A Conversation with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo

I have this dear old chum in NYC who’s a bit of a troublemaker in the best possible way, and I’ve been pining to bring him into our Coilhouse endeavor for months now. A brilliant writer, teacher and libertine, he’s not afraid of asking difficult questions or enduring awkward silences, and has a knack of getting to the juicy, palpitating core of an ethos more swiftly than you can say “subvert the dominant paradigm.” He will make you smile, he will make you think, he will make you shift uncomfortably in your chair. Ladies and gents, he’s “Double Agent Oh No, Your Spy in NY”, and here is his premiere piece for Coilhouse, a provocative interview with Mark Mothersbaugh. Stay pruned for more upcoming features. – Mer

Mark Mothersbaugh. Photo © Randall Michelson.

De-evolution in the 21st-Century: The Avant-Garde as Derriere-Garde

Whereas the “modern” sensibility envisions a future of ever-greater human freedom and understanding brought about by political, scientific, and aesthetic avant-gardistes who lead, educate, and shock us, some “post-modernists” mock these notions as harmful delusions. The concept of “de-evolution,” introduced by the postmodern “sound and vision” cultural cabal known as DEVO, suggests that human dependence on technology renders us increasingly dependent and dumb. Just recently, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo showed some of his recent visual art at The Third Ward Gallery in Brooklyn. His show occasioned a conversation between me and Mothersbaugh on art, the culture of consumption, and the aesthetic avant-garde in post-modern times.

The avant-garde in the arts is historically rooted in the early 19th Century financial emancipation of artists from their patrons; Beethoven had the freedom to explore dissonance in his later works whereas Mozart wrote commissioned works.* Immediately, art came to occupy a place of greater personal expression and has had an enhanced potential to join the political avant-garde in challenging the received wisdom of the day. What, then, becomes of art and the avant-gardiste in 21st Century America?

Devo-Beautiful World by adiis
“It’s a beautiful world… for you. Not me.”

Does de-evolution turn the avant-garde on its head so that it is now the derriere-garde? In other words, in a society growing dumber, do the most mass-produced and contrived artifacts of pop culture actually contain its most advanced ideas? Under de-evolution, are commercials the most revolutionary art form? Is the way to change a society based upon consumption through a “rear-garde” action – by planting subliminal messages through the subconscious, the Freudian backdoor?


In many ways, the trajectory of Devo as a culture-producing outfit mirrors the de-evolution of our civilization. In the late 1970s, Devo exploded into the American consciousness with its perverse and dystopian juxtaposition of high technology, the detritus of advanced industrial society, and mechanistic, tongue-in-sprocket performances. Today, Mark Mothersbaugh sits atop a media empire that has manufactured music for hundreds of commercials, the scores to Wes Anderson films featuring Hollywood mega-stars, some indies, joint ventures with Disney, and relatively inexpensive prints of his art to freak out your parents. Once shocking, Mothersbaugh’s pop sensibility is quietly becoming the norm: it’s in the winking wallpaper girding our shopping palaces, it’s plinking away in Hollywood blockbusters, and it’s in the Saturday morning cartoons whispering to our kids. Isn’t this a good thing? If we are doomed to eat “brains” to get our ideas, why not let our kids eat Mothersbaugh’s brain? Is the primary lesson of de-evolution that our society is now beyond the rebel-insider distinction?

Performing live in Barcelona, 2007. © Conny Fornbäck.

Has there always been ambivalence in the art of Devo? Does Devo turn our revulsion to living in a human factory into a form of commodity, a squirming resignation like in the comic strip “Dilbert”? Would they have us fill our Honda scooters with Chevron gasoline and chant the mantra of those who do not remember the past: “We must repeat”? Does the meta-message of Mothersbaugh’s actual complicity with big corporations to sell their products outweigh the possible benefits of his mischievousness? Is it somehow different for people already rich and famous to “sell out”? Is it inappropriate to question your heroes?

