We’ve Got A File On You: Mark Mothersbaugh

Courtesy Of Devo

We’ve Got A File On You: Mark Mothersbaugh

Courtesy Of Devo

Over 50 years ago, Mark Mothersbaugh met Jerry Casale at Kent State, and the origin story of Devo began. It would take most of the ’70s, but eventually Devo arrived as a bizarre, ground-breaking band. You could lump them in with the post-punk and new wave movements, but they were always an aberration — a couple of guys from Ohio, making weirdo art-punk with brainy theory and cartoonish elements alike — to the point that over the decades many people haven’t known quite what to do with them, even as they’re also regarded as one of the more important bands of their time.

Devo are still around — they’re nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame this year and currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of Oh, No! It’s Devo. But over the years, Mothersbaugh has branched out into film scoring, video game scoring, commercial work — his resume and IMDB pages are vast. You might be well aware of some of his other work, like his beloved theme for Rugrats; you might be more surprised to find he also, for example, wrote the music that backed those PC vs. Mac commercials back in the ’00s. Calling over Zoom from his studio, Mothersbaugh walked us through the origins of Devo and their overall worldview, and how he got involved in everything else along the way.

Devo Forming After The Kent State Shootings (Early ’70s), “The Truth About De-Evolution” Video (1976)

It was a long period of time with the project coming into its identity, from Jerry Casale talking about “devolution” after losing his friends in the Kent State shootings, to the first video, to Bowie noticing you guys, Eno producing the first album. Did you feel part of a particular movement as Devo developed over the course of the ‘70s and sort of touched these different eras?

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: I met Jerry in ’69. He was a grad student and I was a sophomore. He searched me out. I was in one of my art classes and he came over and said, “Are you the guy who’s been putting pictures of an astronaut standing on the moon holding a potato around campus?” I did. The year before I started school, I found out about printmaking — I said, “Oh, that’s what Andy Warhol does.” To me, that was about as high-tech with art as you could get with those days, and it was inexpensive, and I could wait until school was out and have the art department all to myself. I did a lot of stuff that was kind of like decals, kind of like Shepard Fairey in the early days of Obey. I put this artwork all over campus. There was no such thing as graffiti art at the time. I was just compelled to do it. I don’t know why. I was just excited by what I was doing and wanted to put it up somewhere. I never considered the mainstream galleries.

He saw this artwork and he said, “What do potatoes mean to you?” So we started into this dialogue about potatoes and humans and the hierarchy of vegetables and that potatoes were the lowest in a way because they come from underground and they’re dirty but they’re a staple of everybody’s diet. People ate potatoes every day but they never thought about it. They had eyes all around, so they saw everything going on. Early on, since we were both from working class families, we said, “Yeah we’re potatoes.” We interchanged the word “spud” with “comrade.” We used it pejoratively and also [as] a “welcome comrade” type thing. “Hello spud!” That’s how we first met.

Two days before the shootings… we were all very idealistic. SDS was around. We all believed in that. We all believed America could be better than it was. I marched two days before that, down to the recruitment center in downtown Kent. There’s a guy with a microphone saying, “Stop recruiting people, stop sending people over to Cambodia and Vietnam.” I agreed with that. Then rocks started flying over my head through the windows of the recruitment station and I thought, “Wow, do we have to do that?” The next day, my brother Bob, who was in high school, hitchhiked from the other side of Akron, and later after the shooting the FBI showed up with pictures of Bob lighting an American flag on fire and trying to stop the firefighters from putting out the fire on campus. Those are the two days that set up for the governor going, “OK, we’ve had it with these guys.” Jerry was at the third one, which is when unprovoked, national guardsmen got down on one knee and shot at people. They closed down our school. It was martial law.

