Are You Not Devo? You Are Mutato
How Mark Mothersbaugh, an Agent of De-Evolution, wormed his way into America’s subconscious
December 5, 2007
By RANDALL ROBERTS
The Mutato Muzika building in West Hollywood is painted Day-Glo green and looks like a tipped-over hamster wheel, with mirrored windows as rungs that make the building seem like it’s constantly spinning. Beneath the main-floor recording studio is a big, cluttered circular room. To enter you pass a threshold guarded by a Speed Racer rug, and beyond this threshold is a sight that would give the Klaxons or Datarock a conniption: Korgs and Rolands are scattered on the floor. An Optigon, a rare 1970s-era console organ that uses flimsy discs to play odd, ghostly sounds, sits in a corner. Shelves hold computer monitors, cassette decks and DAT machines; tubular bells are ready to be struck; an EMS polysynthesizer and an electrocomp synthesizer await electricity. An Ondioline keyboard that once belonged to Pink Floyd. Boxes are strewn throughout, but look closer and they’re filled with more memorabilia: a hand-written score for the film Drop Dead Gorgeous; busts of Chairman Mao and JFK.
Mark Mothersbaugh, the soft-spoken but articulate owner of Mutato and founding member of legendary new-wave band Devo, is giving me a tour. He’s a little embarrassed about the mess down here. “I keep meaning to work on this room,” he explains as he steps over synthesizers and squeezes between keyboards. Whenever he or any of the composers who work upstairs need a sound or inspiration, they can dip into this treasure trove.
Speaking of treasure, one filing box is marked “Raymond Scott notes,” Scott being one of the most important and underappreciated musical minds of the 20th century. Mothersbaugh rescued much of the writing and paperwork from Scott’s garage, and though the two only met once, they seem like kindreds. In the 1930s and 1940s, Scott composed wildly imaginative and mathematical big-band music before abruptly changing gears in the late ’40s to start building early electronic instruments. He earned his living by using the machines to craft radio commercials for, among others, Vicks Medicated Cough Drops, Bendix (“The Tomorrow People”) and Auto-Lite Spark Plugs. Standing majestically in one corner of Mutato’s basement is perhaps the Holy Grail of early electronic-music instrumentation: Raymond Scott’s legendary Electronium, considered to be the first-ever self-composing synthesizer, which Mothersbaugh purchased in 1996 and has vowed to restore (though Scott never completely finished building it).
As if he’s ever going to find the time. In one of the rooms that ring the archive, a vast collection of his visual art is stacked in rows; boxes of the rugs he made for an upcoming art opening, “Rugs During Wartime and Peacetime,” sit piled in the front entryway. Mothersbaugh works on his visual art nearly every day by sketching miniatures on antique post cards, which he buys by the lot from eBay. He then transforms these little pieces into prints, rugs and whatever feels right.
And then there’s the massive database of music that’s created upstairs, which is as scattered and unwieldy as this room. “It’s so big that we don’t even have it under control anymore,” Mothersbaugh tells me. “For every commercial we get, there may have been four times that much music written. There’s this big body of music that actually could be a lucrative library at some time.”
Maybe you thought you were done with Devo. You’re not. If any of your media devices have been powered up today, Mothersbaugh, or one of Mutato’s five full-time composers (each cloned, claims Mutato’s executive producer Robert Miltenberg, from one of Mothersbaugh’s fingers) or one of the three other lifetime members of Devo — two of whom work here full time, the other as an adjunct — probably created some of the music you heard. Be it a score to a film, TV show, video game, song or a commercial, Mutato’s mutant tentacles are tickling something. The Apple vs. PC campaign? Listen beneath the classic banter and you’ll hear a Mothersbaugh-penned melody called “Having Trouble Sneezing.” It is 30 seconds of melodic brilliance that circles along like horsies on a merry-go-round and sounds like an Eric Satie gnossienne. All the music for the first season of HBO’s Big Love. The sing-song stickiness that is the theme to The Sims II video game. The incidental music from a dozen years of the Rugrats, which is buried in the mental recesses of most Americans born between 1991 and 2004. Gaze back further, to the theme to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And then there’s “Swelling Itching Brain,” “Whip It,” “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo,” music Mothersbaugh co-wrote with Devo.
Film scores? Mothersbaugh/Mutato has composed the original music to nearly 100 films and TV shows in the past two decades, including, most prominently, four of Wes Anderson’s five films, soundtracks that not only serve Anderson’s narratives, but are some of the great mixtapes of the decade. Mothersbaugh’s fluid, oft-baroque music adds a striking layer of whimsy to each film’s gestalt, a combination that has proven to be irresistible to a generation of ad agencies that have made Mothersbaugh’s work ubiquitous on the TV set and provide Mutato’s composers with soundtrack work for 100 spots a year. This in addition to the little melodies he provides to National Public Radio.