On the other hand, do Mothersbaugh’s overtly snarky and covertly provoking commercials use the medium of commercials to shake us from their grasp? If our society is going to be full of commodities and commercials, why not make them interesting or self-consuming? Mothersbaugh tells us that “one thing we learned from the hippies and the punks is that rebellion is obsolete.” Is he ultimately right? Is assimilation into the corporate state inevitable, and, therefore, something to be embraced, like the wisdom of accepting one’s death? Does this afford an opportunity to make some cash and to act as a Trojan Horse? Are these sorts of questions and issues obsolete? Do we live in a time when we all live with some degree of complicity with evil? Who, then, is to judge? What better place to explore all this than at Coilhouse?

In a spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to implicate myself. I’ve long been a fan of Devo and I was so taken by his “Beautiful Mutants” series that I took one of his prints home a few years back. Am I not a man? Eat my brain, please.

DEVO press photo (circa 1980, wearing their iconic Energy Domes).

COILHOUSE: Years ago, it seemed like Devo was interested in pissing people off with its antics, its anti-macho image, its peculiar beats. Now, with your visual art, are you more interested in turning people on than pissing them off?
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: When I first started doing these shows, about six or seven years ago, in the particular galleries I’m showing my artwork at and at the pricepoint I’m selling my artwork at, my interest was to do a “homefront invasion” of my own. I wanted to get into people’s houses and up onto their walls. I didn’t want to send twenty-five pieces of art to Charlottesville, North Carolina and have them all come back to me a month later. I wanted them to all stay in North Carolina. That’s been my overriding goal with these shows: to disseminate the art as widely as possible.

What do you think should be the role of the artist in society? Should art disgust people, should it be a critical mirror, an escape, entertainment…?
I think art should be all those things. I think in a world where everything human is denigrated, art becomes more crucial and more important for people making it through their life. I think that art should be your muse, what inspires you; it can help guide you.

How would your visual art guide people? What would it guide them to do?
To make good choices in their daily life. I think that the best art is inspirational.

Someone can look at your visual art and see it as very cynical.
In some ways it is. My art at its best…is just a permutation of what we did with Devo and to me Devo was about making smart decisions. It was anti-stupidity and pro-intelligence; I think that’s what we were for. We were encouraging people not to stop making sense. We always thought that “Stop Making Sense” was a ridiculous statement. You never need to stop someone from “making sense.”

Mothersbaugh’s alter-ego, Booji Boy. Photo by Kellfire.

Dave Thomas made a comparison between Devo and Pere Ubu, where he slags you folks off as “cynical” and interested in selling out from the beginning through a [marketing] “strategy” of an ideology that is ultimately “vacuous, populist, and cynical.” ** What comparison would you make between Devo and Pere Ubu?
I like their early songs the best. If you were to call someone cynical, I think that they’d fit into that with songs like “Life Stinks.” I think that Pere Ubu just got silly after a while. I think that they lost whatever was interesting about them, and David Thomas in particular. I saw quite a few Pere Ubu shows back in 1977-1978 and I always liked a lot of things about them. I liked the way they used electronics: it wasn’t about a keyboard, but the depths of the electronic instrument. I did, one time, accidentally, get Dave Thomas upset. It seemed he didn’t have a sense of humor. We were playing the Pirate’s Cove, he played there frequently before and after Pere Ubu. Because we would play for three hours a night, we had a lot of songs, and “Jocko Homo” would take more than four minutes. “Booji Boy” would do a performance (me in a baby mask). One time I made fun of Dave Thomas. I found some cheap metallic-colored plastic – [a] weird idea for a weight loss outfit – which would make you sweat like crazy. It was a stupid gimmick and cost ninety-nine cents. When we played “Jocko Homo,” I stuffed it full of paper and sang it like David Thomas would have sang it. In the middle, I recited his lyrics, as if they were poetry. Afterwards he said something to us that let us know that he was angry. He voiced his dissatisfaction. There were fifteen people who saw it. He stomped out, upset. He was a little intimidated by Devo, which was what I took from it.