Jerry and I had collaborated on art projects. We couldn’t work on art stuff. He came over to my house where I was writing music. We talked about what’s going on in the world. I’d been influenced by a book I’d read in 1969 called The Population Bomb. It was very unpopular at the time, this guy got attacked and harassed constantly. He basically said that humans were the species that were going to over-populate the planet and we were going to decimate all the food, eat all the fish in the water, destroy the planet. The only thing that could save the planet: He figures one thing that will undoubtedly happen is that by the year 2050 there’ll be so many humans that a virus will sweep among humans and wipe out the human race, which would be a savior for all the other species and for the planet Earth. He said the thing that could possibly happen before that would be nuclear war and then 100,000 years from now we’d just look like Mars. People would go by and just go, “I wonder if there was ever life there.” That book made me go, “I’m never going to have kids.”

A couple years later, after the Kent State thing, we’re like: “Things aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse, what’s happening.” Jerry and another friend of ours, Bob Lewis, found a book called The Beginning Was The End: How Man Came Into Being Through Cannibalism. He was a crazy Yugoslavian anthropologist who connected all the Neanderthal men who were found with holes in their forehead to homeopathic medicine techniques and came up with the thought that Homo sapiens were insane because when they came up to Europe they were eating all the Neanderthals. In homeopathic medicine you use a desiccated liver to treat liver problems and things like that. He said by eating the brains of other men, our own brains were growing too fast for our craniums to hold them, and that’s why human brains are so convoluted — they’ve grown too big and they’re cramped. He said, because of that, we became the insane species. We became the species out of touch with nature.

We loved that. Once we started thinking about de-evolution, then you start to find the evidence in other areas. In religion, there were reactionaries to Darwin’s theory, where they were making fun of evolution. They weren’t saying de-evolution was really happening, but I found this pamphlet from a preacher in Rogers, Ohio, and it was called Jocko-Homo: Heavenbound. It had a picture of an ape sitting in the mud with human bones around him, and then there was a devil with the word “de-evolution” across its chest and he’s pointing to this set of stairs and it had all the different perceived evils of humankind — which, you know, there was enough to fill up some 15 or 20 steps. We just loved that stuff. We started thinking, if both science and religion are saying the same thing but in different ways, we’ll be a platform that talks about that.

That, to me, felt like a manifesto. I was in art school. I fell in love with all the art movements going on in Europe between World War I and World War II. I always felt if there was a different time on Earth I could’ve been alive, I would’ve loved to be living in France or Germany or Italy during that time period. The art world was incredible. You had the Dadaists. In Russia, they called themselves the Suprematists, but they were making fun of humans thinking they had conquered nature because of light bulbs and airplanes. I like the Futurists from Italy. Musically, they said the contemporary orchestra does not include the instruments required to properly represent industrial culture in art and sound. They started adding things like a bicycle wheel with a playing card in the spokes, or big really loud fans.

We loved making music, and we were making music, but I was looking for sounds that I thought represented our culture. Gerry at the time was writing these bluesy bass riffs. I was looking for stuff like V-2 rockets and mortar blasts and ray guns and melting sounds and explosions. Things you could only get on a synthesizer. I was playing against these rhythms and we were coming up with really interesting stuff and we were putting lyrics over it that talked about perception of life on planet Earth. I felt like we had enough of a manifesto that we could become an art movement like we could back then.

Chuck Statler showed up in ’74. He had a Popular Science magazine, it had this young couple with a silver disc that looked like a 12 inch. It said “Laserdiscs — by Christmastime, everyone will have them.” We thought that was perfect of us. We’re sound and vision artists. We should be creating product for laserdiscs! We thought, how amazing, black vinyl is going to turn into silver plastic discs that not only have music on them but will have the potential for film and visuals to go along with it. Chuck Statler, his reason for wanting to the film with us, he said: “I remember talking with you guys and Jerry didn’t understand what you were doing with your crazy stuff. Before this falls apart I want to get some of it on film.”

