Since the 1970s, Devo have been innovators of sound and purveyors of truth, using dark humor, groundbreaking music videos and unforgettable live performances to convey their theory that humankind is declining rather than evolving. This Saturday, Devo will perform a 90-minute set of classics, career-spanning material and, of course, videos at Desert Daze. It will be somewhat of a bittersweet event, as founding member/bassist Gerald Casale recently announced it might be the band’s last. We caught up with Casale to discuss why the world needs Devo now more than ever, some of the group’s history, and which acts he’s most excited about seeing at Lake Perris’ Moreno Beach this weekend.
OC WEEKLY: It’s pretty common knowledge the Kent State shootings in 1970 were the impetus for Devo and the concept of devolution. Now that similar events have become almost weekly or even everyday occurrences, do you feel like the band and the movement are more relevant now than ever before?
GERALD CASALE: I personally think that everything that informed us and everything that made me become who I was, write the kinds of songs, and have the kinds of ideas I had is now exponentially exaggerated—times 10. Now, there is no question that devolution is real. It’s not some college pose or clever prank—it’s real.
So we are living in a devolved world now, where the level of discourse has been dumbed down and disinformation is king. People don’t know how to process information; they lost their critical faculties because education has been decimated over the past 40 years, so they don’t know how to distinguish fact from fiction and bullshit from reality. And this really plays into the hands of authoritarian people who want to rule by scare tactics. And that’s what you’re seeing, this rise of dictators around the world, including Western societies that are supposedly democratic or socialistic. It’s over.
You’re watching despots: They use these tactics, and they work. It’s like the book Animal Farm, in which the sheep can’t remember what the rules on the side of the barn said the day before, so they believe whatever they see and read is what’s happening. Those who remember, like the horses, are cast aside as troublemakers.
So that’s where we are right now. You’re watching it play out as we speak.
I saw an interview with you from about 10 years ago where you said a pretty similar thing.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, it isn’t like we wanted to be right. The point is, it’s not funny anymore. This is not funny. We’re all paying a big price now. Decent, law-abiding people are being put upon, are being sacrificed, are being ripped off. It is diabolical.
Let’s put it this way: This is the reason there was a revolution in 1776. You talk about taxation without representation? How about living under minority rule of an ideologue-driven, extremist, right-wing group? And it’s not even the will of the majority and not even the will of the people in terms of voting. They’re using voter suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, loading the courts, and they took over. We are being ruled by a minority that is authoritarian. Where is Hong Kong? We should be doing Hong Kong. It’s a call to arms. It’s now or never.
It certainly seems like all of this division and social isolation is reaching a tipping point.
Yes. You feel it. People feel really bad. Their faces are being rubbed in poo-poo every day. They put the orange clown in your face every day as a distraction. Like, “Here’s what you’re going to deal with, folks, whether you like it or not.” It’s a circus; it’s a distraction. Meanwhile, they’re doing their dirty work behind the scenes.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Devo brought an entirely new sound and provided some fresh social insight. I think that the band still has a huge influence on our pop culture today. For instance, internet culture revolves around that kind of dark humor that Devo have always been about.
Well, we were doing things before there were labels for them. We were doing performance art. We were doing what came to be called “postmodern aesthetic” because of the sense of irony and self-awareness. We were doing those things. We didn’t have the self-labelled intellectualization for it; we were actually doing it. Then came the terms. But, yeah, we weren’t talking about getting laid, or I couldn’t get laid, or “I lost my baby.” It wasn’t about that.
Are there any musicians or artists today who you see that are leading a similar charge?
I do see things sporadically. And I can’t say that I’m any more in a position to pretend I’m an expert or up on the moment. But what I see now, it isn’t like there are groups with a consistent gestalt or epistemology or body of work. I see a song or an artist here and there, like—I mean, fuck, Childish Gambino. I’m still jealous, two years later. “This is America.” Fuck! That song and video, I was envious of. That’s like, “There! That’s what Devo is now, right there.” Devo is not just a style of music. It isn’t like “My Sharona” and here’s a white shirt and skinny tie. That wasn’t Devo. But that thing blew me away.
You were on an episode of Amoeba’s What’s in My Bag? a few years back, and you picked up an Odd Future record. You mentioned that they were a sort of Dada group like Devo, which is a comparison I don’t think a lot of people would make off the bat.
Yeah, it’s not about a single style of music. It’s about a worldview and an aesthetic that’s coming from someplace that’s primal and honest. It’s all about being original and clever. That’s what people liked about Devo. It was different, and there was originality.
Sonically, Devo’s music is incredibly original, especially considering you formed in the early ‘70s. What were some of the group’s early musical influences?
We were doing some synthesis of influences from classical, from rock, from the new electronica that was popping up at the time. We wanted to combine non-rock & roll ideas with a rock beat and rock guitar, but use electronics and interesting compositions that were architectural, where each part could be dissected. You could hear them individually and feel how they came together.
God, we were influenced by Captain Beefhart, by the Nairobi Trio from The Ernie Kovacs Show on television, by terrible commercials, by classical music. And, of course, we came to know about Kraftwerk. We didn’t know about them when we started out. But it was like, “Oh, there’s people kind of doing us.” Except we were different. We might have been Kraftwerk from the waist up, but we were Elvis from the waist down.
The clip of Devo and Neil Young performing “Hey Hey, My My” on Young’s 1982 film Human Highway seems to bridge a lot of those gaps.