In some ways, both bands wanted to rile up and challenge their audience.
That’s something we brought back from Ohio with us. We were angry young men for real. Jerry Casale was at Kent State during the shootings. We had collaborated on some visual projects. What we were seeing around the world wasn’t evolution, but de-evolution. That became our kind of battle cry. We saw ourselves as reporters, giving out the “good news” of de-evolution to people.

Do you think that your art still contains a critical edge?
Yeah, I think that I can trace it back to everything I did with Devo. In some ways, it’s wider than it was, because when you get older, you get wiser. As you get older, you’ve tried more things.

“God Made Man But He Used a Monkey to Do It” from Mothersbaugh’s Postcard Diaries.

How are you challenging your audience through your visual art?
I think that my art is not for everybody’s taste. It’s the kind of imagery that oftentimes you have to decide if you want to keep it on the wall when mom and dad come to visit you at college. I let gallery owners go on my website and pick things. The grid works are like stories, somewhat autobiographical social fairytales. People need more than just big-eyed….I like the show. You didn’t like the show?

I liked your show. It’s a question of whether you are giving people what they want now or if you are still trying to challenge them.
I don’t know. I know that some people want to own something. I think there is content there.

I’m asking you about your relationship with your audience. Devo was a very challenging way of what it meant to be a musician: it was very anti-rock, it had a critique of industrial society and consumer culture. Is it possible to still be challenging or avant- garde today?
I think that if you really want to get arrested, it would take two seconds today. I think that there is a tighter lid on culture than when I was a kid. I think that all that you have to do is go to the airport and say the wrong thing and you’ll find yourself down on your knees with handcuffs behind your back.

Sure, but that doesn’t strike me as being fine art.
What strikes you as being fine art? I’ve had people at my shows come up to me and get upset because they saw an image of someone in a hood. I did a whole bunch of them that all involved things that were in the news.

What do you find inspiring?
I like Peter McCarthy a lot. I like a lot of things that Jeff Koons has done, even though he pisses me off.

Pisses you off in a good way?
I think so.

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://youtube.com/v/xhtgw-tOj-o” width=”400″ height=”330″ wmode=”transparent” /]
Devo, selling Dell.

Devo seems to contain a critique of consumer culture, and yet you’ve gone on to score more than a hundred commercials, including some products, like “Hawaiian Punch,” that you, yourself, think is just a lousy way of selling sugar to kids. How do you reconcile the two? Are there any products that you wouldn’t sell?
There have been products that I haven’t sold and there have been products that repulsed me and I took the job because I enjoyed the subversion of putting subliminal messages into TV commercials.

Wouldn’t that put you at a lot of legal risk?
I did 120 commercials last year and the same amount the year before. A hundred commercials doesn’t even touch it.

Do you feel uneasy about making your art into a way to sell products like “Chevron”?
No , not really. It has to do with my attraction and revulsion to commercials. Some people have mental capacity where they are easily influenced by TV commercials. I think that TV commercials are probably a lot less influential on people than advertising agencies would like you to believe. I think that most people are smart enough to make decisions for themselves.

Even in the Bush era, you think people are so discerning?
Some people are inherently stupid. I think that a lot of people give up just out of exhaustion. They get tired of fighting. Toil is used as the main manipulator of humans to keep them under control. They keep you working like a dog just to make ends meet. No matter what economic level you’re at, people buy into this Pavlovian hypnosis that they need more.

If they are buying into this Pavlovian hypnosis, then advertising would be very effective. They’ve done studies. Why are they spending so much money on advertising?
I think that advertising is from religion and school and from our government. It’s from everywhere else. Commercials are where things can be like oil on the back of the neck and burst open. As an art form, what drew me to commercials in the first place was an interest in the “pop” artists of the ‘60s. When I was growing up. I remember Andy Warhol, and even though he didn’t do the most incredibly crafted pieces, he got to work in film, in photography, as a print maker, a fashion designer, he got to work with the Velvet Underground, and he threw the best parties in Manhattan. I like the idea of technology, rather than as something to revere, as tools to an end, to help see an idea come into form, if technology was just there to be used.