Basically, regardless of where you are in America, music that emanated from the Day-Glo green building on Sunset Boulevard has probably sneaked its way into your brain within the past 24 hours. What it’s doing inside there is anyone’s guess, but Mothersbaugh and his band of composers most certainly aren’t automatons dishing out pap — nor did Mutato’s founder create one of the most important music houses in America in a vacuum. Thirty years ago, Mark Mothersbaugh and his friend Gerald Casale formed an art project called Devo and started preaching the gospel of de-evolution: Man isn’t progressing, but regressing back to a primal monkey state. Is Mutato’s music sneaking into our monkey brains and messing with our monkey neurons?
The booklet that accompanies the 1987 release Devo E-Z Listening Disc might provide some guidance: In bold letters at the top of each page, a question: “What is Devo?” Below, simple answers: “Wherever you go. Devo is watching you. Unfazed by competition. Records, concerts, videos, commercials. Beautiful mutants. Freedom of choice. Concentration. Total war. Will the real Devo please stand up? You are Devo.”
Quirky. Say it. Quirky. Quirkiness.
May as well get the word out of the way from the get-go, because it’s used so often in reference to Mutato Muzika’s output that it’s a running joke. “We get the Q word a lot,” laughs Robert Miltenberg, sitting in an office filled with Devo/Mutato memorabilia — as well as a keepsake water bottle Burt Reynolds drank from while doing voice-over work. “In fact, we have a pool. Whenever we’re on a call and having our creative discussions, whenever anyone says ‘quirky,’ a dollar is thrown in.” Sometimes meanings must be parsed. “We end up having to split hairs with definitions. They want quirky, but they don’t want silly, and they don’t want weird.” Miltenberg, who is usually beaming with enthusiasm, is a wide-eyed smiler who sports a well-groomed Vandyke and always has a Bluetooth earpiece stuck to the left side of his head.
Flash back to a morning last month as the dollars pile up on Miltenberg’s desk during a 15-minute conference call with an ad agency representing the maker of a popular chewy breakfast bar. The agency is launching a new campaign, and the composers in attendance — Albert Fox (10 years at Mutato), John Enroth (five years) and Silas Hite (three years) — need to understand the general tone and premise of the ad before they can start drafting ideas. The agency’s creative director is trying to convey over speaker phone the tone of the chewy breakfast bar campaign: “We want it countrified without being hickey or corny,” she explains, then adds, “Historically, we’ve used music that’s very quirky and fun.” Miltenberg motions a buck into the till. Fox nods. Then: “The overall feel is really fun, light-hearted and quirky.” Hite smiles and tosses one in. “Quirkiness…” and Enroth’s in. But no matter how much they joke about it, quirk is an approach that has netted Mutato a fortune and is embedded in the company’s DNA.
A former ad agency creative director, Miltenberg has known Mothersbaugh for nearly 20 years — he used to hire Mothersbaugh to make music for his spots. Eventually, Mothersbaugh asked him to come to Mutato to grow their ad music business, which he most certainly has; prior to Miltenberg’s hiring in 2001, Mutato was scoring two or three ads a year. This year he expects Mutato to do nearly 120 spots.
Miltenberg’s eager and enthusiastic about Mutato’s mission, and committed to helping Mothersbaugh build a business that will outlive them both. He’s a huge Devo fan — the kind who lowers his voice in conversation to impart that he considers Devo’s impact on American culture to nearly rival the Beatles’. He compares Mutato to Warhol’s Factory and confesses that he still can’t believe he’s working with Mark Mothersbaugh. He’s here by 4:30 a.m. every morning so he can get a jump start on the East Coast and make overseas calls. Thumbtacked to the wall above his computer are one-sheet job descriptions for TV spots that Mutato Muzika is either pitching or composing for: Wal-Mart, Kmart, Martini & Rossi, FX, Ritz Crackers, Quaker and a half dozen others.
Like Mothersbaugh, Miltenberg is a collector, and has a passion for the history of and memorabilia from the age of dirigibles. During a recent interview with Mothersbaugh, Miltenberg entered the room to show off a recent purchase: a dime-size piece of cloth from the Von Hindenburg air ship. When Mothersbaugh wondered aloud about the piece’s provenance, Miltenberg produced documentation. Mothersbaugh: “I think that that swatch of the Von Hindenburg is a lot like Jesus Christ. If you believe in it, and it gives you the power — gives you the vestment that you’re looking for — then good for you.”
