Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo talks about the history of the band, and their Wipeouters side project
By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2001
The story goes that in 1966 future members of Devo formed a highly influential surf band called The Wipeouters. So pioneering were they that some people question whether such acts as The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and Dick Dale could have possibly accomplished what they did without The Wipeouters paving the way. But as The Wipeouters broke up in 1964, a full two years before they started, music fans never had the chance to own a recording by these legends of surf music. But now this has changed, with the release of “P’Twaaang,” the first ever Wipeouters cd. Chaos Control was able to get Mark Mothersbaugh on the phone to talk about The Wipeouters, Devo, and many other topics.
How did the Wipeouters project come about?
Mark: “It happened kind of organically and unintentionally. That it’s even generated as much interest as it has is really a surprise to us. It was just kind of a fun private project for the guys that were involved. Thr theme song was written for ‘Rocket Power’ so there weren’t any burning issues with it to take care of. We just started experimenting with out old analog synths we had pulled out of storage. I think one of the things that was inspiring and set us in that direction was that I played on a Moog Cookbook record a couple of years ago. Those guys have such a love for all the old gear, and with Devo we used whatever we had. I probably gave away more gear to friends than I saved over the years, a lot of that stuff we were always turning over. But there was still a bunch of stuff that we managed to hang onto. So it was kind of just liking what we were hearing in music, coming out of different areas, that we weren’t getting to be involved in with scoring projects. At the same time we were doing Wipeouters, my daytime job was intensively working on large orchestra scores. My brother Bob was working on ‘Rugrats’. There’s no reason to put those things down, but if that’s your steady diet, it’s nice to step out of that box every now and then. Josh, the drummer, had been doing Crash Bandicot games, we just did out forth, so he was ready to do something different than a game. Bob Casale had been working on ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘Chris Isaac’ and a couple of other shows with me at the time. We kind of made a challenge to ourselves to do things and to work with people that we weren’t always sure we were aesthically a match sometimes, we would work with people to see what makes them tick, what they were about. We did movies and other things that fell into that category. With ‘Rocket Power, it’s funny that it had a commercial venue, because it was the closest thing we’d done to something I’d done called ‘Music For Insomniacs.’ That was music I used to write for my house, because I wanted music could listen to that was like my version of soma music. I was creating my own muzak. So ‘Rocket Power’ was kind of like another of those kind of projects.”
How is it different working with those old synths today, in terms of using them alongside more modern equipment?
Mark: “Most importantly, you can get the same sound twice! In the early days of Devo, there songs like ‘Smart Patrol’ or ‘Jocko Homo’ or even ‘Mongoloid’ when you’re in your studio or in your garage recording or wherever you are, you can get that one perfect performance. But the oscillators were not that stable on the early 70’s, so we would go on stage and it would depend on what temperature it was in the nightclub, or if there were spotlights shining on the stage, or one of us had been sweating on the equipment. Things like that determined whether or not in ‘Mongoloid’ the three note chord would be in tune or not. There were a lot of songs in those days, because I was not that interested in the keyboard side of the synthesizer, we were interested in getting it to make sounds it wasn’t supposed to make. Often times, we’d have a broken synthesizer and go ‘oh, check that out’ and then we’d have to figure out how to take the synthesizer on tour, that was broken, and make it do the same sound every night. It was really baffling to technicians when you’d take it into a repair shop and go ‘ok, I want you to fix it, but don’t fix this’ and they’d be ‘huh?’ And now you can sample things, so samplers help a lot. There was no such thing as MIDI when we were first recording stuff, so if we had a sequencer track, it was a human played sequence. Just playing the 16th notes by hand as tightly as I could. Technology makes it so much easier to use that stuff again, so it was fun bringing it back up. I’m feeling dread as we’re pulling out old EML and AKS synthesizers and once I realized we could sample it I was like ‘oh, where was this in 1972?”
Do you think more advanced technology presents a danger, of having too many choices, or things being too easy?
Mark: “I think the ironic thing about technology is that it’s a trap for a lot of people. I love technology, and I love where technology has taken music, I love things like Acid and Reason. I got right on those programs, because it connects me up with even older times and makes me feel a little bit like a scientist again. But I know exactly what you’re saying, because you get so many choices and you can do so many things. I remember it took Brian Eno a whole day to get this one sound for ‘Too Much Paranoia’ on our first album. Now, it’s just like a plug-in that you can buy and anyone can do it. I think the trap with technology is that people end up sounding more alike, instead of less alike. There’s a lot of people who are putting out stuff that is all at 90%, rather than 100%, because all the samples, all the great gear that’s out there, you can fall against it and make it sound cool. But then you start listening and go ‘wait a minute, those are demo patches and every other kid used them on their first sketch.’ It’s like anything, if you’re an artist and you have 3 colors, or you have 100 tubes of paint, you can’t let yourself get overwhelmed by it. You have to put the technology in perspective. It’s a great tool, but a lot of people get sucked into making music that songs alike. That’s the ironic thing, when things sound alike and it’s only because there was too much technology available to the people.”
“Rocket Power” is a great track, but under a minute long. Did you consider doing a longer version of it?
Mark: “We thought about it. I was kind of concerned about the ‘Rocket Power’ connection, to be honest with you. I wasn’t sure if that was going to limit our audience. So I didn’t really want to make that like the major thrust. Even though the company who put out the record, they’re owned by the same people who made up the cartoon series ‘Rocket Power.’ So they put a sticker on it, and kept bringing it up that it was connected to the TV show. But I was a little nervous that it would limit how seriously people took the record, so we didn’t really want to expand it that much because of that.”