I thought the idea is that technology is making us stupid, that technology is not neutral.
Well, that’s true, too, but I don’t think that technology makes you stupid. You can let it have its way with you. If you want to sit in front of a TV all day or stare at a video game, you have to suffer the consequences of that. It’s like anything. You are ultimately responsible for the food you eat or the paths you take in life. As far as technology, at its best, it’s something you can use to make your life better. The reality is that humans come from a long line of brain eating apes that make it easy for us to create things like atomic weapons.

The Complete Truth About De-Evolution collection.

Maybe that’s what we need to do now – eat more brains?
We are probably eating the wrong kind of brains all the time. That’s what I’m concerned about.

How are you feeding people better brains?
I think that if you influence someone through your art or through your actions – anybody, not just artists – to make conscious decisions in life. We all have a lot of work to do. Since I was a kid, I’ve watched our country put education in the backseat, so you have kids that don’t know the name of our vice president or the capital of France and they’re graduating from high school. They don’t know how to spell properly. They write letters that read like license plates, like a list of Prince’s song titles, with the letter “u” replacing the word “you” in a cross between babytalk and ghetto.

Before you said that you believe that commercials can act as oil on the “back of the neck” to get people to see through the various ideologies and veneers of this society. Can you give any examples? I can’t think of anything more affirming.
I don’t see people believing in commercials. I see people laughing at them and making fun of them. You see people take commercials for the truth? You think anyone believes that they should listen to a little rubber lizard about what beer they should be drinking?

I think that if those Geico commercials hadn’t been effective, they would’ve ceased the campaign. I would imagine that there has been a spike in their sales since they’ve been using it. It’s been very expensive.
All right, I’ll never do another commercial!

Mothersbaugh and friend. Photo via cinematical.com.

Do you think it’s different being an artist in 2008 than in 1974, ’75? Are there different responsibilities to the next generation or to each other?
I don’t know. As we watch civilization crumble, I feel artists have the same duties. Artists are responsible for making people think about where they are.

But aren’t the “pop” artists you mention, people like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, aren’t they celebrating and giving in to the consumer state?
I went on a double date with Andy Warhol once, but I can’t say I ever knew him. Even though I’ve read a lot about him, I’m not sure I know what was really inside him, what he thought he was about. I only know what he inspired in me. I think that the “Balloon Dog” is an amazing work of art. Probably the first piece of art that comes to mind if I could own something that I cannot afford…would be “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” even though I don’t really like Michael Jackson very much and I’m not a fan of chimps, especially. I just love that piece of art. It made me think.

What did it make you think?
It made me think about our world, our culture – that it’s insane – that the fundamentalists have a self-fulfilling apocalypse that we’ll all get to join in on.

Oswald Spengler, the quasi-fascist German philosopher of history wrote in The Decline of the West that “optimism is cowardice.” Do you agree?
I don’t think that optimism is cowardice. In some ways, I think that Devo was optimistic. We talked about De-evolution, but we always encouraged people to be anti-stupidity and to try and make a difference. We were never praising de-evolution. We were musical reporters, saying, “Wait a minute. Do you see what’s going on? Do you see what you are a part of?”

“Devo Eggo” by Mark Mothersbaugh.


*Jochen Schulte-Sasse in Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, p. x (University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

** “I find their ‘philosophy,’ i.e., what lies underneath the surface devolution material, to be vacuous, populist and cynical to a repulsive and unnecessary degree. Devo wanted a career more than anything else. We wanted anything else more than a career. They had a strategy. We found the idea of a strategy to be really small town and hick. They were a pop band. We were a folk band.” Dave Thomas in Jade Dellinger and David Giffels, Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! (London, SAF Publishing, 2004), pp. 105-106.

12 Responses to “A Conversation with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo”

  1. DJ Velveteen Says:

    You do a good job of drawing out the artist – especially where the pretense breaks down in lieu of discussion about art and people and perspectives.

    And engaging him on behalf of the readers – on the point of TV commercials, specifically – spectacular.


  2. anansi Says:

    Been reading Coilhouse for awhile, but haven’t posted till now.