That was just such an amazing time—so chaotic and revolutionary and unexpected. I thought, “Why would Neil Young like Devo?” I thought I knew him. And then I realized I didn’t. We met him, and he was so much more than what I thought. He was very funny, smart and hip. And it made sense. In other words, why should I put him in a corner just because the style of his music? We didn’t like to be put in a corner. He was open to everything.
Devo has been covered and sampled by a ton of artists. The French electronic duo Justice sampled an iconic synth part from “Jocko Homo,” and Rage Against the Machine did a pretty haunting version of “Beautiful World.” Do you have any favorite instances of this?
It’s always a head-scratcher. Like the Soundgarden cover, the Nirvana cover—maybe that was one of the most interesting ones. Which one did they do? “Turn Around”? Yeah, that was one of the most interesting. It was funny when Zach de la Rocha and Rage did “Beautiful World,” they turned it into this sad, slow dirge. And so did Soundgarden; they turned one of our songs into a slow dirge. They grunged it up. And there are a lot more examples. One of the things that didn’t happen—that I heard was going to happen and never did, that I’m really sorry didn’t—is that supposedly Guns N’ Roses was going to do “Freedom of Choice.” Can’t you hear [Axl Rose] going, “Freedom of choiiyoooice?” It would have been a hit, and I would have made money! [Laughs.]
We were always musicians’ musicians. Creative people in bands loved us. Visual artists loved us. Dancers loved us. Because other creative people got it. Critics didn’t, usually. But that’s how we got nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—Dave Grohl spearheaded that. He’s a big fan.
You actually worked with Foo Fighters, right? You directed a music video for them.
I did—the first one they ever allowed [for “I’ll Stick Around”]. Like many grunge bands, they were like, “We aren’t doing those bullshit music videos.” Then, finally, they realized that in the real world, “Oh, we better do a music video.” So Dave Grohl contacted me because he trusted me. He knew that I understood what it was like to be on both sides of the camera and that I wouldn’t embarrass them or talk them into some bullshit.
You recently announced that Desert Daze might possibly be Devo’s last live performance. Why this festival?
Well, you know, I’m probably not the person to ask because so many shows are refused by Mark Mothersbaugh, and the reasons . . . we never hear the real reasons or what they might be. But for this one, it’s so close to home, it was so easy, and of course, the rest of us love performing. We love doing what we did. That’s what we like. So I think Bob Mothersbaugh appealed to Mark, and he relented. So I can’t speak for him. You’d have to ask him why these shows that we get offered are thrown by the wayside.
Is there anyone on the Desert Daze lineup that you’re looking forward to seeing or sharing the stage with?
Well, you know, I always liked Stereolab. And I realize there’s only some of Stereolab now, but I would love to see what they’re doing now, years and years later. I have their records; I love them. I love the Flaming Lips, of course; we know Wayne [Coyne] and [have] watched his work over the years. They are a trip, by their own definition. And also, I love the Wu-Tang Clan—believe it or not, I really love them. And there’s somebody else that popped out, but I’ve never been able to see. It’s not an older group; it’s, like, some newer hipsters.
Maybe Animal Collective?
Yes! That’s it! I’ve never seen them, [but] I want to see them.
They definitely seem like an experience.
Yeah, that’s the point of live shows. You want to see performance plus. You don’t want to just see somebody who can re-create the record and just stand there like paint drying. That was always the funny thing about the Cars. We knew them pretty well, and they had an amazing, pristine sound with perfect production. But when they played live, it was the most boring thing in the world. There wasn’t any dimension added. You could just stand there and shut your eyes and think you were listening to the record over a big PA.
But Devo, you had to experience. That’s like the other groups we’ve been talking about—we were worth seeing.
Speaking of that, you have a full 90-minute set at Desert Daze. Any clues as to what kind of material you’ll be playing?
The material spans the arc of the career. And there are some surprises. And there are, as you would expect from Devo, some video elements you haven’t seen. And some surprises I’d rather not screw the pooch on; I’d rather them be a surprise.
Fair enough. Even if Devo don’t perform live again, is there any chance you’ll release some previously unreleased old material or even new material in the future?
God, I would love to think there could be new material. That’s probably a high hope and fairy tale. But there are a great stock in the vault that we found that need to be released, for sure.
Are you working on any other music projects yourself?
When you play music, you play music because you love playing music. You started when nobody cared, and you made no money, and then you keep doing it after it stops making money. You do what you do. Because that isn’t the reason you were doing it, obviously. But, yeah, I do [still write].
I just realized that without the Devo brand, [there’s a different] reality [in] the business world. I remember when I put out my solo record by Jihad Jerry & the Evildoers, which was a satiric response to the horrors of the Iraq War, the [George W.] Bush administration, and the sudden anti-Muslim era. So I went back to my early R&B and blues roots in many of the songs. I remember I did publicity for the record, which was on a small label called Cordless, which was a subsidiary of Warner Bros. They hooked me up with this radio tour with Sirius XM. I walked into the studio, and the first thing the DJ said was, “You know this song here, ‘The Time is Now’? If that were a Devo song, we’d be playing that all the time. It sounds like Devo!” and I go, “I wonder why?” How could I not be me? And the fact that I couldn’t put “Devo” on it [meant] they weren’t going to play it.
Devo will perform at Desert Daze on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. For more details, visit desertdaze.org.