Unlike outgoing Miltenberg, Mothersbaugh is kind of shy when you first meet him. He’ll fidget a little bit during interviews, glance down at the floor while he’s conversing. He enters rooms quietly. But once he gets comfortable, and lands on an interesting topic, he reveals a depth of thought that examines ideas from any number of angles.
At first, he had an uneasy relationship with commercial spots, unsure how to approach the notion of manipulating strangers into buying products that he didn’t feel particularly excited about. As an antidote, he and fellow Devo member Bob Casale in the beginning used to sneak subliminal messages into their scores. The first few times they were nervous, says Mothersbaugh. “I think it was a Keds commercial where we put in ‘Question authority.’ I remember the people from Keds were tapping their pens on the table and the music’s playing, and it gets to the subliminal message, and I remember I flushed bright red. I looked over at this guy and he’s going, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Go go go!’”
Eventually, though, that got too easy. “We’d push it until somebody would say, ‘Hey, did that just say, “Obey, submit”?’ and we’d go, ‘No.’ Then we’d take it out. Then we’d only do it every year or so if we got inspired, or if some product was less likeable than we wanted it to be. We still do it every once in a while.”
The iconic opening of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which debuted in 1986, is a wondrous convergence of art and music, and is, even more so than Devo, what set Mothersbaugh on the path he’s on now. In two action-packed minutes, we’re introduced to Paul Reubens’ (quirky) comedic creation, an odd, subversive man-child; comic artist Gary Panter’s masterful (quirky) art direction, which manifests itself in prop-characters Chairry, Randy, Globey and Pterri; and Mark Mothersbaugh’s first (quirky) foray into scoring for a television series. Beginning with a riff on Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village,” the introduction kicks into gear with Mothersbaugh’s stomping theme song, which sounds like a futuristic synth-disco version of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It exudes joy, and inspires Pee-wee to race around with pure glee, do some jerky rhythm-walking, spin and cackle, and go nutso, all while a sassy, Betty Boop–inspired Cyndi Lauper delivers marching orders: Get outta bed, there’ll be no more nappin’! (Wake up!)/’Cause you’ve landed in a place where anything can happen!
Mothersbaugh landed the gig after Devo was dropped from Warner Bros. in 1984. The band had relocated to Los Angeles en masse shortly after their first record deal in 1976, and were searching for new ways to wheedle their way into the marketplace. While still under contract, they had composed two “E-Z Listening Cassettes” in 1981 and 1984, dramatic reworkings of their output in a soft, synthetic Muzak style, and, listening to them now, you can hear the seeds of Mothersbaugh’s eventual aesthetic shift. “Gates of Steel,” Devo’s most insistent punk song, was remade in cheesy New Age fashion, with sweeping synths and a plonky Casiotone melody. “Girl U Want” runs along like an Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western score funneled through the Electronium.
This odd, whimsical reimagination, long out of print, helped land Mothersbaugh on Saturday-morning network television. “My friend Paul Reubens called, and said, ‘Will you score Pee-wee’s Playhouse for me?’” Mothersbaugh agreed, and ended up working all five seasons of the landmark show. He made music to accompany rolling foil balls and claymation baby dinosaurs, and a clip-cloppy theme for Laurence Fishburne’s character Cowboy Curtis. “That kind of set me off on a direction,” says Mothersbaugh.
With the success of Pee-wee’s Playhouse,Mothersbaugh was approached by Disney to score a kid’s show called Adventures in Wonderland — 100 episodes over two years. The workload was staggering: Each week he’d have to compose four original songs, send the demos to Disney for approval, revise them, record them with the cast and then mix them into the show. “I go, ‘I don’t think I can do that by myself.’ And they said, ‘Well, you must have some friends who’d want to work with you.’”
He did, and with Devo in shambles after a bum deal with ill-fated L.A. label Enigma, he signed on Gerald’s brother, Bob Casale, and his own brother, Bob Mothersbaugh (Bob II and Bob I, respectively), and Mutato Muzika was born at Mark’s Hollywood Hills home. Mutato forged relationships with studio music supervisors and began feeding the beast with scores; during the next decade it provided music for a host of films and television series, including: Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, Liquid Television, It’s Pat, Dumb and Dumber, Flesh Suitcase and, most notably — and profitably — Nickelodeon megahit Rugrats.
Composing the soundtrack to a film, of course, doesn’t guarantee a great movie, and Mothersbaugh has scored his share of duds. “You have to resign yourself that that’s part of being in Hollywood. It’s like a big septic tank, and you’re looking for diamonds in the muck.”