At the time, it was my two brothers and Jerry and me. We picked two songs, “Jocko Homo,” which told the story of what we were talking about, and I liked it because it was so abstract and it was so anti-pop music — treating it like pop music’s going to change. Rock ‘n’ roll is over, something new is going to happen. The other song was “Secret Agent Man.” I only used a couple lines of Johnny Rivers’ song, but in those days if you used anything at all you had to give that person total credit if they wanted it. So they did. I didn’t care. The song was, I thought, a way for people to look at us — people would say, “What are you guys doing? We don’t understand it.” By using a song they recognized, at a certain point they’d recognize it and it would be a portal into Devo.

Scoring Rugrats (1991-Present), Devo Appearing In Neil Young’s Human Highway Movie (1982)

You’re talking about this film and mixing visuals with music, which defines a lot of your career over the subsequent decades. In the last 30 years, you’ve done a ton of composing. One of the first ones was Rugrats.

MOTHERSBAUGH: Early on. I started with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I scored an off-Broadway play that Dean Stockwell directed. He was a Devo fan.

That’s how Devo’s involvement in Human Highway came about, right?

MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, through Dean Stockwell and his girlfriend Toni Basil. [The play] was Russ Tamblyn doing a one-man show and he asked me to score it, so I did. When Dean started working on Human Highway, he said, “Neil, check out all this score I have,” and he gave him permission to use my music. I ended up being the co-composer for the score with Neil.

I didn’t realize the video of Devo playing “Hey Hey, My My” with Neil was an early iteration of that song.

MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, yeah. We didn’t know much about him. We knew Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. We were like, “What’s he want? He wants us to be in this film?” When we found out Dean was in it, we thought that was pretty cool. We said, “We’ll make you a deal, we’ll do it if you shoot Devo playing at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco.” We said for pay we wanted five matching pairs of cowboy boots and cowboy hats. He used one of the songs we did in his film. If you’re watching Human Highway, he gets out of his car near this roadhouse, and he opens the door and you’re in this crazy punk club and he walks though and comes up onstage with Devo. That’s how I got started in [scoring], and then really Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was my first TV show.

My brother Bob is in this building right now working on music for another season of new Rugrats. They’ve fooled around with the visuals so they aren’t as gnarly as they used to be, which I thought was one of the main wonderful things about the show. They’ve taken some of that out, and they’ve done some other things to change it story-wise. But we were adamant about keeping the music so it sounded like it came from the early seasons. I love that show. That was important for me.

Scoring Crash Bandicoot (1996) And Mac Commercials (2006-2009)

Along the way you have a children’s show like Rugrats, video games like Crash Bandicoot, all the way to the Mac commercials in the ’00s. Are there mindsets you have to get into to work in these different versions of media or are you always picking from some ether of material you’ve got?

MOTHERSBAUGH: Both. They each have things that made them interesting. I’ve probably done about 500 TV commercials. I don’t do it so much anymore. I do the rare one now and then, but I lost interest in it. When I first did them, I was kind of nervous about it. I found out that as long as you did what they wanted you to do and fulfilled what they needed for their commercial, you could put subliminal messages in national or international TV ads and most people wouldn’t hear it to say, “Hey, stop doing that!” It would just be in there. There would be people who would say, “Did he just say ‘sugar is bad for you’ along to the drumbeat?” Or “question authority” or something. I enjoyed that.

Part of coming out to Hollywood for Devo was feeling like, after seeing what happened at Kent State and watching the rebellion get put down, we were asking, “Who does change things?” And it was Madison Avenue. They were getting people to eat shit food, drive shit cars, wear shit clothes, and be happy. We thought we would use their techniques. We thought of it as subversive.

But video games, I love video games for a whole other reason.

I was wondering about that. Obviously there’s some crossover between groundbreaking synth music and early video game music. It was getting just a bit more sophisticated around that time of the first Crash Bandicoot game. Was that a medium you were always excited about?

MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, here’s what I found out. I did some games before Crash Bandicoot, some Activision things years earlier. They’d say, “We have this much space on the disc, so here’s your drum kit.” You have four boops. You have one bass sound. You have one synth. So you didn’t even play chords. It all fit into less space than an average sample. It started getting bigger and bigger. It finally got to a point where you realized, the way I’m going to compose this music for the game is the same way I write it [for a band]. You start off with one instrument. The same as if it was with Devo or whatever. You’re building all your instruments as you go.