Suppose a 10 year old, who’s a big fan of “Rocket Power,” ends up discovering Devo because of it. He or she becomes a big fan, watches all the old videos, etc.. Is there any additional message you’d like to give them, like Devolution for the new millennium?
Mark: “Well it’s kind of funny. There’s an ironic thing about what’s gone on with the history of Devo. Because of the way we went, we kind of became subversive for real after the group stopped being an album and live performing band. Because we did so many commercials … when we first started doing commercials, I was very adamant about putting in subliminal messages that were all Devo related. “Choose your mutations carefully,” “Biology is destiny,” “Question authority.” So I was picking which commercials to put different messages in, for kids stuff we always tried to be positive, give them anti-stupidity, pro-intelligence, pro-using their own mind. So some of those kids have already be programmed a little bit! It is funny, I have so many people telling me. I suppose they’re doing it will all bands, it’s not just Devo. Of course if someone meets me, they’ll say ‘oh hey, my kids dug through all my LPs and now they’re playing the Devo ones, they love Devo.’ I suppose they say the same thing to Debbie Harry when they meet her. But it does seem that kids are interested in where the music they’re listening to comes from and the people they respect now. Like 10 years ago it was Nirvana and Soundgarden and Mudhoney doing covers of Devo tunes, today it’s Rage Against The Machine and other bands. I think kids are smart, and some of them really want to know what influenced the people that influence them. I remember when I listened to the Rolling Stones and The Beatles wanting to know who Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were, kind of after the fact. I would see their names on the occasional Rolling Stones song and go ‘that’s a great song’ and they didn’t write it. Bo Diddley, who the hell’s that?’ And I would go find out that there was this guy who was like the granddaddy who set the architecture up that the Rolling Stones stepped into, they were just there at the right time.”
How did the cover of “Head Like A Hole” come about?
Mark: “It was an odd, goofy thing. It had to do with Interscope being responsible for the soundtrack to ‘Supercop.’ I wanted to write a song called ‘Supercop’ but they were all saying ‘why don’t you guys do a cover?’ At the time Nine Inch Nails was on Interscope and that appealed to the label. And when we went to do it, we had like 10 days or something and it’s kind of too bad because the version we finally mixed 2 weeks later, after the album already to go be pressed, was so much better. The thing we were doing first, and that’s the one that made it onto the album, was sort of like saying ‘what if we were the demo band.’ You know all those garage albums that Rhino puts out? You hear songs that later went on to be done by somebody else and became hits, and you hear weedy versions of 60’s songs that later became famous. You hear the original version, and there’s something nice about it. So we’d do what we thought would be the demo version of ‘Head Like A Hole.’ Then we took it a step further and did something much better actually, literally like 72 hours later we had something but it was already too late. It was much more like somebody inspired by Nine Inch Nails, rather then being the garage band who Nine Inch Nails heard the song from and re-did.”
How did it feel to be covering a band who were obviously influenced by you?
Mark: “Well it was ironic. I never talked to Trent about what he thought of it, I’m not even sure I was that happy with what went on the disc. I enjoyed doing it, I just didn’t feel like we took it was far as we could. If we did ‘Head Like A Hole’ live it wouldn’t sound like that, it would sound pretty awesome, actually. I’ll tell you how to make it sound better. Come over here, go to my receptionist’s desk, take a ghetto blaster, put it on the ghetto blaster, hold the microphone at the receptionist’s desk up against the ghetto blaster and listen to it over the sound system in the building. It sounds awesome that way! It just was too clean for my taste, it wasn’t taken far enough. We were kind of using late 70’s/early 80’s producing techniques, and I think it sounds like that, too.”
Will there be any Wipeouters videos? Live shows?
Mark:“We did a video. I got a call from Chuck Statler, who was the guy that worked on all the Devo videos with us, and he was actually the first person to suggest we do short films. Before there were videos, we were just doing little movies, like 3, 5, 7 minute films. Back in those days, nobody was the director, nobody was the producer, nobody was the gaffer. We were everything, we were like “The Little Rascals” and whoever could hold the camera for that shot would do it. It was very low production, and no budget. They just ended up getting shown on sheets that we stung up when we played clubs. We’d project them with a 16mm projector and people would go well that’s interesting, what the hell are they making home movies for?’ So anyway, he called me up and said you know what Mark, I don’t care if the record company gets involved or not. Let’s do a video.’ So we got some favors from some friends and put together a video that actually came out really cool.”
With so many cool videos, Devo seem to an ideal candidate for DVD collection, but so far there hasn’t been one?
Mark: “It’s kind of silly, too. Because we had like 3 long form video releases over the course of our career. They should be transferred over to DVD. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened. I have a friend in Ohio who did sound on the early tours – we shot something like 30 or 40 hours of video and 8mm film of the band from 1972 through 1978, up to when we signed to a record label, and he was footage of like the first time we had the yellow suits on, in Cleveland, Ohio. There’s bikers taunting us from the audience, and we’re taunting them back. And there’s a fist fight on stage with these bikers and the police have to close down the club. There’s footage of The Deadboys coming on stage and trying to pull our pants off, David Bowie coming on stage with us at Max’s Kansas City. We didn’t even know him, we just knew who he was so we’re shitting out pants and he’s standing in front of us going ‘this is the band of the future, I’m going to produce them in Tokyo this December’ and everyone in the crowd claps and we’re like ‘shit, that’s great, because we live in a van right now, so it sounds good to us!’ And he also has 8mm footage from Kent State when we were shooting the “Are We Not Men?” video, working on story boards and figuring out the shots. It’s really surprising that he has all that footage. So we might do something with that sometime, too.” [NOTE: since this interview was done, Devo DVDs have indeed been released]See all interviews →