Devo: Still whipping it good

A still from "Devo," directed by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. 
(Courtesy Sundance Institute/TNS)
A still from "Devo," directed by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Sundance Institute/TNS)

With their yellow radiation suits, red "energy dome" hats and manic energy, part playful and part angry, the band Devo combined the futuristic glamour of new wave with atomic-age anxieties and post-'60s disillusionment. Its biggest hit, 1980's "Whip It," injected subversive satire straight into the heart of the American cultural mainstream.

A definitive new documentary about the group, "Devo," had its world premiere at Sundance. The film is directed by Chris Smith, whose prior work, including "American Movie," "Tiger King" and "Sr.," makes him no stranger to the worlds of eccentrics and oddballs.

Devo celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023. The band first emerged from Ohio, formed by two sets of brothers -- Mark Mothersbaugh and Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale and Bob Casale -- plus eventual drummer Alan Myers. Their debut album, 1978's "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" was produced by Brian Eno and featured a deconstructed cover version of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." From the very beginning (and presciently), they entwined their music with film and video -- much of it now restored and soon to be celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art.

Uniquely, the band developed a fully formed, intricate internal philosophy and mythology built around the idea that humans were "de-evolving" by becoming dumber and less sophisticated. The mascot of the band, known as "Booji Boy," was an infantile urchin in a rubber mask.

Prior to the festival, director Smith and band members Gerald Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh and Mark Mothersbaugh got on a video call together for a conversation about the film.

Q. Was there an idea to document the band right from the very start? It's incredible that there's footage of the very first show in 1973.

Gerald Casale: We were that delusional, yes. And we were trying to document ourselves when nobody was interested in doing that. And when it was quite expensive and clumsy to do it. You're dealing with Sony U-matic reel-to-reel recorders and big heavy cameras and a scarcity of equipment and very little interest. I mean, my God, if a Devo of now existed like we did, then clearly, there'd be a million cellphone videos.

Mark Mothersbaugh: Everybody has a phone with a camera, but back in those days, that was not the case. We were lucky there was a guy named Ed Barger, who was our first sound man and engineer. He had one of those units that made the stuff that looked like security-film footage. And he documented everything for us. That was fortuitous.

All of us were visual artists. Bob was the first of us to direct a video, back when he was in high school. Bob and me, our dad, starting when we were like babies, like 1 year old, he'd bring out an 8-millimeter camera that didn't have sound, and so he shot hundreds and hundreds of these films through the years, just family stuff. So we always kind of liked that. And Jerry was doing films at Kent State with Chuck Statler before Chuck said, "Hey, let's do a film with a couple of the songs in it." So we were always audio-visual. We were always thinking in both worlds.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about what you think the importance was that you guys were from Ohio, not from New York or L.A.?

Bob Mothersbaugh: I think the important thing about being from Ohio was just that we had a couple years to hone our show. We tried a lot of different things in the clubs. Some didn't work as well as others. But we learned to play together really well and put on a great show and look good before we were thrown in front of the media.

Q. When most bands would just sort of shamble onstage in their street clothes, you guys really put on a proper show, a presentation with choreography. Where did that impulse come from?

MM: We all talked about being theatrical and being almost like a cabaret. If you're talking about something like "Uncontrollable Urge," we were just in a basement where we could barely fit in it. So doing that step that we did, doing it in unison, that was just all you could really accomplish in a basement. Jerry found footage of Watusi Indians doing a thing that we incorporated into "Snowball."

GC: "Uncontrollable Urge" was the [Muhammad] Ali Shuffle. That's what it was. Like, "Hey, let's do like Ali right here in this part of the song."

Chris Smith: One of my favorite details in looking through the old footage is, there's an early show that was recorded in black-and-white, and they have such limited materials to work with, yet they do this thing where the light goes on and off on both sides of the stage. And to me it was so emblematic of where they were going because they were making something that you hadn't seen before that was super creative and visually distinctive and interesting out of something we all had to work with. We all could use those lights, but their movements with the lights is one of my favorite moments in the movie. And that was right at the outset. You could see in that footage, the inventiveness that wasn't a result of means -- it was something that was just created out of what they had to work with at that time.

GC: That's what a good artist would do, right? Take limited resources and do something interesting with them. If you can't use eight crayons to create something interesting, 64 isn't going to help you. It was a do-it-yourself aesthetic. And so we did minimalism. We had studied minimalism from the '20s and '30s to begin with.

MM: Sonically, a lot of what we did was just related to the fact that Bob Mothersbaugh bought a four-track TEAC. So we had this machine that could record four little skinny channels on a quarter-inch tape. It was an amateur home-tape machine, but it made us think about our parts, because we thought, well, OK, you're only going to get to do the bass on one track, and the guitar on one track and the drums on one track and the synth. You're not going to do all these overdubs. We had to think about it, what was an essential part. So we'd work on the song till you could play it just in one pass. Everything essential. I think it really made the early stuff sound really strong because of that.

Q. Can you talk about the idea of de-evolution, having this whole ethos and mythology behind the band itself?

GC: That just came from such dissatisfaction with the kind of mainstream propaganda where you find out everything you've been told growing up is basically a big lie because it doesn't explain reality and it doesn't explain human nature. So de-evolution was like a tongue-in-cheek intellectual rebuttal of the mainstream narrative about how human beings are the greatest and the top species on planet Earth. We looked at it more like Martians in a spaceship looking down on the planet, going: "That species there is really dangerous and really f***** up. And look what they're doing to every other living thing on the planet. They're out of harmony with it." We just started recalculating everything from an upside-down view of reality and thought this makes more sense. It explains reality better than what you've been taught.

MM: There were books in 1969 that warned us about humans -- we're the unnatural species. "The Population Bomb," I remember reading that when I was a sophomore at Kent [State University]. And basically it just said that planet Earth is going to have to find a way to protect itself from humans. And he predicted in this book that by the year 2050, there would be a virus that would wipe out humans and save the Earth. Everybody made fun of it.

Q. There were all these serious ideas and concepts behind the band, but people just thought you were funny and weird. Was the band misunderstood?

BM: Sometimes in Akron, when we would play shows, we would gauge how good we were by how angry the audience got. It was like, well, if they didn't like us, they would leave. Instead they got mad and started threatening us. So we'd say, we got something.

GC: It just made us more resolved to do it more.

Q. Mark, do you feel the more serious ideas behind the band were overlooked?

MM: We always knew that there was that possibility, especially once "Whip It" came out. People totally misinterpreted what that was about. But the good thing about a song like "Whip It" is if it gets people to listen to the albums, then they're hearing "Freedom of choice is what you want / Freedom from choice is what you got." So maybe they hear that and then go, what does that mean?

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