If it’s Homer Simpson in a food court, you’d start it off and it’s just a bassline and maybe it’s a synth or an orchestral bass. You have to think, OK, someone’s playing this game, and it’s their first time. It’s going to take them 15 minutes to get to the next level. They’re going to hear this music a lot. So you want to make it catchy or interesting or something I would want to hear for 20 minutes, not something that would make me say, “I’m not playing this anymore, that music is irritating.”

Maybe it starts with slow whole-note bass-playing, and maybe he grabs a hoagie because he’s going around collecting food in the food court. When that happens, maybe there’s some brass instruments that start adding some rhythm. Then he goes over and gets a pizza. And you have to write the music so that it can play the bassline for a long time before somebody grabs the sandwich, or it can be the tenth time they play the game and they grab the sandwich after three notes of the first thing and you instantly have the next thing come in.

So there’s a whole other way to conceive of the music that’s both extra artificial and very natural. I love games. I love writing music for games. It’s such an intriguing media. To me it’s more real, the way people get introduced to a piece of music you’re writing for each level, than when you just hear it on the radio and it’s a pop song.

Like people are in the development of the song as it’s happening.

MOTHERSBAUGH: Yeah, yeah! The person playing the game is kind of interacting with it. Because, you know, you could’ve written the bassline or whatever the first piece of music is — it could’ve taken hours, or it could’ve taken two minutes. A kid playing the game, they’re having their own version of that same reveal of the song until it finally gets finished at the end and then you go to the next level. Games are really intriguing for that reason.

That’s really fascinating, I’d never considered that level of difference between scoring a movie where you might just get abstract descriptions, and something like a game where you are writing to an environment that will be dynamic, a world someone’s moving around in.

MOTHERSBAUGH: I remember early on, we did something for Activision. Some smaller games in the very, very early days. It was kind of like, “Well, this is interesting.” But it wasn’t what I’m talking about here. It was so much more crude. Now in games it’s so sophisticated, you have access to every instrument, every voice, every concept.

Creating Devo 2.0 With Disney (2005-2007)

In the ’00s, you created a new Devo with children singing along to re-recorded tracks with slightly altered lyrics to make them more kid-friendly. I think it was Jerry who said the whole project was “proof of devolution.”

MOTHERSBAUGH: I’ll tell you the most unfortunate thing about that project: It happened exactly one second after High School Musical exploded, and that became all Disney could think about. This got left in the dust. Changing the lyrics is OK with me. I thought it was ridiculous, the things the lawyers were saying — they were making connections I don’t think anyone else would make, but they’re paid to be paranoid. But I also think doing something like that means that if the kid likes it, and they go, “What’s Devo’s version sound like?” They hear it and then they realize the lyrics are different, it makes them pay more attention to our lyrics. Then it makes them get into what is Devo and what does that mean.

Like “Whip It” was in some ways just benign, but it was also a little bit subversive. It was a dance tune, and the lyrics were like Thomas Pynchon, silly. You could play it in a disco and somebody heard it and started putting it on the playlist around the clubs ,and people heard it and it was just like, “Oh yeah, Devo, I just love dancing to ‘Whip It.'” Then some of them would go listen to the album and they’d go, “Wait a minute, why did they say ‘Freedom of choice/ Is what you got/ Freedom from choice/ Is what you want.’ What does that mean?” We were always trying to protect an idea and a concept — not protect, but amplify and display. We were also looking for ways to do it where it wasn’t a headbutt with the record company.

In the same way you were talking about Madison Avenue before, changing the lyrics with Devo 2.0 is almost like, a Disney Trojan Horse?

MOTHERSBAUGH: That was always our hope. There’s a commercial where a light bulb came on, that made me realize it was Madison Avenue that changed things. I was painting an apartment, that was my daytime job. There’s a little portable radio in the room and there’s a commercial playing Pachelbel’s Canon. And then the lyrics are “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” I was like, God, that’s Burger King, man. In the papers it’s saying Burger King made a big advance on the #1 hamburger company, McDonald’s. They moved up. I used some of those lyrics in a song called “Too Much Paranoias” that we recorded for the first album.