One of those diamonds was unearthed in 1996, when Mothersbaugh got a call from a woman in Sony’s music department who was trying to figure out what to do with a film they just bought called Bottle Rocket. Recalls Mothersbaugh: “She said, ‘Mark, you know this guy Wes Anderson? We don’t know what to do with him. He doesn’t like anybody as far as music is concerned and he doesn’t want to meet with any of our composers — but he was interested when we told him we knew you. You’re the only guy he’s willing to meet with.’”
Randall Poster, a music supervisor who has worked on every Anderson film since Rushmore in 1998, relays the story as he’s heard it: “Wes screened Bottle Rocket, and at the preview screening it scored in, like, the 20s. It was horrifying. They had 70-something walkouts. Mark basically at that point raised his hand and said, ‘I really want to work on this movie.’” The two met, and hit it off, and Mothersbaugh set to scoring the film.
Mothersbaugh dryly recalls that Sony kept sending him copies of the movie Big, with Tom Hanks, which had smooth piano jazz as a score — “as if I was supposed to listen to that and go, ‘Oh, that’s what I should be doing. I said, ‘Wes, what should I do with these suggestions?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, just ignore them. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t let those people bother you.’ So we did, and that started a long relationship.”
As connected to its subjects as Vince Guaraldi’s work with Peanuts or Nino Rota’s work with Fellini, Mothersbaugh’s music for Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou shows a composer at ease in the medium, having a quiet conversation with the mise en scène, painting each sequence with musical miniatures. Hear Mothersbaugh’s opening theme in Rushmore, all plucked strings and faux baroque stodginess, and you know what kind of place Rushmore Academy is. The Royal Tenenbaums wouldn’t feel the same without “111 Archer Avenue,” the 30-second bell, string and piano melody that begins the film; the ditty has almost become Wes Anderson’s mnemonic. Removed from Tenenbaums and heard on its own, “Mothersbaugh’s Canon” floats through the air on the back of a harpsichord’s circular melody with a string quartet stretched across it; a flute sprouts, a clarinet follows, strings are plucked and all is well in the world.
“By the time we got to Life Aquatic,” recalls Mothersbaugh, “Wes was sitting where you’re sitting going, ‘I think I’m going to put a composer in this movie.’ And so we started talking about what it would sound like to be a film composer on a ship of a loser Jacques Cousteau character who hadn’t been able to upgrade and stay up with the times. Everything was outmoded old four-tracks and old Casios and stuff, so we dug through the archives in the basement for old Devo synths and found things to make the music with for that film.” The result is the brilliant “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op” track, a four-minute electronic jam that recalls a Kraftwerk or Suicide automaton rhythm that gradually, gracefully builds to a John Barryesque timpani-and-brass climax.
The results, adds Randall Poster, have struck a nerve that’s carried far beyond the screen. “The movies themselves are very dear to people, and we’ve unearthed some great songs, and compiled them together. And Mark’s music is so compelling and so unique, and they work very well together… And it’s funny, people will tell you that The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore soundtracks are very big at, like, 5-year-olds’ parties. We’d get these calls: ‘I put the soundtrack on at my kid’s party and it was just so great.’”
The Mutato Muzika building was originally built to house a plastic surgeon’s office. Satellite prep rooms — where nurses readied the shriveled-up, oblong and otherwise dissatisfied humans for surgery — encircle one jumbo room in the center where the operations were performed. There the patients were cut open, adjusted, sewn up and returned from whence they came. It sounds kinda like a Devo song.
The center room houses Mutato’s main recording studio, and on a recent fall day, eight people sit in the room trying to nail down a song for Class of 3000, the Cartoon Network show starring an animated Andre 3000 of OutKast. Mutato’s been hired to score the Christmas episode. Among the eight are a couple of producers, Bob I and Bob II of Devo, an engineer and voice talent — including an odd-jobbing Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.
In this segment of the show, Santa’s fallen behind, and somebody’s gonna have to step up and help him out. The song they’re working on today, “Secret Santa,” will move this story line forward. But the voice actress, Crystal Scales, who’s portraying one of the kids helping St. Nick, is having a little trouble understanding her character’s motivation.
“Is she mad?” she wonders. No, she’s not mad, explains producer Joe Horne. The character simply senses the urgency of the situation: “If anyone’s going to save Christmas, it’s going to be you,” he says. Scales walks into a vocal booth and prepares herself while John Enroth fiddles at the sound board, then hits play. A funky, mid-tempo R. Kelly–sounding jam fills the room, and she belts it out: “We got toys to deliver all over the world/Gifts for all the good little boys and girls/We can’t do it alone don’t you understand/We’re gonna give Santa a helping hand.”