    I’d like to see more discussions like this as well! What are we doing with modern art? Postpostpostpost modern art? Can Devo really define our ideas about 2008, when they were talking about pop culture in 1974?

    I feel like we’ve been rehashing this whole idea for 30 years. As an artist, I struggle with ideas of what is “new”. What is innovative, challenging, counter-culture, currently. All art, if you are an artist by trade career and name, needs to “sell out”. Ultimately, I think art is trying to connect with people in some way. And it needs to make money for the artist (well, it doesn’t need to, but if it doesn’t do either of these things, its kinda like working in a vacuum.) That requires working inside our current consumer structure, and getting the word out there. Commercials are evil? I’m not sure. Maybe TV is just a good modern venue for expressing ideas that people don’t see out in galleries. Cause more people watch Grey’s Anatomy (I always found that title SO IRONIC) than go to our monthly gallery hop here in Columbus, OH.

    The new medium (technology) isn’t evil. But I see this split in artists all the time. Even in art school, it was the old skool vs the new. The people who would insist on using kick wheels in ceramics because using the electric ones wasn’t making real art somehow. Personally, I hope we move away from these ideas, and the new mediums have the chance to move into the fine art realm as well.

    Thanks for making me eat my brain this morning!

  3. Final Assets Says:

    I read this thing first thing this morning, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. It was a lot to swallow on a Monday morning, but I’m ready to post my thoughts.

    First of all, the interview itself brilliant. I love the fact that you asked in your preface, “Is it somehow different for people already rich and famous to ‘sell out’? Is it inappropriate to question your heroes?” and then boom – you went ahead and asked those hard questions. This totally felt like a real, challenging interview… so many times these days interviews feel like there’s no real interaction between the interviewer and the person answering the question (possibly because it’s all done over email?) and this interview truly felt alive to me.

    I like artists who are unashamed of their involvement with commercial advertising. On a basic level, a person has to make a living … I never blame artists for “selling out” because I know that the music industry is in a very difficult spot right now, and honestly, what would you have done if you were in their place? And when the artist makes that relationship between him/herself and the advertising world into a topic for discussion, like Mothersbaugh does here, it gets even more interesting. Marshall McLuhan once said, “Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.” Now, in the 21st century, I feel like everyone (on both the transmitting and receiving end) is aware of this in a way that they weren’t 20, 40 years ago. What does this mean? Has this gradual realization by everyone made advertising more or less effective – in terms of art, and in terms of commerce?

  4. Mer Says:

    Thanks for the erudite commentary, all three of you. I have to admit, I’m surprised D.A. Oh No’s interview hasn’t inspired MORE discussion. I think it’s one of the most substantial pieces we’ve had on CH. Our spy in NY already has several other interviews in the works, so check back often.

  5. Bunny Says:

    This is an amazing piece! What an insightful interview with a really fascinating guy. I think this is a milestone for CH! IN general many “mainstream” artist interviews are mere Q&A retrospectives and thinly veiled ego massaging. I really felt like I got some insight in to Mothersbaugh here. I especially like his take on his music , commercials, and using art in support of commerce. I recall reading that Coil felt similiarly about creating mainstream content (scoring TV commercials) while also being so far removed from its center. Also, this article proves that owners and pets do share a resemblance.

  6. William Neal Says:

    Yes, great job dude. Interesting to check out the videos and think a bit. I grew up with them, thought, stupid. Liked the Talking Heads. Didn’t really care what they (Heads) had to say. Knew and know that you had to make a living and would almost do whatever, and so what, but have never made it thus far and to see old as new and hip again is…by and by acceptable, more or less, but, still, the man is/was to me, coy. Holding back as ever. But, of course, I’ve enjoyed his work, and continue to. The art contained in this piece is cool/funny. I’m sure I couldn’t afford it. Would love to just hang stuff my friends have done, but I’ve no room here…must quit this and read…thanks Coilhouse for staying relevant in my beautiful world.

