GERALD: There was no scene in Akron. That’s the plain truth of it. There were kids in bands like any other American city but there wasn’t much connection between any of the bands. Everybody was quite isolated. Chrissie Hynde wasn’t really doing what she ended up doing until she went to England, so there wasn’t really a band there. Pere Ubu didn’t think too much of Devo. David Thomas (Pere Ubu vocalist) made disparaging remarks about Devo in the little Cleveland scene magazine. The Dead Boys thought we were just art weirdos and wanted to beat us up. It’s Stiff Records that created this fiction that there was a scene and, of course, they did it by just taking everybody that ever recorded something in that geographical area and putting it together on a compilation.
SPAZ: Have you gone back to Akron over the years?
GERALD: Well, whenever there was a reason to – mostly family. Recently, I went back to have a release party and tasting from my first vintage wines that I released. Yeah, I did it at West Point Market and it went great.
SPAZ: Judging by the original recordings that have been released over the years (as Hardcore Devo), there’s probably four albums worth of material. You did some of these tracks on your first two albums, yet you never really went back after that. This is stuff that other bands would’ve killed for. How come you never really revisited those songs on later albums?
GERALD: You know, a lot of people have been asking that and I don’t blame ‘em. That’s a good question. I don’t have a good explanation except this – we lived with that stuff in these basements and garages, and we were struggling and getting nowhere. I was trying hard to make it reach critical mass and use my connections, and what I was learning about the music business, to get ourselves on the radar. By the time we did, we were experiencing a kind of new creative explosion that we were just so wrapped up in. We only wanted to move forward. We didn’t want to look back, and we really thought we were on to something. We were so wrapped up in this energy. So I really think that’s what happened and kind of turned our backs on the experimental material that kind of had an association of – not failure, but failure to launch.
SPAZ: I believe that people still don’t appreciate how forward thinking you guys were and the music world still hasn’t caught up. Would you agree with that?
GERALD: I often said things like, “We were the pioneers who got scalped. We were the Rodney Dangerfield of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I think it’s just ‘cause we did something first. We were original. Today, every band has to think about what they’re trying to project. They call it a brand now – Who are they? How do they look? What are they beyond the songs? The videos, the statements in the press, the whole gestalt. And that’s what Devo was about. We did that on purpose. We were a multimedia group in the way we thought. Mark and I were artists and so from the beginning – the graphics, the slogans, the videos, the costumes…those were all things that I spent lots of time and energy on. I think it was too much for a lot of second generation hippies that ran radio stations and rock magazines. They kind of resented it because it wasn’t something that they were familiar with, and wasn’t what you were supposed to do as a band, and they retaliated. Maybe if we’d just worn street clothes and acted kind of punky and anti-intellectual and made the same music, they would’ve liked us more, but we were presenting a complete and utter world, really.
SPAZ: You guys obviously came out before the whole punk thing. Did you mean to align yourself with that movement, or was that a lazy journalistic thing?
GERALD: We were always only Devo and I suppose, in the commodification of the marketplace, somebody saw in our music a relationship with the raw energy and aggression of punk, and then lumped us in. I suppose that was a good thing for us.
SPAZ: Was it frustrating to try to get these messages and ideas across to an audience when there were knuckleheads like me who may not have understood the message at the time, but loved the songs?
GERALD: Well, usually that was enough for us. I mean, like Bob Dylan once said, you should thank people for not understanding you – that’s why you’re popular. If you like the songs and didn’t get the rest of it, that was okay with us.
SPAZ: There’s such an energy and passion in these new performances of the songs. Are you able to reconnect with that energy of old?
GERALD: I can only speak for myself, but I sure do. I can’t even perform unless I’m doing that. I think that’s what performance is about. I look at it like each time you perform live, you’re conjuring up almost like a spell. Exactly what made you do it – what your frame of mind was and what the energy was – and you’re doing that for the people in front of you. You’re not doing it for yourself. So, playing those Hardcore songs for the first time, many of them for the first time live ever (and the last time), that gave it a sense of urgency. Not only that, but the game was upped a whole other dimension when this became a memorial for my brother who would’ve been part of it and couldn’t be, so now we were doing it for him.
SPAZ: When I was listening to this album, I realized that there are sounds coming out of the keyboards that are distinctively Devo – sounds that you only ever heard on Devo records. You can’t say that about most other bands out there.
GERALD: That’s part of being original. We were making that stuff up and Mark was using the Moog to basically find disturbing industrial sounds, not pretty sounds that imitated other instruments like most groups were.
SPAZ: I love the dark lighting used for the show. I assume that you were recreating that basement feel where you used to rehearse?
GERALD: Yeah, that’s what I was trying to do.
SPAZ: It has almost a “cold” vibe to it.
GERALD: Exactly. We were trying to project the experience of Akron. I worked with a really good lighting designer name Andy O’Toole. I drew up some sketches and then talked about what kind of fixtures we could use and he took those things and developed them. We had great back and forth, and that’s where we ended up. We had a lot more ideas of course, but it’s always about money.
SPAZ: I think it’s important to remind people that there was life before “Whip It.”
SPAZ: And there will always be life after “Whip It.”
GERALD: Exactly. That was one little tiny moment in time, but of course, that’s the one that rang the bell. What we’d like people to get if they watch this DVD or Blu-Ray is that you can be original. You can do something with no bells and whistles. You can take a do-it-yourself esthetic and make it work as long as you remain true to the vision.
SPAZ: Do you think that technology and social media has aided in speeding up devolution?
GERALD: (Laughing) Yeah, absolutely. It’s just made the mob mentality and the gossiping wad more empowered. So it’s really just watching everybody’s worst kind of characteristics in human nature being empowered and multiplied like bacteria – just the pettiness, the snarking, the mean-spirited stupidity. It’s nasty stuff.
SPAZ: You’d think with information at your fingertips, you could learn from it, but…
GERALD: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s optimistic!
GERALD: I keep working on my wines, and I have been writing a Devo musical. I really think that with all the potential Devo had from the beginning, and the fact that we created this body of work, these songs and these videos in a world with slogans and vocabulary that was made up and all of that – that it should be embodied in some kind of entertaining narrative. And what better than a musical where you’re using the songs to drive the story? If anybody should do it, it’s Devo.
SPAZ: Are you referring to a stage musical or a film?
GERALD: Well, it could be made into a film. We had different ideas for a film, and that never materialized. There’s a script for it, but I couldn’t get anybody to fund it. That was a story that starts in Akron during the time of the Hardcore material and ends at the after party at Saturday Night Live, 1978.
SPAZ: If only Howard Keel was still around. He could play Mark.
GERALD: (Laughs) Yeah.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD, record, DVD and Blu-Ray players?
GERALD: I try to listen to everything new, and it’s just getting so unoriginal and so homogenized I can’t tell one song from the next, one singer from the next…it’s all so overproduced. I still go back and listen to James Brown and Motown, then I’ll listen to Penthouse and Pavement from Heaven 17. I’ll listen to the Bee Gees. I listen to Terry Riley.
SPAZ: One last thing. A lot of people were excited about seeing a Lego version of the energy dome during the performance of “Everything Is Awesome” (produced by Mark Mothersbaugh) on the 2015 Academy Awards telecast.
GERALD: How ‘bout that? I thank Lego and Sony for doing a version of the energy dome that I created in 1980, and now it’s 2015 and I’ve lived to see a Lego version of my design.
Thanks to Gerald V. Casale
In memory of Robert ‘Bob 2’ Casale