Midway through the session, Mothersbaugh, who wrote this song, enters, and he’s holding something in his hand. For a moment he stands there. Though he’s generally unassuming, his presence is felt, like a principal monitoring a classroom, though his gray shirt, gray pants and neon green socks make him look more like that principal just walked in from vacation. As Scales finishes her second take, Mothersbaugh walks across the room and hands producer Horne a little gift he’s been holding: a tiny computer vacuum that sucks the crumbs and dirt from the crevices of a keyboard. Joe accepts it graciously, if perhaps a bit confused. He didn’t ask for a keyboard vacuum.
This is a typical oddball non sequitur for Mothersbaugh. Though generally wry and sarcastic, Mothersbaugh overflows with creative passion. He’s an obsessive collector of things that inspire him, be it the volumes of Mao Zedong memorabilia that consume one whole off-site storage space, or his John F. Kennedy collection, which is stored at another site. He’s got an extensive collection of Third Reich–era Hitler post cards. “My life is divided up into a bunch of stuff,” he says with characteristic understatement. He and his wife, Anita, have two young daughters, both of whom they adopted from China, and who take up much of his time. The family also has two pugs, Finster and Fibi, who roam Mutato regularly and play starring roles in many of the company’s commercial reels.
Earlier this year Mothersbaugh published a gorgeous limited-edition book titled Beautiful Mutants, which features old photographs manipulated via Photoshop to reveal, in his words, a “study of humans via symmetry using photos, both recent and vintage.” He places these manipulations into gorgeous Civil War–era frames — he collects those too — resulting in creations both beautiful and disturbing. He and Anita have teamed with Walteria Living, an L.A.-based high-end design company, to craft a line of china patterns, and are marketing Mothersbaugh’s rugs as well. “Music is only half of what goes on at Mutato,” he says, and around every curve is proof; his prints hang on walls, his rugs cover floors, his Mutato combs sit in the reception area.
“Mark, as much as anyone I know, is a true artist,” says Randall Poster. “Anything he touches has a special energy to it, has a special spin to it. There isn’t a time when you’re around him where he isn’t creating something, whether he’s sitting there making the music, or directing the music, or drawing, or putting his touch on one thing or another.”
Mothersbaugh’s creative training began in the early 1970s as an art student at Kent State, though his father insisted that he and his four siblings learn piano at an early age. He met fellow art student Gerald Casale, and they became fast friends. Soon they were making art together and merging duel passions: film and music. The primary reason, says Mothersbaugh, sitting in the former plastic surgery room, was boredom: “We couldn’t afford drugs, we didn’t have a van and we hated bowling.” Both were involved in the Vietnam War protests that resulted in the National Guard killing four students; Casale, in fact, witnessed the shootings, and knew two of those who died. That experience, coupled with the general malaise sweeping their hometown of Akron, Ohio, informed their worldview.
Akron until the late 1960s was a factory town that made rubber for tires, but when the companies moved production overseas, downtown shuttered virtually overnight, causing an urban existential crisis: “All these big, draconian industrial-revolution brick buildings in downtown Akron went dark — they were silent,” says Mothersbaugh. “People were coming back from Vietnam and saying, ‘Okay, what do I do now? I’ve found out about LSD, and I’ve killed people for my country, and now I don’t understand what’s happening.’ We were trying to make sense of what was going on in the world. And a better description of what we were observing wasn’t evolution, but rather de-evolution. We kind of set about telling the good news of Devo to the people.”
From the start, continues Mothersbaugh, he and Casale were drawn to the Pop-art movement, inspired by Warhol, Rauschenberg and others who blurred the lines between commercialism and fine art — and by ad men who did the reverse. Specifically, one TV campaign struck him. He hums the melody to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, then sings the words to a Burger King commercial: “‘Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us.’ I loved that. Now that’s subversive. I thought, that’s amazing — to take such a beautiful piece of music and turn it into an ad for hamburgers. And then it got more interesting, because they then interpreted a country & western version, and a blues version, and a Dixieland version, and they totally went crazy on it.” That tuned his attention to television and radio commercials. “That was way more interesting to me than hippies or punks screaming for anarchy or revolution. I watched the hippies become commodified and turned into hip capitalists — and the punks, you just watched them kind of dwindle away.” Devo’s mission, decided Casale and Mothersbaugh, would be more subversive.