Working With Wes Anderson On His First Four Movies (1996-2004), Scoring Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

In film scoring, you’ve done everything from Wes Anderson’s early movies to very big budget mainstream stuff, like The Lego Movie — or it particularly blew my mind to find out you scored Thor: Ragnarok. I was curious what it’s like to go from that world with Wes, with a sort of shared aesthetic, to some of these other projects where you might be working in a giant Marvel machine.

MOTHERSBAUGH: First off, a composer is usually hired because of the director. It’s the same case with all three of those movies: The director said, “We want Mark Mothersbaugh.” Then they would tell me stories of how they loved Devo or Rugrats or Pee-Wee’s. As a matter of fact, [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller worked as Klasky-Csupo, and we met a week or two before they got fired as storyboard artists because they weren’t good enough artists for whatever show they we were working on over at Rugrats. They remembered me, and they requested me to be on the first movie they did, which was Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. It’s always interesting.

The same thing happened with Thor: Ragnarok. I never considered doing a Marvel movie. I thought the scores were all very boring, and I was never a big superhero guy. In cartoons, I liked things like Robert Crumb or really dark Dick Tracy from the ’40s when it was almost sadomasochism, some of the stories they were doing then. Taika [Waititi] wanted to work with me for his own reasons. I never thought much of Marvel. It turns out, what they would do for their scores, in a way — if you think of Marvel comic books, it makes sense to make music that’s the dot pattern in the background of the pictures. Their request of me was, “Do a battle theme, and make it long enough so we can cut it and move it around throughout the movie.” For each scene, they wanted something like that. They just wanted a bed of music and their editor was going to chop them up.

I have two daughters. I’d have to see Frozen and Dora The Explorer. Our neighbors, they have two boys. They were into the Marvel movies, so sometimes they had to come fall asleep at something like Frozen and other times we’d go see a Marvel movie with them. I’d been at work all day and we’re in a theater and I’m like, “This music is just going bom-dink-dink-bom-dink-dink,” and I fell asleep and woke up 20 minutes later and it’s still going “bom-dink-dink-bom-dink-dink.” They used the same music throughout the whole thing. Why would you do that? They’ve got enough money.

So when they hired me to do Thor, I said, “OK, the one thing we’re going to do is I’m going to do it the way I do every movie I work on: I’m going to score music specifically to the scene.” They were like, “Oh, shit!” Taika had originally had this as a three-hour movie. They cut almost an hour out, but they waited until after I’d made a lot of music for that hour. I wrote music for every scene, and I really enjoyed it. They were really nice people to work with. Taika, I watched him. He was going from being the indie guy who sits in a room with one other person and they go “What music should we put in here?” and they’re listening to YouTube and it’s like “I like that band, can we afford it?” “Probably not.” “One of my friends does stuff like this.” It was a real personal hands-on thing for him. All the sudden he was in charge of 900 or a thousand people in all these different areas. He felt like things were out of his control, especially when they kindly removed an hour of his movie. I’d love it if there was ever a director’s cut of the film.

So with Wes, this was an ongoing collaboration. He used to welcome you to the set to show you how the movie was coming together, right?

MOTHERSBAUGH: The very first film, he fought with James Brooks the whole time. Brooks saw a student version of the film he made, and when Wes first revealed to him the film he’d made with money, James goes, “Why does it look your student film!?” Wes goes, “What did you think it was going to look like?” He was trying to help Wes out, because he thought Wes didn’t know what he was doing: “He needs a lot more help than I thought, I should’ve not let him keep me away from the set.” By the time it came to the music, he was all over me. James Brooks would show up at the different playbacks when I’d write music for Wes. Wes would be there. Every time James would show up, he’d leave and his office would send me another copy of Big, like “Listen to this, this is what your music should sound like.” [Laughs] I said, “Wes, I have a stack of Big VHS tapes, what should I do?” He said, “Just ignore him. Don’t worry, you and me are going to work this out.”

