Music

‘It’s not fun to be right’: How new wave pioneers Devo predicted Trump and our ‘bankrupt materialism’

Born from an act of state-sponsored violence, Devo have spent five decades fighting stupidity and cruelty with oddly danceable music. Founder Gerald Casale says he could never have guessed just how prescient their theory of the ‘de-evolution’ of the human race would be

an illustration of Devo

'We are Devo'. Image: PR supplied

“I saw two people I knew well, behind me, to my left and right, get shot and die. I saw tonnes of blood running down the sidewalk in the new day’s sun. And I felt like I was going to vomit and pass out. I laid down on the grass, frozen. I think it qualified as a nervous breakdown. And everything changed after that day.”

Devo founder Gerald Casale is looking back on 4 May 1970. Then a student protester, he was demonstrating against Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia when national guardsmen opened fire on their peace rally. Four students were killed, nine more injured, in the Kent State University massacre. Casale knew two of the victims, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause.

Horrified as the truth of what happened was twisted in official sources, he says it was his “red pill” moment. He realised, “America, the brand of freedom, is bullshit.” Alongside fellow student Bob Lewis, he started “proselytising about de-evolution” – the idea that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind had begun to regress.

Soon after, Casale met talented musician Mark Mothersbaugh and the theory got a “de-evolved” sonic backing. Devo’s classic line-up consisted of two sets of brothers, the Casales (Gerald and Bob) and the Mothersbaughs (Mark and Bob), along with drummer Alan Myers. Their music – Whip It, Jocko Homo, Girl U Want – is simultaneously furiously challenging and extremely danceable, attracting both feverish ire and passionate loyalty.

Their early fans included David Bowie, Brian Eno and Neil Young. They’ve inspired the likes of Nirvana, Arcade Fire and Radiohead.

As they embark on their final European tour dates, Casale bemoans just how right they were about where the human race was headed.

How do you think the core idea of de-evolution has developed over the last 50 years?

It began as a kind of intellectual, student, smart-ass satiric pose. But it got serious. Because the culture went full Reaganite, and he was manipulating the evangelicals for votes and empowering them. It became tyranny rule by a minority.

We were intersecting with the culture constantly and commenting on it, so Devo became a lightning rod for hostility. And we suffered in the marketplace because of it. Because it was a band of substance. Subversive. Trying to do it in an entertaining manner, but getting the message through. It wasn’t skinny ties and white shirts, singing about getting a girl.

So it became pretty immersive and pretty depressing because de-evolution got real and we didn’t really think that it could get as bad as it got. It went beyond our worst kind of projections and fears. I mean, we live today in the result of a de-evolved world. De-evolution is not a polarising theory. It happened. We’re in it. It’s not fun to be right.

Devo in red 'energy domes'
Devo wearing their red ‘energy domes’. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum

I was going to ask you if you thought you’d predicted the future. If Devo seemed prophetic when Reagan came along, how did it feel when Trump was elected?

He makes Reagan look like a brilliant man. That’s how far de-evolution has gone. We’ve got a complete thug, a triple-indicted felon, an authoritarian tyrant who is no different than John Gotti or Al Capone, and he has the approval of the Republican base. And he’s using the law and corrupt lawyers to get away with his nefarious plots.

We have had some brighter moments. When you first started out, you couldn’t have imagined, for example, there would be a Black president…

It’s like a momentary ray of light, when you get your head out of the water but you’re drowning. You spend the rest of your time in this culture, scratching your way back to square one, just trying to use enough energy and goodwill to get back towards the centre. But each time you get back towards that centre, it’s moved further right. So what used to be considered the centre is now being called lefties and socialists. And the fact that we had a Black president only created a hideous backlash, that pushes things even further back.

Was it a surprise to you when Whip It became such a huge hit?

Yeah, frankly. Because we weren’t, I guess, cynical enough or sophisticated enough as artists to sit down and go, ‘let’s write a hit’. We were just doing things we liked, as they occurred to us. We had moved on from our first two records to a new style that we were embracing. We jokingly called it ‘white R&B’. Like robot James Browns. I was playing R&B-style bass lines on a Moog, because I had heard Stevie Wonder do it.

No one at the record company thought twice about Whip It. They all went, “Oh, Girl U Want, that’s it”. And they ran with that. And radio completely rejected it. And so then Warner’s turned tail, they were out.

The next thing we knew is an important DJ down in Florida, Kal Rudman, who controlled a whole group of stations – he, on his own, loved that song. This was at a time before corporate takeover and he could do what he wanted. He had 50 DJs playing this across three states. And it migrated up to the east coast and exploded. So it was just luck.

Devo in silver suits
Photo: courtesy of Devo

If you could pick any moment in the band’s history to go back to, what would it be?

It would be that period. I mean, that’s what I’d really like to go back to, and make sure that we embraced what was good about that, and had built off of that.

You lost your brother Bob in 2014. How do you keep going at a time like that?

It wasn’t easy. Devo was five gears that were all necessary. There weren’t replaceable parts. I mean, amazing, unique talents. Alan Myers, the human metronome, a drummer that solidified Devo and arguably put it over the top. And my brother, Bob. Because he understood me, he was more than game for playing very strange parts on a guitar that no self-respecting guitar player would ever do. No straight, rock’n’roll guy would never do. He made up very, very cool, unique things.

He’s the one that made up the strange riff that’s the heart of Satisfaction. Perfectly played over and over, staccato. And it looks easy, but we tried to get to other guitar players since to fill in and play it and they fucked it up. They can’t do it.

Your version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction still gives me chills…

The Stones song, of course, was about a young man being frustrated about not getting sexual satisfaction. Jagger was the preening rooster, the wannabe Black bluesman, macho guy. But what we did with it is we made people feel what it was like to be frustrated, sexually frustrated. We devolved it.

Devo in grey workwear
Photo: courtesy of Devo

In a world of de-evolution, are there places where you see hope?

Boy, you’re asking the wrong person. Certainly, in most pop music with vocals – rock, pop, certainly hip hop – I don’t hear anything, subject-matter wise, that gives me any hope. As a matter of fact, what it’s doing is just reflecting the ugliness of our culture, the bankrupt materialism of the culture.

There is no humanitarianism or empathy left anymore. You know, that’s why you have so many poor and homeless people. Because, systematically, the right wing gutted the middle class, destroyed public education, created this gig economy. So people are busting their nuts just to share an apartment with somebody else, so they can keep going to work, to be denied decent health care, exist in food deserts where they eat junk. They have no choice. It is diabolical. There is no humanity.

There’s no noblesse oblige anymore. There’s nobody going, “It would behove us all if we actually took care of the people that fell through the social safety net. At a certain point, if you got this many people with nothing to lose, you destabilise society to the point where you’re biting yourself in the ass. You’re shitting where you eat.” But no, that’s not what’s going on. People are doubling down on being mean motherfuckers.

So you’re asking me, is there anything I hear in music that fights against that? Rarely. But there was that great song a few years back by Childish Gambino that nailed it, This is America. The music video was tremendous. And it was about those very things and about the rancid values, and the diabolical racism, in the United States. And it’s just incredible. We need more of that.

Devo play O2 Academy in Edinburgh on 17 August, Green Man Festival on 18 August and London’s Eventim Apollo on 19 August. clubdevo.com

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