Their first major creative endeavor was a 10-minute 1975 call-to-arms film called In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution, directed by a friend, filmmaker Chuck Statler. It’s a striking experimental work — and a convergence of film and music that predated MTV by six years. The film offers a fully formed surrealist aesthetic featuring four workers in a factory. They wear identical coveralls; three don creepy transparent masks with big eyebrows, and a fourth, Mothersbaugh, is behind a rubber baby mask. That’s Booji Boy, “the infantile spirit of devolution,” a recurring Devo character who still pops up from time to time — most recently at Spaceland in October. (Booji Boy even wrote a book, the Devo manifesto My Life, in 1975.)
In the film, Devo cruise in Mothersbaugh’s blue Chevy to another building, where the band jumps into a ridiculously arrhythmic, stumbled version of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” Edited in are surreal snippets of non sequitur action — skinny men in boxers wearing monkey masks spanking a woman in a crying baby mask; Gerald Casale in a Chinaman’s mask, rubbing the crotch of a risqué clothes hanger.
Soon “Jocko Homo” kicks in. Mothersbaugh, now unmasked, wears a big red bow tie and a white doctor’s coat, pokes his finger into the air and does one of the most nerdishly funky dances you’ll ever see — a dance called “The Poot” — and begins singing the lyrics: “They tell us that/We lost our tails/Evolving up/From little snails.” Mothersbaugh refutes this. “God made man,” he decides, “but he used a monkey to do it.” The monkey, he sings, is our glue. “Are we not men? We are Devo!”
The low-budget film drew the attention of rocker aesthetes such as Brian Eno, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, each of whom offered to produce the band’s debut record. Devo went with Eno, and in 1977 they flew to Cologne, Germany, and recorded Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in a transformed barn built by Conny Plank, who produced the early music of Kraftwerk, Neu!, Ash Ra Temple and Guru Guru. (Kraftwerk, in fact, screened The Truth About De-Evolution before performances on one of their early tours.)
Are We Not Men was released by Warner Bros. Records in America in 1978, and the response was immediate. Here were human machines willing to manifest art instead of just singing about art, to combine sound and vision not only on screen but in person. “We plotted and crafted and built what we were building in obscurity, and it gave us a chance to be more about what we were about rather than being influenced by any particular scene,” says Mothersbaugh. “We had no scene.” At CBGB, they got onstage and the crowd was baffled. “People were like, ‘What the hell is that? An Akron? They came from something called an Akron?” Their performance of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on Saturday Night Live in 1978, during which they donned yellow biohazard suits and jerked back and forth like rusty robots, remains shocking nearly 30 years later.
Unlike some of their contemporaries, says Gerald Casale, Devo had a vision. “The Sex Pistols, in the history of rock & roll, were basically anti-intellectual and nihilistic. And that was okay. That was just about kids, you know, throwing a bag of poo on your front door at Halloween time. Whereas Devo, that was a manifesto. That was breaking with tradition — and it wasn’t stupid. That’s the most threatening thing an artist can do, is actually have something to say.”
After Are We Not Men, Devo’s ascent was swift — at least for such an odd band. Their sense that the future of music involved a convergence of video and audio proved prescient. MTV latched onto Devo’s videos from the start, and the band took advantage. With each successive album from 1978 to 1984, Gerald Casale, Devo’s chief strategist, bassist and video director, crafted odd, surreal music shorts, many of which stand as classic works of the first music-video age. “Satisfaction” features biohazard suits and a Booji Boy electrocution scene; “Come Back Jonee” was recorded at the Roxy on Sunset and shows the band in black uniforms that mix cowboy and military motifs; “Whip It” raised hackles with its sequences featuring Mothersbaugh whipping the clothes off of a tied-up model. Devo became an archetype of the new wave, staring into the future with red energy domes on their heads, saluting the galaxies, ready for a return to the monkey.
But Devo couldn’t actually see into the future, and what arrived — MTV — was, predictably, an exercise in de-evolution. “Our only mistake,“ says Mothersbaugh, “was to think that it could have actually kind of ended rock & roll and diverted us to maybe something a little more multimedia, more about artists who were also visually oriented. Instead, rock & roll bought MTV and made it into just like a baby picture for record companies, with stupid bands that didn’t have a vision — so the less vision an artist had, the more money they threw into the pot so that they could make a bigger, more extravagant video, as opposed to dealing with ideas or concepts or videos that were clever or artistic.”
Sometimes the network’s interactions with Devo were laughable. Recalls Gerald Casale: “MTV actually refused to play ‘That’s Good’ because an animated french fry flew through an animated donut. I remember getting a call from [the head programmer] and he said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do, Casale. You’re not fooling anybody. You get rid of that french fry or you get rid of that donut, or we’re not playing it.’”