That’s how we started. Wes is a true artist, in the sense that he has his hand on everything and he’s worried about costumes and changing camera angles he wants and what colors are going to be on the set at specific times, and music to the point where he said there were instruments I couldn’t use. I was using some orchestral instruments in Bottle Rocket and he said, “No brass, you can’t use that.” We pared it down to basically 10 instruments, and it was all small. When you use less people like that, it makes it more intimate, because you hear every violin. When you have a 100-piece orchestra like in Thor: Ragnarok, and there’s 30 violins playing, they sound very homogenized. It’s a really strong sound, but it’s the opposite of what he was looking for. Each player had a different personality. He even stopped me from using synths at first. I don’t think we used a synth until The Life Aquatic.

Because he liked to keep control, even when we used an orchestra a few films later, he made me bring seven or eight people at a time into the studio and we’d record the violins, then we’d double- and triple-track them, then we’d bring in woodwinds and double- and triple-track them. It would take us two weeks, but you could’ve done it in one day on a soundstage. He felt more comfortable with that. I thought, you know what, I’m an artist — I understand how you want to feel like you’re on top of your own aesthetic. Music is a thing where it’s so abstract to talk about, it gave him a sense of security. I liked working with him. Every film, I started giving him music ahead of time. He would listen to music in his headphones while he was shooting. He was timing his shots to pieces of music we’d later score the film with.

A few years ago there were rumors that The French Dispatch, which we didn’t know anything about back then, was going to be a musical and you were contributing to it. It ended up being something quite different. Is this a collaboration you’d want to revisit at some point?

MOTHERSBAUGH: Sure, yeah, I really like him. When it got to Fantastic Mr. Fox, he wanted me to come to France — perfectly bad timing for me. I was adopting a child in China. My wife had said, “OK, I know you don’t want to bring a child onto the planet, but what if we just take care of some that are already here?” We ended up adopting kids. Actually, in retrospect, it was one of the most amazing things that happened in my life. I had no desire to have kids. When I was 19, that book scared me and I said I would never bring more people into the world.

Then I remember going to China thinking my wife was insane, and then seeing this baby for the first time and going, “That’s my baby.” It was like taking acid and this door opened in my head. I had this primordial thing of being a parent that I’d never felt in my whole life. My wife went from being the craziest person I ever knew to the smartest person I ever knew. She changed my life in a really good way. Just to say that, it also made me realize why us trying to talk people into devolution and turning things around was probably going to fail.

Because then you even had that biological impulse?

MOTHERSBAUGH: I understood that biological impulse for the first time. Why people want to have kids. I used to be like “Why do you want to have kids!? What a pain in the butt.” But then I realized it’s an incredible experience.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Dare To Be Stupid” Devo Parody (1985)

There’s an interview with you where they ask you about this song and you say: “I was in shock. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else. And, um… I hate him for it basically.” I was wondering what you actually felt about this parody, but also to just see Devo material in other people’s hands.

MOTHERSBAUGH: There’s people that have played Devo songs, recorded Devo songs. Nirvana, a lot of people. There’s a lot of them where I go, “Damn, that’s pretty cool, I wish we would’ve done that.” There’s no need for me to rain on “Weird Al” Yankovic’s parade. I was being a little tongue-in-cheek.

I figured you might’ve been.

MOTHERSBAUGH: I figured I’d just let people interpret it how they wanted. In reality… what’s great about art is not everybody likes everything. That’s totally fine. You don’t need to have everybody like your stuff unless you’re really sadly paranoid. I listen to stuff like covers, and to me, some of the covers we did were really on purpose. We really feel like we did them for a good reason. “Weird Al” Yankovic is kind of slapstick-y, and I’m sure there’s people who love that stuff. I know there are. He’s got a lot of fans. More power to him.

Courtesy Of Devo

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