  7. Jon Munger Says:

    DEVO was one of those seminal artists in my youth. I grew up primarily in downtown Indianapolis, where if you weren’t listening to Ice Cube and pretending to be ‘gangsta’ you were a freak, and North Carolina, where everyone was somebody’s freak. DEVO was really my first, filtered look at avante-garde.

    Nostalgia aside, I’m reading a guy whose world-view has matured a bit, and has to justify his youthful excesses. I’m not sure I could go the commercial route he’s gone (not that I’m getting any offers), but I can’t discredit the man for making a very good living out of being the weirdo’s weirdo. Success, after all, is the best form of revenge.

    Barring that, there’s the pit filled with snakes. But you’d be surprised how successful you have to be to get that many snakes together.

  8. Tequila Says:

    “I’m surprised D.A. Oh No’s interview hasn’t inspired MORE discussion.”

    It’s one of those interviews you need to read, go off and think, re-read certain parts then honesty come back with something to say. I’ve a feeling this one will be a slow burn kinda thing.

    My experience with DEVO is mainly as a kid and the pop culture references. So much of what I read was news to me…took a while to wrap my head around it.

    The notion of “selling out” seems to drown any who make a good living at what they do. As though you automatically lose credibility with a certain group of elitists or rabid fans who behave much like the fundamentalists they distrust and rail against. So the commercial ventures Mothersbaugh has entered don’t really qualify to me as selling out so much as it is entering a larger pool to play in. I like and adore commercial art…things that MANY see as opposed to small galleries or shows that feel like they only cater to a certain crowd. That’s not fun to me. If a person can see a certain commercial and get a feeling or thought beyond that of the product being pitched…one has something pretty powerful.

    The best artists for my money (literally…the ones I spend my meager earnings on) are those who couple all the deep intellectualism with a sense of fun…even when it’s something pretty dark.I doubt any would say Mothersbaugh isn’t having fun with all he does. I like his ideas of keeping art around as opposed to one centralized place (NYC and whale like collectors I’m looking at you…)

    “They get tired of fighting. Toil is used as the main manipulator of humans to keep them under control.”

    That’s really the reason so many are silent today and have allowed so much to go unchecked. So few have time to breathe and relax that you can’t even get them out to enjoy the things they love…it’s no shock that the little time they do have is spent in front of the TV trying to escape the reality of debt, 40+ hour work weeks, and spirit killing work related nonsense. Makes it hard to care what any artist has to say when the connection to them is not there…lets face it few artists today know how to connect with people who aren’t artists on some level themselves.

    “Wait a minute. Do you see what’s going on? Do you see what you are a part of?”

    That’s about the most anyone can ask from someone really…art wise that is…it’s a hard set of questions to answer honestly. More so if the answers are less than…optimistic.

  9. R V C A Says:

    […] To READ MORE http://coilhouse.net/2008/06/16/a-conversation-with-mark-mothersbaugh-of-devo/ […]

  10. Mary Couzens Says:

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for doing your thing, it’s very inspring! Tried to see you guys at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London…Was in the audience, but just not tall enough to see over all the leaping de-evolved males in the audience. Oh well…You sound great!


  11. » Blog Archive » links for 2008-06-24 Says:

    […] Coilhouse » Blog Archive » A Conversation with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo Great interview with some insightful comments as well. (tags: musick culture art) […]

  12. doubleagentohno Says:

    While not the friendliest interview – no puff or fluff – Mothersbaugh enjoyed it enough to link it to his website and invite me to witness DEVO at McCarren pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Although McCarren pool is a New York City public park, tickets were priced at $55 each (as were those of other bands who played there this summer). Well, I was not going to pass up that kinda payola. DEVO were great!! After the show, Mark came on staget as Boojie Boy and threw bananas and superballs into the crowd until a representative of the parks department took the microphone from him, demonstrating that free people can’t hang out in a public park after a curfew they didn’t have the opportunity to vote for (or against).

    Thanks to Coilhouse for this publishing opportunity.

    READERS: Be on the lookout for more material by me in the weeks to come.

    Yours (and mine),

    Agent Double Oh-No !