Mothersbaugh sums up MTV thusly: “It was a lot stupider than I thought it would be.”
The success of Mothersbaugh’s four Wes Anderson scores has had a profound effect not only on Mutato’s output, but if you spend any time actually paying attention to the music seeping into your head during commercial breaks, on America at large. Flip stations and plucky, Casiotone melodies once buried beneath voice-over and image pop to the forefront. A spot for Burger King’s new Chicken Tendercrisp becomes a seductive romp with a perfectly placed harp run; a Seven-Up Plus ad featuring Kelly Ripa and Regis Philbin, when you pay attention to Mutato’s score, imparts with Rushmore-ian zest the lightness of a kite-flying day; a Spike Lee storytelling session about the greatness of Michael Jordan, if you are attuned to the music, sounds like a certain series of indie film scores.
John Enroth hears it whenever he turns on the TV. “If you actually listen to commercial music, it may not be us, but it sounds like the Tenenbaums or like Rushmore. There’s one commercial where they changed all the instruments — but they actually used the same chord changes as one of Mark’s things and just reversed the melody.”
Mothersbaugh hears it too. “I hear stuff all the time where I go, I know what piece of music I wrote that they were told they had to knock off a different version of. Make something that sounds like this. You can tell what movie it came out of or what TV show it came out of.” In fact, says composer Enroth, they all have Tenenbaums templates on their computers for immediate access to a specific palette featuring plucks, bells, shakers and strings.
A lot of information about Mutato had seeped into Enroth’s head before he started working here. “Not even necessarily consciously,” he says, “because the old video games really hide all the credits. Sometimes you had to beat the game to even see the credits. And knowing that Crash Bandicoot came out of this studio, that was a big deal. And then seeing Rushmore and looking him up and seeing all of his credits for TV — it seemed as though I’d seen most of it and enjoyed most of it. Drop Dead Gorgeous — there were five people in the theater, the other three people weren’t even laughing, but my wife and I were cracking up. Credits roll, Mark Mothersbaugh. Grosse Pointe, briefly on the WB. Freaking hilarious. Mark Mothersbaugh.”
Enroth started as a grunt here after graduating from college. He spent a few years looking for a way to make a living as a musician — including a stint as a saxophonist on a cruise ship. He landed an internship at Mutato, and has been there ever since, composing music that’s not supposed to necessarily be heard: “With TV, the music has to be interesting — but not too interesting. But more interesting than commercials. Because it’s gotta fit and work the picture and enhance the action — but it can’t detract from the dialogue. It’s a different part of the brain you have to turn on and off. ”
For commercials, adds Albert Fox, the music needs to just barely make a dent; it’s not there to be heard on a conscious level. And if the creative director — or, more important, if some noncreative executive somewhere — doesn’t like it, it’s not going to fly. “We’re trying to appeal to the director and the kids and the audience and the ad agency, and we have to write music that they want. It’s not necessarily what you want, or what you think is the best music — but what they want.”
“It’s a matter of craft versus art,” adds Enroth. “This is craft. It’s not like I’m sitting around waiting for inspirado to figure out what the next Ritz [Cracker] mnemonic’s going to be.”
Video games carry much bigger expectations, which is why the Steven Spielberg game for Wii that four Mutato composers are working on is such a coup. (The project’s code name is PQRS, coming out via Electronic Arts, a company, says Fox, that demands quality foreground music.) “They know what good music is, and they want the music to be interesting, because they want somebody to sit down and play the game for 10 hours a day. That’s their whole goal. If the music sucks, they’re not going to want to play the game.”
Although these days Mothersbaugh concentrates on film scores, art and toys, he’ll still occasionally do a theme for a video game. The Sims II theme is vintage Mothersbaugh, footloose and perfect for a bike ride along the beach or a day running errands. And if a high-profile client requests him, like Apple, Mothersbaugh can deliver.
“It’s a great testing ground,” says Mothersbaugh of television spots. “In commercials, they’re looking for new things, and they’re looking for odd things. More so than they are on TV programming. TV programming is usually safer. You can get more sophisticated music in a commercial, [and] you don’t really have a critic that’s going to judge it. It’s not like a guy like you from the L.A. Weekly is going to review a Budweiser commercial and say, ‘That music is not up to Mark’s standards,’ or ‘It’s too odd.’ That’s a place where you can experiment, like with mashups of content and concept and actual execution.”
As to whether he’s actually making any sort of grand artistic statement by getting paid to score a commercial that pits one brand of computer against another, or promoting the sale of Hummers or hamburgers, Mothersbaugh draws a larger circle. “As far as being subversive in commercials, I think that to work in that medium, it’s going to attract attention to your politics and to what your worldview is. It’s like, Big Brother is so all encompassing and perfected at this point so that your only true chance of changing things isn’t through direct confrontation but rather through subversion, and through guerilla tactics.”
But how guerrilla is it to make music for Wal-Mart, Hummers and McDonald’s? The goal of these campaigns is to paint the client in the best possible light, and unless Mutato’s secretly embedding subversive messages into all these commercials, the end results of these “indirect” confrontations seem to accomplish little more than provide Mutato Muzika with enough money to keep Mothersbaugh and his henchmen way in the black. Miltenberg says that Mutato has never turned down a job for reasons of conscience or politics, though he suspects that if the National Rifle Association or a right-wing Republican candidate tried to hire the company to score a spot, he’d turn it down — or embed it with a subliminal message. That said, the income earned from the business allows Mothersbaugh the freedom to create his more challenging “fine” art, be it manipulated antique photographs, paintings, prints, limited-edition books or rugs.
Each year, Robert Miltenberg makes a DVD compilation called Beautiful Mutants, which highlights a selection of the company’s recent television ads. He makes it like a mixtape, picking a nice variety of Mutato music, music that conveys to current and potential clients a sense of the composers’ ranges. This year’s reel includes composer (and Mothersbaugh’s nephew) Silas Hite’s suave, sophisticated tango that accompanies a Martini & Rossi ad featuring George Clooney; a number of different PC vs. Mac spots from around the world, each with Mothersbaugh’s piano melody; associate composer Chris Kennedy’s banging theme for a feature-length skate movie created by Nike.
The last spot on the reel is reserved for the most monumental ad Mutato scored this year: the first new Devo song in 18 years, “Watch Us Work It.” The song, a hard, slick dance-rock number, was recorded at Mutato with four of the five members of the classic Devo lineup, along with longtime session drummer Josh Freeze, then remixed by avant-electro band the Teddybears. Dell paid for the accompanying video to push its Dell XPS M1330 laptop, and flooded the airwaves and online avenues with a minute-long spot featuring scantily clad women dressed in black, white and red, in a factory very much unlike those in Akron, working on stylized chrome car gear, welding, sweating, flexing. Mothersbaugh sings over these images:
My baby said to me
I feel so Devo
I don’t know what to do
It’s okay because she’s free
How low can you go?
That’s really up to you
Says Mothersbaugh of the arrangement: “If we never made another cent off that song we still came out ahead.” The band put the single on iTunes themselves, and collects all money from its sale. After touring sporadically over the past decade but not releasing any new material, Devo are spending December at Mutato trying to create an album’s worth of new material and contemplating a method of dispersal in the post-record-company world. “We could possibly connect them up with sponsors,” imagines Mothersbaugh, “and then you eliminate any of the things that made you feel like you needed a record company in the first place. You have people that will take care of each specific song and walk it through its trajectory.
“That’s what made me want to do another album,” he continues, “is to see how Devo would fit into that world, because I think there’s still a place for us. I think as musicians and artists, I don’t think what we were talking about then is outmoded. It’s not like we were thinking about a style of music that is invalid. I think we may have come into our time, really, maybe more in our time than we were 30 years ago. That’s an exciting possibility.”
And even if they’re not of their time, they can always hire a bunch of kids and unveil a fresher, younger Devo 2.0, which they in fact did last year in one of the most baffling and audacious rollouts in their baffling and audacious career. Devo 2.0, a quintet of young kids who dress up and perform updated versions of Devo songs, have released a CD and DVD on Walt Disney Records (with videos directed by Gerald Casale), and appear on the Disney Channel. It’s an odd concept, yes — in one interview, Mothersbaugh characterized the members as “scary kids who came and auditioned for us along with their freaky parents.” But if the Blue Man Group can do it, why not Devo?
Also on the horizon is a Devo singing toothbrush being produced by the Hasbro Corporation. The “Tooth Tunes” item features a reworked version of “Whip It,” called, you guessed it, “Brush It.” The packaging features an image of Mothersbaugh donning his energy dome and staring toward the stars.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” says Mothersbaugh. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear. I was hoping for it 30 years ago. I hope it’s not too traumatic, because it’s going to scare some people who haven’t figured out what to do with their art. But once they realize that there’s a different model, and you don’t have to go to a record company that’s going to give you 14 percent of the amount of money coming in for the record — instead it’s going to be with a company that’s going to give you 85 percent — they’re going to understand that maybe it’s not such a bad thing that record companies are gone, and there’s a value for the artist there.”